Critical Term:


According to Merriam-Webster, “reality” is defined as “1. The quality or state of being real; 2a. A real event, entity, or state of affairs, or the totality of real things and events; 2b. Something that is neither derivative nor dependent but exists necessarily; 3. Television programming that features videos of actual occurrences”. Webster’s also includes synonyms: “actuality”, “case”, “materiality”, “fact”; and antonyms: “fantasy”, “fiction”, “illusion”. Though this is a brave attempt to summarize a complex concept in concise terminology, much of Webster’s definition is quite problematic. Right away one can ignore part one (since when is it acceptable to use the word in its definition?), as well as part three (not entirely incorrect, but not exactly what we are looking for). Part two “a” seems to need more explanation: the “totality of real things” still leaves one unclear as to what “real things” are. Part two “b”, however, shows promise. For something to exist necessarily there must be no qualifications for its existence. This thing itself is its own base, as well as potentially the base for other things to build upon.

Still, assuming that reality exists necessarily can be problematic. The very idea that “reality” can be distinguished implies that there is a “non-reality”- something equal and opposite in nature. For reality to exist, non-reality must exist, and vice versa.

If we look at how Clifford Geertz defines religion- “a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic” (Geertz, 90)- we can clearly see that the “unique reality” (or “moods and motivations” formed in men” that seem “uniquely realistic”) is the last element mentioned. The system of symbols by which people form there conceptions of and about life are necessary for the existence of reality, according to Geertz, and yet once this “reality” has been established the religious system becomes isomorphic: The reality recreates the system of symbols, which lead back into the reaffirmation of the existence of reality, and so on.

 However, we still do not really have a clear idea of what “reality” is. Stepping into the world of Marx for a moment, let’s take a look at one of the synonyms for reality Webster’s uses- materiality. Comparing reality with the material is bold. Assuming that what is real, what is actual, is the tangible material world around us parallel to Marx’s concept of base vs. superstructure within historical materialism. Marx states that there is a material history that surrounds humanity, but we are standing upon a superstructure that keeps us from being able to find the base. The attempt to relocate the material base, the “real”, is historical materialism.

Barthes also references historical materialism in Mythologies when he discusses the relationship of myth to bourgeois society. Myth is used by the right to preserve the status quo and by the left to aim for progress (not necessarily revolution). Through history the bourgeoisie have owned the means of production, through which the working classes have been controlled. Because Barthes believes myth to be a “second order semiological system” he sees it as impossible to “achieve more than an unstable grasp of reality”, yet at the same time claims that what we must seek is a “reconciliation between reality and men, between description and explanation, between object and knowledge” (Barthes, 159).

Beaudrillard has a somewhat similar notion of time holding an important place in reality. He discusses images as “murdering” reality- perhaps something was real at some point, but that is no longer the case. Eventually, simulations become replications of replications (simulacra) and destroy the original. Beaudrillard also introduces the concept of the “hyperreal” (take Disney, for example) as a simulation presented as imaginary to make one believe the rest is real. Then, the “real” that surrounds it is no longer real “but belongs to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation” (Beaudrillard, 5).

When contrasted with play, reality comes to mean daily life or “vocation” (Turner, 39). The time(s) which one separates from work time are understood to be spaces for play, initiating the concept of boundaries: There must be walls to separate reality from the places where play happens. Huizinga refers to this as a “sacred space”, the play becomes a “temporary real world of its own” (Huizinga, 14). Because one is conscious of the enclosed space, one is also conscious of the reality outside of the play world. “’Don’t kiss the engine, Daddy, or the carriages won’t think it’s real’”. This ‘only pretending’ quality of play betrays a consciousness of the inferiority of play compared with ‘seriousness’, […]” (Huizinga, 8). Huizinga goes on to discuss that though the game is taken very seriously (spoilsports are not allowed), it is still understood that the game is less serious than the outside world. He describes the term “illusion” as literally meaning “in-play” (Huizinga, 11); interestingly, “illusion” is considered to be an antonym of “reality” (Merriam-Webster).

Like most other things one encounters on a daily basis, reality is a construction of society. If reality is constructed through historical progression, does it not stand to reason that we now construct our own realities through technological change? Previous conceptions of reality (such as those of Barthes) focused centrally on reality as materiality. However, Haraway makes use of the cyborg-human/animal/machine- in her description of present and future reality. The “boundary between physical and non-physical is very imprecise for us” (Haraway, 5). Here one can see the reference to boundary, the distinguishing factor between play and reality. Modern technological systems are smudging these boundary lines, and no more can “reality” be considered as merely the physical or material (if it ever even could).

Haraway also discusses “contemporary” technologies as cybernetic systems in which information is quantified and controlled (Haraway, 14), stating that these blends between “communications sciences and biology” have indicated “fundamental transforma-tions in the structure of the world for us” (Haraway, 15). Processes that were thought of as naturally and even unchangeably human (such as word processing, sex, and the mind) have been taken over by robotics. Not only do these cybernetic systems sustain themselves, but they also produce excesses. Reflecting upon Geertz’s isomorphic conception of a religious system, one could look at Haraway’s system as one of creation, one that continually produces something new. Geertz was concerned with maintaining a pre-formed reality; perhaps Haraway is emphasizing an ever-changing, evolving reality?

“It would seem that we are condemned for some time yet always to speak excessively about reality” (Barthes, 159). Though “reality” appears to be a broad, overarching theme, it would seem that there is not a purely synchronic way of describing it. People’s realities have shifted throughout time and situation. Reality, it could be argued, is subjective: Each individual sees what they want to see, whether it be material or intangible, corporeal or ethereal.


  • · Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973. Print.

  • · Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. Print.

  • · Huizinga, Johann. Homo Ludens. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1950. Print.

  • · Turner, Victor. From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play. PAJ Publications, 1982. Print.

  • · Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Rougeledge, 1991. Print.