Jason Lowe BA Visual Communication Yr 2
Hyperreality is the central value of the modern high street. It drives the retail economy at every level.
Hyperreality can be described as a ‘simulation of something that never really existed’ (Baudrillard, 1981). It has never been so apparent than on today’s high street where it can ‘alienate, subjugate and dominate not just through the workplace, but through commodity culture in all its variations, including shopping.’ (Horrocks, 2000). Think of any major shopping city, and it is the institutions of hyperreality that take prime pitches. In Leeds, described by Lonely Planet in 2005 as the ‘Knightsbridge of the North’, the retail core is dominated by hyperreal brands such as ‘Urban Outfitters’ whereas stores providing a service, such as ‘Wilkinson’ are found on the edge of the retail area. The increasingly image conscious society have become locked into a series of brands, or what they see as institutions, which employ hyperreal environments as discussed later in the essay. Jorge Luis Borge expands by saying that hyperreality ‘is a condition in which reality has been replaced by simulacra.’ To discuss hyperreality, it is necessary to introduce the key concept of simulacra; defined in the simplest terms as the product of hyperreality.
The first and potentially most obvious area of discussion is that regarding simulacra. Simulacra are the products of hyperreality, and have an intrinsic link with production lines where ‘objects become undefined simulacra one of the other’ (Baudrillard, 1983). Therefore, simulacra takes centre stage on the high street. The consumer is under the hyperreal impression that each garment is individual and original, despite being simulacra. Eco (1986) attempts to explain this by stating that ‘once the total fake is admitted, in order to be enjoyed it must seem totally real.’ Simulacra is ‘characterised exclusively by self equivalence- it is exclusively quantative in nature. The quantative is what it develops and it can only develop within the quantative.’ (Debord, 1967) With simulacra developing solely within the quantative in a society where ‘we live at the pace of objects’ (Baudrillard, 1970), simulacra serves to fuel the high street.
‘Adidas Originals’ are one of the most explicit examples of simulacra as in their very name, they claim to be original- Eco (1986) puts it simply as ‘the authentic fake’. Of course the reality is that they are made on several production lines throughout the Far East. This results in a rather intriguing concept however,
because as ‘origin is no longer a concern’, goods ‘never need to be counterfeited’. At face value, this concept can appear rather simple, but it is made more complicated by the fact that each product carries a sign value, so despite ‘Adidas Originals’ being a product of mass production, counterfeiting is rife in an attempt for the public to drive the price nearer to the use and exchange value. This further complicates the scenario as the market is now polluted with ‘third order simulacra’ (Baudrillard, 1993); representations of representations.
A strong example of simulacra holding a sign value is Calvin Klein underwear, where the consumer believes that buying and wearing their underwear will lead them to be as perfect as the airbrushed models in their adverts. This hyperreal illusion leads to simulacra being represented on the high street by a sign value; the value it represents in the realms of hyperreality rather than its use or exchange value. One can expect to pay several times more for branded Calvin Klein underwear than other lines despite them having similar use and exchange values (what the product is actually worth). It is important to recognise the reign of sign value to appreciate how and why hyperreality is the central value of the modern high street.
Genosko (1999) states that ‘symbolic exchange is in general incommensurable with any system of value’, however some try to argue that one of the few areas of the retail market which remains original thus valuable is vintage, however a more complex assessment proves vintage to be just as hyperreal as other areas of the market in terms of carrying sign values. When many of these clothes were first sold, it is more than likely they would have sold for their use value, but they have now picked up a sign value. Initially, one may believe that vintage clothing is original as the clothing itself is the original piece. The first obvious counter argument is that each garment has lost its original purpose; for example a practical belt may now be worn as an accessory. A further point regarding vintage is that vintage styles are based on the stereotypes of the era. Due to films and the media, we have a stereotypical definition of the clothing of each decade- but of course people wore a wide range of clothing styles in every era, and so vintage is yet another level driven by hyperreality.
The craze for vintage clothing has been born out of a life of watching the life of others, where our lives have become false interpretations of those we watch. The demand for this has led to a culture of simulacra consumption. Items are produced on a chain where ‘the loss of quality of so obvious at every level. This is epitomised in retailers such as ‘Urban Outfitters’ who have leaped onto the bandwagon of
vintage simulacra and thrive on the concept that consumers watch other consumers.
‘Urban Outfitters’ are also experts at communication, and use the communication itself as part of the brand. In 1964, McLuhan described this as ‘the medium is the message’. Their very presence on Facebook shows that they model themselves to be part of the student community. Many brands use Facebook, but few have personal profiles for each branch, where the brand can become your friend. Each Urban Outfitters store has a profile on Facebook to connect with the student community directly. This is the first demonstration of UO using the medium as the message.
Communication can take many forms though, and is not always as obvious as Facebook. The hyperreal environment is another example where the medium is the message. Baudrillard (1970) discusses how ‘interacting in a hyperreal place like a Las Vegas casino gives the subject the impression that he is walking through a fantasy world where everyone is playing along. What isn’t a dream is that the casino takes his money, which he is more likely to give when his consciousness doesn’t really understand what’s going on.’ McLuhan (1964) elaborates adding that ‘it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.’ McLuhan and Baudrillard’s theorems draw many parallels with ‘Urban Outfitters’, who are experts at creating a strong hyperreal environment. Their arrival on the modern high street has seen the birth of ‘student lockdowns’; essentially shop parties where the student is lured into what their consciousness believes is a social event. In this case, it is the community events such as the student lockdowns that make the said group of people associate with each other based on their common consumption in ‘Urban Outfitters’. Even those that believe they do not consume in UO, the store creates the impression that it cares and is part of the community as it hosts work from local music and art colleges, when of course the reality is it is a business being directed from an office in the USA. ‘Abercrombie & Fitch’ are guilty of this on a much wider and brasher scale. Their stores are permanently dark, and employ loud music, flashing lights and dancers to resemble a club, forcing the mind into a hyperreal gear.
Some companies have a limited number of stores, making their brand exclusive and sought-after to all; ‘it goads the millionaire as it does the middle-class tourist.’ (Eco, 1986) It creates an almost cult-like situation where people travel long distances to stores. In the case of Apple Retail Stores, regional followings often lobby for store openings in their regional capitals. In both of these scenarios, the consumer is led to believe they are a partygoer, or in the latter case, a tourist visiting a tourist site. This ‘masks
and perverts a profound reality’ (Baudrillard, 1994) that they are mere consumers spending real cash.
‘American Apparel’ employ hyperreal values on the sales side of the business; their famous ‘advertising draws on relations to others’ (Baudrillard, 1970) because the advert ‘is not a collection of images, rather it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images’ (Debord, 1967) as heavily sexualised models take centre stage. This image transpires to the shop floor, where the best looking people are placed. It is the case that one must submit a range of photos to American Apparel when applying for a job for example, reinforcing the belief that buying American Apparel clothing will transform you into an idealistic model.
‘American Apparel also have strong hyperreal values. All their clothes sell at a sign exchange value, justified by their ethical claims, however these claims are debatable and lead to another form of hyperreality. They forcefully push their ‘ethical’ production methods, resulting in most consumers having a belief in their statement of values. The reality here is that their centralised production methods result in a situation where non-US companies are unable to compete or even participate.
This essay has discussed how hyperreality is the central value of the modern high street. While hyperreality may ‘seem to us as a trademark of American behaviour’ (Eco, 1986), it runs through every market, from independent vintage boutiques to major international chains such as Urban Outfitters and Adidas Originals. One could argue that the definition of the high street is ‘hyperreality’, and the case for this is only increasing as all of the brands that have been discussed in this essay have embarked on huge expansions not just in the UK, but worldwide. More brands in more places only equals more simulacra in more hyperreal environments, and as ‘we live at the pace of objects’ (Baudrillard, 1970), our submission to hyperreality is on the rise. There is an increasing focus on the hyperreal environment that stores provide, and as the high street is progressively more criticised for being homogeneous (BBC, 2005), multinationals make desperate attempts to differ themselves from each other- something that, when each store is selling relatively similar goods, can only happen in the realms of hyperreality. There is very little plausible evidence to argue that hyperreality does not drive the retail economy at every level. Even those few objects produced by individual craftsmen and women are still assigned sign values for sale, and are open to interpretation by the consumer; and this interpretation may not be the same as the person who made it. Hyperreality is not necessarily a negative state; it provides a safe and stable income; a livelihood, to millions around the world and enables our city centres to thrive. Let us accept that hyper-
reality is inescapable and one must accept its central value to the high street in being the primary driver of the retail economy if we are to continue to place retail as one of our prime leisure activities. Bibliography
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