Thursday, April 14, 2005

The Hyppereal Spectacle-Professor Ron Burnett

English 378D ()

Some thirty years after Marshall McLuhan's prophetic announcement of the coming global village, that notion, which once seemed the exclusive domain of future generations, is now reality. Technology, even within the past decade, has advanced by seemingly exponential rates, and what was once deemed incredible is now the mundane and commonplace. Now, mass society across the world is irrevocably linked. One can only imagine the sense of awe and excitement expressed by those who witnessed the unveiling of television at the World's Fair in 1932. Whereas news of wars in distant foreign lands once could only be read about second-hand in the newspaper, they are now broadcast across the world so that anyone watching the screen can be instantly transported to the front lines as the action unfolds. Essentially, it is a vicarious experience, for the viewer is nowhere near the real action but rather in the comfort of home. To this writer, it seems as if the whole point of virtual reality is to enable users to experience activities in which they do not ordinarily participate. That is to say that these experiences, which are nothing more than simulations, are to the virtual reality user as enjoyable and satisfying as the real thing. VR users accept the simulated for the real. Where can the line between the real and the simulated be drawn, then, if it can be drawn at all? Are the images the media projects to us, a society of spectators as Debord would say, nothing more than simulations of the real that we consciously accept? In the mass desire to conform to the status quo, is it possible that society accepts the simulation for the real because the status quo dictates it? It is my intention to investigate, utilising the theories of Guy Debord and his contemporary Jean Baudrillard, the possibility that society has become nothing less than a spectacle based society, and that these spectacles, far from being true pictures of reality, are nothing more than the melding together of the real and the simulated into a new vision of reality, the hyperreal. In essence, the masses have become a society of spectators, totally dependent on the images projected to them as referents of the world in which they live. Not unlike the ancient Roman bread and circuses, society today depends on the spectacle for a variety of reasons. In The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord states: The whole life of these societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived has become mere representation (p.12). Take, as an example, the recent media circus surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial. The millions who tuned in every day did so for a variety of reasons, but the inescapable fact is that they all intently watched nothing more than a spectacle, knowing full well that it was exactly that. The images of the trial, projected world-wide, depicted the real life trial of an accused murderer. But by virtue of the fact that someone in New York could watch the precedings as they were happening live means that the trial could be nothing but a spectacle, with the viewers forming an integral part in the spectacle itself. Debord states that the spectacle appears at once to be society itself, a part of society, and as a means of unifying society (p.12). Americans, from Maine to Hawaii, all see the same images, courtesy of national broadcasting, and that image serves to unite them. All of society's attentions, the collective consciousness, is centered within the spectacle itself. Because all of society is concentrated on the spectacle, society is itself related to both the spectacle and all other spectators, for they are projected the same images. It follows, by deduction, that the spectacle is not limited to just the images projected, but rather the whole effect, the social relationship between spectators which the images involved mediate. The true spectacle of the Simpson trial was not the trial itself, but rather the total effect it had on the masses, the spectators involved; specifically, the polarization of Caucasians and African Americans over the trial was the essential property of the spectacle. It follows that the spectacle, although it unites in its scope, can also prompt division; in this case along racial lines. Thus described, the spectacle is nothing but the relationship that spectators have to any given image. The spectacle serves a role in society; Debord states: Understood in its totality, the spectacle is both the outcome and the goal of the dominant mode of production. It is not something added to the real world- not a decorative element, so to speak. On the contrary, it is the very heart of society's real unreality. In all its specific manifestations- news or propa- ganda, advertising or the actual consumption of entertainment- the spectacle epitomizes the prevailing model of social life. It is the omnipresent celebration of a choice already made choice. In form as in content the spectacle serves as total justification for the conditions and aims of the existing system. It further ensures the permanent presence of that justification, for it governs almost all time spent outside the production process itself. (Debord, p.13) The spectacle, being the heart of the society that at the same time produces it and consumes it, serves to represent what is nothing else save the status quo. The spectators look to the spectacle itself as a reference point for their own social practices. Social practice, which the spectacle's autonomy challenges, is also the real totality to which the spectacle is subordinate. So deep is the rift in this totality, however, that the spectacle is able to emerge as its apparent goal (Debord, p.13). So it seems, then, that by virtue of the fact that the masses are exposed to the spectacle and depend on it for their own determinations of the status quo, the spectacle does not serve in this respect to project to the masses the aims of some higher power (government or media), but rather the spectacle itself becomes the goal of the masses. Thus said, it is the spectacle and nothing else which the masses depend on. However, if the what the spectacle presents is not reality, but rather the reality as propagated by the interactive spectacle, then the masses will believe that the prevailing mode of life as presented by this false spectacle is what they should believe. For example, people buy Mercedes cars because of the spectacle surrounding the name Mercedes. They believe that it is to their advantage to own a car that bears the name of the marque; they do so because of the images projected to them that the car is luxurious, it is safe, etc. The real reason people buy Mercedes cars is that they themselves desire to become part of the spectacle when they drive off the dealer's lot. If the spectacle surrounding Mercedes cars suddenly turned to one of ill repute, then nobody would buy a Mercedes. According to Debord, it is impossible to place the spectacle in abstract opposition to the real, that is to say concrete social activity, because the difference between the two, reality and image, is unapparent . The spectacle, although it turns reality on its head, as Debord states, is a real product of real social activity (Debord, p.14). In the same way, lived reality is affected by the spectacle's 'mechanisms of contemplation'; it absorbs the spectacle's form and in turn, supports it, lending the spectacle credence in the eyes of the spectator. It follows that each side, the spectacle and the real, has its own share of objective reality (Debord, p.14). Concepts that may begin in the real meld into the spectacle and vice versa. As a result, reality 'erupts' within the spectacle, and subsequently, the spectacle is accepted as the real. The sum total of this process, Debord posits, is the reciprocal alienation that is the base element of society as it currently exists (Debord, p.14). In such a world, truth becomes the embodiment of falsehood. So it seems then, following Debord's reasoning, that the spectacle serves to bring together the spectrum of phenomena; the contrasts and diversities of these phenomena are the appearances of the spectacle. Understood in its own terms, the spectacle proclaims the predominance of appearances and asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere appearance (Debord, p.14). However, a critique examining the spectacle's essential character must expose the spectacle for what it is - a visible negation of life by virtue of the fact that the spectacle has, as Debord states, "invented a visual form for itself" (Debord, p.14). To try to describe the spectacle would require using the methodology of it; in short, the methodology of the society that both gives life to the spectacle and feeds from it. Debord asserts that in one sense, the spectacle expresses the aims of one particular economic and social formation; i.e., the formation's agenda is transmitted by the spectacle (Debord, p.15). This in turn, it can be argued, develops into first the goals of the society, and secondly, that society's status quo. The spectacle is, in a sense, on a pedestal, out of reach where it cannot be harmed or disputed by the masses. Its message is “Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear” (Debord, p.15). If something bad happens, it will be corrected, and then everything will be all right; sort of a soothing voice of placation. Debord contends that the attitude the spectacle demands of society is the same passive acceptance that established it in the first place, by virtue of its apparent indisputability . This effect can only be the result of the spectacle's monopoly over “the realm of appearances” (Debord, p.15). The spectacle's means and its ends are the same; it is self-perpetuating by design. Modern industrial society, Debord states, has the seemingly spectacular character that it does because of the fundamental relationship it has with the spectacle that first came with it and then came to define it. If the spectacle is the perfect vehicle for the projection of images to the masses, then there can be no end, for it is self development and perpetuation on which the spectacle is dependent. The spectacle, simply put, cannot end. The only product of this process is the continued propagation of the spectacle. The spectacle, in a way, is the shiny box in which reality comes wrapped, but society never actually unwraps the box, preferring to look at the box with the spectacular wrapping instead of removing the wrapping and coming to terms with the reality inside. They do so because they have grown accustomed to the notion that the box is better than what is inside. The status quo, it can be construed, dictates this acceptance. Touching on Baudrillard's notion of the simulation, which I will delve into later in this discussion, Debord states: "For one to whom the real world becomes real images, mere images are transformed into real beings - tangible figments which are the efficient motor of trancelike behaviour;" (Debord, p.17). Since it is part and parcel of the spectacle to create a world that is not directly perceptible, it is only inevitable that the spectacle elevates the sense of sight to the state of importance once occupied by touch, when the real experience was the true aim. Sight is at one time both the most abstract of the senses and also the most easily deceived. In a world of projections, sight is the method by which the masses perceive the apparent reality. However, it is impossible to recognize the spectacle for what it essentially is, if Debord's logic is to be accepted, for he defines the spectacle as being immune from human activity; hence, it cannot be reviewed or examined, for all activity is encompassed by and absorbed into the spectacle. "Wherever representation takes on an independent existence, the spectacle reestablishes its rule;" (Debord, p.17). At this point in his argument, Debord asserts the claim that the spectacle has inherited all of the weaknesses of Western Philosophy, which he reduces to an attempt to understand human activity by means of categories of vision. Due to these inherited weaknesses, the spectacle relies on the same technical rationality as philosophy, but instead of realizing philosophical problems, the all absorbing spectacle twists reality on its head and instead philosophises reality, turning the material life of everyone into a 'universe of speculation'(Debord, p.17). It would also follow that notions of a subjective vision of truth, from Keirkegaard and other Existentialists, stems from this claim. It stands to reason that if the whole of the masses were caught up in the spectacle from the inside, all judging their surroundings subjectively, the result, as Debord concludes, is nothing but speculative world. Taking into account each person's subjective opinions of the spectacle, it follows that the end result of this process would be alienation from what was reality to the point were there is only the spectacle. "Separation is the alpha and omega of the spectacle,"(Debord p.20). Within the spectacle, however, there emerges a new reality, a concept that lies in direct comparison with Baudrillard's notion of the hyperreal. Within the spectacle, Debord states, is the specialization of power. All shifts in the balance of power occur within the spectacle, for all events occur within the scope of the spectacle: If the spectacle-understood in the limited sense of those mass media that are its most stultifying superficial mani- festation - seems at times to be invading society in the shape of a mere apparatus, it should be remembered that this apparatus has nothing neutral about it, and it answers precisely to the needs of the spectacle's inner dynamics. (Debord, p.19) Because the spectacle, understood in Debord's description, is the perfect representation of the real, all the spectators, though separated from each other and alienated from reality, are united in the way that they each have a one-way relationship to the spectacle, that very entity which perpetuates their isolation. "The spectacle thus unites what is separate, but it unites only in its separateness," (Debord,p.22). Those in the spectacle perceive each other through the spectacle, that is to say, they depend on the spectacle for everything because everything is contained within the spectacle. The spectacle is the locus of all activity, all that once might have been outside the spectacle is destined to become part of the spectacle. Woody Allen's film Zelig is a treatment of the spectacle. Zelig, a man who adopts the identity of the company he keeps because he has no identity of his own, is suddenly caught up in a spectacle, the spectacle of his own existence. The entire nation is enthralled by his unique 'condition'; songs are written about him, dance crazes are launched, and any action taken by Zelig is scrutinized by the spectator. Zelig cannot escape the public eye for he is part of the spectacle, although he does not wish to be part of it. He has no choice. It is not the individual's actions that perpetuate their place within the spectacle, but rather how those actions are perceived by the masses. Zelig is at first a scientific curiosity, a source of amazement for the masses, and then the same society which previously hung on his every move renders him an outcast. The individual, it seems, has no control over the spectacle. In a sense, Zelig is caught up in the gears of the public machine, unable to free himself; only society can decide when to move on to the next attraction. Zelig, in the course of the movie, is at first a freak, then an outcast, and then, the very society which condemned him labels him a hero. Returning to the earlier example of the Simpson trial, it must be remembered that at one time O.J. was a national football hero, the children of the very same nation that would later label him a murderer once emulated him. Every kid tossing a football around the yard wanted to be like O.J.. Just like Zelig, Simpson rose to glory and then fell in the eyes of the spectator. Whether Simpson will ultimately be emancipated from the nation's contempt remains to be seen; the undeniable fact is that the society of the spectacle decides when to move on to the next attraction. Debord's argument, in which nothing short of a new notion of reality is advanced, treads the same territory as Jean Baudrillard's concept of the hyperreal, a place where the real and the simulated merge into what some would call the future. In Simulacra and Simulations, Jean Baudrillard states: "In this passage to a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor of truth, the age of simulation thus begins with a liquidation of all referentials," (p.167). Whereas the media might once have been a mirror in which society caught brief glimpses of itself, it is now, as Baudriallrd posits, not so much a reflection of the masses but rather a projection that the masses interpret as a reflection. He states: No more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept; no more imaginary coextensivity: rather, genetic minaturization is the dimension of simulation. The real is produced from miniaturized units-and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational. In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imagi- nary. it is no longer real at all. It is a hyperreal: the product of an irradiating synthesis of combin- atory models in hyperspace without an atmosphere. (Baudrillard, p.167) It seems then, that what once were two distinct entities, the real and the simulated, have, as Baudrillard contends, fused into a new entity, the hyperreal. This idea seems similar to Debord's notion that the real has fused into the spectacle. Baudrillard's main intention is that the real has fused with the simulated, producing, what I feel can only be termed a spectacle. To completely grasp how the simulated can be taken for the real, one might look to the material world. One might say that a real diamond and a simulated diamond, that is to say an artificial man made one, are not the same thing. Resisting the temptation to say that the former is a diamond and the latter is not, the logical conclusion is that they are both diamonds. Although one was dug up from the ground and the other manufactured in a laboratory, the fact is that both are carbon based, have the same chemical structure,etc. The two are one and the same, for the simulation, in essence, has all the properties of the real. Even a diamond expert would not be able to tell which is which. In support, Baudrillard offers this comment: It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself. Never again will the real have to be produced. (Baudrillard, p.167) In order to simulate it is necessary for the simulation to have all the essential properties of the real. Someone who is pretending to be ill can lie in bed all day long and feign sickness. By virtue of the fact that the simulator displays symptoms of illness, a doctor would conclude that the patient was really sick. In the same way, a simulation of an event is real in the sense that it has all the properties of the the real event, just like the simulated diamond discussed previously. Take for example, the Persian Gulf War. While there were actual offensives against the Iraqi army, and real, live forces were fighting, everyone in the world, including President Bush, was watching the events unfold on CNN. In effect, people were not watching the real war, but rather something that did in fact have all the essential properties of the real action; hence, everyone was watching a simulation of the war. According to Baudrillard, the mass media can merely do nothing but simulate, for it is logically impossible for someone sitting in their living room in Los Angeles to be really experiencing a military offensive in Kuwait. Yet, everyone watching CNN during the days of the conflict will tell you that they really saw the war on TV. It follows that what they saw was not the real war, but a simulation of it that they all took as the real. The same goes for the Simpson trial. Of the millions across the world who eagerly watched the proceedings (again, on CNN), only those who were physically in the courtroom really experienced what went on. Everyone else was watching a simulation. The fact that cameras were allowed in the courtroom meant that the trial could be experienced in a vicarious manner. Why be someplace in physical reality when you can see exactly the same thing on your widescreen? Obviously, every media depiction of past events can be nothing but simulation, for the events are in the past, in a place where they can not be considered real. It is precisely a simulation of these past events which the masses see, all the time inferring from the simulation that 'this is what really happened'. The media, in almost all facets, if Baudrillard's concept is to be accepted, does not serve to represent the real. It can only simulate; by reducing the real to its elemental signs, it can reproduce. Baudrillard states: So it is with simulation, insofar as it is opposed to representation. Representation starts from the principle that the sign and the real are equivalent. Conversely, simulation starts from the Utopia of principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value, from the sign as reversion and death of every reference. Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelopes the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum. (Baudrillard, p.170) It follows, from this statement, that Baudrillard envision the simulation as being totally self contained. There is no need to utilize referents from the real world because these referents are incorporated into the simulation. This concept of self containment and self perpetuation runs parallel to Debord's self contained spectacle. Baudrillard states that there are four successive phases of the simulated image; these phases, in turn, can be applied to establishment of the hyperreal society. The first phase is that a simulation is the reflection of a basic reality, but secondly, the simulation masks and perverts the basic reality. Thirdly, not only can the simulation mask a reality, it can also mask the absence of a basic reality. Finally, the simulation bears no relation to any reality that may exist; the simulation is its own pure simulacrum, that is to say that the simulation exists within its own defined space. Not only is the simulation separate from reality, it appears to be its own reality (Baudrillard, p.170). Imagine if you will, a sofa that has a few cigarette burns on one side of it. Now take a sheet and cover the sofa. This cover is the simulation, for the sofa with the sheet on it is still a sofa, but it is impossible to determine where the cigarette burns are. This is how the simulation works on reality. It covers up the absences and imperfections of the basic reality and makes things look as they should. Society, as Baudrillard argues, is content to look at the sofa with the cover on it and accept the masked sofa as the real sofa. Baudrillard cites Disneyland as the perfect model of this blurring of the lines between real and simulation. Disneyland is itself a hyperreal, a real place in which people immerse themselves in the simulated and the imaginary. There are no distinctions in Disneyland, as soon as you walk in the front gates you are surrounded by images of talking animals endowed with human characteristics. In the Disney world, so to speak, the total effect attained is the blending together of the real and the simulated to the point where everything in the park is taken as the real, although the place is nothing but a hyperreal. The masses, however, walk around the park with their families believing that they are experiencing real sensations, stimuli, etc. These real sensations are triggered by simulated entities. The public domain has, as Baudrillard states, evolved into the hyperreal: A self perpetuating zone in which reality is lost, for the simulation presents a better projection of reality than reality itself could. Understood in this manner, the result is a Mobius strip. Reality is on one side, simulation on the other, but where one ends and the other begins is impossible to determine. The whole Mobius strip taken together is the new reality in which society exists, the hyperreality. All events, no matter which place they may have originated from, are automatically integrated into the hyperreal, which, as he argues, is what society looks at anyway. It follows that society then exists within this hyperreality, and the hyperreality is taken as the apparent reality, that is to say the state of affairs in which society exists. Relevant to the discussion of what could possible be termed the spectacular hyperreality, is the release of the world's first completely digitally rendered motion picture, The Toy Story. All of the work in making this movie was done on computer. It could be said that it is also the first simulated movie, for there is nothing real about the film. The computer generated characters exist within a computer generated world, hence the whole movie is a simulation. The simulation becomes hyperreality when real, live people enter the theater and watch the projected images. The transformation into the hyperreal is completed when they leave the theater and later recount to their friends what happened in the movie, believing that what they saw on the screen really happened. Although the viewer might be aware that the movie was, in essence, a simulation, by virtue of the fact that they physically saw it on the big screen makes them the key ingredient to the dominance of the hyperreal. In conclusion, it might be said that both Debord and Baudrillard are concerned with the transformation of society into a new entity. While Debord argues that we continually exist in a society dominated by the spectacle, incorporating Baudrillard's notion of the hyperreal it could be said that the spectacles society both gives life to and gains life from, have evolved into hyperreal spectacles, by virtue of the fact that the real has been displaced and lost irretrievably in the past. Works Cited Allen, Woody. Zelig. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books. 1995 Baudrillard,Jean. Simulacra and Simulations: The Selected Writings of Jean Baudrillard. Ed. Mark Poster. New York: Polity Press, 1988. 166-85.

This page maintained by Dr. Ron Burnett, (Eye-image by Maija Burnett) December 21, 1996)

Copyright © 1996, Ron Burnett, Maija Burnett. All rights reserved.


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