The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.Ecclesiastes
In Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard produces a theory about cultural materialism. What is the simulacra? It is whatever replaces reality with its representation. Disneyland is an example that masks the unreality of society.
Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation. To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms: pirates, the frontier, future world, etc. This imaginary world is supposed to be what makes the operation successful. But, what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious revelling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks. You park outside, queue up inside, and are totally abandoned at the exit.Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard
In addition to Disneyland, psychosomatic illness is another example of how a representation of the real replaces the real. You stress about having an illness, the stress itself makes you ill – thus, the reality is that you are now ill.
Plato also thought that people were fooled into mistaking simulations of reality for reality itself (The Allegory of the Cave). Baudrillard goes further and says that reality itself has been lost.
The Matrix suggests that behind the simulation is a reality – this is more like Plato’s idea, not Baudrillard, which is why the latter had a lot of criticism for the movie and refused to consult on its sequels.
Baudrillard rejects the existence of primary reality, or at least, he rejects that we can know the difference between primary reality and simulacra anymore.
To understand this idea better, imagine there was a very popular sitcom which tries to mimic American family life called The Cheerful Years. Millions of families end up watching this sitcom and then behave like the characters on it. They behave like these characters because they feel a certain kind of affinity towards them, and since human beings are hyper-mimetic creatures, they will automatically adopt some of the beliefs and behaviors of these characters.
Many years later, an entire generation grows up watching The Cheerful Years – this inspires a new generation of writers who attempt to emulate the modern American family, with many of their impressions inspired from The Cheerful Years. A new show comes out, and the cycle repeats. If the cycle repeats itself for several generations, reality and art become indistinguishable. The writers are now representing imitations of imitations of imitations of imitations and so on.
Baudrillard’s point is that this happens everywhere in modern society.
Plato asks his readers to move towards the light in The Allegory of the Cave – a painful decision that will isolate them from the herd, who are trapped in a cave and are tragically mistaking shadows on the wall for what really exists. But Baudrillard doesn’t tell us to go out of the cave, because there is nothing outside the cave.
“it is dangerous to unmask images, since they dissimulate the fact that there is nothing behind them”. – Baudrillard
The young woman or man that tries to look like an idealized version of their youth, and inject BOTOX into their foreheads is trying to achieve a fictional ideal, that is a part of their imagination, not to look like a young person, but to look like a young-looking older person.
Interestingly, the average age for people who receive their first BOTOX treatment is generally at some point in their 30s.
Wars, according to the collective imagination, happen on TV screens, not on the battlefield. Even those who decide to go to war are more incited to do so by what is reported to them by various news outlets than what is actually happening in the country they are going to war with, or the reality of the political situation.
Cyber warriors and drone pilots in the US Army are considered Nintendo soldiers – they inflict damage on the enemy with zero skin in the game. And as reported by these soldiers, simulations of war are mistaken by the real thing because the simulations so closely resemble reality.
Simulacra and Simulation marks the announcement of the postmodern in this stage of Capitalism. The modern philosophers (Nietzsche) had a project to fulfill, which was to unmask the reality behind the appearances, but this presupposes there was a reality to be unmasked (the will to power), whereas in the postmodern world, there can be no such project.
Are the mass media on the side of power in the manipulation of the masses, or are they on the side of the masses in the liquidation of meaning, in the violence perpetrated on meaning, and in fascination? Is it the media that induce fascination in the masses, or is it the masses who direct the media into the spectacle? Mogadishu-Stammheim: the media make themselves into the vehicle of the moral condemnation of terrorism and of the exploitation of fear for political ends, but simultaneously, in the most complete ambiguity, they propagate the brutal charm of the terrorist act, they are themselves terrorists, insofar as they themselves march to the tune of seduction (cf. Umberto Eco on this eternal moral dilemma: how can one not speak of terrorism, how can one find a good use of the media – there is none).Simulacra and Simulation – Baudrillard
The scandal of Watergate is given as an example of moral indignation to feign the morality of an immoral system. The abundance of information about it confounds people, and does not need to be verified – it only needs to arouse indignation and astonishment to keep the system going, but it’s all smoke and mirrors according to Baudrillard.
All the movements that only play on liberation, emancipation, on the resurrection of a subject of history, of the group, of the word based on “consciousness raising,” indeed a “raising of the unconscious” of subjects and of the masses, do not see that they are going in the direction of the system, whose imperative today is precisely the overproduction and regeneration of meaning and of speech.Simulacra and Simulation – Baudrillard
Now for some questions.
When did Simulacra take over the real?
The process first started when simulations of reality gained in importance. The earliest instances of writing appeared 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq).
Why is the world of simulacra worse than base reality?
The hyper exchange that takes place in the capital markets do actually contribute to a better world. If the by-product is simulacra, so be it. More people die from obesity today than they do from hunger. Things most people take for granted like clean drinking water, electricity, and dentistry are only possible thanks to functioning economies, thanks to hyper-reality.
The only places where poverty still exists today are in countries with corrupt governments that are purposefully starving their people for political motives. That’s not to mention the enormous benefits that have arisen from all kinds of symbolic exchange. As Alfred North Whitehead once cleverly remarked, “Ideas die so you don’t have to.”
If we had nothing but base reality, and were unable to use simulations of reality at all, even to an extreme extent, then many of the best ideas that have been conjured up would never be passed on to all cultures. In other words, we should be very thankful for the internet rather than scorn it because it is an unregulated medium that has replaced “reality.”
Without TV, books, or the internet, each person would be trapped under the dogma and biases of their own land – one can hardly think of a state of being that is more oppressive. The problem with critiques like Baudrillard’s is that they point out the shortcomings of a system without acknowledging the benefits, and without understanding the destitute state the world would be in without the problem he is alluding to.
In fact, the internet (the perfect example of simulacra) has created a world that can become aware of simulacra. Thus, if it wasn’t for simulacra, no one would even know about simulacra. It could have easily been possible that the simulacra remains hidden from plain sight. And given the complicated and inaccessible language that Baudrillard takes pride in, the probability that it remains hidden is very high.
The quote from Ecclesiastes at the beginning of the post got me curious. Did the Bible really mention “simulacra”? So I looked into it and I found that it doesn’t exist. There may be some explanation – perhaps Baudrillard has a unique translation of Biblical text, or perhaps, he was making a subversive point – we can never really know. But rather than see this is a profound intellectual accomplishment of Baurdillard, we would do better to see it for what it is, another instance of confusion – perhaps hyper-confusion.