Travels in #Hyperreality: Umberto Eco and the Semiotics of Contemporary Culture

27 April 2016 | By Sign Salad
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Has hipster culture fabricated the absolute fake?*

Since his passing earlier this year, Umberto Eco lives on as a legendary semiotician and novelist, roles that often intertwined in the prolific, innervated writing style that belied the writer’s Italian heritage. A wave of articles published since his passing commemorate his most well known works, chiefly his 1980 novel The Name of the Rose. Less frequently mentioned is Il costume di casa (Faith in Fakes, 1988), a collection of essays navigating pop cultural phenomena from blue jeans to Hearst Castle, which reads like something in between fact and fiction. In the book’s focal chapter, ‘Travels in Hyperreality’, Eco delivers an amorous and acerbic commentary on Americana, observing that in such spectacular sites as the Madonna Inn, Disneyland and a postmodern Las Vegas: ‘Everything must equal reality, even if… reality was fantasy.’

Eco understood ‘hyperreality,’ a term borrowed and adapted from Jean Baudrillard, as an imitation so rigorously perfect as to subjugate the viewer’s interest in the originating ‘real’ altogether. Though ‘Travels in Hyperreality’ was targeted at America’s most grandiose, saccharine spaces of reproduction, Eco’s semiotics of artificiality and the hyperreal hold relevance to today’s cult[ure] of authenticity. Rather than four inch steaks with oleaginous lobsters, the subject here is smoked trout and poached eggs on sourdough toast, with artisanal rhubarb bircher. While today’s so-termed ‘hipster’ culture cannot be said to function the same way as the spaces Eco described, we can approach those spaces via Eco’s semiotic perspective, asking: what do the symbols underpinning hipster retail environments mean for the inhabitant’s identity? What comforts do they provide the psyche, and why do millennials specifically require those comforts?

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Google Ngram: ‘hipster’

Whereas Eco’s hyperreal spaces are shaped from the void of an authentic history, today’s hipster might stem from an absence of any clearly defined millennial counterculture. The term ‘hipster’ derives from the 1940s ‘hepcat’: the trendy cognoscente and who didn’t want to be ‘square’, preferring the anarchism of jazz, drugs and sexual experimentation. Today’s hipsters harbour a particular proclivity for ‘authenticity’- the buzzword in millennial marketing discourse – which has itself become a form of resistance, as a means of opposing the norm of staid, clichéd, overly familiar retail spaces. Why endure the repetitive décor of chain coffee shops when you can enjoy reclaimed wood tables, saltshaker light bulbs, locally grown kale and logo-avoidance? Such spatial features communicate the hipster’s identity as both deviant and ethically-minded, committed to supporting artisanal manufacture in a fast-moving, ever-industrialised capitalist world. The ubiquitous hipster seems a contradiction in terms, but is no less a reality, in cosmopolitan districts from Shoreditch to Brooklyn to Kreuzberg. Taken independently, such hipster-habitat attributes as street art, reclaimed timber, drinks served in things not designed to hold drinks, bars in places not designed as bars, brand misnomers; these all point convincingly to a lust for the personalisation and authenticity the millennial seeks. Increasingly, however, the spaces constructed to signal elusiveness and independent craft are now so commonplace as to have become the generic clichés themselves. Today’s hipster signifies the paradox of a collective pursuit of resistance, which inevitably undermines its own goal.

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The Attendant: An underground coffee shop inside an abandoned Victorian public bathroom, serving sourdough toast with smashed avocado, almond butter or vegemite.

Does today’s hipster appropriate Eco’s concept of ‘hyperreality’? Aside from satirical accusations of pretension, a considerable amount of the derision targeted at hipsters is provoked by their association with gentrification, often manifest in the faux-shabby, industrial chic of bars, brunch spots and upmarket apartments. In Eco’s usage, ‘hyperreality’ is concerned with a popular preference for reproductions over originals. For him, the aesthetic accuracy of waxworks and grand-scale models averts popular interest in their initial referents, which become subsumed by a plethora of spectacular fakes. The grand irony of hipster gentrification might be the tendency for new sites, imitating dereliction and romanticizing downmarket life, to obliterate the accessible, authentically downmarket amenities required by lower-income groups. The original greasy spoon café is lost to dimly lit, overpriced eateries imitating- amplifying- the greasy spoon’s semiotic charm, with an added £3 premium on a teabag with hot water. Sure, you might get to drink it out of a flowerpot, but the premium here is really on the simulacrum- the forgery- of originality. While Eco urged that counterfeit spaces of simulacra deter their audience from pursuing the original, today’s gentrified pursuit of [superficial] authenticity and community ethos thwarts the actual attainment of those goals. In this way, authenticity its ethics become hyper-aestheticized, rather than realized.

However, there is a different mentality at work here than that of Eco’s California, which he found rife with facsimiles of a halcyon America. That today’s hipsters revel in self-parody is manifest in their environments, which are instead self-conscious of their status as postmodern imitations. Take the clearly visible gap between the artificial layer of brick wall, and the pristine plasterboard underneath, in Pizza East – or the painting of exposed brick and ivy over wall-mounted speakers in Soho’s Blanchette. These places are waxworks striving to look like waxworks- not their referents. The hipster’s awareness of this overt gap between reality-facade is integral to their love of irony, and therein lies the kernel of hope. In the rusticated coffee shops and craft cocktail bars- urban Disneylands- the realities of empathy and authenticity peek through the wood panels and crittall windows. As chains themselves increasingly appropriate the semiotics of authenticity, without acknowledging the hipsters’ ironic lens (see Starbucks’ combination of theatrics with transparency), hipsters might well advance into the now truly distinctive realm of connecting ironic signifiers with sincere meanings- or, ensuring their cold brew coffee in fact was ethically sourced by suitably bearded foragers. For Eco, the fake provides more reality than the real; for the hipster, the fake flourishes on falsehood, clearing the way for the pursuit of true authenticity- not ironic “authenticity”- as the next mode of cultural resistance.


*This question references Umberto Eco as well as Jaap Kooijman’s brilliant book, Fabricating the Absolute Fake: America in Contemporary Pop Culture (2008).

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