Hyper-reality in television: an introduction
The concept of hyper-reality is defined as the blurring of the distinction between what is real and what is unreal, made possible through the process of simulation (Baudrillard & Glaser 1994, p.1). Baudrillard and Glaser (1994, p.1) define simulation as “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality”, in effect, the creation of the hyper-real. The unreal overtakes the real and appears to be increasingly real when in fact, it isn’t. The distinction between the real and the unreal has disappeared and reality is now being produced through simulation. It no longer has to be realistic since there is no actual measure against which it can be compared. The real is no longer real because there is no more imagination surrounding it. It becomes the hyper-real; “produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere”.
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Baudrillard and Glaser (1994 p.1) assert that as a result of simulation, it is no longer possible for an illusion to occur since the real is not possible anymore. To illustrate hyper-reality, they give an illustration of Disney World as a regeneration of the imaginary to such an extent that it is not true but not exactly false either; it is a hyper-reality. It is an imaginary representation of old Europe and a make-believe world; an imaginary reality since old Europe does not exist anymore (1994 p.12).
Tiffin and Terashima (2003 p. 4) define hyper-reality as a concept involving the ability of technology to “intermix virtual reality with physical reality and artificial intelligence to human intelligence”. Physical reality can interact with virtual reality through the use of technology such as computers as well as telecommunications to reproduce images from one place in three-dimensional virtual reality elsewhere. The physically real is fused with the virtually real and even people who were not present when the real activity occurred can take part in it as though they were there. Through hyper-reality, one can be in a place without actually going there (Tiffin and Terashima 2003, p. 5).
Pile and Thrift (1995, p. 225) use Baudrillard’s definition(s) of hyper-reality but posit that it is best referred to as a tool rather than a hypothesis or a concept. Borrowing from Baudrillard’s work, they give two different interpretations of the term hyper-reality. The first one is hyper-reality as a mode of signification and is used concerning a contemporary way of experiencing the world and understanding it, usually through the modern-day mass media and “high technology consumer societies”. In the second interpretation, hyper-reality demonstrates a means of acquiring knowledge that exaggerates to examine the limits of understanding. Pile and Thrift posit that hyper-reality is a process that exists between the self about the other; where the other “refers to the self, other-selves and the world” (Pile & Thrift 1995, p. 225).
Hyper-reality about television
The real and the unreal can be obtained from different locations and through an information superhighway, be fused to create a hyper-world (Tiffin & Terashima 2003 p. 5). Television is a good example of such a place where the virtual and the real are intermixed to create a hyper- world. It represents the unreal as the real and people can experience it as though they were there when a particular event happened even though they were not. Some of the most popular works on the concept of hyperreality in television is by Baudrillard who feels that television has taken the place of the mirror through the use of media machinery that does not represent the real world. The machinery of simulation such as advertising has taken over reality; creating a world where people are ruled by fiction and a television screen anticipates original experiences (flatline, n.d). Baudrillard examines how reality is altered through communication technology. The electronic media construct a virtual world that exists on screen only and is not related to any prior reality. Television is the mechanism of the hyperreal (Poster 2001, p. 24).
In Ecstacy and communication, (qtd in Ching- Yi 2007, p. 34) Baudrillard posits that television has taken over reality and in the process, has displaced metaphysics. Thus because of the ensuing hyper-reality, the distinction between subject and object; people and television; the real and the unreal has ceased to exist to such an extent that people are now controlled by the television and are immersed in its virtual reality as though it were reality itself. In a way, this virtual representation seems to be more real than reality itself. People are no longer in control; they have ceased to be “subjects of interiority” but are instead subjected to and controlled by the television through which the hyperreal has rendered the real obsolete. Television has intruded and taken over the lives of people from activities such as work, social relations, and leisure. While watching the television, the process of simulation occurs where the hyperreal presented in the screen displaces the real that is our actual lives and we begin to organize our lives around the “reality” presented on television (Chin- Yi 2007, p. 35). Instead of interacting with others, the television replaces our desire for human relations and real-life begins to appear “superfluous”.
Reality television shows in particular are examples of simulation and an illustration of how the hyperreal has overtaken the real. Private lives are exposed on screen for everyone to see and everything that was previously confidential such as sex is publicly exposed. Baudrillard refers to this as “the pornography of information and communication” and terms the world as obscene since the once forbidden has suddenly become “more visible than the visible” through television (Chin- Yi, 2007, p. 35). For instance, reality shows such as the Big brother or the Louds family documentary obscure the distinction between the real and the unreal since even though they are hyperreal as the performances have been staged in front of a camera; the representation appears to be true; at least truer than the soap operas which idealize everything. In representing the shows as an event that happened as if in the absence of cameras, the distance between the spectator and the audience ceases to exist, creating a utopian ideal in which the spectators feel that they are really in the unfolding scene even though they are not. They are absent yet not and this creates a hyperreal situation since one cannot distinguish between the real and the unreal. The subject positions are both up close and distant (Lane 2000, p. 98).
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From the perspective of the spectator, the reality show represents them and they are therefore the spectators while at the same time the subjects who are being watched on television. Thus the distinction of the real and the unreal is dissolved, and the audience is de-centered since their sense of reality is obscured and reality collapses, leaving the hyperreal to prevail. Baudrillard asserts that hyperreality on television attacks people’s subjectivity by controlling their minds and making them their subjects (Chin- Yi 2007, p. 43). Since the distinction between the interior (the subject) and the exterior (the television) is dissolved, the subject loses his or her sense of individuality and becomes as obscene as the world he or she inhabits, completely overtaken by hyper-reality. We inhabit a virtual world where our identities have been replaced by simulated and virtual identities which we see on the television; the hyperreal has become the interpretive framework against which people shape their identities to conform to what they see on the screen (36).
These sentiments are echoed by Virilio (qtd in Chin- Yi 2007, p. 38) who adds that television directs public opinion, presenting broadcast news as the means of publicizing the “reality” as it unfolds. He asserts that the entire world is subjected to tele- surveillance and we are all “passive witnesses of an orchestrated production”. In asserting that one does not talk about a live image but rather, undergoes it, Virilio points out the dissolution of the distinction between real and unreal.
The presentation of hyperreality about television, therefore, implies that hyperreality has taken over all forms of reality in social life, to such an extent that the identities that we develop are not real but they are a product of the hyperreality witnessed in television. It appears that all forms of interpersonal communication have been replaced by this virtual communication, with an implication of interpersonal communication as being favorable to media communication.
Weaknesses of the concept of hyperreality
Several weaknesses have been pointed out in the concept of hyperreality as presented by Baudrillard. Blackshaw (2003, p.158) asserts that the refusal by Baudrillard to acknowledge that the real can still be observed renders his concept of hyperreality weak, “almost to the point of disappearance”. Blackshaw asserts that Baudrillard never expands his hyperreality theory and it, therefore, remains as something peculiar.
Wexler (1991, p. 24) shares the same sentiments and adds that hyperreality has been overshadowed by the persistent presence of reality in several areas of daily life. Wexler asserts that Baudrillard’s theory is contradictory and how he represents the subject at the individual as well as the mass level makes it difficult to circumvent these political contradictions. The institutional mechanisms, political conflicts, and group relations all need a more thorough examination and elaboration. Baudrillard has not given any moral criteria of how the simulation regime is transformed into a more rewarding human organization system. Neither does he give any political direction which of the different
ethical choices available. Wexler (1991 p. 24) concludes by saying that Baudrillard’s work promotes mistrust of collective action; people behaving, in the same manner, maybe behaving like that due to the virtual identities that they have created for themselves via the television but does not give any postulations on the measures that can be taken to resist the process of simulation and the ensuing hyperreality.
There is a section of social theorists who attack Baudrillard’s concept of simulation and hyperreality. In his theory, Baudrillard posits that people in the modern age are trapped in a circularity of simulations from which they cannot free themselves. Everything is an imitation of other previous reproductions and as such, progress does not appear possible. However, social theorists like Habermas assert that the view of progress as improbable is essentially defending the status quo of the capitalists and as a result of this, the postmodernist theorists rely on the philosophical premises which they claim to have done away with (Alcock et al 2003 p.128).
Baudrillard has largely been criticized for failing in several ways. He does not define some very important terms, exaggerates in his writing while not giving a systematic analysis in areas that he should. He does not qualify his claims and writes on the influence of television images with total disregard to everything else that takes place in society and which may imply his observations. It is precise because of this that he extrapolates such a bleak world view and yet he refuses to acknowledge any evidence that may contradict him (Landow 2005).
It has also been asserted that the work of Baudrillard implies a technophobic mentality and a longing for “authentic” face-to-face communication. This creates a twofold dichotomy that implies that face-to-face communication is good vis-à-vis media communication which is “bad.” However, critics assert that face-to-face communication can also prove to be manipulative and distorted in the same manner as media communication. There is an expression of doubt over whether the impact of the media on society is as Baudrillard puts it as well as the relevance of his theory. His hyperreality theory subordinates the media content and he focuses on media apparatus. He tends to abstract the form and effects of media from the environment of the media and in doing so, obliterates the political economy, production, and environment of the media from his theory. The effects of media need to be explored within specific contexts but Baudrillard largely ignores this. His theory is therefore not based on careful analysis but glib pronouncements. Critics point out that any analysis of the media should not just focus on the exterior of media form but should attempt to place in context, their images, and simulacra (Landow 2005).
Kellner (n.d) points out that Baudrillard seems too abstract the media from other social systems and displays media technology as the leading social force. Yet, media form and content are determined by the capital. Instead, theorists should focus on the media as a product of both technology and capital. The theory of Baudrillard presents a rather extreme view of the media, presenting them merely as an instrument of social control, manipulation, and domination.
Previously, the media used to be regarded as the mirror of society. It was largely believed that what people saw on television was a depiction of what was happening in reality. Presently, and through the hyperreality theory, the media is being viewed as a manifestation of hyper-reality, that is, it represents virtual reality in a manner that is more real than the actual reality. Thus the real has been subordinated to the unreal and as such ceases to exist. The concept of hyperreality is a significant reversal of the representation of the real. This concept has however undergone criticism from a cross-section of social theorists who raise doubts on its relevance and view it as an incomplete analysis of information. They assert that any analysis of the media should not just focus on the exterior of media form but should attempt to place in context, their images, and simulacra, something that hyperreality fails to do. However, the importance of hyperreality in television cannot be ignored and it is especially important when analyzing the behavior and attitudes of society.
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