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In the age where media inhabits numerous conduits for the production of culture it is difficult to imagine culture without its mediated form, from television and comic books to fashion and postcards, culture is derived through a range of diverse vehicles. We experience our cultural life through media in various ways.
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Modern society is founded on universal law, enlightenment of reason and science is the solution to social problems, utopia is possible (except the poor will always be poor); Western-centric humanism will save the world; mass consumption means mass employment and modern society contained in the grand narrative of history.
Progressive social transformation of the post-modern turn will take us on new adventures; resituating science, technology, society & capitalism into a multi-perspective and multi-disciplinary framework. One attempt to account for the emergence of post-modern condition is the shift during the 20th century of the economic needs of capitalism from production to consumption. Reality is what we see fit by these various forms of seductive illusion.
The prefix ‘post’ clearly implies a break, a relation to a period that has happened before. In the case of post-modernism the previous period is undoubtedly ‘modernism’. Thus, postmodernism refers to a breakdown of the distinction between culture and society – emergence of a social order in which the importance and power of the mass media and popular culture means that they govern and shape all forms of social relationships. For Lyotard, a key post-modernism theorist, the post-modern condition is neither a periodizing concept nor does it refer to the institutional parameters of modernity and post-modernity. Rather it is:
“…the condition of knowledge in the most highly developed societies. I have decided to use the word post-modern to describe that condition… (it) designates the state of our culture following the transformations which, since the end if nineteenth century, have altered the rules for science, literature, and the arts” (Lyotard, 1991, pg xxiii)
Lyotard refers to postmodernism as a loss of faith in meta-narratives, the big stories that have justified the rational, scientific, artistic and political world of the modern world. Rejection of all overarching and totalising thought; Marxism, liberalism, etc. that tell universal stories which organize and justify the everyday practices of a plurality of different stories (narratives); Science, which has developed importance since the Enlightenment, has assumed the status of a meta-narrative, organizing and validating other narratives on the road to liberation. Lyotard says “since Enlightenment status as a meta-narrative has waned.” Science is no longer seen to be making progress on behalf of mankind.
It’s a breakdown in distinction between art and popular culture: there are no longer any agreed and definite criteria which serve to differentiate art from popular culture. For example, take Warhol – Velvet Underground art becomes increasingly integrated into the economy both because it is used to encourage people to consume through the expanded role it plays in advertising, and because it becomes a commercial good in its own right.
Popular cultural signs and media images increasingly dominate our sense of reality, and the way we define ourselves and the world around us. The world which tries to come to terms with a media-saturated society.
Mass media was once thought of as holding up a mirror to, and reflecting society. Now, reality can only be defined as the surface reflections of this mirror. Society has become subsumed within mass media – it is no longer a question of distortion of reality, since the term implies that there is a reality outside the surface simulations of the media, which can be distorted, and this is precisely what is at issue according to post-modern theory. Is the media creating reality?
Linked to this is the notion that it is more difficult to distinguish the economy from popular culture. The realm of consumption is increasingly influenced by popular culture. For example, we watch more films because we have a VCR, then they reference and advertise products that we go and buy. Surface and style have become more important and evoke a kind of designer ideology. The obsession with being super-model thin, fad-diets, use of sexuality, football, designer clothing, and many more simulations that work as a network in exchange order with each other to create reality narrative for post-modern consumer. The argument is we increasingly consume images and signs for their own sake rather than for their usefulness or for the deeper values they may symbolise. The very values that ‘modernists’ used to talk about.
In the production-era machines had to be built and updated, basic materials like iron and steel made, infrastructures such as roads, rail, communication had to be laid down, the work force had to be taught the work ethic: Taylorisation and Fordism. Once this was established, the need for consumption emerges. And people need to acquire a consumer ethic. The need to consume becomes equal to the need to produce. Increased affluence combined with consumer credit, advertising, marketing and design. Culture celebrates consumerism and style, therefore the media becomes more important. New occupations or changed role of older ones involved in need to make people consume: advertisers, marketing, design, journalism, television, finance, etc.
In his essays, Stuart Hall has conceptualized the production and consumption of the television message as a complex social construction of meaning within the semiotic framework. His theory of encoding/decoding is very important in the discourse of consumption of advertising in TV. The polysemic images have been encoded in a particular way and the process of decoding is not symmetrical. Looking back at the work of Barthes we understand that advertising texts are polysemic and at the connotative level of signification signs possess fluidity which enables them to be articulated in multiple ways (Barthes, 1973, pg 122). Eco argues that the viewers determination to decode the message in aberrant ways are to be found in the readers general framework of cultural references such as his ideological, ethical religious standpoint, value systems, etc, (Eco, 1998, 141).
Following the same path of consumption and ideology, Baudrillard follows Althuesser in arguing that the subject is constituted through social classifications and ideological processes. Ideology converts humans into subjects. Ideology lets us mistakenly recognize ourselves as autonomous self-determining agents, whereas in fact we are subjects formed through a social physic processes. Ideology therefore is not the mirrored inversion of the real but our imaginary or symbolic to our shared conditions of existence. Watching the latest Levi jeans advertisement we are addressed as individual consumers with our own unique passion and desires. The ideological effect of the ad lies in its ability to interpellate us in this way. Althusser complicates Marx beautifully by not accepting the concept of ideology as false consciousness. It is material practice produced by ideological state apparatuses. It makes us think are sovereign consumers rather than a member of social class. (Stevenson, 2002,150)
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In the age of postmodernism where the product is a sign instead of a commodity, as Baudrillard argues, the way in which adverts are consumed by television viewers depend on the very same framework Eco talks about. Jean Baudrillard’s essay “The Ecstasy of Communication” evokes TV and its technologies as a metaphor for the regime of simulation in the contemporary western culture.
A TV screen cannot be thought simply as an object to be looked at, with all the old forms of psychic projection and investment; instead, the screen intersects responsively with our desires and representation and becomes an embodied from of our psychic worlds. What happens on the screen is neither on the screen nor in us, but in some complex, virtual space between the two. Marshall McCluhan’s notion that the “medium is the message” is clearly related to consumption theory. McCluhan argues that television influences viewers’ thinking processes and leads to alienation and individualism. But McCluhan sees this not as the result of television content but rather caused by the sensory nature of the medium itself. It is the form of the medium, according to McCluhan, and not its content that influence viewers (Mcluhan, 2002, pg7).
TV advertising is a representative part of the arena where the post-modern scene of simulation takes on the relationship between the product and consumer. Baudrillard has contributed significantly towards the theory of consumption. He abandoned Marxist analysis after his book called the ‘Symbolic Exchange and Death’ (1976). He argues that through a more explicitly post-industrial analysis the real relations of production and consumption have been replaced by a sign system. According to Baudrillard the arrival of consumer society requires a radical reconstruction of critical theory. Baudrillard argues that before goods (objects) can be consumed they must become signs (Baudrillard, 1988, pg 23). The meaning of the objects is established through the organisation of signs into codes. It is only through these codes that people realise their sense of self and their needs. The codes themselves are hierarchically ordered, being used to signify distinction of statue and prestige. As Baudrillard argues “a need is not for a particular object as much as it is a ‘need’ for difference (the desire for social meaning) only then we will understand that satisfaction can never be fulfilled, and consequently that there can never be a definition of needs”. A subject whose needs are fixed by human nature does not consume the object. Social goods are consumed not to satisfy pre-existing needs but to signify social distinctions.
We have become completely absorbed by adverts, images and simulation. Baudrillard would call this simulation as an ecstasy of the real. In Baudrillard’s “hyper-reality” and “simulacra” terms, the storied images of Nike sports heroes are more real than the reality of Third World workers to millions of consumers. However this consuming condition is an obsession and the product of late capitalism in Western societies.
Digitally created commercials – Faking the real
When we examine television advertising we once again find art and technology being used to create simulations that tell stories in an effort to evoke desired reactions from audiences. But in advertising we see a strange new cultural creation: the 20-second ‘cinematic’ production full of dancing, singing and joke-telling characters playing physicians, housewives, and used car salesmen, with ultra-abbreviated plots and quick resolutions of conflict in which the characters overcome obstacles and fulfil their desires in record time with the help of the product. Unlike movies, which will evoke the wrath of the audience if the unfolding of the story is interrupted, in commercials there is virtually no story to interrupt. The entire commercial is a dynamic, graphic, field composed of images, music, theatrical performances, superimposed illustrations, narration, and other elements, which reinforce each other to achieve their effect.
Commercials also include another kind of simulation in the form of digitally manipulated images that are used to portray another realm of fantasy in which the limits imposed by the physical world no longer seem to be in effect. As a result, they are full of talking dogs, giant sized children, products that zoom into space, dancing credit cards and scenes that suddenly become two-dimensional which spin out of existence, creating a virtual world that surpasses anything produced by Imax or Nintendo.
Commercials take these elements – visual fantasy, deceptive images of the products, and false claims – and weave them into their various approaches. There are, perhaps, a handful of approaches that they rely on and put together in different ways, just as theme parks, video games, television and news fall into a few basic categories.
The product, no longer able to offer satisfaction on its own ground (“a potato chip is a chip is a chip”), instead offers the consumer a chance to be part of a certain ‘crowd’ or ‘scene.’ They belong to a cool “product tribe,” revelling in the image and sensibility that the product somehow mystically confers – the fetishism of commodities. More and more people are being sold style, image, and celebrity, since there is no substance or material satisfaction to the product-in-itself. Concealed within the jump-cut flash of post-modern advertising is a simple code: consumption is a mode of transcendence, a way to take part in something larger than yourself, the “Pepsi Generation.” Today, ads are filled with a strange sort of rugged selfishness, misanthropy, and mean-spirit people (“touch my Doritos and die.”) A person is told sternly to buy as much as they can of the product but never to share with friends. “Get your own,” they’re told. Latest ads on TV have that narrative that goes on and on and takes the form of a mini soap or a series of short cinematic films. The product is like a movie star. The product has taken the stand of the character in the commercial. It has become another simulation for audiences. Small Nokia phones that are given a character play a different role in each different Nokia commercial.
Digital technology has given designers the ability to make real characters and models that we see in everyday TV. The big entities spend millions of pounds in one 60 second commercial. The commercial has the production company behind it; director, actors and the whole set that would normally be used in film production.
Many television commercials thus give us another variation on Umberto Eco’s absolute fakes; they are false promises that make everything seem better than it is. Like theme parks, they make mundane realities look like transcendent utopias.
All cultures place people inside invented worlds, so that in itself, isn’t what is new about all this. The human world is by nature full of fictionalization and metaphor and drenched in stories and metaphysical assumptions, much of it contrived by conscious and unconscious design to support the claims of those in power. But never before has a culture been scientifically invented in this way, using the tools of rationalization – including marketing studies and computers – to sell products and a way of life. These tools of rationality extract the essence of our own irrationality – our fantasies, imbued with fears and desires – and give them back to us in the form of their invented worlds. Real experiences and things have been replaced with simulacra – copies without an original. Due to the power of mass media advertising, our relationship to the signifier has changed. Now it hides the absence of a signified: conceals the inability to deliver real satisfaction by cleverly simulating it. Part of our hyper-real lives is the fact that our simulations are more real than real.
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