Simulations of the Real

Ruiyan Xu

Baudrillard's claim of the blurring edge between the real and the unreal has, in many ways, existed in the days of technology far less advanced than Photoshop or VR. Since the development of photography and cinema, the image (moving or still) could no longer be trusted to be true. Darkroom techniques range from dodging and burning to multiple exposure (see the work of photo "surrationalist" scott mutter - all done without any computer enhancement) have made photography legitimate as an artform, but often illegitimate as a source of information. Similarly, film uses everything from edits to special effects to create a world which is not real, and in many cases, could not possibly be real. The path from reality to representation to simulation and finally, simulacra, then, is not necessarily due to the evolution of technology, but can perhaps be attributed to a growing cultural hunger for illusions of reality.

Nowhere is the desire for some semblance of reality more apparent than in popular culture. Movies of the week wield "Based on a True Story" subtitles like a trophy, "Hidden videos -- When Bees Kill" specials are on top of the Nielsens and daytime talk show with outrageous themes hold a sick fascination for the public. We as a culture, are obsessed with this brand of entertainment, and no where is this more apparent than MTV's popular show - The Real World.

The concept: take seven strangers, put them in a house together, and film them during every moment of their lives for a six month duration. What makes this idea so fascinating is that although the situation is essentially contrived (it would never happen in reality), the participants can't be due to the pervasiveness of the camera. Every move they make is open to observation and judgment. As a result, they have to be themselves, and therefore, real; it's impossible to maintain a facade 24 hours a day for half a year. In one sense, then, this show can be considered real. Yet already, the fact that their situation is a construct is problematic to the reality of their lives.

Add to this mix approximately 5 million television viewers who sit down every week to watch a 22-minute segment of these 7 characters expecting to catch a glimpse of their reality. Even if the lives of the characters can be considered real (a big supposition), is the show itself real? Or would Baudrillard consider the show a hyperreality?

Baudrillard theorizes that through the mirroring of reality, we lose sight of reality. But as reflected by our tastes in popular culture, we still yearn for the real, only we want to be entertained at the same time. In these cases, we mimic reality, distort it for "entertainment value", and then provide an index of it for the public. It is the knowledge that what is seen on the screen has some basis in reality (however minuscule) that keeps the audience coming back for me.

[To other discussions of Baudrillard by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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