Is Hyperreality Consuming Nature?

by Liam Campbell

“Disneyland is 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 to the order of simulation.” — Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

Reality prevailed on Earth for untold millions of years. Base elements, microbes, algae, fungi, animals, and plants, they existed in complex and changing configurations; these variations of life were deeply rooted in an objective, singular reality. For our ancestors, an apple was an apple, it existed independently and without symbolic constraints or meaning. Then we invented language, possibly the first true simulation, which allowed us to invoke the idea of an apple without the presence of one. This abstract concept of an apple became an amalgamation of all of our individual and cultural experiences of a thing, and the idea of an apple could only exist in relationship to other concepts of “not apple.” Baudrillard called this phenomenon a “simulacrum,” which is a representation or an imitation of a thing.

For a long time, our simulacra were rudimentary and poor imitations of reality. No matter how many words we invented to describe an apple, our simulation remained unconvincing and easily distinguishable from the real thing. As our skill at painting progressed we managed to produce visually convincing simulacra of apples, but they still smelled like paint and were inedible. As our understanding of chemistry advanced we discovered chemicals which smell like our shared conception of an apple, allowing us to convince both our eyes and noses, but the simulacrum of the apple remained unconvincing to our other senses. Now, through genetic engineering, we have reached the point where we can create a simulation of an apple which is not a “real” apple, it is an imitation based on our idealistic conception of the idea of an apple. This is hyperreality, an inability to distinguish between reality and a simulation, and it permeates almost every aspect of our postmodern experience.

In his seminal work, Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard proposes that hyperreality unfolds in four stages:

  1. Reasonably accurate images or copies of reality. For example: photography used to faithfully document real scenes from a war.
  2. Perversion of reality where images or copies of reality appear to be the real thing, but actually create a false impression of reality. For example: a photograph which accidentally appears to make an innocent person look guilty.
  3. Obstruction of reality where images or copies intentionally mask or obscure reality. For example: a photograph where a government intentionally fabricates an event in order to manufacture consent.
  4. Complete simulacrum where it becomes impossible to differentiate between reality and simulation because the simulacra are absolutely convincing and permeate every aspect of life. At this stage, it is unnecessary to intentionally obscure reality because people give up the pursuit of objective reality as an overly sentimental notion and an exercise in futility.

Baudrillard argues that most of us have entered into the last stage, that of complete simulacrum, because we are indoctrinated from birth to perceive things as more than they are. Upon seeing an apple, we immediately think of the asbtract concept of “apples,” we think of our cultural relationships with that concept, and then we relate that concept to all similar or dissimilar concepts. Moreover, many of us have only experienced genetically modified apples, so even our sensory comprehension of “apples” is based on simulacra.

From this perspective, we have become profoundly and potentially irrevocably detached from objective reality. Although we can make decisions which will lead us closer to, or farther away from, objective reality, we can never return to a state of complete alignment. Our current trajectory is leading us into an extreme form of simulacrum where our experiences detach entirely from any connection to reality — even our most intimate personal relationships are increasingly shaped through lenses of reality television, consumerism, counseling, and commodification. How will we know when we have fully detached from the real? Baudrillard, even in the 1980s, made a strong case for the argument that we long ago crossed that threshold.

Today, objective reality is forcing itself back into our consciousness in the form of climate and ecological collapse. Our collective decisions to manufacture and inhabit hyperreality have detached us from the systems which are cannibalised to sustain our fantasies. Today’s children are as likely to believe that eggs come from grocery stores as chickens, and even the average adult has no conception whatsoever that their favourite chocolate spread is produced from the charred bones of orangutans. Baudrillard points out that, in previous cultures, animals were often ritualistically killed before being eaten; although this act may seem cruel, on the surface, it reminds people that the animal was a living thing and that some degree of cruelty was involved in converting that life into meat. By contrast, most industrialised humans are so far removed from the realities of their consumerism that they view meat as an asbtraction, little more than a commodity which has no history before having been selected among other pieces of plastic-wrapped meat from a refrigerator. Indeed, hyperreality has advanced so far that there are now convincing simulacra of meat, made up of the same material, but having never lived at all. Does this avert the suffering and absolve us of cruelty, or does it merely obscure the cruelty under increasingly abstract layers of exploitative farming, native species annihilation, and habitat destruction?

At some point these increasingly sophisticated delusions will crash down around us; possibly as a result of ecosystem collapse, or maybe we will become so dehumanised that we will simply choose to cease to exist for lack of any sense of meaning. It does seem like the further we depart from our basis in objective reality, the more dissatisfied we become with our own existence. For the time being we fill that growing void with additional consumption, but it’s inclear whether we’re motivated more by an amibition to achieve some fantastical outcome, or if we’re simply afraid to die and willing to abandon any sense of meaning in exchange for delaying death or physical by a few more years.  What’s evident, at least to me, is that our lives are technologically advanced but culturally backward.

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