My last post pointed out the rhythms that Baudrillard has identified as part of consumer society. Given that he wrote the text in 1970, it’s remarkable how true it remains to the nature of Western society today. Nevertheless, there are ways in which the text does not account for all the rhythms of the current expression of consumer society. This is not to say that his text is wrong or obsolete, but that there are new instances of the commodity rhythms that he identifies.
Consumer society is becoming increasingly dominated, not by the rhythms of physical commodities, but by media rhythms. The rhythms of commodities still exist; we continue to buy and replace objects at ever faster rates as more and more objects become disposable. But these physical rhythms now intersect with more ephemeral media rhythms, which arguably hold tighter sway over everyday life than commodity rhythms because they are compound-rhythms, they include cycles at multiple levels of time-length: days, weeks, years.
A helpful picture of these rhythms has been recently supplied by Anthony Curtis Adler in his book Celebricities: Media Culture and the Phenomenology of Gadget Commodity Life. Like Henri Lefebvre before him, who identified the cycles of radio as a significant rhythm in modern life in his book Rhythmanalysis, Adler notes that the rhythms of television are perhaps those rhythms that are now closest to us, without ever quite being our own.
The cycles of television occur at a multitude of levels that mimic natural rhythms. Each particular segment or show includes its own cycles (most visible in even “giving us the time, between shows and scenes, to defecate” (27)). These are embedded in daily cycles, like the circadian rhythms or the oscillation between night and day. Television moves through the levity of morning news, the possibilities of the game show, the heaviness of soap operas, the seriousness of prime time and evening news, and finally the infomercials for the nocturnal (27-28). These daily cycles are also, in turn, embedded in weekly cycles, in which the weekend marks a weekly repetition through the injection of sports and religion, film, and the Saturday Night Live party (28). Finally, each show has “its own time, space, and manner of truth,” in other words its own rhythm, that unfolds over the course of successive installments thus lending a longer arc to the smaller cycles. “The privileged vehicle for quality television is a series extended over the course of may seasons, combining an ‘epic,’ world-building scope with ‘dramatic’ plot lines that unfold rhythmically not only in each episode and throughout each season, but over the course of the entire series” (30). And thus shape is likewise given to the year.
This is not unlike the church calendar, which provides a yearly arc through the drama of Christ’s life, which is both the same and different every year. In the case of the church calendar, however, the dramatic plot lines that “unfold rhythmically over the course of the entire series” are not only Christ’s life as a drama that we passively watch each year. It is our own lives, the dramatic plot lines rhythmically unfolding are those of the body of Christ, in which we are participants. Adler says,
television orchestrates and organizes a kind of everydayness, …it accompanies the times and seasons of our lives. We still also exist in everydayness, between life and death, but now we…, while living, watch TV, which has become the constant accompaniment to a life beyond work, organizing it through a complex system of rhythms (interstitial, hourly, daily, weekly, yearly) that, in contrast to the schedules that govern monastic orders, the military schools, factories, and hospitals, no longer have any sacral, political, or even purely instrumental and productive rationale (25).
Television works in the same way as the other institutions that have historically codified and transmitted and accompanied the natural rhythms in which we are embedded, institutions like the church. The difference is that television does not seem to do so for any particular purpose. Rather than conveying meaning or purpose, it conveys moods, moods that organize everyday life without exactly being ours (27).
Remember that Baudrillard suggests that the life beyond work, leisure time, does not really have a rhythm of its own that is different from the consumption-production cycle of work. Instead, we live according to rhythms that are not our own, the rhythm of objects. Adler is essentially saying the same thing, that our leisure time is marked by rhythms of something that is not really our own. “The moods of everyday life have everything to do with the fact that while each of us has been consigned to the one life that we have to live, we are, for the most part, always evading this responsibility, losing ourselves in the distractions of the world.” (28)
Each show shows its own time, space, and manner of truth (disclosure) – each opens onto its own life and its own world – and yet these are all fused to a clock and calendar time that presents itself with an almost perfect mathematical precision. While the clock and the calendar are tools organizing the activities of everyday life, this mathematically precise time elicited by the television is precisely not the time of our lives. It exists as it were at the limit of our lives as a time that imposes itself on us but that we can never actually inhabit. It is at this limit hat television touches our life, but we should never suppose on this basis that the rhythms of television have anything to do with the everyday life that we live (29).
The difficulty with Adler’s assessment, which he himself acknowledges, is that the domination of television’s rhythms is of course not exactly the relationship to media in which we currently find ourselves. His analysis is not, and he thinks it cannot, be absolutely contemporaneous. The only reason his analysis of television is at all possible is that this age of television has, in important ways, already passed. The rhythms of television have themselves been absorbed into another, more totalizing medium: the internet,
which replaces the orderly schedule of television with the absolute simultaneity of possibilities. The past coexists alongside the present, or is forgotten utterly, and the future is no longer the prospect of the new day and the new year but the constantly abiding expectation of something different showing up for us (38).
This becomes particularly the case through the “gadget,” which I take to be a veiled reference to the smart-phone. Adler describes the gadget as that which “through a strange ambivalence, names both the ‘novelty’ item without use and the eminently useful item without name (it was originally sailor’s slang for anonymous tools) – and thus, by a savage and strange irony, would also be the name bestowed on the first atom bomb, the first of the things to end all things…” (126). The smartphone is the perfect confluence of these two definitions in that on the one hand everything that a smartphone can do, other things can also do; it is a novelty item without use much like a fidget-spinner. But on the other hand, this is also what makes it eminently useful and its very multi-purpose usefulness is what means it does not have a name other than a derivation from a prior invention, “the phone,” that has now been made “smart.” Perhaps it too will in some way play a role in ending all things.
Adler seems to suggest in the above quote that a central difference between television and the internet is that the latter has no rhythm, it simply makes everything available at once. We must be careful, however, not to confuse the lack of schedule with a lack of rhythm. The rhythms of the internet are simply located somewhere slightly different, namely, not in the schedule produced independently of the viewer and projected onto his or her life from the outside, but in the user him or her self. The rhythm of the smart phone is compulsive checking that punctuates the day, beginning very likely immediately upon waking. This is interwoven with the more serious and sustained flow of laptop or desktop work. It clearly forms a rhythm of work-flow punctuated at semi-regular intervals by pings, messages, and general smart-phone checking. The internet is thus a much closer, co-operative human-object production of rhythm, which looks slightly different and yet also remarkably similar between different users. Thus the rhythm might appear slightly different – more like free-verse than like a nursery-rhyme perhaps – but it nevertheless persists.
I therefore locate this difference somewhere slightly different. Adler points out that the television is rhythm of moods without purpose. The internet is likewise without clear purpose. The difference is that it invites the production of individual meaning, identity, purpose in a way that the television cannot. I suspect this makes the internet a far more robust medium than the television. Thus, I suggested at the beginning, that we need to not replace Baudrillard’s rhythm-of-objects within the production-consumption cycle, but to understand the ways in which it intersects with media rhythms. The most saturated point of such confluence is the smart phone. Itself an object with inbuilt obsolescence, requiring very regular replacement, it is a portal into an ever-shifting self-production-through-consumption that is not limited to the object itself.
To consume in this context is not to purchase specific objects but to absorb all of life into “creative” electronic self-production. We, the consumers, have become ever more clearly not merely consumers but producers-through-consumption. We consume electronic content generated by others while nearly simultaneously consuming the whole of life as a production of posts, tweets, photos, memes, videos etc. All of life is directly subjected to the project of electronic self-production. The circle between consumption and production has revolved ever tighter until it has coalesced into a dot.
Features Image: By ArnoD27 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47890803