Volume 6, Number 2 (July, 2009)
Author: Garen J. Torikian
May not one succeed in systemizing confusion and so assist the total discrediting of the world of reality? (Salvador Dali)
What is wanted of such a vantage point is that it do justice to the twin aspects of art: as object and as function, as artifice and as living form of consciousness, as the overcoming or supplementing of reality and as the making explicit of forms encountering reality, as autonomous individual creation and as dependent historical phenomenon Sontag, 1966).
The social condition labeled “postmodernism” threatens human creation and significance by denying the existence of reality. One has difficulty resisting postmodernism because doing so would presume that postmodern theory is coherent and unified; it is also erroneous to believe it is a fashionable term applied by some to seem intellectual. There is no such thing as a “postmodern theory,” only postmodern theories and theorists. Even the philosophers that identified themselves with postmodernism had differing definitions, and changed their attitudes on the subject throughout their lives. Postmodernism is as pervasive and chronic as a pandemic.
But there is no consequence of postmodernism more appalling than the social relationship French philosopher Jean Baudrillard identified as “hyperreality.” Hyperreality is a term used to describe the way the world is absorbed by an individual’s preference for illusory objects over authentic ones. This is done through the modification of an object or cultural icon to make it more appealing than its actual form. It is specifically linked to postmodernism since it is a product of poststructuralist and deconstructionist attempts to discover “the truth behind truth.” For them, reality is defined as the sensory perception of objects, and truth as the faith in the immutability of those objects. Hyperreality tears these affirmations apart by insisting that the qualities that make an object unique (haecceitas) are not related to the essence of that object (quidditas). In other words, things are not at all what they seem. Defending oneself against hyperreality could result in a suspicion of all fictitious creations, including art. But art has its own distinct status in the world and offers alternatives to resist and combat hyperreality. Whereas hyperreality limits a person’s engagement to reality, art strengthens that unity. By examining the aesthetic and social origins of hyperreality, and the development and role of art, the division between the two incompatible illusions can be recognized.
II. The Postmodern, the Hyperreal and Art
Postmodernism, the progenitor of hyperreality, is principally explained as a reaction to modernism, while avoiding the linguistic paradox of being “after modern.” What, then, was modernism? – Or: what did modernists believe that postmodernists reject? Modernist aesthetics were an attempt to rejuvenate art in a society that had lost meaning. It explored the effectiveness of language in establishing concepts, especially words with ambiguous definitions, like “nationalism” or “good.” Artists focused often on existential situations, either by praising the human condition or struggling for its improvement in a maddening world. Most modernists are seen as having a sense of hope (or at least a very firm belief) that their ideas, whether celebratory or judgmental in content, could lead to a utopian future through a reevaluation of society’s flaws.
But the system of postmodernism does not allow such criticism – because all criticism is inherently correct. The concept of disagreement, therefore, does not exist. The fundamental postmodernist is a skeptic investigating the validity of messages purporting to be truth. It is similar to the modernist’s efforts to disambiguate words; however, the postmodernist does not offer comfort; “the postmodern mind seems to condemn everything, propose nothing. Demolition is the only job the postmodern mind seems to be good at. Destruction is the only construction it recognizes” (Bauman, 1992:ix). The postmodernist can be seen as a person dealing with two mounds of peanuts. On one side are the shells not yet cracked, discerning the object to be a peanut and yet not, each shell only suggesting what it contains; on the other side are the discarded shells whose insides have been acknowledged and devoured. The two mounds split the truth of the peanuts only into “about to be deconstructed” and “already deconstructed.” But the postmodernist makes truth – in this case, the size of the nut – irrelevant to the continuation of reality. It is not important that the shell was opened and its contents were examined, only that it was possible. This reduces logic to a sort of game: the arrogant victor, who was already confident of success before participating in the contest, quickly discards the first-place prize. Moreover, postmodernists believe that there is no appropriate way to communicate the concept of something as disagreeable as truth. Lyotard, in his essay “Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism?”, states that since expressing something as indefinable as existence is impossible, progress in that area becomes obsolete:
…we have the Idea of the world (the totality of what is), but we do not have the capacity to show an example of it…We can conceive the infinitely great, the infinitely powerful, but every presentation of an object destined to ‘make visible’ this absolute greatness or power appears to us painfully inadequate…Therefore, they impart no knowledge about reality (experience) (Lyotard, 1984:78).
What this deficiency in communication creates is the postmodern condition. Rather than providing a solution to solve its problems, postmodernism leaves humanity alone with its own incurable confusion (Bauman, 1992:xviii). This privatizes our fears and escape mechanisms, and with no source of aid, we begin to struggle against the reality crushing us. The questions modernism posed, of the usefulness of language or the worth of human events, are not solved in postmodernity: they are abandoned. The postmodern condition unabashedly makes no attempts to offer a reason for anything, other than citing the increasing entropy and destruction of things. The ambiguity of the world is never eradicated, and the final goal of postmodern man is to learn to face, not solve, his existing dilemmas (Spencer, 1998:33). Ironically, this is highly optimistic. British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s succinct analysis of postmodernism is an appropriate generalization for the discussion of hyper reality’s source of illusion. He believes that “postmodernity can be seen as restoring to the world what modernity, presumptuously, had taken away; as a re-enchantment of the world that modernity tried hard to dis-enchant” (1992:x). A disillusioned individual may indulge in escapism to placate fears, and will create structures that confirm individual values. When an entire society behaves this way, it forms the foundation for a make-believe reality: if everyone agrees the emperor is wearing new clothes, then he is.
The cause for the behavior of such citizens is related to how authorities manipulate worth as a means of sustaining power. Marx posited that in a Capitalist society, the worker would be abstracted to a financial value, or commodity, in relation to the rest of society; his “worth” would be based on his performance or service to his employer. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Situationist movement led by French artist Guy Debord felt that it is the consumer who becomes a part of the commodification. In this setting, people are dazzled by the myriad of available products, lured into accepting these images, and “consume a world fabricated by others rather than producing one of their own” (Best and Kellner, 1997:82). These ideas are also demonstrated through the way an audience absorbs the media’s enterprises to sensationalize disasters, trials, wars, advertisements, or sports events. In the Situationist’s words, this is all a spectacle, an abstract system where “the appearance of commodity is more decisive than its actual use value” (Ibid.:85). Baudrillard pushes this concept even further. The postmodern world is shifted from a state of “spectacle” to one of “simulacrum,” where real objects become abstract and are mass-produced, mass-distributed, and mass-consumed (Ibid.:99). The entire cycle forces item attribution from “commodification value” to one of “sign value” (Baudrillard, 1993:5); status and symbol are obtained through the display of certain cars, clothes, or electronics. Again, if everyone agrees these items have worth, then they do; but the matter goes beyond fetishism. It is also the advancements in technology that makes the authenticity behind items questionable. With the absence of human involvement in both the creation and acquisition of items, the distinction between authentic and imitation becomes challenging. Everything is falsified, but not explicitly announced to be so. Essentially, there is “no longer a real to be recovered behind the illusion” (Best and Kellner, 1997:103).
The result of this illusion – hyperreality – can be induced in a number of different ways: when a plastic Christmas tree is more appealing than a real one; when a television show exhibits contestants participating in melodramatic ways while insisting to be “reality”; or when a lottery or casino promises large cash payouts while smugly cheating its players. What can be said of a theme park that has cartoon characters masquerading as a reality for visitors to embrace? The figures appear to come from a world of never-ending mirth, but this is obviously not the case: the characters are nothing but shadows of sketches: they are actors for a multi-billion dollar theatre company. Yet they are packaged and presented as an alternative to the present “human” world. It is in this way that the hyperreal construes the entire world, denying recognition of what is true and what is not.
The most identifiable source for a total immersion into hyperreality is the one generated by our Information Age. Best and Kellner reflect that “this condition [of hyperreality] is innocent enough when some prefer electronic drums or digitally sampled violins to the real thing, but it is more problematic… when the virtual communities of the Internet replace face-to-face contact altogether” (Ibid.:103).
Computer scientists define their own concept of hyperreality as “the seamless interlacing of virtual reality with physical reality and of artificial intelligence with human intelligence” (Tiffin, 2001:26). Artificial intelligence is a computer system that can match a living creature’s abilities in cognitive reasoning or visual and auditory deductions. For instance, consider robotic duplicates of animals. These devices can memorize faces, recognize spoken commands, and have the ability to perform “life-like” actions. The lack of needing to feed or clean up after such a toy and the marketing for its “sophistication” appeals to some over a real animal – which allows a hyperreality. Computer scientists are also striving for artificial intelligence to replace human correspondence; already, corporations have computers analyze a caller’s queries rather than a human operator. And, as one researcher concerned with “hyper leisure” notes:
people pay more for rooms with a view but windows in industrial societies often give on to dreary street scenes. A Hyper Window in a Hyper Home could have a superb view of Fujiyama on Fridays showing the mountain in all its moods as the weather and time of day changed (Ibid.:130).
As much as one might want to escape the absurdity of such a mentality, one finds it ubiquitous.
The question, then, is asked: would not art induce a hyperreality? Not just in the modern, postmodern, classical, or contemporary sense, but in the entirety of its scope. Is a painting of still life preferable to a bowl of fruit? Does applauding a character’s victory over conflict while shying away from our own analogous woes suggest cowardice? Where does one ever begin to discern the difference between the fictitious and the real in the realm governed by aesthetics? Even (and perhaps especially) the most transparent art designed for propagating “realism” must be scrutinized. Who is to say Dickensian characters are representative of 19th century conditions but our faith in the honesty of the author? Art remains, at its core, a fabrication – but to what end does it serve? How does it differ from hyperreality? Modernity has made schizophrenics of us all, but at least in evaluating art, the presence of paranoia can be of use. One can relieve the uncertainties of life by exploring artistic modes and strengthening an aesthetic foundation.
Elucidations on art vary wildly between persons and periods, just as theories on postmodernism do. Therefore it is best to take a general but strong stance on aesthetics, and no examination is more concise and objective than those of Irish novelist James Joyce. Deriving from Aristotle, Aquinas, and Nietzsche, a young Joyce provides a definition within his private Paris notebook: “art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an aesthetic end” (Joyce, 1964:145). There is the fallacy (that a mature Joyce recognized and corrected) that photography cannot be art, because it is not a purely human disposition. Lyotard, responding to this logic, adequately defends those mediums: “that the mechanical and industrious should appear as substitutions for hand and craft was not in itself a disaster – except if one believes that art is in its essence the expression of individuality of genius assisted by an elite craftsmanship” (Lyotard, 1984:74). Believing that art does not depend on “the expression of a genius” is an inexcusable stupidity: such a manifestation is necessary for every true masterpiece. It is, however, harder to dismiss art’s relationship with technology; to a degree, all art makes use of it, in either production (painters and the synthesis of oils; writers and the printing press; musicians and the mathematics of harmonics) or as a theme (man’s alienation from man due to machines). These are, of course, simplified examples; and no mode of art uses technology with the same complexity as film. But skilled photographers have studied the masters of painting, and filmmakers owe a debt to classic playwrights: a tradition exists with the artists of photography. Because the aesthetics of the photographic arts existed before the device to capture them did, they circumvent the reliance on technology that some critics purport. The stronger the dependence on technology and its tricks, the weaker the effect of art and the individual’s creativity. Hyperreality almost exclusively needs technology to achieve its effect. Replication and mass-production directly preceded hyperreality, and so it naturally absorbed those methods. Art’s use of the machine, however, is only a relatively recent occurrence.
Joyce continues by insisting that “proper art” should make no moral or ethical judgment, regardless of its display of beauty and quality of truth. Art’s purposes “so far transcend conventional morality that it is better to forget morality altogether” (1964:142). This is a belief not only central to Joyce but also a very “modern” idea in the sense that the complexity of human analysis does not rely solely on the concepts of good and bad. As a result, modern art ended up making no demands for or against its subject.
Contrary to this, hyperreality must always rely on asserting its “realness.” If it did not, then it would lose its fundamental function of blurring the line separating real from unreal; we would be able to tell where fiction ends and reality begins. One could say that art differs because it is an imaginative experience which the audience chooses to be a participant in; but both Debord and Baudrillard note that the most troubling victim to spectacle is the one who, when confronted with the choice between real and unreal, is able to “make such discriminations but prefers the false, the illusionary…as somehow better, sexier, more exciting – more real” (Best and Kellner, 1997:103). While Debord felt sure that consumers would be able to discern between the illusions of product significance in the world, Baudrillard was less hopeful, because by his time the barrier between appearance and reality had completely dissolved:
…what is new here is the clash of first (primitive and wild) and the “third kind” (the absolute simulacrum), Disneyland is authentic here, the cinema and TV are America’s reality, the freeways, Safeways, skylines, speed and deserts – these are America, not galleries, churches and culture (Baudrillard, 1988:104).
People tend to art as a sanctuary no more differently than the way they tend to hyperreality. The difference is that a potent work of art imparts an enrichment or joy that is internal. In this manner it rouses its audience from a mental slumber. But the hyperreal cannot exist sensitively because it is what it appears to be and no more; it ceases to be a delusion when it is in its strongest form; whether selected or absorbed, it is always external in participation. Any sort of “knowledge” gained is absorbed, passive, and less significant. The unintentional participants of hyperreality behave as though they have been conscripted to war: there is no manner in which they are able to resist their role. Indeed, it is a battle between one’s self and one’s desires on the field of perceptions, a terrain already uneven with doubt. Not new, but horrific if one cannot discern one’s enemy.
Though the two fictions have been discussed as separate, art also exists in hyperreality as an illusion within illusion. American artist Andy Warhol best manifests art in a hyperreal context, not only because of his popularity, but also because of the concepts he visualizes. Baudrillard, who deeply challenges art, even highlights him as the first artist of worth who affirmed the world by its images (Baudrillard, 2005:44). Warhol’s subject matter is often a commodified symbol, item, or person that, in one way or another, already “represents” something. His work consists of consumer products and celebrity figures – soap pads, soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley – colored and reproduced using silk screens. In the hyperreal context one might ask which becomes preferable, the “living” Elvis or the one who has been transmuted onto a canvas. Our minds can discern that there was a human Elvis and that there is a canvassed Elvis, but when we see the replication we immediately associate the image with its counterpart’s life. It is also the “copy Elvis” which still “exists” on display for audiences, no longer a flesh-and-blood man on the stage, but in galleries, traveling from one exhibition to another, stirring up latent emotions for an otherwise deceased singer.
Although his methodology resembled the way bourgeois notions of art were attacked decades before him, Warhol’s pieces lack the satire of middle-class values. He celebrated the objects he assembled, and cheered for rather than insulted the manifestations of meaninglessness. Baudrillard sees Warhol as the one who began mechanizing aesthetics; he may just as well have been any man – or a machine, as Warhol preferred. Warhol’s approval of technological production goes beyond Lyotard’s simple nod. It is ironic that his calculated efforts to be objective in his art were soon assimilated into notions of beauty. Baudrillard also notes that Warhol’s images are now glorified for their creativity when instead they should be recognized as “abolishing the subject of art…by withdrawing from the creative act” (Ibid.) Such seizures by the bourgeois are not uncommon: the urinal Duchamp entered to an art show is now praised; when it was submitted, the intent was to jostle the critics. Duchamp writes: “when I discovered ready-mades I thought to discourage aesthetics…I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty” (cited by Richter, 2001:208).
Whereas insulting aesthetics once needed a creative argument, art now is given bark but no bite – and adored for it. Baudrillard summarizes this symptom of hyperreality in his essay “Aesthetic Illusion and Disillusion”:
Art has no distinct existence. From this perspective, one could say that we are on the way to the complete disappearance of art as a specific activity. This can lead either to a reversion of art into pure technique and craftsmanship…or towards a primal ritualism, where anything can serve as an aesthetic gadget (2005:126-27).
By clutching to the notion that triviality equals worth, the everyday becomes falsely aestheticized. It is true that art adhering to a certain style is shackled by the constraint of providing always the “‘correct’ images, the ‘correct’ narratives, the ‘correct’ forms” (Lyotard, 1984:75). But the eclecticism that surrounds art these days urges it towards novelty. Lyotard describes this excess as the attitude of “anything goes”:
…artists, gallery owners, critics, and public wallow together in the ‘anything goes,’ and the epoch is one of slackening. But this realism of the ‘anything goes’ is in fact that of money; in the absence of aesthetic criteria, it remains possible and useful to assess the values of works of art according to the profits they yield (Ibid.:76).
If expression is overridden by apathy, art submits to, rather than supplements, the world from which it draws inspiration. And if this perception of illusion as reality continues, the role of art will also cease to make sense. Art that tries to glorify tangibility instead of reflecting on inner tranquility or calamity does not “valorize the aesthetic dimension of everyday life” but rather “signifies the negation of aesthetic experience as a unique and potentially emancipatory mode of apprehending the world” (Hancock, 2003:176). Most contemporary art has confiscated “banality, waste, and mediocrity as values and ideologies” (Baudrillard, 2005:27). It becomes meaningless to discuss art when it only resembles the hyperreality of the world, rather than overcoming it.
The last attack on art occurs on the corporate playing field. Whatever disguises itself as art wants to be in the way we dress, speak, the music we listen to, or the foods we eat. Aestheticism becomes commoditized on a personal realm, meant not to provide consumers with status of any kind, but instead the continuing illusion of status. No longer are advertisements satisfied with making its viewers healthy, popular, or famous, but instead, they want to convince consumers of their potential to be an object of desire. When asked during an interview what he believed art to be, Baudrillard responded that it had fallen from a form into a value, and that all values, aesthetic or commercial, can be negotiated, bought and sold, exchanged: “something has fallen apart, perhaps through the sole effect of repetition” (2005:63). As he later says, “there is too much of too much” (Ibid.:85). If art is everywhere, it doesn’t lose value, it gains too much of it. This is not to say that we should not all be learning to live creatively. But even if “poetry must be made by all,” as Lautremont says, the creator ought not be contributing to the increasing heap of inferior products. Nor should the poet succumb in word or deed to the whims of others.
Past the curtain of the hyperreal lie concepts we have either forgotten or abandoned. Art affirms the qualities of humanity, positive and negative; it reinterprets the world into something more manageable for our agitated minds. This is not to say that one must understand the totality of an artistic piece to fully evaluate its emotional energy; Goethe wrote that art might even be best when “imperfectly understood” (Ellmann and Feidelson, 1977:10). And is not postmodernism trying to return the incomprehensible to incomprehensible? The understanding of imperfection, the admission of being insufficient, is one more characteristic separating art from hyperreality.
The primary obstruction with appreciating art is in the application of discrimination. The general audience often compares new artistic expressions with what they have already experienced; they trivialize art to levels on a mental shelf. One says, “This painting is better than the other one I saw,” as if one had a hand in either’s development, totally ignoring the satisfaction received from both. However, if art is taken off the shelf and placed into a box, all sensations become beneficial; while rummaging through a mental collection, one will always be overjoyed with re-discoveries, not critical, not concluding that just above the skill level of Sappho is Tennyson. This is perhaps what postmodernism attempted to do: to exclude trivialization and wipe the slates of criticism clean. Yet it failed in accomplishing its goal by neglecting to contrast what was helpful and harmful to spectators and combining the two as fundamental; it kept the baby and the bath water. Total acceptance and total denial are equally invalid.
In discussing literature’s value in the 21st century, Mark Roche concludes that:
…art can be viewed as higher than everyday reality insofar as it is closer to expressing truth. What we call everyday reality may have more aspects of deception… from a more essential meaning, a more genuine reality… [B]ut art, unlike everyday reality… emphasizes and reveals this higher reality” (2004:18).
This is how art may disentangle itself from hyperreality. Art is not reality, does not purport to deliver truth. Any truths found in it are by the audience, scholars, and critics. It only encourages one towards a state of awareness. Michael Bell eases the message by saying that “art lets us know what it is to ‘be'”. He draws on Lawrence and Rilke to make that claim, but citing even the more cynical Kafka and Beckett (1999:28). Art (and hyperreality) can even be like a drug that we take, an opiate of illusion to make reality bearable: “for the spectator even more than for the artist, art is a habit-forming drug” (Richter, 2001:90). But art’s end goal is to wean one off of art, to instruct witnesses on accepting the world, not dull the body and mind into complacency. Hyperreality would have one be tricked into a solution by denying the individual a chance to develop one on his own. The hyperreality which Baudrillard discusses may one day overtake civilization to the point where we cannot even begin to discuss what is real and what is not, as now, amidst incredible technological growth, we are fortunate enough to be able to do.
Assume a scenario where a government uncovers an enemy agent, but makes no mobilization against the forces that planted it. Out of their own indolence, impotence, or incompetence, the ruling party is only concerned with encouraging an immense sensation of hostility against a criminal entity in order to maintain control. Similarly, postmodernism enjoys discussing how the world has failed everyone, and basks in its failure instead of participating in the much more difficult task of providing an alternative. Under the guise of advocating a better, more balanced interpretation system, the postmodernists admit repeatedly that their views cannot be balanced, that to insist on order is futile, that multiple viewpoints exist based on the observer, and that disagreement has as much legitimacy as agreement.
To demand a return to the ideology of modernism is as futile as yearning to once again be a child free from responsibility. That mode of expression was appropriate for a previous time. A new mode of expression must overcome postmodernism now, one that understands the complexity of living in an increasingly fraudulent world and not be supportive or indifferent to it. We do live in a world of contradictions, but the ever-increasing entropy has not yet engulfed all order in the world. To say that the Enlightenment has failed in its attempts to successfully provide mankind with a utopian society is certainly an allowable belief, simply based on the principle that everybody has the right to state their opinions. But to make that postmodernist claim and then, for over sixty years, perpetuate the crime in the vilest way – by not doing anything about it – encourages the permanence of disappointment.
In an attempt to minimize debate, postmodernism practically begs for a dominating force to arrive and overwhelm society with its flawlessness. As an aesthetic or social theory, postmodernism no longer functions in a manner of any use to society because it allows, if not applauds, culture’s growing vapidity. Hyperreality, born of this condition, makes honesty impossible, fraudulence a way of life, and imbues culture with farce. If we disentangle art from hyperreality and follow the messages proper art offers, we can begin to reorient ourselves towards the whole-hearted acceptance of the entire world. Otherwise, art will always pass through the filter of hyperreality first, where meaning is sieved and fulfillment is nulled.
* Editor’s note: For Baudrillard’s part, he (no friend of postmodernism), seemed intent on moving against postmodernism and the hyperreal via the most ancient arts of thinking and writing:
Here, however, lies the task of philosophical thought: to go to the limit of hypotheses and processes, even if they are catastrophic. The only justification for thinking and writing is that it accelerates these terminal processes. Here, beyond the discourse of truth, resides the poetic and enigmatic value of thinking. For, facing a world that is unintelligible and enigmatic, our task is clear: we must make that world even more unintelligible, even more enigmatic (Baudrillard, 2000:83).
About the Author
Garen J. Torikian is a fiction writer who currently lives in San Francisco. He has previously been published in the February 2008 issue of Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal. He is assembling his first short story collection, Amour and Glamour.
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