CNN, Holograms, and Baudrillard
Last November 4, I wasn’t the only election-night viewer discomfited by CNN’s “beaming” of correspondent Jessica Yellin from the Chicago Convention Center into the studio with anchor Wolf Blitzer. (Blitzer referred to this remote satellite interview with Yellin as a report via “hologram.” Of course, as bloggers and others were quick to point out, this image wasn’t a hologram at all, but an old-fashioned special effect.) In the latest issue of Rouge, Harry Tuttle puts his finger on exactly what made me squirm while watching this penny-arcade ploy on a major news network during one of the most important events in modern American political history:
“TV is now capable of manipulating live video content with such mastery that the audience will mistrust anything presented as a filmed document normally put forth as incontestable evidence. It makes one wonder about the invasion of cinematic special effects into our (inter)national news. The nightmarish fantasy from Zelig (1983) or Forrest Gump (1994) — of rewriting history by inserting foreign characters into archival footage of historical scenes — has finally become possible: seamlessly, and live. The era of television imposture is just beginning.”
In his analysis, Tuttle cites André Bazin on transparency and superimposition, from an essay critiquing uncanny or spectral effects on film. Tuttle’s contention seems to be that CNN’s faux-hologram exploit deterioriates the “integrity of images.” At the end of his piece, he writes: “I find the hypocrisy of TV imagery disappointing in its current vain attempt to fabricate an affected immateriality — while calling it, with a straight face, reality.” I am sympathetic to his central point: news services resorting to Matrix-like special effects for presentation cheapens the information they’re peddling. But does Bazin’s “ontological realism of the photographed image” really apply to the televisual medium?
The late French theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote his best-known work, Simulations, in 1981. (It was published in English two years later.) Here, he drew heavily on Marshall McLuhan to advance ideas about our increasingly intermediated experience of the world, claiming that we’d entered a new phase in our relationship to representation. The classical age of mirrors and graven images had given way in the modern industrial era to the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, epitomized by Hollywood and Andy Warhol’s Pop Art. Now, he declared, we live in the age of the hyperreal, where the distinction between the real and the imaginary, the real and its reproduction, no longer has any meaning. Baudrillard is easy to parody and easy to dismiss, given how enthusiastically his ideas have been embraced by po-mo cult studs infatuated with the concept—a half-serious, merely rhetorical hyperbole—that the real no longer exists: everything is simulation. But he shouldn’t be ignored.
Baudrillard, it must be said, was a victim of his own excesses. He was a terrible writer, an equally obfuscatory speaker (a lecture at the New School in New York a year before his death, moderated by Sylvère Lotringer, was abominable), and his influence has waned at precisely the moment his ideas would seem to have the most purchase. Reality TV, for instance, is the dominant paradigm in network programming these days. In 1981, Baudrillard discussed the original reality-TV stars, the Loud family (an upper-middle-class California clan whose deteriorating home life was filmed in 1971 for a PBS series) as a metaphor for “the dissolution of TV into life, the dissolution of life into TV.” He seemed to understand, in his rehash of McLuhan’s basic premise, that the medium would no longer observe lived life or reality, it would define it, erasing all meaningful boundaries between inside and outside, real and virtual: “We are all the Louds.”
That insight brings us back to Election Night: CNN’s introduction of a simulation (“Jessica Yellin”) into an already heavily simulated environment (Blitzer’s head framed by an array of animated figures, graphics, logos, statistics) is not a corruption of realism. The world itself may not be hyperreal, as Baudrillard argued, but television certainly is. Breaking news purports to be “live,” but the reality it presents is always virtual, managed, fabricated. What makes the “hologram” moment such a bothersome advance in this scheme is the cavalier way that Blitzer and company acknowledge that broadcast journalism no longer has any intention of reproducing reality, of making us feel the “live” quality of images, even when we know (and accept) that they are staged or manipulated. We shouldn’t expect television to accord with principles of documentary realism, any more than we would align Pixar’s Up with Frederick Wiseman. The new paradigm will be animated fantasy. Wolf Blitzer has become the Jean Baudrillard of broadcast news.