This is an age of hyperreal personalities. They successfully impose an alternate version of the real world. Society comes to depend on it for its survival. It has become a necessary feature of today’s consumer society, a 20th century concept minted in the US and exported to the rest of the world. Hyperreal personalities become symbols of the freedom from constraint that citizens of democracies hanker after without ever being able to achieve it for themselves.
In moral terms, hyperreal personalities can be good or bad. It doesn’t really matter which. They are perceived as being beyond good and evil, in a Nietszchian sense. This is consistent with the principle that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” Their categorization as good or bad simply means they will be good in the eyes of some and bad for others. But once hyperreality is attained, they remain hyperreal for everyone.
Hyperreal personalities reflect two related phenomena in an advanced consumer culture. The first is the society’s ability to provoke in the average citizen an obsession with fame, directly connected to success and wealth. Such an obsession demonstrates the validity of one of the most prized personality traits among ordinary Americans: assertiveness. If a hyperreal image and behavior are keys to cultural domination for a select few, assertiveness is everyone’s key to survival.
Our Devil’s Dictionary has often featured two hyperreal heroes: Donald Trump and Elon Musk. They stand as more than paragons of self-reliance and super-assertiveness. They have surged beyond the glory of self-affirmation. They have crossed over into a zone of moral impunity. They literally inhabit what Nietzsche imagined as a realm “beyond good and evil.”
Donald Trump Doesn’t Need Proof
Although Trump has been officially “retired” for two years, he and Musk still dominate headlines. Both cannot function without producing a continuous stream of hyperreal acts. In politics, Trump has no rivals. Despite a visible waning of his influence following the disappointing results of his less hyperreal acolytes in this month’s midterm elections, Trump remains the powerful hyperreal magnet of politics on the American right. In the world of business and technology, Musk stands alone as the ultimate paragon of hyperreality. None of Musk’s hyperwealthy rivals – Gates, Bezos, Zuckerberg – could imagine committing the kind of outrageous public antics he is known for. Like the Donald, Elon doesn’t just occupy the public stage, he owns it.
So who stands next in the hierarchy of today’s hyperreal personalities? In the light of recent events, the answer can only be Kanye West, or Ye, as he prefers to be called. He has long been in the media spotlight, but in recent weeks he has risen to new heights of public attention by descending to new lows of public behavior. The latest and worst of his sins is his vocal anti-Semitism. For a long time his status as a hyperreal hero protected him, that is, until he claimed to be immune to reproach, including the threat that Adidas might cancel the lucrative contract with his clothing line.
In the end, Adidas had no choice. Other commercial partners followed suit, leading to the breathless announcement that the Yeezy empire was in ruins. Nevertheless, the ever confident hyperreal hero announced: “ “I lost 2 billion dollars in one day and I’m still alive.” And now we learn that Adidas has restored the contract while simply suppressing the branding. Ye is indeed alive.
In the midst of this hypermelodrama, Ye explained how he manages to thrive: “I do certain things from a feeling, I just channel the energy. It just feels right. It’s using a gut instinct, a connection with God and just brilliance.”
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
The criterion that can always be appealed to when one is sure there is no convincing rational explanation for what one has decided
Ye is not the only hyperreal hero with infinite trust in his gut instincts. Attacking the“half-baked ideas” of another equally famous hyperreal personality, Siva Vaidhyanathan, writing for the Guardian described “everything that [Elon] Musk expresses” as “a series of hunches and feelings, devoid of learning, analysis, rigor or consideration of consequences.” Vaidhyanathan goes further when he identifies the class of people that respond most enthusiastically to Musk’s oracular pronouncements, conspiratorial suspicions and spectacular insults. Musk’s “goofy collection of dorm-room-bong-hit-level ideas,” he writes, “is taken deeply seriously among the rich boys of Silicon Valley.” Musk just happens to be the richest to have emerged from the Valley.
The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: Elon Musk and “Hyperreality”
Clearly hyperreal personalities have a talent for upsetting a lot of people and provoking serious backlash. Their stock may, in a trice, rise or plunge dramatically on the slightest occasion. Musk’s notorious tweet about taking Tesla private in July, 2018 landed him in an ocean of trouble with Wall Street’s Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). To many it seemed proof of his severe incapacity to manage companies, money and people. Musk was only worth about $20 billion at the time. Now it’s around $200 after topping $300 billion in January. This year’s drop was largely due to Musk following his gut instinct – first forward, then backward, then forward again – on the purchase of Twitter. But being left with only $200 billion to play with after so much grief doesn’t sound like the equivalent of the Gulag.
US culture now apparently requires a small number of hyperreal heroes. Not too many, just enough to reinforce the idea that Madison Avenue-Hollywood-Las Vegas style hyperreality will continue to dominate over the drab and worrisome reality of our dog-eat-dog world. Some dogs must have the right to become top dogs, barking freely in everyone’s direction and stealing their sirloin when the public’s eyes are focused on the hyperreal stage.
Business and entertainment seem perfectly adapted to hyperreality. Some might think that in the politics of a modern democracy, hyperreality has no place. Politics is focused on making rational decisions, not following gut instincts. But such is the prestige of hyperreality that politics inevitably falls into the same pattern. Donald Trump’s career is living proof of that, but the storm has been brewing for a long time.
We tend to categorize hyperreal personalities as either dominantly bad or good. Bad ones threaten to undermine everything that’s good about the status quo. That’s what Trump did in 2016 and continues to this day. Kanye West, the former rapper, was perfectly suited to that kind of role.
Barack Obama’s Woke Awakening
But good hyperreal personalities also exist. One could argue that Barack Obama is the archetype of a good hyperreal personality. He famously fabricated and projected his persuasive hyperreal persona into the public sphere with his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. Sitting here in France trying to follow political news from the US, I confess that, at the time, I had no idea who he was. But after watching his speech I called my wife over to my PC. gave her a glimpse of his speech and told her: “This is the next president of the US.” Maybe my earlier reading of Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco tipped me off.
Decades before Obama, two presidents, first John F Kennedy and then Ronald Reagan, showed that hyperreality deserved a place on the presidential map. They both rose to prominence and conquered the White House during what many see as the apex of consumer society culture. The TV series Mad Men (2007-2015) celebrated the diabolically persuasive artificiality of Madison Avenue’s advertising culture. Its narrative began in the year Kennedy was elected (1960) and ended as its hero, Don Draper, a decade later melted into the mindset of a group of New Age hippies in California. That was the year Ronald Reagan was elected to his second term as governor of the Golden State.
Political campaigns are, of course, never launched and run on the basis of gut instinct. Politics is an expensive business that requires a form of scientific marketing. It works best with candidates who can stick to the script. Part of the science is understanding that the voters generally follow their gut instinct rather than any form of critical thinking. Voters generally end up with the short end of the stick, whereas the most talented politicians can hope to become one of those rare hyperreal personalities allowed simply to follow their gut.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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