“Requiem for the Media” Remembered

| August 6, 2010

Jean Baudrillard “Requiem for the Media,” from Wardrip-Fruin, Montfort, Noah, Nick. (Ed.). (2003). The New media reader. Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

Article Review

In the internet, let alone Web 2.0, era, a 1972 work that sets out to destabilize competing theories of the media and of media’s political potential may not resonate with the same immediacy, or even relevance, it once did. With the ascent of social networking and the increasing ease with which we share information, common logic would have us believe that previously held ideas about how the media condition social relations are simply outdated. Yet Baudrillard‘s work has not lost a hair of its insight or incisiveness. It remains a necessary read for anyone who believes or engages in individual media authorship as a political and pedagogical project.

Baudrillard identifies three prevailing theories of the media, all of which he terms “strategic illusions”: 1) McLuhan’s “the medium is the message,” which gestures towards a revolution of technology alone; 2) the idea that the media content is pure message, and that subversion is achieved through subversive content; and 3) Hans Enzenzberger’s theory, that the media do structure social relations but that they also contain the immanent promise of democratic or socialist communication. While Baudrillard does somewhat converge with Enzenzberger on his first point, Baudrillard finds that all of these ideas rest on the faulty underlying theory of communication as transmitter(encoder)-message-receiver(decoder). This scientific formulation abstracts lived experience into ideological categories. Most glaringly, it precludes the possibility of reciprocity, or of any genuine “response.”

As for what constitutes such a response, interpreting Baudrillard in this regard is more difficult. But it is clear that the response he envisions is neither the “feedback” typical of print or TV, nor the types of individual authorship observable in 1972 with the proliferation of walkie-talkies and video cameras: “a kind of personalized amateurism, the equivalent of Sunday tinkering on the periphery of the system.”

Do networking tools available today move the products of individual authorship from the system’s periphery, to its core? For Baudrillard, access to the means of media production, no matter how extensive, do not gesture towards genuine change: “one cannot simply break the monopoly of speech if one’s goal is simply to distribute it equally to everyone.” Simply put, the concept of the medium needs to disappear. To quote Jerry Rubin, “People meet their neighbors for the first time while watching their apartment houses burn down.”

Connection to the EdLab

“Requiem for the Media” has lasting insight for media production and media studies education. Then again, critical theory does not easily lend itself to the world of practice. Its uses, whatever they may be, don’t need to be neatly enumerated. This article may provoke new ways of thinking about students’ media production, the tones and humors their works include, as does David Buckingham in a 2003 piece in the Harvard Educational Review. It could also provide food for thought as the EdLab develops networks such as the UFR Action Network and the TLN, as well as incite interest in how Ethan Zuckerman, currently of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, is striving towards a more meaningful form of global communication.