reality, hyperreality (2)

The term reality perhaps most often refers to that which “constitutes the actual thing, as distinguished from what is merely apparent or external” and “underlies and is the truth of appearances or phenomena." [1] This definition seems to present an opposition between appearance and reality, i.e. “in words, he does; in reality, he does not." [2] This example seems to set reality in contrast to a statement mediated by words. However, as mediation through words and images can be used to obscure reality, media can also create a “suggestion of, resemblance to, what is real,” which is yet another definition of reality. A fashion magazine noted in 1896 a “showy girl and her showy accessories were reproduced on the canvas with almost startling reality." [3] The first definition of reality as beyond external appearances, even obscured by mediation through language, is in dramatic tension with this second definition of reality as, not the presence, but simply a convincing reproduction of the real. This second definition of reality as only a resemblance, without a more than visual tie to the real, further develops in debates on hyperreality, a term used beginning around the early 1970s. Most debate on reality until the point at which hyperreality enters focused around the first definition, as a debate between those who believed in an unmediated access to absolute reality through philosophy, science, or bodily experience, and skeptics, who doubted the possibility of moving beyond external appearances to perceive ‘reality’ objectively [see unmediated].

For Plato, as the parable of the cave teaches us, the everyday world that we perceive though it is not absolute reality, functions like the shadow world experienced by those chained in the cave. Although the external world does not represent reality, the understanding of absolute reality is possible for the philosopher in the realm of Ideas or Forms. In Plato’s thought, the true Forms, rather than discrete incidents of these Forms in the world, are the most real. Objects in the world present an incident of the Form mediated by the specificity of materials, etc., while artistic representations are yet another step away from absolute reality as further re-mediations of the Forms. Breaking in many ways from his teacher, Aristotle’s interpretation of reality differs greatly from Plato’s. For Aristotle the incident of table, made of a combination of matter and form, is actually more real than the Form of table is. Perhaps this location of reality in the physical world is partly responsible for Aristotle’s greater acceptance of artistic media.

Although linguistic discourse often stresses the arbitrary nature of the sign, Saussure's diagrams show the way in which the sign establishes a relationship with an external object, the referent, through a generally agreed upon consensus concept. Of course, as W.J.T. Mitchell points out, Saussure’s diagram functions by using a “picture standing for the concept" [4] - a picture that goes uncommented upon in Saussure’s writing. This picture represents C.S. Peirce’s class of iconic signs [see symbol, index, icon]. Through these immediately recognizable icons, Peirce suggests it is possible to reference the external world in media with a sort of unmediated firstness. Peirce argues the icon possesses characteristics that allow it to refer to the Object “whether any such Object exists or not." [5] Although Peirce then allows that the icon would no longer act as a sign if it did not refer to an Object, he claims such an unreferencing icon would still have the character of a sign. For Peirce, the relation of the sign to reality is one of representation and description; he makes it clear that the sign “cannot furnish acquaintance with or recognition of that Object." [6] Thus though mediating discourses, like language or images, can represent and describe reality, they cannot provide direct access to it. Peirce also advanced arguments specifically directed to the possibility of unmediated access to reality. In these he stated that reality could be understood only when humanity reached an agreement on its nature. Peirce’s belief in an unmediated understanding of reality in the future rested on a belief in science, relying on the continual human testing of reality until a consensus is reached. [7]

As for Peirce, science is often used contemporarily as an example for those seeking to defend basic notions of an objective empirical reality. Resting on a conviction that reality’s nature and rules can be apprehended through experimentation and observation, classical science forms the ideal model for unmediated perception of reality. However, new branches of science, like quantum mechanics, have suggested that notions of reality are always constituted and mediated by the presence of the scientific observer and instrument. Debates on quantum mechanics and relativity principles in modern science seemed to threaten notions of absolute reality in the sciences almost as much as skeptism and postmodernism did in philosophy. (This difficult tension is felt especially in certain academic circles in the seventies and eighties, as shown by books such as Reality at Risk: A Defense of Realism in Philosophy and the Sciences). [8]

Maurice Merleau-Ponty suggests that science proceeds from a flawed perspective in its search for absolute reality, looking on from above. [9] He claims science “must return to the ‘there is’ which underlines it." [10] In phenomenology, this ‘there is’ needed to understand and explain reality is “that actual body that I call mine." [11] Merleau-Ponty claims “things have an internal equivalent in me; they arouse in me a carnal formula of their presence. [12] Thus through bodily experience of objects in the world it is possible to achieve an unmediated understanding of reality.

In contrast to those who believe it possible to gain unmediated access to reality through philosophy, science, or bodily experience, other thinkers advanced theories in which reality is always already mediated. Skeptics like Berkeley and Hume argued that the exterior appearances of objects were merely an effect of the observer rather than a quality inherent in the objects themselves. This theory of perception as a layer of mediation has also been analyzed in science, particularly, as already discussed, in quantum mechanics. Scientific puzzles like Schrodinger’s cat or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle suggested that simple observation alters the external world. In this argument reality is located not in material things, but rather in our changing perception of them. Perhaps even more skeptically than Berkeley or Hume, Lacan describes the Real only in terms of lack– “what is neither symbolic or imaginary" [see symbolic, real, imaginary]. [13] Lacan separates knowledge of the external world from the Real; though “the real is impossible,” reality is “perfectly knowable” to us. [14] Even this perfectly knowable reality, however, is still mediated by desire and is “entirely phantasmatic" [see fantasy]. [15] Thus, it is never possible to achieve unmediated access to the world, rather, reality is always mediated by perception.

Postmodern discourse added an additional layer of complexity to these debates about reality, introducing the concept of a reality that is somehow more than real - hyperreality. In this model access to the real, unmediated or otherwise, is impossible because reality no longer exists. There are only things that suggest and resemble the real. In his Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco, charts his trip across the wax museums and theme parks of America. He asserts that we have moved into a historical moment in which the authenticity claimed “is not historical, but visual. Everything looks real, and therefore it is real; in any case the fact that it seems real is real, and the thing is real even if, like Alice in Wonderland, it never existed." [16] Eco suggests reality is now mediated totally by visual perception.

Further explaining the hyperreal through comparison, Eco argues “Disneyland is more hyperrealistic than the wax museum, precisely because the later still tries to make us believe that what we are seeing reproduces reality absolutely, whereas Disneyland makes it clear that within its magical enclosure it is fantasy that is reproduced." [17] The fictional character is thus made equivalent with the historical one, both becoming equally real.

In his Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard agrees with Eco that the hyperreal “effaces the contradiction between the real and the imaginary." [18] However, Baudrillard moves to argue that the hyperreal is a condition much more wide spread than the theme park or wax museum. Writing in 1976, Baudrillard claims that, “in fact, hyperrealism must be interpreted in inverse manner: today reality itself is hyperrealist." [19] For Baudrillard, the hyperreal is brought about by “the meticulous reduplication of the real, preferably through another reproductive medium such as advertising or photography.” Here, Baudrillard seems to contend that the ‘nesting’ of media and translation of reality through so many media screens is responsible for the “the collapse of reality into hyperrealism." [20] He argues that during reproduction through multiple media the real becomes unstable.

The hyperreal in Eco is also deeply tied to a rise in technology, which “can give us more reality than nature can." [21] For Benjamin, in his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," technical reproduction lead to a decline in the rarified aura that clings to original objects. The mechanically reproduced artwork, in Benjamin’s theory, also allowed greater democratic consumption of works of art, locating the mass audience as testing experts. However for Eco and Baudrillard, the audience of the reproduced work of art does not test, but is captured by the image ignoring the effacement of the reality. Drawing power from its own destruction the reproduction becomes “real for its own sake, a fetishism of the lost object which is no longer the object of representation, but the ecstasy of denegation and its own ritual extermination: the hyperreal." [22] The idea of reproduction is central to debates about hyperreality, “the real is not only that which can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced: the hyperreal." [23] In Baudrillard’s view of semiotics, first the sign reflects reality, then it hides reality, and then, finally, the sign hides the absence of reality - becoming hyperreal. The tension between mediated and unmediated access to reality has thus become subsumed in debates about the very existence of reality at all. In theories of the hyperreal it is no longer possible to access the real through media. Media images must now cover the absence of reality perhaps by calling themselves Reality TV or The Real World.

Lauren Kroiz
Winter 2002