Jean Baudrillard's Theory of Hyperreality

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“Is this the real life, is this just fantasy, caught in a land slide no escape from reality”, sings Queen in Bohemian Rhapsody, this is a good way to introduce Jean Baudrillard, an advocate against hyperreality, who one could call a Bohemian. Arguably, Baudrillard’s most famous work in the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s was “America ”, “Simulacra and Simulations ” and “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place ”, All of these works; as do the majority of his other work that came out of the 90’s, argue that humanity is allowing the world to slip away from true reality and into the realm of what he calls the "hyperreal". Baudrillard’s notion of hyperreality is, that we have allowed ourselves to be blinded from true reality, replacing it instead with simulations of the real that are perceived by humans as being more real than true reality I.E television, ads, the internet, newspapers, videogames, etc. Dilbert would put it another way, “We live in a cold mechanistic technocracy, we have to make that work ”. In this Guide entry, you will be introduced to Baudrillard’s origins as a Marxist philosopher, his move away from Marxism, and by using examples from “The Ecstasy of Communication”, “Simulacra and Simulation’ and “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” lay out some of the basic concepts and terminology one needs in order to approach his later works on the subjects of Simulacra and simulation.

Baudrillard Marx the Spot

Karl Marx heavily influenced Baudrillard’s early work. To understand the influence Marxism had on Baudrillard one must first understand the theory of Marxism. “Marxism is the primary methodology of most economic analysis of…mass communications in general. Such studies involve not only questions of finance, production, and marketing, but also state policies. ” A Marxist looks at the vast majority of modern concerns such as, politics, economics, social behaviors, and media influence. Marxists also analyze the holistic connection between individual concerns, for example, economics and social behaviors, and then show how they can affect one another. One can see Marxist theories present in Baudrillards work wherein he talks specifically about economics, superficiality, and materialism. Though they will not be discussed here, it is worth noting that Baudrillard’s four logics of objects also relate back to Marxism (Appendix A), reading them, while not absolutely necessary, will allow you a more complex understanding of his work.

The Postmodernist always Looks Twice

In the 1980’s Baudrillard branched away from his Marxist influence claiming that Marxism, in fact, held the same basic worldview as capitalism. In society’s eyes, his new views classify him as postmodern, even though he proclaims himself not to be. Postmodernism means his ideas are rather unorthodox in comparison to the modernist outlook, that is, his ideas and opinions exist outside the realm of the conformist majority, which is what we call the modernist way of thinking. Thus, even though in Baudrillard’s eyes his views are not postmodern, due, unfortunately, to our societies want to taxonomies in modernist culture, others have stuck him with a postmodern label.

Baudrillard now argued against Marxism, claiming that the “Virus of bourgeois thought” influenced Marx. Now, Baudrillard is saying that the Marxist theory agrees with the capitalistic American system wherein society is centered on a concern for material interest and dominated by commercial and industrial means. It is in his essay “America” that he first claims American society to be completely hyperreal. Herein he states that the American culture is ruled by simulacra and simulation that the inhabitants falsely perceive as true reality. According to him, the entirety of the social world will eventually slip into this hyperreality, with little hope for saving it. He calls this future state of the world “The death of the real ”. In this regard, Baudrillard holds America as the model for our future for in the essay he calls America “The Finished form of the future catastrophe ”; even going as far as saying that America’s true form is cinematic. He also states that an individual who comes to America does not need to sit in an auditorium to witness cinema, in America, one need only look everywhere else. “The whole country is cinematic”, he says, further, only America has this power of cinematographisation of everyday life. Baudrillard is being a tad redundant here; he is simply restating that artifice is built into the American cultural ideology. One can see Baudrillards Marxist roots in the above statements. A Marxist theorist could make a holistic connection between the medium of hyperreality, in this case American culture, and the simulacra of film. On a side not A Marxist theorist could further say that film (or any other form of simulacra for that matter) and hyperreality are, in America’s case, co-dependently parasitic.

Back to the Past to look at the Present

Our society has come to a state where our personalities are based upon the brand logos we choose to wear. It’s so easy to stereotype my generation (Generation Y) because we do it ourselves. My generation has grown up on the stereotypes of TV in which the media thinks that they are reflecting our sense of society as reality. The realization is that these stereotypes have transduced our culture into that of the media’s version of reality. The fact is that every decision that we make about culture, dress and language can be linked to the media. - (Griffin, Monsters, Mad Prophets and Tribes, Oh My!)

The groundwork for Baudrillard’s theory of hyperreality was laid out in his 1983 book “The Ecstasy of Communication” wherein he scribes how multi-media saturated societies relinquish themselves to what he calls an “ecstasy of communication”. That is to say we hand ourselves over to the seductive power of the mass media (television, ads, films, magazines, and newspapers). “He says that the luminous eyes of television and computer screens penetrate into our private spaces in an ecstatic and obscene way, in this way our secrets disappear, and the images we consume become more and more pornographic”.

His message could be interpreted to mean that our over saturation of media images (what Baudrillard calls simulacra) allows the willing members of society to enter a catatonic state of multi-medium simulations (our Ecstasy of communication) wherein they become vulnerable to attacks on all of their senses; his use of the word "pornographic" can be mutiply interpetted, that is not to be used solely in regard to the images we are viewing in this state as becomeing progressively more risqué. One interpretation of the term "pornographic", as it is used in the cotext of his arugment, could mean that, in the state of viewer/consumer ecstasy that we enter into, our mode of spectatorship also becomes progressively more perverse. In such a case the term "secret", in the way he uses it, would be in relation to the spectators gaze at the images, as the images extract the spectators desires. Our "secrets" disappear into the images and are manifested in our minds as we consume them. So, if we use that interpretation, the manifestation or our disires combined with our inability to turn away from the simulations or to simply ignore them would also be part of the "pornography" in which he speaks; it is our indulgence in excess that causes the images to become more "pornographic". The simulations allow us an outlet for our own desires so we demand more of them. Over time, our minds become desensitized to the simulations so we demand ones that are more realistic. As this vicious cycle of desensitization continues, the simulations become more "pornographic" in televised form as a direct result of our demand for them to do so. In short, everyone is an active participant in the transition to hyperreality that will eventually cause “the death of the real”.

If you find this hard to consume, allow me to explain with an analogy. Let’s say you stop at a stop light near a railroad crossing. You look out the window; to your left you notice a train had a head on collision with another car. An ambulance with illuminating red lights and body bags is by the car, you watch as the paramedics attempt to salvage the bodies from the wreckage. Meanwhile you have completely forgotten that the stop light has turned green and the people behind you are honking their horns. Now I ask you, in this analogy, what, or who is perverse, the accident for happening or you for your inability to turn away?

Anyone for Sim Gulf?

The very definition of the real becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction...At the limit of this process of reproducibility, the real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced. The hyperreal…transcends representation…only because it is entirely in simulation… [A]rtifice is at the very heart of reality.

One of the best examples of Jean Baudrillard’s iconoclast theory of simulacra and simulation is “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” wherein he attacks the versatility of the hyperreality of television news broadcasting. In the early 1990’s shortly before the beginning of the Gulf War Baudrillard proclaimed that the war would not actually accrue, after the event, he would not refute this statement proclaiming that he was right. We will come to reilize that from a hyperrealistic standpoint he was correct. It is important to remember in Baudrillards mind what we would call the actualities presented on television newscast are, to him, nothing more than simulations of the real events, they are copies and therefore they are not real. So, he did not say the gulf war did not happen, he simply said that what was televised for mass consumption by the non-enlisted citizens of America, being that they are images, are copies of the real events and therefore unreal. The true reality of the events that transpired in the Gulf War lie solely with those whom experienced the war first hand, all other secondary images, and thoughts are simulation. In short, the images we see on television, even the actualities portrayed on the news, are not real. Despite our cognitive notion to believe otherwise, the only events that are real are those that an individual experiences first hand. Therefore, in this case the experience of the men and women who were directly involved with the affair are the only ones to experience the reality. To everyone else it is simulation. This brought up an even more poignant notion for Baudrillard who now questioned the ability for there to be a real war in a modern society where our fighting is heavily aided by mechanized contraptions that do the fighting and scouting for us. Wikipedia explains his point nicely:

The real conflict, according to Baudrillard, was not a war with Iraq over the invasion of Kuwait but a great question concerning thee concept of war. The first Gulf War served as a crisis point determining whether or not war was still possible in the post-industrial age.

What’s for Desert?

One should be familiar with “the desert of the real” before approaching Baudrillard's latter work. Baudrillard uses this term for the fist time in his essay “the Precision of Simulacra”, in which he recounts a Borges tail about a an emperor who made a map so huge that it spanned the entirety of his empire. The map was so richly detailed that it overlaid the true empire. Eventually, the citizens came to accept the simulacrum as the true empire. Over time, the map started to show signs of aging and eventually completely disintegrated. The true empire that used to lie underneath the map was no more, instead in its place was the emptiness of the desert. The true reality had been destroyed by the simulation, replaced with “the desert of the real”

“The desert of the real” is an essential term to know; it actually sums up Baudrillards theory of hyperreality quite nicely. The term is often used when discussing topics that coincide with theories of simulacra, simulation and hyperreality.

Welcome to the Desert

Jean Baudrillard’s work offers a fascinating perspective on society. While his theories draw an array of criticisms (whose don’t) his views on the degradation of modern culture bring forth important issues about post-industrial culture. However, his work is dense and somewhat redundant. Using his basic notion of simulacra and simulation he argues in various essays that everything from Disneyland to money offer some form of semiotic connection to hyperreality. By reading this entry, you have come away with the bare basics of his latter work on hyperreality, and hopefully, those of you who wish to start the voyage back into true reality, have come away better prepared. Just remember to bring a pair of sunglasses and some sunscreen, you’re going to need them. Welcome to the desert of the real.

Appendix A: The Four Logics of Objects

1. The functional value of an object is its instrumental purpose. (A pen writes. A diamond ring adorns an otherwise empty hand.) This is what Marx referred to as the 'use-value' of the commodity.

2. The exchange value of an object is its economic value. (A pen is worth three pencils. A diamond ring is worth three months' salary.)

3. The symbolic exchange value of an object is its arbitrarily assigned and agreed value in relation to another subject. (A pen represents a graduation present or a speaker's gift. A diamond ring symbolizes a public declaration of love between two individuals.)

4. The sign exchange value of an object represents its value in a system of objects. (A pen is part of a desk set, or a particular pen confers social status. A diamond ring has sign exchange value in relation to other diamond rings, conferring social status to the person with the biggest or prettiest ring.)



“America,” Chris Turner, Chris Turner (Translators), (1989)

“Simulacra and Simulation,” Sheila Glaser (Translator), (1994)

“The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” Paul Patton (Translator), (1995)

Dilbert, Created by Scott Adams, Season 1, Episode 9: The Knack

Encyclopedia Labor Law Talk (Website), accessed 14 June 2005; available from

Chuck Kleinhans, Marxism and Film, John Hill, Pamela Church Gibson, ed. “Film studies: Critical approaches”
(Oxford New York: Oxford University
Press, 2000), 109.

John Hill refers to Baudrillard as Postmodern in “Film Studies: Critical Approaches”, in the article “Film and
Postmodernism”, 96

Jean Baudrillard: A Very Short Introduction (Website), accessed 14 June 2005; available from

Wikipedia (Website), accessed 14 June 2005, available from

“Did You Ever Eat Tasty Wheat?”: Baudrillard and the Matrix (Website), Accessed June 14th 2005, available

Monsters, Mad Prophets and Tribes, Oh My! (an Essay), Dustin Griffin, 2005

For further discussion on this subject refer to

David Weberman, The Matrix Simulation and the Postmodern Age, William Irwin, ed.

“The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the desert of the real”, (Open Court, Chicago and La Salle, Illinois:
Open Court Publishing Company, 2002), 236

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