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Hyperrealism

The Matrix (1999), The Truman Show (1998), Vanilla Sky (2001), Inception (2010)…apart from being cult classics, what do these movies have in common? In different ways, they all deal with reality and perception. As it turns out, our fascination with the nature of reality might just be a feature of postmodern society. The French sociologist and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) came up with the concept of hyperreality or hyperrealism to describe the representations of reality in the postmodern era.

Postmodernism is both a period in history and a branch of philosophy that succeeded modernism in the twentieth century. Postmodernism rejected modernist values and embraced the lack of objectivity, fragmentation and irrationality in the present times. The term 'postmodern' was coined by the French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard.

Hyperrealism: definition

Jean Baudrillard presented the concept of hyperreality in his book Simulacra and Simulation (1981). Baudrillard uses the analogy of a map to explain the concept: modern society relies on maps and guides to the world that we have lost touch with the real, the original version that the map is modelled on.

Hyperreality: In simple words, hyperreality is the idea that the true reality is lost in representation, replaced by copies in its image.

The hyperreal is like an object that has been duplicated so many times that the current version looks nothing like the original. To Baudrillard, modern technology, media, and consumer capitalism are to blame for this phenomenon.

Consumer capitalism is an economic practice and theory where mass marketing is used to manipulate consumers in ways that benefit the sellers.

Hyperrealism: history

Baudrillard's concept of hyperreality was influenced by concepts of semiotics and Marx's ideas on culture and capitalism. Marshall McLuhan's Medium theory was an antecedent of Baudrillard's hyperreality. McLuhan was a Canadian philosopher whose theories on media and culture have shaped the study of popular culture.

The Medium theory suggests that the message is shaped by the medium used to convey it. McLuhan argued that each medium is a unique channel or an environment with unique characteristics that could modify the message and influence culture over time.

Baudrillard built on McLuhan's concept and challenged it by arguing that both the message and the medium are transformed in the process of transmission. According to Baudrillard, the boundaries of the message, the medium, and the real break down to create a hyperreality.

The Italian writer, philosopher and critic Umberto Eco proposed a slightly contrasting idea of hyperreality in which the copy of the real has taken precedence over the place of the real in culture. Whereas for Baudrillard, both the copy and the original are replaced by what he called simulacra.

Alternate theories and investigations today tend to focus on 'hyperrealities' rather than a 'hyperreality' brought forth by world systems of power that Baudrillard regarded as the contributing factors of the postmodern condition of hyperreality. Let's talk more about Baudrillard's ideas on the matter!

Hyperrealism - postmodernism

Baudrillard's early work in semiotics has influenced the theory of hyperreality. He uses ideas like signs and symbols in cultural theory to describe the concept of hyperreality. To understand the concept of hyperreality better, let's, first of all, understand Baudrillard's terms simulacra and simulation.

Simulacra: the small unit, i.e., the signs and symbols, that compose the modern appearances that we perceive as reality. They are the signs of the real that replace the real.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze described it as 'an image without resemblance'1. Baudrillard argued that these are not merely copies without an original; they become their own truth, in turn.

Simulation can be defined as the cumulative effect of the simulacra, the blurring of the boundaries between reality and its representations that act as a proxy for the real and gain their own truth in time.

The hyperreal is when we can no longer distinguish between the real and the mere portrayal of the real. The portrayals of reality are achieved through signs and symbols.

'Sign' is a semiotic term first used by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. The concept of sign is also used in linguistics, structuralism, postmodernism, and post-structuralism. Signs are units of communication. It can be a word, an image, a sound, or even the emojis and emoticons that we use on social media.

Signs play an important role in shaping culture. Signs can be appropriated and manipulated to control information and push certain narratives as the truth.

Baudrillard proposed that there are three stages in the process, which he called 'orders of the simulacra'2:

1. Reflection of reality: The first stage is where the sign is an imitation but counterfeit, a relatively faithful copy of reality. Baudrillard called it 'the sacramental order' because the sign is not too far from the original and appears to truthfully reflect reality. Baudrillard associated this stage with the pre-modern period when it was possible to identify the real from the duplicate.

2. The perversion of reality and pretence of reality: At this stage, signs are referential and shadow a distant reality. But they present a distorted reality, as signs are not capable of presenting the real as it is. Baudrillard described this stage as the 'order of sorcery' because this is where an arbitrary meaning is attributed to things. The representations appear to be presenting a reality, but these are duplicates of a non-existent original and are eventually accepted as reality.

Industrialisation and mass production where millions of copies are made in the same image, and therefore, the distinction between the original and the copy is not possible.

3. The Precession of Simulacra: Baudrillard described the simulacrum as a characteristic of the postmodern age. At this stage, we confront the representation before the reality, and our perception of reality is shaped by the representation. It becomes a system where it is difficult to tell the reality apart from its representation.

Hyperrealism: examples

Baudrillard pointed out a number of facets of modern life where these ideas are at work.

Media

Media today does not merely present things to us; they create. Be it television, film, advertisements, magazines, the internet and social media, they now encroach on our personal spaces and influence and interpret our lives for us. The marketing techniques of businesses today reflect this phenomenon well: we buy what we are told we need, and we buy what everyone else has.

Consumerism

Karl Marx, the founder of Marxism, explained the capitalist tendency to promote exchange-value instead of the use-value of an object. The exchange value can be measured in terms of actual money or even social status that we get from owning something. Instead of the real-life use of an object, consumerism is more about capital.

Capital: assets, either money or in other forms, available to invest.

Multinational capitalism

With the rise of globalisation and trade, the consumer is increasingly distant from the producer of goods. As a result, we are unaware and often indifferent to the processes and conditions of production. As opposed to locally produced goods and farmer's market produce, the majority of the goods manufactured today are aimed at global supermarket retail. This makes us lose touch with the ground realities of the things that we use in our everyday life.

Urbanisation

The rise of market competition and consumption has led to forests and natural spaces being cleared for mining and residential development. The rapid loss of nature and biodiversity led to the creation of reserves and protected spaces that are deemed 'nature'. Baudrillard argues that those who live in the city become oblivious to the artificiality of urban life in contrast to these natural spaces. Nature is now understood as something distinct from urban reality. Think of nature preserves and parks that are 'protected' and come with fences and signs that point them out as nature.

Popular culture

A lot of things that we love and use in our daily lives represent hyperreality to certain degrees.

  • Baudrillard used Disneyland to illustrate how hyperreality works in real life. Disneyland is a reproduction of a place that does not exist; at the same time, it appears to be real with a legitimate history.
  • Reproductions of classic paintings we can buy for cheap.
  • Photoshopped images that populate lifestyle magazines.
  • Plastic trees and flowers with a life-like quality.
  • Landscaped gardens.

Hyperrealism vs realism

Does hyperrealism have any connection with realism? Let's find out.

Realism refers to:

a) a nineteenth-century movement in arts and literature emerged in protest of Romanticism, with an aim to faithfully reproduce social realities.

b) an aesthetic and stylistic method that places importance on fidelity to the object being represented in the text.

c) a philosophical stance that there is an objective reality independent of perception, and our perceptions can be improved to understand that reality better.

The realist standpoint in philosophy posits that our reality is a sum of our observations. It works like an approximation, close but not quite the same. Baudrillard's hyperreality differs from realism in saying that in postmodern society, there is no longer a reality that we can fall back on. There is an erosion of reality, and various representations have come to take its place.

Baudrillard's concept of hyperreality does not describe the postmodern world as artificial. He argues that to be artificial, an object needs to be based on something real to which it can be compared. In postmodern society, there is no easy distinction between real and artificial.

Hyperrealism - Key takeaways

  • The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard described hyperreality as a feature of postmodern society.
  • Baudrillard describes hyperreality as a state where we can no longer distinguish between reality and mere representations of reality in the world we live in.
  • Baudrillard argued that hyperreality is achieved through complex processes of signs and symbols. The signs that initially copy the real gradually stop being faithful to the original, and eventually, we lose sight of the original.
  • Baudrillard argued that we can see the ramifications of hyperreality in how today's media, technology, the internet, and markets function.
  • Baudrillard was a postmodern philosopher and sociologist who made important contributions to the field of semiotics and cultural theory. He introduced the concept of hyperreality in his book Simulacra and Simulation (1981).

1. Gilles Deleuze. The Logic of Sense. 2004.

2. Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. 1994.

Frequently Asked Questions about Hyperrealism

Hyperrealism or hyperreality is a concept proposed by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. The term hyperrealism refers to the postmodern condition where it is difficult or impossible to distinguish between reality and representations of reality. 

Hyperrealism operates on different levels and aspects of society. Baudrillard presents media, technology, the internet, and consumerism as examples of hyperreality at work. Today’s social media culture, with its murky boundaries of falsehood and reality, might be a good example of this perspective.

The French philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard introduced the concept of hyperrealism in his book Simulacra and Simulation (1981). His theory is inspired by the Medium theory of the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan that says the medium is as important as the message. Baudrillard took this a step further by suggesting that both the medium and the message are altered in relation to the real, and all of these together become a hyperreality, or in his words, a hyperreal nebula.

Realism in philosophy is based on fidelity to the original and the idea that reality can be known. Baudrillard argued that in the postmodern era, reality has been made partially redundant and unknowable by its representations that reach people before they have the opportunity to perceive the real. 

In postmodernism, hyperrealism is the theory that the boundaries between reality and the copies or representations of reality are no longer recognisable. Jean Baudrillard, the French philosopher and cultural theorist who put forward the concept of hyperreality, identified several facets of postmodern life that display hyperreality, such as media culture, consumerism, the internet and so on.

Final Hyperrealism Quiz

Question

Who came up with the concept of hyperrealism?

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Answer

Jean Baudrillard.

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Question

What is the theory of hyperrealism/hyperreality?

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Answer

The idea that reality and representations of reality has merged together in the postmodern world to form a hyperreality.

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Question

Name of book in which Baudrillard discusses hyperreality.

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Answer

Simulacra and Simulations (1981) (Simulacres et Simulation in French).

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Question

Is the concept of hyperreality dystopian?

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Answer

Yes, it talks about the loss of reality to be replaced by items of consumption and fake images that resemble a non-existent reality.

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Question

What are the orders of the simulacra?

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Answer

Baudrillard described three stages of simulacra as orders of the simulacra. They are:

1. The sacramental order

2. The order of sorcery

3. The precession of the simulacra


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Question

What branch of philosophy is the idea of hyperreality associated with?

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Answer

Postmodernism.

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Question

Name the theorist who discussed hyperreality apart from Baudrillard.

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Answer

Umberto Eco.

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What is the Medium theory?

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Answer

The Medium theory by Marshall McLuhan suggests that the medium is just as important as the message. He argues that each medium has characteristics that have an effect on the message conveyed through it. 

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Question

What did Baudrillard discuss as an example of hyperreality?

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Answer

Disneyland.

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What is a sign?

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Answer

In semiotics, a sign is anything that can communicate. The study of signs has been a focus of linguistics, structuralism, and cultural studies. 

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