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Date Published: 8/22/2008
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors


Produce / Deduce / Simulate

The Electronic Display and the Age of the Hyperreal

Aron Hsiao

Today the human body would seem to be present only as the abstract justification for the finished form of the functional object...In the face of the functional object the human being becomes dysfunctional, irrational and subjective: an empty form, open therefore to the mythology of the functional, to projected phantasies stemming from the stupefying efficiency of the outside world.[1]

-- Jean Baudrillard


If one were determined to be flip, one could say that we live in the age of the electronic display. That which is displayed electronically must surely be real. That which can not be displayed electronically -- or which for some furtive reason cannot be found anywhere in the displayable electronic universe -- is suspect, or at the very least anachronistic, a corpse inhabiting the realm of the historical. We gaze eternally and compulsively at our screens and digital paper, at our status panels and our luminescent readouts, finding in the electronic display the lost solidity of those things that have otherwise apparently melted, from within the fortress of their once unassailable embodiment, into air.[2] That which is dead has taken on the tenor of life. That which is merely alive appears to us under the sign of death.

But is such sophistry actually flip at all? Indeed, the collapse of epistemology and ontology into phenomenology -- perhaps, one might even say, the triumph of phenomenology -- appears to be a defining characteristic of our age, the late modern age -- the informated age. In the end, of course, this collapse is the true source (or is it the true manifestation -- it becomes increasingly difficult to sense the difference) of the "relativity" to which science, philosophy, and culture alike have become subject. In discovering and making a sovereign of the subject qua the religion of rationality, we have unwittingly lost the identity of the object, whose soul and very corporeality have become epiphenomena of our own location, of our own subjectivity, of our own agency in a kind of postmodernizing praxis whose motivations appear to be bound up, like time and space before them, with the essentially mediated ethos -- indeed, the simulacral order -- of our time.[3]


Let us for a moment posit Baudrillard's early argument that the subject and the things that surround him are now locked in mutual consumption,[4] the very sustaining process of life and thus of identity. The thing is in this account merely another facet of the subject, a mathematical point in a phenomenological universe of sign-objects that together herald the subject's own totemization[5] -- the identification, as praxis, with the will to be.[6] What, then, is the nature of the communication that so many mediative things are today said to facilitate?

What, that is to say, is the nature of this presumptive communication that goes on in the network of a taken for granted network society,[7] apart from a one-dimensional parole drawn on the langue of sign-objects, whether corporeal or virtual, wherever the borders between these vocabularies lie? If we posit the asyntactical langue of the system of objects to be an epiphenomenal manifestation of the high capitalist, post-productive mode of domination,[8] what is the nature -- the topic, the genre, the raison d'étre -- of the messages whose inscriptions characterize the habitus of its parole? What is the nature of the link by which these perform, or at the very least are expected to perform, according to Baudrillard, some component of the essential process of being?

In simpler terms, why does it seem to be so enlivening to be near our plastic and silicon tools, to look at them, to caress them, to talk to and through them, these Blackberries and laptops, these televisions and telephones, these silicon flora and fauna[9] that are, as some quarters of conventional wisdom would have it, so dead -- so predictable, so (literally) cold to the touch, immobile, avocal, systematic, akinetic? Despite the McLuhanite argument that regimes of mediation and their technological things are extensions of man able to illuminate, and thereby in our phenomenological age to create, mutually inhabited space through the "involvement in depth" of social actors,[10] it remains true that the things of mediation present in general very different sensory manifestations from those that we perceive to be organic in origin -- amongst these the sensation of other flesh, of other breath, of an unelectrical voice. In the structural sense it is precisely because of these differences in sensory manifestations in the first place, after all, that we schematize one to be organic in nature and the other not to be. It is, unavoidably, because of these apparent differences that we are able to attempt to enact (for that is surely where we find ourselves today) a distinction between them.

Why then, once again, a state of affairs in which people speak to one another by telephone across a small room or chat with one other online when separated by two chairs and a coffee mug? Why do people bind themselves to what they perceive to be the inorganic, rather than to the organic -- to what would seem to be comparatively opaque forms of mediation even when less opaque forms are as readily available? What is the lure of this inorganic, mediated communication whose rise is often taken to be an avatar precisely of the ascendancy of the order of the hyperreal?[11]


With the advent of mechanical reproduction, media betrayed its inventors, leaving "neither matter nor space nor time" to remain as they they had been "from time immemorial."[12] This transformation was not simply -- as so many have supposed -- the abridgment of space and time as ontological curiosities, the connection of the there to the here, of the then to the now as a kind of metaphysical prostitution. Media undertook, rather, the task of opening a new possibility, indeed a new necessity -- not merely the "sense of the universal equality of things,"[13] as Benjamin wrote, but in fact of the universal identity of all things. In the epoch of media, the audience identifies with, and (by virtue of their intentional presence and its instrumental aim) ensures its own identification with, the camera [14] -- whose position is in turn the very subjectivity of the cameraman. [15] The gulf between mere mediation and actual identification anticipates the gulf that is to erupt between production and simulation. The former attempt to articulate, to elaborate, and to complicate the ontological. The latter simply dispense with the ontological altogether. They eviscerate it; they erase it as a matter of structural difference.

"In multiplying 'proofs' of reality," the technology of the camera instead exhausted the category.[16] The very purpose of media, after all, was to supersede the sensory limits upon which we had so long relied for our lien on ontology. Such a precarious accord could only be maintained so long as such limits could be elaborated in advance -- so long as we could leverage in the interest of empiricism a clear relationship between that which could be perceived and that which could not -- so long as there was an event horizon of perception by which distinctions between the perceptible and the imperceptible could themselves be sensed, locking all of humankind into a single perceptive scale; a single perceptive territory. As the harbinger of an age of mediation, the photo issued the orders under which a great reckoning was to occur. "[T]he more it penetrated beyond immediate vision," Virilio appreciates, "the more [photography] reverted to the original abstraction of heliography," a "drift of overexposed matter" that "found a scientific explanation in Einstein's 'theory of the viewpoint,'"[17] this being the miracle by which the object as such was formally liquidated once and for eternity, by which the world was reborn as a function of the self and its location rather than as a function of objective, empirical reality.

"[A]ll this equivalence to a 'real' content," Baudrillard would write decades later, "all this is over with."[18] Determinacy gives way to indeterminacy and to "the era of simulations announced everywhere by the commutability of formerly contradictory or dialectically opposed terms."[19] Foremost amongst these, naturally, must be the subject and the object. Space and time are similarly easily dispensed with, mere "forms of intuition," epiphenomena of a sensory experience[20] whose newly phantasmagoric ontology is, like the phantasmagoria itself,[21] native to the cognitive interior of the sensory subject. In the collapse of object into subject, in the collapse of space and time into sensation, the productive world is eviscerated, transformed retroactively qua the eros of hyperreality -- along with all other ontological extants -- into simulation. Production, after all, was the mode of a world whose reach extended into the ontological; deduction is the mode of the new age, an age whose technique of generation is the articulation of sensation.[22]


From Smith to Marx to Durkheim to Schumpeter, it has since the dawn of the industrial age been axiomatic that the division of labor is a productive force, multiplying exponentially the ability of the social body to produce the means of life, the means of their collective being. The division of labor leveraged two ontological rationalizations in order to build a larger world all the more quickly. The first of these was the rationalization of facility -- the utilitarian application of skill and its development. The second of these was the rationalization of human relationships -- the rationalization of the communicative act into coordination and exchange. These corresponded to, drove and were driven by, the development of technological mediation. The telegraph kept trains running; the loudspeaker coordinated the labor pool; the telephone facilitated export, import, and exchange.

The theology of a mediative cosmos that was invented by the industrial simulacrum could not be other than productivity itself -- the needs and intensification of the division of labor. Media overlaid vocation; subjects of the industrial simulacrum were mediated in the sphere of labor as a component of the productive process -- a means for enhancing skill and specialization and for rationalizing interaction. In the two-way radio was to be found vertical integration, worker with overseer; in the shop manual was to be found horizontal aggregation, worker with worker. Media's institutionalizations, too -- press, photo, film, radio, television -- were, in the epoch of the magazine and of the broadcast, specialized spheres of production. Each represented a machinery and a knowledge of specialization, each was an apparatus requiring qualified labor for its deployment, embodying for any juxtaposed operator a particular and productive role in the division of labor. It was the essential property of such forms to make transparent all distance, all discontinuity between actors precisely in the interest of productivity. Even the world of the pre-network computing regime was industrial in nature, linking raw materials to product, man to machine, and employee to employee -- all within the single productive unit of the corporation.

Such is not the case in the hyperreal topography of the network, which has become as generalized in function and presence and as deployable by unspecialized individuals as its forbears very clearly were not. The gradual emancipation of the sign qua regimes of technological mediation would ultimately contaminate measurement, the ontological and enlightened foundation of production, infecting it with the cancer of relativity that would bring about its end.[23] This emancipation is now fully realized in the network, which threatens to shatter not as a matter of potential but as a matter of quotidia all limitations of perception. That truth can hollow out the very foundations of an epoch is of no concern to the golem of metaphysics. The seemingly infinite dimensionality of the object has been called into existence by the acute technical capability of a growing universe of media whose ancestor, the photograph, once innocently demonstrated that all things are "for us merely the sum of the qualities we attribute" to them, such attributions occurring precisely as a matter of "what we represent [them] to be."[24] The essential and secret function of scientifically infallible technomedia was to eviscerate the infallibility both of the essential and of the scientific. Things become no more than what they are "objectively" shown to be; what they are shown to be is what they are. Furthermore, beyond the boundaries of the now obsolete limits of perception they can ultimately be shown to be anything, anywhere, at any time.

The arbitrariness of the sign gives way to the arbitrariness of signification. Born is a Godless, systemless miasma whose only organizing principle is that very radical subjectivity that humanity once sought to ameliorate by way of the invention of the technological medium itself. With the death of the Bible as the model for mediation comes the annihilation of difference and specificity, making impossible the quantitative cosmology of the industrial simulacrum and abolishing forever the inherently productive concepts of use-value, surplus-value, and exchange-value. Gone with the ontological, in fact, are all of the "'classical' economics of value."[25]

The plane of ontology has become negative in operation, the deductive underbelly of phenomenology. If what is, and its very nature alike, are merely matters of representation -- if the essential property of what is is that it may be articulated through an infinite range of perspectives, and thus of representations, then what can't be represented at all necessarily isn't. Thus media in the simulacrum of the simulation jettisons a positivity founded on specialization, solidarity, and authority, remnants of a bygone epoch in which the possibility and indeed the inevitability of productivity were assumed. Gone is the world of instrumentality altogether, carried away at the same time as ontology; in its place we are being driven by a newly deductive regime into a world of a radically different character and modality.


There is one method by which to exist in the order of the hyperreal. That method is to simulate. One is tempted to clarify such an assertion by suggesting that it is the equivalent of "to represent, while positing the absence of the referent," but of course to simulate posits not the absence of the referent but the absence of reference. Representation is in no way the engine of simulation; indeed, representation is, from our current perspective in the simulacrum of the now, merely the opium of a bygone era. It is not merely that ontological currency has become a matter of phenomenological sensability; there is no place in our world for ontological currency at all.

There is no "to exist" as separate from "to be sensable." There is only "to be sensable," or rather, in a world stripped of objects, there is only "to sense." Common problematizations of the e-world and its endless hall of electronic displays presume ongoing, mediated interaction between subjects and their objects -- representation and represented, sender and receiver, some measurable production of reality. But to the Baudrillardian eye, the productive age has passed, and with it the age of social reality. Sensory experience is a matter merely of location, each sensation a monad in the noneuclidean landscape of the hyperreal. No longer an image or a sound, no longer the visage of an objectively present friend or the vibrato of an objectively present violin string, their phenomenological appropriation, their status as consumptions marks for the subject only "the very will to live, fragmented, disappointed...condemned to repeat and repeatedly abolish itself."[26] Says Baudrillard as he abandons post-Marxism for postmodernism,

The systematic and limitless process of consumption arises from the disappointed demand for totality that underlies the project of life. In their ideality sign-objects are all equivalent and may multiply infinitely; indeed, they must multiply in order at every moment to make up for a reality that is absent. Consumption is irrepressible, in the last reckoning, because it is founded upon a lack.[27]

It is this lack that brings out the mobile phone for cross-room conversation. The silicon simulant multiplies exponentially the potential for consumption. Not merely an image and a voice, but hard tactility[28] -- digital sounds, background static, blue, red, and green glows, logos and trademarks, institutions and institutional networks, the simulation of value, the parole of sign-objects...conversation is nice, but siliconversation is nicer -- richer, deeper, more cognitively sensory, more simulating.

The unbreakable attachment to the electronic display is the avatar of a mind fully colonized by the simulacrum of simulation. Such a mind appropriates the pure tactility of its own sensory being in a battle against emptiness that appears ever more to inhere in an age without reference, in which the cruel realities that themselves embody both triumph and suffering have been lost.[29] With technological media's triumph of sensation over reference, all things become equivalent, undifferentiable. The subject of hyperreality struggles forever to establish by consumption precisely what has thus been lost to it: the meaning that once inhered in essential differences -- between subject and object as between individual people -- before these gave way to the arbitrariness and plasticity of individual simulations.


In a world without the real, the electronic display and the human body compete on a lone and level playing field to be the means of our escape from radical subjectivity, the mediator of life in a state of pervasive death, that of the empty referential universe. For simulative purposes, the electronic display is simply a more acute medium than the body. The two exhibit startlingly different levels of tactility, different degrees of simulative proclivity. The individual of the body is a slow and stumbling simulator, unsure and halting, nominally singular -- a primitive product with an anachronistic feature set, sold either as an animal laborans or as a homo faber[30] in productive epochs that have fallen, quite literally, out of fashion.

The individual in the electronic display, on the other hand, is startlingly different. The displayed individual is infinitely simulable, rapidly revolutionizable, lightweight, tactile, radically multiplicable, surrounded by hard plastic and cold metal and soft buttons and bright colors and pulsing songs and soothing vibration and the functional, simulating ethos of the simulacrum of the now, whose coming was enacted by technological media from the outset. There is no comparison for the consumptive subject in hyperreality; the individual on the electronic display and the display itself are quite simply better simulations, offer less tiresome claims to objectification through sensation -- are in every way more alive, or should we say, claim to offer more aggregate life to the consuming subject of late modernity than does the individual of the body.

There can be no question of "whether or not an electronic display really delivers such things," for the nature of the current epoch is that there is no way to measure the really -- indeed, there is less and less really at all. That one should use a cell phone to communicate across the room or use a computer to communicate across the aisle is merely evidence of their fitness to the common purposes of a simulated ethos. Inasmuch as they cry out for us to believe that both they and what they display exist for us, they are nominally reassuring in their apparent solidity in a way that the scalar, radically subjective body is not -- in their claimed ability to deliver to us the fullness of presence with an authority descended from the Gutenberg Bible -- even if the delivery, the reality, and the authority in question are ultimately not real but hyperreal, not ontological but simulated.


[1] Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects (London: Verso, 1996), 53-57.

[2] Marx, of course, was the first to theorize, in an awkward way -- for he was entering into new and radical territory -- the prophetic trajectory of media (in his case, in the form of capital and the commodity fetish) in the social world. "All that is solid melts into air" finally when "the era of simulation is announced everywhere." See Karl Marx, "The Communist Manifesto,"in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978), 476 and Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1993), 8.

[3] Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death 57-61. The precession of simulacra comprises three revolutions thus far around the axis of the ontological -- the counterfeit schematic mode of the classical period, the productive schematic mode of the industrial period, and the simulatory schematic mode of late modernity. (50) The last of these can be formulated in economical terms as a moment of transcendence at which the phenomenological begins to exhaustively articulate, and indeed to directly correspond to, the ontological.

[4] Baudrillard, The System of Objects, 200.

[5] Here I mean to suggest a state of affairs in which the generalized subject -- the combination of the self and the phenomenological world that constitute it -- has taken on totemic properties, in a quasi-Durkheimian sense, with respect to its representation and identification properties for the narcissistic subjects. See Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York: The Free Press, 1995), 133.

[6] Baudrillard, The System of Objects, 204-205.

[7] "A technological revolution, centered around information technologies" has begun to "reshape, at an accelerated pace, the material basis of society," says Manuel Castells. In this new society, this network society, "the search for identity...becomes the fundamental source of...meaning." See Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), 1, 3.

[8] Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 10.

[9] Baudrillard uses this analogy to describe the "luxuriant growth of objects" that increasingly come to constitute the consumptive symbolic universe of the subject. (Baudrillard, The System of Objects, 3.)

[10] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), 8-9.

[11] "Today," argues Baudrillard, "abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory -- recession of simulacra -- that engenders the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map." See Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 1.

[12] Paul Valéry, "La Conquéte de l'ubiquité," as taken from Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Shocken, 1969), 217.

[13] Ibid., 223.

[14] Ibid., 228.

[15] Ibid., 233-234.

[16] Paul Virilio, The Vision Machine (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 22.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 7.

[19] Ibid., 7-8.

[20] Virilio, 22.

[21] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1999), 14.

[22] "We are at the end of production," says Baudrillard. "[N]othing is produced, strictly speaking: everything is deduced, from the grace (God) or beneficence (nature) of an agency which releases or withholds its riches" (Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 9). Such an agency is the spirit of the domination enacted by the subject's own submission, the acceptance from it of the gift of deferred the subject's position in the symbolic order.

[23] Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 7.

[24] Virilio, 22.

[25] Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 6.

[26] Baudrillard, The System of Objects, 204.

[27] Ibid., 205.

[28] McLuhan describes the effect of "a convulsive sensuous participation that is profoundly kinetic and tactile, because tactility is the interplay of the senses" (McLuhan, 314), a state of affairs that well describes the "multimedia" environment of the network society and its glowing, beeping, informating, demanding, participatory prosthetic apparatuses.

[29] "There is no fashion in a caste society," says Baudrillard, "nor in a society based on rank, since assignation is absolute and there is no class mobility. Signs are protected by a prohibition which ensures their total clarity and confers and unequivocal status on each." This is the world of the real that preceeds the simulacra. "[T]his order has existed, and it was a brutal hierarchy, since the sign's transparency is indissociably also its cruelty...[I]n cruel societies, signs are limited in number and their circulation is restricted...The arbitrariness of the sign begins when...the signifier starts to refer to a disenchanted universe of the signified, the common denominator of the real world, towards which no-one any longer has the least obligation." (Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 50).

[30] Hannah Arendt's discussion of the opposition between these two conceptions of the nature of mankind fails to anticipate the possibility of an age like ours -- in which the predicament of mankind is the "undefined character of labor" in a postproductive world. See Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 79-135 and Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 17.


Aron Hsiao is a former computer science student and software engineer holding degrees in literature and anthropology from the University of Utah and a graduate degree in the interdisciplinary social sciences from the University of Chicago. A freelance author, photographer, and web developer, Hsiao is the author of a number of books related to Linux and open source technologies. He works both professionally and academically in mass media research, and is currently a Ph.D. student in sociology at The New School for Social Research in Manhattan.

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