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Postmodern Media Blur the Boundary between Reality and Representation

Updated on May 31, 2016
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A significant proportion of contemporary texts can be considered to be “postmodern” through the application of relevant theories and ideas. The theme of blurring boundaries between levels of reality is ubiquitous, forming the foundation of ‘The Hunger Games’ (Lawrence, US, 2015), and indeed any contrived production that attempts to represent itself as “real”, such as ‘Gogglebox’ (Channel 4, UK, 2013-present) and ‘Lizard Lick Towing’ (truTV, USA, 2011-2014). The abundance of this deliberate distortion of the real has justified theorists’ attempts to describe it; the most common description comes from Baudrillard, who explains that postmodern texts fit into one of four categories: (1) a reflection of reality, (2) a misrepresentation of reality, (3) the disguised absence of reality, and (4) the full simulacrum. I will predominantly use this description to analyse a variety of postmodern texts.

‘Sherlock’ (BBC, UK, 2010-present) is undoubtedly postmodern, featuring intertextual references, contradictions, fragmentation, and the blurring of boundaries – both between “high” and “low” culture, and “reality” and invention. The levels of reality in question are that of the audience and the narrative; the series attempts to bridge the gap between these levels by communicating with the audience – anyone can find a blog written from the perspective of Dr. Watson, the character’s real-life fan club inspired a scene with fans discussing Sherlock’s death, and the producers have explicitly stated that they incorporate ideas from viewers, such as the fantastical relationship between Sherlock and Moriarty. This relationship was shown in ‘The Empty Hearse’ (series 3, episode 1) amid a succession of explanations for Sherlock’s survival, none of which were represented as being particularly imaginary; this intentional ambiguity left the audience unknowing, until each sequence ended, and was revealed to be the detective’s imagination. At the end of the episode, Sherlock himself gave an explanation, yet the show had already severed the audience’s trust, and so we are once again left unsure of the narrative’s “reality”. The title of the episode itself is a reference to a ‘The Adventure of the Empty Hearse’ by Conan Doyle, again bridging the gap between the worlds of the audience and the narrative. The episode alternates between Baudrillard’s first three levels of representation, with the expected London-setting (1), and the false theories of the detective which starts disguised (3) and is eventually revealed, relegating it to a misrepresentation of reality (2). Disorientating references to the audience’s world, such as the appearance of Derren Brown, further blur the boundary between worlds.

New technology has defined the path of the postmodern, with the internet being the most significant force in driving the rise of the “prosumer”. This new role gives the audience (the consumers) more power in influencing texts (the productions), and so its entire purpose is based upon bridging the gap between reality and representational texts. The fans influencing the content of ‘Sherlock’ is one example of the prosumer’s newfound prevalence.

The Hunger Games’ (part 1) focuses more on blurring the boundary between levels of representation in the narrative, primarily through the use of screens. To avoid confusion I will refer to the film’s audience (in our world) as the primary audience, and the game’s audience (inhabitants of the Capitol, i.e. in the narrative’s world) as the secondary audience. The secondary audience is represented as being overtly passive, with a monotonous yet ridiculous code of dress. It is possible that the passiveness of the secondary audience is a misrepresentation of the primary audience (Baudrillard’s second level of representation), or it could be an exaggerated reflection of the primary audience’s reality (Baudrillard’s first level), commenting on its inability to break from the restrictive brainwashing of authority – the intention is left ambiguous to the primary audience.

Within the wold of ‘The Hunger Games’, Katniss facilitates transitions between levels of reality, from the perspective of both the primary and secondary audiences. In order to gain sponsors, she realises that she must conform to the conservative expectations of the secondary audience, of a heavily objectified female. Her unwillingness to do this is implied through the camerawork, i.e. frequent shots of her expression, shown to only the primary audience. This therefore creates a known misrepresentation of “reality” from the perspective of the primary audience (2), and a disguised misrepresentation of “reality” from the perspective of the secondary audience (3). Katniss continues her false ideology in the arena, disguising herself as Peeta’s “true love”. The Capitol is a supposedly idyllic city; the secondary audience fully believes this, but the bird’s-eye view shown to the primary audience appears almost intentionally animated, and it could be argued that this implies that the Capitol is the “full simulacrum” described in Baudrillard’s fourth level of representation, at least from the perspective of the primary audience.

A more explicit blurring of boundaries between levels of reality occurs when Katniss makes a gesture with her hand, aware of the secondary audience watching her, and causes a riot in her home district, the population of which could be considered as an entirely separate audience, as could the game-makers, as their interaction with the arena, and the primary audience’s interpretation of them, contrasts greatly. Whilst the game-makers and the populations of the Capitol and district 12 are all in the same fictional universe, their situations and emotions are completely separate. This therefore creates a total of four distinct audiences; the juxtaposed interactions of each of these audiences with the hyper-fictitious world of the arena creates a complex mix of levels of reality.

‘Gogglebox’ is one of many contemporary television programmes that are given the misnomer of a “reality show”. I will again use the terms primary and secondary audience to avoid confusion. The producers of the show attempt to obfuscate its degree of reality: they include shots of the secondary audience’s homes, attempting to create familiarisation with the primary audience. However, “characters” from the show have claimed that at least part of the content is scripted, and the very premise of watching television together with friends or family is likely seen as outdated and unusual by a significant proportion of viewers, implying that the situation of the secondary audience is entirely planned. This could place the show in all of Baudrillard’s first three levels of representation: the concept is based on real people in a real world, watching real television programmes that were also viewed by the primary audience (therefore creating another bridge between worlds) (1), some of the primary audience will likely realise that the content is scripted, thus realising the misrepresentation (2), and the producers attempt to disguise the misrepresentation (3).

As I have shown, a multitude of postmodern media aim to manipulate audience engagement by changing between levels of reality as described by Baudrillard. By blurring the boundary between stated and disguised misrepresentations within the “pseudo-real” world, and making links with the “real” world via prosumers and breaking the fourth wall, the boundary between reality and representation is noticeably blurred.

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