A critique on (hyperreal) models in the age of resemblance

*** Michelle Oosthuyzen 3611205

MA New Media and Digital Culture Course: Technobodies in Cyberspace Teacher: Dr. Bettina Papenburg January 2012

Introduction: the image of the body ..................................................................................................... 3 1. The hierarchy of reality: real, realer, realst.................................................................................................. 4 2. Virtual desires or actual possibilities? ........................................................................................................... 5 3. The allure of the image ......................................................................................................................................... 6 4. Power of the false ...................................................................................................................................... 7 Conclusion: encouraging visual literacy and new possibilities .................................................. 9 Literature .................................................................................................................................................... 11



Introduction: the image of the body
Technology has affected our experience and understanding of the body with every milestone. Technology seems to render the body virtual and “prompt new modes of subjectivity into being” (Jordan 2008, 263). Although I agree with Ken Jordan, it remains difficult to avoid the hype surrounding this statement and not fall into the implicit trap of denying the material, physical body and ignoring the complex interplay between semiotics on the one hand (embodied experiences) and materiality (physical body) on the other. Along with the advent of the Internet came the “disembodied technological gaze” that refers to the utopian vision of the disembodied Cartesian subject that could now free its thinking mind from the constraints of his environment and the social and physical characteristics of its material body (Balsamo 1996, 127). Cyber optimist Howard Rheingold beautifully exemplifies this in describing the disembodied affects of what he calls “the virtual community”: “Because we cannot see one another in cyberspace, gender, age, national origin, and physical appearance are not apparent unless a person wants to make such characteristics public. People whose physical handicaps make it difficult to form new friendships find that virtual communities treat them as they always wanted to be treated--as thinkers and transmitters of ideas and feeling beings, not carnal vessels with a certain appearance and way of walking and talking (or not walking and not talking)” (Rheingold 1993, 24)

Although virtual and visual technologies put the traditional idea of a given, natural and physical body in a state of crisis, it also made explicit what was happening all along: the becoming of the body into more than just its physical, material form. I want to expend the notion of embodiment beyond the physical body itself and explore the ways in which technologies of the image afford embodied experiences without losing sight of the material body. In the 21st century visual technologies are creating a simulated world where virtual images of the body are ubiquitous. Therefore our relationship with our (naked) body is getting increasingly mediated through representation (Grosz 2006, 194). When we should believe the Australian feminist Elizabeth Grosz, people are more fascinated by the representation of an object than the object itself as a result of what Grosz beautifully calls “the allure of the image” (Grosz 2006, 197). Manipulated images of the body are fuelling the desire of the public and creating models for cultural reproduction of the body. According to philosopher Jean Baudrillard we should be careful what we wish for: “Desire too is sustained only by want. When desire is entirely on the side of demand, when it is operationalized without restrictions, it loses its imaginary and, therefore, its reality; it appears everywhere, but in generalized simulation.” (Baudrillard 1990, 3)


Drawing upon this quote that refers to Jean Baudrillard‟s famous concept of hyperreality, simulations have lost their stable reference to reality because they are created within “a generation by models of a real without origins or reality: a hyperreal” (Baudrillard 1998, 166). Does this however mean that our reality is fake and that these representations of the body aren‟t „real‟? In my point of view hyperreality according to Baudrillard leads to normative values of what is real/unreal or fake/original. The aim of this paper is therefore to critically explore the concept of hyperreality as described by Jean Baudrillard by making explicit the implicit claims Baudrillard makes on reality in general and the body in specific. In my opinion visualization technologies are no longer representing and in the end replacing reality; they are virtually recreating it. Acknowledging how virtual representations influence our material reality, I wonder how this affects our notion of the body? By using the virtual as an object to think critically with, I will indicate how virtual images of the body are actually recreating (our relationship to) our bodies and conclude that we should be critical towards privileged (role) models and the possibilities they represent

1. The hierarchy of reality: real, realer, realst
So what has become of reality if according to Baudrillard, the “real is no longer real” (Baudrillard 1998,
172). First of all, I argue that the idea of the hyperreal suggests a kind of hierarchy of reality. Reality seems to be fragmented into different levels and an image can be granted the status of being more real than real (hyperreal). Hyperreal images without a stable reference to reality have therefore simultaneously become less real than real. Baudrillard‟s critique on the hyperreality seems to imply that a representation stands further away from reality than the „real thing‟ and that there even is such a thing as an objective truth. Objective reality has no ground because reality doesn‟t exist independent of human understanding, belief, intentions and knowledge. As a matter a fact everything in our world is produced, even reality itself. This means that there is never just a given matter or an objective real to which something else can be opposed to as „unreal‟. Furthermore, the concept of a hyperreality seems to privilege the body over its representation, the original over the copy and the model over the simulacrum. Within all of this categories matter wins over semiotics, which is the wrong match to even begin with.

I agree with Jonathan Sterne, researcher in the field of communication technology, how in history mediation has always been perceived as causing a certain “loss in being” or a connection to reality and that mediation “can be measured in terms of its distance from life” (Sterne 2006, 338). Although in this case Sterne specifically writes about recording technology and digital audio, his theory also makes sense in the case of visualization technologies. This predetermined way of thinking that awards the original a superior relation to reality than the reproduced can be traced back to Plato‟s Phaedrus in which speech is privileged over its reproduced written form (Sterne 2006, 338). The concept of an original moreover affords discriminating between the original and the fake replica. We see the same thing happening in the process of mediation in the context of the body. The material body


is granted a superior state as opposed to its representation. I want to think beyond mediation in terms of distance from reality or loss in being by focussing on the embodying effects of technology in which the body actually comes into being through its representations. This means, working towards an understanding of the body as more than just its physical form. In her search on how we became posthuman, Katherine Hayles successfully argues that the body isn‟t a given or natural entity; it is a cultural construct that rises from its interaction with its environment (Hayles 1999, 193). Grosz thoroughly reminds us that the body is biologically and culturally reproduced. “The body can be understood not only in terms of its social and cultural products but also in terms of the particularities of its corporeal arrangements and body idealists management, representation, and production of bodies and thus of nature” (Grosz 2006, 2)

From this point of view the body can be perceived as in a constant process of becoming rather than a constant state of being or existing (Grosz 2006, 193). Moreover, it is interesting and productive to think of the body in terms of embodiment: “a physical object and a space of representation, a body and a message” (Hayles 1999, 27). In the 21st century our technologically rich environment increasingly mediate and shapes this message. The body comes into being through embodied experiences afforded by representations created by visualization technologies. The representation isn‟t granted a degraded state of reality in order to distinguish the original from the representation, like it does within the concept of the hypereal. Representations are from the same order as the things they represent and have a profound impact on reality in the way they actually (re) create the material. Furthermore we see the relation between the physical, material body and the semiotics coming to live on the canvas of the body in the way they “both materialize bodies whose materiality is contained by, bordered by, and riven with and as representation” (Grosz 2006, 198).

2. Virtual desires or actual possibilities?
While a representation isn‟t an augmented form of reality that posits it further away from the real, it however does virtually recreate it. Referring to representations as virtual images establishes a hierarchy of the real in which the summit is a total state of actualization instead of a total resemblance to the real. I therefore want to introduce the concept of the virtual in order to create new interesting insights. Throughout the years, our perception of the virtual has indeed changed in relation to our post humanistic existence and increasingly technological mediated lives in which aspects and experiences of our day-to-day reality are being simulated. The virtual is now often linked to the images and simulations in cyberspace that intervene our everyday life (Shields 2003, 46-47). Within the popular rhetoric of disembodiment, the virtual as opposed to the real carries both positive as negative connotations. Contrarily I want to approach the virtual in a more insightful way by situating the virtual


as opposed to the actual according to the theory of Gilles Deleuze that argues how virtual experiences are intertwined with the „real‟ and material experiences of our day-to-day life. Deleuze successfully replaces the real/unreal or true/false opposition by the actual/virtual distinction, which offers insightful ways to think differently about virtual. Deleuze states that the virtual is real insofar as it has actual effects on us (Deleuze & Parnet 2007, 148). Steve Bryson, researcher in the field of virtual reality technology, explains this with the following words: “Virtual Reality means to have the effect of having concrete existence without actually having concrete existence” (Bryson 2001). These effects are not so virtual at all since virtuality becomes our mode of subjectivity and of embodied experiences within this world. Subjectivity is located in the body and is influenced by embodied experiences created by the virtual image of the body and “this virtual effect then posits itself as the actual ground (Colebrook cited in Shields 2003, 28). What Colebrook means is that virtual images represent desires and whatever is represented as possible can in eventually become actualized by action. The actual is always surrounded “with a cloud of virtual images” (Deleuze & Parnet 2007, 148) and therefore the body exists with all its virtual possibilities presented as ideas, ideals and desires. A body is real in all the ways it has been painted, sculptured, talked and written about. Desires are what Shields calls “real ideations” that are already real and await to be actualized (Shields 2003, 38). The body might actually change when it is painted, dressed, sensed, spoken and/or written about in different ways because it creates new possibilities of how we can be or have a body. The image in this case creates the right conditions for the depiction of the (desired) body (Grosz 2006, 196).

3. The allure of the image
Acknowledging this complex interrelation between the virtual and the actual broadens our understanding of reality. In this context reality can be perceived as the realm of actualized simulations in which the actual represents the material and the realm of virtual images in which the virtual represents all that is still possible. The danger lies in the allure of the image; when we become more fascinated with the virtual image of the body than with the material body itself (Grosz 2006, 196). Where does this fascination with the image come from? Psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan describes it as human nature. When a child looks into the mirror, it will begin to identify itself with his ideal self. Hopes and desires are being projected on an image; the child‟s mirror being. Lacan calls this stage in the development of a child: the mirror stage (Lacan 1949). The imaginaire contains people‟s deepest desires in an incomplete state of being. We speak of technological imaginaire when these desires are then projected on technologies. Grosz describes this phenomenon as follows: “This is the allure of the cinema, fiction, and art, the mediation of an object or objects so powerful as to entice one to identify with them, to desire to watch them, to be entertained and amused by them” (Grosz 2006, 196).


As argued in the previous chapter reality is made up out of the actual and the virtual, objects and images of objects. In the highly simulated world of the 21st century, people are overwhelmed by the ubiquity of the virtual image, which in turn induce desires. In the context of the body, the body is not only overexposed in representation, it is also disappearing in practice. As result reality becomes off balance when the virtual has a too big of an impact on the actual in the case of the body. According to Grosz, this is especially true for the naked body. In her search for the motives behind cultural practices that constitute and view our body as nude, Grosz proposes that the taboo on nakedness in our society could have a profound impact: “We are not "allowed" or encouraged in our culture, nor indeed in other known cultures, to either exhibit ourselves or to observe the bodies of others, except in highly restricted and codified contexts. We are discouraged from nakedness ourselves except on the condition that we are children; we are lovers or in some intimate sexual context; or we are mediated in a relationship to nudity through representations in art, pornography, advertising, medicine, cinematic and fictional contexts, and so on” (Grosz 2006, 195)

4. Power of the false
If our relationship with our bodies is primarily mediated and desires can be actualized, it seems important to know what kind of images are representing our bodies? What is the ideal, original images to which others should be measured? To the discontent of Gilles Deleuze, it is the resemblance to a model “to which the pretenders should be judged and their pretentions measured” (Deleuze, 1993 256). A simulacrum is often characterized as a copy of a copy that has no relation to an external model. In the Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy (1993), Deleuze criticizes the hierarchy in which the simulacrum is depicted as a false pretender as opposed to the true, legitimate copy that shows resemblance to the model. The very distinction between false and true pretenders is grounded on a deceptive hierarchy; “on the exclusion of the eccentric and the divergent, in the name of a superior finality, an essential reality” and therefore Deleuze seems to contests both the model as original and the copy as its reproduction. I agree with Deleuze on this point and highly criticize a society where deviation from the model then becomes a measure of quality that separates the „good‟ from the „bad‟ or more precisely: the ones that resemble the model from those that do not. I argue that it is not the simulacrum that is a false pretender and the copy that is a good pretender (of the model), it is the model who is a false pretender of a deceptive reality. This is what Deleuze calls “the power of the false” which can also be understood as the will to power as a result of the allure of the image (Deleuze 1985, 172). In the context of the body this means the ways in which the model is actually and physically effecting and


affecting us and therefore has a profound impact on our society and our understanding of reality. The ultimate enemy here is the so-called „model‟ itself. Nowadays especially young people identify with these models and the (beauty) ideals they represent. This isn‟t a bad thing in itself accept for the fact that visualization technologies that are now creating these models are mostly augmenting, enhancing and manipulating images to the point that we are striving for ideals that can never be materialized. Visual sociologist Luc Pauwels reminds us that the process of representation almost always involves the manipulation and reduction of the represented reality (Pauwels 2008, 79). In this way the concept of hyperreality makes sense because images are mostly depicted as better than they actually are; an enhanced and augmented mode of reality. Many researchers in the field of visual culture have studied the ways in which realistic simulation in computer generated images make an objective claim on the real. This phenomenon becomes problematic when these images are becoming hyperreal and at the same time are faking to be a representation of an objective reality instead of a model of a culturally created one. A good example are the models that Swedish clothing store H&M currently use for their online shops which are in fact real life heads put on computer-generated bodies (see figure 1. below).

Figure 1. H&M commercial1 This is just one of the many examples of models that fake to be „real‟, or better said, to be actual. Photoshopping is a technique that is applied in almost any commercial and every big brand. Fortunately there are brands like Dove that actively opposed to these techniques. Dove for example


Jezebel. 2011. (Digital image). Retrived January 25th, 2012 from: http://jezebel.com/5865114/hm-puts-real-model-heads-on-fake-bodies


published a quite famous video called „Evolution‟ that exemplifies and critiques the constructedness of reality and beauty (see figure 2.).

Figure 2. Dove Evolution commercial2 When models likes these are indeed „faking it‟, then the possibilities they represent which can be converted into desires, are based on illusions. Furthermore it get‟s harder to distinguish between the virtual and the actual image because the resemblance get‟s too big. I conclude that computer generated images encourage an unhealthy obsession with unattainable models. Behold, the power of the false.

Conclusion: encouraging visual literacy and new possibilities
“Pictures are the most potent of those nonverbal representations by means of which we ambivalently seek to open and close the gap between what is actual and what is only possible, and to discover in the space what our values are” (Brook 1983, 180)

This quote of Donald Brook, a well-known researcher in the field of art, summarizes my motivation and reason behind writing this paper. In the age where technologies of the image are producing models and the power of the false imposes its will to power, visual literacy should become a priority within our society in order to evaluate these new kinds of images. This means encouraging visual competences that will enable the public to decipher the underlying idea(l)s and conventions of a possible version of reality that a certain image is representing (Pauwels 2008, 79). Furthermore it is


Teleac. 2010. (digital image), retrived January 25th, 2012, from: http://www.schooltv.nl/eigenwijzer/project/2018803/mediawijsheid/2157348/maatschappijleer/item/2424471/me dia-en-het-schoonheidsideaal/


important to acknowledge how cultural practices are determinant factors in what is accepted as reality and what passes as an appropriate model or not. We need to understand that images are actually representing possibilities instead of objective truths but that these possibilities make a false claim on the real and are often based on unrealistic and unattainable ideals. This does not however imply that our world is fake, it just means that we should be aware of how and according to which ideals these models have been created. While today‟s visualization technologies almost always imply a process of manipulation, I conclude that models should not as easily be regarded as role models or examples of the ideal body that should be copied. This means transforming from a society where representations are founded on resemblance to a society where representations are founded on difference. Here I refer to the argument of Deleuze that “resemblance then can be thought only as the product of this internal difference (…) and identity of the Different as primary power” (Deleuze 1993, 262). In the end this means that everything should be judged on itself and not according to a resemblance to any previous model. Instead of becoming a splitting image of the model we should try to turn against it and create space for new possibilities and realistic ideals to arise. This means recreating the body by posing and actualizing new possibilities. Grosz for instance describes how art can provide us with new ways of being or having a body (Grosz 2006). I therefore urge to put the power of the false to good use and regard simulacra as a means to challenge privileged models and / or accepted ideals and hopefully they will provide us with new ones.


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