by Erik MacDonald
Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 5-11
ABC'S MAX HEADROOM, which premiered April, 1987, poses certain theoretical questions central to media culture. By bringing attention both to the framework and content of television, the show attempts a critique of televisual society's deadening commercialism. The show ran six episodes, was cancelled, then renewed in the fall of 1987, only to be cancelled again.
MAX HEADROOM takes place in a world "twenty minutes in the future." In that world, everyone stays tuned to their television 24 hours a day. A vast homeless segment of the population exists in a nebulous "fringe" area, and the population and the ruling class evince total disregard for "humanist values." Cynicism is so prevalent in the narrative line that it appears to be the program's dominant paradigm. The program primarily deals with the actions of Edison Carter, an investigative reporter for Network 23 (a corporate conglomerate which controls 10,000 wavelengths) and his computer-generated alterego, Max Headroom. Each week, Edison sets out on some bright new mission to right the wrongs of his media society. Helped by his faithful coworkers, the heroic Edison turns up a multiplicity of evils, all related to institutional power, which he then broadcasts to an apathetic audience.
Because the program is situated well within the bonds of commercialism and consumerism, MAX HEADROOM has a problematic relation to the forces that produce media. Simply, how can media culture generate a self-critique if the nature of the critique threatens the hegemonic forces' ability to structure a social order (or, more to the point, to make a profit), and therefore to perpetuate the existence of such programs as MAX HEADROOM?
Not content with the "box-sets" of sit-coms nor with the on-location outdoor scenes found in police shows or evening soap-operas, MAX HEADROOM constructs a physical space substantially different from the traditional mise-en-scéne of prime time television. A cursory look at one of the more technologically advanced shows before MAX HEADROOM reveals some of these differences. Touted as legitimating the concept of high fashion and design for a prime time audience, MIAMI VICE situates itself firmly within the realistic mode. Although VICE goes to great lengths to obtain the latest fashions for its characters, the entire mise-en-scéne, from Don Johnson's white Lamborghini to the light-sculpture houses of various drug dealers, is tangibly related to its audiences' imaginative experience of the lifestyles of the rich and infamous.
MIAMI VICE also goes to great length to create movie-quality interiors, with the newest in European taste, and to replicate a particular contemporary fashion aesthetic (Janeshultz & MacGregor 1986, p. 54).
Neither the interior scenes nor the outside world in MAX HEADROOM follow any such realistic patterning. The offices in which Edison and Theora work are lit by oblique sources which alternatively cast opaque shadows and hazy washes. The office equipment, ostensibly the latest in video technology, seems a strange blend of manual typewriter keyboards, high-tech monitors, rotary phone hook-ups, ancient furniture, and futuristic office dividers and configurations. The office space and the Cathedral Board of Directors' meeting room both seem to have unlimited headroom. Unlike a "realistic" VICE office with its preponderance of drop-ceilings, these offices offer no sense of a space-enclosing barrier or ceiling - nothing to ground the viewer's awareness of interior space.
The outside world of the city offers the greatest contrast to other prime time programs. No attempt is made to replicate any experience the viewer might have on his/her way to the video store. Little exists on these streets to directly connect with any popular present day conception of the United States. At the same time however, the environment seems plausible enough to prevent the program from slipping into pure fantasy. Perhaps banking on the viewers' fears, anxieties, or hopes for the near future, any iconic identification with the non-televisual world in MAX HEADROOM occurs only with the myriad televisions scattered throughout the fringe (plugged into what?), motorized skateboards (themselves a leap in imagination), or the occasional mountain bike rider seen in a urban wasteland reminiscent of a suburban nightmare. The physical exterior is never site specific; the scene could be any major city anywhere. Yet, in terms of social reality, only a matter of degree exists between the helpless anonymity of the "fringe" and the sub or unemployed millions living in late-eighties United States.
Social order in the program lies in huge economic divisions between the workers at Network 23: the ostensible middle class, the hyper-wealthy class which controls programming, and the ubiquitous inhabitants of the fringe — that desolate wasteland of televisions, skate punks, and thugs. Rarely do we get a sense that anyone works anywhere except in television or for the relentlessly violent metro police; perhaps there are only the super rich and the "Blanks" (those erased from the computer banks). Certain parallels with the viewer's own world are apparent - power rests in the hands of an elite few without names or actual lives, who are known only through their media representations. A certain realism creeps into the picture. By proclaiming that each show occurs "twenty minutes in the future," MAX HEADROOM confronts its viewer with a world that, despite its futuristic premises, in fact, seems terribly like his/her own and differs only in degree of poverty. Certainly the despair of the people living in the show's fringe is not unlike that rampant throughout all sectors of society today and manifested in the materialism and cynicism of the young (25-40 year old) upwardly mobile, (yuppie) generation. The realism in MAX HEADROOM is not one of euphoric fantasy but of a harsh nihilism.
MAX HEADROOM presents a technocratic world, which runs without glitches as the dominant hegemonic postulate (a promise the program goes to great lengths to break), a world finally freed from the irrationality of "man." It is this society's computers, the omniscient screens, and the myriad electronic devices (while hardly yet commonplace, certainly no longer confined to the realm of science fiction) that structure "the real" as a function of technology rather than of a myopic humanist autochthonism. In the world "twenty minutes into the future," meaning is presented as directly related to the sophisticated computer systems and interactive video cameras. Signification is promised through, and as, technology. Indeed, the sole remnants of a humanist universe become subsumed to the frenetic quest for ratings. Politicians do not need to await morning to see the results of elections; in most instances they have less than thirty seconds to convince voter, and results are posted immediately.
In the humanist narrative scene, the telling and retelling of the wide world of human drama, a blip appears, an unsettling figure materializes on the screen: it's the face of a computer generated social agent. Responsible to no particular ethical code and ostensibly freed from an entire nexus of socialization rituals - sexual, racial, and political which form an individual's ability to experience society - Max Headroom's ontological status poses a threat to the hegemonic order at the same time he appears as a paradigmatic subject. In the original MAX HEADROOM episode where Edison's alterego "Max Headroom" was first created, the hacker Bryce, who developed the technology to store brainwaves in his computer, justifies stealing Edison's brain. He stole the brain not through malevolence but as the inevitable progression of history: "" see it as the future, Mr. Grossman - people translated as data."
Max Headroom embodies the disintegration of meaning into information. Created by the technology of the dominant social order (the Network controls 10,000 wavelengths), Max seems the perfect subject, programmable and dependant on the good graces of the computer operator. However, because Max is not a purely imaginary creation, but an imprint of Edison's brain, Edison's personality imbues Max with a simulated autonomy. Max gets an individuality which, while dependant on the binary code of the computer, allows him to function as a social agent.
Herein lies Max Headroom's threat to social discourse. To whom he is responsible? On what grounds is his loyalty or subservience to Network 23 based? Often it seems more a matter of his own convenience than ethical motivation. The worst reprisal Max could suffer would be if someone unplugged his computer. While kept under an apparently tight rein at Network 23, Max can appear at any time on the screens of the silent masses living anonymously on the fringe or in box-like apartments. Since in the world of MAX HEADROOM the plenteous images on the screen seem the only context for social interactions, Max's auto-deterministic presence (he seems to go wherever he pleases, he can access any screen) could easily undermine the usual control of the televisual as he appears and disappears on any screen without regard for the network's or advertisers' concerns or prerogatives. He need make no effort to respect anyone's proprieties or interests and can wander freely, commenting on and undermining the network's authoritarian position.
Max's lack of an identifiable social position, his freedom from the mortal coil of humanity, potentially disrupts any possibility of the audience's "common pre-understanding" necessary to the narrative event. Without the assumption of certain stable reference points in the narrative discourse, there is no compulsory categorical imperative to structure that narrative. Quite simply, it is unclear how Max will fit into social discourse, for he is not bound to any ethical sensibility.
In "The Orders of Simulacra" Jean Baudrillard traces the progression of the image since the Renaissance. From the age of the "Counterfeit," the pre-industrial revolution phase, through the "Production Scheme" of the industrial era, we have now arrived in a universe of "Simulation," which is "the reigning scheme of the current phase that is controlled by the code" (Baudrillard 1983b, p. 83). The code, the god of the computer generation, replaces illusion. Potentially parallel meanings disappear into the emission of signals which can be tested by an "on/off" binary scansion for their applicability. The production of meaning has progressed from the counterfeit phase, when individual interpretation was possible through the flexibility of the sign, and one could test the sign's plurality by comparing it to a paradigmatic original. Now we experience the simulation of meaning, producible from a model. The originary referent disappears, and referentiality is then reconstructed by affiliation to the model.
An analogy for the precession of simulacra can be seen in the paper crowns that the fast food chain Burger King hands out to children. Originally the crown represented the King's divine authority. With the rise of the middle class, crowns became, by association with the king, representative of wealth, and (because of their reproducibility) available for trading on the market, something implausible in the days of the real. With the referent thus opaqued by its marketability, the "death of the king," we now have "Burger King" - objects with no tangible relationship to any authority.
At stake in simulation then is the erasure of Origin and End. No longer can a "real" be found behind the image, whether the real sought be a king or a hamburger. In simulation no referent is necessary for the image to circulate. The model puts an end to the myth of origins, for nothing issues except from an inevitable code whose end has nothing to do with conclusions.
Opinions or differences, disappear in simulation: "for opinions as for material goods: production is dead, long live reproduction." (10) Opinions are replaced by polls. In the networks the merit of a television program no longer rests on universalized aesthetics, but on Public Opinion. In the weekly Nielsen Ratings a random sampling of televisions are polled for viewing habits, and these ratings function as the be all and end all, the bottom line for the mighty advertising dollar. In the statistical contemplation of opinion, questions follow the binary code: quivocation is dead. Polls are constructed as question/response mechanisms that effectively erase differences or shades of opinion. The great hope of humanity, its ability to equivocate or pluralize meaning, becomes negated in the ages of simulation: we watch MAX HEADROOM, or we watch something else and MAX HEADROOM goes off the air.
MAX HEADROOM attempts to embody Baudrillard's gleeful prediction of a world beyond human agency. Despite the show's centering of the narrative on Edison's antics, the viewer always has the sense that Edison's reportage depends on his interactive video camera and on the heroine Theora's computer tracking which guides him on his missions. His newsbreaks are procured by the omnipotent computer. Any success apparently happens because Theora and Edison can access and utilize divergent computer technologies, not because of any personal attribute. Similarly, it is not the human interest or moral imperative of Edison's stories which command the attention of the producers and sponsors of Network 23 but the stories' performance on the ad market - the neologic version of a futures market. A conversation in the episode on selling terrorism contained the following lines:
The only measurable success is a program's commercial viability. Since in the world "twenty minutes into the future," the only growth industry is television, the only expanding market is the amount of advertising space available, a commodity determined by convincing the audience to spend time in front of the television. Advertising profits become the critical measure of value in this society. Only those programs which successfully address a majority audience, regardless of "aesthetic" value, are promoted. Variations are subsumed by the binary code - either the program sells or it disappears. The humanist values explicated through character interaction are subordinated to a fascination with a seamless technocratic society where news functions only as a control on errant technology.
The utterly nihilistic world view of both the people in power and the "man-in-the-street" in the U.S. post-capitalist society — a society of rampant Reaganites, supply-side economics, and wheezing rapist-ministers from the PTL Club — has produced one of the most cynical national moods of the past hundred years. And this society finds its reflection in MAX HEADROOM.
The only humanist "hope" is Edison's clichéd naïve-reporter attitude, one reminiscent of the innocent Jimmy Olson from the old SUPERMAN series. However, this posturing looks ridiculous in MAX HEADROOM. For example, while pondering a series of televised terrorist attacks, Edison comments to his boss Murray, "Since when has news been entertainment?" Murray bewilderedly replies; "I don't know. Hasn't it always been?" Likewise, when terrorists bomb the ad-market building, the newscasters' focus is still on how the event is affecting the market, not on the wounded or dead. In light of the humanist mission to promote the interests of a universal "man," MAX HEADROOM exemplifies Baudrillard's pessimistic dismissal of traditional notions of value and man. The show apparently completes the logic of hyperrealism, subsuming the technocratic world into an undifferentiated morass where resistance is indeed impossible.
The power brokers are not the only ones who are cynical about what generates "value" in society. The lowly inhabitants of the fringe, that nebulous area of "the city" not unlike America's slums where life seems meaningless, see no ulterior categorical imperative for operating according to an ethical model. The skateboard punks, the likes of whom any frequenter of Los Angeles or San Francisco can find scrounging for subsistence, enter into the brutal and deadly game of "Raking" not to further any egocentricism, machismo, or heroism, but merely to exist:
Stretching their miserable existence from meal to meal, day to day, the skate punks enter a horridly brutal game for the enjoyment and benefit of corporate betters who cash in huge wagers, while the drugged-out skaters desperately struggle to stay alive long enough to shutter out with their earnings, through drugs or other small comfort, the totalitarian gloom of a desolate world. Theirs is not the studied cynicism of a "gimme" generation too smart and educated to believe in anything except capital gain and one-upmanship, but the mood from a step beyond where economy means survival and cynicism masks desperation.
Similarly the middle class in MAX HEADROOM is shuttled into crate-like apartments and tuned into their sole respite, the televisual world. In MAX HEADROOM the faceless social mass, Baudrillard's fear of a uniform nothingness, has apparently become realized. Whereas in MIAMI VICE (or similar shows) Crockett or Tubbs can be affected by the pleas, however pathetic, of an "average citizen" and in fact often become romantically involved with an innocent victim, MAX HEADROOM denies the possibility of this humanism. In that show, the silent majorities stumble around innocuous and unbeknownst to their television world.
The social model presented in MAX HEADROOM allows the characters no personal relief. Edison and Theora either "interface" through the impersonal guise of the computer, or they assume conventional social roles through their objectifying comments about each other. Their sexuality is subsumed to the binary code and sublimated into computer jargon. Yet the consequences of the logic of simulation for such sexuality are left unexplored. Instead, a melodramatic reverence for Edison's efforts appears, one which subverts the hopeless nihilism of the show by re-establishing the promise of agency through individual effort. Rather than following through on the postmodernist problematization of individual heroics, which the show posits in the form of the character Max Headroom, the show allows Edison to dominate and focus the narrative. Finally, it is his story the his/tory of "man" - which the audience watches. Even the minor characters revert to a humanist scheme. Big Reg, the aging punk who runs "Big-Time T.V.," initially revels in a "no future" cynicism. Finally the audience discovers that he is in fact involved in a very conventional relation with his secretary, and by the last few shows his gleeful anarchy has turned into a servile apprenticeship to Edison.
Indeed, the social scene in MAX HEADROOM reminds one all too much of a traditional family unit with the father, Edison, safely and paternally running the show. Despite the occasional disruptions, this structure dominates the narrative. While the participants ostensibly act autonomously, they all eventually end up serving Edison or Network 23. In effect, what happens is that instead of the presumed implosion of any categorical moral imperative, a contingent morality has become established. The show's morality reinserts the legitimacy of a white male epistemology, and that morality not surprisingly serves the interests of Network 23. In any crisis scene, Edison manages to maintain control or establish his will as the predominant one. What makes this particular familial scene at all different from any of the "family" programs on primetime television is that the characters do not have to pretend any bond exists between them other than the economic advantages Network 23 offers.
The dystopic anarchy which MAX HEADROOM and Baudrillard promise begins to undermine itself at the point where the actual structures of MAX HEADROOM's world become apparent. In this world the gleeful invalidation of the social contract has been valorized as the norm and information has replaced meaning as the dominant scheme. Here, the ensuing rise of the simulacrum and attendant anarchy would appear to open up the possibility of a liberation from the very cultural norms which originally designated "the hot scene of reproduction."
In Baudrillard's seductive scene, such a liberation from norms implodes in the nothingness of "the masses." Ideally, in the resulting vacuum, new, nonsexist, nonracist ways of thinking sexuality and social relations could be facilitated. As Baudrillard promised, the disintegration of a hierarchical scheme that had been predicated on the dissemination of images of the real should leave a world where no one scheme accrues precedence over another. Then traditional hierarchies of race, class and sex would no longer need to encode the rapidly disappearing social scene. However, Baudrillard's critique is disturbingly ambiguous at this point. While the desolate universe he predicts for the developed world (U.S., Europe) certainly is hard to ignore, especially in the face of ecological disaster, corporate power and the dramatic increase in homeless and disenfranchised people (all well represented in MAX HEADROOM), Baudrillard's refusal to posit a radical revolutionary agency makes his work problematic for many people.
Baudrillard is seductive because his critique consoles itself with absolutely no possibility for agency of any kind. In his scheme, agency would also imply the validation of an ulterior epistemology, and he has relentlessly annihilated as "false consciousness" humanism's various utopias. Such bleakness can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It can be used to insist on the futility of traditional notions of agency, including the current revolutionary social agent of the left, with the result that such a pessimism may sometime in the future (maybe twenty minutes from now) potentiate a radically new way of thinking subjectivity. Or the pessimism can be seen as a nostalgic rear-guard conservatism disguising the reestablishment of an operative moral contingency. Both ABC and MAX HEADROOM fail to follow through on the potentially radical consequences of their original premises, thus undercutting the very critique of media culture which the show presents.
The show's promise of a world beyond agency, of "blanks," computer screens, and the digital humming of the silicon chip becomes forestalled by the show's inability to face the consequences of its own media critique. The show depicts its technological world not as a cure-all, but rather as continually at the mercy of malevolent individuals who manipulate it for their own ends. This world is perpetually on the verge of malfunctioning, leaving its inhabitants to fend for themselves, or again be at the mercy of "good" guys (Edison, Theora) or "bad guys" (politicians, executives). Indeed, in MAX HEADROOM each episode focuses on a wistful reliance on the abilities of the individual (male). While MAX HEADROOM revels in the domination of the human by the technological, it is still thoroughly imbued with either a belief in or nostalgia for the concrete universal subject: Man, a presence who for lack of traditional moral categories, must needs create his own.
MAX HEADROOM promises to deliver an apolitical nihilism in the form of a vicious critique of network television, contemporary society, and consumer cynicism. The show lures its audience into Edison's narrative - impeccably hip, he seems the essence of late-eighties manhood. But the show also consciously frames the boundaries of its narrative and emphasizes the structural make-up of the program, opening the logic of the televisual world to the audience. The technological apparatus depicted in the show - televisions without on/off switches, videophones, and the 10,000 wavelengths that Network 23 controls - draw attention to the fact that MAX HEADROOM is a totally televisual world, where nothing else could possibly exist. The leader scenes which precede each show are separated by white static. Each jump cut announces a narrative shift, which in other shows would be glossed by a smooth edit.
Inducing the viewer to recognize the show's constructed nature as well as that of the narrative, MAX HEADROOM draws a parallel with its viewers' own participation in social discourse. The extreme nihilism and passivity of the story's "citizens" and viewers, so seductively attractive in MAX HEADROOM, reflects ABC's audience. The narrative line about passivity and nihilism calls attention to the viewing habits of a country where "the average" person watches television seven hours a day. It also points to a passivity which accepts network news, rightly or wrongly, as the central source of information and commentary (and network news imagines itself as such — Miller, 1986, 220). In the U.S. where a technological fetishism attempts to protect the country from invasion (both in its complexity and its absurdity, SDI makes the computer security systems in MAX HEADROOM seem reasonable), our viewing habits, if taken to the next logical step "twenty minutes into the future," seem inane. Drawing attention to these habits may point to the hysteria of such complete acquiescence, but we still willingly submit.
MAX HEADROOM revels in its pessimism. But it also refuses to conceal the mechanisms of its society. Relentlessly exposing the greed of Network 23, the show also exposed the greed of prime time television. As Network 23 sacrificed individuals and careers to maintain its high ratings, ABC programs selectively do the same so as to offend none of its sponsors. The show, which was one of the most expensive ever made, was considered too risky by ABC, and it was cancelled after only six of the eight original episodes were aired. It was renewed for the fall of 1987, partially on the basis of a large viewer response campaign to have it restored and partially because ABC recognized the demographic market it attracted.
The "critique" MAX HEADROOM makes of television falls victim to its own double-edged sword. If MAX HEADROOM posits a world of crass commercialism where the advertising buck is the bottom line, the program itself falls into that same category. It was renewed only on the promise of attracting a lucrative advertising audience. The audience most likely to catch on to and thus watch MAX HEADROOM also happens to be the most attractive to advertisers. It's the viewership of 25-40 year olds, college educated, with or without children, and making over $25,000 a year. If MAX HEADROOM exposes the nihilism of the people who make the news, then its producers also display that same sensibility. For the show makes explicit use of such late eighties icons as computer whizzes, faceless, lost masses stuck to their television screens, and the cool "surface" of Theora and Edison's relation - which are all icons dear to a group of affluent youngsters endowed with the critical, intellectual tools gained through the benefit of their upper middle class educations. This audience possesses the sensibility of "fashionable nihilism" necessary to appreciate MAX HEADROOM.
Perhaps a program that wished to make a more radical critique would take the point of view of the Blanks or skate punks. However, the dominant narrative position is occupied by Edison Carter, who acts and dresses like any of the affluent (male) audience members that advertisers are after. This image of the hero indicates that this is a program for and about the newly disaffected upper middle class. It's a class that dreads and scorns the alienation of their parents generation but also rejects the wide-eyed naiveté of the "hippie" generation's hopes for community. This class has the material resources to avoid the "fringe's" desolation. And this audience is too cynical and too attached to its material life styles to attempt "living beyond the pale" in the world of the Blanks.
While none of this social collusion necessarily negates MAX HEADROOM's "message," it exemplifies a crisis in televisual entertainment. With so much invested in MAX HEADROOM, the producers must see an economic return. This is what determines a program's future, a reality which means meeting the wishes of ABC and its advertisers, regardless of the program's artistic merits. Had MAX HEADROOM been able to sustain the absolute nihilism of its initial impulse without finding recourse to melodramatic humanism - the heroic Edison, the lovable big Reg perhaps it could have delivered a truly radical critique of televisual society. However, it was unable to maintain such a stance - especially because of television's insistence on a happy ending. Consequently, MAX HEADROOM satisfies Baudrillard's critics, who see in his work a return to a conservative moral imperative, a nostalgia for social hierarchies and a rightwing anarchy, and who also overlook the alternative reading of Baudrillard which develops a relentless and vicious critique of both liberal and conservative humanism. MAX HEADROOM remains victimized by its own - and ABC's - unwillingness to imagine a despair beyond human agency.
Baudrillard, Jean. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, trans. Foss, Patton & Johnston (New York: Semiotext(e)) 1983a.
— — — Simulations, trans. Foss, Patton & Johnston (New York: Semiotext(e)) 1983b.
Janeshultz, Trish, & Robb MacGregor. The Making of MIAMI VICE (New York: Ballantine) 1986.
Marshal McLuhan. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill) 1964.
Miller, Mark. "Deride and Conquer" in Watching Television, ed. Gitlin (New York: Pantheon) 1986.