Frank Rich, Defender of Representation?

Frank Rich is certainly my favorite of the NYTimes columnists. His columns often revolve around the notion that the media, in a functioning democracy, should serve the public interest by informing the electorate and hence providing some structural oversight to curb the excesses of the rich and powerful. For Rich, this doesn’t occur in America because media organizations are dominated by private capital and hence dwell upon spectacle for the sake of profit, a la the film Network. I’m pretty sympathetic to this idea, which was elucidated once again in Rich’s column this morning.

But as much as Rich expressed his standard Left-y stance on media in today’s column, as befits the genre of muckraking, he also incorporated glimmers of Baudrillard’s hyperreality.

Check this out:

“Richard Heene [fame-seeking father of the “balloon boy”] is the inevitable product of this reigning culture, where “news,” “reality” television and reality itself are hopelessly scrambled and the warp-speed imperatives of cable-Internet competition allow no time for fact checking…”

And this:

“He knew how easy it would be to float “balloon boy” when the demarcation between truth and fiction has been obliterated.”


“If Heene’s balloon was empty, so were the toxic financial instruments, inflated by the thin air of unsupported debt, that cratered the economy he inhabits.”

Rather than simply making fun of Fox News, I think the subject of Rich’s polemic is more fundamental. Rich is assuming a kind of existential stance that’s only tangentially related to this bubble boy thing — he’s taking the position that representations of “reality” should trump simulations of false reality. Just as nobody attempts to prove that the sun will rise tomorrow, nobody would take this obvious position unless it was somehow being called into question, i.e. unless the boundaries between truth and fiction were being blurred in some way. Now, Baudrillard gives me and everybody else a headache, but I couldn’t help thinking about him this time.

If you like, you could substitute “Truth” or even “Democracy” for “God” in this excerpt from “Simulacra and Simulations”:

“All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange: God, of course. But 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.

So it is with simulation, insofar as it is opposed to representation. Representation starts from the principle that the sign and the real are equivalent (even if this equivalence is Utopian, it is a fundamental ax~om). Conversely, simulation starts from the Utopia of this principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as reversion and death sentence of every reference. Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum.”

I don’t really know anything about Baudrillard, but he seems to dwell in this location within media studies where the set of meanings that constitute “reality” is irrelevant because (thanks to world-creating crazy new media) meaning becomes impossible — the signifier never quite resolves itself to the signified. This uncomfortable place is starting to look familiar for Frank Rich, or so it would seem.


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3 Responses to “Frank Rich, Defender of Representation?”

  1. William Bruntrager Says:

    My entire experience with Baudrillard is limited to what I read in this post and in the introduction to his Wikipedia entry, but here’s the thing: to me, his writings appear to be total bullsh*t. By which I mean, it’s not obviously to me that this conception of the world and the way that people think and talk about it will give me any insight into anything.

    As you probably know, my heuristic for this kind of thing is strongly influence by 1. comparison with economics and 2. hostility towards things that aren’t easily comprehensible. just to name two major factors.

    It makes me wonder what I would have to see from Baudrillard’s to convince me that reading him would not be a huge waste of time.

    All by way of saying, I never read Frank Rich, so I have nothing to say about this post.

  2. William Bruntrager Says:

    PS. I just discovered this relevant comic strip:

    Calvin & Hobbes

  3. tripinchina Says:

    I find your criticism to be groundless and reactionary…but only because you admitted that it was!

    Postmodern critics often turn language into a bizarre and seemingly incomprehensible artifice — but usually this is because the socially produced ideological positions inscribed within language are themselves the subject of subversion or critique.

    Judith Butler, the queen of postmodern gobledegook and winner of the 1998 Bad Writing Contest, writes (in a very readable way) on this issue:

    That said, I’ve never really gotten the point of Baudrillard because on the face of it hyperreality doesn’t have much meaning in my every day life. But then I saw some interestingly absurd Frank Rich commentary…and hence the post.

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