Sunday, February 12, 2012

Reading Notes: 2/13

But first, some more thoughts about Interface:

Last week I was driving to work when I heard a story on NPR. Read or listen to the complete broadcast here.

The discussion revolved around Facebook's IPO and some of the inherent risks to Facebook's continued success. One of the most significant challenges is one of interface on mobile devices. The problem is summed up below:
"Roughly half of Facebook's users check in on mobile devices every month, but so far the company isn't making any money on mobile. Not a dime. It doesn't even sell mobile ads. Turns out these ads are tough to get right."
Facebook Mobile News Feed
CC Image posted on Flickr by TJ Kelly
"Mobile is a very small screen," says Julie Ask, a vice president at Forrester Research who specializes in mobile marketing. "It's not as if I'm on my PC and there can be advertising on the top or on the side and I can ignore it and still do what I want to do. On a small screen it's right in front of my face."

The inability for Facebook to sell advertising because the interface - the point of contact between the user and the web content - is of a size and format incompatible to banner advertising.

Interface continues to bear more and more relevance to the study of New Media, and it promises to be a fruitful space for research going forward in the discipline.

Canonical Texts Assignment:

CC image of Jean Baudrillard posted by Wikipedia Commons 
Taking on the works of Jean Baudrillard was a daunting task for me to undertake. I was unfamiliar with his work before this assignment, and all I had heard was that the texts I was about to explore were dense, theoretical, and abstract. I found this video to be a helpful introduction before I started to read.

And this entry from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is also a good primer.

So I began reading this:

Baudrillard, Jean.  The Illusion of the End.  Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1992. Print.
Cover image from Amazon
My initial reaction is surprising. It is dense. I am rereading sections multiple times to follow the thread of thought. However, I find myself enjoying the journey. The writing is more lyrical and metaphorical than I expected. There is a beauty to the exposition of complex thought that was thoroughly unexpected but wholly welcome.

Here are Some Thoughts:

Pataphysics of the Year 2000:

"Now , through the impulse for total dissemination and circulation, every event is granted its own liberation... In order to be disseminated to infinity, it has to be fragmented like a that it can be sent down the circuits...resolved into a binary formulation so that it can circulate not, any longer, in our memories, but in the luminous, electronic memory of the computers." (2)
This passage was the first that I underlined, and I wrote in the margin, "death of memory." I have also seen this same sentiment expressed by Beer and Gane in their chapter on archives, a space for collective memories to be preserved as more and more memory becomes housed digitally as opposed to biologically. He concludes the chapter with the explanation for this shift being that we cling to the gathering of the past memories to protect ourselves from the uncertainty of having any future.

The idea that our impulse to share everything instantly by recreating the events in binary code has created a world in which personal memory is diminished has really resonated with me. As we house more and more knowledge online, are we becoming  vulnerable to the extinction of knowledge stored by humankind? People in English studies used to memorize passages, important dates, and biographical details. Today we say that we don't need to know the details from memory; we just need to know where to locate the information. What database to search. What online source would be credible. What digital source could link us to the most efficient site.

I can't ignore that this feels like a loss.

This chapter also describes a theory of apathy of sorts. Baudrillard writes on page 3 about how the density of information available cancels out the meaning, rendering events neutral and the consumer indifferent.

This also resonates because I often feel numb in the overwhelming daily onslaught of information. We become unable to react emotionally in a world desensitized to images of violence, completely accepting injustices as just a part of our reality. I think this observation is spot on. In a world where everything is known, nothing holds significance.

The final point that bears discussion from this chapter is the first mention of simulation - later to be treated at length in its own text. This simulation of our world exists, he posits, because with ever-increasing technological special effects, events are transformed from how they existed in reality to a forced existence to an enhanced version made possible by an effects-perfected model. With images photo shopped, carefully edited profile pages, and our constant self-conscious performance in a world where almost everything is captured digitally, is it any wonder Baudrillard sees the inability to ever know again how things were before all this technology?

He uses the analogy of music and the way special effects alters our expectations of how music should sound. Music is simulated, chasing perfection made possible through technology.

It's fitting that music would corroborate his message. David Grohl addresses this very thing in his 2012 Grammy Awards acceptance speech, declaring that music does not "need to sound perfect" and proudly explains how they didn't record their album in the expensive studio with all the technology. They recorded it in a garage with minimal recording equipment.

Image circulating on Facebook credited to R. Kevin Johnson

The Reversal of History:

I love this chapter. It was like therapy. Maybe the incorporation of the way his theories interact with personal issues is part of Baudrillard's surprising appeal.

He writes that we are "contaminated by the technology of retrospective." Can you say FacebookBaudrillard analogizes. We try to revise, rehabilitate, and repent our pasts, he says, in a manic effort to prepare for some final judgment. We want to be sure our karmic balance sheets are in the black. And this, he notes, is one of the major problems with a linear model of time. We are constantly living in fear of the end. The technology of capturing and rehashing the past only exacerbates this innate desire.

I was reminded of my time studying Tibetan Buddhism in Colorado. They taught us that the only thing that exists is the present moment. The past and future live only in our own minds (to which Baudrillard would add and also now in the digital mind), and to live in those fictitious realities is a waste of time. Work to be fully present in the now and release the baggage of the past. Therein lies the therapeutic nature of this section.

The Ascent of the Vacuum Towards the Periphery:

Another great chapter, and somewhat prophetic considering that the book was published in 1992, the very early stages of this new digital, hyper-mediated age.

Here are some great quotes:
  • "A storm of events of no importance, without either real actors or authorized interpreters." (14-15)
  • "Events which are only events to the extent that they are media events." (15-16)
  • "The fact that it is no longer the event that generates the news, but the reverse, has incalculable consequences." (16)
  • "The embryo of the real event is transferred into the artificial womb of the news media, there to give birth to many orphaned foetuses which have neither fathers nor mothers." (19-20)
Collectively, these quotes show Baudrillard's theory that events have very little to do with reality and everything to do with the media. Events are only important if the media covers them. There is very little meaning in our news, very little importance, and no one authorized by credibility to interpret them. The media engine themselves are responsible for "making" news as opposed to allowing events to simply be reported. It's as disturbing to me as it is to Baudrillard.

I really liked the explanation he gives for this phenomenon of events as being an attraction to the void. It conjures up images of radio waves and binary codes bouncing off satellites and headed ever outward into the blackness of the universe. The emptiness we feel, he writes, is not a meaninglessness caused by a loss of memory or connection to a better past, but an attraction to push outward into the void. Our lives become a series of "vanishing events" as they head instantly out into the emptiness.

I wonder what the remedy is? If pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions, then how do we proceed. How do we imagine reclaiming meaning from the void?

The Event Strike:


  1. Suzanne - I've never had the courage to delve into Baudrillard's theories, so I'm glad that you have blazed a trail ahead of me. Your lucid summaries and commentaries make his complex ideas very accessible. I found myself vigorously shaking my head in agreement as I read the following passages:

    "People in English studies used to memorize passages, important dates, and biographical details. Today we say that we don't need to know the details from memory; we just need to know where to locate the information."

    Memory deserves more emphasis in composition pedagogy. As I commented on Cheri's blog, our individual memory-skills seem to be as strong as ever. But we should emphasize those memory-skills. When one needs to connect A to C on-the-spot, it would be very helpful to remember B instead of relying on Google. If nothing else, it would be faster and more efficient than searching and sorting through the results. Perhaps the burden of sorting through Google, Facebook, etc. could be a starting point for teaching students the importance of memory?

    Baudrillard explains "how the density of information available cancels out the meaning, rendering events neutral and the consumer indifferent."

    The news media's screening is virtually non-existent, so almost everyone gets a megaphone and a soap-box. With so many different viewpoints spouting biased, unreliable, contradictory information, who should I trust? Unfortunately, I often throw my hands up, so to speak, and stop caring. I need to fight this tendency in both myself and my students.

    "The fact that it is no longer the event that generates the news, but the reverse, has incalculable consequences" (Baudrillard 16).

    Agreed! Does Baudrillard offer any advice for dealing with this new reality? I think McLuhan gives us a starting point by drawing our attention to the media's "massage." Brooke then helps with his "rhetoric of new media," especially the "at/through/from" framework. But I'm not sure either theorist provides a sufficient response. I'd love to know Baudrillard's thoughts.

  2. However, I find myself enjoying the journey. The writing is more lyrical and metaphorical than I expected. There is a beauty to the exposition of complex thought that was thoroughly unexpected but wholly welcome.
    I too find this to be the case with certain theorists. I feel it allows me to slip and slide along the reading in a way that makes it tangible when I need it; however, not overwhelming (I just slip to something new). I love how you are using these notes to help process the reading (that is the point!).
    I too am thinking about the nowness that Brooke's idea/play with memory hints at and I'm glad to see you bring it up again here. I hope to see some connections in your work (in the wiki).

  3. Suzanne - Your notes and thoughts on Baudrillard are prolific and to think you only cover the first few chapters (MUCH more impressive than my very brief blog on Baudrillard)! I have mixed feelings about memory and archives as it relates to Baudrillard's ideas. To some extent, I agree with Eric's point about the need to emphasize memory in composition pedagogy. Clearly, the ability to recall certain kinds of information is necessary and in some ways promotes efficiency. However, we do operate in a digitally technological era that facilitates the digital archiving and retrieval of data at, yes, the click of a mouse or keystroke or even a finger swipe. But, I understand Suzanne's feeling of loss, perhaps nostalgia.

    What disturbs me more about the nature of digital archiving is that, unlike hardcopy books and processed film, for example, digital archives need a machine to retrieve and interpret the data. I know it sounds ridiculous, but I sometimes imagine a scene in which I have no access to electricity or to the machines that can recall the data I have stored. My photos, for instance, are precious to me, yet I would have no way of experiencing them because so few of the 8,000 stored on my laptop's harddrive have actually ever been printed.

    I appreciate your insights concerning Baudrillard's ideas about information. Like you, I often feel as though I'm drowning in information, and, like Eric, I sometimes throw my hands up in the air and say "to hell with it all." Often, I have blamed the technology laden lifestyle I (we) have adopted and have sometimes resented feeling as though I have little choice in the matter. I mean, is Walden an option at this point?

    Just think about this in terms of our professional lives: at one point, keeping up with reading print journals, books, and maybe a newsletter or two, along with attending conferences, defined "staying current in one's field." But, now, there are blogs to follow, supplementary material for nearly everything written, expanded journal versions online, online journals, professional forums, etc. that add to the rich body of data and scholarship that defines our field. On this note, I have been thinking more and more about the observation Brooke makes in chapter 6 ("Persistence" or memory) about the 1945 Vannevar Bush passage from "As We May Think": "We could easily spend the rest of this chapter reproducing similar passages taken from the last century, penned by writers each of whom was equally convinced of the catastrophic implications of his or her own era's overload of information" (152). In light of this, I appreciated Brooke's suggestions for how to help manage the deluge of information we experience daily.

  4. I followed your lead and started by watching the video you shared at the beginning of your blog post. I found the interview with Dr. Alan How very helpful because he broke down Baudrillard’s definition of simulacra and then illustrated the concept by example. I particularly liked how he used the example of Marlon Brando’s image contributing to a northern England Italian restaurant’s identity of “being Italian” because of what I might call patterns of association that society has of him because of his unforgettable role in The Godfather. This “information” has been taken from an “unreal” context and reappropriated to a “real” context. Then, Baudrillard might argue, what is “real”? This is an example of how a society “realizes…reality” or “simulates the real,” and how media can sometimes distort manifestations of reality.

    I feel like there is a great deal of inherent value in the real, raw, and natural; so Baudrillard’s theory that there is no “real” is a bit mind-bending to me. Then again, the idea that “meaning has become destabilized” is a bit familiar because reminds me of some of the ideas in the book I am reading for the Canonical Books Assignment, which is How We Became Post-Human: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics by N. Katherine Hayles (1999). [I checked the index, and sure enough Baudrillard’s work is referenced a number of times in the book, albeit breifly (192, 250-251).] For example, later in your post, you drew attention to another example of simulation when you shared Baudrillard’s analogy of music and how special effects (which, I am assuming you mean digital effects) in music are altering “our expectations of how music should sound.” This example made a lot of sense to me. It seems like there is an ideology that because something has been modified by advanced technology it is inherently better (or, at least as good as the real thing). Although I think I disagree with that, it is one of the main arguments in How We Became Post-Human. The argument is that the form, or body, is meaningless, and that it is the information or meaning that is conveyed that is most important.

  5. Bea, I love your phrase " beauty to the exposition of complex thought" and completely agree. Although I have not read Baudrillard, I have felt this way when reading well-crafted theory. I think we so often fixate on the concepts themselves and fail to celebrate the art of making complex thoughts accessible. I think your re-reading, something I find myself doing often with worthwhile texts, is an orientation to the way that scholar sees the world. Thanks for such a thorough exploration of your reading, fascinating connections.

  6. Let me jump in here -- your post has clearly given us all so much to consider! I too watched the overview video, and the idea of simulacra and how the real and the simulated bump into each other so much that it is hard to know which is which really was fascinating. This links to Diane's post on _Remediation_ that I just read -- the plastic surgeries of Hollywood being her example of physical remediation. The world of women's magazines is built on readers/viewers of these magazines not being able to tell the difference between what is real and what is simulated. Our lives are moving so quickly in this direction in other ways too -- real friendship versus a simulated Facebook friend ... real music versus perfected music (your Grohl example was great). Thanks for giving me so much to think about.