Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 10. Nr. Juni 2001  

Remember the Tortoise?
The Difference between Fast and Too Fast

Anca Neamtu (Cluj-Napoca)

Remember the cartoon-race between the tortoise and the hare? Remember who provoked the race, who was so confident of winning, who took his adversary for granted (and in derision) and whose only capital was -true!- his strong legs? … Remember who won?! Remember how? Again: remember how the tortoise won? Now what if we could detect this same strategy with the old and the new media? What if we could spot many lookalike 'old media' along the way (to the future, that is!) that our fast runner 'new media' is desperate to pass by? But enough of rhetorical questions. My point is, that there is a difference between fast and too fast and that maybe a slowdown isn't so bad after all…

And since we are here to discuss science, knowledge and culture, I will start with Hannah Arendt's opinion about it all. She says that "in a conflict between the individual and society, the last man to stay in a mass society seems to be the artist"(1) -- precisely the one who has created the originals copied by mass society. In 1954 she already saw it coming, the sale of values (Ausverkauf der Werte). François Lyotard also fought with this impossibility of distinguishing the real from the copy (in his description of the postmodern era). Postmodernism cultivated a quite unique approach to art, and the chief method seems to have been the one of recycling, of turning towards past creations and reproducing them in a frenzy of parody and pastiche. And all this without the feeling that there is a strong, real and concrete reference point with regard to which we can consider past creations: time is dissolved in a dominant intertextuality, art becomes substance of art. All this leads to the very much talked about issue of the relationship between reality and art, between original and copy, between object and imitation. Highly interesting from this point of view, beyond the strictly literary and artistic analysis, is an examination of the contemporary phenomenon of the mass media, seen as the realm where the boundary between reality and fiction tends to become fluid.

Ever since the interwar years, there has been a strong consensus for the view that the mass media do indeed exercise a powerful and persuasive influence. Underlying this consensus is the creation of the mass audiences in the contemporary era, the feeling that the processes of urbanization and industrialization have created a society that is unstable and alienated, deprived of the more clearly defined value systems of earlier societies. And it is precisely the mass media that have now stepped in to give these masses the culture and the system of values they need. Denis McQuail called attention to it in 1994(2), but even today the media are the power that influences, controls and effectively shapes human societies. They are the primary means for the transmission of information, they are the main location for the affairs of public life, they are the source of our images of social reality, they are a key to fame, they are the source of a system of meanings, a benchmark for what is normal. And of course, they are the chief source of entertainment. Willingly or not, we are living in a media-generated world.

Well, if this be so, let the masses (and I certainly include myself here) get what they want, satisfy their gargantuan appetite for entertainment, for 'something new'! Why bother stopping the unstoppable? Just go along and 'be happy'. Only, one cannot just 'be happy' realizing the fakes, the imagery s/he is immersed in. With the creation of a generalized media universe, popular culture has exploded into every aspect of life, in a continuous process of aestheticization of the social, political and economic realms. Life has become art, just as image and reality have become intertwined in a process of self-referentiality. As McRobbie says: "Instead of referring to the real world, much media output devotes itself to referrring to other images, other narratives, self-referentiality is all-embracing, although it is rarely taken account of".(3) Contemporary culture in general, or what passes nowadays for culture, seems to be a construct of disparate pieces that keep shifting from the realm of one medium to that of another. Marshall McLuhan sees in the electronic media the technological development that has made possible the global community of today, the global village of the new electronic tribalism, bringing us transparency of information and communication. Yet, the media, old or new, and particularly television induce role models. But, to speak with Berger, there seems to be a fracture at the very heart of the model, justifying the more pessimistic appraisals of mass media: the media have the power and the means to provide us with culture, but they lack the intent to do so. No creator of mass-media texts consciously tries to educate the audience. The clear intent is that of producing those stories, screenplays etc. most likely to entertain people.(4) Critics are almost unanimous in blaming it all on consumerism, and it cannot be denied that this element has played an absolutely essential role in shaping the contemporary media and society. Nevertheless, it would perhaps be more interesting to seek an explanation for this 'failure' in the relationship between what we call reality and what we receive via television, radio, newspaper and e-mail. Because we, we live in the 'real' world but receive training for it through models of questionable authenticity. The analytical approach of Fiske and Hartley (1978)(5) reminds one, to a certain extent, of the so familiar discussion regarding the reality of fiction, the levels of representation in the literary work. Or, since Aristotle, we have basically come to accept that fiction, or art, is not a perfect mirror of reality but relies instead on the concept of "verisimilitude": nuclei of meaning are detached from the real and serve as scaffolding for a completely separate construct: the work of art.

One would argue, what about news, what about newspapers, what about the Internet? Obviously, there are two (if not more) levels of verisimilitude: one that clearly encompasses television and some radio, and another that, for being so self-referential, extends over the 'more real' media. One basic postulate of postmodernism is that life is art and art is life. The same holds true for the relationship between media and reality: the explosive development of the mass media has made it so that the media universe, initially representational, has reached a point of implosion, turned upon itself and ceased to operate as a reflection of reality. When the map is expanded so much as to cover the entire territory in each and every detail (see also Umberto Eco for that), then the substance of existence for both map and territory undergoes significant mutations. In the words of Jean Baudrillard:

Reality itself founders in hyperrealism, the meticulous reduplication of the real, preferably through another reproductive medium, such as photography. From medium to medium, the real is volatilized, becoming an allegory of death. But it is also, in a sense, reinforced through its own destruction. It becomes reality for its own sake…: no longer the object of representation, but the ecstasy of demolition and of its own ritual extermination: the hyperreal. […] Unreality no longer resides in the dream as fantasy, or in the beyond, but in the real's hallucinatory resemblance to itself.(6)

The age of universal media has brought about a new culture, one impenetrable to old theories. Culture is now dominated by simulations, objects and discourses with no firm origin, no referent, ground or foundation in 'reality'. What Baudrillard does is to re-think the interpretation of the consumer society on the basis of a linguistic approach. He looks at contemporary life and sees it as a constant dynamics of codes and symbols, resulting in a newly structured human pattern of behaviour. His basic observation is that while once we used to have images and works of art, simulacra -transparent and manifest, reflecting a 'natural' meaning - "today the real and the imagery are confounded in the same operational totality, and aesthetic fascination is simply everywhere"(7) (thinking about Big Brother!!!).

With the rise of the new media (cable TV, computer, teletext, videotext, World Wide Web), the question of the freedom of expression has been redefined, too. Their impact on social norms and the protection of the freedom of speech is a common ground for scientists. But the booming interest in the new media coincides with the concentration process of several mass media: newspapers, radio stations and television. Not only the boundaries between the media themselves get blurred, but also those between the techniques of production and transmission for a variety of media. The new perspectives of multimedia productions teach us to think systemically. Only one example: the electronic production of statement (EPS), or Elektronische Aussagenproduktion, as Siegfried Weischenberg calls it.(8) This EPS encompasses all forms of recording and mediatic presentation of word- or image-based information through computer technology. I will not go deeper into this particular 'medium', I will only say that I am both thrilled by it and uneasy with it.

On the other hand, the freedom of expression is very deep-rooted in history, and the pluralism of information has always been seen as the weapon of defense against propaganda, absolute monopoly of speech and the terror of ideology. Alas, not to be mistaken for freedom of the press alone! Luckily, especially the new media have had the power to break the chains of the information monopoly held only a while ago by the press alone (to speak about freedom!). These new and interactive 'gadgets', as they were seen in the beginning, were feared to re-shape (unwantingly) the social statuses. And they did. And they did it fast. And it was fast, both in time and in space. Good or bad, this is the question ... Thinking about pros and cons, both answers seem equally correct. However, if we go back to our fable of the tortoise and the hare and furthermore consider the blow of so many fast-growing new media, we might draw the rather simplistic conclusion that the old media are striking back: they have 'tortoises' posted along the road in order to confuse the new media 'hare' which is spitting out its lungs to win the race. But relying exclusively on powerful legs and fast reflexes won't necessarily lead to winning a contest. A more consistent conclusion would be that, in spite of all the paradoxes and contradictions, the present situation is clearly the result of a natural development. Each element, controversial or not, is supposed to be an essential and harmonious part of what we call contemporary reality. Nevertheless, there is a difference between fast and too fast, between GPQ (Go Public Quick) and GRQ (Get Rich Quick).

© Anca Neamtu (Cluj-Napoca)

TRANS        table of contents: No.10


(1) Hannah Arendt, La crise de la culture, Ed. Gallimard Folio-Essais, Paris 1972, p. 257.

(2) Dennis McQuail, Mass Communication Theory. An Introduction, 3rd ed., Sage, London 1994.

(3) Angela McRobbie, Postmodernism and Popular Culture, Routledge, London 1994, p.17.

(4) Arthur A. Berger, Manufacturing Desire. Media, Popular Culture and Everyday Life, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ 1996, p. 5.

(5) John Fiske, Paul Hartley, Reading Television, Methuen, London 1978.

(6) Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, Polity Press, Cambridge 1988, p. 145.

(7) Baudrillard, op.cit., p. 146.

(8) Siegfried Weischenberg: "Die Entwicklung der Medientechnik", in: Klaus Merten, Siegfried J. Schmidt, Siegfried Weischenberg (Hg.) "Die Wirklichkeit der Medien",
Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen, 1994, p. 478. Cf: Siegfried Weischenberg: Mediensysteme, Medienethik, Medieninstitutionen, Opladen, Westdeutscher Verlag, 1992 (=Journalistik. Medienkommunikation. Bd. 1), pp. 37ff.

For quotation purposes:
Anca Neamtu: Remember the Tortoise? The Difference between Fast and Too Fast. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 10/2001. WWW:

TRANS     Webmeisterin: Angelika Czipin     last change: 18.06.2001