Hyperreality is used in semiotics and postmodern philosophy to describe a hypothetical inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from fantasy, especially in technologically advanced postmodern cultures. Jorge Luis Borges, in “On Exactitude in Science,” wrote of an empire whose ambition to map the entire world in all its detail and variations led it to gradually increase the scope and complexity of its maps. In other words, our society has become so reliant on models and maps that we have lost all contact with the real world that preceded the map. Reality itself has begun merely to imitate the model, which now precedes and determines the real world. The map has trumped the reality. The recreation has upstaged the original, has become even better than the real thing.
According to Baudrillard, when it comes to postmodern simulation and simulacra, “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real.” The world, as we know it now, is constructed on the representation of representations. These simulations exist to fool us into thinking that an identifiable reality exists. These simulations are often even better than the real thing.
Baudrillard is not merely suggesting that postmodern culture is artificial, because the concept of artificiality still requires some sense of reality against which to recognize the artifice. His point, rather, is that we have lost all ability to make sense of the distinction between nature and artifice. Baudrillard describes a world saturated by imagery, infused with media, sound, and advertising. This simulacra of the real surpasses the real world and thus becomes hyperreal, a world that is more real than real.
Hyperreality takes something real, that has an original and natural quality, and exaggerates it to make it look so perfect it could become a fantasy of the imagination. For example, a perfectly plastic Christmas tree (in any color you want! in any shape you want!) may be even better than an irregular one from the actual woods that weathers and ages and may list to one side.
Another example is what we are exposed to in magazines, posters and pictures of what an ideal woman is supposed to look like, touched up with a computer to make her look like the ultimate fantasy. Even better than the real thing…
Both Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard refer to Disneyland as an example of hyperreality. Eco believes that Disneyland with its settings such as Main Street and full sized houses has been created to look “absolutely realistic,” taking visitors’ imagination to a “fantastic past.” Disneyland works in a system that enables visitors to feel that technology and the created atmosphere can give us a better reality than nature can.
Living in LA, seemingly halfway between Disneyland and Vegas and minutes from Hollywood, I’m in Hyperreality Central. Natural and authentic are over-rated, trumped by breasts that never sag and faces that never wrinkle, blonde hair that would make a Disney princess jealous and a Playboy playmate insecure, and tans that never fade. The ideal is always better than the real thing.
And yet I still can’t get used to it.
It was with horror that I watched an ex deliver a Ted talk that was barely decipherable — partly due to the blinding white of his new veneers and partly due to the pronounced lisp as a result of these new veneers. Clearly, he thought he looked good. Clearly, he thought the whiter-than-white was an attractive contrast to the yellow-orange color of his skin. Clearly, this was another example of even better than the real thing.
Only it wasn’t. I wanted the original teeth.
One of my close friends recently got a boob job. When I asked her why she needed it, why she couldn’t just wear a push-up bra when she felt she needed that extra lift, she said, because that would be fake. Because silicone is, I suppose, even better than the real thing.
Only it isn’t.
I know I should be used to this by now. I know I should accept the whiter-than-white teeth and the whiter-than-white blondes and the perfectly perky boobs and the orange tans, and but I can’t. Even eight and a half years into LA, it doesn’t feel real. It doesn’t feel right. I want to throw away the map and go back to the original reality, the original reference, the real before the hyperreal.
People criticize Madonna for her excessive photoshopping, for the wrinkle-free photos she’s been releasing to promote her new album (out today!), and while I understand the criticism, I also understand her perspective. In an industry, in a media-saturated world, where we’ve lost touch of what real is even supposed to look like, when “natural” teeth may seem dingy and “natural” blondes may seem mousy, Madonna’s got to keep up. But at the same time, wouldn’t it be nice to be real, just for a bit?
I’ll admit to not knowing my natural hair color. I’ll admit to enjoying a bit of dress-up. But when your veneers are blinding? Maybe that’s when you’ve gone too far.
Whatever happened to Heidi Montag, by the way?