Between différance and hyper-reality

Features of the postmodern city

Between différance and hyper-reality

Features of the postmodern city

ostmodernism has to be understood against the background of a long-term process involving the growth of a consumer culture and expansion in the number of specialists and intermediaries engaged in the production and circulation of symbolic goods. It draws on tendencies in consumer culture which favor the aestheticization of life (…)’ (Featherstone, 1991 in: Bertens, 1995, p. 212).

The aim of this article is twofold: firstly a conceptual framework will be constructed to understand some theoretical notions that will be addressed in the second part. In this second part the focus will be on the actual situation of Los Angeles as one of the most profound examples of a postmodern city of contemporary times. 

Urban tensions

Changes and developments in the contemporary city have a lot to do with globalizing forces and the way that “nomadic” global capital has reshaped urban life towards a flexible approach (Baumann, 1998). In the post-war period up until the 1970s, large corporations began a process of centralizing their managerial headquarters while, at the same time, decentralizing their units of production and administration, moving these to multiple locations throughout the globe (Boyer, 1996). Jameson (1991) refers to this era as the third stage in the development of capitalism, the phase of late capitalism in which multinational corporations, global markets and mass consumption prosper. As Boyer puts it: ‘City space in the last half of the twentieth century has been homogenized at the global level (…) at the local level, however, space is fragmented into separate districts of work, leisure and living (…)’ (1996, p. 408). This process, which has greatly transformed the cityscape, is called deindustrialization. New investments in smaller towns and cities have restructured a network of cities around the globe, with such cities as New York and London as the command and control centers where the international investments and corporations reinvest in the city center (Sassen, 1991). Deindustrialization makes the global interconnectivity and homogeneity of cities more prevalent. At the same time, however, it puts more emphasis on the locality and the specific features of the city as a new space for consumption and culture.

Through deindustrialization, the cityscape has developed from a space of production to a consumption space (Zukin, 1991). In this process, the disappearance of production within the heavy industry sector, the reinvestment of global capital and the restructuring of the urban field increased the attraction for new groups of people interested in living in the city center. These groups were known as “gentrifiers”; that is to say, members of the upper middle classes associated with the sphere of arts and culture. Gentrifiers attached new value to the “old”, thereby attaching more importance to historic preservation and architecture. The city was rebuilt, restored, relocated, recycled and re-evaluated (Boyer, 1996). This recycling of old buildings fueled the notion of “loft living” and a revaluation of the city center revealed itself (Zukin, 1988). ‘An aesthetic discourse erupted in these cities that furthered the distinction between outmoded spaces and revitalized forms, for this regenerated city had to appear secure, fun, upbeat, and innovative if it was to compete successfully against other cities attracting capital investment.’ (Boyer, 1996, p. 411) This development of “loft living” and the commercialization of arts and culture in particular reflect the framework of the upcoming consumer society in the urban context (Miles, 1998).

The city as a consumption space became a place in between the powerful and the powerless, between the ones who can afford to live there and the ones who are pushed out and are alienated from their social habitat by the structures of capital flows. 

‘The spectator’s vision was lured by the aesthetic architectural object, by the pleasures and refined gestures it referenced, until finally the homeless, the dispossessed and displaced, the downgraded, devalued, and disturbing became an aesthetic and social nuisance to be pushed still further away, until they were expelled entirely from both sight and social sensibilities.’ (Boyer, 1996, p. 412)

The point here is that the contemporary city is a space of consumption, a place of power and capital. But general reflections on capital flows in the city are not enough to explain the changes to the urban features of the postmodern city. The first part of this article briefly explored the influence of capital as a global force on the urban development and the way in which the city became a site of aesthetic value and gentrified pleasure. There are, however, important underlying processes which remain to be outlined. If the city has become a place for consumption, there must be a public that is willing to consume, containing the so-called consumers of the “consumption society”.

The “reality” of consumer culture and “signs” of the postmodern city

‘(…) 67 percent of Americans, so a “values and lifestyle” typology proclaimed in the early 1980s, were outer-directed consumers seeking to emulate the various styles of life that consumer society constructed. And historic composition and city tableaux (…) were one of the ways lifestyles were constructed and sold.’ (Boyer, 1996, p. 420)

As I have argued, deindustrialization fueled the global exchange of brands and investments in western cities as major concentration centers of consumption. So it is worth identifying what consumer society actually is and how it has shaped our perception of everyday life. Much has been written about the impact of consumer culture on identities and the aestheticization of everyday life (Featherstone, 1992; Martin, 1981). Featherstone (1991) refers to: ‘the rapid flows of signs and images which saturate the fabric of everyday life in contemporary society’ (1991, p. 67). Postmodern culture can be characterized as a culture of images. Signs and images, lacking any reference to time and place, have become central to our perception of reality. They mediate our feelings of desire and belonging. One example is the way in which advertisements sometimes seem to “know” what we want. Because of the global exchange of commodities, the experience of time, place and space as fixed categories is loosening in the postmodern city. These are global commodities and global brands which penetrate social life on a local scale. At the same time we can see a development in the other direction, as images and brands produce a representation of social life on a global scale (Hall, 1992). So, how important are these images for the social scene in the contemporary city?

This question makes it desirable to look at the cultural preconditions of economic life (Elwert, 1984 in: Featherstone, 1991). The changing perspective, from regarding goods as utilities, which only have use- and exchange value, towards regarding goods as having “sign value”, is the essential feature (Baudrillard, 1983). Signs can be commodified; therefore symbols and images can be expressed by those who, firstly, have the financial means to purchase these particular sign-values. Secondly, it can only be expressed and understood by those who understand the status of these signs and symbols; a status which is constructed within a self-referential system of sign-values. For instance, the individuals who do not know what Gucci stands for and do not understand what kind of hierarchy it fits into, will never understand the sign value of this brand. Consumption in postmodern society, then, must not be understood as the consumption of use-values, with a material utility, but primarily as the consumption of signs, moreover a sign-value expressed towards others. (Baudrillard, 1983). The commodity as a sign primarily emphasizes the dominance of culture in the reproduction of capitalism. Like Jameson notes, ‘culture is the very element of consumer society itself: no society has ever been saturated with signs and images like this one’ (in: Featherstone, 1991, p. 85). Culture has become free-floating to the extent that culture is everywhere. Culture has become an implicit value in itself and all elements of the social sphere can be said to have become “cultural”, this being the main distinctive feature of postmodernism (Jameson, 1984). Culture is therefore part of consumer society: ‘Consumer culture (…) is effectively a post-modern culture, a depthless culture in which all values have become transvalued and art has triumphed over reality.’ (Featherstone, 1991, p. 85)

In this consumer culture, the culture of commodities became blurred: ‘the triumph of signifying culture leads to a simulational world in which the proliferation of sings and images has effaced the distinction between the real and the imaginary’ (Featherstone, 1991, p. 85). The emergence of signifying culture and commodity signs and the distinctive loss between the real and the imagery means for Baudrillard that we live in an ‘aesthetic hallucination of reality’ and he points to the loss of the real and the death of the subject (Featherstone, 1991, p. 85). When everything is interchangeable and unreliable as a commodity sign, a decentralization and desubjectification can be observed in the consumption of culture (Jameson, 1991). What does this mean?

In former times, when consumer society and freedom of choice was less developed, one was not widely able to express one’s individuality through the consumption of commodities and brands. Social ranks and hierarchies were more static.

If individuality could be read from clothes or other individual elements at all, it was primarily demarcating the position of the individual in society. Today one can choose one’s individuality. This is exemplified by “the most tattooed brand in the world”, Harley Davidson, or the image of Che Guevara as a global symbol of revolution. They represent universal values and therefore they are able to restructure social hierarchies through the purchase and expression of these commodity signs. Global brands in consumer society make it possible to connect to “an other world”, a world where social hierarchies are not bound to place or space; where status is not expressed by the position of the individual within the local context but where a position can be derived from the sign value of global brands that distinguish one from another. This value of brands can, again, only be understood by those who are able to participate in this sign-value system. It can therefore be characterized as a system of self-maintenance, as a self-referential system: it only refers to those who refer to it. It is a depersonalized way of referring to. The brand does not refer to personal or specific individual characteristics of the people who wear it. It connects to a global web of reference that enables the individual to ignore the specific locality and does not express anything about their specific individuality. The consumer has become a commodity, a walking image of self referential symbols, which is trying to express its individuality but is instead fueling the loss of the subject. The individual is not a subject anymore; it is an object, an object of commodification, of consumerism, of non-individualism. Therefore, global free market individuality contains homogeneity and therefore inhabits the opposite: the death of the subject.

This so-called death of the subject clears the way for notions of pastiche and simulacra. These are all outcomes of the depersonalization of culture, although pastiche can be considered to be mere parody without the satirical motives (Jameson, 1991). Without ideas or original images it is hard to distinguish a copy or even a reproduction of a copy. Therefore, in a self-referential system, where society is saturated by images, all that is left is the blank parody in an ever growing construction of simulacra.

Without any reference systems, culture is no longer a culture of individual subjects. Subjects construct reference systems based on perceived realities. However, in postmodern society signs and symbols no longer need to have any connection to the social life of consumers, but merely try to expand the limits towards more desires and fascinations. The creation of a so-called pastiche reality is therefore a self-maintaining system which is not only the cause but also the effect of this self-referential expression of signs and symbols in postmodern culture. This culture is dominated by simulacra, the copies for which no original has ever existed (Lyotard, 1984). In marketing and communication these blank parodies are often visible. City images are constructed without any reference to their physical basis. To give some clear examples, New York is known by its famous “I love NY” while Amsterdam, in a similar move, launched it’s “I Amsterdam” campaign. It does not only point to a homogeneity of city images, it is also a reflection of a non-referential system of signs, the city as concentration of subjects is objectified as commercial value for consumption. Jameson reflects to this in a world where ‘stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum.’ (2002, p. 132) Pastiches or simulacra do not reflect or interpret the past, but simply play images and achieve a superficial effect with no “deeper” reality (Thompson, 1992). Maybe this opens up space for Nietzsche’s notion of nihilism as the completion of the logic of capitalism (Featherstone, 1991). Baudrillard (1983) points out that, with this historic approach of the sign, we have now entered the hyper-real, a notion which goes beyond the real. Whereas the real was produced, the hyper-real is reproduced (Bertens, 1995). This notion of hyper-reality provides subjects with dispersed pleasures, mediated by consumer-television culture of signs, images and simulations (Featherstone, 1991). Signs with no initial referent derive their meaning from their relation to each other. This is what simulacra are all about: the breakdown of the distinction between object and representation. They have no foundation in any underlying reality or truth. This surface appearance links with the notion of seduction which is constantly at work in contemporary signifying consumer culture of simulacra (Thompson, 1992). An era characterized as ‘liquid’ or fluid modernity, where mobility, movement and the ability of detachment locates the powerful, an era in which the short-term replaces the long-term durability of commodities and instant experiences have become an ultimate goal (Bauman, 2000). This is what Baudrillard refers to with his notion of hyper-reality: a world of self-referential signs.

The above can be related to the urban context. The postmodern city marks a return to a culture of consumption. It is the spatial core where forms of hyper-reality can be expressed. But this return to culture is decontextualized, simulated and continuously restyled (Featherstone, 1991). Therefore, the postmodern city is a place of decontextualized culture; it is a ‘non-place’ space, reshapeable and with insignificant exchangeable value. The postmodern city is a city of style and decoration, a city of simulation and imagination, so that ‘urban lifestyles, everyday life and leisure activities themselves in varying degrees are influenced by the post-modern simulational tendencies’ (Featherstone, 1991, p. 99). Postmodern cities are influenced by the significant rise of signs and symbols. They have become the homogenized consumption spaces of global brands.

Postmodernist space is therefore an expressive space of difference, a space of ambiguity constituted between the “lived” zones of the powerful and the “dead” zones of the poor in the contemporary city. The urban core is homogenized. Those who do not fit in the homogeneous picture are expelled. They deviate from the dominant postmodern consumer culture and create difference in the coherent urban narrative. The postmodern city is a space of distinction and it fertilizes space that contains expressions of difference – the difference between those who can afford to live in the safe privatized islands and those who cannot: the exiles that are not able to connect to the economy of symbols. And this tendency for difference or “différance” as part of an impersonalized consumer culture carries an implicit ambivalence (Derrida, 2002). To create difference or try to maintain self-referent coherence can lead to the development of imagined spaces and illusory places as exiles or islands in the urban contextual desert. Las Vegas could be the physical metaphor for this tendency. In his film about Los Angeles Thom Anderson makes a similar point: ‘A is hard to get right (…) It’s illusive, just beyond the reach of an image.’ (2003, LA plays itself)

While commodities became free-floating and desubjectified, the tendency in consumer culture grew for distinction, differentiation and diversification. But differences must be socially recognized and legitimated. Total otherness, like total individuality, is in danger of not being recognized (Featherstone, 1991). Nevertheless this can be one of the most important features of postmodernity: unrecognizability and a deconstruction of narrative structures. Building simulacra can not only be done as an individual consumer, but as a postmodern city as well. One of the biggest examples of a postmodern city as an unrecognizable place is Los Angeles.

It all comes together in Los Angeles

‘Los Angeles should be understood (…) as a commodity.’ (Mayo in Davis, 1990, p. 17)

‘LA is where the relationship between reality and representation gets muddled.’ (Anderson, 2003, LA plays itself)

Los Angeles was first and above all an urban creature of real-estate capitalism. It grew rapidly in the 19th century, primarily as a myth-making place (Davis, 1990). Nowadays, Los Angeles can be seen as a façade landscape of counterfeit urbanity, a continuous arcade of capital flows of commodities within the tourist and leisure economy. This imaginative space demands order, regulation and discipline. The postmodern city is a center of consumption and, as Baudelaire and Benjamin already stressed in relation to the Parisian Arcades, the carnivalesque needs to take place within a framework of self-control (Featherstone, 1991). This entails surveillance and exclusion along the principles of the Panopticum (Foucault, 1977). Theme parks and shopping centers are privately owned public spaces where surveillance takes place.

This brings us back to the first paragraphs about gentrification and the process of segregation in which the (upper) middle classes move (back) into the central areas. These new middle classes live in new consumer and leisure enclaves consisting of aestheticized areas which exclude outsiders (Featherstone, 1991). ‘Because America imagines itself as an “achieved utopia”, minorities and the poor must disappear from view: it is only bad taste if they continue to show themselves.’ (Baudrillard, 1988, p. 111) The lifestyle of these gentrifiers demands that they secure safe places to live and exclude the marginal, the unemployed and the unwanted, which again shows the tensions between the powerful and the powerless (Zukin, 1991). Harvey points to this as the creation of “voodoo cities” in which ‘the post-modern facade of cultural redevelopment can be seen as a carnival mask which covers the decline of everything else’ (Harvey, 1988 in: Featherstone, 1991, p. 107). Without trying to connect this development with normative conclusions, new flows of inhabitants are attracted as the new producers and consumers of lifestyle and drivers of the accumulation of cultural capital in these privatized locations. Bourdieu (1984) called these new middle classes the “new cultural intermediaries”. They have a general interest in styling their lives with a focus on identity and symbolic goods and their cultivated taste is distinctive and flexible (Featherstone, 1991). They also have a ”life is art” approach to everyday life which is mostly mediated through commodity signs and consumption. The postmodern city is the ultimate stage for reflecting these lifestyles in space. This is why the postmodern city is termed as the place of hyper-reality. It is the center of decontextualized, ever floating consumption of signifiers. This place of media, advertisement, movies and other representational signs of contemporary culture, reminds us of the dream-worlds of Walter Benjamin, walking through the first consumer arcades in Paris (1982).

Because of the death of the real, there is a huge nostalgia for the real: like a famous novelist once wrote, ‘In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia.’ (Kundera, 1984, p. 4) There is a nostalgia for real people and real values, as Featherstone puts it: ‘If the contemporary age can be characterized as an era of “no style” (…), then it points to the rapid circulation of new styles and the nostalgic invocation of past ones’ (Featherstone, 1991, p. 97). In the postmodern city, this is all possible with the emergence of gated communities, communities of interest or related background. In the postmodern space capitalism makes it possible to imagine the real or to grasp the past, like commercialized and mediated in Celebration or Disney World, with Main Street as the ordered center of the past or as the ‘symbolic American utopia’ (Harvey, 1989). The same argument can be made about the emergence of shopping malls as simulated environments of dream-like illusions, where spectacle and experiential value of leisure time can be constructed through commodities (Sorkin, 1992; Featherstone, 1991). This is connected to what Anderson argues: ‘Although LA is a city with no history, nostalgia has always been the dominant node of the city’s image of itself.’ (2003, LA plays itself) But is this nostalgia for the real not already an imagined reality? And is building upon this notion not a form of hyper-reality? Because time and space are continuously fragmented and discontinuously displaced, a breakdown of the temporal order of things and a peculiar treatment of the past has come into existence (Harvey, 1989). Therefore, Hewison argues that postmodernism and heritage are linked (1987, p. 135 in Harvey, 1989). Like Jameson states: ‘We are condemned to seek history by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history which itself remains for ever out of reach.’ (Jameson in Harvey, 1992, p. 269)

This notion of hyper-reality describes the postmodern city as a “real-and-imagined” place. Baudrillard points to Los Angeles as: real-imagined as re-imagined-in-LA (Soja, 1996). Not only the content in the postmodern city, in which the undistinguishable relationship between the real and the imaginary emerges, is hyper-real, but also the city as an object of postmodernity is a simulated space of in itself.

The postmodern city is a place with a defragmented city center, a number of suburbs and a spatially non-coherent narrative. This is what Soja called the Exopolis: a city that is turned inside-out and outside-in at the same time, erasing or blurring all familiar categorical boundaries (Soja, 1996). This connects the notion of Los Angeles as a postmodern city, as Soja puts it: ‘What is this place? Even knowing where to focus, to find a starting point, is not easy. (…) Los Angeles is everywhere. It is global in the fullest sense of the word (…) It is like a rectangular dream machine.’ (1989, p. 222-223) 

The postmodern city is a city of différance and hyper-reality; of incoherent signified signifiers; a place where the inside is outside and the outside is inside. At least these phenomena are referential (even if only self-referential), but the following concluding question could emerge at this point: What if there is no self-referential system for the unreal post-postmodern city-space anymore?

Finally, a remark from Baudrillard arguing that at this stage: ‘the image bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum (…) the whole system becomes weightless, it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum (…) never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference.’ (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 10-11 in Soja, 1996, p. 244)

Maybe the eternal fate of the postmodern city and its futuristic feature is to be a city of polarities, of difference and hyper-reality, built upon self-referential simulacra and pastiches of the schizoid and decentered subjects that live and reflect within the city. But what would the future be in a city where the real is outdated and irrelevant? Robert Nozick (1975; 1993) already tried to explore the question what life would be by comparing the postmodern city with his metaphor of an imagined submarine detached from everyday circumstances. Taking this image even further, it is hard to imagine a world where there is not a strong demand for a place called “reality” or something that refers to an (collective) imagined notion of reality, otherwise this essay, the future and the features of the postmodern city and the development of (consumer) society itself turns out to contain very strong nihilistic elements; hopefully this, at least is an imagined illusion.


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