What’s Real, really?

 Published in: The Daily Star on September 26, 2023
What’s Real, really?


“it is the reflection of a profound reality;

it masks and denatures a profound reality;

it masks the absence of a profound reality;

it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.”

– Jean Baudrillard, in Simulacra and Simulation

Here’s a confession to start with.

I made gigantic paper flowers the other day, faking the real in size and texture, and hosted a dinner for close friends – making it a point to establish that in spite of all the fakes in the world, bonds of friendship were real.

I also tried downloading Zao, the Chinese app that helps the user create deep-fakes, and I failed. Zao can only be downloaded on a Chinese phone. So I tried the app Face Swap instead, superimposing my grandson’s eyebrows and lips on my face and ended up being embarrassed by my poor faking skills.

Indeed, I am deeply intrigued by fakes. We have fake products, fake visuals, fake statistics, fake writings, fake lists, and even fake relationships that make this world go around…

It was July 2023. I spotted a Van Gogh in my hotel room. I had difficulty believing that the hotel would have an original Van Gogh. So, I took the painting off the wall, looked at the certificate at the back along with extensive scribbles in German and took pictures. It was only today, right before I started this piece, that I reached out to a friend who helped me with translation. Much to my utter surprise, it was real and a high-end reproduction of the Van Gogh museum with an acknowledgment at the back thanking a Mr Pajes for sending it. That was the closest call that I have had with not-really-fakes thus far.

Think about the stunning deep-fake of Audrey Hepburn in a commercial for Galaxy chocolate twenty years after her death. Thanks to the advancement of computer-generated imagery that made her look real. The unreal Audrey sits in a bus, then descends while taking the hat off the bus driver’s head, puts it on the handsome young man’s hair and slips into the backseat of the car and has her chocolate. Throughout the ad, one gets happy watching “it,” the resurrected Audrey, and not “her.”

As for politics, post-Brexit and during the time when the US elected Trump as president, the real was having a hard time. Had it not been for the infamous “£350 million a week for the NHS” advertisement on a bus prompting a Leave vote during the UK Brexit campaign, the UK would possibly still be in the EU. Had it not been for the fake news stories receiving 8.7 million engagements while “true” mainstream media stories only received 7.3 million hits, Trump probably would have had a tough time coming to power.

With our own election fever settling in and rattling our senses, one is subjected to endless YouTube suggestions, which also include really badly edited and failed fakes, with a few opinion gurus (dis)gracing the videos. In most of them, some propagate victory way before it’s won; some cry foul way ahead of time. What should one actually side with or believe?

In this case, if one were to believe philosophers, then one would have to resort to Baudrillard, who believed and wrote The Gulf War Did Not Take Place in 1991. Did the US actually masquerade a war that caused minimum casualties and Iraq had little or no deaths to report? For Baudrillard, the French philosopher, it wasn’t a war; it was a series of misrepresented copies of what never existed; it was a simulacra. Going by him, one would have to believe that the real was replaced by mere images. There is truth in there. Look at all the fictional superheroes that have popped up in the last 50 years. Starting from Superman, Batman, down to Lassie, we have had generations of followers being inspired by them. In the absence of real heroes in society, what else can humanity do other than learn from the imaginary? Think about Disneyland and its hyperreality, a magnification of the non-existent, where all the characters have a bigger claim over the real, than what our perception of reality leads us to believe.

Maybe true heroes are truly rare to come by and maybe the era of the real is close to being over. Ahead of our elections, in all the doctored videos that flood our social media trails from all the political parties in and out of power, one can’t really blame when voices are imitated, faces faked and constructed to match those of real people, with scandals getting millions of hits. Who do we blame, really? Would there have been any curiosity, any story if the content weren’t partly true?

While we blame the scandal-mongers for fake news, in reality, power and media have been walking hand-in-hand forever. Fakes have been an integral part of many governments. For example, way back in 1944-45, the Nazis produced a film that made the concentration camps look like paradise. The Jewish inmates themselves were actors and film directors, while a Prague newsreel company, Aktualita, filmed the whole set-up. Luckily, there’s no copy of the film today, but there is substantial evidence to indicate that it was a scheme of a massive governmental deception.

On the other hand, in today’s day and age, in spite of desperate governments like North Korea banning and censoring content, most North Koreans watch foreign content on DVDs. Instead of watching “Dear Leader,” most of them continue watching Titanic, James Bond movies, and even US wrestling matches.

However, it also remains absolutely necessary for a society to escape the viral waves of invasive information, containing aggressive advertising or simply fake news, that’s manufactured to dominate the power discourse in order to gain control.

But while we watch all that we watch on social media, let us also remember that, in spite of the Real remaining intensely vulnerable to propaganda and the power of the state, a Lie will never replace the Truth. In fact, the sheer transitory nature of power is shallow and lacks the resilience of the Real. So, every time we generously press the “like” button on social media platforms, let us be conscious of the warnings of Arendt, the political theorist: “Persuasion and violence can destroy truth, but they cannot replace it.”

I am watching a family of five on the next table. It’s a lazy weekend brunch. At least, that’s the spirit. Every family member has a phone in their hand. All are screen-struck, intensely absorbed in some artificial prompt, rhetoric, or a sales pitch of eternal bliss. Point is, can we really afford a simulated dystopia? That’s another question for another column, another day.