Did the TV Kill Meaning? Screens, Disneyland, and Goat Poop

I had a realization last winter that nearly all of my waking hours were spent in one of two places. Not two buildings, like home and work, but literally two places, two three-foot-by-five-foot areas. Almost all of my other movements were either en route to these two places or excursions that frustrated me from being at one or the other of these places. In the middle of a cold Minnesota winter I realized that most of my time was spent either sitting in a chair looking at my computer or lying on my living room floor watching TV. I had a whole house with multiple rooms, but all I really did was lie in one spot staring at one corner night after night, hour after hour. I began to wonder why I had these other rooms, especially the ones without their own TV. I had a whole office, but most of the time I was in it I was popping in and out of windows (i.e., screens) that took me to other places. Almost all of my life in these winter months was framed by a screen; I was alive, living a very short life, but most of my attention was bound to fifty or fifteen inches.

Screen Living

And of course this screen living is not just for workaholics and homebodies like myself. Even those always on the go, young adults and business people, bring their screens with them, using their screens to distract them from the mundane flow of life, using their screens as an eye to see their world. This point was driven home one night while I was, yes, lying on my living room floor watching TV. On the late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live, Kanye West was performing. When he was introduced and began his performance, the camera zoomed in tightly on him, but then it panned out, showing the audience. I could see the first dozen or so rows, and the audience members were holding up hundreds of cell phone cameras. These young people had chosen to watch (and record) Kanye’s performance through their personal two-inch screens. On my screen, I watched them watching Kanye on theirs. Physically at the concert, they chose nevertheless to take in the experience through their screens.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no TV hater. And every ideological TV hater I’ve ever known has made me suspicious. If I could find a way to watch while I slept, I might. That said, this last winter I became more aware of how these screens were framing my whole life. How this displaced me and connected me. How I was participating in the lives of these characters I watched, or more accurately, how they were participating in mine. I felt somehow oddly connected to the kids on The Hills (and my wife felt so connected that she became enraged with cocky, chauvinistic Spencer, wishing she could kick him right where it counts).

These characters had no idea who I was. I only knew them through this screen, but they were impacting my life. I was attentively watching them, enjoying them, living alongside them. I could feel myself soaking in the stories and characters of the shows I watched. But none of them are real! They’re prepared realities, created in sound stages. They’re not “real,” just simulations of real life. Even so-called reality TV isn’t real. The people on these shows may be using their real names, but what we see on the screen is prepared through editing, cameras, and the structure of the show. (You have to follow the rules of the game to be on Survivor for example).

I, on the other hand, was living a real life, aware that it was finite and could end at any moment. We know life’s realness when we think of the fragility of our loves and jobs. My life was real,   When pastors get prayer requests for hurt or sick soap opera characters, the simulation has become the thing, the simulated sign has outgrown the signified life.   but I was spending my whole winter watching unreal things, and not just watching but entering into them, taking them into my being, using them to make meaning. I was using these images on the screen as brick and mortar to create a meaningful place in which to live. It wasn’t the story of my ancestors or the perspectives of the church community or the views of my neighbors that I was using as raw material to construct meaning; it was Michael from The Office, Locke from Lost, and all those warped kids from The Real World.

The French philosopher and social theorist Jean Baudrillard spilled a good amount of ink making many of these very points. He wonders if, in our screen-based worlds, we have lost the ability to construct meaning. He wonders if meaning has died, if it has drowned in a tidal wave of images. What Baudrillard argues is that in our time of screen living we have become bombarded with signs, and in the midst of the bombardment the sign has become dislocated from the thing it signifies. The sign has become so inflated that it has outgrown the thing it signifies and dethroned it. Advertising for a product is no longer concerned with how the product works (it is better, brighter, clearer, faster), but with what it means to put on the sign of the brand. It is not about what the shoe does for instance, but rather it is about what the Nike swoosh represents. This makes meaning quite thin, for it stands on little that is solid; the sign, the image, has become all that there is.

Simulation as Life

Baudrillard believes we have reached a point where simulation has become life itself. We have always had simulations; from cave drawings to early maps, we have always sought to represent real life through simulated means. But in our world framed by screens, we run the danger of our maps becoming more captivating simulations than the real. We have people who feel more themselves–more real–online than off. Life on The Hills seems more real than my own life. When pastors get prayer requests for hurt or sick soap opera characters (which has been documented to happen, and more often than you might think), the simulation has become the thing, the simulated sign has outgrown the signified life.

In one of my favorite South Park episodes we see what happens when the simulation becomes the thing. In this sarcasmlaced episode, Stan and Kyle are playing Guitar Hero, the video game in which players use a guitar-shaped controller to simulate being, well, a guitar hero. You don’t need any guitar skills, just the ability to hit certain buttons at certain times. Stan and Kyle have become so good that the neighborhood kids have come to watch them. Hearing old 70s and 80s rock songs coming from the living room, Stan’s dad inquires about what the boys are doing. In the next scene we see Stan’s dad standing with his guitar and amp, really playing the songs the boys are simulating on the video game. “See,” he says, “I can really play these songs! Cool, uh? I can teach you.” But they don’t care about playing the real songs; they care only about the simulation. The simulation has become the real thing. Guitar Hero has become more captivating than real guitar playing.

A further example: When my wife was pregnant with our son, we saw a midwife named Ursula. One month, as my wife was in for her regular check-up, we asked Ursula if she had seen A Baby Story, a half-hour show that follows a woman from the last weeks of pregnancy, through labor and the birth itself, to the celebrated homecoming with the new child. Whenever my wife watched it, she would cry–after all, it is an emotionally packed journey to the miracle of birth and new motherhood.

We had barley gotten the question out of our mouth when Ursula shot back, “I HATE that show!” Realizing that her forceful response could be misinterpreted, she explained: “I hate that show because I have so many patients who watch it, and then hours after their own birth experience I’ll check on them and some will start crying and say, ‘I’m so disappointed! My birth was nothing like I thought it would be!’ When I ask what they were expecting, they say, ‘I thought it would be more like on A Baby Story.'”

Ursula’s patients had experienced what Baudrillard would call the hyperreal.1 These women had experienced the sign being disconnected from the thing it signifies in simulation; they wanted their real event (giving birth) to correlate to TV simulation of the birth experience. They knew they were having a real experience, but they grieved that this real experience did not correlate closely enough with their simulated screen-living in the hyperreal. The show is only a sign–a half-hour, edited, incomplete picture of a pregnancy and birth. But some people had so absorbed the sign, they had made meaning out of it: “My pregnancy and birth should be like the show,” they believed. This dynamic leads Baudrillard to wonder if there is anything real at all. He believes that meaning has suffocated under a trillion unreal and unrelated images.

The Death of Meaning

Meaning is hard to construct today because the sign and the signified are pulled apart by the hyperreal images of the screen. The line separating real from fake, subject and object, and true from false becomes so blurred that it is indistinguishable. Which is real and which is fake–my eighteen-hour labor, or the half-hour show that touches my heart? What is a person–a subject, or an object to desire or rate or see naked? And what is true and what is false when every politician and their representative talking head on twenty-four-hour news keep spinning and spinning an issue until I can no longer handle the dizziness? Until I no longer care what is true and what is false, for their goal isn’t truth but just that I keep taking in images? In the midst of the blur of these boundaries, meaning (i.e., the unique purpose for my life) becomes ever more difficult to construct. The ground is always shifting as I am bombarded with new images giving me new products, perspectives, and entertainment to incorporate into my already image-saturated person.

It is not that there is no meaning, it is rather that in a world framed by screens there is too much free-floating meaning. None of it seems bound to anything real, Baudrillard asserts. Surrounded by image after image of free-floating meaning (buy this, be that, think this, want that, follow them), it all becomes noise, it all becomes meaningless. When meaning is this freefloating, it is easily popped, forcing us to scramble for some other images to consume and with which to make meaning, or else to face the meaninglessness of our existence. Life becomes consuming signs; that becomes its goal. But a sign can only give direction on the road of meaning, it cannot in itself be meaning.

Disneyland and the Pooping Goat

Last winter we did the all-American activity of taking our children to Disneyland. We may have been too ambitious to assume that a three-year-old and a nine-monthold would be struck by the wonder of the Magic Kingdom, but we were already in Anaheim, so we gave it a shot. If there is a Mecca of the hyperreal, it is Disneyland. Almost nothing is real. Almost everything you can touch is a simulation of something else. Even the trees (at least the ones you can touch and climb) are cast plastic.

After fighting lines with two tired kids, we decided we needed a line-free, low-key ride. As we walked toward Frontier Land we saw that the Tiki Room was opening for a new show. “What is this? ” I asked the high-schooler in a explorer hat and kerchief in charge of ushering us in. “It’s a bird show with singing,” she said. I must have been delusional from the sun, but walking in I imagined real birds with real people singing. There were nets on the ceiling, which I imagined kept the birds from flying into the audience. But the room was small and there was no birdseed or bird feces on floor. The room was perfectly comfortable, and there was no smell of animals. The mess of stray food, bad smells, and feces would have witnessed to something real. But this was Disney. They had moved past the real, past the mess of life. The birds were mechanical simulations that sang, talked, and told funny jokes, all without pooping. Disney is a world like a dream, where the constraints of real life have no say, where animals don’t poop and people don’t suffer.

Needing a break after our Tiki Room experience, we followed signs toward a petting zoo. We had been in the park for hours, jumping in and out of simulated hyperreal world after hyperreal world, touching nothing real, the mess of real existence hidden behind mirrors and curtains. But as we turned the corner toward the petting zoo, the smell changed, and there it was: a real petting zoo, with real (not animated or mechanical) animals. I felt my heart start beating and my body twitch a little. I had spent so much time in the mecca of the hyperreal, climbing plastic trees, listening to singing mechanical birds, that I found myself shocked by the fact that the goat was real. Now the real punctured the hyperreal, and I was overwhelmed by its presence. I kept saying to my wife, “That goat is real, the goat is real!” as she gave me the strangest of looks.

The Church and the Hyperreal

I once knew a pastor who sought to be a competitor among the hyperreal, shaping his sermons like sitcoms, his music like pop concerts. He tried to offer a godly meaning system in the tones and notes of the hyperreal. Yet when the church plays the notes of the hyperreal, it hides the mess of life behind fake curtains of joy, behind mirrors of moral certainty, behind a show of religious relevance.

In a world where meaning slips away through the fissure of sign and signified, it may be that the only way to recover meaning, the only way to find something real, is to enter death–real death. It’s true that we see, in our screen worlds, more death in a month than our forefathers saw in a decade. Watching our screens we see people killed, die of cancer, be told love is over, or fall into addiction. But the death we see has no meaning, for it is only a simulation. So the reality of death is ignored as we give our attention to screens. But death eventually punctures our hyperreal worlds, by attacking our friend, family member, job, our own person or purpose. Like seeing the real goat amongst Disney’s hyperreal, we are shocked by the real power of death to destroy us.

It may be that the only way for the church to help its people make meaning is to keep witnessing to the real amongst all the hyperreal. It is the church’s proclamation amongst the buzz of the hyperreal to call out, “Don’t you smell it? We are standing in feces! Life is messy, death is real, and we are hurting.” The church must become the place where the painful, messy things of life are not quickly removed, but remain present, reminding us that we are real, calling us not to make meaning out of images and simulations, but out of the reality that we are dying, that we are hurting, that the monster of death cannot be beaten by TiVo or a new handbag.

The church should be a shocking place. Living most of our lives in the hyperreal, when entering the ministry of the church we should feel as I did when seeing the goat. We should say, This is real! There is the heavy smell of reality here; there is the mess of reality and people have chosen to make their lives here, in reality, by seeing God in the feces of existence. Their reality is not in their happiness, but in their pain! Their God meets them not in their perfection but in their suffering! While meaning has died the death of a trillion images, these people seek for and find meaning in death.