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Philosophy

& Social Criticism


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A critique of Baudrillard's hyperreality: towards a sociology of


postmodernism
Anthony King
Philosophy Social Criticism 1998 24: 47
DOI: 10.1177/019145379802400603
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http://psc.sagepub.com/content/24/6/47

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Anthony King
A

critique of Baudrillards
hyperreality:towards a
sociology of postmodernism
Abstract

Through the critical examination of Baudrillards concept of


hyperreality, this article seeks to make a wider contribution to contemporary debates about postmodernism. It draws on a post-Cartesian, Heideggerian philosophy to demonstrate the weakness of the concept of
hyperreality and reveal its foundation in a Cartesian epistemology. The
article goes on to claim that this same Heideggerian tradition suggests a way
in which the concept of hyperreality and nihilistic postmodern sociologies
more generally might be dialectically superseded. Instead of these theories
being seen as saying anything insightful about recent social transformations,
the epistemological void in which they position themselves should be interpreted as the intellectual expression of the wider cultural and postmodern
trend of transgression.
Key words Baudrillard Cartesianism Heidegger hyperreality
postmodernism
Introduction
This article criticizes the concept of hyperreality which is central to
Baudrillards later writings and, in doing so, intends to make a wider
contribution to debates about postmodernism. In particular, I want to
argue that Baudrillards hyperreality is an example of postmodern
sociology, rather than a sociology of postmodernism. By that, I mean
that the notion of hyperreality is not, in the end, a critical concept
providing a means by which sociologists might analyse contemporary
cultural change; rather, the notion of hyperreality is itself postmodern,
47-

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48

demonstrating those very features of nihilism, fragmentation and doubt,


which it highlights as central to recent social transformations. The
examination of the concept of hyperreality is intended to show that such
postmodern sociologies are limited and that they can be encompassed
(and dialectically superseded) by a sociology of postmodernism.
However, the sociology of postmodernism which is capable of
encompassing and criticizing this postmodern sociology is itself a kind
of sociology which has often been taken for postmodernism. An
adequate sociology of postmodernism must operate within the linguistic, hermeneutic and historicist paradigm which has often been taken as
emblematic of postmodernism (Bauman, 1987: 5; Best and Kellner,
1991: 4). Since the roots of this hermeneutic turn lie in a long and
eminent past which includes Hegel, Schleiemacher, Dilthey, Rickert and
Weber among others, it would be strange to regard this approach to sociology as postmodern, in the sense that it is new and rejects all forms of
earlier theorizing. By drawing on this linguistic and historical tradition,
the discussion of hyperreality is intended to show that postmodern sociology, with its concentration of fragmentation and nihilism, is delusionally founded in and focused upon epistemological issues which have no
relevance outside the academy. The examination of the concept of hyperreality is intended then as the focus for much wider claims about the
state of postmodern theorizing and theorizing about postmodernism.
Definition of hyperreality
The

key texts in which Baudrillard first starts using the concept of the
hyperreal systematically and in which he defines (after a fashion) what
he means by the term are to be found in Fatal Strategies and Simulacra
and Simulation.
abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or
the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being,
or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origm or

Today

reality: a hyperreal. (Baudrillard,

1994a:

1)

The real does not efface itself in favour of the imaginary; it effaces itself in
favour of the more real than real: the hyperreal. The truer than true: this is
simulation. (Baudrillard, 1990b: 11)

Hyperreality emerges when cultural representations (and therefore our


knowledge) no longer have a social or human reality against which to
verify themselves, but become somehow autonomous and autochthonOUS.1 Hyperreality is not grounded in a reality beyond itself but, in
hyperreality, our knowledge of the world floats free from any verifying
reference. Hyperreality marks the end of representation and, as both

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49
quotations reveal, hyperreality emerges at the multinational (postmodern) stage of capitalism after the mirror stage of industrial capitalism.2 In modern, industrial capitalism, cultural representations - our
knowledge and construction of reality - were linked to an independent
reality. The maps, doubles, mirrors and concepts which Baudrillard uses
as metaphors of the kind of knowledge typical of industrial capitalism
all reflect an exterior reality. They may have been inadequate to that
reality but they were based on it.
Hyperreality is a moment of profound cultural transformation in
which our cultural representations are no longer related to an independent reality and this new culture is linked by Baudrillard to the emergence and dominance of the television as a means of communication.3
For Baudrillard, the technological development of the television marks
a fundamental ontological transformation in culture; television culture
is of a different order from that of all previous societies.
For information and the media

are not a scene, a prospective space, or


something thats performed, but a screen without depth, a tape perforated
with messages and signals to which corresponds a receivers own perforated
reading. (Baudrillard, 1990b: 65)

For Baudrillard a scene constitutes a representation and therefore a scene


is still linked to reality. Consequently, the scene can be interpreted - it

with something else and its inadequacies can be


the
(television) screen. The screen amounts to the end
pointed up;
of all interpretation. The screen is automatically decoded in the receivers
mind and there is no mediation by the receiver. The analogy of the tape
here is somewhat obscure but the image that Baudrillard seems to have
in mind is of a pianola in which the music is an arrangement of perforations on scrolls of paper to which the pianola mechanically
responds. The process of reading, interpretation and internalization is
abolished in the hyperreality of the television screen, just as the active
participation of the pianist is abolished by the pianola.
Elaborating on the notion of hyperreality, Baudrillard discusses a
television documentary about a family (called the Louds) which
was broadcast in 1971 to enormous audiences (1994a: 27-8). For
Baudrillard, the interesting point was that this documentary claimed to
be completely faithful to reality.
can

be

compared
not so

interesting is the illusion of filming the Louds as if TV werent there.


producers triumph was to say: They lived as if we were not there. An
absurd, paradoxical formula - neither true nor false: utopian. (Baudrillard,

More

The

1994a: 28)
This programme was hyperreal then because it tried to be realer than
real; it denied that it was a representation of family life, claiming,

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50

instead, that

it captured this life as it was. The television can never be


anything other than a representation but the danger of the television
(and wherein lies its hyperreality) is that it is a representation which
claims it is reality. Clearly the television crews presence in the house
must have influenced family behaviour; moreover, the footage of the
family was not of that family as it was but necessarily a selective and
interpretative representation of that family. By claiming that it captures
the real, the television effectively obliterates the real. It asks the viewers

accept the screen image as the truth, as the direct and unmediated
reality and therefore demands that the actual reality (the Louds family
as they live) is not relevant - that this family does not exist outside the
television image.
Baudrillards discussion of the film The China Syndrome makes a
similar point. This film is based on the imaginary scenario of a leak at a
nuclear power plant. It becomes hyperreal for Baudrillard because the
film preceded a real leak which occurred at Harrisburg.
to

But The Cbina Syndrome is also not the original prototype of Harrisburg,
is not the simulacrum of which the other would be the real: there are
only simulacra, and Harrisburg is a sort of second-order simulacrum.
(Baudrillard, 1994a: 55)
one

The epistemology of the simulacra here is the same as we have seen in


the example of the Louds family. The potential nuclear disaster at
Harrisburg is not experienced as a reality but rather individuals experience that crisis as a film on a television screen. Social reality - and what
could be more real than a nuclear cataclysm - is reduced to television
images, which abolish a prior reality by presenting themselves as the
reality. Through the television the viewers think they really meet the
Louds family or their potential nemesis in a nuclear meltdown.
That television constitutes the end of interpretation (and therefore
of subjectivity and freedom) for Baudrillard is confirmed in a passage
from Simulacra and Simulation.

Now,

of TV along the lines of DNA as an effect in which


of determination vanish. (Baudrillard, 1994a: 31)

one must conceive

the opposing

poles

Baudrillard explains why the television


with DNA in the next paragraph.

can

be described

as

analogous

In the process of molecular control, which goes from the DNA nucleus to
the substance that it informs, there is no longer the traversal of an effect,
of an energy, of a determination, of a message. (Baudrillard, 1994a: 31)

DNA operates without mediation, it is not interpreted but merely


inscribes itself on molecules which replicate the DNA exactly; each molecule is a perfect clone of the DNA.

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51
nothing separates one pole from another anymore, the beginning from
the end; there is a kind of contraction of one over the other, a fantastic telescoping, a collapse of the two traditional poles into each other: implosion
an absorption of the radiating mode of causality, of the differential mode
of determination, with its positive and negative charge - an implosion of
meaning. This is where simulation begins. (Baudrillard, 1994a: 31)
...

The

of which Baudrillard talks are the subject and object: the


participants in the creation of representations and the central figures in
traditional epistemology. In the past the subject has sought to know the
object and created representations by which to achieve this knowledge.
Although these representations have often been inadequate to the object,
the subject has still had the luxury of having an object with which to
compare its representation. In the hyperreality of the television screen
the object disappears. The representations are totally free-floating - they
have no object but themselves; they are self-determining. Consequently,
they also have no subject. Since they are self-creating, the traditional
subject has no object with which to compare representations and the
subject, therefore, becomes entirely dependent on the simulacra of
hyperreality. Effectively the subject, as an active, thinking, interpreting
being, disappears; the subject and the object implode into a hyperreal
simulation, which attains a position of complete dominance.
Baudrillard argues for a truly pessimistic and, indeed, Orwellian
notion of the television and its hyperreality. Having abolished reality, the
television is free to represent the world in whatever way it chooses and
no one is capable of subverting that absolute domination because no one
any longer has access to the real world as a reference point by which the
representations of hyperreality might be grounded and thereby proved
to be inadequate or untrue. Baudrillards epistemological notion of
hyperreality as a culture based upon foundationless representations integrally includes a bleak political vision.4

The

poles

critique of hyperreality

(A) The sociological inadequacy of hyperreality


Baudrillard is undoubtedly correct to point to the importance of the teleas a central element in contemporary culture. It is a startling
development that in the last 30 years practically every individual in capitalist countries is able to witness footage of events from almost anywhere
around the globe. It is also true that this footage is invariably misleading, even though it is apparently so compelling and realistic. Television
is only tangentially connected with the realities it seeks to portray as well
as contrasting dramatically with the social experience of the viewers; we
vision

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52

riots, wars and massacres as they occur from the comfort of our
living-rooms. However, from these admittedly curious features,

witness

Baudrillard

leaps suddenly and unjustifiably to the claim that there is no


longer any reality. The television screen creates a false reality and it is
in that reality that we now live.
However, the television does not create a false reality either in its
representation of the world or in its reception by viewers. Television
coverage is determined by the cultural norms of the society to which it
broadcasts and by those involved in the production of television. Thus
any footage is an interpretation of the world and as such it is necessarily
limited. It is certainly true that programme makers try to render this
interpretation of the world as compelling as possible to attract viewers
and to sustain their claims but those images are always and necessarily
embedded in social discourse, which is itself related to the historic
development of the society. The images are not then free-floating, mere
simulacra but, on the contrary, concrete moves in a language game. They
refer not so much to the reality of the situations they portray but rather
to the society to which they communicate these images.
Similarly the viewers of television programmes do not regard these
images as empty, referenceless and fragmentary. On the contrary, just as
the creation of these images was embedded in the interpretative practice
of making sense of the world so do the viewers try to interpret these
images in such a way that they will be able to make sense of their world.
Whether the programme be a soap opera or news footage, the viewers
interpret the images according to their cultural understandings (see, for
instance, Fiske and Hartley, 1984; Hall, 1980; Featherstone, 1988:
220-1, 1991: 5, 11), although those understandings are under constant
revision in order to make sense of new information. Thus rather than
becoming the primary and prior cultural factor in contemporary society,
the television is embedded in and dependent upon pre-existing and
historically produced understandings and discourses.5 Furthermore, the
footage does not exist above and beyond the lives of viewers but, as the
briefest autobiographical consideration will reveal, the television is
employed as a resource, where new interpretations derived from its
footage are used in the renegotiation of social relations and understandings. Viewers discuss what they watch and make use of what they
see to make sense of their own lives.
The argument for the fundamentally interpretative nature of the television and, therefore, its fundamental unoriginality as a cultural form
undercuts Baudrillards notion of hyperreality at an empirical level. In
short, the television just does not represent the ontological transformation of culture which he envisages. The production and consumption
of the television operates in the same interpretative manner as the
production and consumption of literature, theatre and, indeed, oral

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53
All these methods of communication have to operate
the same interpretative norms, typical of all human interaction, for the very reason that they are all primarily linguistic.
Baudrillards failure to recognize the fundamentally interpretative nature
of television suggests some deeper philosophical and, in particular,
deeper epistemological shortcomings in his theories. The recognition of
Baudrillards epistemological weakness brings us to the second, philosophical strand of the argument against the notion of hyperreality which
will demonstrate that Baudrillards notion of hyperreality is founded in
an unsustainable Cartesianism.

story-telling.
according to

(B) The philosophical inadequacy of hyperreality


(i) Baudrillards

Cartesianism In order to establish that Baudrillards


of
theory hyperreal is Cartesian, a complete exegesis of Cartesian philosophy is, of course, not required. Rather it is necessary only to establish
that the general framework of and the basic assumptions on which

hyperreality rest are Cartesian. Cartesian epistemology set out to establish an apodictic Truth from which Descartes would be able to build a
system of knowledge and a foundation for science. As Descartes writes
in the very first sentence of the First Meditation:
Some years ago I was struck by the large number of falsehoods that I had
accepted as true in my childhood, and by the highly doubtful nature of the
whole edifice that I had subsequently based on them. I realised that it was
necessary, once in the course of my life, to demolish everything completely
and start again right from the foundations if I wanted to establish anything
at all in the sciences that was stable and likely to last. (Descartes, 1994: 76)

The

peculiar

by which Descartes tried to achieve this certainty is as


it is famous. Descartes initiated a method of extreme doubt,

means
as

wherein he denied the


certain. Descartes

reality of everything of which he could not be


imagined that he was in the power of some malicious

demon (1994: 79), whose sole purpose was to deceive him. Positing the
existence of this demon, Descartes concluded:
I shall think that the

sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all
external things are merely the delusions of dreams which he [the demon]
has devised to ensnare my judgement. I shall consider myself as not having
hands or eyes, or flesh or blood, or sense, but as falsely believing that I have
all these things. (Descartes, 1994: 79)
Unless Descartes could find some archimedean point of certainty on
which to base all his other knowledge, he would be reduced to a terrible
existence in an epistemological miasma - a deep whirlpool as he calls
it in the opening paragraph of the Second Meditation (1994: 80). As we
all know, he thought he found that certainty in the Cogito. The demon

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54

could deceive Descartes about everything except the fact that Descartes
thought he existed.
The specifics of Descartes method of doubt and the Cogito are not
critical to the discussion of Baudrillards hyperreality but what is crucial
is the epistemological experience which Descartes highlighted as paradigmatic of human cognition. Descartes arrived at the Cogito, via the
method of doubt, from a very particular starting-point. He began with
the solipsistic contemplation of the evidence of his senses, and the
evidence of his eyes in particular.6 Descartes describes himself as sitting
in a room contemplating and gradually questioning the knowledge - in
fact, the vision - which he had of objects external to his own self. Since
these objects - including his own body - were external to his sensation
of them and yet could be known only by sensation, Descartes had no
external standard of verification. Every verification of these objects came
to him via his senses and was, therefore, only another representation and
not the thing itself. Descartes subject was trapped within its own sensations and could be sure of nothing external to those sensations.
This irrevocable subject-object dualism is critical insofar as the
analysis of hyperreality is concerned because it is this premiss that
human cognition is founded on one particular type of sensory experience which is shared by both Baudrillard and Descartes. The ocular
sensation of external material objects is the starting-point for both
theories. Significantly, this ocular starting-point facilitates the descent
into the epistemological void because the concentration of the ocular
immediately suggests that the central problem of human knowledge is
one of representation. The eye projects an image of external reality
which is viewed by the inner eye, but this projection is only a representation of which we can have no external verification (because everything
we see is a representation viewed by the inner eye). This is particularly
problematic in the light of the fact that the eye is so easily deceived.
Baudrillard and Descartes share the same representationalist paradigm
but whereas Descartes sees the mists of nihilism descending the moment
one considers how we might verify the representations we see,
Baudrillard historicizes this moment of doubt to the mid-1970s, arguing that the classic epistemological problem of representation and scepticism emerges for society as the television attains a position of cultural
dominance.
Hyperreality occurs, then, at the moment when the relationship
between the object and the representation is called into doubt. The television screen, from which individuals derived their notion of reality, has
no verifiable or direct connection with the outside world. Baudrillards
television screen replicates Descartes concerns about the inner eye but
instead of this inner eye being located in the brain of the subject, it is,
for Baudrillard, located in the living-room. Since we cannot corroborate

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55

the representations the television screen presents of the world, the knowledge which we gain from the screen is open to doubt.
Although Baudrillard is (typically) reticent about clarifying the
Cartesian epistemological origins of hyperreality, he, nevertheless,
reveals in Fatal Strategies that he himself thinks of hyperreality as a
moment of extreme Cartesian doubt, thereby confirming the interpretation I have made above. Three consecutive sections of that work are
titled The Evil Genie of the Social (1990b: 72), The Evil Genie of the
Object (1990b: 81) and The Evil Genie of Passion (1990b: 99). The
use of the term evil genie is significant because it is an alternative (but
comparable) translation of the term malicious demon, which was cited
above, in reference to Descartes hyperbolic doubt in the final paragraph
of the First Meditation. So famous is the evil genie or malicious
demon in Descartes works, that no one who is aware of those writings
could possibly fail to pick up on the reference. In other words,
Baudrillard consciously calls up the epistemic void of the First Meditation in order to define his notion of contemporary hyperreal culture.
Baudrillards notion of hyperreality is Cartesian, therefore, because
it highlights representation as the problem of knowledge. Once representation is prioritized, the issue which immediately comes to the fore is the
question of the connection between the representation and the object.
This inevitably casts doubt on the accuracy and reliability of the reference because the brain has no objective reference outside itself. The step
from that point into an epistemological void, which Descartes discovered, is small because once it has been conceded that we do not have any
objective and independent standard by which to verify the material
world, it becomes easy to doubt the veracity of any of our knowledge
about that world. Baudrillards descent into nihilism follows on logically
from his epistemological construction of culture as the relationship
between the subject and the object, the representation and the thing
itself, the signifier and the signified.

(ii) The poverty of Cartesianism The notion of hyperreality is a deeply


flawed concept. Even before considering its dubious Cartesian foundations, it is epistemologically oxymoronic. Baudrillard might argue that
the signifier has been freed from the signified but this notion of separation presupposes that we already have an idea of the connection
between the two elements. In order to recognize that the simulation now
floats free we have to be aware of the fact that representations were once
tied to reality. The acknowledgement of this epistemological irruption
presupposes a continuing acceptance of the connection between signified and signifier. Indeed, to know that a representation is now autonomous, we must recognize from what that reference is autonomous and
that finally brings us to the realization that in fact we only imagine an

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56

epistemological irruption; the freed referent still needs its object but it
just likes to pretend that it is free. Hyperreality is just a form of modern
representation but one which dare not speak its name.
However, it is not just that hyperreality is self-deluded, but it is also
dependent upon a Cartesian epistemological paradigm which is deeply
and seriously flawed. Heideggers Being and Time has been a crucial
of Cartesianhighlight the
unacceptably narrow human experience on which Cartesian epistemology based itself. The Cogito was invented on the back of one very small,
academic experience of the world: the self-conscious contemplation of
the way humans see objects. Not only did Heidegger argue that this
experience was far too narrow and specialized a one on which to found
a total epistemology but the Cogito presupposed (and ignored) the precontemplative relations which humans have with their world (Guignon,
1993: 5). Heidegger famously employed the example of a craftsmans
relation to his hammer to demonstrate the kind of pre-contemplative
experience which undercut Descartes argument of the priority of the
Cogito (1967: 98). The craftsman does not learn about the hammer in
the way that Descartes envisages the rational creation of the external
world by the Cogito but rather he learns to use the hammer in a practical way.

philosophical

resource

for

highlighting

the

inadequacies

ism. One of the fundamental aims of that work

The less

was to

the hammer-Thing [like the Cogito] and the more


and use it, the more primordial does our relations to it
become. (Heidegger, 1967: 98)

we

we

just

seize hold of

stare at
it

For Heidegger, the crucial point about Descartes ocular metaphor is that
it foregrounds representation as the fundamental epistemological problem ; if the eye is taken as emblematic of the epistemological process then
the philosopher must worry about how we can be sure that our vision
is an accurate representation of reality. For Heidegger, these aporia are
the unnecessary result of Descartes ignoring a more primordial fact of
the human condition: that we are always already thrown into the
world, before we can begin to contemplate that world.
When Descartes said Cogito ergo sum [I think therefore I am], he
entirely ignored the second clause - the sum, the I am. Heideggers
philosophy was devoted to highlighting the sum of the Cogito and to
defining the nature of that sum - the ontology of human existence
(Gelven, 1970: 180; Steiner, 1978: 25, 86; Habermas, 1993: 187-8).
Although it is unnecessary to go into the specific and highly complex
ways in which Heidegger laid out this ontology, an outline of his general
ontological project and method is illuminating as it suggests a means by
which we might overcome the aporia of the Cartesian paradigm. I follow
many contemporary philosophers such as Gadamer, Derrida and Rorty

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57

who have taken Heideggers lead in their attempts to supersede the


Cartesian paradigm.
Heideggers central philosophical concept for the interpretation of
the ontology of human existence is the Dasein; that is, a being whose
mode of being is to question the meaning of its Being (Heidegger, 1967:
32; Gelven, 1970: 10, 13). Heideggers philosophical project amounted
in effect to defining the nature of this Dasein - this self-questioning and
interpreting mode of existence. As far as we are concerned, the crucial
feature of Heideggers Dasein is that it is a primarily linguistic being: it
does not attempt to explicate the meaning of its Being in rationalist fashion where all the categories are constructed before any living is done but
rather the Daseins understanding emerges in the course of its existence
(Gelven, 1970: 38; Steiner, 1978: 80). Since this existence is primarily
linguistic (Steiner, 1978: 16, 18, 27; Rorty, 1993a: 216), the Dasein
learns of itself through a hermeneutic circle of interpretation whereby
understanding proceeds by a tacking back between the whole and the
part (Gelven, 1970: 177; Steiner, 1978: 81). Through this process of
interpreting any particular piece of knowledge by reference to the whole
of the Daseins wider knowledge of its existence, the part is understood.
Yet, the assimilation of the new part itself transforms the whole into
which the Dasein was already thrown (Gelven, 1970: 92).
The hermeneutic circle and the primacy of the linguistic experience
to human existence are central elements of Being and Time but
Heidegger felt that Being and Time still retained the metaphysical overtones of the Cartesian paradigm which it attempted to overthrow. Being
and Time sought to lay down a definitive ontology of human existence
in the nomological fashion of the Cartesian and Kantian tradition;
Heidegger has destroyed the metaphysical Cogito only to replace it with
an equally metaphysical Dasein (Steiner, 1978: 111; Rorty, 1993a: 218).
Heidegger tried to remedy this metaphysical problem in subsequent writings. These writings are difficult but their importance insofar as this
article is concerned is that they emphasize the primacy of linguistics to
the human experience (Steiner, 1978: 126, 134, 135; Rorty, 1993b)7 It
became a central tenet in Heideggers post-Being and Time writing that
the way in which something is said or written is inherently part of its
meaning. Thus Heideggers later writing became like Van Goghs peasant shoes which he famously wrote of in The Origin of the Work of Art
(1978). The meaning of the painting of those shoes lay in the very texture
which Van Gogh invested in that painting and by which he communicated a rich message about existence in ways undefinable by and invisible
to Cartesian rationalism. Similarly language does not merely represent
the external world in a Cartesian relation of subject to object but rather
language is a texture which is itself constitutive of that reality and which
is understood interpretatively.

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58

Heideggers linguistic orientation is important insofar as this article


is concerned because it effectively undermines the representationalist
orientation of the Cartesian paradigm and, therefore, of hyperreality.
Language is not supplementary to the ocular experience but constitutive
of it. Of course, technically the senses operate prior to language - babies
can see and hear - but, in effect, language becomes prior in human existence because our senses do not blindly open onto the world which is
presented neutrally to us. Rather our language makes certain parts of
our world meaningful for us and it is these which our senses become
attuned to recognizing. The meaningfulness of the world is established
in language and the senses are directed by that meaningfulness. Furthermore, language does not record and imitate the objects of the external
world but is a reality in itself into which human beings are thrown.
Humans cannot step back from language, establishing what they know
in advance, but must proceed forward by means of the hermeneutic
circle.

Despite Heideggers own metaphysical orientation, this linguistic


priority suggests a very different project for philosophy than envisaged
by Descartes.
Rorty provides an insight into this post-Heideggerian project:
The first [Kantian] tradition thinks of truth as vertical relations between
representation and what is represented. The second [Hegelian] tradition
thinks of truth horizontally - as a culminating remterpretation of our predecessors reinterpretation or their predecessors reinterpretation
This
tradition does not ask how representations are related to non-represen...

tations

but how representations

can

be

seen as

hangmg together. (Rorty,

1982: 92)
The importance of the post-Heideggerian tradition is that the representations of which it speaks do not have a separate ontological existence
from what they represent. In the linguistic tradition, words and statements have meaning only insofar as they are embedded in a historically
produced language game. We can never therefore finally establish an
objective truth of a statement because none exists. Statements have
meaning only in relation to other statements. The task of the philosopher
is to gain the best understanding of that statement by relating it to others
in a hermeneutic fashion - to see how things hang together. The philosopher, following Heidegger (but without the metaphysical overtones),
must proceed by a dialectical, interpretative process of relating the whole
(the language game) to the part (the statement). The irretrievable
hermeneutic condition in which humans find themselves8 renders
searches for objective truth pointless but it also renders nihilism equally
inappropriate. Although words and statements are not grounded in
some prior reality, they are thoroughly embedded in a historically
produced language game in which words and statements have to submit

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59

certain rules to be meaningful. These rules do change over time but


the point is that word use is constrained within any language game and
therefore there is inappropriate and inadmissible word use in any game.
If the linguistic turn is taken seriously, then the entire subject-object
dualism problem which was central to the concerns of Cartesian philosophy - and therefore the entire framework of the concept of hyperreality - fades away. There is no problem of representation - of
comparing a word with a thing - but rather of interpretation - locating
a particular word within a discursive whole. Single words or statements
are not judged as incorrect by reference to an external, material and
objective reality but rather by reference to their position within a wider
language game - a wider historical whole (which is the reality).
The implications of the linguistic turn are crucial to the argument
here for they uncut the epistemological and representationalist premises
of hyperreality. Whereas Baudrillards hyperreality is based on the
notion of a culture wherein knowledge is attained by reference to an
objective reality, a post-Heideggerian view of culture would see culture
as primarily linguistic and therefore both self-referential and selfcreating. According to this paradigm, culture is not nor ever can be
epistemologically nihilistic because culture is its own reality - it is dialectically related to itself. The linguistic turn then demands that we analyse
the way in which culture constructs a reality for itself through its
discourses and the way in which these discourses (and culture) are
historically located. It is through seeing how these language games
develop - how they hang together - that we can come to an understanding of their meaning; the historical context acts as a hermeneutic
whole from which we can interpret the particular. The crucial point is
that all human cultures are based on this linguistic reality and there is
no escape from it. The nihilism of hyperreality has not escaped this
hermeneutic human condition but rather is just another language game,
with the same ontological status but one which plays with the idea of
epistemological voids.
This philosophical discussion of the inadequacy of Cartesianism and
therefore the philosophical inadequacy of hyperreality leads us back to
the empirical critique of hyperreality. Whereas Baudrillard applies
(outmoded) epistemological concerns to cultural developments which
lead him to make wild assertions about cultural transformation - imputing fundamental ontological changes, a post-Heideggerian sociology
would instead look to get its hands dirty. In place of academic pontification, a detailed study of the way television informs transformations of
social reality and the way certain discourses are foregrounded by the
producers of programmes in an attempt to establish certain interpretative frameworks as well as the reception of those discourses by viewers
is required. Instead Baudrillard opted for a flawed and quite outmoded
to

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60

Cartesian framework, which produced in his later writings only the


nihilism of Descartes First Meditation.
While the linguistic turn undercuts the theoretical validity of hyperreality, it simultaneously suggests a method by which we might rehabilitate hyperreality in order to improve our understanding of
postmodernism and to produce an adequate sociology of postmodernism. Instead of regarding the notion of hyperreality as a (failed) critical
concept by which to understand recent social and cultural transformations, we can, by taking the linguistic turn seriously, interpret
Baudrillards hyperreality as part of these wider changes. We can dialectically situate hyperreality within a wider historical whole so that
hyperreality comes to be seen as the academic (and epistemological)
embodiment of these wider cultural transformations, which have
emphasized transgression and which have emerged since the 1960s. In
classic dialectical fashion, hyperreality can be superseded, whereby it
becomes an inadequate moment in a wider critical process.

For a dialectical theory of postmodernism


It has been widely argued that postmodernism is a cultural paradigm
(Lash, 1991: 4) which seeks to transgress those cultural categories and

boundaries which were established

by (17th- and) 18th-century Enlight-

rationalism and 19th-century bourgeois (and Victorian) respectand


which culturally constituted modernity (Jameson, 1984:
ability
Martin, 1985; Bell, 1979).9 In particular, the culture of modernity
sought to order the (social and natural) world into a rational set of
discrete categories. Crucially, in the social sphere, this culture divided
the rational, proper and respectable absolutely from the sexually licentious or depraved, from the insane and from the racially Other.10 By the
19th-century, as Martin has argued, both working- and middle-class
cultures, informed by the rational categories of modernity, were strictly
divided into the public and private, male and female, work and leisure,
kin and non-kin, respectable and non-respectable and these boundaries
sought to ensure discipline and moderation (Martin, 1985: 75). The
order and moderation that these cultural categories sought to instil were
linked to the (Protestant) economic needs of the capitalist economy from
the Industrial Revolution to the 1960s, when factory production
required disciplined work and restricted consumption.
As Jameson (1984) has argued, the emergence of multinational,
consumer (and, increasingly, post-Fordist) capitalism from the 1960s has
facilitated the development of postmodern culture which opposes the
restrictiveness of modern culture. In the light of the new demand for
consumption, a cultural superstructure has emerged which emphasizes
enment

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61

the indulgence of those very spheres - such as sexuality - which were


deemed dangerous under the productive Protestant ethic of modernity
(Lash, 1991: 42). Postmodernity is, then, above all a culture of transgression which seeks to breach the cultural boundaries and taboos of
modernity and to revel in the ecstatic liminality of the once restricted.
Jameson describes this postmodern transgression of the categories of
modernity (which is linked to a new consumerist ethic) in his celebrated
examination of the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles. There Jameson
describes the vertiginous feelings which the individual experiences due
to the curious use of space in the foyer of that hotel.
Postmodern hyperspace has transcended the capacities of the individual
human body to locate itself, to organise surroundings, to map its position
in the mappable world. (Jameson, 1991: 44)

The

foyer of the Bonaventure Hotel undermines the certainties and


categories of modernist architecture. The rationality of modern architecture which strictly and functionally demarcated and divided space is
replaced by buildings which deliberately disorientate individuals and ask
them to question their sense of space. Postmodern architecture, then,
subverts the ordered categories of modern architecture and, in that way,
Jamesons Bonaventure Hotel stands as a shining example of postmodernism and its transgression of the restrictive rational categories and
boundaries of modernity. This notion of postmodernity as the transgression of the cultural categories which were a central element of
modernity and intrinsically connected to the capitalist economy from the
Industrial Revolution to the 1960s facilitates a dialectical supersession
of Baudrillards concept of hyperreality for Baudrillards hyperreality
can, in this context, begin to be seen not as a critical insight into wider
postmodern processes but rather as the epistemological and intellectual
aspect of those very processes.
Like the boundaries which would subsequently be drawn up against
sexuality, madness and the Other, Cartesian rationalism analogously
drew up a rigorous bulwark against the epistemological liminality which
threatened Descartes at the start of his Meditations. As I have argued,
hyperreality is the moment when Descartes extreme doubt has returned
to the academy and we once again find ourselves in the epistemological
void of scepticism where we can know nothing. Baudrillards descent
into this Cartesian void epistemologically matches the transgression of
modern categories which can be witnessed in many cultural spheresl
Like consumer culture, which subverts the repressive modern norms of
sexuality in a demand for liberation, Baudrillard rejects the rational and
certain boundaries of Cartesian clear and distinct ideas and resigns
himself to the deep whirlpool of nothingness, although this transgression is for Baudrillard a moment of profound disillusion rather than

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62

liberation. It marks a moment of transgression where the categories of


Truth, certainty and objectivity are transgressed in the pursuit of
nihilism, which was from the outset conceived as the dangerous and liminal Other for modern rationalism. This epistemological nihilism is an
example of postmodernism, in which there are no more rules and in
which anything goes.
Not only is this nihilism critically bankrupt, but it is possible only if
the pursuit of an objective Truth is regarded as possible and desirable in
the first place. A dialectical and linguistic approach could never have
posited the existence of a final Truth in the first place and this approach
has been similarly untroubled by fears of an epistemological void. For
dialectical and linguistic sociology which situates itself consciously in a
Heideggerian paradigm, linguistic reality is enough in itself - it is not
final but neither is it in need of some metaphysical support. The Heideggerian tradition allows us to situate Baudrillards hyperreality dialectically and to find it sociologically useful, even in the light of the latters
abject theoretical poverty.

Conclusion

Through a critical examination of Baudrillards notion of hyperreality,


this article has attempted to make a wider contribution to contemporary debates about postmodernism. By reference to the Heideggerian
linguistic turn, it has argued for the thorough inadequacy of hyperreality on both empirical and theoretical grounds. Furthermore, a hermeneutic and dialectical analysis, derived from the linguistic turn, obviates
the representationalist and nihilistic aporia of Cartesian hyperreality and
suggests a more fruitful approach to the study of contemporary culture
than that of which epistemological postmodern sociologies are capable.
It demands that we look to interpret specific social practices in their
historical context,

build abstract castles in the air from asserted and


exaggerated generalizations, which lead us into assertions of epistemological nihilism.
Following from this, the linguistic turn shows how hyperreality and,
therefore, postmodern sociologies, more generally, which posit
epistemological and ontological transformations, might be dialectically
superseded by a more critical sociology of postmodernism. Hyperreality
is typical of epistemologically oriented postmodern sociology which
demands that our society in general is characterized by the end of rules,
consensus, order, discipline and knowledge. These theories are not serious but merely impose the uncritical sentiments of disillusioned intellectuals onto the social process as a whole, assuming that their own
obscure doubts are widely experienced across the whole of society. 12 Not
not

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63

only are these intellectuals disillusioned but they are also self-deluded
for they nostalgically lament the loss of modern (Cartesian) certainties,
which were always untenable, even as they revel in the void which was
always the other side of rationalism. Hyperreality, therefore, signifies
and uncritically embodies postmodernism but it does not analyse the
particular cultural forms which recent developments have taken. Despite
Baudrillards demands for the end of dialectics (1994a: 161, 162), his
own theory (and epistemological postmodernism more generally) fails
for the very reason that it is not dialectical enough.

University of Exeter, Department of Sociology, Exeter,

UK

Notes
to Alison Assiter, Stan Clark, Gerard Delanty, Mike Gane
and Ronnie Munck for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Acknowledgements

the terms simulation and simulacrum as synonyms for


but
draws
hyperreality
heavily upon various other analogies for hyperreality in his later writing. Principal among these analogies are the notions of
metastasis (cancer), the clone, the hologram, the Moebius strip and the
code.
2 Baudrillards writing operates around three theoretical social forms which
have existed historically: the primitive; the modern, industrial capitalist;
and the multinational (postmodern) capitalist. It is in the final stage that
1

Baudrillard

uses

hyperreality emerges.
3 Baudrillard also argues that Disneyland constitutes hyperreality and in this
he parallels Ecos discussion of American culture (1987). There is no room
to discuss the example of Disneyland here. Suffice it to say that Baudrillards
belief that it is hyperreal reflects the wider failings of that concept.
4 In response to hyperreality, Baudrillard rejects traditional academic (dialectical) critique and adopts terroristic strategies. These cannot be discussed
here.
5 This argument echoes Williams criticisms of

technological

determinism

(1985: 129-51).
6 This section draws on Rortys criticisms of the very specific model with
which Descartes operates and which Rorty variously calls the ocular
metaphor (1989: 31), the mirror of nature (1989: 37, 123), or the glassy
essence

(1989: 43, 89, 95, 123).

7 It should be noted that Rorty rejects Heideggers own (extreme) linguistic


turn in his later philosophy, arguing that this constitutes a return to the very
kind of metaphysical primordialism which Being and Time opposed (Rorty,
8

1993b: 339, 349).


Following Heidegger,

Gadamer has

argued along these lines (1979).

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64

Although I use Lashs term cultural paradigm, I mean the term in the
broader anthropological sense in which Douglas, for instance, uses it (1969)
refer to the cultural categories and classifications that inform social
practices, relations and individual identities in a society. Furthermore,
although Lash does employ the definition of postmodernism forwarded here
(as the transgression of the cultural categories of modernity (e.g. Lash,
to

1991: 22, 23, 82-4, 90, 98, 99)

in his text and does


part his definition of postmodernism as de-differentiation (1991: 5,11) is too abstract to be of much
analytical use or even that convincing. Furthermore, his argument that postmodernism problematizes reality (1991: 13, 14, 15) comes uncomfortably
close to the notion of hyperreality that I criticize here. Moreover, whereas
Lash contrasts modernism (as the intellectually elitist movement from the
end of the 19th century until about the 1930s) with postmodernism, I,
following Bell, Jameson and Martin, would argue that postmodernism
would be better understood in opposition to modernity (as defined in the
text). Lash would have avoided this narrow opposition of postmodernism
to modernism if he had adopted a broader anthropological definition of the
term culture.
10 For interesting accounts of the cultural categories and boundaries of
modernity which were forged in the Enlightenment and by the 19th-century
bourgeoisie, see Mosse (1985) and Theweleit (1987).
11 Martin (1985) documents transformations in various cultural practices,
such as rock music, the arts and youth culture, which since the 1960s have
been increasingly concerned with boundary violation (see also Kellner,

provide

some

at

certain

interesting insights, for the

moments

most

1989: 242).
12

Callinicos (1991), Bauman (1987: 2, 1988: 223) and Harvey (1991: 38)
have argued that the nihilism of postmodern sociology is related to the
political disenfranchisement and disillusionment of intellectuals since the
1960s.

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