Definitions and Debates
Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs
I. The Empire of Signs
“My fellow Americans,” exhorted John F. Kennedy, “haven’t you ever wanted to put your foot through your television screen?”
Of course, it wasn’t actually Kennedy, but an actor in “Media Burn,” a spectacle staged in 1975 by the performance art collective Ant Farm. Speaking from a dais, “Kennedy” held forth on America’s addiction to the plug-in drug, declaring, “Mass media monopolies control people by their control of information.” On cue, an assistant doused a wall of TV sets with kerosene and flicked a match at the nearest console. An appreciative roar went up from the crowd as the televisions exploded into snapping flames and roiling smoke.
Minutes later, a customized 1959 Cadillac hurtled through the fiery wall with a shuddering crunch and ground to a halt, surrounded by the smashed, blackened carcasses of televisions. Here and there, some sets still burned; one by one, their picture tubes imploded, to the onlookers’ delight. A postcard reproduction of the event’s pyrotechnic climax, printed on the occasion of its tenth anniversary, bears a droll poem:
plague is here
burn your TV
burn to be free.
In “Media Burn,” Ant Farm indulged publicly in the guilty pleasure of kicking a hole in the cathode-ray tube. Now, almost two decades later, TV’s cyclopean eye peers into every corner of the cultural arena, and the desire to blind it is as strong as ever. “Media Burn” materializes the wish-fulfillment dream of a consumer democracy that yearns, in its hollow heart and empty head, for a belief system loftier than the “family values” promised by a Volvo ad campaign, discourse more elevated than that offered by the shark tank feeding-frenzy of The McLaughlin Hour
It is a postmodern commonplace that our lives are intimately and inextricably bound up in the TV experience. Ninety-eight percent of all American households—more than have indoor plumbing—have at least one television, which is on seven hours a day, on the average. Dwindling funds for public schools and libraries, counterpointed by the skyrocketing sales of VCRs and electronic games, have given rise to a culture of “aliteracy,” defined by Roger Cohen (1991) as “the rejection of books by children and young adults who know how to read but choose not to” (34). The dreary truth that two thirds of Americans get “most of their information” from television is hardly a revelation (McKibben 1992, 18).
Media prospector Bill McKibben (1992) wonders about the exchange value of such information:
We believe we live in the “age of information,” that there has been an information “explosion,” an information “revolution.” While in a certain narrow sense this is the case, in many important ways just the opposite is true. We also live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information. (9)
The effects of television are most deleterious in the realms of journalism and politics; in both spheres, TV has reduced discourse to photo ops and sound bites, asserting the hegemony of image over language, emotion over intellect. These developments are bodied forth in Ronald Reagan, a TV conjuration who for eight years held the news media, and thus the American public, spellbound. As Mark Hertsgaard (1988) points out, the president’s media-savvy handlers were able to reduce the
fourth estate, which likes to think of itself as an unblinking watchdog, to a fawning lapdog:
Deaver, Gergen and their colleagues effectively rewrote the rules of presidential image-making. On the basis of a sophisticated analysis of the American news media—how it worked, which buttons to push when, what techniques had and had not worked for previous administrations—they introduced a new model for packaging the nation’s top politician and using the press to sell him to the American public. Their objective was not simply to tame the press but to transform it into an unwitting mouthpiece of the government. (5)
During the Reagan years, America was transformed into a TV democracy whose prime directive is social control through the fabrication and manipulation of images. “We [the Reagan campaign staff] tried to create the most entertaining, visually attractive scene to fill that box, so that the cameras from the networks would have to use it,” explained former Reagan advisor Michael Deaver. “It would be so good that they’d say, ‘Boy, this is going to make our show tonight.’ We became Hollywood producers” (quoted in “Illusions of News,” 5).
The conversion of American society into a virtual reality was lamentably evident in the Persian Gulf War, a made-for-TV miniseries with piggybacked merchandising (T-shirts, baseball caps, Saddam toilet paper, Original Desert Shield Condoms) and gushy, Entertainment Tonight–style hype from a cheerleading media. When filmmaker Jon Alpert, under contract to NBC, brought back stomach-churning footage of Iraq under US bombardment, the network—which is owned by one of the world’s largest arms manufacturers, General Electric—fired Alpert and refused to air the film. Not that Alpert’s film would have roused the body politic: Throughout the war, the American people demanded the right not to know. A poll cited in the New York Times was particularly distressing: “Given a choice between increasing military control over information or leaving it to news organizations to make most decisions about reporting on the war, 57 percent of those responding said they would favor greater military control” (Jones 1991).
During the war’s first weeks, as home-front news organizations aided Pentagon spin control by maintaining a near-total blackout on coverage
of protest marches, Deaver was giddy with enthusiasm. “If you were going to hire a public relations firm to do the media relations for an international event,” he bubbled, “it couldn’t be done any better than this is being done” (quoted in “Illusions of News,” 1990). In fact, a PR firm, Hill & Knowlton, was hired; it orchestrated the congressional testimony of the distraught young Kuwaiti woman whose horror stories about babies ripped from incubators and left “on the cold floor to die” by Iraqi soldiers was highly effective in mobilizing public support for the war. Her testimony was never substantiated, and her identity—she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States—was concealed, but why niggle over details? “Formulated like a World War II movie, the Gulf War even ended like a World War II movie,” wrote Neal Gabler (1991), “with the troops marching triumphantly down Broadway or Main Street, bathed in the gratitude of their fellow Americans while the final credits rolled” (32).
After the yellow ribbons were taken down, however, a creeping disaffection remained. A slowly spreading rancor at the televisual Weltanschauung, it is with us still, exacerbated by the prattle of talk show hosts, anchorclones, and the Teen Talk Barbie advertised on Saturday mornings whose “four fun phrases” include “I love shopping” and “Meet me at the mall.” Mark Crispin Miller (1987) neatly sums TV’s place in our society:
Everybody watches it, but no one really likes it. This is the open secret of TV today. Its only champions are its own executives, the advertisers who exploit it, and a compromised network of academic boosters. Otherwise, TV has no spontaneous defenders, because there is almost nothing in it to defend. (228)
The rage and frustration of the disempowered viewer exorcised in “Media Burn” bubbles up, unexpectedly, in “57 Channels (and Nothin’ On),” Bruce Springsteen’s Scorsese-esque tale of a man unhinged by the welter of meaningless information that assails him from every channel. Springsteen sings:
So I bought a .44 magnum it was solid steel cast
And in the blessed name of Elvis well I just let it blast
’Til my TV lay in pieces there at my feet
And they busted me for disturbin’ the almighty peace.
Significantly, the video for “57 Channels” incorporates footage of a white Cadillac on a collision course with a wall of flaming TV sets, in obvious homage to “Media Burn.” The ritual destruction of the TV set, endlessly iterated in American mass culture, can be seen as a retaliatory gesture by an audience that has begun to bridle, if only intuitively, at the suggestion that “power” resides in the remote control unit, that “freedom of choice” refers to the ever-greater options offered around the dial. This techno-voodoo rite constitutes the symbolic obliteration of a one-way information pipeline that only transmits, never receives. It is an act of sympathetic magic performed in the name of all who are obliged to peer at the world through peepholes owned by multinational conglomerates for whom the profit margin is the bottom line. “To the eye of the consumer,” notes Ben Bagdikian (1989),
the global media oligopoly is not visible. . . . Newsstands still display rows of newspapers and magazines, in a dazzling array of colors and subjects. . . . Throughout the world, broadcast and cable channels continue to multiply, as do video cassettes and music recordings. But . . . if this bright kaleidoscope suddenly disappeared and was replaced by the corporate colophons of those who own this output, the collage would go gray with the names of the few multinationals that now command the field. (819)
In his watershed work, The Media Monopoly, Bagdikian (1989) reported that the number of transnational media giants had dropped to twenty-three and was rapidly shrinking. Following another vector, Herbert Schiller (1987) considers the interlocked issues of privatized information and limited access:
The commercialization of information, its private acquisition and sale, has become a major industry. While more material than ever before, in formats created for special use, is available at a price, free public information supported by general taxation is attacked by the private sector as an unacceptable form of subsidy. . . . An individual’s ability to know the
actual circumstances of national and international existence has progressively diminished. (6)
Martin A. Lee and Norman Solomon (1990) level another, equally disturbing charge:
In an era of network news cutbacks and staff layoffs, many reporters are reluctant to pursue stories they know will upset management. “People are more careful now,” remarked a former NBC news producer, “because this whole notion of freedom of the press becomes a contradiction when the people who own the media are the same people who need to be reported on.” (75)
Corporate ownership of the newsmedia, the subsumption of an ever-larger number of publishing companies and television networks into an ever-smaller number of multinationals, and the increased privatization of truth by an information-rich, technocratic elite are not newly risen issues. More recent is the notion that the public mind is being colonized by corporate phantasms—wraithlike images of power and desire that haunt our dreams. Consider the observations of Neal Gabler and Marshall Blonsky:
Everywhere the fabricated, the inauthentic and the theatrical have gradually driven out the natural, the genuine and the spontaneous until there is no distinction between real life and stagecraft. In fact, one could argue that the theatricalization of American life is the major cultural transformation of this century. (Gabler 1991, 32)
We can no longer do anything without wanting to see it immediately on video. . . . There is never any longer an event or a person who acts for himself, in himself. The direction of events and of people is to be reproduced into image, to be doubled in the image of television. . . . Today the referent disappears. In circulation are images. Only images. (Blonsky 1992, 231)
The territory demarcated by Gabler and Blonsky, lush with fictions yet strangely barren, has been mapped in detail by the philosopher Jean
Baudrillard. In his landmark 1975 essay, “The Precession of Simulacra,” Baudrillard put forth the notion that we inhabit a “hyperreality,” a hall of media mirrors in which reality has been lost in an infinity of reflections. We “experience” events, first and foremost, as electronic reproductions of rumored phenomena many times removed, he maintains; originals, invariably compared to their digitally enhanced representations, inevitably fall short. In the “desert of the real,” asserts Baudrillard, mirages outnumber oases and are more alluring to the thirsty eye.
Moreover, he argues, signs that once pointed toward distant realities now refer only to themselves. Disneyland’s Main Street, USA, which depicts the sort of idyllic, turn-of-the-century burg that exists only in Norman Rockwell paintings and MGM backlots, is a textbook example of self-referential simulation, a painstaking replica of something that never was. “These would be the successive phases of the image,” writes Baudrillard, betraying an almost necrophiliac relish as he contemplates the decomposition of culturally defined reality. “[The image] is the reflection of a basic reality; it masks and perverts a basic reality; it masks the absence of a basic reality; it bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum” (1983, 11).
Reality isn’t what it used to be. In America, factory capitalism has been superseded by an information economy characterized by the reduction of labor to the manipulation, on computers, of symbols that stand in for the manufacturing process. The engines of industrial production have slowed, yielding to a phantasmagoric capitalism that produces intangible commodities—Hollywood blockbusters, television sit-coms, catchphrases, jingles, buzzwords, images, one-minute megatrends, financial transactions flickering through fiber-optic bundles. Our wars are Nintendo wars, fought with camera-equipped smart bombs that marry cinema and weaponry in a television that kills. Futurologists predict that the flagship technology of the coming century will be “virtual reality,” a computer-based system that immerses users wearing headgear wired for sight and sound in computer-animated worlds. In virtual reality, the television swallows the viewer, headfirst.
II. Culture Jamming
Meanwhile, the question remains: How to box with shadows? In other words, what shape does an engaged politics assume in an empire of signs?
The answer lies, perhaps, in the “semiological guerrilla warfare” imagined by Umberto Eco (1986). “The receiver of the message seems to have a residual freedom: the freedom to read it in a different way. . . . I am proposing an action to urge the audience to control the message and its multiple possibilities of interpretation” (138, 143), he writes. “One medium can be employed to communicate a series of opinions on another medium. . . . The universe of Technological Communication would then be patrolled by groups of communications guerrillas, who would restore a critical dimension to passive reception” (143–44).
Eco assumes, a priori, the radical politics of visual literacy, an idea eloquently argued by Stuart Ewen, a critic of consumer culture. “We live at a time when the image has become the predominant mode of public address, eclipsing all other forms in the structuring of meaning,” asserts Ewen (1990). “Yet little in our education prepares us to make sense of the rhetoric, historical development or social implications of the images within our lives.” In a society of heat, light and electronic poltergeists—an eerie otherworld of “illimitable vastness, brilliant light, and the gloss and smoothness of material things” (76)—the desperate project of reconstructing meaning, or at least reclaiming that notion from marketing departments and PR firms, requires visually literate ghostbusters.