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Media distortion and the underpinnings of 'Wag the Dog'


Wag the Dog was close to mind when I said:

I am saddened as I look to news from whatever source to be genuinely informative rather than masquerading entertainment or willful misinformation. TV is driving the discourse as it starves the viewer for content and context

Wag the Dog's title rises from the question, "Why does a dog wag its tail?" to which the answer is that the dog is smarter than its tail, .e.g. were the tail smarter then it would wag the dog. While interpretations of dog and tail vary, the constant is that the more significant item is driven by the lesser:

  • Public opinion as dog and media as tail
  • Media as dog and political campaigns as tail
  • People as dog and government as tail

Much of the legitimate concern over an omnipresent, distorting media rose with the work of the postmodern social theorist, Jean Baudrillard, yet Baudrillard is tough reading as Doug Mann notes:

Baudrillard's writing is difficult, and for starting philosophers and social and cultural theorists is best taken in small doses. If you read his work, remember that his central claim about postmodern culture (thought he claims that he himself is not a postmodernist) is quite simple - that we live in a "desert of the real," a cultural space where television, film, and computer images are more "real" to us than the non-media physical reality that surrounds us. This loss of reality isn't so hard to understand, even if it's difficult for some of us to swallow.

Another researcher distilled it as, "Baudrillard assigns to media the status of producing images which in turn produce reality. There is no terrain of reality outside of the media image." With that slim lifeline, we proceed with the concept of the impact of a copy of a copy.

Simulacra, plural of simulacrum, were originally material objects representing something, even an abstraction, as an idol represents a spirit or deity. By the 19th century, the word took on more of an "empty form devoid of spirit." Influenced by Marshall McLuhan, Baudrillard pushed it to its current usage of "a copy of a copy which has been so dissipated in its relation to the original that it can no longer be said to be a copy [i.e., that it] stands on its own as a copy without a model."

Fans of The Matrix will get this right off, but I like the Betty Boop analogy better, i.e., Annette Hanshaw was imitated by Helen Kane upon whom Betty Boop cartoon character was based. Today, only Boop remains in the public eye.

Simulacra is folded into Baudrillard's hyperreality which he described as, "The simulation of something which never really existed" while Umberto Eco was more direct with the "authentic fake." (See Baudrillard's The Ecstasy of Communication.) Your mileage may vary but Las Vegas is hyperreal in that nothing is authentic, copies are everywhere, the experience is a dreamscape in which the visitor and presenter play along. (Personally, I dislike Vegas no matter how many good restaurants it has assembled, but then I like to read sound print.)

By 1987, in The Evil Demon of Images, Baudrillard made a distinction between cinema and TV, that while cinema was perceived as myth or imaginary that TV was "no longer an image" but a new reality (and remember that Baudrillard is tough reading):

Above all, it is the reference principle of images which must be doubted, this strategy by means of which they always appear to refer to a real world, to real objects, and to reproduce something which is logically and chronologically anterior to themselves. None of this is true. As simulacra, images precede the real to the extent that they invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction

[The truly determined can look to Trifonova's study of postmodern culture and hyperreality that puts Baudrillard and the postmodern movement in perspective and handles the complex subject with much greater clarity.]

just give the public the cover, so they feel they know what is happening outside their own small lives. And make it glossy and interesting -- that will keep them all interested and ultimately satisfied.

Wag the Dog mirrors Baudrillard in its showing "how mesmerising and seductive the image is. The images we see in the cinema, on CNN, and in our daily lives are reality in as much as they are what people sense, interpret, and trust." The "diva of disinformation" salvage operation character, Conrad Brean, sighs and says "The war is over, I saw it on TV."

Part 2, Fog facts in both media and print

Jean Baudrillard: A Very Short Introduction
by Doug Mann

Is There a Subject in Hyperreality?
Temenuga Trifonova
University of California, San Diego

Gordon Housworth

Risk Containment and Pricing Public  Strategic Risk Public  


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