“The need to speak, even if one has nothing to say, becomes more pressing when one has nothing to say, just as the will to live becomes more urgent when life has lost its meaning.”
—from The Ecstasy of Communication
A couple weeks ago we put out a piece about ITV’s ‘You’re Back in The Room’ and how it operates on a hyper-real basis, written by my main man Jonny Taylor. Due to a complete dearth of feedback I have no idea how it went down, but I for one enjoyed it a lot. And it introduced me to the late Baudillard, french philosopher/social theorist maverick of the 80s and 90s. I got super, super interested in his whole hyperreal thing, and then predictably lapsed back into the buzzfeed-heavy catatonic swirl of my Facebook feed.
It was here, in this digital swamp where things like ’987 ways you know you’re male’ and graduation photos of people I can no longer claim to really be my ‘friend’ float weightlessly by, that it struck me: Facebook is the ultimate hyperreality. It’s the epicentre of our image-culture and the driving force behind our self-simulation. And we’re absolutely, undeniably, utterly immersed in it.
To recap, Hyperreality is an idea first put forward by Baudrillard at the start of the eighties. The hyperreal is the realm of simulations. A simulation is when a representation of something takes the place of the thing it originally represented: Mistaking the map for the territory, to borrow Jonny’s example. These simulations act in the same way as the things they’ve usurped but they’re ultimately bloodless, empty of weight, and quickly lose their relevance and concreteness. When you get an arena of these simulations all interacting and squabbling, its a bloody palaver. It’s the hyperreal.
What about another example? Your Facebook profile. This includes your photo, your cover photo, your likes, your friends your ‘about’ section (although who even still uses that, so Myspace), the stuff you choose to share, the things you follow and the way that you interact with people. Your Facebook profile is very clearly only a representation of you, but it isn’t treated this way. It’s something that isn’t acknowledged in our day-to-day interactions on it. We make judgements all the time based off of Facebook. No one goes ‘I think that the way that he’s constructed his digital representation of himself is stupid’, they just go right in there and say ‘he’s stupid’. In other words our social media identities have, to a large extent, become our ‘real’ identities.
Here’s a treat: an excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Baudrillard’s 1981 smash hit, Simulacra and Simulation. To wit:
“In the society of simulation, identities are constructed by the appropriation of images, and codes and models determine how individuals perceive themselves and relate to other people. Economics, politics, social life, and culture are all governed by the mode of simulation, whereby codes and models determine how goods are consumed and used, politics unfold, culture is produced and consumed, and everyday life is lived.”
Now, go back and read that but substitute the word ‘codes and models’ for ‘social media’ or just ‘Facebook’ (that’s not just a wild appropriation by the way: the models in question here are exactly things like social media: predetermined models of interaction). For the sake of clarification, you can also go ahead and substitute ’society of simulation’ for ‘The realm of the hyperreal’. Written in 1981, this above statement is pretty bloody accurate. Zuckerberg wasn’t even born yet, and even Bebo wasn’t going to happen for another 24 years (which, by the way, has reinvented itself and done nothing at all to redeem its cringey status. Anyone out there wanna chat… WITH ATTITUDE?).
Economics, Politics, Social life: check check check. Culture certainly is ‘produced’ and ‘consumed’ (as opposed to ‘created’ and ‘appreciated’, I suppose), as online articles become increasingly desperate attempts to wrangle clicks, throwing things like quality and reputation out the window. There’s clickbait giant Buzzfeed, as well as countless upstart magazines that specialise in severely underwhelming articles like ‘For the first 19 minutes of this video, absolutely nothing happens… BUT THEN I COULDN’T BELIEVE MY EYES’ or ‘If only the entire world knew THIS SIMPLE TRICK to attain endless bliss’. And of course there’s Huffington Post, which is just Buzzfeed with a superiority complex, posing as The Guardian. Here, everyday life is lived, day after day, notification after notification.
My point is that in this world of image and screen (the new smoke and mirrors), no matter how much we dress it up, there really isn’t that much substance. Sure, every so often a genuinely compelling and socially important article does the rounds or something happens that really matters. But the vast, vast majority of what goes on in social media is ultimately bloodless. People say and share things more as fashion statements or as a way to align themselves with a particular group or stance than they do for anything else (I wrote an article related to this, er, sort of, a few weeks ago). As Baudrillard put it, we communicate in communications. Culture is becoming little more than a social commodity.
We’re living in the hyperreal more and more every day. In terms of the ‘Human condition’ (whatever that even means these days) and the general ways in which we go about the world getting along with our reality, this is a huge deal. Dawn of the age of aquarius and all of that.
In the late eighties, Baudrillard brought out another book that dealt more explicitly with the implications of an information and communications-led society, The Ecstasy of Communication. In this one, he argues that in a world of instantaneous images and an overexposure to information, we become ‘a pure screen, a pure absorption and re-absorption surface of the influent networks… In other words, an individual in a postmodern world becomes merely an entity influenced by media, technological experience, and the hyperreal.’ The only thing that’s not stunningly accurate about this statement is the differentiation between the hyperreal and the domains of media and technological experience: I’d argue that they’ve become seamlessly integrated into one bumper hyperpackage.
All this lands us in one big and very postmodern pickle indeed. It’s not realistic for us all just to opt out, to delete Facebook, deactivate twitter and go about the world barefoot, relying on the town crier to relay any serious news. Because the very platforms that have become the theatre of all this hyperreality, through which we exist as social entities, is the selfsame platform through which any serious societal change is now enacted. I’m really not sure what to do.
The first step, I suppose, is to just be really aware of our digital selves as representations and treat ourselves and each other accordingly. Question the function of all your interactions. Be cautious of getting swept up in trends that you feel like you ’should’ be a part of. (**SUBTLE ENDORSEMENT ALERT**) Ideas like Baudrillard’s Hyperreality are really useful tools for understanding the shifting dynamics in how we all approach and interact with the world on a day-to-day basis, but there’s not a lot of people making them easy to understand. Apply them to your understanding of the world to make the hyperreal real again. Just question, I suppose. Be calm, be critical. Keep Eating From the Trashcan.
To be a ‘Postmodern Individual’, after all, is an exhausting and attention-devouring affair. Just be sure to remain an individual.