Vanesa Cvahte


To Begin With: "The Agony of the Real" which, apropos, does not begin only with Baudrillard

In the late seventies Baudrillard wrote about a popular American family, the Louds, who voluntarily agreed to be filmed by an American television broadcasting company; they shot some 300 hours of live footage of the family over a period of seven months. 1 The footage was made with neither script nor direction. In the eyes of the public, this “authentic” document on the Odyssey of an ideal average family, a representative of the upper–middle class with all its everyday banality, who were constantly followed by the television crew, was one of the “finest television achievements”, comparable only with the footage of the Moon landing.

During shooting, claimed the television crew, the Loud family had lived just “as if we weren’t there“. But it is precisely this triumphant statement which is both paradoxical and utopian for Baudrillard since, in this case, the experience of “reality” was actually the experience of exaggerated transparency; of hazy and deceiving exactness, and of the intimacy of this family. The new, televised reality of the family overwhelmed; the life of the family was necessarily related to the television; the Loud family, in short, could not ignore the presence of television, and they started to mutate. Even during filming, the family underwent a crisis, and the family was later to split up. The family literally fell apart, but the television crew did not, of course, film its disintegration for the benefit of the public. Do we really have to ask ourselves what would have happened if the television crew had not come to film the family? The life of the Loud family was actually neither reality nor fraud. It is a question of a new dimension: the television, as it were, determined the Loud’s reality. Baudrillard speaks of the hyper–reality of the family, defined by the presence of television.

Therefore, in the case of the Loud family, the medium of television ceases to be perceivable, but reveals itself as a virus in the “real”; it co–constitutes the real, and its effects can no longer be considered separately.

The case of the Loud family is interesting from a psychological point of view, but it is not representative of the television manipulation present in our daily lives; what is representative in this case is the (co–)operation of television in the formulation of the ultimate image of “reality”. Namely, this is a question of model and reproduction, which are causally and consecutively linked, if not on an equal dialectical footing, then in such a way that the reproduction shapes the model, and not vice versa (television changed the life of the Loud family and recorded the consequences of its own presence). This formula on the functioning of television, emerges in those events which, nowadays, we primarily link to the medium of television–electoral campaigns, court cases, public events, meetings, political demonstrations, (even wars), etc. –and which shape our view of the world. The omnipresent television stages these events in such a way that it can use them in the most convenient manner and employ them as an optimum basis for reproduction. The real, which is supposed to be that basis, is subordinated to the potential footage of it–it is structured according to the image of its own reproduction. Television is the dramaturgist and director. In this case, the metaphor of television as theatre is entirely adequate: if the judges, witnesses and lawyers at O. J. Simpson’s trial functioned with an awareness of the presence of millions of viewers, then they found themselves tempted by theatrical behaviour.

All the protagonists of the events mentioned above, have the same relation to television as the Loud family–they live with it, they mingle and merge with it, so that the television itself can no longer be felt; we can only perceive it inasmuch as we follow the event on the screen, not being obliged to attend the event on the spot itself. And this latter fact, of course, is decisive. Since the advent of television, we have no longer been able to speak of the experience of the real in the same way we used to. When we observe events on the screen, we do not actually experience these events (for we are not present), but merely consume them in the form of pictures with which we are presented–our experience of the world is no longer effective. Or, in the words of Günther Anders, one of the first television critics: “If the world comes to us, instead of us coming to it, than we are not ‘in the world’ any more, but we become the mere consumers of some fairy–tale world.” 2 We could say that television steals our reality.

Television has changed our perception and, thus, our experience of reality.

In the first half of the seventies, Marshall McLuhan pointed to this fact in his legendary thesis: the medium (itself) is the message. McLuhan claims that the message of a medium is not its content, but “the change of measure, rhythm, or scheme” 3 which this medium brings into joint human situations. McLuhan points out that the content of what we get from television blinds us and leads us astray in the sense that we can no longer perceive the very (manipulative and simulative) functioning of the medium.

Television’s backstage, and the infinite number of functions related to it–editing, make–up, sequence of events, set building, programme schedules for public events, festivals, celebrations, mass gatherings, etc. –are carefully hidden from the eyes of the viewer; instead, what is offered is spontaneity, immediacy, originality and objectivity. Since the creation of picture, or image, or “mental map” of the world is closely connected with and dependent on the creation of this picture, McLuhan claims that the real message is the mode (the mechanism of television) rather than the content. 4 This theoretical premise can also be verified in practice–not only in television, but also in other media. In developing the theory of the dispositive of Slovene national television, Melita Zajc states that the awareness of the fact that television has a decisive influence on the mediated substance, was greater with the first television makers who came to television from radio–those, therefore, who had already “learned” about the influence of the medium on news; those who were aware “(...) that the devices which serve to mediate this or that kind of advertisement, this or that kind of content, actually also co–define the mediated contents, since they define their dimensions by literally defining their range.” 5

Back to Baudrillard who, on the basis of the example of the Loud family, argued of the functioning of television that “the panoptic system has come to its end” 6 What does he have in mind?

Without mentioning Foucault, but relying explicitly on his terminology from that time (1978), Baudrillard actually refers to Foucault or, more precisely, to his concept of the panoptic dispositive of surveillance. Panopticon presents the plan of an edifice which has a tower in the centre, and a circular structure around it, which is divided into a number of cells with glass surfaces on both sides (facing both towards and away from the tower). “Panopticon is a device for the separation of the to see/to be seen pair” 7 –people who live in the cells of the outer circular structure are constantly exposed to observation, and thus to surveillance, but they cannot see what goes on in the tower. Foucault took this (Bentham’s) architectural design as a metaphor for surveillance which enables the penetrative sight of the analytical subject, but which places the controlled objects in the exclusive position of being observed. So, this is how classical surveillance functions (and not only in Foucault’s case): the positions of the dominant and the subordinate are clearly defined. If we take television as one of the mechanisms of surveillance, we can see that the positions of the analytical subject who observes (shoots), and of that which is observed (events, people, or the Loud family, in Baudrillard’s case) are no longer in the recognisable dominant relation (“as if we were not present” –say the television crew while shooting the Loud family). Baudrillard states: “The television eye is no longer the origin of absolute perspective, and transparency is no longer the ideal of control. In the objective space (the space of Renaissance), transparency was still the origin of the omnipotence of the despotic perspective.” 8 But what happens with television? Television controls, supervises in such a way that it is no longer recognisable as a centre, as an instance of power, or of subject, for even the periphery disappears in its omnipresence (television is everywhere and always) –television has occupied the space where the periphery is still supposed to be. Since television is thus merged with our lives, we no longer notice it at all. Television is not an external factor which would observe, alienate, manipulate, or inform (this would represent an a priori criticism of the medium); rather, it is incorporated in our life, it co–constitutes it. It is no longer active or passive, but it simply is. For Baudrillard, this neutralisation of poles is decisive: “Wherever it is not possible to maintain the difference between two poles, regardless of the sphere of activity (be it politics, biology, psychology, or the media), we enter into the field of simulation and absolute manipulation–there is no passivity any more, we can no longer differentiate between the passive and the active.” 9 Baudrillard goes even further and compares the presence of television in our lives with the presence of the genetic code within us–we also do not act actively or passively towards it, but live in accordance with its programming.

It could be that Baudrillard errs or exaggerates. It is simply hard to believe him. But perhaps this is precisely the confirmation of his assumptions. Namely, despite the eternal criticism, we take television as something quite natural. When we sit in front of it in the evening, we seldom reflect upon how much we have given ourselves up to it, how much we have subdued ourselves to it, adapted to it; when we get up the next day, we certainly do not ask ourselves how much of our actions, thoughts, beliefs, relationships with people, views on political and social, national or global problems, were influenced by the innocent act of sitting in front of the television set. Moreover, when we attend various events, concerts, celebrations, mass gatherings, etc., we occasionally notice a camera, cameramen, a director, or anything else connected with television; we are positive that these are merely the devices for a truthful and authentic mediation of the event. When we see the same events again on television in the evening, and they frequently seem quite changed, we ascribe this fact to our own inattention, and we are actually grateful that television has finally shown us the “objective” picture. Nevertheless, we sometimes notice that the events which we see on the screen are superficially arranged (it all seems to be somehow excessive ... perhaps too real to be real), and we become sceptical, or even start to doubt some parts of the mediation–but we seldom think that the totality of the mediation rests upon a deliberately organised, invisible system of surveillance.

Baudrillard states that the emergence of television launched (in consequence) a tendentious presentation of reality (or events which have the status of reality), which led to the phenomenon of hyper–reality; the anticipation of this phenomenon actually occurred some time ago, when television itself was developing into a popular world–wide medium. At this point, I would like to mention the National–Socialist documentary films which reached their culmination in the work of Hitler’s still highly controversial court director, Leni Riefenstahl. I do not wish to emphasise primarily “the aesthetisation of politics” (Benjamin), but the presentation of “reality” in general, as mentioned earlier.

The 11th Olympic games in 1936 in Berlin took place at a time when television was still in its infancy. However, at this time, Germany witnessed what was probably the most prolific television schedule ever seen. 10 In the wider area of Berlin, as many as 162,228 viewers (on average 10,000 per day) followed, on television sets placed in 26 public institutions, live transmissions of one of the biggest media events of the time. The Paul Nipkow television transmitter broadcast four hours of live transmission per day, supplemented by what was then still the leading mass medium, radio. In the evenings, the viewers could go to the same places and see footage of the day’s events reconstructed on film (these were, of course, of a better quality than those provided by the then television technique of live transmission). Such a spectacular event par excellence was certainly planned and devised in every possible detail; everywhere ruled the ordered geometry, the spotlights, and the microphones; the stadium became the place of exertions in visualisation and media presentation; even the natural sound of bells seemed too silent to the directors, and so they amplified it with electro–acoustic loudspeakers. Riefenstahl made two “documentary” films of this staging of the source reality, asserting her characteristic aesthetic. Since the event depended so much on its own representation, the documentary nature of these films is certainly questionable. Zielinski claims that the Olympic Games (including the contemporary ones, of course) are precisely the prominent media events that enable the analysis of “(...) the relation between the first and the second reality, (between) the event and its media representation (...)" 11 ;he assumes that these events only take place because of their media representation.

In this context we must also mention another of Riefenstahl’s creations, Triumph des Willens (The Triumph of Will), which features the pre–war presentations of Hitler’s speeches from Nüremberg, aesthetically enhanced with mass march–pasts, salutes to the leader, ceremonies, and so on. The only function of these aesthetically sterile events, adorned with uniformed human material, is actually to be reproduced by Riefenstahl on film. However, the film was partly self–reflective: it also showed subsidiary events, preparations for ceremonies and Hitler’s speeches, and through the “mistakes”, which were part of the staging, it endeavoured to locate the leader within the intimate sphere of the viewer. 12 People could see this film in cinemas, and the celluloid film also turned out to be very convenient for television transmission. 13 The “substance” presented in this film became the symbolic iconography of reality; here we do not deal with a mimetic documentation in the medium of film, but with a use of the film medium as a mechanism for the production of myth–through simulation, and thus manipulation (Baudrillard).

In the pre–war Nazi period, therefore, we can see the intertwining of two media: film, which technically supports the newly emerging television. According to Grossklaus, however, the highlights of Nazi film production announced the advent of television perception 14 , for its emergence rests upon features which characterise the developed television mediation. Let us summarise them:

- The near (the known) and the distant (the foreign) of an event are joined in the experience of illusion or the simulatory deceitfulness of the event;
- The private/intimate and the public / spectacular are no longer separated, but seemingly correspond one with the other; despite the fact that the films aim to bring Hitler nearer to the people, to show him as an intimate friend, he remains a symbolic icon;
-The event (model, source reality) is intertwined with the media mediation (reproduction, media reality): reality becomes film reality, and film becomes real;
- Reality becomes composed of signs (if the media reproduction is understood as a system of signs which speaks of reality), and vice versa: a sign acquires the status of the real (the media reproduction as a system of signs represents reality).

Thus, according to Grossklauss, we face the phenomenon in which the “older” medium (film) anticipates and announces the mode of perception of the oncoming medium (television). Whether we take Baudrillard’s example of the American Loud family, O. J. Simpson’s trial, the Olympic Games in Atlanta, the above–mentioned electoral campaigns, or other spectacular or less spectacular television events, we will notice that they convey in the stated manner the source situations which characterise the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, and Triumph des Willens film. These events undergo a similar development:

- With the television illusion, the distant (the foreign) becomes the near (the known): we get the feeling that we are present at an event which takes place far away, and on which we actually have no influence;

- Public figures and other television personalities become only seemingly private, known, or intimate, for we cannot communicate with them;
- Television dictates events: reality becomes the television reality, and television becomes real;
-Television acquires its autonomy through the television system of signs which becomes the substitute of reality (Baudrillard); therefore we can speak of the television reality (protagonists on television, for example, lose their identity and acquire a new, television identity).

To return to the beginning: the agony of the real, or the phenomenon of hyper–reality, is not a contemporary, postmodern phenomena which, according to Baudrillard, would only appear with developed television; instead, its origins and beginnings can be sought in the case in which the media simulation and manipulation require the finest reflection: the case of pre–war Germany.

part two