Communication: an incoherent babble?

June 6th, 2002

Module: 301CCM – Media & Cultural Policy
Student Name: Guy Carberry
Tutor Name: Martyn Lee
Date Due: May 2000

Question: How far do you agree with Baudrillard’s claim
that the profusion and proliferation of media images today has undermined
critically the stability of contemporary mass communication to the extent
that communication has been reduced to an incoherent babble’?.

This essay will address the question detailed above by looking at a selection
of Marxist and Postmodernist works. Firstly it will address the central
idea that the proliferation of media images today has undermined the stability
of contemporary communication by analysing the theory presented by French
intellectual Jean Baudrillard. It will examine the central ideas raised
by Baudrillard (1983, 1986, 1989, 1991, 1993), David Harvey (1989), Frederic
Jameson (1991), Barthes (1980), Lee (1991 & 1999) and Evans and Hall
(1999) all of whom suggest that it is the fault of television that this
babble has occurred. This essay will first look at the essence of what
Baudrillard claims is occurring and then address four central ideas for
further analysis. The central ideas to be examined are: 1. People are
more concerned with what things look like than the actual meanings behind
them, 2. People no longer seek knowledge, but instead favour escapism
from the wider reality of the world via their television sets, 3. It is
now hard to distinguish between the reality and the simulacra because
postmodernity by definition borrows and recycles dead forms, 4. People
today live in a three minute culture where texts are consumed rather than
read. Whilst addressing all five of these points a critique will also
be offered from a largely Marxist perspective drawing from the likes of
The Frankfurt School, Louis Althusser, Noam Chomsky, Antonio Gramsci and
Stuart Hall. Marxist argue against the postmodernist viewpoint suggesting
that the population are not unthinking and accepting as people such as
Baudrillard would like to have them believe.

Kellner (1989, p68) in his analysis of Baudrillard’s work says
that “The proliferation of signs and information in the media obliterates
meaning through neutralising and dissolving all content, a process which
leads to both a collapse of meaning and the distraction of distinction
between media and reality.” He continues to elaborate on this point
explaining that in a society “saturated with noise”, useful
information and meaning “implode into a meaningless noise, pure
effect without any content or meaning.” Baudrillard (1989) attributes
this to the media and the way that it apparently dissolves information
and implodes on itself. The effects of this, Baudrillard suggests, leads
to a homogenised audience with homogenised ideas and experience. This
in turn leads to the idea that audiences are so homogenised that it is
no longer possible to determine what effect the masses have on the media
and what effect the media has on the masses. He continues to suggest that
audiences have become unthinking, and only care about experiencing escapism
and have no interest in meaning. In his 1999 lecture, Martyn Lee explains
that Baudrillard believes that people no longer read television, they
merely graze the screens, taking what they want then hopping elsewhere
in search of escapist fulfilment elsewhere. Television programmes are
no longer read as texts and as such the idea of communication becoming
a ‘babble’ arises. Because people do not watch from start
to finish, only fragments of information in short bursts are ‘watched’
the meaning is never understood. People no longer care about meaning but
must feed their desire for more visual pornography. This essay will now
critically analyse each of Baudrillard’s main points to try to reach
a conclusion as to whether communication really has become mere babble.

The first point to address is that in the postmodernist era, people are
more concerned with what things look like than the actual meaning behind
them. Saussure was the originator of the concept of the signifier and
the signified. In Evans & Hall (1999, p138) it is explained that “The
signifier is the material dimension of the sign, for example the sound
of the word “cat” or the printed letters of the word “cat”
on a page. The signified is the conceptual dimension of a sign; in the
case of a cat: A certain species of animal.” Barthes (1980) is in
favour of saussures concept but fears that in the postmodern age it has
become hard to locate any signification with the signified. According
to Barthes (1980), every sign implies three relations. These are interior
and exterior (actual) and exterior (virtual). It is the interior relation
that is lost in Baudrillard’s modern world. The ‘interior’
relation it that which unites the signifier to the signified. The other
two exterior relations are still present as they unite the sign to other
signs. The world according to Baudrillard is heavy with signs and loose
on meaning. This is why he talks of communication being reduced to “babble”.
Postmodernists believe that the incoherence is down to the amount of signs
all competing for attention. Texts are not read from beginning to end
– they can not be, there is too much of everything else to miss. The irony
is that there really is nothing to miss because nothing really makes sense
out of context without a beginning or an end. The search for knowledge
has become futile. This can be seen when searching the internet for hours
and leaving with nothing. The internet is a prime example of a great deal
of empty signifiers all competing for attention. Barthes (1980) argues
that in the pre-postmodern age the sign was far more simple than it is
today. It was previously possible to simplify the sign for absolute definition.
Today it is far more difficult to do this. He says that “today the
symbol is much less a codified form of communication than an affective
instrument of participation. By this he is referring to the idea of style
and image. Lee (1993) agrees with this notion as does Baudrillard (1993)
who both say that signs are used for referring to one’s cultural
mobility rather than for any real, non-aesthetic reason. Barthes (1980)
says that there is a “crumbling of the symbolic conciousness”.
The commodity sign now has no reference to the labour or origin of it’s

The argument against this idea comes in the form of Marxist critique.
The idea that people only care what things look like and are not concerned
about the labour involved is naïve and although the roots of a commodity
are hidden, people are still aware of the implications. For this reason,
third world plights are still heard and the normal society will still
get aid to places such as Mozambique and try to eliminate third world

The second argument concerns the idea that people no longer seek knowledge
but would rather remain unthinking and escape from the reality of the
world using their television sets.

The idea that society no longer cares about learning but would rather
fall into a world of escapism is rejected by Marxists because people are
not stupid. People still live in the real world as they are involved in
the reality of the working world. There will always be the space between
managers and the workers. The recent problem of BMW selling Rover can
be seen to support this idea. People are still interested in events of
the real world and do not believe everything they see on television.

The third idea is from Baudrillard (1983) who suggests that it is now
hard to distinguish between the real and the simulated. This view is shared
by Harvey (1989) and Jameson (1991) both of which talk about the notion
of postmodern architecture borrowing from dead styles. Talking about Baudrillard,
Conner (1989) explains that in the postmodern age “signs are no
longer required to have any verifiable contact with the world in which
they allegedly represent.” He explains that Baudrillard raises four
stages in which reality has become simulation: “Initially the sign
is ‘a reflection of a basic reality’ (this might be the stage
of scientific referential language which Jameson dates from the reifying
emergence of bourgeois knowledge).” This can also be seen in the
‘olden days’ when red meant “stop” and green meant
“go”. “In the second stage, the sign ‘masks and
perverts a basic reality (this might be the stage or theory of ideology
as the false consciousness which prevents people from seeing their true
alienation or exploitation)”. This falls in line with Marxist thought
discussed earlier in this essay – television being a tool for such a cause.
“In the third stage, the sign ‘masks the absence of a basic
reality’ (harder to think of examples for this one, though Baudrillard
instances the ideas of the iconoclasts, who feared and despised images
of the deity because the believed the images were testimony to the absence
of any deity)”. The internet can also be seen as an example of this.
The internet can not exist outside of it’s binary code in any form.
The two dimensional screen with flickering graphics mask the fact that
what is being looked at is entirely simulation. In the forth, terminal
stage, the sign ‘bears no relation to any reality whatsoever: it
is its own pure simulation’. Baudrillard (1983 p10) in Conner (1989).
This stage is where postmodern television programmes come into their own.
Programmes such as Reeves and Mortimer, Alan Partridge, Brass Eye and
Harry Hill have no relationship to the real world as such as they are
mere pastiche and parody of existing simulation – television programmes.
Programmes like these are post-irony, it would be hard for anybody without
knowledge of the cultural referants to make any sense of them whatsoever.

It is the fourth stage that Baudrillard (1989) claims that western society
is now within. In his famous example of Disneyland, Baudrillard suggests
that peoples traditional ideas of America are recreated in the synthetic
tourist attraction. Harvey (1989) thinks that Baudrillard’s are
over exaggerated for the most part but does agree with him on this point
“U.S. reality is now constructed as a giant screen: “the cinema
is everywhere, most of all in the city, incessant and marvellous film
and scenario.”” Harvey says places are dressed up to attract
tourists. He uses the example of the medieval castle: “…medieval
weekends (food, dress, but of course not the primitive heating arrangements).”
Continuing on this line of thought, Harvey (1989, p300) explains that
it is now possible to sample the world’s cuisine in exactly the
same form the world over. The simulations of Italian, Chinese, Mexican
and Indian food are everywhere. In England the national dish is the Indian.
The notion of the simulated being more real than real is evident when
people say that their favourite dish is the Vindaloo which is an Indian
dish invented by English people. Harvey (p300) also explains that the
world’s geographical complexity is portrayed nightly on the television
screen. People think they know what New York is like because they have
seen the place on television. The simulation becomes accepted as the real.
Harvey and Baudrillard both argue that the simulated has become more real
than the real, especially if one were to visit New York and discover that
the actual place was not as ‘real’ or ‘authentic’
as the simulation on the television screen. Jenks in Jameson (1991, p301)
argues that “Why, If one can live in different cultures, restrict
oneself to the present, the locale?” Boorstin (1978) says that this
may lead to problems:

“We risk being the first people in history to have been able to
make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so “realistic”
that they can live in them. We are the most illusioned people on earth.
Yet we dare not become disillusioned because our illusions are the very
house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure,
our forms of art, our very experience.” – Boorstin (1978, p.240).

Jameson (1991) says that society is in danger of becoming a prisoner
of the past. He says the world of pastiche is a world in which “stylistic
innovation is no longer possible.” Writing about Jameson, Karran
(1998) says that “all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to
speak through the masks and speak with the voices and styles in the imaginary
museum.” He says that culture is now imprisoned by the past. This
suggests that society is lost and ambling around in the dark searching
for an identity. Hebdige in Evans & Hall (1999, p109) says that this
exercise of searching is futile: “….appearances can no longer
be said to mask, conceal, distort or falsify reality… reality is
nothing more than the never knowable sum of all appearance. For Baudrillard
‘reality’ flickers. It will not stay still. Tossed about like
rimbauds ‘drunken boat’ on a heaving sea of surfaces, we cease
to exist as rational cogitos capable of standing back and totalising on
the basis of our own experience.”

It can be argued that this point of view is not shared by all. People
who visit Disneyland do not necessarily think that all of America is like
the simulation provided by the tourist attraction. Indeed, Marxist theory
from people such as Chomsky would suggest that the public are not totally
accepting of the images shown to them on television. Credit is not always
given to the people who are critical of consumerism and capitalism. Baudrillard
(1991) suggests that people are unthinking and ruled by television. He
makes no mention of where he fits into the theory. If he has the power
to be critical of the media then surely others do too. In Kelner’s
later work this point is addressed. Baudrillard’s theory only seems
to work insofar as the masses remain unthinking, uncritical and accepting
of the McDonaldization of society, believing the simulacra to be the real.
For Baudrillard’s model to work, the masses would not never actively
and critically read texts, but passively consume everything they see as

This leads onto the final point: That texts are consumed rather than
read. Postmodernists argue that this is the case. Because society lives
in a three minute culture, the masses are more accepting of what they
see on television. When something comes on that they do not want to see,
they can change channel. The notion that people “graze” their
television sets has been argued by people such as Lee (1991). Boorstin
(1978) says that “We imagine ourselves masters of a plastic universe.
But a world we can shape to our will – or to our extravagant expectations
– is a shapeless world.” Chen & Taylor in Harvey (1991 p302)
explains the consequences for grazing empty signifiers in search of escapism.
They explain that by merely consuming texts, people risk becoming “split
personalities in which the primitive life is disturbed by the promise
of escape routes to another reality.” The ‘babble’ therefore
arises because society is becoming schizophrenic and directionless, inspired
only by the image of the latest commodity. Meaning is no longer understood
yet is desired but people are trapped by the constant barrage of signifiers
all pulling for people’s attention. One great example of this can
be seen in the internet. The internet promises a wealth of information
but is the embodiment of postmodern society – a platform for grazing for
information with hundreds of thousands of empty signifiers, all pulling
the grazer into different areas of promise, yet all lacking that vital
content and meaning.

The counter argument is that people do not simply sit in front of their
television sets and passively digest programmes. Instead, they challenge
and criticise what they see. People are now more sceptical of television
and it’s ideology. This could be why programmes such as the Ali
G show pull such high audiences. Programmes such as this challenge the
status quo and dominant ideology by addressing themes and ideas that appeal
to the reality of many people’s lives. The idea of winning and ‘ounce’
would never have got onto television a few decades ago.

In conclusion, it seems appropriate to address the main themes covered.
The first point discussed was the idea that people are more concerned
with what things look like than the actual meanings behind them, 2. People
no longer seek knowledge, but instead favour escapism from the wider reality
of the world via their television sets, 3. It is now hard to distinguish
between the reality and the simulacra because postmodernity by definition
borrows and recycles dead forms, 4. The diversity of media images and
large choice of television programmes mean that there is never a common
talking point unlike days previous when people would talk about their
similar viewing experiences, 5. People today live in a three minute culture
where texts are consumed rather than read. So, has the proliferation of
media images undermined the stability of mass communication? Postmodern
thinking certainly suggests that it has. Advertising and television can
be seen to be contributing to the ‘babble’. There is certainly
a profusion and proliferation of media images amongst the commercial world.
Advertisers sell the image, even Sprite do, despite what the advert might
say. This essay will offer the argument that it is the media that has
become lost in it’s abundance of empty signifiers. It is the producers
of these images that are babbling to each other. The notion that communication
of the masses has become a babble can be written off because everybody
is not unthinking and uncritical of what they see. People still understand
that they are exploited but are aware of the inevitability of this. As
such it should be remembered that the mass media is not a separate entity
from the rest of society, it is part of it. Normal people work for television,
only ideological state apparatus’ and government intervention prevent
proper communication from happening, not the wider society who are still
as intelligent and critical as ever, if not more. The question really
needs to be asked that where will communication go next? Will the internet
and the thousand plus digital channels coming to the UK lead to a incoherent
babble? The fact that the uptake on such television has been immensely
slow despite heavy publicity and offers speaks for itself – the public
are only too aware that there is too much rubbish on the television already.

Guy Carberry, 4th May

Words: 3023


Evans & Hall (1999) “Visual Culture: The Reader”, Sage
Walker & Chaplin (1997) “Visual Culture: An Introduction”,
Walker & Chaplin
Kaplan, (1993) “Postmodernism and It’s Discontents”,
Sontag, Susan (1980) “A Barthes Reader”, Noonday Press
Boorstin (1978) “The Image”, Atheneum
Baudrillard, Jean (1988) “The Ecstasy of Communication”, Semiotext
Baudrillard, Jean (1983) “Simulations”, Semiotext
Baudrillard, Jean (1993) “Symbolic Exchange & Death”,
Baudrillard, Jean (1986) “Seduction”, Sage
Kellner, Douglas (1989) “Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism”,
Kellner, Douglas (1989) “Postmodernism/Jameson critique”,
Maisoneuve Press
Gaine, Mike (1991) “Baudrillard: ‘Critical & Fatal Theory’”
Harvey, David (1989) “The Postmodern Condition” Blackwell
Lee, Martyn (1993) “Cultural Capital Reborn”, Routledge
Lee, Martyn (1999) Lecture: “Baudrillard
Connor, S (1989) “Postmodernist Culture”, Blackwell, Oxford


Williams, Raymond (1981) “Culture”, Fontana Press

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One Response to “Communication: an incoherent babble?”

  1. Francisco

    Although I can’t subscribe myself to postmodernism’s most extreme views, I find them illuminating when trying to explain certain phenomena, and I certainly believe they can hold credibility to a greater extent than you do.

    When you write “People still understand that they are exploited but are aware of the inevitability of this” I couldn’t be in greater disagreement. Even from the marxist perspective this would imply that class conscience (the main obstacle to revolution) has been reached. Without going further to Baudrillard’s fourth stage, can you deny the manufacturing of consent (Chomsky, 1988) that consolidates corporations? How would marketing campaigns and their huge success in creating superfluous needs fit in this view?

    Despite my discrepancies on your conclusions, I thought the exposition of the theories was clear and complete.

    (Please excuse any errors, english isn’t my native language).