The Wasting Marrow of the Social


The following excerpts from Jean Baudrillard’s The Implosion of Meaning in the Media and the Implosion of the Social in the Masses effectively problematize one of the most abiding mainstays of progressive thought:  the idea of the social.  It is a foregone conclusion for radicals that socialization of the individual and of the means of production is a desirable end for their programs.  Here, Baudrillard shares a number of insights with which advocates for social justice, political correctitude, and accountability processes must reckon, challenging the purveyors of all manner of re-education and re-socialization– hard and soft, revolutionary or reformist– to explore the manifold meanings and conflicting resonances of their efforts.  This quotation illuminates a corollary or adjunct not only to Debord’s idea of pseudo-community and Foucault’s bio-power, but also to Paul Shepard’s idea of a genuine human impulse sublimated to the pathological projects of civilization.  The upshot is a vast implication for primal anarchy:  the production of a spurious meaning, premised upon the destruction of the symbolic structures of earlier societies, as well as the references to the death trap of publicity and the vampiric effect of information dissemination, all have their roots in the interruption of a satisfactory human ecology– relationships of a human scale ensconced, not in technological mediation, but in reciprocity with a living landbase.

Socialization is measured everywhere by the degree of exposure to mediated messages, hence underexposure to the media is believed to make for a de-socialized or virtually a-social individual.  Information is everywhere supposed to produce an accelerated circulation of meaning, which appreciates in value as a result, just as capital appreciates as a result of accelerated turnover. Information is presented as being generative of communication, and in spite of the extravagant waste involved, the consensus is that over all a residue of meaning persists, which redistributes itself among the interstices of the social fabric, just as, according to the consensus, material production, in spite of its dysfunctions and irrationality, results, nonetheless, in increased wealth and a more highly developed society.  We all pander to this myth, the alpha and omega of our modernity, without which the credibility of our social organization would collapse.  The fact is, however, that it is already collapsing, and for this very reason, because whereas we believe that information produces meaning, communication, and the “social,” it is exactly the opposite which obtains.

The social is not a clear and unequivocal process.  The question arises whether modern societies are the result of progressive socialization, or de-socialization?  Everything depends on the meaning of the term socialization, whose various meanings are unstable, even reversible.

Thus, for all the institutions which have marked the “progress” of the social (urbanization, centralization, production, work, medicine, education, social security, insurance, including capital itself, doubtless the most powerful medium of socialization), it could be claimed that they at once produce and destroy the social.

If the social is made up of abstract demands which arise, one after the other,on the ruins of the rituals and symbolic edifice of earlier societies, then these institutions produce more and more of them.  But at the same time they sanction that wasting abstraction, whose specific target is perhaps, the very marrow of the social.  From this point of view one could say that the social regresses in direct proportion to the development of its institutions.

This process accelerates and reaches its peak in the case of the mass media and information.  All the media and all information cut both ways:  while appearing to augment the social, in reality they neutralize social relations and the social itself, at a profound level.

Information devours its own content; it devours communication and the social…

…the information or knowledge which it is possible to have about a system or an event is already a form of neutralization and entropy of that system.  This is true of the sciences is general and of the human and social sciences in particular.  The information which reflects or diffuses an event is already a degraded form of that event.  The role of the media in May, 1968 is a case in point.  The coverage given to the student revolt gave rise to the general strike, but the latter turned out to be precisely a neutralizing black box, an antidote to the initial virulence of the movement.  The publicity itself was a death trap.  One must be wary of the attempt to universalize strategies through the dissemination of information, suspicious of the all-out campaigns for a solidarity which is both electronic and fashionable.  Every strategy which is geared to the universalization of differences is an entropic strategy of the system…

–Jean Baudrillard, from The Implosion of Meaning in the Media and the Implosion  of the Social in the Masses

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