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Presented February 24, 2002, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning
We all know-and sometimes we even think about-the extent to which our contemporary consciousness is so much more bombarded by images than it was a generation ago or indeed ever was before in human history. Perhaps you could argue that the first step in the march to the era where human consciousness is dominated by images, was taken by the crafty advertising man who first had the idea of billboards. And thereafter any drive through country or city is accompanied by or interrupted by images of liquor bottles and cigarettes and images of people enjoying them.
However odd or intrusive the first billboards must have seemed to their first viewers, from our perspective today we must see the introduction of advertising images into the landscape as so rudimentary, as child's play, compared to the way images constantly insinuate themselves into our consciousness. Now I think the clearest example of how we are so much more shaped and permeated by images than we used to be is in the difference between our relation to music now as compared to when most of us were kids. There was, after all, such thing as the pre-MTV world, where music was simply rhythm, beat, and lyrics with no images. We didn't, after all, watch the turntable spin around as we listened to music. Now, however, because of the invention of MTV, the images are often as much of the music as the beat, the rhythm and the words. And I bet that just as many of you could recall the words to songs we heard over and over again when we were young but perhaps fortunately have not heard for a long time-You Light up my Life, for example, or Goodbye, Yellowbrick Road-so many of the younger people will years from now remember not just the words but the images that now go along with the songs and get inscribed in consciousness. And this is just one example of how images have more and more come to dominate human consciousness.
Educators have had to respond to the fact of the increasing domination of consciousness by images. We are told over and over again that our students today are different in that they are, as it is often put in this wonderful phrase, visual learners. What the heck does that mean? When we, us old timers, when we learned by reading books and then maybe in our own solitariness learned by thinking about what we read, were we blind or what? Weren't we using our eyes? The phrase visual learners really means that students today are so bombarded constantly by visual images that if you want to get their mental attention you have got to do it through a visual image. If you want to get their mental attention and have something stick in their heads, a fact, and idea, you'd better associate that fact or idea with a visual image. So I begin explaining Hegel's concept of the mind constantly overcoming objects by placing boxes at the door, and that image of the boxes actually sticks in their minds and they understand Hegel better when they understand how the image goes with the ideas of Hegel. This works because, you see, our students are visual learners, meaning that the language that is meaningful to them is the language of images.
This fact is most apparent in my course on the Holocaust. I can give the students a written text to read with an interesting argument about an aspect of the Holocaust-the role of the Catholic Church, for example-and they think it is boring and hard to relate to. But the same historian can appear and make the same argument in a documentary, where his or her image is interspersed with lots of other images, and the students actually pay attention, are interested, and learn. This is great, and thank goodness for documentaries, and if Ken Burns's documentaries on the Civil War have gotten your kids interested in history, then you will also say thank goodness for documentaries. However, with my Holocaust class, if you ask the students to compare the argument of one historian against the other, or to discuss how the images that were presented along with the particular argument being put forth at that time might have affected them as viewers and been used as a rhetorical strategy, well, somehow that conversation seems to be off track and irrelevant. It is as if the point of the documentary is not in how well or accurately it conveys the reality of its subject but simply in the fact that the images caught the attention of the students. The success of the documentary is in the fact that the students actually paid attention to it, that the images were real to them, and the question of the relation between the images and the real event fades into the background, becomes a second-order question.
Now when you begin to think: Gee, we are so bombarded by images, images everywhere, that maybe we are headed to a place in the future where there will just be images, where there will be no clear distinction between images and reality, or no distinction at all, then you will meet the contemporary French social theorist Jean Baudrillard, who will say to you, "Silly person, don't you see that we are already there? Don't you see that we live in an era dominated by a media-produced image and that this is real to us, so that the question of the relationship between the image and the real is just old-fashioned thinking. The simulacrum is where the media produced image is the real, is taken as the real, and don't you see we have already passed into the era of the simulacrum?"
I found myself thinking about Baudrillard a few weeks ago when I sat in a packed Quincy theatre and watched the movie Blackhawk Down, this movie in some way is about or based upon our ill-fated mission in Somalia during the early years of the Clinton administration. Now I was struck by how many people were in the theatre, and my first Baudriallarian thought was how much more our citizens were interested in the movie version of what happened in Somalia than we were while it was actually happening. Now certainly not many people know very much about what happened, about why we were there in the first place, about the history and the political situation of Somalia, and now many more people have actually seen the movie version. So now with the popularity of the movie the question becomes: what is our adventure in Somalia? Is it the reality of the event as it actually happened or is it the media produced version through the movie? Don't you think that to most Americans today the movie version is not only more real to them than the actual historical event, but that the movie version is the real event to them? That the reality of our actions in Somalia is the movie version? And this is exactly what Baudrillard means by the Simulacrum. The movie Blackhawk Down even seems like it is trying to be the Simulacrum. It makes no attempt to explain why we there in the first place, to relate the movie back to the real history it is supposedly representing. It is as if the movie is not so much trying to represent or accurately reflect the real history but to displace it, and to be real itself. All the action and battle scenes-which is pretty much all the movie is-are so real that most people emerged from the movie angry and ready for revenge, to get those guys who did that to us. The question of how the film actually relates back to the real, to the real history, seemed like a non question because the movie was the real, and that is exactly what Baudrillard means when he says we already live in the age of Simulacrum.
Baudrillard developed the concept of the Simulacrum in the early 80s but it gained notoriety during the Persian Gulf War. The way the Pentagon pursued and staged that war you would think that they actually had read Baudrillard. The Pentagon carefully monitored the movements of the journalists and only allowed the images that they wished to appear. And the Pentagon directed the images of the war most obviously by their video-game like demonstrations of our weapons and military power. So during that war you didn't see actual people being blown up and suffering and dying but you saw carefully crafted images of the success and accuracy of our weapons in blowing up people-less bridges or buildings. The Pentagon had obviously learned that in Viet Nam the relation between the actual real horror of what was happening and the media-produced image of what was happening was far too direct, and they were not going to let that happen again. And they made sure that in the Persian Gulf War we didn't get the real event but a media-produced image of the real event that was far more distant from the real than it was in previous wars. And obviously what the Pentagon wanted was for the media-produced images to be seen not as representing the real war but as being the real war. Right before the war started, Baudrillard published an article titled "The Gulf War will not take place," and during the war he published an article titled "The Gulf War is not Taking Place," and after the war he published his essay "The Gulf War Did not Take Place." His point, of course, was that was happening was the Pentagon and media-produced image of the war, and that that was being taken as the real. What was happening was that the real was being replaced by the Simulacrum, which is simply thought of as itself the real.
And what about this current war we have recently experienced or are still experiencing? What is the reality of this event, our war in Afghanistan, our war on terrorism? If during the Persian Gulf War the Pentagon succeeded in substituting the Simulacrum for the real war so that what was happening was the Simulacrum, is there any hope of coming back out of the Simulacrum, or are we destined to live more in more within the Simulacrum and with a sense that grows fainter and fainter all the time that there is some disparity or difference between the reality of the Simulacrum and the reality of the really real? Or is the Simulacrum itself simply the really real?
What is the really real of our war in Afghanistan? And have we seen it, seen images of it, on our TVs? There is one incredible scene in the movie Blackhawk Down that really stood out for me and caused me to think about the division or disparity between the Simulacrum that was the movie and the really real. In this scene hundreds of armed Somalis are positioned on rooftops shooting down at American soldiers positioned on the street. It's a terrible, very perilous, chaotic situation, but then an American helicopter appears out of the reach of the Somali guns. From the helicopter come two or three missiles that entirely blow up the roofs and set them on fire and instantly kill everyone on the roofs. Hundreds of people killed in seconds by simply unleashing incredible military and technological superiority, destroyed instantly by an overwhelming destructive force. And I thought to myself: Now that is what it must really be like in these wars where we inflict so many casualties without taking hardly any.
But if that scene is really what it is like, what these wars are like, where do we see that? Do we see scenes like that on CNN or scenes like that provided by the Pentagon? Do we live in that reality, with that sense of what is really real? And if that fictional scene, that scene from the movie, is more real than the real media coverage of the war, then what does that say about the relation between the real media coverage of the war and the really real war? And is Baudrillard correct when he says that we already live within the Simulacrum, within in an era where the media produced image is understood as the real itself and the question of the relationship between the media-produced image of the real and the real itself is no longer a question, or a question for only a few out of touch idealists and intellectuals who cannot admit or recognize that the age of the Simulacrum is not to be feared for in the future because it is already here, already now.
Surely, Baudrillard cannot be entirely right, and we cannot be living only and purely in the age of the Simulacrum. We still have experiences of the really real. Who can ever forget seeing those planes go into the World Trade Center on September 11? This was the really real, and the media coverage simply gave us the images of the really real. Does this fact and experiences like it of the really real, do they invalidate or disprove what Baudrillard is saying about the age of the Simulacrum? It is certainly possible to think that. It is also possible to think that images of the really real do occasionally interrupt the Simulacrum, only to get quickly taken up into and swallowed by the Simulacrum. This would only reinforce the illusion that we live in the really real rather than in the media-produced image of the real that is the Simulacrum.
The Quincy Unitarian Church Home
The list of Selected Sermons.
More Sermons from the Rev. Dr. Rob Manning.