Monthly Archives: March 2009

The Hyperreal

Production is dead, long live reproduction.

 Just what kind of environmental suit does one need to survive in Baudrillard’s stark and parched “desert of the real”?  In a world no longer enveloped by the imaginary production of natural relations or comforting similarities based upon our belief in a system of reference to an actual reality, Baudrillard suggests we are left in the blasted zone of the hyperreal: “the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere” (p. 167).  Gasp! 

In this vacuum, exposed to the fatal radiation of endless recombinatory excesses, certainty dissolves with the “liquidation of all referentials” (p. 167), and those who placed wagers that our skills in producing representation would secure the real within discursive and representational practices through art, politics and religion no longer have tokens with any value outside of the system itself.  As such, no further bets can be taken using the collateral of real-estate. In any case, reference to the real is no longer the point.

“It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody.  It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself; that is an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes.” (p. 167)

Mimetically capacious machines deter any reference to the real, and it is sufficient for us to substitute a Main street model in Disneyland as a means of reaffirming, of feeding our belief in the values associated with such a mocked-up representation of the real.

            For Augustine, “God is an intelligible sphere, whose centre is everyone, and whose circumference is nowhere” and within the atmosphere of this “intelligible sphere” Augustine and those who followed his philosophy had a referent that guaranteed all meanings.  For Baudrillard, such a belief is possible in an economy of the sign that sees representation as a reflection of reality (and guaranteed by the presence of “Nature” of “God”).  Such certainty is not to be found in the world of simulacrum where the model precedes the real, and where the real is produced not by reference to some mirror (or conceptual image), but from “miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models” (p. 167), from the code.  Baudrillard inverts Augustine’s “intelligible sphere” so as to reproduce the atmosphere of the hyperreal:

What if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence?  Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference, and within this atmosphere” (p. 170).

Caught in this feedback loop, our critical tools are at risk as interpretation is endlessly recursive, unavoidably indeterminate, short-circuited by what Baudrillard the  “precession of models” (p. 175).  Attempts to critique power or to counter ideology have no purchase in the world of the hyperreal; worse such actions are merely part of the deterrence machine that Baudrillard sees as “set up in order to rejuvenate in reverse the fiction of the real” (p. 172). 

One can only hope that there are sufficient reserves of oxygen and water in our environmental suits to allow us to survive in Baudrillard’s hyperreal. 


Attenuating Circumstances: Student Attention Under Digital Conditions

de Castell’s and Jenson’s analysis of the attentional economy in the context of education in their 2004 essay, “Paying Attention to Attention: New Economies for Learning,” offers important insights into the contemporary challenge educators face in attracting and retaining the attention of their students. While the idea that students might not be paying attention in school hardly seems like a new phenomenon, de Castell and Jenson suggest that we are witnessing a new challenge created by both political and technological changes in conditions under which information and knowledge is organized in schools. Part of this is driven by a shift to learner-centred or contructivist approaches to education wherein the position of the student is more centrally the focus of teaching efforts. Another part is driven by technological changes particularly in terms of the broad range multimodal tools and networked communications environments within which students have grown up. Acording to de Castell’s and Jenson, in the contemporary world, the

“school’s traditional forms of authority for commanding student attention, along “unimodal,” text-based lines, offer diminishing returns to both teachers and students….the technologically supported transformations of both individual and collective attentional structures toward multimodality and multitasking impacts most profoundly on youth, who have never known the text-bound world from which their elders have come.” (p. 383)

From the perspective of those who grew up with and gained their authority within unimodal, text-based practices, these multimodal and multitasking youth lack essential skills and perhaps appropriate respect for the sanctioned knowledge defined by the school’s curriculum. In short, they don’t pay attention to what educators are trying to teach them.

At the same time as their attention is attenuating in relation to classroom attention, youth have a growing fixation and enthusiasm for the types of learning that can be found in games. de Castell and Jenson recognize the threat that such games potentially pose (or seem to pose) to traditional cultural institutions like schools and homes. As they indicate, with the pervasiveness of digital environments in all aspects of our lives, despite the fact that parents and youth live in the same physical spaces, they “inhabit different worlds, speak in new languages, write in new forms, and communicate using media in ways and for purposes their parents can scarcely comprehend” (pp. 384-385). This dichotomy exists, too, for teachers and students, with disastrous results in terms of the efficacy and engagement of educational practice. In a fashion that recalls McLuhan’s own attitudes concerning the need to critical study the transformations of media (even though he did not personally advocate or endorse these changes), de Castell and Jenson emphasize that the study of gaming as a site for learning is critically important:

Understandable as the repudiation of computer gaming may be, the benefits to education of engaging with an learning from commercial gaming’s phenomenal success, popularity, and its effectiveness as a learning environment, might far outweigh the benefits of attempting myopically to ignore or suppress it – something that, in any case, is unlikely to succeed in the long term. (p. 385)

While, indeed, for most parents and teachers, “playing is the opposite of school” (p. 385) there are vital things that we need to better understand concerning the reconfiguration of the attentional economy as a consequence of technological change. Ignoring the presence of games, or merely categorizing them as a waste of time overlooks potential lessons educators can learn from the engagement and full attention that youth give to these games. As de Castelle an Jenson put it

Within the environment of a computer game, the mobilization of players’ attention and intelligence through interactive game play can encompass the acquisition of motor and perceptual skills, the completion of increasingly complex interlinked tasks, the learning and systematic pursuit of game-based narrative structures, the internalization and enactment of appopriate affect, and a range of other attendant forms and conditions of learning. (p. 396)

Surely it is time for educators and the educational system more broadly, to get into the game.


de Castell, S. and Jenson, J. (2004). Paying Attention to Attention: New Economies for Learning. Educational Theory, 54, p381-397.


Of course, in light of the present educational crisis, I’m not sure there isn’t something to be said for making possession of an LL.D. a felony.

Marshall McLuhan (1969)

In his 1969 interview with Playboy magazine, McLuhan talks about a crisis in education that was driven largely by a clash between the then current TV generation of children and their predecessors, inheritors of visual, print-literate culture. McLuhan (1969) sees education as an “instrument of cultural aggression, imposing upon retribalized youth the obsolescent visual values of the dying literate age” (p. 249). He goes further to describe the educational system as “totally review mirror. It’s a dying and outdated system founded on literate values and fragmented and classified data totally unsuited to the needs of the first television generation” (pp. 249-50). The children of the television generation – a generation of which I am a member since I was entering kindergarten in 1969 – encounter great difficulties within the educational system. As McLuhan puts it:

The TV child finds it difficult if not impossible to adjust to the fragmented, visual goals of our education after having had all his senses involved by the electric media; he craves in-depth involvement, not linear detachment and uniform sequential patterns. But suddenly and without preparation, he is snatched from the cool inclusive womb of television and exposed – within a vast bureaucratic structure of courses and credits – to the hot medium of print. (p. 250)

Herein lies the problem for McLuhan, for the TV generation and, of course, for the authorities who are struggling to reproduce in the next generation the dominant values of visual culture: the clash between visual and electric cultures is not something that can be addressed with more of the same techniques in schools. According to McLuhan (1969) “the sensory and attitudinal revolution has already taken place before the child ever reaches school, altering his sensory existence and his mental processes in profound ways” (p. 251).

Despite the passage of 40 years, and almost two generations since McLuhan made these comments, the same tension between visual and electronic ages seems to be in play, though it has perhaps been recast in the terminology of the digital age, an age that sees the convergence of all media (as McLuhan predicted), and a remarkable shift to a world where consumers become producers of all manner of content (from video to audio to writing) on the Internet (something that MLuhan also predicted before the arrival of this contemporary global nervous system). Donald Prensky (2001), for instance, talks about a division between the ages similar to the one identified by McLuhan in his essay Digital Natives Digital Immigrants.” In some rather harsh criticism of the contemporary education system, Prensky identifies “Digital Natives”, youth who have grown up with digital technologies, and “Digital Immigrants”, older people who were born before the advent of digital technologies (particularly the Internet). According to Prensky, “our digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language” (p. 2). And while it is possible for digital immigrants to learn to become digitally literate, it is unlikely that they lose their pre-digital accents.

Curiously, while a lot of tensions still exist within most levels of the education system concerning traditional notions of, say literacy and goals of education cast in the stone age of the industrial revolution and its dependence on specialist knowledge, whole fields of research and scholarship are undergoing quite dramatic changes as a result of digital and communications technologies. The medium of modern scholarly discourse is now digital, and while a vanity press still cranks out printed texts and articles (particularly in those fields that have made a fetish of the printed book), increasingly, the fields in which researchers play are defined by the tools of digital culture. Training students to be bookish will hardly do if we actually want them to have critical and practical tools to engage with the modern world.

I’m sure McLuhan would still characterize a lot of the attempts by digital immigrant educators to use digital techniques as desperate glances into the rearview mirror, with a focus on replaying literate cultural heritage through the frames of digital media. That said, multimodalities and multiliteracies are increasingly defining philosophical and research approaches to teaching and learning, so perhaps there is a growing possibility of some kind of hybrid culture in education spanning the generational, technological gaps that define the divergent cultures of print/TV, TV/digital cultures.

McLuhan, Marshall (1969). “Playboy Interview: Marshall McLuhan — A Candid Conversation with the High Priest of Popcult and Metaphysician of Media,” Playboy (March, 1969) in Essential McLuhan, eds., Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone (Basic Books: New York, 1995), pp. 245-269.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. NCB University Press, 9(5), 1-6.

Laws of Media

“The goal of science and the arts and of education for the next generation must be to decipher not the genetic but the perceptual code.  In a global information environment, the old pattern of education in answer-finding is of no avail: one is surrounded by answers, millions of them, moving and mutating at electric speed.  Survival and control will depend on the ability to probe and to question in the proper way and place.  As the information that constitutes the environment is perpetually in flux, so the need is not for fixed concepts but rather for the ancient skill of reading that book, for navigating through an ever uncharted and uncharitable milieu.  Else we will have no more control of this technology and environment than we have of the wind and the tides.”

 “Media Poetics” in Laws of Media, McLuhan and McLuhan


As far back as the Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan (1962) was interested in the manner in which technologies represented extensions of the human body, new organs through which we perceived the world.  Much of his critique of literacy focused on how visual space (as structured by the phonetic alphabet, Euclidean geometry and accelerated by print technology) biased the eye and, with this bias, lead to a reconfiguration of human sense ratios.  Thus outered into the eye, the other senses were necessarily reconfigured, leading to a new balance, one that locked the eye on lines of perspective that ran deeply into the horizon of progress.  What was lost when the visual became a closed system unto itself was a previous state of interplay between the senses, a synesthetic correspondence that involved all of the senses that McLuhan associated with acoustic space.  This same issue comes up in Laws of Media, where McLuhan (1964) states that “all media are active metaphors in their power to translate experience into new forms” (p. 57).  What started as an outering of one organ, the eye, now becomes an outering of all of our organs through electronic media.  McLuhan sees quite important (and great risks) associated with this situation:

By putting our physical bodies inside our extended nervous systems, by means of electric media, we set up a dynamic by which all previous technologies that are mere extensions of hands and feet and teeth and bodily heat-controls – all such extensions of our bodies, including cities – will be translated into information systems.(p. 57)

There is a key difference here for McLuhan.  Whereas previous media fragmented and isolated our senses, electronic media by allowing for the extension of our nervous system itself, has the potential of returning us to a more acoustic state of interplay.

            Thirteen years later, in his essay “Laws of Media” McLuhan (1977) once more focuses on the idea of technologies as extensions of human organs and technologies as metaphors.  The play on Robert Browning returns (from Understanding Media), “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a metaphor” (p. 7).  With this aphorism,  McLuhan points to the idea that metaphors, through their bridging of one thing across to another, create a resonating gap, an interval that has characteristics of tactility:

Each “side” of the resonating interval is an area of “touch,” and in the sensory experience of “touch” there is never a connection but always a gap or an interval.  Between the wheel and the axle, the interval (and not the connection) is “where the action is.”  That is to say, there is a large acoustic factor in touch and in metaphor alike – the audile-tactile” (p. 7)

The audile-tactile space, the gap between things created by technologies (by metaphors or by words – the outerances and utterances of ourselves) defines nature for McLuhan. Living at the speed of light requires us to think where the action is, to maintain the resonating interval, the gap between two sides that actually defines touch.  It is much like McLuhan suggests concerning the goal of science, arts and education to decipher the perceptual code, i.e., the information system that we receive via our outered senses.  In the book Laws of Media published after McLuhan’s death that grew out of his essay, McLuhan and McLuhan (1988) emphasize the significance of the audile-tactile space that we now inhabit due to electronic media and the interplay of our extended nervous system:

Now, in the electric age, the very instantaneous nature of coexistence among out technological instruments has created a crisis quite new in human history.  Our extended faculties and senses now constitute a single field of experience that demands that they become collectively conscious….Now, sight and sound and touch and movement are simultaneous and global in extent.  A ratio of interplay among these extensions of our human functions is now necessary collectively as it has always been for private and personal rationality. (p. 226)

We’ve moved beyond the isolated extensions of individual senses, to a total system, one that is global and moving at the speed of light.  Such a state certainly demands a new science, one that is capable of responding to the variation in the organs of perception.


McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of Typographic Man.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, M. (1974). “The Laws of Media” in Marshall McLuhan Unbound.  Eds. Eric McLuhan & W. Terrence Gordon.  Corte Madre, CA: Gingko Press.

McLuhan, M. & McLuhan, E. (1988). Laws of Media: The New Science.  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.