- Writing in The Guardian, Slavoj Žižek considers the capitalist global order in a world without superpowers:
The “American century” is over, and we have entered a period in which multiple centres of global capitalism have been forming. In the US, Europe, China and maybe Latin America, too, capitalist systems have developed with specific twists: the US stands for neoliberal capitalism, Europe for what remains of the welfare state, China for authoritarian capitalism, Latin America for populist capitalism. After the attempt by the US to impose itself as the sole superpower – the universal policeman – failed, there is now the need to establish the rules of interaction between these local centres as regards their conflicting interests.
In politics, age-old fixations, and particular, substantial ethnic, religious and cultural identities, have returned with a vengeance. Our predicament today is defined by this tension: the global free circulation of commodities is accompanied by growing separations in the social sphere. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the global market, new walls have begun emerging everywhere, separating peoples and their cultures. Perhaps the very survival of humanity depends on resolving this tension.
- Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century has received widespread media attention, and enjoyed so much popular success that at times Amazon has been sold out of copies. It seems natural then that David Harvey, reigning champion of Marx’s Capital in the 21st century would comment on the work, which he has now done on his web site:
The book has often been presented as a twenty-first century substitute for Karl Marx’s nineteenth century work of the same title. Piketty actually denies this was his intention, which is just as well since his is not a book about capital at all. It does not tell us why the crash of 2008 occurred and why it is taking so long for so many people to get out from under the dual burdens of prolonged unemployment and millions of houses lost to foreclosure. It does not help us understand why growth is currently so sluggish in the US as opposed to China and why Europe is locked down in a politics of austerity and an economy of stagnation. What Piketty does show statistically (and we should be indebted to him and his colleagues for this) is that capital has tended throughout its history to produce ever-greater levels of inequality. This is, for many of us, hardly news. It was, moreover, exactly Marx’s theoretical conclusion in Volume One of his version of Capital. Piketty fails to note this, which is not surprising since he has since claimed, in the face of accusations in the right wing press that he is a Marxist in disguise, not to have read Marx’s Capital.
There is, however, a central difficulty with Piketty’s argument. It rests on a mistaken definition of capital. Capital is a process not a thing. It is a process of circulation in which money is used to make more money often, but not exclusively through the exploitation of labor power.
- At the 2012 Media Ecology conference in Manhattan I heard Douglas Rushkoff explain that he had stopped teaching classes at NYU because the department was not letting him teach a sufficient number of hours, all while using his likeness on program brochures. Well, Rushkoff has just been appointed to his first full-time academic post. Media Bistro reported CUNY’s announcement :
Beginning this fall at CUNY’s Queens College, students can work their way towards an MA in Media Studies. Set to mold the curriculum is an expert responsible for terms such as “viral media” and “social currency.”
- Lastly, this news made me realize that I completely missed Rushkoff’s new Frontline special that premiered in February: Generation Like, which is available on the Frontline web site.
- In an op-ed for CNN, Douglas Rushkoff examines what lessons the Bradley Manning verdict offers in the digital age:
We are just beginning to learn what makes a free people secure in a digital age. It really is different. The Cold War was an era of paper records, locked vaults and state secrets, for which a cloak-and-dagger mindset may have been appropriate. In a digital environment, our security comes not from our ability to keep our secrets but rather our ability to live our truth.
- Writing for The Guardian, Greg Burris considers the Chomsky-Žižek debate in light of Snowden’s NSA revelations (or vice-versa):
In light of the recent NSA surveillance scandal, Chomsky and Žižek offer us very different approaches, both of which are helpful for leftist critique. For Chomsky, the path ahead is clear. Faced with new revelations about the surveillance state, Chomsky might engage in data mining, juxtaposing our politicians’ lofty statements about freedom against their secretive actions, thereby revealing their utter hypocrisy. Indeed, Chomsky is a master at this form of argumentation, and he does it beautifully in Hegemony or Survival when he contrasts the democratic statements of Bush regime officials against their anti-democratic actions. He might also demonstrate how NSA surveillance is not a strange historical aberration but a continuation of past policies, including, most infamously, the FBI’s counter intelligence programme in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s.
Žižek, on the other hand, might proceed in a number of ways. He might look at the ideology of cynicism, as he did so famously in the opening chapter of The Sublime Object of Ideology, in order to demonstrate how expressions of outrage regarding NSA surveillance practices can actually serve as a form of inaction, as a substitute for meaningful political struggle. We know very well what we are doing, but still we are doing it; we know very well that our government is spying on us, but still we continue to support it (through voting, etc). Žižek might also look at how surveillance practices ultimately fail as a method of subjectivisation, how the very existence of whistleblowers like Thomas Drake, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and the others who are sure to follow in their footsteps demonstrates that technologies of surveillance and their accompanying ideologies of security can never guarantee the full participation of the people they are meant to control. As Žižek emphasises again and again, subjectivisation fails.
- Indiewire debuted the psychedelic poster for Žižek’s new film The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. You can also watch the film’s trailer through that link; it opens in limited release in November.
- The Literary Review of Canada has posted a 12-part series titled Looking for Marshall McLuhan in Afghanistan:
In early 2011, award-winning photographer Rita Leistner was embedded with a U.S. marine battalion deployed to Helmand province as a member of Project Basetrack, an experiment in using new technologies in social media to extend traditional war reporting. This new LRC series draws on Leistner’s remarkable iPhone photos and her writings from her time in Afghanistan to use the ideas of Marshall McLuhan to make sense of what she saw there – “to examine the face of war through the extensions of man.”
- I posted a video from the PBS Idea Channel on Baudrilliard and hyperreality a while back, and hadn’t kept up with the channel since. I recently came across a couple of their other videos and enjoyed them enough to want to share. This video assesses the TV show Community as a postmodern masterpiece:
- And in this video the hyperactive host explains how glitch art shows that broken is beautiful:
- Caleb Smith at Avidly examines the ideological over-and-undertones of Al Pacino’s performances in The Godfather and Scarface:
In The Godfather, the blurring of the line between crime and the “legitimate” economy can still seem shocking. In Scarface, the distinction seems quaintly naïve. In The Godfather, Don Vito almost loses everything over his refusal to deal in heroin. In Scarface, Tony Montana knows that coke is just another commodity in a boom economy. Michael Corleone marries the wispy, drooping Kate Adams to give his enterprise some old-fashioned, WASP class. When Tony Montana takes possession of the coked-up bombshell called Elvira Hancock, he is filling his waterbed with cash, not class. Even more excruciatingly, Scarface tells us these truths without any self-righteousness, without the consoling promise that manly discipline can save America from its fate. In the moral economy of this movie, the terms of critique have become indistinguishable from the terms of affirmation. “You know what capitalism is?” Tony answers his own question: “Getting fucked.”
- This article in Foriegn Affairs reviews the Frankfurt School’s contribution to the war effort; the full article is behind a paywall, but the book reviewed looks interesting:
Donovan put Neumann in charge of the Research and Analysis Branch of the OSS, studying Nazi-ruled central Europe. Neumann was soon joined by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse and the legal scholar Otto Kirchheimer, his colleagues at the left-wing Institute for Social Research, which had been founded in Frankfurt in 1923 but had moved to Columbia University after the Nazis came to power.
- This essay by Siegfried Zielinski (and presumably excerpted from his book […After the Media]) argues that the media have become superfluous:
An update of the promise, that the media could create a different, even a better world, seems laughable from our perspective of experience with the technologically based democracies of markets. As a utopia-ersatz, this promise appears to be obsolete in the former hegemonial regions of North America and western and northern Europe. Now that it is possible to create a state with media, they are no longer any good for a revolution. The media are an indispensable component of functioning social hierarchies, both from the top down and the bottom up, of power and countervailing power. They have taken on systemic character. Without them, nothing works anymore in what the still surviving color supplements in a careless generalization continue to call a society. Media are an integral part of the the everyday coercive context, which is termed “practical constraints.” As cultural techniques, which need to be learned for social fitness, they are at the greatest possible remove from what whips us into a state of excitement, induces aesthetic exultation, or triggers irritated thoughts.
At the same time, many universities have established courses in media design, media studies, and media management. Something that operates as a complex, dynamic, and edgy complex between the discourses, that is, something which can only operate interdiscursively, has acquired a firm and fixed place in the academic landscape. This is reassuring and creates professorial chairs, upon which a once anarchic element can be sat out and developed into knowledge for domination and control. Colleges and academies founded specifically for the media proactively seek close relationships with the industries, manufacturers, and the professional trades associations of design, orientation, and communication.
- Rick Searle reviews Doug Rushkoff’s latest book Present Shock:
There are five ways Rushkoff thinks present shock is being experienced and responded to. To begin, we are in an era in which he thinks narrative has collapsed. For as long as we have had the power of speech we have corralled time into linear stories with a beginning, middle and ending. More often than not these stories contained some lesson. They were not merely forms of entertainment or launching points for reflection but contained some guidance as to how we should act in a given circumstance, which, of course, differed by culture, but almost all stories were in effect small oversimplified models of real life.
The medium Rushkoff thinks is best adapted to the decline of narrative are video games. Yes, they are more often than not violent, but they also seem tailor made for the kinds of autonomy and collaborative play that are the positive manifestations of our new presentism.
- Brian Phillips at Grantland thinks spy movies present a fantasy of tourism:
The spy is the ideal tourist because he represents an inner self perfectly contained within an outer self that is adapted to any possible location or circumstance. Travel can broaden him by the width of a new sexual conquest, but for the most part, he’s seen everything already. Going to the Louvre won’t make him vulnerable, and he won’t stammer when he buys his ticket. The pathos of the whole Bourne series lies in the way it gives us a character who’s been left with the spy’s invulnerable outer shell but lost the inner self it was originally meant to protect.
- This video at Kotaku explores what PS4 games would look like on the Oculus Rift. Previously the site compared playing Portal 2 on Oculus Rift to a religious experience.
- Maclean’s recently published a recently-discovered McLuhan interview that includes questions about the surveillance state. McLuhan’s response seems prescient in light of the recent Snowden/NSA media coverage:
Newman: It has become a frightening world. We seem to be constantly under surveillance. How can we deal with this menace?
McLuhan: The new human occupation of the electronic age has become surveillance. CIA-style espionage is now the total human activity. Whether you call it audience rating, consumer surveys and so on—all men are now engaged as hunters of espionage. So women are completely free to take over the dominant role in our society. Women’s liberation represents demands for absolute mobility, not just physical and political freedom to change roles, jobs and attitudes—but total mobility.
- Writing for The Hollywood Reported Douglas Rushkoff discusses Deen, Snowden, Zimmerman and the Culture of Contagion:
Today, our social media amplify and accelerate word of mouth to a new level. These aren’t hushed water-cooler conversation about whatever salacious gossip we’ve seen on the news; they are publicly broadcasted pronouncements about who is a hero, who is a traitor, who is a liar, or who is a fraud. In a media culture that values retweets and “likes” even more than money, stories spread and replicate less because they titillate than because they are suitable subjects for loud, definitive, 140-character declarations.
- The film Last Action Hero opened twenty years ago today. I saw the movie in theaters and loved it as a child. Having been a fan of Terminator 2 (which came out a few years earlier) Last Action Hero elaborated on the boyhood fantasy of having your own personal Ah-nuld, just like John Connor and his robot pal. Over the years I developed an all new appreciation for the film as an original and endearing work of metafiction. To mark the anniversary Calcum Marsh at Esquire posted this piece about why the movie is “better than you remember”:
And even better is the film’s conception of movie morality, which it twists into a biting satirical treatise: Rather than suggest, once the fictional characters break free into the real world, that reality has rules and consequences that the film world doesn’t, Last Action Hero does just the opposite, serving up hard truths about the uncaring streets of modern-day New York. “In this world,” observes a villain named Benedict (Charles Dance), “bad guys can win” — a point he summarily proves by shooting a local mechanic in cold blood, loudly announcing the murder and looking disappointed when he hears no screams or sirens. Last Action Hero suggests that while the movies may seem like heedless spectacles, it’s the moral chaos of our own world that’s really dire. That’s quite a thesis for a comedy made for kids.
- This fascinating LA Weekly article details one man’s “reality TV racket”:
What the host didn’t know is that K.T. was actually 31-year-old Ken Tarr, a budding mastermind of the reality TV hoax. Over the past five months, working out of his modest Los Angeles apartment, Tarr had talked his way onto eight different shows taped in five different cities — each time cloaked in a different persona. He’d become a dissonant saboteur in the machinery of sleaze that sprawls across our televisions.
- Writing for CNN, Douglas Rushkoff declares NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden a “hero”:
We all know the feeling of surrendering to the embedded biases of our devices. We let our cell phones ping us every time there’s an incoming message and check our e-mail even when we’d best pay attention to what’s going on around us in the real world. We text while driving. Likewise, without conscious restraint, government agencies can’t help but let the growing power of big data draw them into ever more invasive forms of surveillance on a population whose members simply must include those who intend harm on the rest. This is just how everything runs when it’s left on “default” settings.
- Lastly, Space.com has posted this fantastic infographic looking at 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The spaceships of 2001 were designed by Frederick I. Ordway III, chief science adviser; Harry Lange, illustrator and concept artist (who later would design spaceship interiors for “Star Wars”) and Tony Masters, production designer on “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Dune” and other films. Real-life spacecraft contractors including IBM, Honeywell, RCA and General Electric were consulted for their predictions of the technology of 35 years in the future.
- “General Semantics and media theory“: video of a 20-minute presentation by Thom Gencarelli from this year’s IGS symposium.
“Those levels of interactivity, for me, recapitulated the levels of participation that we as a society have had since the invention of media,” Rushkoff said, referring to similar shifts that occurred when humans first transitioned from written language to the age of movable type.
Our conversation started with Rushkoff’s concept of “present-shock” and moved into a larger discussion of the relationship between market thinking, quantification, and what is ultimately measurable and knowable.
- So apparently there’s a YouTube channel called PBS Idea Channel. This video poses the question, “are cell phones replacing reality?” and briefly engages Baudrillard’s thoughts on hyperreality.
- This page on LearnStuff.com covers the life and work of Baudrillard and contains links to resources and further reading.
- WIRED’s Dead Media Beat considers Lev Manovich’s statement in a recent article that “there is no digital media, there is only software.”
- “Drop the mic“: an article about how the microphone changed Catholic mass.
In 1974, Marshall McLuhan argued that the microphone was the proximate cause both of the elimination of Latin from the Mass and of the turning around of the priest to face the congregation. Before microphones, a priest quietly said Mass in Latin, with his back to the congregation. From any distance, his voice was indistinct, although an instructed Catholic could follow what he was saying from a missal containing the Latin text of the Mass or a translation of it.
- “The humanism of Media Ecology“: this address was delivered by Neil Postman at the 2000 MEA convention, but I just came across it and wanted to share it here.
I think there is considerable merit in McLuhan’s point of view about avoiding questions of good and bad when thinking about media. But that view has never been mine. To be quite honest about it, I don’t see any point in studying media unless one does so within a moral or ethical context. I am not alone in believing this. Some of the most important media scholars—Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul, for example—could scarcely write a word about technology without conveying a sense of either its humanistic or anti-humanistic consequences.
Last week WIRED reported that movie rental and streaming site Netflix accounts for 22% of U.S. broadband traffic, taking the top spot from peer-to-peer file sharing site Bit Torrent. CNN.com republished the article under the headline “Most content online is now paid for, thanks to Netflix.” The headline indicates the paradigm shift here, the real reason this story is newsworthy and my main for taking interest in it: the continued shift in Internet usage from communication to commerce.
“The Web has been extensively integrated into the commercial twenty-first-century Zeitgeist – reflecting, hyping, and boosting a consumer culture – to the point that the notion of the Internet as an “information superhighway” now sounds antiquated.”
Solomon’s essay also charts the “rampant commercialization” of the World Wide Web by analyzing news articles about the Web from 1995 to 1999, showing how reportage on the Internet shifted from focusing on the medium as a knowledge source and communication tool to emphasizing the commercial potential (References to the “information superhighway” decreased from 4,562 stories in 1995 to 842 in 1999. Mentions of “e-commerce” increased from 915 stories to 20,641 during the same period.).
Author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff contributed an essay to the same volume titled “The Information Arms Race”. Rushkoff recounts the feelings of nearly Utopian optimism shared by members of the emerging cyberculture regarding the potentials of the Internet, feelings he evinced himself in the books Cyberia and Media Virus! Evoking the rapturous mysticism of McLuhan’s religious vision of the electronic unification of consciousness, Rushkoff writes:
“To some, it was as if the human race was hardwiring its members together into a single, global brain. People talked about the Internet as if it were the realization of the Gaia Hypothesis – the notion that all living things are part of the same, big organism. Many believed that the fledgling communications infrastructure would allow for the beginning of global communication and cooperation on a scale unimagined before.”
In the subsequent paragraphs Rushkoff laments the squandering of this initial vision for communication as the revolutionary potential of the Internet materialized as more of the same. The “great trick,” Rushkoff writes, in corrupting the Internet into a controllable mass medium, was to replace communication with information. Differing from common conceptions of the Internet, Rushkoff argues that the read-only nature of the Internet renders it incapable of fostering true communication.
“We don’t socialize with anyone when we visit a Website; we read text and look at pictures. This is not interactivity. It is an “interactive-style” activity. There’s nothing participatory about it.
Instead of forging a whole new world, the Web gives us a new window on the same old world. The Web is a repository for information. It is dead. While you and I are as free to publish our works on the Web as Coke is to publish its advertising or The Gap is to sell its jeans, we have given up something much more precious once we surrender the immediacy of a living communications exchange. Only by killing its communicative function could the Web’s developers turn in the Internet into a shopping mall.
The current direction of Internet technology promises a further calcification of its interactive abilities. Amped-up processing speed and modem baud rates do nothing for communication. They do, however, allow for the development of an increasingly TV-like Internet.“
Rushkoff drives the point home by revealing the engineering of the Internet into more TV to be the endgame of the media establishment.
“The ultimate objective of today’s communication industry is to provide us with broadcast-quality television images on our computers. The only space left for interactivity will be our freedom to watch a particular movie “on demand” or, better, to use the computer mouse to click on an object or article of clothing we might like to buy.”
Finally, Rushkoff warns against being fooled into believing that we have won the Information Arms Race just because we have the right to select data with a computer mouse instead of a TV remote. He has also said that the corporate control of the Internet in the U.S. will not resemble a top-down Chinese style of control, but that American consumers will simply surrender their agency in exchange for entertainment.
“Might not our current translation of our entire lives into the spiritual form of information seem to make of the entire globe, and of the human family, a single consciousness?” – Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
Today would have been the 100th birthday of Herbert Marshall McLuhan (July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980). McLuhan gained celebrity status in the 1960s for his writings on media effects, and in the popular imagination he retains his status as Guru and Prophet of the new media. The last decade has seen a resurgence in interest in his theories, what Gary Genosko refers to as a “McLuhan renaissance”, due in large part to the advent of the Internet. It has become a commonplace assertion that McLuhan’s writings foresaw the transformation of communication technologies and our daily lives by the Internet decades in advance. Our contemporary interconnected and networked world is seen as the manifestation of McLuhan’s notion of “the global village.” His theories have influenced the work of artists, philosophers, and other evolutionary agents of social change. This influence is evident in the films of David Cronenberg, notably in Videodrome.
Cronenberg and McLuhan are both Canadians. In fact, Cronenberg attended the University of Toronto during McLuhan’s tenure there, but he states in the Videodrome director’s commentary that he did not attend any of McLuhan’s lectures. Nonetheless, Cronenberg speaks of McLuhan emanating an aura that permeated the institution. This aura certainly permeated Videodrome, as the film explores the relationship between the human body and electronic media, a central theme of McLuhan’s writings.
Videodrome presents the story of Max Renn (played by James Woods), director of a cheap Toronto cable channel called Channel 83. Max is constantly searching His video pirate compatriot discovers a satellite transmission of something called “Videodrome” depicting scenes of torture and murder. Max is entranced, and as he investigates the Videodrome transmission further he is drawn into a shadowy world that blurs the lines between reality and hallucination, between and entertainment and mind control, and between the human body and technology.
McLuhan’s influence on Videodrome is not limited to the thematic explorations: the character of Brian O’Blivion is directly modeled on McLuhan.
O’Blivion is introduced as a guest on a televised talk program called “The Rena King Show.” The topic under consideration is media programming, and the discussion panel consists of protagonist Max Renn, radio personality Nicki Brand, and “media prophet” Professor Brian O’Blivion. (Other filmic “media prophets” include Howard Beale in Network and Chance the gardener in Being There.) Unlike Nicki and Max, O’Blivion does not appear in the studio in-person. Rather, his image appears on a television set that is situated in the studio alongside the other guests.
O’Blivion responds to a question from the program host by saying:
The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye. That’s why I refuse to appear on television, except on television. Of course, O’Blivion is not the name I was born with; that’s my television name. Soon, all of us will have special names – names designed to cause the cathode ray tube to resonate.
O’Blivion is clearly evocative of McLuhan’s manner of speaking in tantalizing aphorisms as well as his status as “media prophet” (and Cronenberg has confirmed that O’Blivion is modeled on McLuhan). O’Blivion’s policy of only appearing on television televised on a TV set resonates with the spectacular society of Debord, and the hyperreality of Baudrillard. As Douglas Rushkoff says: “Most of media is media commenting on media commenting on media.” There are also shades of Baudrillard in O’Blivion’s assertion that “whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.” But O’Blivion also represents the deification of television, the apotheosis of the medium.
For example: Max tracks O’Blivion to the Cathode Ray Mission, a sort of homeless shelter whose residents are provided with beds, food, and television sets. He meets O’Blivion’s daughter, Bianca, and demands to meet with the professor. Bianca takes Max to O’Blivion’s study, where instead of meeting with O’Blivion he is given a videotape. Bianca explains that monologue is O’Blivion’s preferred mode of discourse. This is to be expected from the embodiment of the television medium, because monologue is the mode of discourse of TV.
In 1977 Jerry Mander published an anti-television treatise titled Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. It remains one of the best and most comprehensive statements against TV ever compiled.
Mander is highly critical of McLuhan’s media analysis and directly rebuts many of his thoughts on television. However Mander shares McLuhan’s belief that the medium is the message. In an interview with Nancho.com Mander said:
Most criticisms of television have to do with the program content. People say if there is less violence on television or less sexism on television, or less this or less that, television would be better. If there were more programs about this or more programs about that, then we’d have “good television”.
My own feeling is that that is true – that it’s very important to improve the program content – but that television has effects, very important effects, aside from the content, and they may be more important. They organize society in a certain way. They give power to a very small number of people to speak into the brains of everyone else in the system night after night after night with images that make people turn out in a certain kind of way. It affects the psychology of people who watch. It increases the passivity of people who watch. It changes family relationships. It changes understandings of nature. It flattens perception so that information, which you need a fair amount of complexity to understand it as you would get from reading, this information is flattened down to a very reduced form on television. And the medium has inherent qualities which cause it to be that way.
One of Mander’s many points is that television is not truly communication because the message being sent is strictly one-way: television viewers receive the message passively, and are unable to respond to the sender, which is a fundamental aspect of basic communication models. Any direct response is precluded. Thus, like TV itself, O’Blivion communicates in televised monologues, negating the possibility of true interaction.
Douglas Rushkoff makes this same point in his essay “The Information Arms Race”: “Television is not communication. […] Unless we have just as much of an effect on the director, writer, producer, or journalist as he has on us, we are not involved in communication. We are merely the recipients of programming.”
“By imitating the qualities we associate with living communication, and then broadcasting fixed information in its place, the mass media manipulator peddles the worldview of his sponsors.”
Eventually Max discovers that he, too, has been the recipient of programming. Max discovers a nefarious conspiracy behind the Videodrome transmission: the Wikipedia synopsis describes it as “a crypto-government conspiracy to morally and ideologically “purge” North America, giving fatal brain tumors to “lowlifes” fixated on extreme sex and violence”. As O’Blivion tells Max via pre-recorded message: the battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena – in the Videodrome.
When I last watched Videodrome I was reading Media Virus! by Douglas Rushkoff. The book was first published in 1994 and betrays its age through dated pop culture references and the nearly mystical utopian vision of cybernetic society that was common in the early overly-optimistic years of the burgeoning Internet culture. But there are several points that tie-in with the themes of Videodrome.
In the film, Max discovers that the Videodrome transmission causes a brain tumor to develop in viewers. From this point the victim will suffer hallucinations and a radically distorted reality.Bianca O’Blivion tells Max that the Videodrome signal can be embedded in any transmission: color bars, station IDs, test patterns…all that matters is that the signal be received via television: the medium is the message.
In his book, Rushkoff describes the memetic nature of media messages using the spread of viruses as a metaphor. Rushkoff’s term for the Videodrome is the “mediaspace,” which he calls “the new territory for human interaction”. He states that the mainstream media “are in command of the most sophisticated techniques of thought control, pattern recognition, and nuero-linguistic programming and use them to create television that changes the way we view reality and thus reality itself.” The self-replicating memes of the media virus inject their hidden agendas through what Rushkoff calls “ideological code”.
Again, there are similarities to the media theory of Jean Baudrillard, who wrote: “We must think of the media as if they were, in outer orbit, a sort of genetic code with controls the mutation of the real into the hyperreal, just as the other, micromolecular code controls the passage of the signal from a representative sphere of meaning to the genetic sphere of the programmed signal.”
In Videodrome, Max Renn experiences bodily mutation as a result of his exposure to the pirate signal. The parallels to McLuhan’s theories of media and technology as “extensions of man” are obvious. McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media that all media serve as extensions of human faculties, either physical or psychic. Andrew Murphie and John Potts, in their book Culture & Technology, call Videodrome‘s world of mutation and transformation “a ‘dark twin’ of McLuhan’s theories: electronic media and other technologies become the agents of mutation, with disturbing consequences.” Max develops a vertical slit-like opening in his chest that is reminiscent of a vagina and a VCR, and video cassettes can be inserted into the new orifice to “program” him. Shortly after the slit develops Max probes it with his hand, and when he withdraws his arm the hand has been transformed into a sort-of fleshy, biological gun. From then on that hand is only useful as a weapon. McLuhan emphasized that every extension was accompanied by a corresponding amputation.
Another illustration of McLuhan’s thought is evidenced in the tactile element of the television. Max’s television screen reaches out to touch him, and he in turn buries his head in the permeable face of the TV. McLuhan said that television effects viewers not on a visual level but on a tactile level.
McLuhan scholar W. Terrence Gordon explains: “The image on the screen has the type of texture associated with touch. Additionally, while it provides a minimum of information, television creates an interplay of all the senses at once, whereas print media separate and fragment the physical senses.”
“There is, of course, no contact between the skin of the viewer and the television, but, according to McLuhan, the eye is so much more intensely engaged by the television screen than by print that the effect is the same as that touching!”
Jerry Mander disagrees with much of McLuhan’s analysis of TV, and seems particularly perplexed by this assertion: “McLuhan made the case that television stimulates the sense of touch. He called TV “tactile”. I don’t know if he intended that as one of his personal jokes, which got taken too seriously, but it is one of the most dangerous of the many misleading statements he made.”
“While McLuhan may be correct that seeing the image stimulates the impulse to move, the impulse is cut off. The effect is a kind of sensory tease, to put the case generously.”
Max Renn’s sensory tease escalates to full-bore reality-warping episodes involving breathing cassette tapes, pulsating television sets, and But then he learns of his role as a secret agent (or an ulterior agent) unwittingly programmed by television signals to advance the agenda of a fascist conspiracy. The result of his physical interaction with the Videodrome signal is his transformation into a biological weapon. For Max, TV isn’t tactile, but tactical.
Rushkoff writes about tactical media in Media Virus!, in the sense of alternative media making targeted information strikes to undermine the existing structures of domination. Just as O’Blivion says that the war for the minds of the people will be fought in the Videodrome, Rushkoff quotes a Greenwich Village video artist that “The TV screen is the front line of the war.” Rushkoff charts a course through the media underground, populated with rebel artists and activists describing an Info-War landscape riddled with disinformation, psychological warfare, and a control-centralized media empire connected to the military-industrial complex.
“The TV tacticians’ response to mainstreamization is simple: Create alternative networks for feedback so that the imagery they gather reaches its target before it is mutilated.”
This line of thought can be expanded into further analysis of Information Warfare and the notion of information as a weapon and tool of domination. This tangential thread will be left dangling for now.
As mentioned earlier, the character of Nicki Brand is a radio personality. She hosts an “emotional rescue show” on talk station CRAM. It is significant that Max, a television programmer, becomes romantically involved with Nicki, a radio host.
In charting a genealogy of media McLuhan defines three epochs:
- The Preliterate or Tribal Era: dominated by the spoken word and the ear; humanity lived in the “acoustic space” of “all-at-once-ness.”
- The Gutenberg Era: dominated by the printed word and the eye; all-at-once-ness is displaced by linearity and sequential order.
- The Electronic Age of Retribalized Man: Humanity is “retribalized” in the sense that the tyranny of the eye is ended and mankind returns to full sensory involvement (espeially touching) and all-at-once-ness.
The relationship between Nicki and Max can be viewed as a combination of two media, an exchange that alters the ratios between them (i.e., the arrival of radio changed the presentation of news stories and film images). When media combine, the combination changes the environment of the media and its users. It can also be interpreted as symbolic of the transition from radio to television to videodrome. However the strictest McLuhanesque reading would focus on Videodrome’s absorption of Nicki. McLuhan said in Understanding Media that the content of a medium is always another medium. For instance, television absorbs and represents not only the content of the radio medium (commercial breaks, voiceovers, news reports, etc.), but also earlier forms of serialization in print and motion pictures. This is illustrated by Videodromes absorption of Nicki Brand: the television displaces the radio host, and she disappears only to materialize on the television screen, in the bowels of Videodrome.
Videodrome killed the radio star.
She, in turn, seduces Max into Videodrome. The image of her lips materialize on his television, filling the entire screen. As the embodiment of “the Voice” she calls for Max to come to her.
Finally, let’s apply McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects, also known as the laws of media, to the Videodrome transmission (more information on the tetrad is available here):
- What does it extend: Videodrome extends voyeuristic and sadistic impulses.
- What does it make obsolete: By broadcasting scenes of torture and murder on television, Videodrome obsolesces the underground market for tapes and recordings of these acts. Eventually Videodrome obsolesces the human body itself: both Brian O’Blivion and Max Renn depart their corporal form to inhabit the New Flesh.
- What does it retrieve: It retrieves the older form of the snuff film, as well as the ancient practice of staging gladitorial combat and other bloody scenes for spectators in the arena (hence “video drome = video arena”).
- What does it reverse into: The voyeuristic and sadistic pleasure of passively watching scenes of violence reverses into an actively violent role as viewers are transformed into agents of assassination.
Max Renn eventually learns that Brian O’Blivion has actually been dead for some time. In his last year of life he made thousands of videotaped recordings. These recordings constitute his continuing public appearances, and this is why he only ever appears on a television set. I think that, like Brian O’Blivion, Marshall McLuhan has been enjoying a “life after death,” engendered by the resurgence of interest in his work and the increasing relevance of his thought.
Long live the new flesh!