Almost Hyperreal

Baudrillard for the Metamodern Era

a lee
Complexicated Assemblage
40 min readApr 3, 2021

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The border between the Real and the Unreal is not fixed, but just marks the last place where rival gangs of shamans fought each other to a standstill. — Robert Anton Wilson

The very nature of materiality is an entanglement. Matter itself is always already open to, or rather entangled with, the “Other.” The intra-actively emergent “parts” of phenomena are coconstituted — Karen Barad

Something in the world forces us to think. This something is an object not of recognition of but of a fundamental encounter. — Gilles Deleuze

While this video is fascinating, the focus is heavy on the experience (simulacra/simulation) and not on the meaning of hyperreality.

There are many popular understandings of hyperreality.

These understandings do not often capture the full extent to which hyperreality extends.

For instance, the four stages are often given to illustrate how hyperreality is a condition whereby our referents (at stage four for simulacra) are detached from physical reality.

From here. I will return to these four stages later on.

This understanding is too simplistic, as while in the fourth stage, the sign loses its original relation, it gains a new relation. However, given the framework of the Western tradition of philosophy and science, simulacra is often judged in terms of an understood “reality” qua representation. Such a framing will miss the deeper implications of hyperreality, leading people to believe that reality is lost in the fourth stage. The assumption of a naïve realism attributes too much fidelity on our recognition of relevancy. Thus, instead of promoting greater agency on the part of people’s assessments, representationalism leads people to form judgements about simulacra, which is less about what is going on and more about what they believe reality should be like.

Baudrillard’s insight with hyperreality isn’t to note how reality becomes confused because of simulations and simulacra (although this can happen). Instead, Baudrillard outlines the conditions by which we form our sense of what is real, and how this sense can easily become distorted by our own, often innocent, attempts to improve our lifeworld. Admittedly, Baudrillard is also grossly underestimating the value of his own insights but we will get back to this thought.

The thesis of this essay (given in bold above) highlights how the hyperreality as a framework provides increased agency for understanding and assessing human behavioral interactions.

At this point I have two obvious topics:

  1. How we see what hyperreality is (vs what it is)
  2. The implications of hyperreality

I will end with a shorter 3rd section, which is the conclusion that does a quick wrap-up. Feel free to skip to whatever section you think you’d want to read.

Now for the essay.

1 Platonic Forms qua Simulacra

Since Plato pushed forth Platonic forms as a model for Truth, Western thinking has been hierarchical. The implicit assumption with this kind of hierarchical thinking is that there is an ideal understanding of reality — the consequence being that other understandings are false pretenders of this singular ideal.

Note that the rejection of having an ideal, and the subsequent questioning of its aesthetics (economics, politics, and so on) is perhaps the contribution of postmodernism to contemporary culture. I’m not going to give samples of how various thinkers do this, as it will make this lengthy essay too long. However, for the purposes of this essay, it is sufficient to say that acceptance of Baudrillard’s offer of hyperreality only makes sense if we simultaneously reject the Platonic aesthetic that there is an ideal understanding of the Real.

There are two ways to understand how hyperreality/simulacra is a rejection of Platonic forms qua Truth.

The first is to understand hyperreality in terms of ontology/epistemology. Gilles Deleuze offers a kind of ontological critique of Platonism in his essay The Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy. In contrast, Baudrillard offers a kind of epistemic explanation in Simulacra and Simulation.

The second way is to consider whether agency belongs to context or content. Deleuze critiques Platonism/simulacra as an external order — critiquing the use of Platonism as imposing a frame on simulacra; whereas Baudrillard points out how hyperreality emerges as an implicit order within market/cultural forces.

The basic challenge in this section is to reject the external/imposed understandings of simulacra (usually given from an assumed Platonic Truth) in favor of understanding hyperreality in terms of its immanence.

We will now go over Deleuze’s approach and then Baudrillard’s before bringing them together, to give us a way to understand hyperreality/simulacra.

1.1 Deleuze: Turning Plato on his Head

The main force of Deleuze’s critique relies in rejecting the explicit framing of simulacra as “externalized-super-real” Platonic forms. Platonic forms are a fiction on their own, as there is no reality to them — they “exist” in a separate realm (and are not of this world). Deleuze does this critique in three steps.

First he sets the traditional context of understanding the world in terms of an ontological Platonic Truth.

In Deleuze’s characteristic way, he explains that Plato‘s hierarchy of forms function to suppress differences that are unlike the ideal by judging what is good or bad in terms of a resemblance to the ideal.

In other words, Platonic forms suppress/judges the uniqueness(es) of simulacra. Platonic forms introduce a kind of blindness to simulacra, seeing simulacra as a perversion, a falsehood. From the Platonic frame, Deleuze writes:

Copies are secondary possessors. They are well-founded pretenders, guaranteed by resemblance; simulacra are like false pretenders, built upon a dissimilarity, implying an essential perversion or deviation.

Deleuze argues that this view of simulacra as deviations is essential to social judgement. Deleuze calls this hidden political aspect to Platonism the

Platonic motivation: it has to do with selecting among the pretenders, distinguishing good and bad copies or, rather, copies (always well-founded) and simulacra (always engulfed in dissimilarity). It is a question of assuring the triumph of the copies over simulacra, of repressing simulacra, keeping them completely submerged, preventing them from climbing to the surface, and “insinuating themselves” everywhere.

Politically Plato utilized his philosophy to argue for a purely Greek Athens, free from the sophistic Asiatic philosophers from the East. Beyond politics, what is it that Platonic forms really suppress? Answer: Platonism suppresses the primary uniqueness of simulacra based on the simulacra’s own implicit order.

Secondly, Deleuze argues for a primary uniqueness for simulacra based on the simulacra’s own implicit order.

The simulacra is built upon a disparity or upon a difference. It internalizes a dissimilarity. This is why we can no longer define it in relation to a model imposed on copies, a model of the Same from which the copies’ resemblance derives. If the simulacrum still has a model, it is another model, a model of the Other from which there flows an internalized dissemblance.

As the Platonic Form is too impoverished to provide explanation for the uniqueness of each simulacra, so each simulacra must have its own implicate order for its own this-ness. The full extent of recognizing simulacra as valid on their own implicit uniqueness leads to a reversal of Platonism when we instead, look at Platonism its own kind of simulacra, in that it also has its own implicit order, one that assumes its own supremacy.

Finally Deleuze can takes this last relation regarding simulacra having their own this-ness to return to a more general view of Platonism. Deleuze writes

So “to reverse Platonism” means to make the simulacra rise and to affirm their rights among icons and copies. The problem no longer has to do with the distinction Essence-Appearance or Model-Copy. This distinction operates completely within the world of representation. Rather, it has to do with undertaking the subversion of this world — the “twilight of the idols.” The simulacrum is not a degraded copy. It harbors a positive power which denies the original and the copy, the model and the reproduction. At least two divergent series are internalized in the simulacrum — neither can be assigned as the original, neither as the copy. It is not even enough to invoke a model of the Other, for no model can resist the vertigo of the simulacrum. There is no longer any privileged point of view except that of the object common to all points of view. There is no possible hierarchy, no second, no thing… Resemblance subsists, but it is produced as the external effect of the simulacrum, inasmuch as it is built upon divergent series and makes them resonate. Identity subsists, but it is produced as the law which complicates all the series and makes them all return to each one in the course of the forced movement. In the reversal of Platonism, resemblance is said of internalized difference, and identity of the Different as primary power. The same and the similar no longer have an essence except as simulated, that is as expressing the function of the simulacrum. […] By rising to the surface, the simulacrum makes the Same and the Similar, the model and the copy, participation, the fixity of distribution, the determination of the hierarchy impossible. It establishes the world of nomadic distributions and foundations, it assures a universal breakdown, but as a joyful and positive event as an un-founding: “behind each cave another that opens still more deeply, and beyond each surface a subterrean world yet more vast, more strange, Richer still… and under all foundations, under every ground, a subsoil still more profound.” How could Socrates be recognized in these caverns, which are no longer his? With what thread, since the thread is lost? How would he exit from them, and how could he still distinguish himself from the Sophist?

This nice passage explains that if simulacra are primary, then Socrates must be just another sophist, indistinguishable from other sophists.

The loss of Platonic forms as an external Truth both

  • undoes the hierarchical judgement about simulacra, and
  • provides a virtual appreciation of all the diverse implicate orders out there, of which Platonic forms are but one among countless multiples.

While Deleuze was not talking about simulacra in the context of hyperreality, it is not unremarkable that he picked the same word, simulacra, to express the perceived “secondary nature” of copies. Both Deleuze and Baudrillard challenge how a propagation of copies without an original expands our scope of what is considered real so that understanding reality is deeper than simply what is “original”.

While Deleuze challenges the imposition of an external order (of Platonic Forms) as a higher truth (found out where? Only in an imagined, idealized simulacra), Baudrillard offers a materialistic examination of how we find ourselves in hyperreality.

1.2 The Image of Hyperreality

Often, the advent of hyperreality is expressed as some kind of simulated hyper-tv-reality.

The anime Ghost in the Shell, depicted above, exemplifies much of what people often think of when considering hyperreality. In the Ghost in the Shell universe, people can be tricked by simulations, hacked, and there is often difficulty in ascertaining what is(not) real.

These expressions are compatible with what Baudrillard says, but he speaks of deeper relationships beyond the appearance given by the digital/electronic. For example, Baudrillard offers hyperreality as a consequence of hypermarkets, that hyperreality is a consequence of how the marketplace is also detached from the reality of production.

Here a critical mass beyond which the commodity becomes hypercommodity, and culture becomes hyperculture, is elaborated — that is to say no longer linked to distinct exchanges or determined needs, but to a kind of total descriptive universe, or integrated circuit that implosion transverses through and through — incessant circulation of choices, readings, references, marks, decoding. Here cultural objects, as elsewhere the objects of consumption, have no other end than to maintain you in a state of mass integration, of transistorized flux, of a magnetized molecule. It is what one comes to learn in a hypermarket: hyperreality of the commodity — it is what one comes to learn at Beaubourg: the hyperreality of culture.

When technology becomes sufficiently advanced, hyperreality emerges as the modes of production and their own icons in advertisement can be made to resemble each other.

Baudrillard first introduces the hyperreal through his examination of cinema and its distortion of meaning generated by its produced images.

The cinema in its current efforts is getting closer and closer, and with greater and greater perfection, to the absolute real, in its banal, its veracity, in its naked obviousness, in its boredom, and at the same time in its presumption […]; no culture has ever had toward its signs this naïve and paranoid, puritan and terrorist vision.

Terrorism is always that of the real.

First cinema is copying what is real, but then, at some point…

Concurrently with this effort toward an absolute correspondence with the real, cinema also approaches an absolute correspondence with itself — and this is not contradictory: it is the very definition of the hyperreal.

…cinema begins to copy itself. The point at which the real and cinema overlap…

The relation that is being formed today between cinema and the real is an inverse, negative relation: it results from the loss of specificity of one and of the other, The cold collage, the cool promiscuity, the asexual nymphs of two cold media that evolve in an asymptotic line toward each other: the cinema attempting to abolish itself in the cinematographic (or televised) hyperreal.

…is what Baudrillard calls the hyperreal, when we not only see our media tropes in media, but enact them as expressions in lived experience as their own meaning.

This is to say that we are in hyperreality when culture, behavior, production, consumption, and general meanings are self-referential.

Like the Deleuzian exploration of Platonic forms qua simulacra in the previous subsection, the hyperreal form centers on memes and tropes generated and propagated by media that come to stand in as a template for how we should understand real life itself.

In this sense, simulacra, with their own implicit order, and simulacra, in the hyperreal sense of media representations of reality, emerge from nothing. There may be a history of a specific trope, or simulation, but these types have a life of their own, being reenacted and rediscovered, and in turn, re-discovering new relations everywhere. We will go more in depth in the next section, but for now, we should understand how hyperreality emerges as a lived (not fake) experience. Baudrillard writes

Even the “traditional” status of the media themselves, characteristic of modernity, is put into question. McLuhan’s formula, the medium is the message, which is the key formula for the era of simulation. […] A single model, whose efficacy is immediate, simultaneously generates the message, the medium, and the “real”.

Finally, the medium is the message not only signifies the end of the message, but also the end of the medium. There is no more media in the literal sense of the word (I’m speaking particularly of electronic mass media) — that is, of a mediating power between one reality and another, between one state of the real and another. […]. Circularity of all media effects. Hence the impossibility of meaning in a literal sense of a unilateral vector that goes from one pole to another. One must envisage this critical but original situation at its very limit: it is the only one left us. It is useless to dream revolution through content, useless to dream of a revelation through form, because the medium and the real are now in a single nebula whose truth [qua status as original] is indecipherable.

Baudrillard is wrong to speak only of the electronic mass media, as I will mention below. But he is correct in that truth (as in what is more “real”) is indecipherable as hyperreality is self-referential. Our own phenomenal understanding is conditioned by the tropes and memes of our media generating our phenomenal understanding. We see reality in terms of our media, thereby no longer living independent of the expressions of our media.

Of course, the current social media/virality has already re-framed our sense of what is salient about reality… as users are viewers; we will express ourselves in terms of the new expressions available through our media device’s productive potentials. This is not a matter solely founded on digital or electronic devices. We can abstract such relationships to any kind of human production/expectation loop.

The takeaway here:

Understanding hyperreality as a function of hypermarkets manipulating both consumers and production gets at the heart of how hyperreality extends far beyond merely digital phenomena.

One example of this? The United States Food and Drug Administration regulates the coloring allowed for food because food in the United States often has food coloring to signal appeal to consumers.

In order to better sell an experience, applied food science in the United States in conjunction with advertisement media set consumer expectations since the dawn of the 20th century. Consumers pay more to buy food that meets their ideals of what that food was supposed to be like. This included its color, but also taste, health benefits, texture and so on.

This attachment of meaning to a simulated experience (like that of seeing orange oranges in the supermarket — yes oranges can also be ripe and stay green, depending on environmental conditions — or going to MacDonald’s for an experience of their McRib) are examples of the hyperreal of culture.

Essentially hyperreality isn’t about lying about what is real (as in “fake news”) in so much as hyperreality is about how our sense of what is real is redefined (non-pink salmon might be considered by many to not be real). This emergence of new expressions alters our expectations, enabling new relationships between phenomena to also emerge.

The intersection of the relationship between the expectations of advertisement and the actual product experience is the real life experience of being in a hyperreal simulation.

In large part this is why movie tropes, of racial stereotypes, or of cultural stereotypes are so salient; modern forms of racism and bias are inherited from hyperreal expectations developed in the form of “life” simulation found in cinema, movies, television.

Materially this can be found in the built environments that are a motley of historical influences, technological (such as building sophistication over time), and Hollywood tropes. See an image of Chinatown, Los Angeles I took below.

Lots of things are closed because of COVID-19, but here we have a tourist trap, even though historically, real Chinese people lived, here, at least my grandparents, and parents frequented the area as was the center of a Chinese immigrant community. Nowadays it carries a hyperreal simulation of the “Chinese Orient”, whose deeper simulacra is that of Chinatown, Los Angeles.

In this sense, Chinatown and “being Chinese” are also largely media simulations that refer to real people, but is also in large part, “created” even if there was a state of “being Chinese” prior to hyperreal simulation.

The created aspect, of a simulation coming to designate a certain kind of experience, is analogous to how technology of various periods can designate certain kinds of affects. For example, the music revolution developed from having mobile music players from the 1980s and 1990s — (walkman, cd players) — is also hyperreality. The technology allows for a certain relationship with real, a simulation that is “soundtracked” like in music videos. This familiarity is played with in the Marvel Universe’s Guardians of the Galaxy series, as Peter Quill familiarizes what might otherwise be a terrifying alien reality by providing a “cool” American soundtrack to a space age Indiana Jones sequence.

What I am saying is that hyperreality is not limited through the connection between advertisement and product experience, although hyperreality started at the intersection of advertisement and mass production. Hyperreality today must also include how meaning can be generated solely through a period’s fashion and technology as a mode of experience.

In this video this YouTuber presents this very particular argument about 1930s fashion. I’ve seen some of her other videos. She knows how to present herself; so what makes this video hyperreal isn’t merely the simulation of 1930s she speaks of regarding shoes. She is also curating our experience of watching the video with how she appears and sounds.

While we may have differing opinions about what the ideal shoe, or shoe-period is, the matter is, with hyperreality, there is a presentation of a potentially endless spectrum of values, much of it captured in our personal relationships with simulacra, as there is no sense of a singular ideal despite simulacra producing many such candidates for being ideal.

The lack of a standard comes with the last stage of hyperreality, when anything can serve as a type, for we can produce anything, including endless iterations of an ideal of which there is no the ideal, just as there is no one definitive Hello Kitty model, only endless iterations of Hello Kitty.

Image from here.

In this sense, Platonic forms, if they are to “exist” are statistical metrics among many other metrics.

Image from here.

We are already living according to the forms we see around us in media: We celebrate our traditions with an imaginary audience, and in doing so, we have no sense of what is “natural” without the formulations of media and media influenced framing.

Even those of us who choose not to record our experience in a vlog format may provide snippets to our friends, images, small videos and other commentary to our social media. To label this actual lived hyperreal experience as “fake” means in some sense, to also question the veracity of the “family vacation” trope and other such experiences which pre-date television, having roots in colonialism, and other media curated experiences (books, travel logs, paintings, journals, letters, etc.).

Once the door is opened to considering how to curate an experience (including buying certain camping tools, such as a device to produce hot morning coffee), we now have the choice of considering what kind of experience to curate.

This sense of being at the level of producing, curating, experiences and setting expectations that places us firmly in a hyperreal world.

It is in this culturally rich trope sense that Apple computer in the 1980s commercializes its release of the Macintosh line, pictured below.

Technological disruption, through computers, printed media, food dye, or our sense of religious legitimacy can all generate enough potential to de-center entire cultures for generations.

For example, in the United States, our conception of an image of “the American Dream” is confabulated by whatever economic and cultural milieu we grew up with. Doubtlessly, there is no “American Dream” that is somehow external to culture or economics existing on some inaccessible “higher” Platonic realm, of some idealized America, rather there is only the immanent expression of an actualization of various relationships included within the localized context of a given cultural space and time.

Image from here.

This reliance on image and constructed media context is, in part, why Baudrillard focuses so heavily on first examining the media realities of the Holocaust, The China Syndrome, and Apocalypse Now. Sometime in the 1960s, with magazines, television, and new forms of media, Baudrillard noticed how we found ourselves defined in terms of our media self-reflection and since then, he noted how we are already in hyperreality.

It is in this sense that Baby Boomers are perhaps the first completely hyperreal generation, having grown up under hallucinatory auspices of television and broadcast media.

1.3 Hyperreal as Counter-Ideal

In this lack of a singular ideal, both Deleuze and Baudrillard conceive of simulacra as having a real potentials that can be actualized within a cultural aegis.

For Deleuze, preserving the relationships of simulacra as dissimilarities while discarding the (Platonic) judgement changes how we can understand reality in all its variety.

For Baudrillard, hyperreality is an expansion of how we can understand our experiential relationship with reality as being conditionable, implicit through technological/cultural forms. Some additional examples include people talking in internet speak saying “LOL” or other internet inspired expressions, or how the supermarket detaches us from actual food production, so that we understand our food in terms of presentation and appearance instead of as lifeforms in their own right, as belonging to specific ecological niches.

At this point I want to impress upon you that if you accept Baudrillard’s explanation of hyperreality, as a kind of by-product of technological advancement, then hyperreality is inevitable.

How I make this argument is part of what comes next, in the next section. There I will dive into how hyperreality works, in terms of its emergence and in terms of how it deforms our sense of reality by altering how we consider what has agency.

2 Hyperreality is not a What but a How

The remainder of this essay is to explain how we can understand how hyperreality emerges and what emerges from hyperreality so that we know what this all means.

Did you think I would try to predict what forms would occur? That would be very difficult, because I don’t know what technological or cultural changes would happen, or how tastes might change.

To understand what emerges from hyperreality, it would be helpful understand hyperreality. Considering that Jean Baudrillard was active semiotician, it may make sense to consider hyperreality as consisting of memes in the form of semiotic signs.

Loosely speaking, semiotics considers culture in terms of signs. A sign is a cultural artifact that consists of two parts; the way a sign appears (signifier) and its referent (signified). The classic example is to consider words as signs. The word’s signifier could be its sound-image, or the way it is written. The signifier is the sensory side of a sign, as that configuration of sense datum is how we pass the sign to one another. The signified is the concept of the sign, which for a word, is its meaning. This is illustrated below, with the full relationship under the label c.

From here.

The basic notion is that the word arbor means tree in French, so that the word and the meaning are interchangeable (i.e., the meaning and the word are treated as synonymous). Likewise, the sound-image and the concept are also interchangeable. Savvy semioticians noted early on that meaning is often also composed of words, so that often a signifier’s signified is more signifiers.

We can extend signs by also understanding that signs connect with memetic behavior in the manner of language (qua signs) as language is a field for propagating memetic behavior.

I borrow the concept of meme from Richard Dawkins’s book, The Selfish Gene. In it, Dawkins calls genes “replicators” as the DNA molecule replicates itself through life. Dawkins ponders this class of replicator and then surmises

I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’.

Dawkins compares genetics and culture in the sense that whereas

  • DNA directs enzymes to do work, ultimately leading to the replication of more DNA,
  • memes direct humans (and their machines) to do work, ultimately leading to the replication of more memes.

We can join the concepts of signs and memes together in that not only is language/culture composed of signs, but signs relate to behavior in two ways.

  1. Signs are used to negotiate behavior.
  2. Expressions of signs are also memetic acts, as people can repeat stories, attitudes and other significations.

In this sense, considering memes as extensions of signs means understanding how context both alters the action associated with a sign but also how signs alter contexts to facilitate specific actions.

This connection between action and the expression/appearance of a sign is how I frame simulacra. Hyperreal simulacra are often associated with appearances (like that of a digital, or highly technological/produced affect/icon/sound) as simulacra is often a signifier for some memetic behavior (such as activating some new technology). By analogy to the sign, we can show memes thusly, in the context of hyperreality in the image below.

In real life, memetics has far more to do with how humans replicate behavior in groups, institutions, and other interpersonal interaction, such as how friendship can grow by an imitation of behaviors, or how coworkers can benefit from shared memetic behaviors.

Here, the meme is labeled c, including the Marlboro man as simulacra with the behavior as smoking, looking masculine, and cool; so that the entire memetic presence is codified in the behavior, the feelings, the cultural significance, and the overall simulacra image.

This isn’t to say that there is an ideal simulacra form. As

, my co-founder of Complexicated Assemblage who was my editor for this essay, rightly points out, like words, when memetic behavior is passed on, our understandings are often uniquely our own. Someone might see the Marlboro Man and want to smoke but another may turn away in disgust at the toxic masculinity indicated. In friendships, work environments and so on, behavior may become simulacra as each of us copies the meme slightly differently. We may also influence each other by trying to trigger favorable behavior (growing a friendship, or love). In the Internet, memes are juxtapositions against known behaviors in the collective culture, but the form can take on a life of its own spawning new memes.

As with Deleuze’s anti-Platonism, or Baudrillard’s hyperreality, there is no original as each simulacra stands on its own and yet acts as a comment on another simulacra.

This production of memes can be connected to Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura. Benjamin wrote his essay Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction at the dawn of cinema, when only the privileged few could produce images and brand celebrities in terms of screen presence. He noted how reproduction for art as simulacra destroyed the aura of the art work whereas for cinema, reproduction created cinematic aura. Aura is very much memetic in that cinematic production establishes itself through technological production and yet retains its own unique expression.

About three decades after Benjamin, at the entry into the postmodern era, Baudrillard noticed how our sense of reality had become an extension of what we see in our media. Following this, I have prepared three sections. The first is rather straight forward following Oscar Wilde’s Life imitates Art essay , only updated as the idea that the lifeworld follows memes. The second explains with concrete examples how to think about simulacra becoming hyperreal. The last section speculates on what it means when the online world and the in person world become merged.

2.1 A Memetic Lifeworld

Oscar Wilde’s essay argues about how art creates the forms by which people then find meaning. Life follows art’s lead because art establishes what we should look to as meaningful.

Wilde pontificates about the relationship of art with life through London fog:

At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.

While we are talking about memes and not just art, the analogy is that like Wilde’s claims about Life following Art, so I claim that the lifeworld follows memetic media. Two examples of cultural memetic forms intruding into the real world come to mind.

  • The first has to do with the militarization of the police. This story was well covered by John Oliver in the video below, but the point is, the police abuse their authority by treating unwarranted situations like they are in a video game, leading to fear, oppression, loss of life, and loss of property. Oliver rightly calls for better education of the police not to be trained as though they are in a movie or a first person shooter video game.
  • The second example relates to how pornography has developed its standard tropes and memes that litter its media. This kind of hyper-eroticized behavior naturalizes an unrealistic set of expectations about sexual performance and experience. This article Pornography has deeply troubling effects on young people, but there are ways we can minimise the harm explores this topic more in depth, as the ideals produced by the pornography industry’s tropes do not “map” onto human sexual relationships either socially nor biologically.

These are but two examples of how memes from media have altered behavior as humans mistake their media experiences as social/behavioral expectations. I leave it to you to think of a few others (many of them are political).

2.2 Becoming Simulacra

Given the two examples above it appears that the hyperreal gap is, at least for some phenomenon, temporary (in that the gap goes away).

As hyperreality is generated through a feedback loop between production and consumption, it doesn’t seem likely that technology will ever reverse and humans will discard hyperreality. Humans will not willingly give up technological options. At some point however, as technology advances, eventually when the information flow between the simulated and the non-simulated hits a certain threshold, in terms of agency, the two will be indistinguishable.

Baudrillard noted in the quote above that the indistinguishability of hyperreal simulation has to do with understanding what is true; as a mental paradigm. Here, I am pointing out that with consideration of mimetic behavior, once the actions in the hyperreal context (say the internet) and the outside of that context (say, non-internet, IRL) intercede, we will no longer have the current confusion about what is real, as actions in one area will connect smoothly to the other so that both domains will be on equal footing.

After all, much of the current social unrest is due to confusion about how much agency (and consequence) people have between simulated and non-simulated social space.

As technology becomes more sophisticated so the boundary between simulated and non-simulated weakens. To understand this threshold relationship, let’s first go over the four stages and then fill them out with some examples. After examining the four in terms of how they establish their sense of simulacra, we can go over the four stages again, but this time in terms of how they alter our sense of agency (and indirectly, our interface with reality). The last stage I will reserve for the following subsection.

Let’s begin with the four stages in terms of their sense of simulacra. Utilizing the four stages in terms of Homer Simpson as simulacra, we can see each stage as a change in how we interface with reality instead of merely as “a loss of real reality” — as we always live where we live, regardless of it being hyperreal or not.

In this example, Homer, despite slightly different depictions over the earlier part of series, is pretty much still recognizably himself. What is significant about the stages is how the meaning changes despite the form of the simulacra not changing (this example has a different emphasis from other explanatory memes floating around). Briefly, here is some commentary on the stages:

  1. Homer is first seen as a quasi-typical American Dad, a measure by which we can understand fatherhood.
  2. As the show progresses, we see how The Simpsons is parody, so that Homer is a way to poke fun of all American TV dads.
  3. As we entire into the 1990s, we see a proliferation of TV dads in shows that, like The Simpsons, are mildly parodic but also looses its parodic value as parody becomes normal for TV shows like The King of Queens or American Dad!.
  4. We have reached our current stage where Homer is no longer seen as representing anything other than Homer — he is just Homer Simpson. When Homer does something on TV now, its no longer seen as a commentary on other TV dads, or the American father figure — unless this is explicitly spelled out in the show — rather we see Homer as mostly only contributing and commenting on his own identity.

I offer this reading of the four stages because the vast majority of explanations are hinged not on the meaning of each stage, but the appearance as a stand-in for the meaning. (See the first version of this explanation at the start of this essay.) This seemingly minor difference of using different images at each stage obfuscates the insight offered through the concept of hyperreality by leading people to the philosophical dead-end of considering hyperreality as a loss of reality as the signifier-image presented at each stage is different — which is why in the example above I use the same image (that of Homer) for all stages. People using a different signifier each each stage to carry the meaning distorts how it is the meaning/signified at each stage which changes, instead of the signifier/simulcra/appearance.

Hyperreality is not a loss of reality; rather it is a redefining how we interface with the real, by inserting a new layer of interaction. If we consider what is real as some traditional image of the way life should be, then hyperreality will look like a false pretender, a non-Platonic form. The idea that hyperreality is a false reality that is predicated on distorting an underlying truth is only really applicable in earlier stages of simulacra, when our sense of what is real has not yet been too altered by the hyperreal simulacra in question. In more advanced stages, the meaning of simulacra shifts as the general lifeworld is characterized more and more in terms simulacra (and whatever memetic behavior might be associated with it).

The key in these examples is to illustrate how the threshold between simulated and non-simulated contexts merge.

To illustrate this, the first three stages of simulacra can be used to mark our shifting relationship with reality (as mentioned before, the last stage I will reserve as its own section). The example I use is the simulacra of online “presence” vs non-online presence.

  • In the first stage (perhaps in the late 1990s and early 2000s), online people can create fake personas (such as claiming to be a race car driver when that is not one’s job at all). These fake identities can be instantiated because the simulated space is very separate from the non-simulated space, so that behaviors in one space are isolated from the other.
  • In the second stage (late 2000s to current), people may use electronic platforms to try and hack into accounts. For example, the same technology that allows for generating email, simulacra of letters, for legitimate purposes can be used to spoof emails from banks and other financial institutions. These fake emails can be instantiated because the simulated space, while separate from the non-simulated space, has now been connected in very minimal but significant ways. Thus, simulacra inspired behavior can have real consequences in a very particular context (such as one losing access to their credit identity). Additionally, people believing they are in the first stage (that the simulated space is separate from the non-simulated), may behave badly and face unintended consequences, such as this model who fat-shamed a woman at a gym by posing that woman’s image on social media, with commentary.
  • In the third stage (mid-2010s to current), people are not sure whether or not the artifacts they see refer to anything outside the simulacra platform or not. This is similar to “fake news” except that with this third stage, one is not sure if the news is fake or not. Often unacknowledged, at this stage we have the most confusion as it’s not clear if simulacra has real consequences or not. Here we have a largely fluid cross-over between simulated and non-simulated spaces. Current concerns about cancel culture and woke culture surround this cross-over as neither the simulated nor the non-simulated spaces dominate as being more “real” than the other. Nonetheless there is still a disconnect between the two; only we are not sure how the two domains are (dis)connected.

The main confusion during this third stage is that traditional and digital frameworks may or may not apply as we coexist in simulated and non-simulated spaces fairly equally. One offer of such a navigational means by focusing on specific behavioral communications as to what is real in this essay I wrote Knowledge in the Era of Fake News — although the majority of this essay (the one you are reading) focuses on the mode by which we create meaning.

This creation of meaning is what I now want to focus on, because that is the maximal way to see the thesis of this essay. While hyperreality is not new, because hyperreality emerges through technological and cultural significations — not just purely simulacra, hyperreality allows us greater agency for behavioral and meaningful interactions than otherwise.

2.3 Enter the Hyperreal

  • In the last stage, integration will mean having a choice in producing how one appears, and who one is. This isn’t about being fake, or being real — rather in an integrated hyperreal stage, what counts is the meaning afforded by the hyperreal environment. The emphasis isn’t about the novelty of appearance or the ontology of the hyperreal — it is about the implicit relationships that can become salient given the fluidity of hyperreality.

We see some of this happening already. For example, consider the vTuber community — whereby people use filters to “play” characters on their youTube channel. I’d recommend watching this video below, as it is narrated by a vTuber who explains what vTubers are and the direction hyperreal integration can go.

What I want to highlight is that there is a deeper relationship that spans across both simulated and non-simulated spaces — a relationship that is only possible because it is hyperreal. While CodeMiko’s avatar may not reflect how her human form (the technician) is, the fact is, interactions with the avatar will carry meaning that will encroach into the non-simulated and simulated space.

What I am saying about hyperreality as a simulated and non-simulated cross-over is also true for simulacra that is not digital.

For instance, Norman B. Macintosh, Teri Shearer, David B. Thornton, and Michael Walker have published a paper Accounting as Simulacrum and Hyperreality: Perspectives on Income and Capital arguing that our accounting instruments for finance and capitalization are hyperreal simulacra, no longer referring to the relationships they are supposed to represent. They write

Income and capital signs appear to be paradigmatic examples of Baudrillard’s notions of simulacra, hyperreality, and implosion. In the order of simulation, the distinction between an accounting sign and some underlying reality has imploded. The accounting sign now precedes (and even creates through its “sign value’’) the referent that it once purported to represent. It is no longer an abstraction or an appearance of any “real’’ thing. It is its own pure simulation, making circular references to other models which themselves make circular references to accounting signs. Just as postmodern individuals become images of models that precede them and the difference between the real person and the image implodes, the accounting sign becomes an image of a model of the accounting sign itself.

This isn’t to mean that these generated financial signs do not have real world consequences (they can). Baudrillard for instance, appeared only interested in hyperreality as a media production — but with this, he misses the deeper implications of his own ideas, by limiting the scope of what he was willing to consider as hyperreal. As the authors point out

One immediately apparent problem concerns [Baudrillard’s] assertion that simulacra in the contemporary world lack rapport with reality. Many accounting signs today still have, as for Sumerian urn-accounting, a one-toone correspondence with real objects. These include balance sheet accounts for physical objects like land, buildings, plant and equipment and inventory (in most instances). Moreover, accounts receivable or payable, long term debt and sales retain a reasonable measure of transparency with underlying events, transactions and social obligations. Thus, Baudrillard’s contention that in the order of simulation signs no longer refer to, and often precede, reality comes across as an overly dramatized, totalizing vision (Bertens, 1995, p. 147) that exaggerates “the extent to which postmodern simulation and hyperreality constitute the contemporary society’’ (Best & Kellner, 1991, p. 143].

The authors do rightly point out that while many accountants and financiers understand that accounting and capitalization practices are divorced from “what actually happens” hyperreal accounting is still connected to real world items related to business.

What is significant, and beyond the scope of their paper, is that hyperreal accounting marks a change in the relationship between accounting and business. Hyperreal accounting challenges the notion that accounting is a transparent and purely referential bookkeeping activity that reflects the hard reality of a given business or financial instrument.

While the simulacra of accounting can be “about” something real — that is to say, outside of accounting — what makes accounting simulacra is that the logic (i.e., the interactions) of hyperreal accounting is independent of the world outside hyperreal accounting. For instance, the authors point to the ambiguity of deferred Federal taxes in hyperreal accounting.

Deferred taxes represent a case in point. They were at various times seen as part of equity (capital), debt (future tax liabilities) and in between (deferred taxes). Neither accounting theory nor an external referent can support any of the three interpretations unequivocally. “Future tax liabilities’’ are now called liabilities, although governments do not have accounts receivable from their putative debtors. Again, standard setters had to do something with deferred taxes. As long as readers understand how they are computed, they can use the numbers they engender as inputs to the clean surplus model and use or ignore them for various decisions.

Clearly what is altered in a hyperreal environment is the meaning of simulacra. On the one hand, as an implicit logic, the self-referential simulacra of double booking accounting, given whatever classification an accountant deems fit, operates on its own “level” of meaning independent of everything else around it. Nonetheless, on the other hand, hyperreal signs can have real world consequences, when those relationships are tied to external logics. For instance, while “the so-called stock market crash of October 1987 had few noticeable consequences outside the financial economy” — making it a crash only in the implicit logic of the financial world; the world economy crash in 2008 with the mortgage crisis is an example of hyperreal relationships that extend beyond the financial market.

One way to understand this, is that crashes may be isolated within the purely simulacra (implicit) world — but given hyperreality, should the simulacra world with its own logic, connect back to real (explicit) world in some form or another, then there may be significant consequences.

The fact is, for humans, what is real is both necessarily symbolizable/nameable (implicit relationship) and has agency (explicit relationship). The two relationships interrelate however: what helps something to be nameable is whether or not we have agency over that phenomenon. When we continue to manipulate a phenomenon so as to optimize its effects on ourselves so we have wrapped ourselves in a Marshall McLuhan universe of hyperreal effects. In this video, McLuhan states:

The world-pool of information, constantly pouring on your closely knit family, is influencing them more than you think. The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once. Ours is a brand new world of all-at-once-ness. Time in a sense has ceased. And space has vanished. Like primitives, we now live in a Global Village of our own making a simultaneous happening.

Technology and cultural artifacts that carry with it memetic and mimetic behavior are both candidates for hyperreality.

What is often missed with Platonic ideals, or explicit orders is how mutable and influential we are on our own sense of what is real. If we assume that reality is unchanging, as with some ideal form, we will dismiss the affective modifications of memetic behavior when it is we who generate that behavior through propagating that meme (instead of truth emanating from that ideal form).

The finance example may be a little too abstract but I wanted to include it to emphasize how our world is fragmented with these hyperreal simulacra. What follows is a more concrete example.

2.3.1 Police as Simulacra
Recalling the police raid example above, the video below focuses on how police in the United States are trained; via simulacra that emphasizes memetic behavior to escalate violence. In this case, training videos are simulacra, simulations for violent scenarios. From that point on, being in the police becomes about the memetic behavior of fulfilling the simulation (of which violence is an integral part. This simulation includes dressing the part with their military hardware and their armor — all essential to hyperreality of the simulation with its enactment of violence and self-righteous “domination”).

While the Ferguson, Missouri unrest in 2014 highlighted the problem of police militarization, there is a history to hyperreal simulation and the police. One example is the Watts Riots in Los Angeles in the 1960s. For example, this passage from Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties illustrates how media narrative set expectations for racial oppression:

Day Six (Monday, August 16)
Billy Graham, en route to a bible conference at Disneyland, took a helicopter ride over the curfew zone. The previous day he had told an audience: “We are caught in a great racial revolution. We may have a blood bath. What we have seen in Los Angeles is only the beginning.” Graham now warned that a “hard core is at work to destroy our country.” Many of his hard-core fans, meanwhile, were lined up at local gun shops. In a buying frenzy that would last for weeks, whites were arming themselves with shotguns and pistols and debating (so the New York Times reported) “what they’ll do if the niggers attack.” “One parent in the San Fernando Valley reported that his teen-age son had joined an adolescent vigilante band organized to fight marauding Negros.” Without arresting any of them, the [Los Angeles Police Department] turned away armed whites attempting to cross Alameda into the Watts area. Two carloads of whites from La Puente were stopped in South Central with caches of Molotov cocktails. Levi Kingston, walking on West Twenty-Seventh Street near USC, was shot at by someone on a nearby fraternity house rooftop. There were many other incidents like this, but white snipers and vigilantes did not fit into the master narrative of Black criminality.

On the one hand we have a media narrative depicting bands of hostile Blacks, rallying to cause white people harm. In response whites armed themselves and went looking for trouble. The response of the black community during the same time:

The only major fire Monday night was at a drive-in restaurant on Avalon, but there were scores if not hundreds of accounts of snipers, although no casualties. A second policeman was killed, this time in Long Beach, but the culprit was again a fellow officer. Meanwhile nearly 4,000 arrestees, including juveniles, were crammed together in the old Lincoln Heights jail and elsewhere in the county, under generally squalid conditions and mostly without access to lawyers. Looters of soft drinks, diapers and baby formula faced felony burglary counts with bail set at $5,000 — unobtainable for most of them. Thirty-six adults were booked for homicide, but thirty-three of them had been arrested for merely being on the scene when a police killed a looter or another suspect.

Here we have a truly hyperreality. Media narratives intensify white and police response to oppress would-be criminals as the narrative is taken as justification for brutally and systematically racially profiling Blacks. (Note that this happened in the 1960s, a time without the internet.) The simulacra of broadcast media let white populations feel good about protecting themselves from non-assailants who otherwise were just bystanders or looking to loot non-offensive items like baby formula (we can connect this to the trope that all blacks are criminals and therefore need to be feared or oppressed/secured).

Today in the early 21st century, we live in a radical hyperrealism, when social media allows people to report and organize in ways they could not before, creating behavior and meaning that is increasingly both connected and disconnected with the offline world. Simultaneously we have an accelerated emergence of novel relationships in hyperreality — many of them felt but not yet recognized by the general public, including these memetic feedback loops.

I will now conclude this essay with a short section about how we should understand what the hyperreal means for us.

3. What does Hyperreality Mean?

The original conclusion for this essay offered a deeper speculation, but I will hold that for another time, in consideration of a forth coming essay on psychotechnology.

Instead, I am going to position hyperreality with our shared lifeworld.

At this point you may be thinking that I am questioning too hard in the direction of “what is reality”. But that is not at all what I am doing. In some sense, what I am questioning is our sense of the natural qua given.

What hyperreality deforms is twofold: what we are aware of and what we have agency over. With technology, we become aware of our options. Once we realize we have options over modifying relationships in the world (such as “going green”, or buying new bug spray, or using our cellphone as a monitor to adjust how much sleep we get) the image of what we consider normal or natural will alter.

Essentially, nature is whatever relationships we have no control over. If we lose the option of modifying our heartrate (be it through meditation, or drug use) then whatever heartrate we have will be a matter of nature. In some sense, if we do not realize we have an option in our behavior, then we will behave “naturally”, which is to say that we will go in the direction easiest.

Hyperreality is essentially a loss of nature, not a loss of reality. When we alter our contextual behavior according to some media trope, or training video, we have made a choice in how we behave. Once we are aware that we have a choice, there is then, no pretext for returning to nature, for even if we choose to behave “as we did before”, we still make that choice.

By extension, hyperreality is not just the loss of the natural, but it is also the loss of the unnatural. In a hyperreal environment, un/natural is not a meaningful distinction. For instance, the label “organic”, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, is a set of guidelines, not a requirement that food grow “as if in nature”. The concept of nature when it comes to farming is an example of a Platonic form; an image used as a basis to judge how much (or little) something else fits that image.

The fact is, farms are managed; management is the activity of farming. “Organic” specifies a style of management that prohibits or limits certain behaviors, while promoting others. Likewise, the concept of nature is also simulacra once we realized that environments are either (un)managed/(un)simulated. What we designate as natural depends on our idea: what we allow as being “of nature”. (Think of Central Park, New York, as an example of a simulation of nature.) The key here is that the concept of nature is the reverse of hyperreality:

  • When we are aware of options, we are hyperreal.
  • When we have no choice, we are natural.

This insertion of a choice in what was assumed to be natural is, to a large degree, how Jean-François Lyotard frames his discussion of postmodernism. I’m not going to examine this at length but it is sufficient to note that common understandings of postmodernism and hyperreality are too superficial because they focus on trying to judge these concepts in terms of a Platonic image (although in some sense, those understandings can be thought of as simulations of the concept of hyperreality).

What postmodernism shares with hyperreality is a loss of privileging a particular position/figure/ontology/image as being ultimately real. While Baudrillard offers simulacra, Lyotard offers something he calls the differend. Bill Readings offers a very concise definition in his book Introducing Lyotard:

Differend. A point of difference where the sides speak radically different or heterogenous languages, where the dispute cannot be phased in either language without, by its very phrasing, prejudging the issue for that side, being unjust. Between language games, two little narratives, two phases, there is always a differend which must be encountered. As such, the differend marks a point of incommensurability, of dispute or difference where no criteria exist for judgment. The differend marks a point where existing representational frameworks are unable to deal with difference without repressing or reducing it.

While this concept of differend is not the same as simulacra, they do share something in common: they provide a way of understanding how mimetic variation occurs despite people sharing a narrative, experience or event. This lack of a privileged position for judgement is an essential characteristic of postmodernism.

This isn’t to say that there is no truth, or that reality is what you make of it. To form that anti-real understanding as a consequence of these concepts is to mistake one’s Platonic judgement for reality — which is a deep confusion about the role of concepts. (Platonism is merely a concept.)

What is unique about the differend is that it offers an understanding of politics and narrative that is useful. Lyotard’s rejection of a metanarrative is essentially a rejection of assuming there is a position of privilege that a given narrative can have to suppress other narratives’ uniqueness. Without a metanarrative, politics is really only a contest between different genres of narratives, often with very little by way of shared terminology.

It is in this vein that I offer simulacra; as each simulacra is a unique difference in relating to the world at large. By rejecting given cultural mimetics, simulacra offers us a choice in the mimetic direction we each can pursue. Without a culturally given “natural” choice, what we have now is a proliferation of individual choices, even though many of us do not realize that we are making a choice.

To a large degree this is why there is confusion, as there is confusion not only between where we have agency/consequences (what is real) but there is also a confusion between which choices we should make as we confuse the hyperreal simulacra format with reality itself. Take the news for example. The news has tropes unique to news broadcasts. As the Daily Show showed us, those tropes can be produced for consumption regardless of the quality (or source) of the content. We can see this with the advent of podcasts that are nothing more than lists of items in a catalogue. Using the tropes of radio narration, podcasters have discovered that people will listen to podcasts devoid of narrative content as long as the media tropes persist. In this sense, these podcasts are little more than simulations of podcasts (which are themselves, simulations of radio broadcast formats), having all the form, but necessarily not having any of the content.

Truly, hyperreality is here to stay.

At this point I want to end and reiterate some main points, as this essay is long.

  • Hyperreality is not merely digital; it is the condition whereby we humans create the memetic (and mimetic) artifacts that are used to form our behavior, often with spill-over into the non-simulated world. This isn’t to say we are controlled; we still have a choice in our behavior. Rather our selection for expressive behavior is altered.
  • Simulacra is not a about a loss of reality — simulacra emerges when an icon or meme of some sort takes on its own meaning independent of whatever it used to mean in past contexts.
  • Our markets are hypermarkets as production and advertisement coordinate to simulate desired experiences to get consumer dollars. We have been living in hyperreality for a while now; its “produced” aspect has become part of our cuisine and our culture (e.g., consider the simulated experience that is part of the experience of eating at Asian eateries, Disneyland, Las Vegas, and even of “safe” suburban neighborhoods)
  • Simulacra has no “original” as the internal order of simulacra determines its immanent uniqueness. Adopting this view of “no-original” necessarily leads to a de-hierarchicalization of Truth as an external order because all simulacra has, as its own “truth”, an implicit and immanent production of its own. Another way to say this is that anything can become viral, collective and virtual.
  • Accelerated development in technology will lead to further hyperreal phenomenon as new simulacra emerges, signifying new kinds of relationships and re-organizing the world in novel ways. Technology will always alter our agency, modifying the interface we have with the real things that matter to us.
  • Given the statement above about technology, hyperreality is not a degraded form of reality. The new relationships that we gain through technology have no original form, nor do they “come from” some deeper Platonic essentialism. This isn’t to say that all technology is good, nor that we should pursue every novelty, but it is to say that understanding hyperreality in a retroactive and conservative manner is ironically itself a simulation of some ideal form of the way “things have to be” in order for one to assume they are real.
  • Hyperreality is our reality, as our lifeworld is wrapped in a self referential logic of its own cultural-technological-media artifices.

Hyperreality is here to stay as it is the condition of our produced, managed, environments. Hyperreality is how we interface with the world, ourselves, and each other.

From here.

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