What would Baudrillard say about 4Chan?

9 Sep

[UPDATE: When I wrote this I hadn’t seen Art Fag City’s post on 4Chan, relational aesthetics, and surfing-as-art. It’s really great!]

In “Requiem for the Media” (1981), Baudrillard argues that no media can be revolutionary because of the power relationship encoded in the form of mass media. Someone will always “transmit” a “message,” he suggests, and someone will always “receive” it. The message is like a gift that cannot be reciprocated, leaving the receiver forever indebted to the transmitter.

According to Baurdrillard, a media report on a protest “puts an end to the singularity of revolutionary action,” distributing it throughout the world while reducing it to a mere oddity that might engage someone’s attention for two minutes over breakfast. The event is manipulated to fit the depoliticized format of a news story. “Generalizing” the protest in this way renders it a symbol, ending the protest’s uniqueness in space and time, making it into something abstractly “important” that can be bought and sold along with the rest of the news.

To get to true change, Baudrillard calls for the destruction of the one-way “transmitter-message-receiver” relationship. The democratization of media that we’re seeing now with blogs and citizen journalism isn’t enough. Everyone simply becomes a transmitter, and the categories are preserved. Instead, Baudrillard says, people must be able to respond spontaneously to one another, without manipulation from either party. Ambiguity in meaning must be restored.

I think comments on blogs would fit into the kind of “personalized amateurism” that Baudrillard describes as “the equivalent of Sunday tinkering.” The writer of the blog post still has total control — any comment can be deleted.

But I also think new media moves us closer to Baudrillard’s ideal. I think he’d like Twitter, for example. All conversations and remarks appear together in the same format. The only privilege anyone gets is time-based, with the most recent tweets appearing at the top, etc.

Baudrillard’s favorite website might have been 4Chan and its random image board /b/, source of lolcats, rickrolling, and the hacking of Sarah Palin’s email address. Anyone can post anonymously, without filling out a registration. It’s rampant with racism, misogyny, sick porn, and homophobia. No one should ever look at it, basically. It’s also well-known for the Anonymous campaign against scientology (although that was covered by the “mainstream media” and so is void according to Baudrillard) and other disruptions of power that have concrete ramifications, such as fake death reports of company CEOs.

I think 4Chan is a good case for the argument that new media is a “revolution.” Not only does its crowd of nameless users succeed at damaging the powerful, its users are also creating a new form of mass communication. It’s a blog written by “everyone” that no one controls. Meanings are not straightforward. Users have built an enormous mass-written dirty poem, in which, as Baudrillard says of poetry, “the terms respond to each other beyond the code.” They even use a (sort of) new language, images paired with the pidgin lolspeak.

When I say “everyone” controls 4Chan, I don’t really mean everyone, though, which might be where it fails to live up to Baudrillard’s hopes. Everyone who has access to a computer with an internet connection has the potential to contribute to 4Chan, but clearly, not every living person has that available. So it’s a revolution for the relatively well-off, still enabled by the marketplace.

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One Response to “What would Baudrillard say about 4Chan?”

  1. hahello September 15, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    Spot on, Kara! I am still reading through ArtFagCity’s post on 4Chan right now (it’s so good I might have everyone read it for class!) But it is bringing up some really interesting points that we’ll be covering later – namely, the question of how meaning is created through context and and intention. We also will be discussing “Relational Aesthetics” later on in the semester. Thanks for sharing!

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