“Donald, I know you live in your own reality…” It was a line that debate geeks loved, but it may not have been that far from the truth.
In his groundbreaking book Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard developed the concept of the hyperreal, “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality” (1). It is the result of the “precession of simulacra,” where the representation of reality—a photograph, a film, or in Baudrillard’s example from a Borges fable, a map—overtakes the original referent, becoming more real than real. Thus, the representation or simulation of reality precedes reality, replacing any “true” reality until only the simulation remains. And because this simulated reality has become real to us, we begin to make new symbolic representations of it, this thing that doesn’t actually exist except that we’ve constructed it and given it meaning. This is hyperreality.
Baudrillard uses Disneyland as an accessible example of the hyperreal. In the first stage of representation, we have a faithful image or copy where the sign/representation is a “reflection of a profound reality” (6); in the case of Disneyland, we can look at Main Street and New Orleans as a “miniaturized pleasure of real America…embalmed and pacified” (12). But in this act of miniaturizing and embalming some sort of iconic ideal of “America,” we enter the second stage of representation, the perversion of reality. We recognize that the representation is false, that it “masks and denatures” (6). The American Main Street has never been so clean, so happy (a fairy castle rising on the horizon), so perfect with its piped in music and shops full of magical toys and souvenirs. In fact, the Disney version of Main Street and New Orleans is what we wish America could be in our childlike dreams, rather than a reflection of what it is on streets of Anaheim outside the park.
This false representation takes a higher order in our minds, and as we return to Disneyland again and again, it moves into the third stage, a masking of reality where the representation pretends to be faithful, but is in reality a copy with no original. There is no Main Street or New Orleans like the one represented in Disneyland, but now we believe that there is. And if we cannot find it, then it is the Main Street and New Orleans outside of Disneyland that is false(13).
And so we come to the fourth stage, that of pure simulation, the hyperreal in which the representation reflects nothing but itself. The only reality contained in Disneyland’s Main Street and New Orleans is the reality of those simulacra themselves. The representation precedes the real, and so now when we visit the French Quarter in the real New Orleans, our perception is forever mediated by the Disneyland signifier.
Umberto Eco takes hyperreality a step further: not only does the simulation that has become the hyperreal precede and mediate our perception of the real, it is also a representation of our desire for an ideal real. Thus, in order to achieve that desired reality, we populate the simulation, the hyperreal, with the signs and symbols that validate it as a reality.
Which brings me back to Clinton’s debate punchline.
In a world where the internet enables us to be more informed and connected to global, national, and local events than ever before, where the debate over the future direction of our country could be focused on real policy plans and solutions, we are arguing over reality.
Why? Because the representations of all these events and problems quickly follow the stages of simulation to become hyperreal. We see cell phone and body cam videos of police shootings that make us feel intimately involved, as if we were there. But these representations of an event that occurred in real-time on a real street to a real person are quickly perverted through the media filters by which we experience them, until those videos become not reflections of a profound reality, but a reality themselves. We parse and interpret only the representation, and we do so with our own desires in mind to construct a reality that best validates who and what we already are. If we believe that African-Americans are inherently violent, then the videos validate that reality. If we believe that cops are inherently racist, again our reality is validated.
The hyperreal is easy. It confirms what we believe we know. It allows us to remain unchallenged, comfortable in our bubble, never having to change or consider new evidence or other perspectives or experiences, because ours is always right. It is always the truth. It is always real.
Is Hillary Clinton “crooked”? Fact-checkers across the board found Clinton to be the most honest candidate in this presidential campaign (okay, Martin O’Malley was, but does he really count?) with Ben Carson scoring the worst, and—you guessed it—Trump being the second worst.
Yet despite evidence that refutes these claims of dishonesty and corruption, people still believe in the “crooked Hillary” (or the textual “HiLIARy”) meme. The constant representation through media of Hillary as untrustworthy has constructed a hyperreality that trumps (pun intended) any actual, verifiable reality. Even Democrats have succumbed to it; in an August NBC New/SurveyMonkey poll, only 23% of Dems said that “Honest & Trustworthy” best described Clinton. To be fair, most Dems chose “Temperament to Serve;” still, the point stands. In the same poll, Republican voters gave Trump a 35% in the “Honest & Trustworthy” category versus 36% in “Temperament to Serve.”
Now don’t get me wrong. Clinton is a politician’s politician, and as such has lied, stretched the truth, and played rhetorical games to cover flip-flops for political gain. There is plenty to criticize about her campaign, her position on issues, her decision-making—all the appropriate issues for discussion in a presidential campaign. Time and again, however, her opponent attacks the scarecrow-Clinton that he and conservative media have constructed, despite overwhelming evidence that this construction is far removed from any original reality.
Again, hyperreality is easy. It prioritizes and confirms one’s “feelings” rather than critical thinking and evidence.
CNN’s Alisyn Camerota’s provides what would seem to be the antidote to a feelings-based reality, but more and more facts don’t seem to matter.
In “The Ecstasy of Communication,” Baudrillard explains that the sheer volume of the production of simulacra has led to a saturation of information. We do not view reality through a series of ever more “realistic” reflections, but instead only view the “screen and the network”; that is, we are surrounded and immersed in and interface with all of the stage four representations of reality, the hyperreal (26-27). As a result, like the schizophrenic, we can no longer discern the real from the hyperreal. “The schizo is bereft of every scene, open to everything in spite of himself, living in the greatest confusion,” Baudrillard says. “What characterizes him is less the loss of the real, the light years of estrangement from the real…but, very much to the contrary, the absolute proximity, the total instantaneity of things” (133).
So even when confronted with the absurdity of the hyperreal, we cannot escape.
Our investment in the comfort of the hyperreal, the bubble within which all our desires are fulfilled, means that anything that may threaten to pop that bubble (fact-checking, reason and precedence, analysis) is easily dismissed.
Feelings become facts, and we cannot argue feelings.
But we sure can vote with them.