Hyperreality in the 21st Century
Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was a French sociologist, philosopher and cultural theorist whose work is most frequently associated with postmodernism and post-structuralism. He began his theoretical work as an attempt to build on Marxism, extending into areas outside the mode of production. His primary interest was building on the Marxist idea of materialism by focusing on how media consumption affects our perception of reality. According to Baudrillard, our postmodern society has become one made up entirely of representations. We live in a realm of hyperreality; a media-saturated society in which we are unable to distinguish reality from its simulation.
In his book Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Baudrillard asks, “But what becomes of the divinity when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra?” (“Selected Writings” 172). There are four stages of destabilizing and replacing reality, which Baudrillard calls the process of simulation. We can understand the stages in relation to the celebrity image and to Andy Warhol, an artist who Baudrillard explicitly took interest in. Throughout Baudrillard’s theoretical investigations and cultural reflections, his connections to art, including architecture, photography, painting and more, remained constant. Because of these connections, using works of art and the development of art from pre-industrial society until today is advantageous to understand Baudrillard’s four stage theory.
The first stage of replacing reality happens when the image, or sign, reflects a profound reality and has a particular relationship to that reality. This stage is connected to the early modern period leading up to the industrial revolution. An example of this stage would be the celebrity status of Marilyn Monroe. Her celebrity image is a representation of her real life, but it is nonetheless a product of the media that is a step removed from reality. The image precedes Marilyn herself, presenting the sex symbol she was known for that has no actual basis in reality.
The second stage manifests when the image in question masks reality, distorting it yet maintaining that a reality still exists underneath. This stage is related to the industrial revolution of the 19th century when mass production was made possible. A prime example of this stage is a photograph of the celebrity Marilyn, a mechanical reproduction of her celebrity image which is an already manipulated reality. The fact that the image is mechanically reproduced and therefore can produce endless copies masks the underlying reality by perfect imitation.
The crucial break happens between the second and third stages. In the third stage, when according to Baudrillard the image masks the absence of a profound reality, images no longer point to any referent. The image makes us think that it is a representation of something real, when in actuality it is concealing the absence of reality. This is the postmodern age; the age of hyperreality. To better understand this stage, consider Andy Warhol’s silkscreen of celebrity Marilyn. Warhol distorts the likeness with bright colors and presents multiple copies next to each other, separating the image that much further from her true form. A more contemporary example would be the use of Photoshop on digital images. The images make us think they have a basis in reality when in fact it conceals the absence of reality altogether.
The fourth and final stage occurs when images stop pretending to be appearances or representations of something that doesn’t exist. They have no relation to reality whatsoever and thus can no longer be signs. Rather, as Baudrillard says, it is its own pure simulacrum. An example of this would be a digital copy of the silkscreen of the photograph of the Celebrity Marilyn. Warhol’s Marilyn exists as its own simulacrum, a sign which points to other signs rather than something real.
Baudrillard’s original question asked, what becomes of the divinity when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra? The answer is is the death of what it represents and the birth of the simulacra. Baudrillard does not explicitly suggest when society lost reality, nor is he clear on whether he believed that reality is something that has been lost or something that never actually existed. He does say, however, that our society today is experiencing the death of the real and living in a realm of hyperreality. His theory of simulation is not that it provides a false view of the world, but that it constructs a hyperreality.
The example Baudrillard uses to explain hyperreality is Disneyland, which is more real than society because it does not conceal its non-reality. Today the example we can turn to is Donald Trump, but who he really is isn’t of consequence. Rather, it is the image that precedes him, what defines him without any connection to reality, and what that says about society and society’s perception of reality today. Trump is running for president of the United States of America, and he is succeeding because he is doing so by drawing on America’s fascination with the celebrity and hyperreality. He has stepped onto the scene at a time when fame and politics have completely changed in America: by relying on image rather than reality, Trump is illustrating how normal and accepted it is for today’s public to completely ignore the presence, or lack thereof, of reality, and instead base opinions and important decisions on whatever simulated reality appears before them. We are living in a Derridean world of Différance, in which the idea of true meaning has been thrown into radical question. We cannot tell if Trump believes what is he saying or not, because his entire campaign works to challenge what we previously understood to be the reality of politics. His policies, which seem to exist in a chaos of paradoxical non-meaning, are either unpopular, unconstitutional, impossible to implement, or a combination of the three. Any attacks against him have been completely ineffective because he is running as an entertainer, not as a politician, and that’s why he has so much support. Understanding Trump’s popularity has to do with America’s obsession with reality television, consumer culture, and celebrity culture; all of which diverge drastically from reality. These cultural phenomena are nothing but empty simulacra being sold to the masses as if they have meaning. It is through America’s obsession with these empty symbols that Trump gets his power, and hyperreality continues to gain traction as equal to reality itself.
Donald Trump asserts that he is not a politician and doesn’t want to be one, because the system is ineffective. Trump has become to politics to what Baudrillard says Disneyland is to America. “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation” (“Selected Writings” 175). Trump is the imaginary to the reality of politics, when in fact politics do not exist as reality at all. Political elections are based on measuring the popularity of empty ideals. An overwhelming amount of people believe in Trump’s slogans, his unapologetically racist or sexist remarks, and over-dramatic proposed policies. Another overwhelming amount of people are outraged by him, because he is the non-reality to the concealed non-reality of politics. He is making a mockery of the political election and he is able to do so because we live in a hyperreal world where we turn to entertainment and communication technologies to the extent that images have become indistinguishable from reality.
In this postmodern world, individuals flee from the “desert of the real” for the ecstasies of hyperreality and the new realm of computer, media, and technological experience. In this universe, subjectivities are fragmented and lost, and a new terrain of experience appears that for Baudrillard renders previous social theories and politics obsolete and irrelevant (Kellner).
Trump’s ideas may be revolting, but he is the candidate that America is asking for. Politics have turned into images without referents. They are the biggest simulation of all, a parody reflecting the American people, a mirror held up to society revealing to us our own culture. More and more people invest their time, money, and energy into simulated realities while less and less are invested in what is left of reality. Our next president may very well be Donald Trump because above all, American popular culture enjoys the spectacle.
There are a number of phenomena that explain the loss of connection between simulation and reality. According to Marx, existing in a capitalist culture means that everything can be translated into how much it is worth: its exchange value. This was the beginning of the loss of a material reality, a step away from use value, and how our lives are lived completely in terms of capital. Baudrillard builds on this concept from a post-structuralist perspective, suggesting that in today’s consumer-oriented society, commodities take on a symbolic value that constitutes their “status” and, therefore, power” (Koch and Elmore, 1). Just as how post-structuralist semiology shows that words take meaning by what they are not, so sign values take on meaning according to a system of prestige and status.
Baudrillard’s theory of symbolic exchange attempts to completely break away from Marxist economic based thinking. He argues that today’s consumer-based society is one in which commodities have moved beyond use value or even exchange value, and are left only with symbolic value which constitutes status and power.
“But Benjamin and McLuhan saw that the real message, the real ultimatum, lay in reproduction itself, and that production, as such, has no meaning: its social finality gets lost in seriality. Simulacra surpass history” (“Selected Writings” 138).
The Western post-industrial societies, in particular the United States, have become information cultures where a constantly changing symbolic environment generates symbolic value and desire. The U.S. is most deeply a simulated environment of symbolic exchange. Needs and desires are created that lack any use values at all, and commodities have become positioned purely for symbolic value. This pushes the ultra-capitalist society forward, sustains the continual need for commodities even after material needs are satisfied, and positions those commodities to be used in symbolic exchange. Baudrillard builds on the answer to the original question of what happens to divinity when it is revealed in icons, by describing the system of value surpassing the existence of the object entirely:
So initially, the real object becomes sign: this is the stage of simulation. But in a subsequent stage the sign becomes an object again, but not a real object: an object much further removed from the real than the sign itself – and object . . . outside representation: a fetish (Baudrillard qtd. in Koch and Elmore, 12).
One of the definitions of fetishism is extravagant irrational devotion, which also describes social media habits of individuals today. Modes of interacting with simulated reality have dramatically increased in recent years, from social media platforms to virtual reality eyewear, and with it the connection to reality has significantly decreased. With the overabundance of simulated realities to choose from, it is hardly difficult to understand why. In a system of symbolic value there is no possibility of existence of a referent. Social media today exists in a system of symbolic value, in which reality has no value. Individuals construct online identities which can be continuously edited, promoted, or even deleted. Instagram users pay to have their photos featured on other Instagram profiles for more followers and “likes”. Postmodern society encourages the freedom and expression of the individual, and with that individual being constantly “on” and asked to speak, encouraging the online identity to surpass the real self. Social media continuously create and stimulate symbolic value while sustaining and building socially shared meaning.
Another phenomenon which historically pushed humanity into this world of hyperreality is the increase in information production. We live in a world where more and more information is produced and made available, which consequently and ironically leads to less meaning. Baudrillard’s work from the 1980s seems to predict the coming age of social media. His article published in 1985 entitled The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media can easily be contextualized in today’s social media saturated society. He writes,
This is our destiny, subjected to opinion polls, information, publicity, statistics: constantly confronted with the anticipated statistical verification of our behavior, absorbed by this permanent refraction of our least movements, we are no longer confronted with our own will. We are no longer even alienated, because for that it is necessary for the subject to be divided in itself, confronted with the other, contradictory. Now, where there is no other, the scene of the other, like that of politics and society, has disappeared. Each individual is forced despite himself into the undivided coherency of statistics. There is in this a positive absorption into the transparency of computers, which is something worse than alienation. (“The Implosion of Social in the Media” 580).
He is speaking to the quantification of the subject, the production of a manipulated data object instead of an individualized human being. This is eerily reminiscent of social media’s usage of big data today. Facebook produces personalized feeds and shapes our conception of social reality to equate and encourage what we already think, and to authenticate us with meaningless simulation. It is a reality that exists solely for us; full of like-minded people sharing and encouraging like-minded thoughts and injected with personalized advertisements that have been determined by use of big data analysis with the keywords we use and search for, the profiles we visit, and links we click on. Ads become less intrusive and more persuasive, all by our own doing.
Our Facebook home feeds are tautological, capable only of relaying what has already been said, and this is what shapes our conception of social reality. Our idea of being social is interacting in a closed loop in which images and representations only point to other images and representations. Our measurement and development of sociality is based on our consumption of media as isolated individuals. We believe that information is equal to communication, and that without media, our world would collapse. In fact, the opposite is true. Baudrillard argues that the increase of information destroys meaning, firstly because it stages meaning, it pretends to have meaning, and exhausts itself in doing so. Secondly because signs are losing value and thus, the relationships between the signs lose value, leading to information being the destruction of meaning (“The Implosion of Meaning in the Media” 80-81).
Social media does not just stop at producing comfortable non-realities of sociality for us. The various platforms constantly ask us to speak and to share and even strategies of resistance are being encouraged. Everything we consume is generating more data for the system. We are participating in, “this sort of continual voyeurism of the group in relation to itself” (“The Implosion of Social in the Media” 580). Social media makes it easier to speak every day, from Facebook’s new “reactions” that allow us to specify whether we “like”, “love”, “sad” or “haha” a post, to its new login feature which enables you to be always signed in on your personal device by simply tapping your profile picture, no password necessary. Facebook’s newest feature prompts you when you open the Messenger app to “find your friends in photos you take so you can send the photos to them.” Privacy issues aside, these new ways of connecting and sharing are constantly being created and pushed onto us. We are encouraged to speak because the more we say, the more media we produce to be captured and commodified. For a long time, political movements, social movements, and subcultures were trying to find a way to speak in an environment that denied their speech. Today, we live in a world without censorship. Dissent is not prohibited and strategies of resistance are encouraged. Any resistance to speech, any desire to express dissent, at a moment when we are being asked to do exactly that, becomes just another marketing tool. The more you interact the better you can be classified and the more a hyperreality can be shaped around you. We experience freedom to share, individualize ourselves, “confess” as Foucault would say, when in fact we are being controlled, co-opted and commodified.
American society is quickly moving in the direction of complete hyperreality. Going beyond social media, virtual reality has taken off in recent years with multiple companies pursuing the commercial adoption of VR headsets. Even social media have joined the race toward virtual reality. Snapchat has become the newest overwhelmingly popular platform with reportedly 8 billion daily video views and 100 million daily active users (Aslam). One of the app’s more recent updates was the introduction of Lenses, which add real-time special effects and sounds to pictures and videos taken with the app. Since that featured was introduced Snapchat has continuously created new lenses as well as introduced featured lenses that work as sponsored advertisements for upcoming films, new products or internationally-known events. One of the newest types of lens is face-swapping, which allows you to replace your face with the face of the person next to you. Soon after Snapchat introduced this lens, Facebook announced the purchase of a popular face-swapping app and Mark Zuckerberg posted a video in which he is wearing a virtual Iron Man mask. Taking it a step further, Stanford University has created a real-time facial reenactment software, of which their goal is to “animate the facial expressions of the target video by a source actor and re-render the manipulated output video in a photo-realistic fashion” (Thies et. al). We’ve moved beyond the hyperreality made of Photoshop-edited images that already completely saturate our lives. Face-swapping is fourth order simulacra, so completely removed from any basis in reality because they have never had any referent. The next step, which Stanford is pursuing, to simulate others in real-time is so lacking reality that it could become something very dangerous. A foreseeable future if we continue to pursue virtual reality is the absolute embodiment of Baudrillard’s simulation theory. We already live in a world in which the mass media share de-contextualized simulations of reality. What happens when we move further into a world where reality is completely undistinguishable?
The line between what is real and what isn’t is increasingly blurred. Baudrillard’s analysis of the process of simulation and hyperreality is more applicable today than ever before. Society is happily receding from reality in favor of living in the virtual, the hyperreal. Politics have become entertainment, social media has become another way to control the masses, and virtual reality could become our new Disneyland, concealing the non-reality of society even further. For now, virtual reality is more of an extension of hyperreality because we can see the boundary between the virtual and the real. While some have compared Baudrillard’s work to The Matrix, his theory of simulation highlights the interminability between the real and the hyperreal whereas in The Matrix, and concerning virtual reality, the line is still distinguishable. Baudrillard’s fourth stage of simulation, the fractal stage, has “no point of reference at all, and the value radiates in all directions, occupying all interstices, without reference to anything whatsoever, by virtue of pure contiguity” (“The Transparency of Evil”). As the line between human and technology becomes increasingly thin, and while the idea of the original has been completely destroyed, what remains to be seen is what will happen to the concept of reality and of truth beyond what Baudillard saw decades ago. The territory we are barely conscious of today may completely disappear as the map we create finally precedes it.
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