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Christopher J. Wheeler
Date of Submission 14 August 2007
Lecturer: Mariekie Burger
Content page 1. INTRODUCTION 2. BAUDRILLARD: POSTMODERNISM AND ONTOLOGICAL REALITY 3.PSYCHOANALYSIS: CINEMATIC APPARATUS AND IDENTIFICATION 3.1. Apparatus Theory and Identification 3.2. The oneiric-film correlation and Postmodernism 4. CASE STUDY: “WAKING LIFE” AND POSTMODERNISM 4.1. Synopsis 4.2. Waking Life as a Postmodern Text 5. CONCLUSION 6. SOURCE LIST
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1. INTRODUCTION The transition from a seemingly secular modern society to a fragmented postmodern one has spurred interesting debate and criticism around the consumption of the visual image. Rather than the production of such media, it is in consumer consumption of media that postmodern theorist, such as Baudrillard and Jameson, have directed their thoughts around categorizing today’s current epoch in terms of the role of mass communication has in developing a consumer culture. This ‘consumer culture’ is a product of progressive modernist paradigms that have reached saturation; and that has resulted in a mass cultural exchange that is becoming increasingly separate from its source. This myriad and overlapping of culture, from which identity is derived, is embedded in the medium through which its exchange is made possible. Film is a form of mass communication that consists of complex signs and codes that have come to be understood as a “visual language” used to communicate meaning (Fourie, 2002:446). This meaning is predetermined by a social understanding of the conventions operating in film as a visual text, and it is in this social discourse that identity is continually being defined and refined as a result of our understanding of these symbols and the systems in which they are used. This essay will critically discuss film, as a visual system of symbols and signs, from the postmodern perspective of Jean Baudrillard, specifically on his conceptual terms of simulation and simulacrum. His theory on ‘hyper-reality’ will be used to explain how film functions as a microcosm for societal identification with the visual image. Christin Metz’s “cinematic apparatus” theory will be used, as well as the psychoanalytical oneiric correlation, in explaining how identification functions within film. In support of this argument, the film “Waking Life” (Linklater, 2001) will be discussed as both a thematic allegory for understanding postmodern identity and how its means of production are inherently postmodern. 2. BAUDRILLARD: POSTMODERNISM AND ONTOLOGICAL REALITY Baudrillard was a French social theorist who’s first works attempted to modify Marxist thinking in order to encompass mass communication and the technologies used to reproduce mass culture (Connor, 1990:50). By focusing on the production process, Baudrillard contends that the natural progression of consumer culture, through the channels of mass media, is one that has accelerated the production and
consumption of cultural commodities, producing a ‘political economy of the sign’ (Connor, 1990:50). This process is a product of the media, technology, and the natural emergence of society from the modernist era of rationality and social progression. The desire of the modern era for the new has resulted in an assimilation of cultural meaning transmitted through the sign, this has created a normative belief in the consumption of the sign and its referential attachment. However, this process has created a dependency on the sign as a unit of meaning within a system of understanding that no longer fully acknowledges the signs relation to reality. Jean Baudrillard offers an account of the sign, within the postmodern era, which focuses on the proliferation of mass media communication and the emergence of a consumer society (Thompson, 1996:243). This process has been accelerated by advancements in information technology and its ability to present the consumer within a system of symbols from which meaning is inferred. This meaning is only achieved as a result of the link between the sign itself and the referent it draws from. However, Baudrillard argues that we live in a era in which “signs are no longer required to have any verifiable contact with the world they allegedly represent” (Baudrillard in Connor, 1990:55). In this vein, contemporary society, and subsequently its identity, is to be found in the consumption of the sign rather than the referent meaning originally localized in the physical world. Baudrillard uses the term ‘simulacrum’ in describing the ontological nature of a contemporary society that is constructed out of models, or simulacrum, “which have no foundation in any reality except their own” (Thompson, 1996:244). This production of images, with no attempt to ground their meaning in reality, results in a new ontological social understanding of meaning that is embedded in the consumption of the images. In other words: “The culture of immediate experience, of raw, intense reality, is not the contradiction of the regime of the simulacrum, but its simulated effect” (Connor, 1990:55). This simulation has become the basis from which contemporary culture and identity is based. This is not to impose some metaphysical hypothesis on the future of society, but rather redefine that ontological realm from which meaning is derived in this visual age. Baudrillard’s theory of simulation and simulacrum supposes a distancing between the sign and its anchor in reality, in doing so a system of self-referential signs emerges. This is what he calls “Hyperreality” and it describes a world in which the media is able to seduce consumers, thought the constant
stream of images and its expanded capacity, into a world in which meaning derived from the “media’s position within this system of signs, and not from some referent in a ‘real’ world outside that system ” (Thompson, 1996:247). In other words, Hyper-reality is a condition in which ‘reality’ has been replaced by ‘simulacra’. Poster describes this simulated reality as follows: A simulation is different from a fiction or lie in that it not only presents an absence as a presences, the imaginary as the real, it also undermines any contrast to the real, absorbing the real within itself (Poster in Thompson, 1996:244). Poster’s description highlights the nature of simulation that can be further understood as it functions within cinema and its affect on identification within the visual image. The following section will explore the “cinematic apparatus” theory of Christin Metz, in order to create a correlation between the postmodern notion of simulation and the process by which consumers come to identify with visual text. 3. PSYCHOANALYSIS: CINEMATIC APPARATUS AND IDENTIFICATION The film viewing experience has long been associated with a suspension of disbelief, while at the same time involving the viewer in an identification process with the filmic text. Metz and Baudry (in Cook & Bernik, 1998:348) argue that "...to watch a film in a cinema is to be seduced, encouraged to regress furtively to a childhood state where fantasy is permitted free rein" (This is similar to Baudrillard’s example of Disney World as a form of ‘Hyper-reality’, whereby there is a relationship between the suspension of disbelief and enjoyment). In other words, film acts a means to engage viewers in a dream-like state whereby the images on screen are reminiscent of the sensations or the real, the actual images, caused by the identification with the image. This is a result of what is know as the 'Apparatus' theory. The concept is that the cinematic process involves a number of tangible and intangible elements that lead to an object/subject relationship that allows this 'filmic apparatus' to imitate the processes of human perception (Fourie, 2002:227). By understanding the relationship between the nature of signs and codes in filmic texts, psychoanalysis offers a cinematic-semiotic approach that incorporates unconscious mental processes of the mind with the filmic conventions used in cinema. Here we can already see the correlation between Baudrillard’s simulation and the film-viewing process as it calls on the play between the absent (the images referent) and the present (the spectacle on screen). Furthermore, film offers a system of signs that have become detached from their presents in reality, this is because the response viewers achieve whilst viewing the visual image (e.g. fear, compassion, attachment, and identification) is elicited by a signs that have no meaning outside the film spectacle,
thus presenting the viewing with a simulation of meaning from which the consumer response to and identifies with. 3.1. Apparatus Theory and Identification The Apparatus theory states that the image seen by the viewer is essentially absent. The visual array of information the viewer experiences (characters, settings, dialogue, etc.) are projected as an intangible spectacle, it is only on the film's celluloid that the concreteness of any variable information can be located and measured. In other words: "The actors, the events, that depict the content are physically absent and exists merely as light and sound on celluloid; that exists only in and through the camera and projector signals, which are themselves empty forms that have no existence outside the total filmic apparatus." (Fourie, 2002:227). Thus, the image film presents is recognized as 'imaginary’ units of signification that serves purely as a means through which the viewer can engage in the process of identification and spectatorship. Because the watching a film involves acknowledging the projected images as ‘other’, Metz believes it to be necessary that identification must occur in order for meaning to be produced for the subject (Murphy, 2005). However, identification with characters cannot be seen as primary because not all films involve characters. Therefore, the primary process through which identification occurs lies with the cinematic apparatus itself, as a technical tool designed to re-create the ‘looking’ process (Murphy, 2005): “the spectator identifies with himself, with himself as pure act perception…as condition of possibility of the perceived and hence as a kind of transcendental subject, anterior to every there is” (Metz in Murphy, 2005). Metz argues that although the viewer “identifies with the fictional character(s), and although such identification is part of the enjoyment of the film, it is a secondary identification" and that before this secondary identification occurs the viewer goes through primary identification that is a result of the viewer identifying with their sense of perception or, in other words, with the projected images on screen (Metz in Fourie, 2002). The viewer is conscious that the visual images they are watching are not happening in 'real' time and that they are, in fact, absent. This results in a viewer being in a position of 'all-seeing mastery' and, subsequently, reinforces the viewer’s identification with the camera and the resultant perspective it produces. It is this identification with the camera that resembles the dream-like experience described earlier. The viewer's engagement with filmic language and with media reaches deep into the very process of identity formation (Flitterman-Lewis, 2002). It is this identification
process, characterized by a new ontological reality created through cinema, which Baudrillard describes as ‘Hyper-reality’. A new reality in which consumer culture is created based on the mediums ability to create beliefs about the signs themselves that are separate from the physical world. 3.2. The oneiric-film correlation and Postmodernism There has been a long-standing correlation between the film viewing process and dreams. Peter Fourie (2002:231) attributes viewer’s enjoyment of film to this because “the perception of a film corresponds to people’s ‘perception’ and experiences of their own dreams”; furthermore he states that in both film and dream the viewers don’t have control over the image. This lack of control over film, as a form of mass media, is one of Baudrillard’s criticisms of mass communication as part of the symbolic order. He argues that mass media acts as an independent system that consisted of self-enclosed signs that do not allow for an interdependent exchange of signs in the creation of societal discourse (Baudrillard in Connor, 1990:52). Subsequently, the identification process is not only seemingly authoritarian but increasingly influential as contemporary society becomes increasingly an audio-visual one (Olivier in Connor, 1990:95). This consuming of the visual images places the consumer in an influential space defined by the self-referent sign. Ramain (in Framptom, 2006:19) states that “all the expressive and visual processes of the cinema are found in dream”, this goes as far as to say that film places the viewer in a position of ‘all-seeing mastery’ able to bear witness to the totality of the world created for them. However, it is important to remember that this is a world constructed for them, and not of their own devices. The issue of postmodern identity can be introduced here in that the ability of consumers to exhibit choice is problematic because these simulations, through which they identify with, have no link to the reality in which a not institutionalized identity may be constructed. That said, the postmodern identity is one of contradiction, embedded in a world whereby the culture can no longer be considered a product of geographical locality or position in time, but rather as an eclectic myriad of pre-established simulations. In this vein, the postmodern identity can be allegorized through film and its oneiric qualities. This notion of postmodern dreaming has implications in understanding the role of visual imagery within filmic simulation. Firstly, it separates the physical world from the simulation of new ontological order. This separation is evident in film through the identification process described by Metz. Secondly, the dream-film correlation contains the same criterion for Baudrillard’s Hyper-reality in that the distinction between the physical and the imaginary signifier produces a void in which postmodern
thought occupies. Lastly, the positioning of the consumer/viewer in the visual spectacle produces an identification process that commodifies the culture from which the film is produced and consumed. Although, cultural readings of a film may differ, the universal construction of the visual image lends itself to mass consumption on a global scale. As mentioned, viewers relate to the visual image through the primary identification with the cinematic apparatus. This, according to Metz, in rooted in the contemporary desire to see (termed Scopohilia). Furthermore this desire cannot be achieved with presupposing a distance between the subject/consumer and the visual image (Fourie, 2002:232). This distance between the visual image and the consumer highlights the paradox of postmodern identity formation in that the visual image exists as a simulation that impacts the consumer without a equal and opposite flow of information. Therefore, with contemporary society becoming/being an audio-visual one, the culture of consumerism is reinforcement by the mere naturalizing tendency of perception process, as it has emerged from the modern epoch. Therefore, in order to understand the postmodern identity, we must not only understand the discourse of the visual image but also conceptualize the means of production as a process of identity construction, both thematically and through cinematic identification. The following section will discuss the postmodern film “Waking Life” as it acts as a postmodern text both in its form and the themes it presents. 4. CASE STUDY: “WAKING LIFE” AND POSTMODERNISM Waking Life was written and directed by Richard Linklater and released in 2002. It is a digitally rotoscoped and animated film that involved shooting raw footage and then different artist retraced the film footage to produce a surreal, shifting dreamscape. The fact that different artist were involved in the rotoscoping means that the film’s visual style is shifting and at times ununified. 4.1. Synopsis The film follows the protaginist as he exists in a lucid-dream state. On his journey he encounters a number of individuals, with which he engages and witnesses a number of philsophical discussions including issues of Budism, situationist politics, postmodernism and existentialism. The film is an anothology of his encounterswith individuals within different scenes, each with their own spefic style of the artist and thematic influences outlined by the script. The young man then realises that he is in
this dream-state and is unable to wake-up. He fears that because he cannot wake up he might, in fact, be dead. 4.2. Waking Life as a Postmodern Text The film acts as a metaphor for the postmodern condition of identity. The lucid-dream state in which the young man finds himself is representative of the disjointed and decentralised postmodern world. The idea that the young man does not realise that he is dreaming until he has passed through his philsophical journey is possible a comment on society and the enevitable fear/anxiety that comes from such a reality. The disorientation experienced by the young man in his dream can be said to relate to Baudrillard’s hyper-reality and his seperation from the physical. This separation is made meaningfull by the inference of the signs within this world as the young man, after intially probing this world, enagages in the interaction presented to him. Here we can see the influence of the simulation the young man finds himself in and his detachment from the physical; this causes an internal conflict within the him at the end of the film as he believes he might be dead. This is an interesting comment on society in that even though the young man was able to explore and engage in meaning philsophical discussions that should have contributed to his existence, he is still emerged in a world whereby the ‘real’ is a simulation of signs and fragmented systems. Thus, his acknowledgement of his simulated reality comprimising his identity by the very process though which he was able to acknowledge it. What this suggests is that the stability of his identity within his simulation reality is dependent on the him constantly consuming his reality. Postmodernism in this respect is a paradigm paradox that cannot be abondoned on the basis of acknowledgement. In terms of the spectatorship and identification with the film, there is a strong relfexive core around which the narrative progresses. The film is not easy to watch due to the miltipilicty of visual styles and their irractic motion. This results in the suspension of disbelief being comprimised to the extent that the themantic elements of the film are then reinforced by this very factor. By not allowing the viewers to submerge themselves within the text the film postions the spectator in reality and not in the hyper-text of the film. Ironically, by doing so the identification process shifts its focus from the primary cinematic to secondary identification (discussed in 3.1.), the result is a stronger identification with the protagonist and his understanding of his world. This raised awareness of the means of production is a postmodern process and its affect in Waking Life is one that aims to promote an understand of
consumer culture without submerging the viewer in its hyper-real medium; this, as experienced by the young man, results in problem of trying to wake up from a dream world. 5. CONCLUSION Postmodernism is a complex and highly contested approach to contemporary society. Its implications and predictives notions are deeply embedded at the very core our societial ontology. Film offers insight into Baudrillard’s postmodern theory of simulacrum and simulation by presenting the vary system of signs decribed in his notion of ‘Hyper-reality’. Furthermore, Metz’s postmodern perspective on cinematic identification allows theorist to understand the perception process of the consumer as they come to be ‘seduced’, a term use by Baudrillard to describe the effect of mass media, by the spectacle that is the visual image. Waking Life is an interesting postmodern film that attempts to simultaneous portray and refute postmodern thinking through its visual aesthetics and narrative structure. However, it is still a film intended for mass consumption and because of this it still forms a simulation of signs with no physical referents, in which identity and culture are constructed, portrayed, and consumed.
6. SOURCE LIST CONNOR, S. 1990. Postmodernist Culture: An Introduction to theories of the contemporary. Basil Blackwell Ltd. :Oxford. COOK, P. & BERNINK, M. 1999. The Cinema Book. 2nd ed. British Film Institute: London. 406 p. FLITTERMAN-LEWIS, S. 2002. Psychoanalysis, http://www.jcomm.uoregon.edu. [Date of access: 17 Aug. 2006]. Film and Television.
FOURIE, P. 2002. Media Studies Vol. 2: Content, Audiences and Production. Lansdowne: Juta Education. 588 p. MURPHY, P. 2005. Psychoanalysis and Film Theory Part 1: A New Kind of Mirror. THOMPSON, K. 1996. Social pluralism and post-modernity. In Hall, S., Held, D. & McGrew, T. (eds.) 1996. Modernity and its Futures. (Book 4 in the series: Understanding Modern Societies: an introduction.) London: Polity.
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