An A to Z of Theory | Jean Baudrillard: Hyperreality and Implosion
In Theory, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, August 10, 2012 0:00 - 21 Comments
“All cultural forms and media are being absorbed into advertising”
The model of the code does not represent a prior social reality. It creates a new social reality, which Baudrillard terms hyperreality. Hyperreality is a special kind of social reality in which a reality is created or simulated from models, or defined by reference to models – a reality generated from ideas. The term has implications of ‘too much reality’ – everything being on the surface, without mystery; ‘more real than reality’ – too perfect and schematic to be true, like special effects; and ‘para-reality’, an extra layer laid over, or instead of, reality. It is experienced as more real than the real, because of its effect of breaking down the boundary between real and imaginary. It is a ‘real’ without ‘origin or reality’, a reality to which we cannot connect.
Hyperreality differs from other realities in that the division between reality and imaginary disappears. Reality becomes a cybernetic game. It is as if, at a certain point of time, we left reality behind, and never noticed until now. We can no longer tell the former reality from hyperreality, and we wouldn’t know if reality returned. Baudrillard does not suggest when this loss of reality happened, but it can be deduced from his work fairly easily. The final loss of meaning happened at some point after the 1960s. Baudrillard sees figures such as J.F.K. and Marilyn Monroe as still having symbolic force. One might tentatively situate the transition in 1973 or 1979 – at the point where neoliberalism takes root.
Hyperreality corresponds to the disappearance of intensity. It becomes something “cool” – stripped of intense affective energies and the power of the symbolic and of fantasy. For instance, the “hot” commitment to labour is replaced by the “cool” execution of tasks. The “hot” art and film of historical investment is replaced by the “cool” functional or machinational pleasure of perfectly simulated fiction. Baudrillard is often misunderstood. He does not use the term “cool” in the sense of fashionable or enjoyable. He is referring to the loss of heat. Heat is here a metaphor for intensity, enjoyment (as opposed to pleasure), and emotional investment. To be “cool” is to be apathetic, disillusioned, uncommitted.
In hyperreality, simulators seek to make all of reality coincide with their models of simulation. The result is that ‘the real is no longer real’. For instance, production is now primarily virtual – the unreal circulation of values. Cinema is getting closer to an absolute reality in all its naked obviousness. Functional arrangements seek to create the greatest correspondence possible between the object and its function. Baudrillard terms such changes as expressions of an attitude to signs which is naïve and paranoid, puritan and terrorist. Its destruction of the gap between signs and their referents creates immense social effects. For instance, one’s experience of time collapses without accumulation and a referent. Time is increasingly experienced as an eternal present without end, rather than as a linear sequence.
Fashion and fascination
Hyperreality is for Baudrillard simply one of a number of related cases of excessive or simulated forms. Today’s regime is based on the compulsory sharing of meaning and of the real. This occurs instead of the sharing of secrets in a band, or of simulacra in sovereignty. It is because the importance of simulation is denied that things seem over-present and obscene.
All spheres tend to converge on the model of fashion, the commutation of signs. Baudrillard sees fashion as the absorption of past signs the same way machines absorb past labour. Consumption of fashion actually draws on the endless revival of past cultural forms as empty signs. Fashion simulates the innocence of becoming and the cyclical process of exchange. There is fashion wherever forms are reproduced from models, and not through their own determinations. The light play of fashion replaces the heavy meanings of production. Although this is part of the system’s internal change, it is also subversive of the system. The free play of fashion renders all signs relative, rendering power arbitrary. Baudrillard thinks the left has become moralistic in its attacks on fashion as insubstantial. Instead, we should deconstruct the form of fashion and of the code.
Fashion is more beautiful than the beautiful, as the model is truer than the true. As a result, they are fascinating. They give rise to a particular ecstatic experience arising from their excess. This experience comes from the collapse of the categorical distinctions, and bears a remnant of return to symbolic exchange. The experience, which is almost vertigo, ‘today tends to become our only passion’. Or rather, it replaces passion, being counterposed to passionate investments in the scene. It is the experience that arises when a body ‘spins until all sense is lost, and then shines forth in its pure and empty form’. It almost disappears, but remains fascinating.
Such fascinating images deter the true, the real, and so on by getting too close to them. In this way, they put an end to the social. Information in the age of the Internet is ecstatic because there is too much of it. Fascination exists in a field of non-contradiction, of entities beyond binaries. It happens, for instance, when the true is invested with the power of the false, the beautiful with the ugly, or the real with the unreal. It consists of a kind of contemplation of what exists. It carries a symbolic energy, opening into the field of symbolic exchange. It escapes from the ultimatum of meaning.
The visible fades into these kinds of ecstatic forms, becoming the ‘obscene‘ – what is more visible than the visible. War becomes ecstatic in the nuclear form. With no proportionality between means to annihilate and goals of war, waging war becomes pointless. The social becomes ecstatic in the masses, the political (or violence) becomes ecstatic in terrorism. Objects become obscene as ‘light’ commodities in circulation. Money becomes obscene in gambling (and capital speculation?). Things take up too much room. They have too much meaning to be meaningful, as if they mean everything and therefore nothing. This is distinct from classical obscenity, which is an irruption of the repressed. Today’s obscenities are surfaces with no secret beneath them. They are abjectly visible, but mean nothing at all. For something to be meaningful, it needs a scene.
All cultural forms and media are being absorbed into advertising. By this, Baudrillard means the ‘zero degree’ of meaning, the triumph of form over substance, a ‘simplified operational mode’, a seductive and pseudo-consensual presentation. Things are presented in such a way that the surface effaces and covers up any possible depth. Political soundbites, tabloid news, the cult of ‘methods’ would be variants of this new reality. Of course, the effect of this is a loss or entropy of meaning. Advertising destroys intensities and accelerates inertia. And it is itself threatened. Computer code simplifies even further than advertising. It is putting an end to the power of advertising. In an earlier work, Baudrillard emphasised that advertising actually promotes the entire social system, far more than the specific product it is meant to sell. It exists more as a way of signifying a way of life than an economic practice.
Hence, across a range of fields, the basic form is replaced by an ecstatic or excessive form – the real by the hyperreal, aesthetics by fashion, the scene by the obscene. This happens because of the loss of referents in the various fields. For instance, the loss of social transcendence – law, scene, stakes – is what renders the social ecstatic and obscene, or over-present.
Ecstasy is a ‘cool’ or ‘cold’ passion. It relies on the non-existence, or affective non-investment, of what is consumed. A ‘hot’ passion, for instance, consists of really believing money has value, or really believing in the law, even if one breaks it. A ‘cool’ passion instead depends on the secret of the nonexistence of what is contemplated. The ecstatic also becomes a metastasis – it cross-contaminates between social fields.
Baudrillard’s account of a functionally-obsessed code does not conclude with a smoothly functioning totality. The system which results depends on the constant maintenance of a regime of control. Such a system is very unstable, open to collapsing at the slightest rupture. For instance, systems of power depend on a master-signifier, which is ultimately arbitrary and contingent. (There is no longer a master-signifier of the entire system, but agencies such as states and companies still have leaders for example). When it is obvious that it is arbitrary and contingent, power is unpinned from its apparent obviousness. It comes to seem purely arbitrary, and this interferes with its functioning. When power occupies the empty place of power, it comes to seem obscene, impure and ridiculous, and eventually collapses.
Baudrillard refers to this instability as implosion. This means that he sees the system collapsing from within. The system is no longer expanding – hence the turn to deterrence instead of war. It is in ‘involution’ – collapsing in upon itself. For Baudrillard, the system has reached its culmination. It is accelerating towards its limit, which today is expressed as implosion (rather than explosion or revolution). The growing density of simulations is destroying it. Implosion is swallowing all the energy of the real. Implosion is similar to the idea of ‘internal contradictions’ in Marxism. It refers to a tendency to collapse arising from the system’s own dynamics.
Implosion arises from the destruction of meaning and the reality-effect due to the precession of simulacra. The problem for the system is that signs need a separate reality in order to refer to something, and hence to function as signs. In the current regime of simulation, social realities are generated from signs and models which precede them. The model produces the “real”, the medium, and the message all at once. Reality separate from the regime is either destroyed, denied, or incorporated. As a result, the signs stop referring to anything. At the same time, therefore, a total system of meaning is created, and its meaningfulness is destroyed. All signs or referentials are combined in a vicious circle or Moebius strip. Truth, equivalences, rational distinctions break down. Without a clear outside or referent, the reality-effect breaks down. Without a focus of intensity, meaning breaks down.
Meaning can no longer be pinned-down in particular places. It circulates at increased speed, without any referent or guarantee. For instance, economic growth is increasingly unstable. Economic bubbles form and burst, commodities (such as Internet companies or real-estate) are immensely valued and then collapse, emerging “tigers” from Korea to Ireland to Mexico suffer sharp collapses. Baudrillard sees the same thing happening with everything from fashion to art to politics. The problem is structural. Once the system reaches saturation, it starts to fall in on itself, like a black hole. Saturation leads to inertia. For Baudrillard, global cities have already become black holes, eating up past social phenomena and meanings. They are entirely functional zones, arranged around sites such as hypermarkets (massive supermarkets), shopping centres and transport networks.
The system is based on functionality. Yet in hypermarkets and modern universities, functions seem to become indeterminate – hence cities seem to disintegrate. This is because they have lost their distinct purposes or use-values. They become polyfunctional black-boxes with different input-output combinations. Usefulness is itself an ideology, which relies on the simulation of shortage or the creation of artificial scarcity. It is actually a moral convention, not a fact of nature.
Today, supermarkets are also insurance companies, banks, pharmacists, government information dispensers, home-delivery services; today’s universities are also corporate research subcontractors, vocational trainers, immigration monitors, producers of brand-name merchandise, profiteers on debts, affiliates of regional development councils, housing providers, monitors of student dissent… This kind of hyper-functionalism renders them almost functionless – they can no longer be defined by a particular core function. They become a means without end. An operationalism without specific functions. All the different functions become simultaneous, without past, future or distinction. All mental, temporal, spatial and signalled coordinates become interchangeable in the simulated world.
Hence, institutions cease to be related to specific functions, and cease to be believable as guarantors of meaning. This has social effects. Power has ceased to believe in the university. Degrees no longer have the value they once did. Like work, they persist on the basis of a dead referential, as a simulation. The real function of these functionless institutions is deterrence (see below). Their hyperreality, their simulation of functions, neutralises the surrounding territory. People won’t notice the absence of education when there’s a “world-class” university next-door. And if they do, they won’t feel they can compete with such a monolith. There are, of course, exceptions, but on the whole, such simulations shut down social life.
For Baudrillard, the system is haunted by a constant sense of crisis. And this crisis is not simply a limit. It is ever-present. The system constantly presents its own crisis as spectacle. It juxtaposes its ideal (the advert) to its crisis (news, disaster movies, crime dramas, action films). But it is distributed in ‘homeopathic doses’ – in tiny amounts absorbed in other things. Hence, it doesn’t explode. It is constantly drip-fed to us instead. The world becomes non-representational through lack of signs. After meaning, we are left with manipulation, touch, circulation, ventilation. It becomes a world of panic. Explosions are foreseen and foreclosed. But implosion, the death of the cybernetic combinatory world, is a constant threat.
Some social institutions collapse more quickly than others. Law is in crisis because it is a power of the second order. It is undermined by parody, which makes submission and transgression equivalent. Indeed, the social order prefers to opt for the real, taking simulations for reality. Power is disempowered by the slippage of significations and the lack of referentiality. It is turned into an empty simulation of power. It is at risk of collapse from being dissolved in the play of signs. At one point Baudrillard argues that power no longer produces anything but the signs of its resemblance, the appearance of power. (Real power, perhaps, requires a symbolic aspect).
This crisis of law is the condition for a particular transition. Law is replaced by the norm. Rather than explosions which escape the law, the present period deals with deviance as anomalies which deviate from the average. People are now anonymous, subject to an anonymous terror. People can be exterminated, not to achieve their death, but because they are statistically indifferent.
Power tries to defend itself against the collapse of meaning by reinjecting the real and the referential everywhere. It tries to convince people that the social world is still objectively real. It prefers to refer to crisis, or even to desire, than to admit its own collapse. Historically, it combated threats from the real by recuperating them in equivalent signs. Now, it combats the threat from simulation by playing at crisis. It embraces theories of ideology, and even radical critiques, as ways to maintain the appearance of truth.
The responsible subject is in a similar situation of crisis. The system rests on responsibility. But in a system based on bureaucratic programming, irresponsible actors are required – figures like Eichmann who simply obey orders or perform functions. The system is left constantly trying to exhort people to be responsible subjects while producing them as simple conductors of social power. Subjects are put into drift, into something like a constant unconscious state. Without fixed relations, everything turns into flows of transference. The replacement of meaning with functions makes people expect everything to work all the time. A few seconds’ delay in a webpage loading becomes an inexplicable source of immense frustration. Causes have disappeared, but effects have become immense – as when a local disaster causes a global shutdown.
And with the responsible subject no longer there (because it is an effect of the old subject-object split), people try desperately to impute responsibility. The excessive reservoir of ‘floating responsibility’ through finding scapegoats or guilty parties is just waiting to be invested in any particular incident. The Katrina or Christchurch disasters get projected onto looters; Chilean forest fires are targeted as ‘terrorism’; social insecurity is projected onto Muslims, immigrants, minorities. Social problems of increasing triviality are subjected to immense crackdowns and moral panics.
In a wave of disproportion, mitigation and even innocence are cast aside in the search for someone to blame. Meanwhile, people are repeatedly subject to tirades to ‘take responsibility’ for problems (from unemployment to alcoholism to post-traumatic stress) which the experts know very well are not really self-caused. We are subject to a blackmail by identity, condemned for what we are labelled as in the code, not for what we are.
For Baudrillard, this is a consequence of the disappearance of causes and the power of effects. It reflects something deeper: the world is held collectively responsible for the system. If the system is infringed, the world will have to be destroyed. Or rather, we are ‘psychologically programmed to destroy ourselves’ if the system collapses. We could think of this as the code blackmailing reality. Though the code is tautological and does not depend on reality, it holds reality responsible for itself, and punishes reality if it collapses or crashes.
This generalisation of responsibility can be traced back to the loss of symbolic exchange. Generalised, unlimited responsibility occurs because nothing is exchanged anymore, the terms of exchange are simply exchanged among themselves. The system produces nothing but vertigo and fascination. Generalised responsibility becomes the same as generalised irresponsibility and the collapse of social relations. Values such as responsibility, justice and violence continue to circulate only as simulations imposed by the state. This in turn is fatal for the ‘scene’ of politics.
On a similar note, there is an ideology of exhuming, documenting, rediscovering the real – from reality TV to the preservation of historical artefacts and indigenous groups – which according to Baudrillard, simply reinforces the process of killing and then simulating. What is preserved is never what it would have been without intervention. We constantly recreate and relive bits of the past and present which are now simulated. The real has become our utopia, that we dream of as if of a lost object. An entire culture now labours at counterfeiting itself.
This only exacerbates the problems. Inertia gets worse and worse as simulations of past forms, frozen in time, proliferate and overgrow their uses. Production and meaning are replaced by simulation and fascination. The content – information, culture, commodities – is now simply the support for the operation of the code, the medium. The function of the code is simply to reproduce the masses. Information devours its own contents by turning the real into the hyperreal.
Functions of the media
The media has a special place in the implosion of meaning. In particular, it creates a pressure of excessive information. According to an online saying, “getting information from the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant”. For Baudrillard, this leads to the destructuring of the social. Social life undergoes entropy. It implodes.
Baudrillard also portrays the media as performing certain functions. It juxtaposes disaster and disorder, shown in the news and in most TV shows (from action films and crime dramas to documentaries and police-camera reality-shows), to the system’s ideal of order, shown in the adverts in between. This order is portrayed as natural wellbeing, but is really a new regime of constraint in consumption.
The media also injects people with a vaccine of unthreatening, mediated violence which keeps fatality at bay by displaying its signs. This vaccine covers up the actual fragility of consumerism. It restores grandeur and sublimity to the everyday by making it seem under threat. At the same time, the media encourages a sense of security. Even when it presents violence or disaster, the fact of not ‘being there’ while watching it makes it reinforce security. Through the media, we never reach the real event, but only its informational stand-in, which is open to endless interpretation.
It is above all the form of the media, not the specific content, which has an ideological effect. The media’s specific informational content is subordinate to the function of producing consensus by deterring thought. Knowledge of the event as an aspect of life is prevented, creating an atmosphere of stupidity. Consensus functions by the exclusion of more radical others, and the mobilisation of resources to destroy them. It is achieved by powerlessness. The personal response, and responsiveness, is not possible in mass media. Disasters past and present are neutralised in a simple emotional response. Events like Live Aid involve viewers enjoying the spectacle of their own compassion.
News programmes treat all spectacles as interchangeable, reducing everything to spectacle. As a result, the media mainly talks about itself. The real function of the media is to transmit the general outlook of reducing everything to signs. Media technologies subtly alter how viewers and readers think. Viewers have to unconsciously decode stories, and as a result, internalise the code. Behind the shifting images lies a conception of a world which can be seen, divided into segments, and read in signs.
Increasingly, only what can be read is allowed to exist. The differences between news and adverts are also significant: whereas adverts are cheery and encourage engagement, news encourages lack of concern through a blank, neutral tone. An ideological code of mass culture is created through the mass media’s formal homogeneity, and through technical processes such as articulation and segmentation.
Mass culture, according to Baudrillard, is a set of ritualised signs of culture, with no actual content. For example, he refers to the isolated knowledge and trivia of quiz shows. Culture is reduced to the lowest common denominator of right answers. Speed of reaction-time and trial-and-error replace intellectual questioning of the answers. The form of the question-answer or stimulus-response pairing is reproduced across capitalist culture. Participation in a liturgy or ritual is all that remains of collective participation, and it would be undermined by symbolic processes.
People affiliate to groups by reproducing their signs. This occurs both with specific groups, such as Guardian- or Sun-readers, and across the entire culture. It creates a kind of magical communion of the mass through electronic mass media. People are “retribalised” through a simulated totality, arising from signs which demand cultural complicity instead of conveying a meaning-content. Language becomes a fetish by being used mainly for ingroup collusion.
A collapsing regime?
What are the social effects of all these changes? The main function of the changes is to actualise and preserve the system. Ultimately, the system seeks only to preserve itself. The ultimate end of politics, concealed by democratic discourse, is to maintain control of the population by any means necessary, including terror. The system is a kind of violence without consequences. It constantly dominates through deterrence, without this gesture being returned or reversed. It is sustained by fascination for the system’s operations.
And its effects on the everyday? The social is now a special effect. The appearance of networks converging on an empty site of collective happiness produces the special effect. Consumption now functions like labour. It is a kind of work, which gives the system sign-value. We have lost the social, the real, and power. We don’t know how to mourn them. We become fascinated by the real as a lost object.
Melancholy (depression) becomes the dominant tone of social life. It is a brutal disaffection arising from generalised simulation and the loss of intensity and meaning. The system seems too strong to be checked. People become fascinated at what is happening to signs and to reality. The lines between categories become vague and categories begin to disappear, or become poorly defined or all-encompassing. The lack of differentiation – the collapse of the segmenting categories – brings us back to a terrifying, undivided nature. Interstitial space – the space between things – disappears. We are overwhelmed by the over-proximity of all things, like in the Lacanian view of psychosis.
It’s not so much that reality doesn’t exist, as that it is inaccessible from within a regime of simulation. Transparency has the effect of curtailing intensity. Social life falls into a stupor or inertia, ‘deterred’ by the code and by its own transparency. Today, illusion no longer counts. Survival depends on the real, the object. This has negative effects. Objectivity is the opposite of fatality, and is always subject to law. This is another way of saying that we are lacking the symbolic dimension. This lack resounds throughout various fields, putting an end to values.
The autonomy of the system of signs puts an end to the regime of signs, of representation, and of production. Aesthetics are destroyed by the cold, systematic reproduction of functional objects, including objects signifying beauty. Signs become socially mobile, as in the phenomena of kitsch and cliché. All the humanist criteria of value – from morality to truth to aesthetics – disappear, because the code rests on indifference and neutralisation. Capitalism almost becomes a parody of itself.
The situation of indistinction which reason and science have historically struggled against is now coming into existence, because of hyperreality – because a lot of what exists is neither objectively true nor subjectively imagined. Panic tends to arise because of the functioning of value separately from its referential contents. We are living through a collapse of meaning.
[Part Ten will be published next week. Click here for other essays in this series.]
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