My favourite French post-modernist sociologist is, without doubt, Jean Baudrillard. The knowledge that Baudrillard is the only French post-modernist sociologist that I know is immaterial. And yet also material. And statements like that give a little flavour of what you are getting into with post-modernist sociology.
I did enjoy reading Baudrillard two decades ago in my university years. Half because of what he wrote about. Half because of his books often being laid out like consumer products with big pictures and widely-spaced text. And half because of the idiosyncrasy of our lecturer Mike Gane, who actually knew Baudrillard.
One of the concepts that Baudrillard explored was that of hyperreality; a state where the “real” world has actually become a simulation of reality. I remember an explanation of this through a sort of metaphor (with post-modernism, and hyperreality in particular, the boundaries of metaphor from fact were somewhat difficult to define). Imagine a car, where (in place of windows) there are television screens showing the images of a car journey from the passengers’ perspective. During the “journey” what is the difference in the experience? Is there any at all? (I always hoped that this kind of stuff has an inbuilt level of tongue-in-cheek, but was never quite sure).
Anyway, there you have it. Hyperreality – a complex post-modern idea of the boundaries of reality.
It’s something I’ve been reminded of by a few things recently; my wife working from home, conference calling to have conversations with voices from across the world (but that actually does she really know they are real people and not just some elaborate MMORPG)? In harder times working in large corporates I’ve been known to describe the experience as something like an elaborate, and very long role-playing exercise that doesn’t have the debriefing sessions. Take the physical reality away, and the link of modern work to reality isn’t that much different to a game like http://www.farming-simulator.com/ but without the virtual silage.
Again in the way in which I increasingly rely on my mobile phone to navigate the world around me, and how we with augmented reality are getting close to 1:1 scale mapping (an idea that I may have partially remembered from Baudrillard himself who used the concept of a 1:1 map as an analogy in his book Simulacra and Simulation). At what point does a map’s accuracy (through scale) stop being useful?
And then again at the weekend with Charlie Brooker’s great Channel 4 documentary about the history of computer gaming, told through the twenty most important games in history ending at number one with Twitter – which Brooker sees as being reality turned into a game.
That Baudrillard was writing about all of this thirty or so years ago makes it today (to me) impressively far-sighted, and in retrospect makes me realise why I found it such hard-going at the time. He was writing about such concepts at a time when “virtual” reality was Pacman.
That today we don’t really hear about virtual reality that much is maybe an indication of the fact that we have entered this hyper-real phase. As technology becomes accepted as the norm, we tend to stop talking about it.