In this final assignment you will explore the issues surrounding the real in contemporary society. Analyse the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ in our contemporary culture.
Photo by Mintio. From the series The Hall of Hyperdelic Youths, via thephilanthropicmuseum.org
SOCIAL MEDIA HAS RECRUITED US ALL TO HELP BUILD ITS NEW REALITY
Since commerce dramatically expanded our visual culture post-war we have been nudged steadily towards a new reality, perhaps blindly at first, then with a postmodern nod to what was going on. But the introduction of social media and its cohort the digital camera marked a critical change and with the dedication of a teenager building new worlds on Minecraft we became active participants in its creation.
Still from Nescafe Goldblend ad
Nescafe ad, 1952 via pinterest
Post-war commerce embraced advertising to show us in literal form products available to buy. Its approach rapidly became more sophisticated, pointing out not just the specification of each product but the benefit to our lives. In the example above right an early 1950s advertisement for Nescafe coffee focuses heavily on the product: its price competitiveness, where to buy it, how to make it, the sealed jar. By comparison in the late 80s the same brand of coffee was sold through the blossoming romance of a fictional sophisticated urban couple. Hearing about the coffee was no longer enough, we needed to believe that by sharing the same brand as this couple we might lead a similarly glamorous life. By the 1980s a logo alone was capable of engendering anything from feelings of inadequacy to absolute (albeit temporary) fulfilment. We had long become disconnected from Marx’s use-value – the value of what we consumed was no longer rooted in reality.
Mass production and mass media led to a world full of advertising images competing for our attention, a world where every conceivable space was for sale, from the sides of a railway track to the back of a matchbox. Times Square (above) is an extreme example; brands shout for attention, selling their wares in the shops below. This led philosopher Guy Debord to develop his theory of the ‘spectacle’. But Debord was not just describing an omnipresent wallpaper of images, but how we interacted with it.
Debord’s spectacle describes a continual and hypnotic loop of desire and opportunity for that desire to be fulfilled, building on ideologies of family, health, lifestyle. And even if we knew the spectacle was not based in reality – stylists and strategists were behind every image – the idea had been planted that somehow through these images we could become complete. The unreal had become real. “Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behaviour” (Debord, 1969)
Selection of stills from Hypernormalisation (via youtube.com)
Alongside commerce, politicians and news media were also beginning to understand the power of creating a narrative to garner votes and sales. In his 2016 film Hypernormalisation, Adam Curtis proposes that those in power since the 1970s had “reformed the narrative” using “perception management”, resulting in a new reality that is easier to understand and easier to manage, ultimately delivering stability and influence but little change. Referring specifically to Putin’s ‘political technologists’, Curtis describes their idea of reality as “something that could be manipulated and shaped into anything you wanted it to be”.
Arild Fetveit (Associate Professor in the Department for Media, Cognition and Communication, University of Copenhagen) in his paper on Reality TV in the Digital Era echoes Curtis as he puts forward his ideas on why reality TV became so popular in the 90s: “virtual reality is inspired by the dream of alternative and compensatory reality…so attractive because it combines entertainment and thrills with comfort and security…we build up safe environments, where we no longer need to share the physical room with the underprivileged, where the more problematic aspects of reality are locked out”. (Fetveit, 1999).
image via mirror.co.uk
Reality TV had taken off in the mid-90s alongside the internet. Big Brother with its parallel universe did offer ‘reality’: we could even watch in real time, as housemates ate, slept, argued, got bored. It was transparent that the ‘action’ was created by the producers through various tasks and the viewing public understood how editing might show contestants in different light. But by the early 2000s a new kind of ‘scripted reality’ show began to blur the boundaries of reality and fiction, partly scripted and heavily edited: Made in Chelsea, The Only Way is Essex, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. We knew what we were watching was not all real but it was impossible to tell what was and what wasn’t. The boundaries between the real and the virtual had been decisively blurred.
above: Instagram feed of Louise Thompson, one of the cast of Made in Chelsea
Social media developed alongside this new scripted style of reality TV. Crucially, this meant that viewers could interact with this ‘reality’ – viewed on one screen – through updates, votes, tweets, comments – sent via another screen. The result was compelling: the ideal lives of the beautiful and privileged began to seep into our own world. This was no longer the set-up of an advertising shoot, something to aspire to, this was a new reality that we could be part of.
graphic to flip camera screen
The crucial element in this trajectory was the digital camera. By the mid 2000s cameras were integrated in most phones, and by 2010 had become standard. Now we were able to insert ourselves in to this new reality and help build it ourselves. The moment we became able to flip the screen of our phone camera to take a selfie can be seen as equivilant to Lacan’s mirror phase for contemporary society. We flipped the screen, we looked in the mirror and we saw ourselves through the eyes of the world. More than ever we became subject to Lacan’s gaze: “What determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside”. (Lacan, 1966)
With this potent combination of digital photography and social media we could script our own structured reality.
image via huffingtonpost.com
Social media invites us to present ourselves through images in such a way that we begin to experience our own life as others see it. The words of Louis Althusser ring true today as individuals are ‘hailed’ (to echo Althusser’s use of interpellation) to participate “in certain regular practices which are those of the ideological apparatus on which ‘depend’ the ideas which he has in all consciousness freely chosen as a subject”. (Althusser, 1969)
Pierre Bourdieu, in his essay The Social Definition of Photography (first published in 1965) could be describing social media today when he described how the approach to photography reflected that of society: “… in which the social rules of behaviour and the moral code are more apparent than the feelings, desires or thoughts of individual subjects, in which social exchanges, strictly regulated by consecrated conventions are carried out under the constant fear of the judgement of others, under the watchful eye of opinion, ready to condemn in the name of norms which are unquestionable and unquestioned, and always dominated by the need to give the best image of oneself, the image most in keeping with the ideal of dignity and honour“. (Bourdieu, 1965)
Each June as the lavender comes in to flower in Provence, future brides and grooms from around the world traipse into blue fields with photographer, make-up artist and stylist in tow. But this is not their real wedding. Their actual wedding may be two years away, but building the perfect virtual wedding takes time. We may consider that the dream of the ‘ideal wedding’ has its roots in fairy tales, Disney, Princess Diana, the Kardashians – a steady footpath has been beaten to the door of commerciality – but with the advent of social media we don’t need to be led by the hand anymore. We are feeding the machine ourselves; posting, liking, sharing images of ourselves, constantly upping the ante. All that counts is the image.
“Man, in effect, knows how to play with the mask as that beyond which there is the gaze” (Lacan, 1966)
Whereas once we may have believed that the perfect dress would deliver the perfect wedding (and thus the perfect marriage), today the image is the perfect wedding.
image via blackhatworld.com
Social media has brought us full circle as overt, traditional advertising takes a back seat and we look to this new virtual world for our cultural and social values, where everyone can have their say. But it hasn’t taken long for the ‘authentic’ to be taken over by commerce. Ad agencies now refer to online ‘influencers’ who will build a loyal following and bring credibility to the brand. In an even greater irony ‘botting’ software is used to build the loyal following, hunting the internet 24/7 for potential followers, liking for a like back. As botting service provider Instagress once described its own service: “it’s like creating a small robot clone of yourself with the same interests and style, and then letting it work for you…” Our online lives are driven by ideologies perpetuated by images and we seek approval from ‘small robot clones’ of ourselves.
image via boredpanda.com
Presenting an alternative virtual wedding has at the very least an actual wedding dress and actual field of lavender, but for those handy with Photoshop a referent is not required. Media theorist Dick Hebdidge echoes Baudrillard in his essay The Bottom Line on Planet One: Squaring up to The Face, describing how first we lose the referent, then the signified, leaving us in a world of “empty signifiers, No meaning. No classes, No history. Just a ceaseless procession of simulacra.” (Hebdige, 1985). A world where the image no longer has any connection to reality. Bloggers have been exposed for faking illness (Belle Gibson), faking wellness (Jordan Younger). Travel photographs have been exposed as fake. Essena O’Neil bravely exposed the obsessive work and growing paranoia that went into creating each of her ‘casual’ posts. The more we look the more we are looked at. The gap between how we see ourselves and how we want to be seen grows wider with every effort to narrow it.
But perhaps more alarming than individual crisis is the effect virtual reality can have on our community, society, our global outlook.
image via linkedin.com
As our clicks and likes, shares and retweets are churned through an algorithm to bring us more of what we like, what doesn’t interest us is filtered out, our virtual reality is tailored to fit. We are sealed in our own personalised bubble. We can block communication from friends whose style or politics doesn’t match our own, we can even defriend them. News media have joined the online party – even the broadsheets are image-driven – serious news items sit alongside gossip, self-improvement, quizzes, top 10 lists, kittens. We can end up alienated, where even the virtual reality is not shared – the dream of an online global democracy lost – we are all individuals in our own hand-crafted reality, reflecting back at ourselves.
above left to right: The Guardian, Buzzfeed, The New York Times
News is brought to us in a way described by media theorist Dick Hebdidge as ‘horizontal’. Anyone can regurgitate a news item with their own slant, and if we like their slant, we can get more of the same. (Incidentally worldwidelearn.com predict an upturn in jobs for PR specialists of 23% and a downturn in jobs for reporters and correspondents of 8% (2010-2020). ). “Knowledge is assembled and dispensed to the public by a motley gang of bricoleurs, market researchers, pirates, adventureres, flaneurs and dandies” (Hebdige, 1985).
When photography was first invented it was considered a tool to provide visual evidence. In his paper on reality TV, Arild Fetvett studies the paradox that is the “digital revolution in photography and the proliferation of visual evidence”…”It seems as if we are experiencing a strengthening and a weakening of the credibility of photographical discourses at the same time”. This can be applied not only to reality TV, but especially to social media – at the same time that we acknowledge the malleability of digital photographs we put more and more value into those images. The volume of information available to us online means we are consuming information at breakneck speed, and as Roland Barthes noted back in 1964:”the hurried reader may be spared the boredom of verbal ‘descriptions’ which are entrusted to the image, that is to say a less ‘laborious’ system”. (Barthes, 1964). The Daily Mail now gives its ‘readers’ an option to receive the news via images alone – its ‘Just the Pictures’ offering delivers a constant stream of images:
As Hebdidge lamented, we ‘cruise’ images, picking up what is ‘useful’ or ‘appealing’, interpreting them as we choose. Meaning has become so fluid and images are so often repeated as to make reality “nothing more than the never knowable sum of all appearances” (Baudrillard cited in Hebdige, 1985)
image via the guardian.com
The above photograph of bus seats was taken by Johan Slåttavik and shared with Fedrelandet viktigst (Fatherland First), a Norwegian anti-immigrant group whose members interpreted the image as a bus full of women wearing burqas. Comments on the post pointed to the ‘dangerous and frightening times we are living in’ . A photo that is not of women in burqas tells us that Norway is living through dangerous and frightening times. The not real builds the not real.
Bangkok photographer Chompoo Baritone has created a series of images to highlight how easy it is to create images that feed the idea of the perfect body, house, diet etc, often inserting his model in to an exiting photograph. By simply stepping in to the image we can carry out the perfect Sirsasana headstand in an isolated spot of tranquil beauty.
image via theguardian.com
Garnering similar reactions to the ‘bus seat’ image above, alternative images later circulated (in liberal media) showing the same image a second later or from different angles and demonstrating that this woman was behaving no different from many others on the bridge at that moment. Here we see classic use of what Barthes terms ‘anchorage’ – in which the accompanying text controls the viewer’s response by guiding them to a certain interpretation.
While to many of the theorists mentioned in this essay the C20th had already lost its grip on reality, it seems grounded by comparison to the C21st, on the dawn of which we entered a new reality, no longer directed by advertising agencies or politicians, but by our own clicks and swipes. The irony is that a rejection of social media feels like a missing out, a disconnectedness, while the rest of the world is turned away, staring in to the screen.
Lacan proposes that we can only find reality in death – for only death escapes representation – but it can also be found in nature, in making, in speaking aloud. Stepping away from the screen allows us to take our foot off the accelerator, to slow down our excessive consumption of images and search for true meaning in each, examing our beliefs and ideologies, being open to change.
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