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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 2 (July, 2007).

Baudrillard and History and the Hyperreal on Television, Or Some Women of the Global Village.

Dr. Kathleen Dixon
(Professor of English, University of North Dakota, USA).


Daniela Koleva
(Doctoral Program, University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, USA).

I. Introduction

It isn’t that there are no more events, but the event itself is multiplied by its dissemination, by news and information…. It is…by excess, [not] by rarefaction, that we have gradually lost the concept and meaning of history.  This is not the end of history in Fukuyama’s sense, but the dilution of history as an event.  The continuity of time…is less and less certain. With instant information there’s no longer any time for history itself. In a sense it doesn’t have time to take place.  It’s short-circuited.1


            Close readings of contemporary popular media demand attention to the work Jean Baudrillard.  Efforts to apply the thought of Baudrillard are never unproblematic, but he is useful in the attempt to gauge the extent to which fictions that are completely mass-mediated (“hyperreal”) have become de-linked from previously normative fictions of experience (“real”).  This paper performs textual analyses of two television shows while drawing on a Baudrillardian understanding of hyperreality.  Specifically, we employ Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal alongside theories of ideology and the unconscious to examine salient moments from two television shows, one from the U.S.: The Simple Life2  and the other from post-socialist Bulgaria: Showto Na Slavi, or Slavi’s Show.3  Despite their many differences, these shows are alike in important ways: 1) each foregrounds what we call a “hyperreal celebrity culture,” and 2) each refigures the rural, once necessary as the pre-lapsarian guarantee of a meaningful human history.  The new “rurality” of these two shows has much to say about global and local values, even as both shows simultaneously embrace and resist Baudrillard’s notion of the hyperreal.


II. Baudrillard’s Hyperreal

Baudrillard’s theory of the hyperreal, often misunderstood by his critics, draws on a number of sources.  It is certainly a poststructuralist theory delivering a critique of the Enlightenment.  It also shares Marxism’s concern with history as something that develops in time toward a perfected end.  For Baudrillard, though, that development has both speeded up and slowed down, sometimes appearing to stop entirely at a point where it can expand indefinitely in what he calls the hyperreal – an ironic realization of both capitalism’s and Marxism’s “ends”.  Capitalism and the consumer society, in concert with the new electronic technologies, have produced untold “copies” of “originals” through these technologies, which acquire perfection because they occur solely within the realm of the symbolic, that is, they are images, slogans, computer models.  “Information overload” – a popular mantra, not Baudrillard’s – is understood by Baudrillard to contribute to the hyperreal, the condition under which these perfect copies, multiplied faster than anyone can measure, come to replace the real in people’s perceptions. Baudrillard has expressed an awareness of this for over a quarter century in his writing:

The real is produced from miniaturized cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control – and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these.  It no longer needs to be rational, because it no longer measures itself either as an ideal or negative instance.  It is no longer anything but operational.  In fact, it is no longer really the real, because no imaginary envelopes it anymore.  It is a hyperreal, produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.4


The crucial history for Baudrillard begins at about the time of the Renaissance, when direct exchanges between people began to be mediated by some third thing, man-made representations of reality.5  But these were “modest,” acknowledging their inability to properly represent reality; attempts to copy, or master, reality, resulted in further attention to the original (the creation of the automaton caused one to ruminate further on the wonder of being human, for example).  By the time of the Industrial Revolution, mass production made sameness possible, the dissolution of difference between copy and original.  In our time, the copy surpasses the original, partly by means of the enhanced efficiency of the technologies involved.  Now, it appears that the “original” is faulty (if it could be seen at all).  Computer models of the world are preferable to the world itself – which indeed can no longer be conceived except through the models, the photographed and mass mediated images, and so on.6  The system, as Baudrillard refers to it (combining global capitalism, computers, and something akin to Foucault’s discursive technologies), has re-introduced difference – but only a simulated difference – between the copy and its now hidden “original” to better represent “reality.”  We no longer have a mechanical sameness, but a highly differentiated “realistic” representation – and it indeed seems “real” to us.  The mastery of our environment is now complete:  the hyperreal – that is, the full systemization of all of these copies or simulations, which has achieved a near totalization – is the new real.7

           Out of this comes the reality television show, what Baudrillard calls “the confusion of existence and its double”,8 which may be more absorbing to its viewers than face to face encounters, themselves becoming less and less frequent.  More and more of life is mediated by technology: computers, cell phones, television.  Marshall McLuhan’s adage “the medium is the message” and his notion of the television as “participatory” can been converted to “we who are the mass and the medium, the network and the electric current”.9  “There are no actors or spectators any more.  We are all immersed in the same reality”.10  Subjectivity and objectivity both have been evacuated.  This marks the “end of history” as we have known it, that is, through our Enlightenment estimation of it as a continuing development of mastery, of ourselves, through democratic government and consumer capitalism, and of our environment.  But at this greatest expanse of our power comes our total helplessness:  the system now runs itself and is “indifferent” to what Marxists call intervention.  We live in an age of post-politics inhabited by “silent majorities”.

            This is the end of the Enlightenment project to capture the Other (God, the environment, other people, otherness within ourselves) for its domination and use.  Baudrillard’s most recent project is to locate some form of otherness that has escaped the system.  He uses terms like “fate” and “evil” and “secretive” to name that which cannot be represented within a system that has gone beyond a reification of “progress” and “the good” to produce a (seemingly) never-ending and “obscenely transparent” stasis and mediocrity.  People are hostage to the system’s amelioration of fate into predictability, of evil into “misfortune” (that’s why so many count themselves victims of society).  Ruptures can and do occur (take 9/11, for example, or the singular experiences of one’s existence), but the media quickly close in on them (via TV news programs, Internet cam-sites, etc.), returning them to hyperreality.  Baudrillard’s theory searches out this “singularity” – the thing that cannot make it into a system of infinite simulation and reproduction.  Death, of course, as it comes to any individual being, is one such singularity.  Baudrillard is interested in embodiment and in objects, but approaches them warily, no doubt afraid that he might engage in a representation that will return them to hyperreality.  Nonetheless, we presume that what Baudrillard calls “the revenge of the object” could occur through any medium, including television, even though – or perhaps, because – that medium is a prime site for the production of the hyperreal.  Whether there is something outside that system that can penetrate it, or whether the system itself produces its own ruptures, is unclear.  Baudrillard’s writings stimulate hypotheses of both possibilities.


III. The Simple Life As Postmodern Conundrum

I’ve always remained deeply faithful to this primitive lack of  sophistication, culture is something you must be able

to reject.11


            Cultural critic Linda Williams’ notes the centrality of a rural nostalgia to melodrama, whose narrative “wants to begin and end in a ‘space of innocence’… Gardens and rural homes are the stereotypical icons of such innocence”.12  Williams finds this rural nostalgia to be especially prominent in American popular culture, the homes often located in the rural South.  Many melodrama critics including Williams associate the genre with modernity, that era marked by the spread of urbanization, industrialization, sublimation of the instincts, geographical mobility and dislocation, spiritual anomie.  Williams traces what she calls “melodramas of black and white from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson” – in other words, the genre and its effects cross both rural and urban boundaries, not to mention modern and postmodern ones.

           Extreme mass-mediation is one of the “advances” of postmodernity.  “The television viewer of [the O.J. Simpson] media event is thus afforded a totalizing vantage point along with instantaneous interpretation that attempts to compensate for the loss of presence”.13  Something like the hyperreal may be suggested here, but if so, not as a vehicle for canceling the old meanings associated with melodrama and nostalgia.  Rather, these old meanings still live in the “totalized” world of television, piecing together the once disparate images of the “low-speed ‘chase’” of O.J. Simpson down an L.A. freeway and the beating of Rodney King, allowing Simpson to acquire “the moral legitimacy” of the black slave14, an icon of American melodrama.  For Baudrillard, southern California freeways afford an excellent view of the hyperreal, and perhaps of a malingering nostalgia.   Among his gnomic utterances about “America” is this: “A Puritan obsession with origins in the very place where the ground itself has already gone”.15  If we substitute “origins” for “home” and “Puritan” for “innocent,” we can see how Williams’ cultural theory of American melodrama and Baudrillard’s supposed anti-cultural theory of the hyperreal can come together.  Origin/rural home and California Puritan/innocent certainly do find their way into the television text of The Simple Life (TSL) as does the piecing together motif that Williams sees in the O.J. and Rodney King stories.

           TSL is the postmodern pastiche that Jameson shrinks from, “blank parody”.16  It’s no melodrama but an altered sit-com, Lucy and Ethel loosed upon Eldon, the little southern Iowa town in which Grant Wood set his “American Gothic” painting.  The front cover of TSL’s DVD offers another of the many imitations of that painting, emblem of Midwestern “America.”  Paris and Nicole are posed with pitchfork and looking sober, one dressed for the nightclub, the other revealing equally skimpy clothing just under the coveralls.  The art critic Robert Hughes points out that even the original may have been parodic, the now understood-to-be gay painter producing a camp version of a middle western image of itself: sober, industrious, patriarchal, and then, Wood’s twist:  ironically guarding the virtue of an unalluring daughter.17

           TSL may also be borrowing from previous mass mediations of Wood’s painting.  Steven Biel’s American Gothic traces them faithfully.18 They do of course include television parodies.  The stars of the sit-com Green Acres struck the “American Gothic” pose in the 1960s, and the comparison to TSL is instructive.  Green Acres works pretty well within Jameson’s notion of parody, as it clearly poked fun at the back-to-nature dreams of the American bourgeois, represented by the Eddie Albert character.  The campiness resided in the Eva Gabor character, who, along with the residents of “Hooterville”, created a topsy-turvy world for the insufferably serious Albert (never really able to break free of the One Dimensional Man he tries to leave behind), whose impeccable logic and reason could not carry the day against the feminine and rural Others surrounding him.

           A pastiche is a collage-like entity, something more or less, we take it, than a mere mixed genre.  TSL is a sit-com, a reality TV show, and a game show, all with inevitable relations to a world that overlaps with, but extends beyond, television.  That all texts have always been intertextual is no doubt true; the difference here is that the already hyperreal world of celebrity – it exists nowhere other than in mass-mediated images and the events staged around and through such images – is imported wholesale into TSL. So while the nominal referent is a rural one, the entire show exists as though it were a simulacrum, a model or a copy without an original.

           Paris Hilton, the heir of the Hilton Hotel chain and Nicole Ritchie, adopted daughter of the singer Lionel Ritchie, were seen in People magazine even before TSL, in the reflected glory of their parents’ success.  There is now a kind of celebrity category “young, rich and sexy” to which they belong.  TSL is built upon this celebrity genre, and perhaps fatally so.  The “game” of the show is that Paris and Nicole will enter the household of the Ledings in the small town of Altus, Arkansas without their credit cards, cell phones, or cars.  They must “really” be the children of the Ledings, follow their family rules, take on jobs to earn their spending money, and make friendships with the locals.  But unlike other reality TV-game shows (like The Survivor), there are no rules that could tame their sovereign celebrity.  Paris and Nicole can scarcely even pretend to be trying to follow the supposed rules of a rural family.  And indeed, they don’t seem to be anyone’s children or to belong to any world but that offered by People magazine and E! TV, as though they were the very sign of transnational capital, virtual and at home everywhere and nowhere, or the excess of consumerism, neither the producers nor the products but “the lyrical nature of pure circulation”.19

           So the conflict engineered by all reality TV-game shows on this one seems a blank parody (in Jameson’s terms), a flattened surface of recurrent celebrity self-referentiality set within a fantasia of rural myth and early 60s TV families.  On TSL, the stolid Leding mother posts the family rules on a blackboard in the kitchen (no staying out late, clean your room, etc.), “the punishment” for infractions being confinement of Paris and Nicole to their “room,” a location that acts mainly as their “interview” space for the segments of TSL where Paris and Nicole confess their private feelings to the camera. Life here is boring, they say in their bored voices.

           O.J. Simpson and Rodney King can come together only in celebrity hyperreality, but there “really” was a trial, and there “really” was a beating.  Maybe there “really” is a boring reality underlying TSL if any reality besides celebrity hyperreality exists at all.  Certainly, the popularity of TSL suggests some widespread cultural value. Now replicated into its own third season, TSL has also spawned a competitor, Love is in the Heir, on which an heiress pursues her dreams of achieving country-western stardom against her parents’ will (with the meaning of “will” doubled to include the legal document out of which the heiress may be written).  If she doesn’t make it in the country world, she’ll be reduced to “the simple life,” as an advertisement puts it.  So one meaning of “the simple life,” is the life of all those who are not “young, rich, and sexy” – or famous.  On television, fame trumps wealth, one reason people may prize TV.

           However, being rich is an excellent means to fame, and a fair amount of TSL suggests the tone of the 90s movie Clerks and others of its ilk: middle class American kids forced to be downwardly mobile as their hippie parents or grandparents might have called it, only now it’s not a choice.  The result:  they feel like nobodies, still under their parents’ thumbs, in a state of perpetual adolescence, and they get back by acting cynical, bored, mocking and hyper-really rebellious (i.e., doing “outrageous” things that aren’t even noticed, or that pass into and out of everybody’s already foreshortened attention spans very quickly).  On TSL these “outrageous” moments – formerly moments of melodrama or comedy – are placed for narrative climax, but their pre-fabricated  form deprives of us of what was known in the past as “fun.”  A major response to the stifling condition of “the simple life” is a form of bravado, the repetition of the phrase, “I’m bored.”  This may be the underside emotion to Baudrillard’s postmodern “exhilaration,” an expression of an exhaustion borne of useless movement (the Marxist dialectical contradiction now merely a vicious circle).

           So perhaps the real game turns out to be, how does one survive the rigors and the boredom of “the simple life,” or, maybe, how does one sustain the myth of “the simple life” in the face of a frightening external reality, one where even middle class parents have to work two or more jobs to maintain the same standard of living that one parent could provide in the 1960s?20  As Donald Trump dramatizes on The Apprentice, that world is not a pretty place.  One could be forgiven for wanting to flee to one’s “room” with a couple of gals who were always already rich.  But why a rural room?

           Maybe because something like nostalgia does operate on TSL, even though the thing known as the “work ethic” seems to have been replaced in the hyperreal by the “simple” incompetency and wisecracks of the always already rich toward even the pretense of real work.  We must note the palpable ressentiment in such scenes as the one where the “girls” “neglect” some homemade pies (homemade by our rural granny) that get eaten by rural dogs. If Baudrillard were right and we can no longer even feel nostalgia for the rural and for work, especially the kind of work that is referred to as non-alienated labor (like that of the granny with the pies), then perhaps our collective unconscious is very teed off, and wants revenge.  This is similar to Baudrillard’s writing and his notion of the revenge of objects.21  Indeed, what remains of TSL in the mind’s eye are certain objects, like the mounds of onion rings in the hopper at the Sonic Restaurant where the “girls” work for a day, or the molded plastic bunny faces on the costumes they must wear to advertise their restaurant, literal surfaces of blank parody.

           Another candidate for nostalgia is a psychoanalytic one, a desire for “the simple life” of the womb – here, the gals’ “room” and the cocoon of the hyperreal version of Altus itself – where life is purely satisfying, and the easily-resolved conflict exists only for its slight entertainment value.  But again, if wombs are potentially all around us, why Altus?  For the show does appear actively to suppress real conflict with a substantial rural Other, or of the rurals with the celebrity Others.  The conflicts, as we know from other reality TV shows, are supposed to provide the laughs, and so this is a serious problem on TSL.  Occasionally, Paris and Nicole get off a good joke, but generally, they themselves are too insubstantial to carry the comic weight of the show.  Instead, editors work their magic with the tricks of the trade.  When granny says she’s going out to slaughter a chicken for dinner (one of those typically “rural” acts) we hear the shrieking strings of Psycho in the soundtrack.  When Paris and Nicole are supposed to be filling bottles with milk at a dairy farm, they make a mess with the help of speeded-up film and fast-cut editing.  Probably only because of these video tricks do we sense the attempt to imitate Lucy and Ethel at the chocolate factory – another example of Jameson’s “blank parody”.  Drawing on Jameson we can consider Lucille Ball a modernist subject with a distinct talent for physical comedy and Paris and Nicole as the postmodernist object/subject, manipulated by the editors and their technology.  That an audience would resonate to such manipulation by unseen all-powerful forces (against whom one cannot contend, and anyway it’s pleasurable) might well be assumed.  Or perhaps the audience, like one of our undergraduate students, loves to hate Paris and Nicole in their “massive vacuum of stupidity.”

           Baudrillard seeks to avoid theories like psychoanalysis, but in the case of TSL, the unconscious seems to rear up again and again. In the sixth episode, the girls meet older rural women at the beauty parlor, where of course the young, rich, and sexy carry the day.  But at one point, interestingly, the camera foregrounds an ugly old foot being pedicured.  Presumably the audience reaction is supposed to be “eew!” (it might even have been another occasion for the Psycho soundtrack to enter).  However, the fascination that may attend the foot potentially contains more power than a simple dismissal of the old, the non-rich, and the rural.  The foot offers the prospect of a kind of embodiment generally denied by U.S. television and consumer culture.  And here is where we might locate the “rurality” of the nostalgia, which is simultaneously, as Baudrillard claims, obsessively Puritan.  Paris and Nicole in their skimpy outfits and gorgeous nails trample the virtues of “American Gothic” into the ground, in what Baudrillard might refer to as a display of the “obscenity of the obvious”22 (how many times do these virtues have to be trampled, anyway?).   But the foot obtrudes like a nightmare appendage, and it controls the scene.  The foot is seen in close-up, larger than life, hogging many precious seconds of time, as though it were an expressive face in a soap opera.

           Reading it for a moment in Baudrillardian language, the foot has become an object engaged in “revenge” against the system of the hyperreal.  Its horror persists in the mind, occupying the space of what cannot be depicted on TSL, the ugliness of real celebrity lives and their real bodies.  We won’t see Paris and Nicole in the bathroom of a nightclub shooting up drugs (in “real life,” Nicole is said to be an addict), or barfing up their dinners to keep their Size 3 bodies.   That “room” would be anything but innocent, so our Puritan gaze must be averted.

           So, yes, it’s preferable to dream of a “rural” existence where “Mom” cares about you enough to chalk house rules on the kitchen board, where “Dad” worries about your reputations, and “Granny” wants the “County Fair” to judge you by your apple-pie-making abilities, where ladies lovingly lavish hours making quilts (“bo-ring!”).  As a “real adolescent,” you get to thumb your nose at all that while simultaneously desiring it, as have former generations of middle class Americans from Grant Wood forward.  Bucolic bliss and its discontent has ever registered the same.  What is new is that the dream is mediated by television itself, by shows like Lassie and Leave It To Beaver and more recent fare; there never was a rural life, or a suburban life, or any kind of life like this.  Except, maybe, now, as we inhabit a space of small screens that fill our minds (televisions, pc’s, video games), a space of the hyperreal. “Americans are the hyperreal”, Baudrillard says, and not exactly with disdain, or at least not utter disdain, as the phrase goes.  Maybe the hyperreal isn’t located in TSL but merely moves through it, and through us (“the lyrical nature of pure circulation”).23  These dreams in and around the hyperreal: are they more or less injurious to us than our dreams of old?  As we consider this, we may also wonder whether face-to-face sociality is attenuating, making way for its hyperreal replacement.

           What Baudrillard offers us for reading TSL is a means of interpreting the contemporary postmodern condition as expressed by Hollywood.  TSL engages Baudrillard’s binary of “attraction/distraction” by attracting us with the glitzy gamines of Paris and Nicole, whose images help to create a celebrity hyperreal in which our imaginations partly live.  This is accomplished by offering us a “distraction” from the show itself, which is only intermittently funny and which makes a good accompaniment to cell phone use, Internet surfing, and e-bay shopping.  It also provides distraction from actual reality, in the implantation of the celebrities into a hyperreal rural setting, replete with loving parents, chores that can be hyperreally “resisted,” and stereotypical rubes who come straight out of the cast of “classic” television and movies (we can cynically preen ourselves on our knowledge of this hyperreal “history” – been there, done that).

           Yet only the most boring sequences (commented upon by Paris and Nicole as boring) bear any relation to anything real (not Baudrillard’s “real” – he is famously agnostic on this – but the real of cultural studies).  In a world reduced to surface, consumption and consumables, it is Baudrillard’s notion of “the revenge of the objects” that finally holds promise.  Their appearance presumably cannot be cynically laughed away but will remain implacably before us, an ironic testament to the inevitable disappearance of our embodied selves.


IV. Slavi and His “Little Violet”

I play the role of the Danube peasant, someone who knows nothing but supposes something is wrong.24


           People of “advanced” societies often peg those with depressed economies and/or fewer technological and consumer goods as “backward,” or, more euphemistically, “developing.”  In such places, we may think we see rurality unchanged for generations.  On the other hand, if we subscribe to a thorough-going theory of global imperialism, we will notice how postmodernity has sadly penetrated those removes.  Whether we feel sorry for the residents of such locales or drawn to them by a heart-twanging nostalgia (in the case below, Baudrillard would call it “Ostalgia”, a nostalgia for the East)25, we rarely open ourselves to the prospect that some form of difference might truly greet us, arrest us, slap us upside the head.  Again we think of Baudrillard’s resistance to simulation.

           Most of Bulgarian television is cheaply produced and/or imported from Western Europe and the U.S.  But Showto Na Slavi or Slavi’s Show is different.  One of the most popular shows in Bulgaria, it is produced, written, choreographed, performed, and filmed in the bTV studio of Sofia.26 The audiences love Slavi; so successful has it become that it has created “a second prime time” for its late-night time slot.27

           Not surprisingly, it has attracted the attention of a mega-conglomerate, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp (Slavi is now owned by a subsidiary, Balkan News Corp).  The creators of Slavi are pleased with this result, having steered the show themselves the way of capitalist success and, unavoidably, into postmodernism. The star and host of the show, like Elvis and Oprah, is known in Bulgaria by one name only, “Slavi.”  He’s the wise-cracking host of the late-night political satire and talk show.  On posters for upcoming Cuckoo Band performances (he performs with the same band that plays back-up on the show) and on billboards advertising MobilTel cellular phones, his bald pate is everywhere to be seen in Sofia, the capital city.  His biography, Slavi Trifonov:  Standing Tall or alternately, Standing Out Like a Sore Thumb, details his rise from obscurity as a part of a comedy troupe that was censored by communist authorities. All the while he was a skinny violinist from the village who by now has bulked up through a strenuous exercise regime to look like a mutra, a gangster body-guard, donning the dark glasses and athletic shoes that they wear, cavorting in public with a new mutressa on his arm at each event.   A computer-mediated image of Slavi’s laurel-crowned “bust” appeared on the cover of a leading men’s magazine to announce Trifonov’s selection as Man of the Year.  Beneath the graphic was the legend, “I, Slavi” (as in “I, Claudius,” but also with a pun on the Bulgarian word “slava,” which means glory).  So fabulous has been the success of Slavi and his eponymous show, that sometime politician, intellectual, and fellow Slavi’s Show collaborator Luben Dilov, Jr. muses upon its – and “Slavi”s? – eventual demise.  He told us in an interview that Balkan News Corp loves the show, and expects too much of it, believing that it will grow indefinitely.  “Slavi is a mega-monster,” he said.28

           So far, we critics seem comfortable enough in the hyperreal, a “Slavi” made up of images and performances much like the “Paris and Nicole” of TSL.  But there’s more to Slavi’s Show than its hyperreal elements.  In any event, the hyperreal comes and goes, moving alongside the other “successive phases of the image,” including the one Baudrillard says he avoids, “the reflection of a profound reality”.29  His own protestations to the contrary, we’ll challenge that  Baudrillard is himself a creator within the depth theory called myth, that he creates myths to live by, we might say, “beyond the end” of history, as the cockroaches and viruses surround us.30

           The creators of Slavi’s Show also manufacture myth.  It is perhaps not coincidental that both the man Slavi Trifonov and the fictional “Slavi,” as elaborated in the biography and as a series of characters Trifonov plays on Slavi’s Show, hail from the village.  This we read as a conscious attempt on the part of Trifonov and the show’s creators to make a myth of a new Bulgaria, especially since the various “characters” are often taken from Bulgarian history.  These explicit references to history probably aren’t hyperreal or even “real,” if “real” is “a holistic principle.”  Slavi’s Show is trying to make a history from the fragments of the Bulgarian past.  On the night that our research team sat in the audience, Slavi appeared dressed as a brigadier from the Communist 1950s.  An elaborate, joke-filled script weaves together Slavi-as-brigadier with contemporary news-events.  In this fashion, from night to night the audience builds (in the case of the young) or rebuilds its memory of what it means to be Bulgarian.31  Like TSL, the show is often comic, but showcasing an unusually witty and talented actor.  During the interview segment of the show, Slavi sometimes delivers an Oprah-like performance, melodramatic, “Bulgaria” naming the “space of innocence,” a land of ancient heroes and contemporary victims, perhaps consciously taking up the West’s discourse of “misfortune” (to use Baudrillard’s term), as one of the objectives of the show’s creators is to insert Bulgaria into the postmodern post-Communist world as a formidable player, rather than as (ironically) helpless victim.

            Almost one quarter of the U.S. population is rural whereas in Bulgaria, the figure is closer to one-third.32  These statistics may suggest that the United States and Bulgaria’s histories are converging, that somehow our two nations are following similar global trends.  But in the U.S., there has always been a large middle class; not so in Bulgaria, historically a nation of peasant-farmers.  In the U.S., farms have gone the route of agribusiness.  In Bulgaria, the most mechanized and large-scale farming took place during communism.33  Since 1989, one has been able to see more and more of the past, so to speak, along the modern highways:  donkey-drawn carts, peasants in the fields with hand-tools, backs bent to the tasks of sowing, weeding, or reaping.  America has historically nursed an image of itself as a hard-working, up-from-the-bootstraps, constantly modernizing nation.  Bulgarians, too, conceive themselves as hard workers but practical, not dreamers – except in the distant past.  Their history is much longer than that of the United States, and pride tends to rest in the distant past, of heroic kings and clerics.  Between then and now stretches a 500-year period of Ottoman domination, and after, a series of stops and starts that boggle the mind – the result of being a small country among superpowers contending for hegemony.  1878 is the year generally celebrated as their national liberation34, so late a time, one is tempted to suggest that Bulgaria skipped the modern era altogether and landed in a most unusual – by whose standards? – asks Maria Todorova35 – postmodernism. 

           Communist plans for modernization emanated at first directly from the Russians, and always, Bulgaria was one of the closest followers of the Soviet-style communist re-making.36  A country of peasants was transformed into a country of “workers” – that is, factory workers.  In the process of achieving this transformation, farming was devalued in a manner not inevitably as under capitalism but consciously as a matter of government policy.  The idea of peasants as hicks and rubes, uneducated, standing in the way of progress, was deliberately spread.37 The success of this program is everywhere to be seen.  “Of course we know the answers, we are not peasants!” say university students in Bulgaria.  That something of peasant culture and the reaction to it persists among educated people may be deduced by the prominence of the adjective “stupid” uttered by Bulgarians speaking in English.

           Far more than in the West, most city-dwelling Bulgarians are related to villagers and maintain close contact (although this is already changing, as foreigners are purchasing land in the villages).  So many Bulgarians are now so poor, they have at times required their village connections just to stay alive.  During the economic crisis of 1995-96, one member of our research team, a middle-aged woman who at the time lived in a Sofia apartment with her teenaged son and elderly parents, waved goodbye to her parents. They said, “We’ll never make it if we stay here”. They went to the village to grow vegetables that they lived on for a year.  One of the differences between Bulgarian villages under communism and some others is that each family had its own garden plot, in addition to the collective farmland.  These usually measured five decares38, and allowed for raising grains as well as vegetable gardening.  Then, as now, most villagers worked two or three jobs – sometimes in city factories – in addition to working the family plot.  Many urban people whom one would consider middle-class in the U.S., academics, for instance, also work two or three jobs now to make ends meet.  Although some claim that communism spoiled the work ethic of traditionally diligent and practical Bulgarians, only a few elites ever were relieved of physical work.  This is doubly true for the women, who do the majority of domestic chores without the conveniences of fast food or dishwashers. 

           “In order to stick out, Dilov”, Slavi is made to say to the Sofia-born Luben Dilov in Trifonov’s auto/biography, “you need a plain… you know nothing of the plain… My family has deep roots in the plain, in the village… All in my family are peasants connected with the earth.  Earth and labor.  Dull, constant, stupid peasant labor”.39  But several of his ancestors “stood out” from the plain, including two great grandmothers, one of whom memorized facts about geography although she herself could never travel or see the world firsthand (“on the plain there is no height:  you cannot… climb Mount Mussala and cast a glance all the way to Costa Rica”).  His mother had rather less vision regarding education:  “She wouldn’t tolerate B’s; only A’s counted.”40  So it makes sense that in addition to the mutressas of his celebrity retinue, and to his “fiancée” (the daughter of  former Prime Minister and former Tsar Simeon, often joked about on the show), “Slavi” of Slavi’s Show also has a “wife” from the village.

           Her name (Temenushka) denotes “little violet” and connotes “village woman.”  She’s sloppily attired in a housedress from the Communist era, homely, big-boned, played by a man, whose wig is often askew:  She is ungainly and unfeminine.  Slavi may like the ladies, but Temenushka is absolutely sex-crazed, a living libido.  Slavi curses her and threatens to beat her, but she declares that she stays with him “for the sex!”  Normally, she doesn’t speak at all, but grunts and uselessly bustles about with a broom, getting in Slavi’s way and making a pest of herself, not actually fulfilling traditional wifely duties like cooking for his guests, yet all the while, gazing at him in rapt adoration.  Slavi would like to shed Temenushka, but she clings to him like an alter ego.

            Somehow we have to account for the fact that Temenushka elicits as least as many laughs as jeers, among younger people (Slavi’s Show is generally popular, but less so among the over 50 crowd and more so among the youth).  Middle-aged women tend to dislike Temenushka immensely.  To them, the new Bulgaria that Slavi represents is crass and sexist, worse, in that regard, than Communism ever was. Her homeliness is their worst nightmare about what’s become of them as attractive women – lipstick itself was an underground commodity under communism.

           The script writers of Slavi’s Show, most of them male, say Temenushka’s just for fun, the “nonconformist” answer to political correctness.  But we wonder whether there might have been a peculiar pleasure for some women in Temenushka’s performance on October 31, 2003.  On that Halloween night, she came galumphing down the staircase astride her broom.  “Temenushka is Baba Yaga!” the look on the female dancer’s face seemed to say.  Usually the variety-show dancers that open and close segments of Slavi’s Show are off-stage when not dancing, but this time they lined the staircase as accompaniment to Temenushka’s entrance.

            In Russian myth and fairy tale, Baba Yaga is a figure of immense power.41 She lives not in the village but beyond it.  She is certainly associated with housewifery, including a knowledge of healing herbs, poisons, and magic potions.  She travels in her mortar, rowing through the woods swiftly with pestle in one hand, broom in the other.  She is a matriarchal figure that usually opposes patriarchy.42  This image of Baba Yaga contrasts sharply with ordinary Bulgarians’ accounts of the contemporary uses of the myth.  To them, Baba Yaga is a witch, an ugly woman, whose only power is that of a female boogeyman.  Parents warn their misbehaving children that “Baba Yaga’s going to get you!”43 

            In this mass-mediated version of the myth, we read the surprise and pleasure on the face of a young woman dancer as she sees Temenushka become Baba Yaga.  Is the transformation she witnesses somehow delightful, as if the ugly stepmother who is also Cinderella suddenly did become – not a princess, but a witch! – who fades away again into the clumping Temenushka?  It seems to us as though the old ugly (female) foot of TSL has reappeared, but more explicably.  If “Slavi” is a postmodern mass-mediated mega-monster, who can float like a blimp above the village in which he was born, it appears to us that he cannot yet shed his “wife,” Temenushka, who alone can ground him in history, or grind him into history, as the case may be.

            Interestingly, Temenushka, who used to make occasional appearances on Slavi’s Show, has disappeared.  The first response of our research team was to blame the West generally and the European Union and numerous NGOs specifically, for their meddling ways, requiring media policies and the like that would enforce political incorrectness.44  The feminism that seems to have penetrated Bulgaria is not, by and large, the ex-patriot Bulgarian Julia Kristeva’s, but something more like the codifying, rule-promulgating Enlightenment version.  On the other hand, if we were to take a page from Baudrillard, we might be less concerned.

            In Victoria Grace’s feminist reading of Baudrillard, we find a few pages of quotations from Suite Vénitienne and Please Follow Me that have not been translated into English (except for Grace’s excerpts).  In them, Baudrillard articulates a consciously unconscious response to the hyperreal, a “fatal strategy” that involves a strange stalking of another person.  It has no purpose except to stand against the power of totalization.  Here’s how Grace interprets the act:

The illusory subjectivity, will, desire of Henri B. [the man being followed] is annulled in the act of being followed.  The unknown shadowing is continually reversing the assumption of subjectivity.  Following a subject who takes responsibility for fulfilling the demands of personal history and continuity of individual experience, who carries the “burden” of existence, the very act of tracing her/his steps simultaneously reveals the absence of any essence deemed necessary for such continuity and erases its pretence.  It is a truly fatal strategy, seduction in the act of creating absences through a secret presence.45


In another instance, a woman follows and photographs him (Baudrillard) after he has first followed her.  “She, through following, and observing, photographing unseen, takes his path, his past, and as they enter her consciousness, they vanish elsewhere.  Their vanishing is made perfect.  No trace is to be seen in their reappearance”.46  In this elaborate attempt to skirt the hyperreal and the historically prior depth theories like myth, Baudrillard returns to it, if Grace’s reading is a good one (“the vanishing is made perfect.”  “No trace is to be seen….”).  The moment of perfection – in myth, of a kind of fulfillment and transcendence, in the hyperreal, of the perfect but blank parody – is here replayed, but supposedly as a means of seducing fate itself.  Of course fate can’t be seduced if it’s really fate –  it just happens, inexplicably.  All we can do is to make a myth of it as Baudrillard does.

            But in his focus on the moment of the disappearance of a body or an image, Baudrillard may well be onto something important.  We are re-thinking our stance toward the disappearance of Temenushka, who may be at least as powerful for our purposes in her absence as in her mass-mediated presence.  The fact that we as scholars noted her and have recorded her presence puts us in the position of the secret follower (nothing could be more “secret” from the hyperreal than scholarship!).  The creators of Temenushka, the scriptwriters, have “seen” us, too, but almost immediately we disappeared from their view.  Indeed, we have never been able to make contact with anyone at Showto Na Slavi since that first and only time in June of 2003, despite repeated attempts.  Baudrillard provides us with a myth to make meaningful our very lack of puissance, success, celebrity.  But what the meaning is, we do not know.  We merely feel sly and knowing, without a clear object of knowledge.        

            Baudrillard’s myth of the follower is an urban one, and the temptation to readers of his work is to generalize it to all contemporary life – all the more so when the medium is television.  McLuhan’s metaphor went in the other direction:  all was intelligible (or unintelligible) through “the global village.”  We maintain that distinctions must still be made between one culture – or one locale – and another.  Some “otherness” does persist, even within mass-mediated images.  Temenushka is a related but different figure of rurality than that offered by the ugly foot of TSL.  In Temenushka herself there is a vigor and a threat that is directly linked to the hyperreal celebrity of “Slavi.”  Some Bulgarian college students that we spoke to in 2005 – mainly working class, some of whom grew up in villages – could see her function as an utter deflation of “Slavi,” the local representative of the hyperreal.


V. Conclusion

            Baudrillard does believe that the hyperreal has within it the seeds of its own destruction, so to speak.  For Baudrillard, that is the meaning of 9/11.  “There will always be a chance for the troubling strangeness [das Unheimlich] of the event – [and here, of course, Baudrillard himself continues to cite the “depth theory” of Freudian psychoanalysis] – as against the troubling monotony of the global order”.47  We agree, and we continue to look for it everywhere.  Most likely that “troubling strangeness” preceded the hyperreal and has always been a resource in times of “troubling monotony.”  The rural can maintain a difference from the urban and can represent something both nostalgic and “strange,” even within that supreme instrument of hyperreality, the television.  Nor are we condemned – yet, at least – to wander the globe, finding nothing but sameness, “the desert of the real.”  Baudrillard – the Parisian peasant – provides assistance along a path that is still ours to tread while becoming narrower with each passing year.


Kathleen Dixon teaches rhetoric of the mass media and cultural and gender studies.  She has published a number of essays and two books on these subjects.  She is currently finishing a book entitled, “The Global Village Re-visited:  Three Nations, Three Television Talk Shows,” forthcoming from Rowman, Littlefield.


Daniela Koleva holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Veliko Turnovo (Bulgaria) and an MA from the University of North Dakota (USA).



1 Jean Baudrillard.  Fragments: Conversations with François L’Yvonnet. (Translated by Chris Turner). New York: Routledge, 2004:57.


2 The Simple Life. Twentieth Century Fox, 2003; (DVD released in 2004). The idea for The Simple Life was generated in Fox Television's Comedy Department. Brad Johnson, Senior Vice President said: “The Simple Life was born out of a challenge from Fox Television Entertainment to find another way to do comedies outside of the traditional sitcom format. The areas that seemed simplest and cleanest was to go back to those high-concept 1960s sitcoms and say let's do them for real. The Simple Life was inspired by Green Acres, a sitcom about a New York society couple who moved to a farm”.


3 Showto Na Slavi. Sofia, Bulgaria:  bTV, 2002-3 season; See: www.slavishow.com. Slavi's Show (Bulgarian: Шоуто на Слави“, “Shouto na Slavi“) is a long-running Bulgarian evening talk show aired every weekday on bTV from 10:30 to 11:30 PM, hosted by Slavi Trifonov. The programme blends elements of dancing, talk show, cabaret, live music, theatre, stand-up comedy and even talent contest. It has a female dancing group, Magadans, its own music band, Ku-Ku Band and a company of actors. Among the show's guests have been, Luciano Benetton, Irvine Welsh, Wu-Tang Clan, Goran Bregović, Tiziano Ferro, David Coverdale, Jean Claude Van Damme, Stephen Baldwin, Ray Liotta, Michelle Rodriguez, Carl Lewis, Franz Beckenbauer, Metallica, Scorpions, Lech Wałęsa, Wesley Clark, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nick Mason, the Presidents of Bulgaria, and well known representatives of Bulgaria's political, sports and cultural elite. Slavi's Show is the most popular Bulgarian TV programme, with every episode being watched by around 1.5 million of the country's total population of less than 8 million.


4 Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981).  Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser.  Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1994:2. Indeed, for Baudrillard by 1983 he was writing: “we have passed alive into the model”). (See Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies: Crystal Revenge. (c 1983). Translated by Philip Beitchman and W.G.J. Niesluchowski.  New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:9.


5 Rex Butler. Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. London: Sage, 1999:36.

6 Among the places where Baudrillard addresses this concern is in an interview with Guillemot and Soutif in 1983:


The world, which from the dawn of time has been myth, fantasy, fable, becomes realized through technology.  This materialism seems to me to be a catastrophe in the etymological sense of the term. It is a sort of death where everything takes on the garb of reality. You can imagine a point where all thoughts waiting to be thought will be immediately realizable by means of a computer. I am not condemning technology, it’s fascinating, it can produce marvelous special effects. But with this faculty of giving reality to the world, then the possible, the imaginary, the illusory all disappear. ...A world without any illusory effects will be completely obscene, material, exact, perfect. (See Mike Gane. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London:  Routledge, 1993:44).

7 Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981).  Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser.  Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1994:107.


8 Jean Baudrillard. Screened Out (c 2000). Translated by Chris Turner), New York: Verso, 2002 177. For other writings of Baudrillard on reality TV see: Nicolas Zurbrugg. Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. New York: SAGE, 1997:19-22.

9 Jean Baudrillard. The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact. Translated by Chris Turner, 

Oxford: Berg, 2005:135.

10 Ibid.:135.

11 Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations With Francois L’Yvonnet. New York: Routledge, 2004:103   .

12 Linda Williams. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White From Uncle Tom

To O.J. Simpson. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001:28.


13 Ibid.:261.


14 Ibid.:281.


15 Jean Baudrillard. America. Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 1988:8.


16 Frederic Jameson. Postmodernism, Or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1991:17. In this reality TV comedy, two young celebrity women are transplanted to an Arkansas farm to contrast their jet-set lifestyles with those of rural Americans.  On the back of the DVD is this come-on:  “How crazy can it get when two rich, sexy, big-city blondes, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, find themselves knee-deep in rural reality, looking for fun in all the wrong places yet trying to survive without credit cards, nightclubs, and Saks Fifth Avenue!”

17 Robert Hughes. American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. New York: Knopf, 1997:439-441.


18 Steven Biel. American Gothic. New York: Norton, 2005:135-7.


19 Jean Baudrillard. America. Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 1988:27.


20 Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi.  The Two Income Trap:  Why Middle Class

Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke. (New York: Basic Books, 2003).

21 See, for example: Jean Baudrillard. The Ecstasy of Communication.  Edited by Sylvere Lotringer and translated by Bernard Schutze and Caroline Schutze, New York: Semiotext(e), 1988:92.


22 Jean Baudrillard. America. Translated by Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 1988:27.


23 Jean Baudrillard. The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact. Translated by Chris Turner, 

Oxford: Berg, 2005:125.

24 Jean Baudrillard (Edited by Sylvere Lotringer). The Conspiracy of Art. New York: Semiotext(e)/MIT Press, 2005:66

25 Ibid.


26 bTV is the first commercial station licensed in Bulgaria after the fall of communism (the bTV studio did in fact formerly house one of the two State-run stations).

27 Media Links CD: Slavi’s Show (Sofia 2003). See also endnote 3.


28 Luben Dilov Jr. Interview with the author (June 9, 2003) Sofia, Bulgaria. This interview was conducted by Kathleen Dixon and Iskar Villanova, assisted by Daniela Koleva, Amelia Dimitrova, Yuliana Gencheva, and Neli Gogovska.


29 Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation (c 1981). Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbour: University of Michigan Press, 1994:6.

30 Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations With François L’Yvonnet. New York: Routledge, 2004:71-2.


31 Kathleen Dixon, Iskra Velinova, Aneliya Dimitrova, and Yuliana Gencheva

“Popular Art and Political Ensemble on Slavi’s Show, A Bulgarian Television Talk Show” (under review for Text and Performance Quarterly).


32 Mark Balnaves et. al. The Penguin Atlas of Media and Information. New York: Penguin 2001: 103, 109.


33 Gerald Creed. Domesticating Revolution:  From Socialist Reform to Ambivalent Transition

In a Bulgarian Village. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State Press, 1998:33-53.


34 R. J. Crampton. A Concise History of Bulgaria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997:87.


35 Maria Todorova. “The Trap of Backwardness:  Modernity, Temporality, and the Study of Eastern Europe”. Slavic Review Volume 64, Number 1, 2005:140-164.


36 Barbara Jelavich. History of the Balkans: The Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983:364.


37 Gerald Creed. Domesticating Revolution:  From Socialist Reform to Ambivalent Transition

In a Bulgarian Village. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State Press 1998:137-142.

38 Metric system: Ten ares or 1000 square meters.

39 Luben Dilov Jr. Slavi Trifonov: On Standing Tall, published in Bulgarian; English translation of title and quoted passages by Daniela Koleva, (Sofia: Ciela, 2002: 9).


40 Ibid.:10.


41 Aleksandr Afanas’ev. Russian Fairy Tales. Translated by Norbert Guterman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1945:194-5, 231-2.


42 Elizabeth Warner. Russian Myths. London: The British Museum Press, 2002:74.


43 Some say that the “boogey” of “boogeyman” is related to the “bulgar” of “Bulgarian,” although the Oxford English Dictionary does not confirm this. 

44 See Kristen Ghodsee’s informative study on this phenomenon: The Red Riviera: Gender, Tourism, and Post-Socialism on the Black Sea. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2005.

45 Victoria Grace. Baudrillard’s Challenge:  A Feminist Reading. London: Routledge


46 Ibid.:188. Editor’s note: The reference is to Sophie Calle’s Suite Venitienne.

47 Jean Baudrillard. The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact. Translated by Chris Turner, 

Oxford: Berg, 2005:137.

© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)

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