As American as Hyperreality

By Tansy Couture

As a child, dining room chairs turned on their backs became space shuttles that took me and my dolls to far off worlds and adventures. What was seen to adults as a piece of boring furniture was to me a ride to the end of the Universe and beyond. Then, as I grew older, it was imprinted upon me that this behavior was no longer acceptable, and gradually I began to lose my overactive childhood imagination. According to the Italian semiologist Umberto Eco, in his essay, "Travels in Hyperreality," this type of "childhood imagination," or hyperreality, is vastly a part of American culture, not only in children, but more and more it is seen in adults. Because hyperreality is such a comparably new idea, you can not find a definition of it in a dictionary, but by combining the definitions of both hyper and reality we can come up with "over and above . . . that which is real" (Neufeldt 663, 1118). In other words, the American society is making more out of what really is. While Eco has mixed feelings on if hyperreality is good or not, he does feel that it is as American as apple pie.
Eco believes that hyperreality shows itself in America’s portrayal of history, art and architecture, entertainment, and nature. Eco believes that Americans want everything in a more entertaining way (including entertainment), so we have intertwined hyperreality into our lives. In the American’s portrayal of history we make things come alive. Instead of making simple dioramas, the American museum, "reconstructs interiors full-scale" (Eco 9), and mixes the fake with the real so that the observer has a difficult time deciphering them as being apart from each other. In the world of art and architecture, if the Americans can’t have the real thing, according to Eco, they will "fabricate the absolute fake" (8), or make an, "authentic copy" (20). For America’s entertainment purposes, we have created whole cities for our enjoyment; these cities help our fantasies become realities. America has also tried to create a Utopian Animal World by recreating nature. We have managed this by creating our world famous zoos and animal parks. While these views of Eco’s are controversial, it isn’t hard to see where he is coming from, and from an "outsider’s" point of view, it may appear that America is a nation of fakes. But when the fake is all that a nation has known, can it really be considered a fake?
After touring the country, Eco found many places of interest that supported his theory. He found everything from the J. Paul Getty Museum of art to wax museums that reproduced the Last Supper painting on a life size three-dimensional scale. Some places he found amusing, others appalling, but all showed his idea of hyperreality.
Eco seemed to enjoy the idea of the Madonna Inn, constructed by Mr. Madonna in Mount San Luis. While he called it, ". . . pop vulgarity. . ." and alluded to the fact that it looked like it had been designed by somebody who was using a hallucinogenic drug (24), he liked it because it was deliberately bizarre , and proud of the fact. He gives a brief description of the bathrooms (almost in an embarrassed, apologetic tone) with urinals shaped like fireplaces, and then moves on to listing some of the themed bedrooms that you can rent (such as the Safari room, the Prehistoric room, and the Old-Fashioned Honeymoon room). He admired it because, ". . . it has no artistic or philological pretensions, it appeals to the savage taste for the amazing, the overstuffed, and the absolute sumptuous at low price. It says to its visitors: ‘You too can have the incredible, just like a millionaire’" (25). Eco was drawn toward this place because, unlike most of the places he visited, Madonna’s Inn did not hide behind its fake calling it real. Mr. Madonna was proud of the fact that every room he had to offer was a complete fake, or hyperreality at its best.
Only a few miles from Madonna’s Inn lies the huge estate of the late William Randolph Hearst in San Simeon, called Hearst’s Castle. Unlike the inn, Eco strongly disliked Hearst’s Castle. Although the castle is filled with treasures from around the world, he calls it, "An incontinent collectionism, the bad taste of the nouveau riche, and a thirst for prestige. . . [that brings] . . . the past down to the level of today’s life" (22). Wanting to show off his wealth to others, Hearst randomly collected bits and pieces of European history, brought it back to his immense castle on the hill, and reconstructed it piece by piece. He was like a child who wasn’t happy with just one piece of candy, or a different piece than somebody else. He had to have it all. Hearst collected these things, not because he was an art lover, but because he was after the look of prestige. The items were placed chaotically throughout the house, with nothing separating the real from the fake. Eco says that:

. . . what offends is the voracity of the selection, and what distresses is the fear of being caught up by this jungle of venerable beauties, which unquestionably has its own wild flavor, its own pathetic sadness, barbarian grandeur, and sensual perversity, redolent of contamination, blasphemy, the Black Mass. (23)

This, according to Eco, makes the place unlivable. Hearst’s Castle is acting in a way that it is ashamed of the fact that it is hyperreal, and for this Eco does not like it.
Who could not like the amusement park where all dreams come true, Disneyland? Although Eco doesn’t say if he enjoyed his trip to the "happiest place on Earth," he did love the fantastic example of hyperreality that it gave. Disneyland, while not openly separating its real from its fake, wants you to, "admire the perfection of the fake and its obedience to the program" (44). Calling it a City of Robots, Eco says that Disneyland is proud of its fake, pointing out that the real wouldn’t perform as well, and you would soon tire and bore of it. Eco experienced this first hand by visiting the real Mississippi River right after taking a trip down the Disneyland Mississippi, and the real alligators weren’t as exciting as the Disneyland fabricated ones. But, Eco warns, "Disneyland is also a place of total passivity. Its visitors must also agree to behave like its robots" (48). We must leave our cars and our identities behind as we venture into this dream land, and we are herded into seemingly endless lines to have the time of our lives. It is taboo to frown or cry here, because then it might not be seen as the happiest place on Earth, and that would ruin the fantasy.
While Eco may feel that hyperreality is okay for humans, he does not like the idea of forcing it upon nature; you can sense a dislike for the treatment of the animals in our zoos and amusement parks. While he likes the ideas of the preservation of the endangered animals and plant life, he does not like the idea of turning them into circus animals for our enjoyment. He believes that we are making animals our burden, that we are saying, "Okay you dangerous, but helpless animals, we will take care of you, feed you, and put you in a realistic enclosure, and all you have to do in return is be obedient to our orders, smile, and wave." Eco questions if these conditions are truly realistic for the animals, and if the animals enjoy it or not.
In many of these situations I can see where Eco is coming from, but a lot has changed from the 70’s, when Eco took these trips and wrote his essay. Being a young nation, we have no deep history to fall back on. To us European history is a fairy tale, and can only be depicted in reproductions. The typical American will never have a chance to visit and personally see the wonderful works of art and the stunning architecture that Europe has to offer. As for the problems with hyperreality in nature, I feel that we have turned more to thinking in the best interest of the animals. Robin Senecal, a zoologist at the San Diego Zoo, works primarily with the baby animals that for some reason or another were not accepted by their mothers. She takes a lot of care to simulate what the babies would actually be doing/feeling at moments like feeding time and play time. They are handled by using hand puppets that resemble the hands of a would be mother, and special care is used to eventually move them back in with other animals of their kind. According to Shanon Wilson, in her response to Eco’s essay, people now prefer to see the real thing because who knows how much longer these options will be available. We have the chance to view something before it is regulated to a hyperreal diorama in a wax museum, and this chance, coupled with the belief that this something will indeed only exist in recreation in the foreseeable future, makes ecotourism irresistible to the American sense of history. We have begun to realize our exploitation of everything, and we are trying to correct our errors. But it isn’t easy when we are an entire nation built on hyperreality, and hyperreality is what the world knows us for.
Yes, hyperreality is a part of the American lifestyle, but we aren’t to be blamed for it, and some are trying to move away from that image. While most of the world looks at America and is envious of America’s hyperreality ability, Eco makes Americans ashamed of themselves for admiring the European history. Americans should be proud of their hyperreality; no other nation has managed to achieve what we have with it. It is what we are known for, it is our history. Hyperreality is American reality.

Works Cited

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986.
Neufeldt, Victoria, ed. Webster’s New World Dictionary. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1991.
Wilson, Shanon. "Trekking Through the Wilderness. . . Response Paper for Eco’s Travels in Hyperreality." Online. Http:// Oct. 5, 1997.

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