A History of Hyperreality - The Rise of Clare Inc. in Richard Powers' Gain

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2006

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


1. Introduction

To write a history of hyperreality is a difficult and almost impossible task. When did hyperreality begin? With the first Neanderthals painting simplistic pictures of the environment they live in? With the introduction of money as a symbol for material wealth? Jean Baudrillard for example regards the Middle Ages as a time being not hyperreal. But what about the ideologies of that time enforced upon the peasants by the church? Of a hell and purgatory that can only be escaped by enough wealth and the purchase of a letter of indulgence. The idea of God itself. Isn’t that hyperreal as well?

Richard Powers’ novel Gain does provide an adequate temporal and narrative framework for the problem. The last two hundred years of business, in the novel exclusively taking place in America but nonetheless valid for the whole world, are marked by an immense development in industry and commerce. I hope to show that this development can also be retraced with regard to the concept of hyperreality on the basis of the novel.

The first part of this paper will deal with the concept of hyperreality. As it would go beyond the scope of this paper to take into consideration everything that has been said and written about hyperreality, I will focus on two of its most prominent theorists: Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco. Their comments and ideas are not only relatively easy to grasp and therefore easy to apply to the novel but are also sufficient enough to explain the concept in adequate depth.

The second part will then focus on the novel itself, to be more precise it will exclusively deal with the storyline of the Clare enterprise. Although the second storyline also provides a number of examples for hyperreality, I decided to leave it out as it only takes place in the present and therefore would disturb the linear concept of this paper. This part will apply the theories of hyperreality onto the novel step by step in chronological order of the events, starting with the beginnings of the enterprise and stating the problems of a referential beginning. It will then treat of the beginnings of hyperreality with regard to Clare and its accordant society and later with the process of incorporation and its problems; then I hope to show in how far simulation and merchandise are intertwined and almost naturally lead to the age of simulacra we live in today.

Finally I want to point out that this paper is not a full scale interpretation of Gain but only deals with the concept and development of hyperreality within the novel.

2. Hyperreality

To understand the idea of hyperreality it is fundamental at first to explain “Saussure’s structural linguistics, the semiological theories of language problematized relations between language and reality, words and things.”[1] According to this theory, language suffers from a basic arbitrariness between the real-world-entity, also called referent, and the sign, consisting of the signified which is the mental image of the referent and its match in language, also called signifier. There is no referential relationship within the sign. Whatever the name is that has been given to an entity, it is only the agreement of a certain community, e.g. German speaking people, which imposes the signifier upon the referent. We as a community have decided to call the four-legged mammal that barks and has a strange affinity for postmen a dog. Other communities use the signifier Hund or chien for the same animal.

The problem of arbitrariness goes even farther, not only do we have no concrete relationship between things and their names, even the names itself “are wholly circular, a set of signifiers reflecting back at each other lacking the grounding necessary to render meaning.”[2] E.g. if one would look up the word (signifier) cow in a dictionary, the basic definition would come down to: four-legged mammal, herbivore, female, etc…. But all these descriptions of what a cow actually is are only non-referential signifiers themselves. For someone with no idea of our world would have to look up mammal and herbivore and female and these words would provide other signifiers that would have to be looked up and so on and so on “in endless reproduction.”[3] This “slippage of reality, its elusiveness encountered even in a basic search for definition, is an element of the hyperreal – a condition in which the distinction between the “real” and the imaginary implodes.”[4]

Jean Baudrillard, who was especially concerned with this gap between the real and the imaginary, extended and applied the theoretical background of Saussure onto everyday life. He argues that we have passed from an age of representation, where “the sign and the real are equivalent…”[5] into “the age of simulation […] with a liquidation of all referentials…” (PoS, 343) Simulation meaning a version of reality that “threatens the difference between “true” and “false” between “real” and “imaginary.” (PoS, 344) So we are no longer able to distinguish between the simulation and its origin.

The transformation of ages has happened in four phases, the first being the ideal condition, in which the image “is the reflection of a basic reality.” (PoS, 346) Realism or a mirror would be adequate examples. The second phase is marked by an image that “masks and perverts a basic reality.” (PoS, 346) This can be seen in modern beauty magazines where the image of a model is digitally changed and prettified by computer programs. The third phase “masks the absence of a basic reality.”(PoS, 346) If we consider God to be non-existent, then all of the images of Him are exactly what Baudrillard describes. Another example for this phase would be Disneyland. According to Baudrillard “Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the real country, all of “real” America, which is Disneyland […]” (PoS, 352) In other words the hyperreal Disneyland has been built in order to conceal the absence of a basic reality outside of the amusement park. The fourth and last phase in which the image “bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum” (PoS, 347) can be exemplified with an isotonic drink called Mountain Blast. A flavour that bears no resemblance to reality at all, as it would be hardly possible to describe the taste of a mountain let alone a blast. The OED defines a simulacrum as “something having merely the form or appearance of a certain thing, without possessing its substance or proper qualities.”[6] It is totally non-referential.

Thus we live in a world today, where “Simulation is no longer that of […] a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” (PoS, 343) Additionally as our world of referentiality is no longer existent, we develop a need for the ancient and for the things we have lost. “When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality; of secondhand truth, objectivity, and authenticity.” (PoS, 347) This consequently means that we do not care whether the nostalgic things we acquire are based in reality or not as long as we perceive them as real.

While the theories of Baudrillard are somewhat elusive, Umberto Eco is more specific in explaining what hyperreality actually is, by claiming that it is basically marked by a society that “demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake; where the boundaries between game and illusion are blurred.”[7] No longer is the real thing enough, “imitation has reached its apex and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it.”[8] This is especially true with regard to nature. Nature is in principle volatile and has its own laws. And as it does not bend to the rules we want to impose on it, “faked nature corresponds much more to our daydream demands.”[9] Eco uses the example of a fake mechanical alligator in Disneyland and an alligator in real life. As the real alligator is hardly visible in its natural environment we consider it as disappointing or boring. At the same time the Disneyland alligator is always visible and will react to the visitors. So for us the image of the fake alligator is far more vivid and thus far more real than the natural one.[10]

3. Clare – A History of Hyperreality

This chapter will now apply the theories of Baudrillard and Eco onto the novel Gain by Richard Powers. It will focus on the storyline of the Clare family and with it the history of two hundred years of American business development. But this time span is not a mere genealogy of Clare, it is also a history of hyperreality. Where Baudrillard is imprecise about the factual development of hyperreality, the Clare storyline retraces this process by giving concise examples.

And so this chapter will follow the history of Clare by means of these examples not only from family enterprise to global player but also from referentiality to simulation and simulacra.

3.1 Starting Referential

The basic problem of hyperreality is to state where exactly it began. Although I will show several instances where Clare and society are still referential one must not forget that the 19th already contains hyperreal elements. Any ideology for example is hyperreal as it interprets aspects of the world and forces them into a model of reality that is not referential. It controls the perception of its devotees and leads to actions that are in accord with this worldview. Therefore these followers live within an image that “masks and perverts a basic reality” (PoS, 346) namely the world itself. Furthermore finance, inseparably connected with our society, is in itself hyperreal. It is the “system of monetary exchange”[11] where “pecuniary units [are used] to simulate the common exchange.”[12] No longer is a coin or a banknote worth its equivalent amount in gold, it is only the non-referential sign, the simulation of a certain value. But apart from these notions, there are some instances, where Clare can be regarded as not hyperreal.

First of all the name of the enterprise Clare’s Sons is exemplary for referentiality. At this point of time the Clare business truly is conducted by Clare’s sons Samuel and Resolve, the offspring of company founder Jephthah Clare. Thus the referent (Samuel and Resolve) truly fulfils what the signifier (Clare’s Sons) pretends. So when “Clare’s Sons dutifully multiplied.” (G, 42) this does not only refer to the two brothers and their procreation under the protection of marriage but also to the expansion of the company itself.

The products of Clare also reflect referentiality at this point of time. With Samuel and Resolve discovering the advantages of referentiality, they turn it into their trademark. By not sticking to the “widespread trend of short-weighting” (G, 45), by not deceiving their customers and keeping the fragile relationship between sign and referent intact they rise in their customers view who “grew to see these dependable goods as household familiars.” (G, 45) While most of the other companies cheat their customers and turn “the real [into something that] is no longer what it used to be” (PoS, 347), Clare sticks to the real, satisfies their purchasers and “realized how fine a selling point the stamp of “Real Weight” had begun to make” (G, 45). The customers therefore do not only want the amount or the weight of soap they paid for, but they also yearn for a reality where the image proclaiming a certain amount of pure soap still “is the reflection of a basic reality.” (PoS, 346)

This changes with the import of soap named “Pech’s Cleansing Ovals” (G, 20) at least with regard to the behaviour of the consumers. Forced by taxation Clare has to come up with new ideas for earning profit. Transporting necessities turning out to be nearly disastrous, Clare starts to import English luxury soap. With soap being a product that is still mainly manufactured at home via rendering animal fat, the process of saponification depicts “an appropriate interaction between humanity and nature.”[13] But although the price for the Ovals is still referential, as import from England is a bold venture where a considerable amount of taxes and insurance has to be paid, the important notion of these Ovals is that their “consumption is not derived primarily from the realm of nature but from the realm of culture and that it should be interpreted as a system of signs organized by codes and rules, rather than on the basis of a “natural” satisfaction of needs through goods.”[14] A change in the behaviour of consumers, hence unknown as these Ovals “cured an itch that Americans did not even know they had until the scratch announced it.” (G, 20) As after all the product is not necessarily better than domestic soap and only “…the very ruinous price of import produced a premium…..”(G, 20) that is symbolizing prosperity and luxury for the ones able to afford it. “For the consumer believes that possession and display of the signs of affluence, prestige and so on will bring real happiness and real social prestige.”[15] And be it only by buying this soap, by being seen buying this soap and by knowing that buying this soap separates the consumer of the Ovals from that part of society that is not able to purchase it. So this marks Clare’s first encounter with the hyperreal, where the consumer perceives the Ovals as a sign for affluence. A sign without resemblance in the real world, as the Ovals basically are nothing but soap.


[1] Douglas Kellner, Jean Baudrillard, Polity Press, p.3

[2] Nicholas Oberly, reality/hyperreality (1) http://humanities.uchicago.edu/faculty/mitchell/glossary2004/realityhyperreality.htm

[3] Oberly

[4] Oberly

[5] Jean Baudrillard, The Precession of Simulacra, in Simulations, p.346

[6] OED, quoted in Devin Sandoz, Simulations/Simulacra(1) http://humanities.uchicago.edu/faculty/mitchell/glossary2004/simulationsimulacrum.htm

[7] Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, p.8

[8] Eco, p.46

[9] Eco, p.44

[10] Cf. Eco, p.44

[11] Oberly

[12] Oberly

[13] Joseph Dewey, Understanding Richard Powers, University of South Carolina Press, p.124

[14] Kellner, p.16

[15] Kellner, p.16

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A History of Hyperreality - The Rise of Clare Inc. in Richard Powers' Gain
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"
1,0 (A)
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History, Hyperreality, Rise, Clare, Richard, Powers, Gain
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Christian Schmitz (Author), 2006, A History of Hyperreality - The Rise of Clare Inc. in Richard Powers' Gain, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/63167


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