Traveling Through Hyperreality With Umberto Eco
An early description of the way contemporary culture is now full of re-creations and themed environments was provided by Umberto Eco.In a brilliant essay, Eco saw that we create theserealistic fabrications in an effort to come up with something that is better than real -- adescription that is true of virtually all fiction and culture, which gives us things that are moreexciting, more beautiful, more inspiring, more terrifying, and generally more interesting thanwhat we encounter in everyday life. In his description of Disney, Eco also saw that behind the facades lurks a sales pitch. Put these ideas together and you have a succinct characterization of the age, which is forever offering us something that seems better than real in order to sell us something. That makes Umberto Eco one of the forerunners of contemporary thinking on this subject.
(One) of the early theorists of simulation was the Italian writer and literary critic Umberto Eco,who went on a tour of America to get a firsthand look at the imitations and replicas that were ondisplay in the nation's museums and tourist attractions. The essay that he subsequently wrotedescribing his trip, bore the odd title "Travels in Hyperreality," which made it sound more likescience fiction than the brilliant work of culture criticism it turned out to be. The essay, which isdated 1975, also had an anomalous quality to it. Looking at it, today, it reads like a strangecombination of Postmodern philosophy and something out of the Sunday travel section, full of sardonic descriptions and exaggerated denunciations that focus on the cultural shortcomings of America.In the essay, Eco plays the role of both social critic and tour guide, taking the reader across anAmerican landscape that he says is being re-created in the image of fake history, fake art, fakenature and fake cities. Along the way, he examines a reproduction of former President LyndonJohnson's Oval Office, and goes through a reconstruction of a Medieval witch's laboratory, inwhich the recorded screams of what sound like witches at the stake can be heard in the background. He travels to wax museums, where artistic masterpieces are re-created and, often,reinvented in unexpected ways, resulting in such cultural mutations as a wax statue of the MonaLisa and a "restored" copy of the Venus de Milo, with arms. He also enters what he refers to as"toy cities," including Western theme towns, where the buildings are stage sets, and actors incostume, engage in mock gunfights, for the benefit of visitors.As Eco explains it, his trip is a pilgrimage in search of "hyperreality," or the world of "theAbsolute Fake," in which imitations don't merely reproduce reality, but try improve on it. Not unexpectedly, it leads him to the "absolutely fake cities," Disneyland and Disney World,with their re-created main streets, imitation castles and lifelike, animatronic robots. Here, hetakes a boat ride through artificial caves, where he sees scenes of pirates sacking a city, in theattraction, Pirates of the Caribbean, and he travels through a ghost story that appears to havecome to life, with transparent, dancing spirits, and skeletal hands lifting gravestones, in theattraction, the Haunted Mansion.It is in the two Disneys, where he finds the ultimate expression of hyperreality, in whicheverything is brighter, larger and more entertaining than in everyday life. In comparison toDisney, he implies, reality can be disappointing. When he travels the artificial river inDisneyland, for example, he sees animatronic imitations of animals. But, on a trip down the realMississippi, the river fails to reveal its alligators. "...You risk feeling homesick for Disneyland,"