Research point: Real and hyperreal

Reading the course notes on Jean Baudrillard‘s theory of hyperreality and researching the subject, it was at first quite inpenetrable to me. Thanks to the help of a few key additional sources it became clearer. I now believe I understand the key concepts well enough to say which I agree with and which I find a little too ‘far out’ to be of useful application.

Influences and comparisons

I found similarities between Guy Debord‘s ‘spectacle’ and Baudrillard’s ‘hyperreality’/’simulacra’. Both are concerned with the development of society away from the real/natural and towards a collective image-saturated version of reality presented to the passively consuming masses.

While Debord’s theory culminates in a view of the spectacle as something that can be resisted, or overthrown by developing an alternative media, Baudrillard’s view is more extreme and more pessmistic; he rejects the spectacle and concludes that (and I’m paraphrasing here) – it’s too late, nothing is real any more. Baudrillard’s world view comes across as an extreme extension of Debord’s idea until it collapses in on itself.

Steven Best and Douglas Kellner summarised it thus:

“For Baudrillard, we leave behind the society of the commodity and its stable supports; we transcend the society of the spectacle and its dissembling masks; and we bid farewell to modernity and its regime of production, and enter the postmodern society of the simulacrum, an abstract non-society devoid of cohesive relations, shared meaning, and political struggle.”
(Best & Kellner 2007)

The other parallel I detected was with the deconstruction theory of poststructuralist Jacques Derrida. Where Derrida concluded that there is no ultimate foundational meaning to be found in any text, that everything is relative and signs point to each other endlessly, Baudrillard seems to be applying a similar logic to life itself – that there is no defining ‘reality’ that anything ultimately refers to. Again, Best and Kellner summarise it well:

“‘Reality’ implies something singular, sui generis, a touchstone by which to measure everything else. But in the conditions of reproduction, Baudrillard claims, all this is lost: reality becomes what can be infinitely extended and multiplied in a series, through a reproductive medium. No longer sui generis, it infinitely resembles itself in identical copies.”
(Best & Kellner 2007)

My simple-minded view on Baudrillard’s theory is that it is somewhat extreme and exaggerated. I concur with the criticisms of Mark Poster in his collection of Baudrillard’s writing: hyperbolic, declarative, totalising, ignoring contradictory evidence (Poster 1988: 8). It’s a shame that some good ideas get lost under thick layers of hyperbole.

Application to photography

The useful application of Baudrillard’s theory to photography is the notion of the four stages of an image (Baudrillard 1988: 173):

  1. Truly reflects reality
  2. Masks and perverts reality
  3. Masks the absence of reality
  4. Bears no relation to any reality – is its own simulacrum (hyperreality)

In isolation this list was slightly obtuse to me, but I found examples that brought it to life. I am going to paraphrase from an article in the online journal Continent (as the language in the original is a little… earthy):

  1. Here is a photo of my girlfriend
  2. Here is a photo of my girfriend after I Photoshopped it to make her skin smoother and her waist slimmer
  3. Here is a photo of a model that I found online and pretend is my girfriend
  4. Here is an image of a beautiful woman that I created using game design software

(My issue with Baudrillard is his exaggeration of how much of society is ‘hyperreal’, his stage 4: CGI in movies is; Disneyland is; virtual reality is – but the whole of modern life isn’t… the Gulf War did happen.)

Documentary photography in its purest sense should be at stage 1, though some may veer towards stage 2. It shouldn’t ever reach stage 3, although other genres of photography belong in this stage (advertising, fashion, tableaux).

In my simplistic world-view, photography cannot exist in stage 4. The indexicality of photography means that it must have a basis in the real and at its most extreme is a fictionalised setup (stage 3) but cannot be pure simulation in anything other a highly theoretical (conceptual) sense.

Other forms of art can be hyperreal: literature, painting and sculpture, certainly. Even photomontage can be hyperreal (but I don’t believe that photomontage IS photography; it is graphic art that USES photography).

Summary

Right now I consider this something of a diversion from the main thrust of this section on Documentary. It might be more appplicable when we look at advertising later in the course. I may therefore revisit some of the ideas then.

Sources

Baudrillard, J. (2001) Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Edited by Mark Poster. 2nd edn. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Bertens, H. (1994) The Idea of the Postmodern: A History. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Debord, G. (1992) The Society of the Spectacle. London: Rebel Press.

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Burlington, MA: Focal Press

Best, S. and Kellner, D., 2007. Debord and the Postmodern Turn: New Stages of the Spectacle. http://www.uta.edu/huma/illuminations/kell17.htm (accessed 29/01/2016)

http://www.continentcontinent.cc/index.php/continent/article/viewArticle/91 (accessed 29/01/2016)

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