Hyperreality

23 05 2008

I’m not going to pretend like I’ve done any serious research on this topic, only offering some thoughts which were launched upon coming into contact with the idea.

Wikipedia defines Hyperreality as

…the inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from fantasy, especially in technologically advanced postmodern cultures. Hyperreality is a means to characterise the way consciousness defines what is actually “real” in a world where a multitude of media can radically shape and filter the original event or experience being depicted. Some famous theorists of hyperreality include Jean Baudrillard, Albert Borgmann, Daniel Boorstin, and Umberto Eco.

Most aspects of hyperreality can be thought of as “reality by proxy.” For example, a viewer watching pornography begins to live in the non-existent world of the pornography, and even though pornography is not an accurate depiction of sex, for the viewer, the reality of “sex” becomes something non-existent. Some examples are simpler: the McDonald’s “M” arches create a world with the promise of endless amounts of identical food, when in “reality” the “M” represents nothing, and the food produced is neither identical nor infinite.[1]

Baudrillard in particular suggests that the world we live in has been replaced by a copy world, where we seek simulated stimuli and nothing more. Baudrillard borrows, from Jorge Luis Borges (who already borrowed from Lewis Carroll), the example of a society whose cartographers create a map so detailed that it covers the very things it was designed to represent. When the empire declines, the map fades into the landscape and there is neither the representation nor the real remaining – just the hyperreal.

What was of chief interest to me is the notion that we live in a world where various forms of media and/or stimuli can have such a radical effect on us that what is actually real ceases to exist for us and is replaced by something else, the hyperreal.

To what degree have we, as a society, become so fixated on fantasy that we become blind to anything real around us? The examples given about pornography and fast food seem excellent in my mind, because they give us hyperrealistic fantasies about sex and food respectively. Movies and television also stimulate us into imagining very bizarre things about romantic love, relationships, and real world situations. The real world doesn’t have conflict that is resolved within thirty minutes or two hours, in fact more often than not real world problems simply don’t get resolved in nice, tidy packages–if they get resolved at all.

In the real world a stressful day at work really does amount to stress, and while it’s enjoyable to watch an episode of NBC’s The Office, things like that don’t really happen. Not that enjoying fantasy is wrong, the telling of story through various mediums has been a facet of the human psyche since before the dawn of history; but what is quite harmful is when we would rather indulge in the fantastic–they hyperreal–than engage in the real. We allow magazines to tell us what beauty looks like, even though women in those magazines are touched up digitally–thus adding another layer to the level of hyperreality already existing in the medium. To what extent has this level of hyperreality communicated to us in all sorts of stimulating forms come to actually distort our capacity to engage in the real around us? How many of us actually live day-to-day imagining ourselves in a world that is actually quite different than the real one? When we ignore the plight of human suffering around us, tuning rather instead to our Disneyland world of fantasy, aren’t we really imagining that our hyperreal world is the real one, and that the real world is the one of fantasy? The pain that people feel becomes the un-real to us, it becomes what we imagine to be the fantastic–a terrible fantastic to be sure, something we think we can change by simply changing the channel–while the fantasy which we have become overly engaged in has become our real: that kind of world which we would rather live in than the real world.

I freely admit that I describe myself here. That is a statement about myself. But to what degree is this actually quite true about our culture at large? Is it only marginally true? Very true? Not true at all? Hardly true?

And what should a Christian response to this aspect of our culture be? How can we rid ourselves of our hyperrealities and become fully engaging with what is actually real, and then engage in it in such a way as to become conversant with everyone around us?

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