Real or hyperreal: can we still distinguish?

7 Dec

There’s a piece in The Drum this week by Clementine Ford titled “We’re all real women…” My first thought was, is that like in the “real” Julia Gillard, or what? Since the PM adopted that manner of self-description the word “real” appears to have entered a state of extreme fluidity, and I don’t really know what it means anymore.

This is disconcerting because “real” was one of the words in our language that one used to be able to rely on through consensus. The term “unreal”is also clear when used as praise, and we can’t really apply it to describe what women are when they aren’t “real.”

I almost wrote “being real” just then. But I don’t think we should go there this morning. One step at a time.

There are millions of words that are totally unreliable and change meaning at the drop of a hat, often appropriated by politicians to obscure rather than reveal. “Real” was not, until the PM co-opted it, one of those words, at least not in the sense of being used to reassure the populace that the subject of enunciation was now entering a novel phase of authenticity.

No politician in my living memory has ever risked admitting they’d previously been false, before Julia Gillard did it.

What her claim to have suddenly become “real” signified was that prior to her announcement, the PM had apparently been inhabiting a hyperreal universe in which, according to French theorist Jean Baudrillard, human consciousness is tricked into detaching from real emotional engagement, opting instead for simulation and endless reproduction of fundamentally empty experience from which it is compelled to continually move forward.

This is the equivalent of emotionally experiencing theme parks such as Disneyland as real suburban living, and  Las Vegas casinos such as the Paris and the Venetian as real cities. That is, reality has been replaced with signs and symbols, making it ultimately irrelevant. I can testify to this. I haven’t been to Venice, but I have been to the Venetian in Las Vegas. Watching a program on television filmed in Venice I found myself thinking, that’s just like the Venetian in Vegas. This is but a small example of Baudrillard’s theory, and I am appalled at myself.

However, in comparison with the Las Vegas Venetian and Disneyland other places seem very real, and this is the purpose of it all. The hyperreal conceals the fact that the real is no longer real, by making the no-longer-real look real when one leaves the hyperreal and re-enters the “real” world.

Who is responsible for this mind-fucking post modern conspiracy I cannot say, except to suggest that the media and capitalism play a pivotal role.

Then there is the question of what value one attaches to the “real.” In the case of women, if anti pornography campaigner Gail Dines and her ilk are to be believed, the hyperreal destroys all value in the real, and men who inhabit the hyperrealistic world of pornography either attempt to persuade “real” women into imitating the simulacra (now there’s a mind-boggling concept), or they become incapable of interaction with the “real” because she isn’t exciting enough.

In the case of Ford’s article, I think “real” signifies women who feel themselves to be whole without the trappings of fashion, considerations of weight and size, and male approval. Whereas in Ms Gillard’s case I believe she was referring to a political presentation that apparently went from not real to real in a nano second, though given the magazine cover above, I’m inclined to think there was also a physical dimension to her claims.

I myself personally have never seen much difference between what the PM considered not real about herself, and what is apparently the genuine article. This is almost certainly my own fault, an unfortunate inability to detect subtle nuance for which I should be punished.

So, if both the PM and Ms Ford find it necessary to assert the “realness” of women, albeit in differing ways, is this an attempt to reclaim us from a hyperreal existence in which we cannot  distinguish reality from fantasy? A frantic effort to rescue us from the consequences of struggling to maintain our sanity in a world teeming with simulacra?

The news in Jezebel today that Swedish fashion house  H&M have stopped airbrushing human beings and instead have replaced them with computer-generated virtual bodies with “real” female human heads digitally imposed, would suggest this is the case.  Such a move does confirm that as Baudrillard suggested, simulacra work to obliterate the notion that reality is in any way relevant to our understanding of our lives. If Jezebel hadn’t outed them, we  would have assumed we were looking at human beings (albeit enhanced) rather than cyborg hybrids.

The question is, what does all that mean?

Well, absolutely sod all according to Baudrillard, who claims that all meaning is rendered meaningless by being infinitely mutable. Which brings me back to the meaning of “real.” Along with Clementine Ford and the PM I was labouring under the illusion that “real” meant something. It doesn’t. It’s a crock. It’s as mutable as any other word. There is nothing to hold on to, we are drowning in fluidity, and this is not a pipe.

14 Responses to “Real or hyperreal: can we still distinguish?”

  1. gerard oosterman December 7, 2011 at 10:16 am #

    When my dad arrived here in 1956, he found the term ‘real estate agents ‘ a puzzle. Are there agents that are not real? Are there houses that are not real, he wondered?
    Lots of things were named without regard to being ‘real’.
    Coming from Holland and never having seen a real palm tree, I couln’t wait to travel to Sydney’s Palm beach’. Not a palm in sight.
    Goulburn is known as “Lilac City’, but where is the Lilac?
    The ‘Good Guys” are good guys?


  2. gerard oosterman December 7, 2011 at 10:57 am #

    1.Another gripe about ‘real’. What is this typical Anglo ‘JP’ business about. They don’t know you, yet at every legal twist and turn you need to get a JP to sign something. Where is the ‘real’ in that?
    2. At clubs, if not a member, you have to sign in, yet no proof of identity is required. Why the signing in?
    2. What about those signs along high-ways about injured wild life (wires). If seeing a crook or injured roo or wombat, does someone from wires really turn up? It looks caring, but does it reflect the truth. Is it ‘real’?


  3. AjinDarwin December 7, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    I agree the word “real” is fluid in meaning and has been co-opted for marketing purposes in the cases of Julia and apparently Swedish womens magazines. Marketing has never much been about real, but more about selling the sizzle on the sausage and delivering the message. Using the world “real” in this context is as valid as any other adjective, and is in all buyer/seller behaviour the old principle of buyer beware applies. As to Julia, I dont think she was doing anything else but responding to charges of being deceitful (KRudd’s loss of the leadership) and accusation that the ALP and its leader were more spin and image than substance. She’s entitled to to try to convince people by using the word, but, as always, actions speak louder than words.


  4. paul walter December 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Also had a look at Clem’s article, “Sub Lumen Cruce”, eh, ol’ tute mate..
    So many dichotomies, contradictions and juxtapositions, false and real, to sort through, can’t comment now.
    Where’s my old anthropology text books, byee!


  5. The REAL Julia...not the Sunshine Girl December 7, 2011 at 7:34 pm #

    My dad used to comment on real estate agents like that too.

    If a “real” woman is au naturale without the trappings of fashion, make up, considerations of weight size &/or male approval…is a “real” man also seen in such terms? (or is he a “real” man because of male approval & silicon simulcra hanging off his arm?) Hmmm…

    As for the “real” Julia….
    ….Oh really?


    • Jennifer Wilson December 7, 2011 at 7:52 pm #

      Totally unable to function today as a consequence of trying to read Big Porn Inc all day. Now must get drunk


      • AjinDarwin December 8, 2011 at 12:13 am #

        Jimmy Buffet works for me


  6. paul walter December 7, 2011 at 8:56 pm #

    Are you going to “total” it?


    • Jennifer Wilson December 8, 2011 at 7:47 am #

      It’s gonna total me


      • Sam Jandwich December 8, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

        I like spoonerisms as you know, and I think it’s funny that that book reversed is “Pig Born Inc”. I wonder if that was deliberate.


  7. Rebecca S. Randall December 9, 2011 at 9:09 am #

    Ahh! You brought together Clementine Ford and Gail Dines, the two things I love and hate, respectively.

    I feel bad for women who feel the need for plastic surgery and overpriced, overhyped fashion. Even when these women trumpet their superiority over other women because of these ‘enhancements’. But I think they’re just as entitled to exist as any other woman, or any other human being for that matter.

    Clem and Catherine Deveny did a podcast together about their respective body articles last week and mentioned the ‘women fighting other women’ paradox, and their dislike of it because the response (“If you women just stopped fighting with each other, you could get meaningful stuff done”) being a misogynist one. I personally don’t find it that misogynist, because I agree. Seriously, why the fuck can’t women unify for the causes we hold dear? Like the right to not be raped as acts of war in devastated countries?
    But I digress slightly. The point is that women have started using downward comparison theories to make themselves feel better, but it’s still women comparing themselves to other women to feel better about a societal, market driven ideal. Blech.


    • Jennifer Wilson December 9, 2011 at 5:28 pm #

      Yeah, I’m with you on that one. Also I dislike people like MTR putting down women who don’t fit her notions of what women should do and how we should behave. I get really angry at the tone those anti porn women use about other women. They’re either really judgmental, or speak as if they’re referring to brainless victims. Alway putting themselves in such a superior position!!
      That’s my whinge for the day, now back to reading Big Porn Inc.


  8. paul walter December 9, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    A feeling of disempowerment, Rebecca?
    Tell me about it.
    Btw, on the subject of smart women, did folk pick up on Leslie Cannold’s latest from Fairfax, about the drop- off of democracy in the country?


    • AjinDarwin December 9, 2011 at 5:27 pm #

      Democracy thrives on the debate and examination of ideas, a free and diverse media (which we dont have) and a need for distinctiveness between policies and parties. Australia is homogenous because its more affected by the need to present a united front than have the more interesting point of difference. Democracy is also possibly the most flawed yet at the same time healthy model of government I know of. The ALP, LIBNCP and Greens all move slowly towards the centre since middle Australia holds the balance of the vote. If Australia was a much poorer or richer country we would see much more extreme groups emege. Even our socialists are chardonnay socialists mainly. Too comfortable talking than acting. There is no leadership, its government literally by committee, uniformity reminds me a lot of communism, its just a comfortable version


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