The Power to Blur Fiction from Reality

Originally written as a final essay for my Communication Theory and Analysis course at Athabasca University, this essay covers a topic that has always intrigued me: communications technology has created a world where the real and unreal are indistinguishable. Thanks for reading 🙂

Introduction

Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski’s The Matrix is a science-fiction film that follows the lead character, Neo, through a world he thinks is real but is actually a computer generation. Neo decides to uncover the truth of the world by unplugging from the virtual reality. At more than one moment in the film Neo cannot distinguish between being plugged into a simulation or navigating the real world. While The Matrix is a fictional film, it does highlight how defining the line between the real world and the fictional world is not clear. Why it is difficult to define the lines between fact and fiction is only part of the dilemma because who is blurring the lines and for what reasons play an important role in interplay between reality and fiction. The people who create definitions hold the power to intentionally blur the lines between the fictional and real world in order to sway societal change. The lines are blurred between fiction and real life because of the web of meaning, ideology, power, and decoding reality.

Web of Meaning

Just as a spiderweb has many points of connection that allow it to exist as a structure, the lines that frame the fictional and real world are inseparably interconnected. The web-like non-linear approach to communication studies reflects Stuart Hall’s thinking; Hall is a Jamaican-born cultural studies scholar. Hall explains that communications is often described as a circuit, but the classic definition fails to acknowledge the web-like connections between different “moments” of communications (Hall et al., 117). Instead, Hall believes that the circuit of production, distribution, reception, and reproduction is useful when the “specific modality” of each component is recognized, which sharpens the understanding of communications (Hall et al., 117). To clarify, Hall describes that the production of meaning happens at interconnected steps; however, meaning can change at each step (Hall et al., 117-118). If meaning can change at each step or moment, and each moment is interconnected, then establishing a line between the real and unreal is not possible within communication studies. A simple statement such as “the sky is blue” is received differently based on geographic location, previous media exposure, emotional state, message distribution, and an endless list of variables that create meaning. Therefore, communication studies is not a defined circle of meaning nor does it have a clear starting point, but it is a web of endless moments that all interconnect to make meaning.

It is easy to take apart the analogy of a spiderweb and suggest that the web’s anchor points, or how it connects to other surfaces, would be the grounding to the real world. Communications scholar Andrew Crisell explains that anchors “fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs” (48). However, the spiderweb cannot exist without the anchors and many interconnected points. To follow meaning back to a single anchor might seem logical, but without the rest of the web, it is just another meaningless moment. Semiologist and literary critic Ronald Barthes’ view aligns with spiderweb analogy when it comes to assigning meaning. Barthes believes the signifier and signified “work together in an inseparable bond to form a unified sign” (Griffin, 321). In other words, fiction and reality are interdependent.

For context, Barthes defines a signifier as an image or a representation of reality, signified as the meaning people assign to the signifier, and a sign as the inseparable combination of the two (Griffin, 321). According to Barthes, signs cannot be separated between what they represent, or the signifier, and what they mean, or signified (Griffin, 321). For example, the meaning associated with the word coffee and the physical existence of coffee are inseparable. When a person smells and drinks coffee for the first time a new layer of meaning is associated with the word. If a person only ever sees images of coffee, then the person will not give the same meaning to the word coffee. So even though the meaning of coffee might change depending on an individual’s experience, to say the reality of coffee can exist without the meaning of coffee is not true. For another perspective, Hall thinks that “reality exists outside language, but it is constantly mediated through language” (Hall et al., 121). Looking through a different lens, the signified is fictional and the signifier is real. Therefore, to draw a clear line between the fictional and real world is not possible, yet the two exist as interdependent entities.

Ideology

Ideology is the tool used by those in power to intentionally blur the lines between fiction and reality. Hall believes that communication studies as a discipline lacks the context ideology gives to the interdisciplinary approach of cultural studies (Griffin, 332). In isolation, ideology is neither good nor evil, but like signs, ideology is interconnected with power. To understand ideology, the term must first be clearly defined, then power must be separated from ideology, then connotative and denotative meaning clarified, and finally a relatable example of the common sense dilemma.

In its simplest form, ideology is a categorical understanding of how the world works. Hall believes that ideology is seen through the socio-economic lens as the words people speak, how societies organize concepts, and an ability to “make sense of, define, figure out and render intelligible the way society works” (Hall, 29). In many ways Hall’s definition reflects Sandra Harding and Julia Wood’s Standpoint Theory. First, Harding describes social location as the group an individual belongs to and how that group shapes its member’s worldview; then she describes a standpoint as a “critical reflection on power relations and consequences that oppose the status quo” (Griffin, 396). A person’s worldview is ultimately shaped by the people surrounding them and the people in power, and that categorized worldview is considered an ideology.

Next, ideology should be separated from power and intention. Norm Chomsky, a modern American linguist, sees dominate ideology as “propaganda” that needs to be “constantly battled” in order to “escape indoctrination” (Achbar and Wintonick). However, Hall sees ideology through a neutral lens, separated from dominance, as simply “how society works” (Griffin, 332). Hall’s view allows for the necessary layer of separation between the elite intention and the construction of ideologies. For example, the dominate ideology in Canada suggests an SUV is superior to other forms of transportation. Looking to Norm Chomsky, battling commonly held beliefs is not clearly outlined. Instead, Hall offers that individuals can try to uncover who benefits from SUVs being sold in Canada, which in turn uncovers the power and intention. According to Hall, critical thinkers must not try to understand the meaning of discourse but must “examine the sources of… discourse” because the sources make meaning (Griffin, 334). The words a society uses are an inseparable representation of ideology because even the language itself changes meaning.

To follow, defining connotative and denotative meaning is important to ideology because Barthes and Hall have different interpretations. Barthes, a linguistic scholar, defines the denotative sign system as a “sign without ideological content” (Griffin, 324). In addition, Hall describes this linguistic approach to the denotative definition as “the literal meaning of a sign… without the intervention of code” (Hall et al., 122). For example, in a denotative sign system of a wool toque, the signifier is the toque itself; the signified meaning of the toque is warmth, clothing, and protection from the winter. On the other hand, Barthes defines the connotative sign system as ideological in nature with no direct connection to real world meaning. In addition, Hall describes the linguistic approach to connotation as meanings that come from the fictional world and therefore depend on code for understanding (Hall et al., 122). For example, several years ago I learned about the meaning of hipster from a local coffee shop called Death Valley’s Little Brother. Hipsters, in my definition, are under the age of thirty, usually students, love coffee, and tend to wear vintage clothing. Upon visiting, I noticed a lot of people wearing winter toques inside the coffee shop at all seasons and temperatures. In a connotative sign system of a hipster’s toque, the signifier is the toque, the meaning is anti-mainstream, modern fashion, higher education, and coffee snob. The hipster’s toque lost the real world meaning of keeping a person’s head warm, denotative, but gains a fictional meaning of fashion and coffee, connotative. According to Frech philosopher and media critic Jean Baudrillard, the loss of real-world meaning creates a “hyper-reality” in “a world of self-referential signs” (Porter, 111). In other words, when the original or authentic meaning of a sign is used in a new way, Barthes states it is inflected with meaning of the dominate culture or ideology (Griffin, 330). Barthes describes the distinction between denotative sign systems and connotative sign systems as the “second-order semiotic system” (Griffin, 323-324). Ideology becomes the layer that detracts from the original meaning of signs such as words.

The problem with Barthes’ explanation is making a clear distinction between denotative and connotative. Finding the distinction in Barthes’ explanation is important because ideology does not exist in a denotative sign and ideology does exist in a connotative sign. In addition, Barthes believes that those trained in semiotics can deconstruct the layers of meaning to find the original denotative meaning (Griffin, 326). In other words, Barthes’ believes ideology can be separated from an original real world meaning. However, Hall’s view of an interconnected web of meaning does not support Barthes’ second-order semiotic system. Where Barthes determines lines between denotative and connotative, Hall sees a spectrum that is mainly useful from a point of analysis. Hall acknowledges that some signs can be more denotative because the code has become naturalized, and other signs can be more connotative because the code is being used with a level of intention (Hall et al., 122-123). In addition, Hall believes that the terms denotation and connotation are more useful as “analytical tools” used to determine “the different levels at which ideologies and discourses intersect” (Hall et al., 122-123). In other words, the fashion statement of a hipster toque has a different ideological value than a wool toque keeping a person warm in the winter, but both signs have a level of ideology.

A relatable day-to-day example of ideology blurring the lines between fiction and reality is the common sense dilemma. People I know often mention how other people “lack common sense,” “don’t get it,” or “don’t understand how the real-world works.” John Fiske, a cultural studies scholar, agrees that the “common sense of a society is made up of a series of encoded ideologies” (4). To expand, common sense might be how people agree to see the world, but it is also a term of fiction heavily rooted in dominate ideology. An exclamation of how others lack common sense is a proclamation that others do not share the same thoughts. Along the same line, Hall describes a misunderstanding as a “lack of equivalence between the two sides in a communicative exchange” (Hall et al., 120). Misunderstandings stem from Hall’s concept of naturalization, which is when people assume the meaning of a symbol because the practices of coding are invisible (Hall et al., 121). In other words, people disagree on their interpretation of the real world because their internal, or fictional world, does not align with other peoples’ view of the world. Hall’s views on common sense are also reflected in Muzafer Sherif’s Social Judgement Theory in which reality is judged by comparing current attitudes and communications affects movement along a spectrum of agreement (Griffin, 172). Common sense describes a match of ideological values between people that blur reality from fiction.

Power

The ability to communicate a message to a broad audience is a representation of power. Hall believed that “ignoring the realities of unequal power distribution in society have weakened… [communication studies] and made it less theoretically relevant” (Griffin, 355). Therefore, assessing the role of power is critical to the discussion between the real and fictional world. Mass media has the power to change how people see the real world and it has the power to create meaning, but that power comes with limits.

First, cultivation analysis suggests that the mass media has the power to change how people see the real world. George Gerber conducted extensive research on time watching violent television shows affecting real world threat perceptions (Griffin, 356-357). Gerber’s studies do not suggest that watching violent television creates violence, but the audience watching the violence become more cognizant of threats. Gerber believes, with his accessibility principle, that the mass media makes people more aware of violence because violent imagery remains top of mind with heavy television viewers (Griffin, 360). If people are constantly exposed to the same ideology, then some of those beliefs start to become engrained. As a comparative example, constant exposure to media is not unlike learning to play the piano. It is not surprising that a person spending four hours daily in front of a piano can likely play a song, so it is also not surprising that a person watching hours of violent television per day feel nervous about walking down a dark alley. The implications of Gerber’s research are far reaching because mass media is communicating complex ideologies beyond getting mugged in an alley. Therefore, heavy consumers of mass media have a hard time separating the real world from the fictional world.

Second, while meaning is not purely manufactured by one broadcast, mass media has the power to create new meaning. According to Hall, “broadcasting structures must yield encoded messages in the form of a meaningful discourse” (Hall et al., 119). The broadcasters hold a certain level of power to influence what message is sent, what ideas are reinforced or challenged, and how often messages are relayed to an audience. Hall identified three methods for how the broadcaster holds power and creates meaning: the “frameworks of knowledge” or the collected education, values, and beliefs of the journalists; “technical infrastructure” or equipment available to broadcast, like the printing press or television studio; and “relations of production” or how people take action to make meaning (Hall et al., 120). Overall, these structures allow the mass media to influence how people see the world.

However, the broadcaster’s power to create meaning is counterbalanced by how the audience receives the information. According to Hall, the message is subject to interpretation by the audience through the process of decoding (Hall et al., 120). Decoding mirrors the encoding side of the equation (Hall, 120). If the codes do not align, then information is not received as intended. Audiences are shaped by demographics, affluence, race, gender, sexual orientation, and an endless list of intersecting characteristics. The mass media retains power by specializing content to meet the needs of segregated audiences. In fact, Hall believes that in the West “there seems to be a steady move toward the politicisation of fragmentary groups and associations (Davis, 55).” As group norms diversify, the mass media must specialize to remain in power.

While the mass media is powerful, it is not all powerful. Hall takes a position on mass media as not being completely based on Marxist economic determinism, yet still having an elite holding power over the masses that he refers to as hegemony (Griffin, 334). The distinction is important because hegemony suggests that those using power to control the mass media cannot completely control individuals lives. Hall also believes that media’s control over individuals is not total (Davis, 56). To further clarify the difference, economic determinism assumes that if a person is born as a person of colour, then that person will never rise above his or her skin colour because of the systemically racist world. Hegemony, on the other hand, offers a softer view because it is based on persuasive power instead of stating social structures are immoveable. Like Norm Chomsky, Hall sees the media’s power as a “production of consent” that reinforces beliefs of how the world works, which ultimately benefit the elite and keep existing power structures in place (Griffin, 334). The intentions of the powerful represent dominate ideology, but power does not have total control of how people see the world.

Decoding Reality

Decoding reality: while the previous section focused on the elite side on the power equation, this section will focus on how the audience can be influenced or resist dominate ideology. Hall’s encoding and decoding framework acts in a linear way because the message is transmitted by the media and received by the audience, but the framework operates within the non-linear web of meaning. The three positions to decode reality are dominate-hegemonic, negotiated, and oppositional.

First, the dominate-hegemonic position is when the intended meaning is transferred to an audience (Hall et al., 126). Hall suggests that if the audience understands the message exactly as the elites and broadcasters have intended, then the audience is “operating inside the dominate code” (Hall et al., 126-127). A dominate-hegemonic example is Fox News broadcasting about Donald Trump’s proposal for a wall between America and Mexico, and the Republican audience believing Donald Trump should build a wall after the newscast: the intended meaning and the received meaning match. According to Hall, the broadcasters are not being directly controlled by the elite’s wish of a dominate ideology, but the broadcasters are working within a “professional code” that has “already been signified in a hegemonic manner” (Hall et al., 126). This distinction is important because it answers the critique of Norm Chomsky’s view that the media is manufacturing consent through a dominate ideology. In Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s documentary Manufacturing Consent, Norm Chomsky is repeatedly challenged that there is no business or government elites “pulling the strings” on mass media. To imagine journalists directly upholding racism to satisfy a few elites is hard to comprehend because the professional code separates broadcasters from the dominate ideology. To be more precise, professional code “is relatively independent” yet “operates within the dominate code” (Hall et al., 126). Therefore, the dominate ideology is reinforced through the media when the audience is in a dominate-hegemonic position.

Second, the negotiated position is when the intended meaning is transferred to the audience, but the audience does not apply all aspects of the dominate ideology (Hall et al., 126). To expand, the audience accepts the dominate ideological view of the world, but the audience might not apply that view to their personal reality (Hall et al., 126). The negotiated position seems to tease out the distinction between fiction as beliefs and reality as actions taken at the local level (Hall et al., 127). Reflecting to the Fox News example, if the audience is recent Mexican-American immigrants that have no strong political affiliation, then the message might still be interpreted as intended; however, this audience might not vote nor care to uphold Donald Trump’s values. Negotiated codes are riddled with contradictions, although seeing the contradictions requires critical thought (Hall et al., 127). The dominate ideology prevails because thinking is hard, and inaction is easy. In the case of the immigrant audience, voting for another party after watching the Fox news broadcast would seem logical, yet it might seem like an insurmountable concept if the dominate ideology acts as a global truth (Hall et al., 126). In other words, why should the audience jump through hoops to get registered voting status if Donald Trump is going to build a wall?

Third, the oppositional position is when the intended meaning has the opposite effect on people and dominate ideology is rejected (Griffin, 339). To clarify, the audience sees the intention to impress an ideology and instead acts “demythologize” the media (Griffin, 339). In the Fox News example, a concerned citizen’s group mobilizing against the President’s Mexico-America wall would represent an obstinate audience. The oppositional position rejects the dominate ideological meaning of the communication and acts against the message.

Conclusion

Upon reflection, there is no clear distinction between the real and functional world because meaning exists in an interconnected web with no clear start or end. The shared meaning or worldviews are framed by ideologies, but ideologies are benign in isolation. Identifying the power structures that uphold ideologies is critical because these structures direct how dominate ideologies develop. Once the source of power can be identified, how people perceive the world comes into focus. Looping back to The Matrix, Neo’s distinction between reality and fiction came from understanding the powerful robots that use humans as a source of energy, not from relying on his senses to determine the virtual from the real. To close, Em Griffin writes in the reflection of French philosopher Michel Foucault that “the right to make meaning can literally be the power to make others crazy” (335). Before judging someone as lacking common sense, weird, or crazy, consider who has defined the lens in which you interpret reality.

Works Cited

Achbar, Mark and Peter Wintonick, dir. Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media. Necessary Illusions Productions Inc. And National Film Board of Canada, 1992.

Crisell, Andrew. Understanding Radio. Taylor & Francis Group, 1994, pp. 42-63. ProQuest Ebook Central, 0-ebookcentral-proquest-com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/lib/athabasca-ebooks/detail.action?docID=178327. Accessed 9 November 2020.

Davis, Helen. Understanding Stuart Hall. SAGE Publications, 2004. ProQuest Ebook Central, 0-ebookcentral-proquest-com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/lib/athabasca-ebooks/detail.action?docID=254612. Accessed 9 November 2020.

Fiske, John. Television Culture, Taylor & Francis Group, 1988. ProQuest Ebook Central, 0-ebookcentral-proquest-com.aupac.lib.athabascau.ca/lib/athabasca-ebooks/detail.action?docID=166126. Accessed 9 November 2020.

Griffin, Em. “Cultivation Theory of George Gerbner.” A First Look at Communication Theory. McGraw-Hill Higher Education (US), 2019, pp. 356-367.

Griffin, Em. “Cultural Studies of Stuart Hall.” A First Look at Communication Theory. McGraw-Hill Higher Education (US), 2019, pp. 332-343.

Griffin, Em. “Semiotics of Ronald Barthes.” A First Look at Communication Theory. McGraw-Hill Higher Education (US), 2019, pp. 321-331.

Griffin, Em. “Standpoint Theory of Sandra Harding & Julia T. Wood.” A First Look at Communication Theory. McGraw-Hill Higher Education (US), 2019, pp. 396-408.

Hall, Stuart, et al. Culture, Media, Language : Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79. Taylor & Francis Group, 1991, pp. 117-127, ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/athabasca-ebooks/detail.action?docID=179321. Accessed 9 November 2020.

Hall, Stuart. “The Problem of Ideology—Marxism Without Guarantees,” Journal of Communication Inquiry, Vol. 10, No. 2, 1986, p. 29. Accessed 9 November 2020.

Poster, Mark. “Critical Theory and TechnoCulture: Habermas and Baudrillard.” In The Second Media Age, Cambridge: Polity Press, drr2.lib.athabascau.ca/index.php?c=node&m=detail&n=29145. Accessed 9 November 2020.

Wachowski, Lana, and Lilly Wachowski. The Matrix. Warner Bros., 1999.

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