Here I start a series of items that is partly inspired by the work of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. I am not sure that I understand him well, and in so far as I do, I agree with him only in part, but the questions he raises are interesting and here I present what I make of them. In this first item I pick up his claim that in uses of modern communication technology reality has been lost and replaced by what he calls ‘hyperreality’.
To be precise about reality I recall a few basic notions in the theory of language and meaning that were discussed in earlier items in this blog. One is that of the signifier (word, image, sign) and what is signified by it. Another is that the meaning of a word or expression has two parts: reference (signification of words) and sense. The referent of the word ‘chair’ is the set of all chairs, and its sense is how an object is recognized as a chair. For a proposition reference is its truth or falsity, and sense is the argumentation for it. Propositions without arguments are senseless.
I now interpret Baudrillard as saying that in present culture we focus on the signifier, the word, and have lost sight of what it is supposed to signify, refer to. Our images and verbal constructions, still inspired somehow by reality, become footloose from what they are about. The signifier steals the show, shoving the signified off-stage. What matters is no longer so much what is said as how one says it. Not what is true but what is interesting or exciting. Not arguments but opinions. This, Baudrilllard acknowledges, goes back to Marshall McLuhan’s slogan that the medium is the message.
So what is new? The signifier/word has always stood apart from the signified/referent: it is never a true, complete representation of the signified. As we acknowledge since the philosopher Kant, we can never know and represent reality as it is in itself. As we acknowledge since the philosopher Wittgenstein, words are not a true representation of underlying thought. In some religions images of God are forbidden because if they truly represent God then God is no longer transcendent and if they do not faithfully represent him they mislead us.
Baudrillard claimed that under the impact of present information-and-communication technology, reality is replaced by hyperreality. That simulates reality, offering an idealized, more exciting, ecstatic reality, a lie that is better than truth.
Again, what is new? Art, literature, theatre, and music have always deliberately idealized, reduced, distilled, and transformed reality as we perceive it. Its purpose indeed is, and always has been, to provide a hyperreality, exploring possible or stylized worlds. This serves as a mental exploration that stimulates intellectual and moral imagination, formation of ideas, and shifts of meaning. As discussed in items 5 and 92 it helps to simulate the consequences of possible actions, to explore morality.
It does, however, seem to be the case that we have moved further into hyperreality. An example of hyperreality, given by Rick Roderick is the ‘Swiss garden’, where one finds Swiss cuckoo clocks, mountain scenes, costumes and food all brought together conveniently, to be visited without the bother of actually travelling to Switzerland. Another example was that of the shark from the film ‘Jaws’, more enticing and interesting than any real shark. Also, you don’t exist unless you are on TV, so people hype up to get there, reducing considered opinion to a slogan, turning character into caricature.
What, if anything, is wrong with all this? When we give up on the groping for reality we surrender argument and facts to emotions and opinions. Facts, imperfect as they are, help to tie us to reality. When we disregard facts reality indeed disappears.
Next to reality, identity also is lost, Baudrillard claims. I will consider that in the following item.