The Oxford English Dictionary defines reality foremost as “the quality of being real or having an actual existence” and supplements this with a definition of real as “having objective existence,” and finally to exist as having “place in the domain of reality.” These conventional definitions of reality represent a larger problem in the attempt to locate the real on the most basic level, for they are wholly circular, a set of signifiers reflecting back at each other lacking the grounding necessary to render meaning. This problem is not unique to the word ‘reality,’ indeed almost all words and signs are only able to refer back towards the internal exchange of other signs in order to produce a theoretical anchor. The slippage of reality, its elusiveness encountered even in a basic search for a definition, is an element of the hyperreal – a condition in which the distinction between the ‘real’ and the imaginary implodes. There is no static definition of hyperreality, and the interpretations employed by theorists vary on some of the most essential terms. That said, this article will attempt to extrapolate a common understanding of the hyperreal based on the work of several theorists. A general understanding of hyperreality is important for it is an issue at the crux of several critical debates within the study of media including semiotics, objects and space, the spectacle, performativity, the examination of mass media, Platonism, resistance, and the structure of reality.
The concept most fundamental to hyperreality is the simulation and the simulacrum (see Simulation/Simulacra, (2)]. The simulation is characterized by a blending of ‘reality’ and representation, where there is no clear indication of where the former stops and the latter begins. The simulacrum is often defined as a copy with no original, or as Gilles Deleuze (1990) describes it, “the simulacrum is an image without resemblance” (p. 257). Jean Baudrillard (1994) maps the transformation from representation to simulacrum in four ‘successive phases of the image’ in which the last is that “it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum” (SS p.6). (see mimesis, representation) Deleuze, Baudrillard, and several other theorists trace the proliferation and succession of simulacra to the rise of hyperreality and the advent of a world that is either partially, or entirely simulated. Frederic Jameson (1990) contends that one of the conditions of late capitalism is the mass reproduction of simulacra, creating a “world with an unreality and a free floating absence of “the referent”’ (p. 17). Although theorists highlight different historical developments to explain hyperreality, common themes include the explosion of new media technologies, the loss of the materiality of objects, the increase in information production, the rise of capitalism and consumerism, and the reliance upon god and/or ‘the center’ in Western thought. Essentially, certain historical contingencies allow for the wide scale reproduction of simulacra so that the simulations of reality replace the real, producing a giant simulacrum completely disconnected from an earlier reality; this simulacrum is hyperreality.
One of the fundamental qualities of hyperreality is the implosion of Ferdinand Saussure’s (1959) model for the sign (see semiotics) (pg. 67). The mass simulacrum of signs become meaningless, functioning as groundless, hollow indicators that self-replicate in endless reproduction. Saussure outlines the nature of the sign as the signified (a concept of the real) and the signifier (a sound-image). Baudrillard (1981) claims the Saussurian model is made arbitrary by the advent of hyperreality wherein the two poles of the signified and signifier implode in upon eachother destroying meaning, causing all signs to be unhinged and point back to a non-existing reality (180). Another basic characteristic of the hyperreal is the dislocation of object materiality and concrete spatial relations (see objecthood). Some of these problems are explored in Paul Virilio’s The Lost Dimension, in which he argues that modern media technology have created a “crisis of representation” where the distinctions between near and far, object and image, have imploded (p. 112). Virilio locates the ‘vacuum of speed’ as the historical development which produces technology that overturn our original understanding of spatial relations by altering our perceptions. This machinery “gives way to the televised instantaneity of a prospective observation, of a glance that pierces through the appearances of the greatest distances and the widest expanses” (p. 31). These ethereal qualities of hyperreality mean drastic revision for media theory surrounding the spectacle. This theory was famously articulated by Guy Debord (1977) who argued through neo-Marxian criticism that the spectacle has become central to capitalist modes of reproduction (p. 24). Hans Enzensberger also attempted his own ‘socialist theory of the media’ and proposed theories of domination and potential resistance based on a liberal/Marxist critique (1996). Yet, the world of hyperreality overturns any hope of a Marxist understanding of mass media, for the entire web of human meaning-making activities has been transformed into the symbolic exchange of empty signs, the modes of production have been liquefied and leukemized into the giant political economy of exchanging signs. Steven Best and Douglas Kellner present the hyperrealist argument against Debord and his colleagues, “this is not to say that “representation” has simply become more indirect or oblique, as Debord would have it, but that in a world where the subject/object distance is erased […] and where signs no longer refer beyond themselves to an existing, knowable world, representation has been surpassed […] an independent object world is assimilated to and defined by artificial codes and simulation models” (DBT pg. web).
The system of monetary exchange is an example of the hyperreal that should help to prevent any definitional confusion. Traditional explanations of the history of money will return to earlier societies in which people traded goods and tools that presumably had similar amounts of labor invested within their production/acquisition. At some point, a common good was substituted as a ground for exchange, and then later pecuniary units were produced in order to simulate the common exchange. At first the monetary units had inherent value in that they were made of precious metals, but they were eventually replaced with worthless paper units, and many contemporary economies are now substituting these papers for credit information stored in computer databanks. During the process of countless successive copies the essential reality of exchange has long since been lost, with commodities now completely disconnected from their use value, their production cost, and even their function. Moreover, the foundational lie of exchange has long since been forgotten over the weight of countless simulacra: that there was never any trade grounded in reality, that symbolic exchange is precisely and only that which can only refer to other signs for meaning and definition.
The next important intersection between the theory of hyperreality and media studies is performativity. Although the problem of performance is not one unique to modernity, it does seem as though it has been exacerbated in the hyperrealist environment with the proliferation of identities and recognizable performative actions. Social performance is a copy that instantaneously reproduces itself by being viewed thus disseminated to others who will potentially incorporate the performative action into their own technologies of self. Jeffrey T. Nealon in his book Alterity Politics interprets the work of Butler and Derrida to argue that basic performances underlie all social agency, “agency is necessarily a matter of response to already given codes” (p. 23). But where are the originals, the carved wooden blocks that produced so many performative copies? The ‘originals’ are constantly referenced through discursive performance, mostly as ‘human nature’ or some equivalent concept. Performances based on gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, and a number of smaller modes of action consistently refer back to a fabricated biological essence, a ‘truth’ of the body. Yet as my own performance in this course revealed, gender (and by insinuation the entire structure of human nature) is entirely performative lacking any grounding in biological or otherwise human essence. My ability to simply change the gender of my everyday performance elucidated the lack of any biological grounding to gender or sex, and illuminated all social performance as media simulacrum.
The role of performance within mass media must thus be studied in the two following ways: firstly as being reproduced among wide scale audiences, and secondly as a forged ‘unreality’ that implies the ‘realness’ of everyday performance. The first form of analysis is obvious, that commonly portrayed performances such as race or gender normalize those modes of behavior and train audiences to take on, improve, and master those performative identities thus replicating the simulacra. Umberto Eco (1983) touches on this aspect of simulations in his book Travels in Hyperreality, where he notes that the simulacrum not only produces illusion, but “stimulates demand for it” (p. 44). In the second instance of media criticism, Baudrillard’s metaphor of Disneyland should be employed, that the constructed realm of fantasy exists to imply that the rest of the world is real (1994, p. 12). The obviously unreal performances of characters in television and movies should be examined in light of their significant role for persuading populations that their own social performances are ‘real,’ and providing the most foundational ‘other’ to stabilize all identities.
Deleuze helps to connect hyperreality to another strain of media theory originating in one of the oldest known media theorists, Plato. Suspicion of media technologies is not a uniquely modern phenomenon, indeed Plato advanced a critique of the written word through the dialog of Socrates in the Phaedrus (quite similar to that of Baudrillard in CPS). Plato, in his Allegory of the Cave, purports the existence of truth in ideal forms, accessible not in reality but through the philosopher’s ideas and intellectual pursuit of the forms. Plato presents a clear understanding of simulations in the Caves; although he concedes that any artistic reproduction of ideal forms would constitute representation, he is clear that it entails the copy of an original, true form. Deleuze argues that Plato contrasts these legitimate copies to fearful simulacra, “Plato divides in two the domain of images-idols: on one hand there are copies-icons, on the other there are simulacra-phantasms” (p. 256). It is thus that Deleuze is able to claim that with the arrival of hyperreality Platonism has been reversed, for any original truth or ideal forms that provided the anchor for representation have since been permanently lost in the reproduction of simulacra and the construction of a hyperreality without any connection to the real.
The role of resistance in relation to hyperreality differs greatly among theorists. Some thinkers are fairly optimistic, such as Marshall McLuhan’s portrayal of media technologies as a generally benign force, expanding and evolving toward a society with great communicative potential. This interpretation directly clashes with Baudrillard, who sees the mass media as inherently non-communicative, a quality that allows them to exert social control over mass populations. In his earlier work Baudrillard’s proposal for resistance is radical but clear: obliterate the transmitters, destroy the world of media technologies through revolutionary action and resume normal face to face conversation (1981: p. 170). Yet in his later work, Baudrillard borders more on nihilism, with the closest articulation of resistance being his advocacy of mass indifference to simulacra (IL 1994: 60-61). Eco is far more hopeful about the possibilities for resistance. Eco, in a move theoretically similar to Enzensberger, advocates what he calls the guerrilla solution, modeled off the metaphor of guerrilla resistance; he claims that revolutionaries and critical theorists can use the grassroots television programming to spread their subversive message (142-143). My own performance proposed a strategy of resistance adopted from the work of Judith Butler, to reverse certain performative signs in a subversive manner around the body so as to expose, reveal, and de-familiarize specific media technologies– to dress in drag in order to denaturalize simulated norms of sex and gender.
The conceptual use of hyperreality is consistent enough within the literature to give space for a common working definition for media theory, but the contrasting term ‘reality’ is used in far too many divergent ways to arrive at a unified understanding. However, it may be helpful for readers to conclude this article with a few brief theories of reality as a starting point for further study. For Lacan, the term real is composed in opposition to that which is encompassed by the symbolic and the imaginary (see symbolic, real, imaginary). The real is what eludes representation, what cannot be either symbolized (in terms of Saussure’s notion of signifiers) or imagined and perceived within the images of the conscious and unconscious (Sheridan 1978: p. 280). Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1983) understand desire to be based upon the lack of the object, yet nonetheless a productive force that renders into reality the fantasy of that object. ‘Reality’ is thus nothing more than a “group fantasy” reified by ‘desiring machines, for “desire produces reality, or stated another way, desiring-production is one and the same thing as social production” (p. 30). For a definition of reality in contrast to hyperreality, Baudrillard represents many of the hyperrealists with his claim that the real is “fictional,” a phantasy generated by “doubling the signs of an unlocatable reality” (1994: p. 81). Baudrillard concludes on reality that it is nothing more than a fairy tale, it is “now impossible to isolate the process of the real, or to prove the real” (1994: p. 21).
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