One of the fascinating things we can take from one of my favorite philosophers Jean Baudrillard is that the real is never pure, and it seems to me that the simulation isn’t either. Of course Baudrillard thinks – one of his more adventurous methodological challenges – that we should take ideas, systems, and simulations to their logical extremes to see what we learn. I take up this challenge by casting theories of ideology as ontological questions instead of epistemological ones, especially with respect to Baudrillard’s concept “hyperreality”. No matter here.
We find a particularly apt example of how neither reality nor its simulation is pure when we examine reality television. It is widely understood that reality television is tremendously scripted, produced, and contrived. An example of an interesting ideological play on this idea comes from MTV in the form of stupid shows like “Parental Control” and “Disaster Date” (don’t ask how I know). These particularly idiotic (but addictive) programs are so phony that the audience knows that the show is put on. There is a kind of air about these shows that seems to indicate that the producers of the shows know that the audience know that the shows are anything but “real”. This exemplifies the evacuation of the term itself.
Recently, we find an even more interesting case with an extra reversal. Usually reality television is a simulation of reality presented as real. In the case of the finale of “The Hills” (I know, shut up), there is a further reversal that puts into question both the nature of simulation and that of reality and our ability to discern the two. After a long tearful goodbye between Brody and Kristen against the backdrop of the Hollywood hills, she drives off leaving a sad and contemplative man behind. But, in a brilliantly ridiculous bit of “cinematography”, the camera pans out where we see the screen behind Brody wheeled off and Kristen in a car not but a few feet away. The producers of the show reveal the “truth” that The Hills is not in fact “real”.
The lower orders of simulation are simple reproductions of objects. A painting or photograph of a real tree. Higher orders, the stuff of hyperreality, are simulations without a real object to simulate. Some examples are the film “The China Syndrome” where there is a nuclear reactor meltdown (coincidently, just) before any real reactor actually melts down. The simulation preceded the real in this case. Another notable example of the hyperreal is pornography. Certain sexual acts transpire in a way that is supposed to be an example of what some real, some cool and sexy, people actually do. But, there are certain mainstream pornographic scenes that are copies without a basis in any particular “real”. It’s not hard to think of examples of certain uncomfortable features that no (very few) women are anatomically equipped to enjoy.
The Hills’ finale makes us think: as reality tv, we knew it was fake all along. But, then we find out it’s fake. Is the operation of revealing the ruse a “real” revealing? What would it mean for this to be a “real fake”. What happens to the status of the real/simulation binary when we undertake these many reversals? In all honesty, I’m not sure what to make of this. Ought we make sense of this in the same terms we would any other “real”, “fake”, or “reality tv” program? Or is this indicative of something more radical? Might this reveal to us what has already been the case: namely, that the distinction between real and simulation is already fuzzy? If the distinction breaks down, that is, if we lose grip of the discernability of this distinction, then we are in a state of hyperreality, and perhaps we don’t have to imagine what it would be like by taking an idea about ideology to the extreme. Perhaps we live in that extreme.