Like the Frankfurt School, the Birmingham Centre was driven by strong Marxist undercurrents. But, again like the Frankfurt School, its Marxism was selective. It retained the view that the ruling class seeks to impose its ideology on the rest of society, and remained committed to the priority of praxis in the way it analyzed popular artifacts - that is, that the purpose of scholarly analysis is to change the order of society and the power relations that exist between social classes. But, as Michael Berube has pointed out, it rejected many of the fundamentals of Marxism, e.g., the historical inevitability of class struggle, the primacy of class, the faith in an intellectual vanguard, the belief that the material base determines the superstructure, the notion that "the ruling class owns the ruling ideas," and that "ideology is just false consciousness."5
Much of this subversion of Marxism came by way of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist whose posthumously published Prison Notebooks appeared in English in 1971 and were eagerly read by Stuart Hall and Angela McRobbie. Gramsci objected to Marx's absolutizing of the material base of a society (its economic conditions and processes of production) as determinative of its superstructure (its ideas and values). Marx believed that class struggle is precipitated by catastrophes in the material base of a society, which shatter the false consciousness of the oppressed in the ruling ideology and empowers them to revolt. Gramsci found this to be depressingly pessimistic and unrealistically deterministic, and sought an alternative concept to the Marxist coupling of ideology and false consciousness, a coupling that both devalued the importance of ideas as effective agents in class struggle and demeaned the critical mental powers of the working class. What he offered in its place was the concept of "hegemony."
Hegemony is the process whereby the dominant groups in a society seek to win the consent of subordinate groups through all means of persuasion short of coercion and force. True enough, there are coercive agencies in every society - the police, military, courts and prisons. And these are used to repress the working class. But the class structure is also maintained through other institutions, and more effectively; institutions like organized religion, schools, labor unions, marketplaces, and the media -the institutions of civil society. These are the real transmitters of ideology in Western democracies; these are the places where the ideas and values of the dominant groups are presented to the subordinate groups for their consent. Hegemony is the process of negotiation through which the oppressed are presented with the ideas around which they are expected to organize their lives, to which they respond with counter demands and alternative ideas, and in light of which concessions - both material and ideological -are made by the dominant groups who wish to pacify them. Maintaining equilibrium here requires ongoing demands, counter-demands, and compromise. In the words of Gramsci, "the fact of hegemony presupposes that account be taken of the interests and the tendencies of the groups over which hegemony is to be exercised, and that a certain compromise equilibrium be formed."6
Hegemony, in short, provides us a way for thinking about the reciprocity between the production of popular culture and its consumption. As described by John Storey, "Because hegemony is always the result of 'negotiations' between dominant and subordinate groups, it is a process marked by both 'resistance' and 'incorporation'; it is never simply power imposed from above."7 Popular culture is a vital hegemonic zone of this reciprocity. As an example, Storey offers the example of reggae music and the Rastafarian culture that is inseparable from it:
Bob Marley, for example, had international success with songs articulating the values and beliefs of Rastafari. This success can be viewed in two ways. On the one hand, it signals the expression of the message of his religious convictions to an enormous audience world-wide; undoubtedly for many of his audience the music had the effect of enlightenment, understanding and perhaps even conversion to, or bonding for those already convinced of, the principles of the faith. On the other hand, the music has made and continues to make enormous profits for the music industry, promoters, Island Records, etc. What we have is a paradox in which the anti-capitalist politics of Rastafari are being "articulated" in the economic interests of capitalism: the music is lubricating the very system it seeks to condemn; and yet the music is an expression of an oppositional (religious) politics, and may produce certain political and cultural effects.
Given that society has not yet been turned upside down, hegemony does ensure that the dominant groups maintain the upper hand - just not an absolutely free hand. They do, however, have subtle strategies to contain more extreme forms of resistance, as this example illustrates. The recalcitrant subcultures that a dominant culture finds attempting to undermine the social order are countered first by "a wave of hysteria in the press," a hysteria that "fluctuates between dread and fascination, outrage and amusement."8 But actions of the subversives that begin to spread into society must either be definitively rejected by branding them as a form of deviant behavior to be handled by the police and legal system, or else de-fanged, absorbed and incorporated. These are the means by which the dominant culture maintains the coherence of its own grasp of reality. Incorporation is typically done through market mechanisms, manufacturing dissent into desirable commodities, demonstrating that this new irritant does not threaten the dominant culture. And so Bob Marley was given a record contract and his anti-capitalist message was transformed into a consumer good, thus enriching the very capitalist system he detested.
In a similar manner, the dominant culture has incorporated many waves of dissent that have arisen in the past as radical critiques of its premises -religious separatists, Romanticism, surrealism, existentialism, Marxism, the 1960s' counter-culture, anarchism. The Amish in Pennsylvania are remade into a tourist attraction; their farms surrounded by belts of quilt and candle shops, buffet restaurants and souvenir shops that sell figurines and postcards depicting Amish life. In a racy twist on separatism as entertainment, they are not even off-limits to the voyeurism of reality TV, with real Amish young people relocated to a camera-outfitted house in Hollywood for weekly episodes of Amish in the City (UPN). Existentialism winds its way through the Beat poets into books from big publishing houses, poetry readings with steep gate fees, lucrative lecture circuits, appearances on the Tonight Show, television sitcoms (The Many Loves ofDobie Gillis) and dramas (The Twilight Zone, Johnny Staccato), and Hollywood movies. Music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Nick Drake, Led Zeppelin and Iggy Pop is used to score commercials for sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and luxury cruises that are pitched to aging baby-boomers, seeking to relive their bolshevist youth on a Princess Cruise. According to Hebdige, "It is through this continual process of recuperation that the fractured order is repaired and the subculture incorporated as a diverting spectacle within the dominant mythology from which it in part emanates.
Writer Thomas Frank has argued that the aesthetic of "cool" was discovered long ago by advertisers as a strategy to keep the wheels of recuperation running smoothly. The cultural rebel who is out there subverting the system is a beloved cliché, and a highly effective figure when used by those who are trying to sell us cars, cigarettes, computers, pants, and soft drinks.10 It is well-known in the ad industry, Frank makes clear from trade seminars and publications he cites, that the successful brands are those that identify themselves with liberation, and the handiest way to do this is to identify some easily recognized social convention and then position the brand in opposition to it, e.g., Benetton and racism, Apple and technocracy, Nike and modest exercise, Isuzu and "coloring within the lines," Mountain Dew and the laws of physics. Many brands scramble to identify themselves with authority-defying individualism and radical politics.11 Frank, nostalgic for the Frankfurt theorists, views this as evidence for how wily the culture industries are, neutralizing dissent wherever it flares by harnessing it to the engine of commerce. But the model of hegemony offers a better account, it can be argued, given its built-in recognition of the negotiations and compromises that the economically and culturally powerful groups in Western societies are willing to enter to maintain their privilege.
Second generation Birmingham scholars took an interest in rebellious youth cultures as phenomena that did not square with the old culture industries model. For his book, Profane Culture, which originated as his 1972 dissertation under Hoggart and Hall, Paul Willis went underground to conduct a field study of motorcycle gangs and hippies. He produced a work that was half Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa and half Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels - a pure gonzo ethnography.
He opened the book by taking a hard swipe at the Frankfurt School's view of consumer passiveness under the onslaught of the culture industries: "[O]pressed, subordinate or minority groups can have a hand in the construction of their own vibrant cultures and are not merely dupes: the fall guys in a social system stacked overwhelmingly against them and dominated by capitalist media and commercial provision."12 Dick Hebdige's 1979 book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, easily the most widely cited work of the Birmingham school, reached the same conclusion but went much further in theorizing how youth subcultures in industrialized societies defy the culture industries. Subculture is an ethnography of skinheads, hipsters, mods, punks, rastas, beats and teddy-boys - youth tribalisms of note in Britain in the 1970s.13 Having heard the instruction Hoggart and Hall had given him to pay close attention to the lived practices of consumption, Hebdige found that these subcultures exercised their agency through a practice he called "style."
Style in this context refers to the way people use commodities in ways that were not intended by their producers and, further, how they assemble consumable goods into clusters of deeply encoded meaning. Subcultures with low incomes, in particular, will scavenge for articles that others have discarded and rehabilitate them with new uses and meanings. Everyday objects like safety pins or combat boots, manufactured to have a strictly utilitarian use, are conscripted and assigned a prestige that both baffles and grates on the nerves of the dominant groups in a society, a kind of patois of consumable goods. It is not simply that they are put to alternative practical uses, but they are thrust into alternative semiotic universes. Thus, according to Hebdige, safety pins and other humble objects can be "magically appropriated; 'stolen' by subordinate groups and made to carry 'secret' meanings: Meanings which express, in code, a form of resistance to the order which guarantees their continued subordination."14 And this can be done not only with such mundane objects, it is also frequently done with fashions whose day has come and gone, like beehive hairdos, tennis skirts, Converse high-tops, tattoos and pomade, which make a resurgence as an act of rebellion against the mainstream culture that is more obedient in dressing itself in the newest wares of the culture industries. Also eligible for appropriation are bottom-feeding artifacts of popular culture like soap operas, tabloids, aging teen idols, and romance novels, which can be treasured by subordinate groups to the same degree they are despised by the culturally sophisticated.
What Hebdige discovered was that each of the youth subcultures he examined exploited the consumer goods, advertising images, entertainments and fashions of popular culture in the same manner: as raw materials that they first emptied of their common significations, and then attributed alternative meanings and accessorized them in novel combinations. They remanufactured mass-produced commodities into signs and symbols. As Hebdige describes it,
Hollywood films, advertising images, packaging, clothes and music - offer a rich iconography, a set of symbols, objects and artifacts which can be assembled and re-assembled by different groups in a literally limitless number of combinations. And the meaning of each selection is transformed as individual objects - jeans, rock records, Tony Curtis hairstyles, bobby socks, etc. - are taken out of their original historical and cultural contexts and juxtaposed against other signs from other sources.15
And they did this in order to proclaim their tribal identity in opposition to the dominant order. Given all the semiotic connivance that this involves, digging below the "glossy surfaces" of style will be rewarded with something worth knowing, Hebdige directs us to expect - "maps of meaning" that are otherwise hidden.16 Style is, then, a ritualized form of consumption through which groups within a culture divulge their own grasp of reality in opposition to the ideology that is handed to them.
Hebdige was aided in developing his theory of style through the concept of bricolage, which he borrowed from the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Literally, bricolage means a makeshift repair, making something work by patching it together with whatever materials are at hand, a kind of ad hoc improvisation. Levi-Strauss used it as a way to describe how primitive peoples "think" their world, elaborating classificatory schemes that relate concrete objects in the world around them to certain powers and meanings that, to an insider, constitute a coherent system. When some new or strange phenomenon appears that cannot be readily absorbed into the scheme, adjustments are made; the scheme with which they think their world is modified to accommodate it. For Hebdige, the improvisations found in style are precisely this sort of activity - subcultures handling each thing that is thrown in their path as an occasion to divest it of its intended meaning, invest it with their own, and incorporate it into the ever-evolving scheme of meaning with which they interpret the world. This results in idiosyncratic assemblages of signs and symbols, combining the available symbols, images, cultural codes and texts into novel semiotic systems.
Another gift from French social theory for the study of popular culture is the concept of braconnage. This is a term that was introduced by Michel de Certeau, and it means "poaching." According to de Certeau, consumers of television, magazines, and popular fiction practice "an art of using" that is like poaching in "its clandestine nature, its tireless but quiet activity."17 These readers of popular texts "are travelers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves."18 Like Robin Hood, the consumer of popular culture poaches deer on the king's land because there is no other meat to be had, and uses those deer to satisfy ends other than those for which they were intended. This deprives the king of his wealth, but even more significantly, it aggravates him because the rules he has promulgated to serve his own ends are being flagrantly violated.
Style is all about poaching. Subaltern groups scrounge around in the vast fields of popular culture and put its symbols to uses for which they were not intended. There are also more overt practitioners of braconnage. The monkeywrenching tactics of the group EarthFirst!, inspired by the writings of Edward Abbey, are classic poaching techniques. Felling billboards with chainsaws, staging tree sits to deter the cutting of redwoods, disrupting timber barons' trade meetings by dumping barrels of sawdust on their cocktail parties, reseeding timber access roads - are all forms of "ecotage" designed to foil the production of wealth that is done at the expense of other cultural values. Computer hacking has become a strategy of poaching; free downloadable music servers like the chastened Napster and DVD Macrovision encryption ripping software from companies like 321 Studios use the king's technology to bust into his treasury and redistribute his wealth.
Even more sophisticated and media savvy are the actions of the loosely organized, self-styled anarchists who have been putting in appearances at World Trade Organization (WTO) and G-8 summits in the past few years. One of their meeting grounds is The Media Foundation, which puts out the magazine Adbusters. The Foundation is described on their website as:
a loose global network of artists, writers, environmentalists, ecological economists, media-literacy teachers, reborn Lefties, ecofeminists, down-shifters, high school shit-disturbers, campus rabble-rousers, incorrigibles, malcontents and green entrepreneurs. We are idealists, anarchists, guerrilla tacticians, pranksters, neo-Luddites, poets, philosophers and punks.
Their modest aim is to "unbrand" America through a variety of "culture jamming" campaigns that will "topple existing power structures" and change the way information flows, the way institutions wield power, the way the world keeps the peace, the way the food, fashion, automobile, sports, music and culture industries set their agendas. Above all, we want to change the way we interact with the mass media and the way in which meaning is produced in our society.19
Writers for Adbusters are shrewd about the semiological systems that sustain corporate interests, such as the train of inferences that couple coolness to freedom to democracy to individuality and ultimately to capitalism. They offer sophisticated critiques of current ad campaigns, create ads to promote their own vision for a less consuming society, and offer spoof ads on their website that they encourage people to print out and surreptitiously post in the offending stores and corporate headquarters. These spoofs cleverly demystify the brands' own advertised images with messages that disclose dirty secrets about the production process or about the environmental or health effects that result from consuming the product. One ad shows a picture of a Volkswagen Beetle airbrushed in aqua blue and covered with colorful fish; the caption reads: "Less cars. More world. Drivers wanted." (Figure 2) Another ad shows the crusted feces and feathers on the bottom of a chicken cage. The caption, attributed to one of McDonalds' laying hens, is an expression of gratitude for recently passed guidelines that have added twenty square inches to the cages at factory farms, and concludes, "let me tell you, when you're crammed into a cage with five other surly hens, an extra 20 inches means a lot."
This is very smart braconnage - pilfering corporate ads and logos, digitally morphing their trademark images, cleverly dressing them up
less cars, more world. Driver* wanted.'
Figure 2 Adbusters Media Foundation has produced an archive of spoof ads like this one, "Less Cars, More World," in a highly skilled campaign of "poaching" corporate images and putting them to anti-corporate uses (www.adbusters.org. Reprinted with permission).
with a complaint about the company's effects on society, then disseminating them for public consumption - a gesture fully in the spirit of Robin Hood delivering to a royal banquet one of the king's own poached deer, freshly dressed and ready to roast. The culture jammers know the magical power of images, and bend it to their own ends. They poach state-of-the-art advertising technique itself, utilizing the same irreverent hipness that advertising agencies have perfected over the years to undermine the mystifications they have promoted on behalf of their clients.
The movie, FightClub, itself a parable in the battle against consumerism, offers a gruesome illustration of braconnage in a sequence that shows Jack and Tyler breaking into the dumpster at a cosmetic surgery clinic to retrieve sealed packets of human fat that had been liposuctioned from patients earlier in the day. This is the source of the fat out of which Tyler makes his luxurious soaps that he sells to boutiques for twenty dollars a bar.
Tyler: The best fat for making soap comes from humans.
Jack: What is this place?
Tyler: Liposuction clinic. The richest, creamiest fat in the world, the fat of the land.
Jack [in voiceover]: It was beautiful. We were selling rich women their own fat asses back to them.
Umberto Eco has given us an expression that is widely used to describe these acts of poaching by which consumers appropriate the symbols and merchandise of popular culture and subvert them to their own ends. He calls it "semiotic guerilla warfare."20 A full analysis of the meaning of a cultural artifact involves interpreting not only the code of the artifact's intended message, he argues, but also the oppositional decoding, the ripping of the code that has been done through the guerilla operations of various consumers. For example, rock music lends itself to receiving very opposite decodings. Ronald Reagan requested that Bruce Springsteen's song, "Born in the USA," be played at the 1984 Republican Convention. Reagan was reportedly enchanted by the uplifting chorus line, but oblivious to the irony in a song protesting the meaningless of the war in Vietnam and a dead end refinery job. The Rolling Stones' song, "Sympathy for the Devil," intended ironically as a warning about the cunningness of evil, forever connected Mick Jagger in the minds of many listeners with satanic aspirations, given such singable lines as "Just call me Lucifer." And the songs of such left-leaning lyricists as John Lennon and Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground were instrumental in inspiring dissidents in Czechoslovakia under Soviet rule to organize on behalf of a capitalist alternative to East European communism. Nelson Mandela has given MTV and Nike ads some credit for emboldening the youth of South Africa to join the political struggle against apartheid. They may not have become consumers of Nike air trainers or the multitude of hip products that MTV serves as musical packaging for, but they did buy into MTV's siren call of individualism and disdain for authority.
A final useful and important concept that is common in cultural studies is the notion of the simulacrum, which is generally attributed to the French sociologist, Jean Baudrillard. According to Baudrillard, the postmodern era has witnessed the end of the naïve belief that signs, language, and images refer to reality, the end of the idea that, as a mirror reflects an original, we represent reality as it actually is, to some degree of accuracy, through the symbols we use to speak about it. The history of Western thought, according to Baudrillard, has gradually drifted away from this innocent view. First it was acknowledged that our words and images may reflect the real, but only in a distorted way - distorted by our physical senses and limited intellects. This was the view of Plato, of the Bible, and of Kant. Next, it was believed that our words and images reflect and mask the absence of a basic reality, that they are stories we tell ourselves and images we conjure up to substitute for the incomprehensibility of what is really out there - a sort of whistling in the dark. This was the view of some strains of mysticism and apophatic theology, of Nietzsche, and of much twentieth century philosophy.
Now, however, we have moved to the next stage of estrangement of image from reality, according to Baudrillard, and that is the realization that words and images bear no relation to any reality whatsoever; words and images reflect only other words and images. All the images that surround us are nothing more than reflections of other images; all of the symbols reflect only other symbols. All of our images and symbols are copies for which no original ever existed. This is pure simulation, the simulacrum, for which belief in any original was always an illusion; we have attained a level of culture in which all images, all representations, are copies of copies. Once this is acknowledged, he writes, "the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum... an uninterrupted circuit without reference."21 There is no originary ground or foundation for our simulations. There is no reality out there in light of which to measure the veracity of our representations of it.
With our hands empty of an original reality against which to validate our simulations, the new standard of measurement becomes "hyperreality," which is the excrescence of our images to a degree of perfection that results in fabricated images that are more real than reality itself. Hyperreal objects reverse the old Platonic idea that all concrete things and values dimly mirror an archetype that preexists them in the transcendent realm, the idea that hovering in the noumena are the singular archetypes of chairness, horseness, and beauty-itself, which all real chairs, horses, and beautiful objects dimly reflect. Replacing this ideal model is the hyperreal model according to which the human intellect has been striving all this time through its image-making to produce simulacrum that are even better than the real thing could ever have been. And we are finally at the point where it has become apparent, according to Baudrillard, that our simulacra do not reflect any originals, but just other images. Our world is a hall of mirrors, images imitating images.
Hollywood can be excavated for the last layers of this development. The earliest films were about real historical characters and events (The Passion Play , The Temptation of St Anthony , Birth of a Nation ). Then movies were made that were based on characters from literature - folk tales, dimestore fiction and comic books - characters like Robin Hood, Snow White, Tarzan, the Virginian, Superman, the Lone Ranger. A newer trend has been to base movies on characters that have neither a historical nor literary point of origin, but arise from pure simulation. In the 1980s Steven Spielberg began with his Raiders of the Lost Ark franchise, which was an amalgam of action heroes and cliff-hanger plot developments that the filmmaker recalled from the matinees of his childhood, to make movies that were generated out of movies. Now we have the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movies featuring a character borrowed from a video game that was invented in 1996. The game's inventor, Adrian Smith, was surprised soon after the game hit the market to receive inquiries from players who wanted to know when Lara's birthday was, and listservs and websites started cropping up to speculate and talk about her character. When the character was optioned for a movie, the screenwriters had to invent her life story, a mixture of elements from James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Batman - she was born on a Valentine's Day, an orphan in a mansion with a generous trust fund, driven in her superhero-ism less by a sense of justice than a desire to cheat death and complete her father's work. In the sequel, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - The Cradle of Life (2003), the story explores her more human side, even bordering on a spiritual quest for meaning. And the latest twist on the simulacrum comes from the Disney Studios, with two feature films, Pirates ofthe Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and The Haunted Mansion - both of which have their genesis in Disneyland amusement park rides.
With this hall of mirrors in mind, simulation upon simulation, consider what a strange world we have entered if one accepts the view that movies constitute a primary source for our collective efforts to sort out how to live and what we might fairly expect from life. Nearly 100 years ago, the Christian reformer and sociologist of urban life, Jane Addams, observed that:
"Going to the show" for thousands of young people in every industrial city is the only possible road to the realms of mystery and romance; the theater is the only place where they can satisfy that craving for a conception of life higher than that which the actual world offers them. In a very real sense the drama and the drama alone performs for them the office of art as is clearly revealed in their blundering demand stated in many forms for "a play unlike life." The theater becomes to them a "veritable house of dreams" infinitely more real than the noisy streets and the crowded factories.
She goes on, "what they hear there, flimsy and poor as it often is, easily becomes their actual moral guide. In moments of moral crisis they turn to the sayings of the hero who found himself in a similar plight. The sayings may not be profound, but at least they are applicable to conduct."22 It was clear to Addams, even then (1909), that popular theater does more than entertain, it teaches us how to think, act and feel. When the movies are themselves simulacra of video games and amusement park rides, the whole process by which our culture is receiving its moral formation begins to feel a bit bizarre.
For Umberto Eco, America is the epicenter of the hyperreal, and it is much bigger than the movies.23 To verify his theory, Eco took a road trip across America, dropping in at many of the usual tourist traps (wax museums, marine parks, historical mansions, art museums, theme parks). He was enthralled with a visit to the Palace of Living Arts in Buena Park, California, a museum that displays three-dimensional wax figures of great masterpieces of art, often extrapolating beyond the frame to include not only the artist painting in his studio, but also a fuller depiction of the figure on the canvas. So a life-size wax facsimile of Leonardo da Vinci is found standing at his easel, paints in hand, with the mysterious Mona Lisa before him, sitting in a chair, with all of her unpainted limbs in perfect poise. Eco comments, "The Palace's philosophy is not, 'We are giving you the reproduction so that you will want the original,' but rather, 'We are giving you the reproduction so you will no longer feel any need for the original.'"24 Then it is on to Disneyland, America's "Sistine Chapel" of the hyperreal. Reflecting on the Jungle Ride through the swamps of Adventureland, it dawns on Eco why, when they could go to any zoo and see a real crocodile, anyone would prefer to take this ride instead:
A real crocodile can be found in the zoo, and as a rule it is dozing or hiding, but Disneyland tells us that faked nature corresponds much more to our daydream demands. Disneyland, where the wild animals don't have to be coaxed. Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can.25
While it is at Disneyland that "imitation has reached its apex and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it,"26 the effect Eco is describing is one found throughout popular culture. We have developed a decidedly hyperreal aesthetic in our capacity to appreciate ordinary reality. We don't want nature in its undisturbed form; we want it hyped-up, performing a spectacle of pursuing its prey, being hunted down, wrestling to the death, mating, molting, suckling, and parading its colors. Nature shows on television pack more stealth, fornication, fecundity, and tragedy into their 30-minute treatments than most of their wildlife subjects see in a year. Seeing the real animal in the wild is pure tedium by comparison. In our minds, the image of a polar bear we see on the small screen is more definitive of polar bear reality than any real polar bear lumbering on the ice will ever be.
In Las Vegas, another apex of hyperreality, there is a casino resort with its own active volcano and tropical rainforest called the Mirage that opened in 1990. Reporting on this new wonder on the Strip, a New York Times reporter queried two women guests who had just witnessed one of the regularly timed eruptions of volcanic fire and steam. "It's absolutely gorgeous," said one. "It takes your breath away. It makes you feel like you're in another world," said her friend. The two women had traveled in the past to real tropical rainforests in the Caribbean. Their verdict: "This one is better, everything is in its proper place." When the reporter asked Stephen Wynn, the operator of the Mirage, if the developers of the casino were attempting to tap into the growing social awareness of disappearing rainforests, he retorted, "No, no, no, it has nothing to do with that. The real rainforest, they'd hate it to death."27 Just imagine the bugs, sweltering heat, amoebic dysentery, and all that molten lava they would have to dodge.
Then there are the travel brochures, postcards, magazines, TV shows -all of the image-producing instruments of the travel industry - pouring out picturesque views of staggering beauty: ribbony waterfalls, emerald pools, glaciers cutting through granite juggernauts, charming medieval villages built along winding canals. So breathtakingly beautiful in air-brushed, filtered lens, digitally enhanced splendor that getting there can be a sad disappointment. As a society, over the years, we've had enough of these image-treatments of reality that we begin to prefer them. We have developed habits of perception that prefer to view the world through technologies of image-making through which the experience can be framed, captured, and manipulated as an image. Nature, history, art, life passages, politics - really only become real when they've found their way into some form of media, captured in images, a spectacle of hyperreality.
Events in the world only become real for us when they get worked up for television, which, ironically, has become the most important authority of the real. Those world events that are assigned the full spectacle treatment - their own graphics, musical score, and byline, such as "Desert Thunder" and "America Strikes Back," and return every evening with their familiar visuals and sounds - are the most real, the most captivating. This packaging encourages viewers to tune in each night to whatever war America is fighting as if we are tuning into a serialized primetime drama. These manufactured images are more real than reality in the way they dominate our attention, move our emotions and steer them into life-orienting attitudes that have lasting social and political effects. The 1997 movie Wag the Dog explored this phenomenon by pushing it to the cynical extreme. A beleaguered US president, on the verge of a breaking story about being caught in the Oval Office with a girl scout, turns to a political consultant who enlists the help of a Hollywood movie producer to fabricate a war in Albania. The war takes place entirely in a California soundstage and daily footage is transmitted to CNN, complete with a patriotic soundtrack and story logos. The news media runs with it and the viewing public plops down in front of their TV sets to watch it unfold. Yellow ribbons appear across the nation and the president's polls rise. Even the Albanians half believe it - it has the veracity of moving images on the screen. Eco remarks, "the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake."28
Eco clearly has reservations about this headlong plunge into hyperreal-ity, while Baudrillard, in the postmodernist spirit, celebrates it. The point worth retaining here has to do with the dizzying love of images in popular culture. As the effect of the simulacrum generates more layers of images, decorating more square inches of our lives, it seems that we do live more and more through second-hand images rather than through experiences we have undergone ourselves. That must be taken into account in any analysis of popular culture.
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