Baudrillard, Jean. "Requiem for the Media." In For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign.
Trans. Charles Levin. St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981.
annotation by Ling Ma (Theories of Media, Winter 2003)

Baudrillard begins by criticizing Hans Magnus Enzenberger’s question of how the Left can liberate the media. What Enzenberger envisions as the ideal use of the media is the elusive socialist wet dream of an open forum of immediate communication to which everyone is granted access, as opposed to what he regards the media being now, a “medium of distribution” (168) by the dominant class.

Such an argument inherently formulates the media as a subservient tool, being maniputable to users. The political question is a matter of the identity of the user. Baudrillard counters by posing the question of whether the media can ever be manipulated by any group purely to instigate that group’s purposes. The media possesses its own underestimated characteristics and complexities; it is a dominant key player in the political process of information distribution. It helps not so much serve the process as define the information distributed. While Baudrillard agrees with Marshall McLuhan that indeed, the medium is the message, this agreement is limited in that Baudrillard emphasizes the medium’s effect on the message, instead of assuming that there is no message.

The media decontextualizes events and objectifies them by placing them in a different context, alongside other decontextualized events. This homogenizes the relevancy of the events and deprives them of their meanings. Baudrillard’s verb for this is “mediatize.” Such a case is the ’68 strike. The meaning of the rebellion was negated through the media because “there is no model of transgression, prototypical or serial. Hence, there is no better way to reduce it than to administer a mortal dose of publicity” (174). The media may be a strong force in distributing information, and thus an undeniable political force, but the control of the presentation of this information—specifically, the deprivation of its meaning—cannot be monopolized by any class, dominant or otherwise. Baudrillard writes, “ideology does not exist in some place apart, as the discourse of the dominant class, before it is channeled through the media.” (169).

In such an argument, Baudrillard is speaking of the media as mass media, and not media per se. Baudrillard specifies “the real revolutionary media” as “everything that [is] an immediate inscription, given and returned, spoken and answered, mobile in the same space and time, reciprocal and antagonistic” (176). Of the ’68 strike, he indicates toward the “silk-screen posters and the hand-painted notices” (176) as examples of media that retains the original meaning. Even this kind of media is itself fast losing this quality because it is becoming “institutionalized by reproduction” (177) by others who do not necessarily understand the original context this kind of media came from. Thus, this media begins to impose the same effects of decontextualization and objectification as mass media.

It seems that Baudrillard’s assertion of media as an objectification of information may partially be dependent on the public’s objectification of media itself. Of the “mediatization” of information, how much is due to the inherent characteristics of media and how much is due to the development of the way the public views media is not assessed by Baudrillard. How did the public credibility of the media come about? Does the information through media altered the same way in all societies, especially ones which may regard the media differently?

Another unanswered question: where does meaning reside? Even an event in its original context means something different for the people involved, whether as participants or bystanders. Baudrillard’s “meaning” means “collective meaning,” of which there may be no such thing, and context, which he seems to equate with meaning, is not meaning. It is fair to assert that the media obscures the original context of the event, but the meaning of an event is a much more elusive matter.

In general however, Baudrillard’s assertion that the medium deprives information of its original context, and the difficulties this implies in being able to communicate through the media, is a much more practical stance than Enzenberger’s.