Baudrillard and the Scandal Effect

John Crews

It would take too long to traverse the entire range of the operational negativity of all those senarios of deterrence, which, like Watergate, try to regenerate a moribund principle through simulated scandal, phantasm, and murder-- a sort of hormonal treatment through negativity and crisis. p. 19

Consider the reproduction and manipulation of the image. Constant and pervasive, as a society we value an image, the idea of an image and what it signifies differently as we use images differently. We are flooded, oversaturated with pictures. Perhaps they serve to create different effects than earlier in the century... because photography is beholden to no reliable objectivity, no reflexive truth.

Truth is no longer the reflexive truth of the mirror. p. 29

Think about the past ten years... from the famous "National Georgraphic's Sphinx" to the variation and manipulation of O.J. Simpson's skin color and face (check Newsweek, Time, Wired). As cultural artifacts distributed images become more openly invested in the art of appearance rather than fact. Or, as Baudrillard might say, simulation rather than any form of the real.

There is less and less room for a naive view of photography, or any visual representation. As a society we engage in the commodification of all images... pornographic, titilating, authorizing, et cetera. In a capital-based society, people will buy what they want to see or want to be. And if images ever posessed any claim to reality, that claim is fading as they are more often appropriated to serve the needs of Benjamin's commodity fetish.

Having restated what I personally believe many people are aware of, that one cannot believe everything one sees, what is frightening as we look toward the future is the potential for mass manipulation through the use, abuse, production, and reproduction of images. Especially when these images are positioned by agencies of the media, such as the television, radio, print (newspapers, periodicals), electronic hypertext and so on... Baudrillard's project in his book Simulacra and Simulation is to invest a great deal of cynicism, and concern in thinking about the hegemonic effects of what may as well be called a 'logic of simulation'.

The scandal effect is one idea of Baudrillard's that I find relevant in thinking about the political situation in the United States. The scandal effect could be articulated as follows : Accepting that the difference between what is real and non-real becomes fuzzy... then how is one to believe in the power or utility of government. For the most part, one's knowledge of what government is, and how it works is carried through some media. It is mediated, and in effect what the American public understands as the reality of government is suspect to manipulation. The pattern that has developed with the executive branch of government, specifically the President, seems dangerously along the lines of what Baudrillard is talking about.

Same operation, tending to regenerate through scandal a moral and political principle, through the imaginary, a sinking reality principle. p. 14

The reality principle is articulated by Baudrillard in a rather vague way. How does this work? What is reality here? What could be obscured by President Clinton's troubles with allegations of either sexual impropriety or abuse of his office?

Our ability to know what is happening in the world, to take some active role in what happens slowly disappears as the reality principle -- I understand it as participating in a sort of naturalism -- is confused in an endless exchange of images that don't inform us, but instead allow us to feel informed. Matters of the President's conduct are important concerns, and they touch upon the legitimacy of our system of government, but the gratuitous production of images deadens any sort of critical awareness into what is actually going on. There are other priorities we must have. The economic situation in Asia is sparcely reported on. Our negotiations with Iraq, Israel... . Brushed under the rug. As citizens we do have other concerns. Funny how like in the movie Wag the Dog a Presidential scandal is averted, subverted... public attention toward scandal is quickly fed into a war machine. We can see this now, in the present day situation.

[To other discussions of Baudrillard by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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