Baudrillard’s “Silent Majorities” and Public Discourse

I was always interested in Debord, Baudrillard and the idea of the ‘systemic capture’ of people by their governments, by systems of capitalist consumption (Debord) or by their own inertia (Baudrillard)

Baudrillard in particular has this great notion of ‘hyper-reality’ which he uses to explain the perlocutory/illocutory relationship of people (‘masses’) to power. I wouldn’t say that I understand all of it, but I recently found a rather nice and concise explanation online which made me think about what this concept means for public discourse- in particular in the United States- The following is a quote from an explanation of Baudrillard’s work on this concept.

Le Maître, désormais, ne parle plus au peuple pour lui imposer un sens. Il laisse le peuple devant l’absence du sens, et le laisse constater que lui, le peuple devenu masse, ne peut en produire un. Puis le pouvoir parle pour la masse. « Les Français pensent que ceci, ou cela », dit-on. En réalité, le mot important n’est ni ceci, ni cela. Le mot important, c’est penser. Les Français pensent, voilà le vrai message. Peu importe, à la limite, ce qu’on leur fait penser. La force de ce système, c’est qu’il simule le sens après en avoir détruit la possibilité dans le réel. Ce sens simulé, c’est ce que Baurdrillard appelle : « l’hyperréel ». –Notessuroeuvres


‎In short, there are ‘silent majorities’, ‘masses’ of people whose very existence is characterized by a lack of sense, a lack of meaning. Meaning is not so much taken away from the ‘masses’ as they themselves come to shun it. This means an enthrallment with the spectacle and with the image over the substance of matters (a separation which is in my mind rather controversial in and of itself), but also a better acceptance of manufactured meaning- because convenient, because pleasurable.

Hyper-reality comes from (as in the quote) the fact that the void of meaning from the ‘masses’ does not mean that some form of meaning is not put out. Meaning is created and attributed where there is none. In other words the meaning created (by a minority, by individuals) does not owe its existence to the ‘masses’, but rather thrives in the vacuum of their inability to create. Baudrillard says that this sort of meaning is intrinsically removed from the real.

Beyond Baudrillard…..

I think that we’ve come a long way since Baudrillard. Social or political inertia (‘people like reality shows too much’; ‘mainstream political discourse is manipulated, and nobody cares’) are still legitimate targets for those interested in social change. But in many ways, in the United States at least, I have the feeling that we are countering the ‘hyper-real’, and some fundamental changes have taken place.

Our living in post 9/11, post Iraq and post Afghanistan is important. The manufacture and substitution of  an unreal discourse has a harder time when the topics are divisive, precisely because political power says something (let’s invade Iraq) that such a large number of people object to and mobilize against. Those who agree with the proposition then have to defend it.

It’s maybe uni-dimensional, but at least people are more engaged, and in finding a direction (on a somewhat restricted plane, but still) they have to create and own their own meaning to an extent.

… New Issues

Maybe the real problem comes when the dichotomy presented in an issue or problem isn’t as stark as it is made out to be (red state/blue state) or when the discursive back and forth itself becomes just a game (hardball, crossfire), or again when the topic itself is just too far outside one’s daily life to take a deeper and sustained interest in (Kony 2012).

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Chris Blattman

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