Does Anything Actually Mean Anything Anymore? Towards an Understanding of Jean Baudrillard’s Concept of Hyperreality

In April 2018, I was invited by a publisher to submit some sample, reader-friendly copy outlining in the simplest terms possible, the concept of ‘hyperreality’ as espoused by the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, for a target audience of undergraduate students.

However, after failing to overcome my reservations about the ‘collaborative publishing’ model offered by the publisher, I chose not to pursue the project any further. Instead, I resolved to use the copy I produced (which is published below) as the starting point in the pursuit of a deeper personal understanding of the work of a man whose writings had previously informed my MA in Design and Art Direction.

Introduced as a concept in his 1981 book, Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard’s theory of ‘hyperreality’ marked a career-defining shift in his philosophical thinking and earned him the soubriquet of ‘the high priest of postmodernity’.

In purely etymological terms, just as the word ‘surrealism’ roughly translates from the original French as ‘beyond realism’ then hyperreality refers to a concept of reality that is somehow more ‘real’ than real. Indeed, the term is now commonly used within the realm of virtual reality gaming and likewise, notions of hyperreality informed the 1999 film, The Matrix, which tells the story of a group of characters who inhabit a computer-generated virtual reality before becoming awakened to the desolate horror a post-apocalyptic ‘real reality’.

However, by way of a simple working definition, hyperreality denotes the inability of consciousness within technologically advanced societies to distinguish a first-hand experienced reality from a mediated simulation of reality. Though, more specifically – and elliptically, perhaps – for Baudrillard, it is ‘a real without origin or reality’.1

With regard to such definitions, Disneyland is commonly cited by both Baudrillard and other cultural analysists such as Umberto Eco, as being the epitome of hyperreality. However, it is not so much that Disneyland offers up recreations of an American past that never really existed, but that the very fantasy nature of Disneyland serves to disguise the fact that while it may indeed be fake, everything around it is even more so. Indeed, for Baudrillard, ‘Disneyland exists in order to hide the fact that it is the “real” country.’ 2 That is to say that Disneyland is consciously presented as ‘imaginary’ ‘in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real but belong to the hyperreal order and the order of simulation’. 3

But you don’t have to travel to a fantasy theme park to experience what Baudrillard describes as ‘third order simulation’, instead you need only take a trip to your local shopping mall or supermarket.

Certainly, an in-depth analysis of the machinations of consumer culture can be found in a whole series of books and papers penned by Baudrillard between 1968 and 1975. And in Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard alludes to the notion of the supermarket as giant stage set in which amongst other things, ‘there are employees who are occupied solely in remaking the front of the stage, the surface display, where a previous deletion by a consumer might have left some kind of hole.’ 4

And with this notion in mind, one can point to the recent tendency of supermarkets to incorporate ‘Market Street’ concepts within their store layouts. These typically comprise butchers, bakers and fishmonger’s stalls overseen by staff dressed in traditional tradesmen’s apparel. Such ‘sets’ serve as folksy recreations (without the messy blood and sawdust etc) of artisan butchers, bakers and fishmongers, for the benefit of customers for whom such businesses no longer exist – arguably because of the very existence of the supermarket.

Likewise, in terms of product presentation, the very act of visiting a supermarket is to enter ‘a visual environment racked with nostalgic clichés and airbrushed memories…’ 5 in which it is ‘reasonable to imagine that future generations may forget the traditional farming scenes depicted on food packaging were, not that long ago, a true reflection of how all food was produced.’ 6

Ultimately, Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality represents a turning away from a ‘structuralist’ analysis of human communication informed by semiotics (the study of signs and symbols in communication), to the pursuit of an, at times mind-bending, theory to explain how contemporary media and marketing not only distorts our perception of reality – but creates a new reality more vital, dynamic and ‘real’ than that which it replaces. Which is why, since its articulation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the concept of hyperreality (alongside Baudrillard’s related conceits of ‘simulacra’ and ‘simulation’) has proved itself to be an increasingly compelling paradigm for describing the ‘spectacular’, media saturated, ‘post truth’ world of fake news and ‘alternative facts’ in which we are now well and truly immersed.

  1. Baudrillard, Jean, 1994a, Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Kealey, Anna, ‘Unpacking the Pastoral Food Package: Myth Making in Graphic Design’, 2012 thesis, School of Visual Arts, NY, USA.
  6. Ibid