Hyperreality (not to be confused with surrealism) is a concept in semiotics and postmodern philosophy. The most famous hyperrealists include Jean Baudrillard, Daniel Boorstin, and Umberto Eco.
Hyperrealism is a symptom of postmodern culture. Hyperreality does not "exist" or "not exist." It is simply a way of describing the information to which the consciousness is subject.
Most aspects of hyperreality can be thought of as "reality by proxy." Baudrillard in particular suggests that the world we live in has been replaced by a copy world, where we seek simulated stimuli and nothing more.
Baudrillard borrows, from Borges, the example of a society whose cartographers create a map so detailed that it covers the very things it was designed to represent. When the empire declines, the map fades into the landscape and there is neither the representation or the real remaining – just the hyperreal.
Baudrillard’s idea of hyperreality was heavily influenced by phenomenology, semiotics, and Marshall McLuhan.
The birth of a hyperreality
Consumer objects have a sign exchange value, which means that they indicate something about the owner in the context of a social system (see Baudrillard). For example, a king who wears a crown uses the crown as a sign to indicate that he is king.
Fundamentally, sign exchange values have no inherent meaning or value beyond what is agreed upon. As sign exchange values become more numerous, interaction becomes increasingly based upon things with no inherent meaning. Thus, reality becomes less and less important, as sign exchange takes precedence.
If grains of sand are dropped one by one onto a table, at some arbitrary moment the grains become a heap of sand. Similarly, at some arbitrary point as sign exchange becomes more complex, reality shifts into hyperreality.
Significance of hyperreality
Hyperreality is significant as a paradigm to explain the American cultural condition. Consumerism, because of its reliance on sign exchange value (e.g. brand X makes you cool, car Y means you’re rich), is the contributing factor in creating hyperreality. Hyperreality tricks the consciousness into detaching from any real emotional engagement, instead opting for artificial simulation, and endless reproductions of fundamentally empty appearance. Essentially, fulfillment or happiness is found through simulation and imitation of the real rather than through reality itself.
Interacting in a hyperreal place like a Las Vegas casino gives the subject the impression that he is walking through a fantasy world where everyone is playing along. The decor isn't authentic, everything is a copy, and the whole thing feels like a dream. What isn't a dream, of course, is that the casino takes your money, which you are more apt to give them when your consciousness doesn't really understand what's going on. In other words, although you may intellectually understand what happens at a casino, your consciousness thinks that gambling money in the casino is part of the "not real" world. It is in the interest of the decorators to emphasise that everything is fake, to make the entire experience seem fake.
Note: Many postmodern philosophers, including Baudrillard, do not talk about hyperreal in terms of a subject/object dichotomy.
Definitions of hyperreality
- "The simulation of something which never really existed." (Baudrillard)
- "The authentic fake." (Eco)
Examples of hyperreality
- a sports drink of a flavour that doesn't exist ("wild ice zest berry")
- a plastic Christmas tree that looks better than a real Christmas tree ever could
- a magazine photo of a model that has been touched up with a computer
- a well manicured garden (nature as hyperreal)
- Disney World and Las Vegas
- pornography ("sexier than sex itself")
- MMORPGs, where simulated life is perceived as more engrossing than "real life"