On “Simulacra and Simulations,” Jean Baudrillard
“Simulacra are copies that depict things that either had no reality to begin with, or that no longer have an original. Simulation is the imitation of the operation of a real-world process or system over time.
Simulacra and Simulation furthermore converses how symbols and signs relate to contemporaneity (simultaneous existences). Baudrillard claims that our current society has “replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is of a simulation of reality.” Furthermore, these simulacra are not “merely mediations of reality, nor even deceptive mediations of reality; they are not based in a reality nor do they hide a reality, they simply hide that anything like reality is relevant to our current understanding of our lives.” The simulacra that Baudrillard refer to are thus the significations of how the symbolism of culture and media constructs perceived reality, the acquired understanding by which our lives and shared existence is and are rendered legible; “…Baudrillard believed that society has become so saturated with these simulacra and our lives so saturated with the constructs of society that all meaning was being rendered meaningless by being infinitely mutable. Baudrillard called this phenomenon the “precession of simulacra”– expressed in four stages.”
“Simulacra and Simulation” breaks the sign-order into 4 stages (Wiki):
- The first stage is a faithful image/copy, where we believe, and it may even be correct, that a sign is a “reflection of a profound reality” (pg 6), this is a good appearance, in what Baudrillard called “the sacramental order”.
- The second stage is perversion of reality, this is where we come to believe the sign to be an unfaithful copy, which “masks and denatures” reality as an “evil appearance—it is of the order of maleficence”. Here, signs and images do not faithfully reveal reality to us, but can hint at the existence of an obscure reality which the sign itself is incapable of encapsulating.
- The third stage masks the absence of a profound reality, where the simulacrum pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original. Signs and images claim to represent something real, but no representation is taking place and arbitrary images are merely suggested as things which they have no relationship to. Baudrillard calls this the “order of sorcery”, a regime of semantic algebra where all human meaning is conjured artificially to appear as a reference to the (increasingly) hermetic truth.
- The fourth stage is pure simulation, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever. Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims. This is a regime of total equivalency, where cultural products need no longer even pretend to be real in a naïve sense, because the experiences of consumers’ lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial, “hyperreal” terms. Any naïve pretension to reality as such is perceived as bereft of critical self-awareness, and thus as oversentimental.
Simulacra and Simulation identifies three types of simulacra and identifies each with a historical period:
- First order, associated with the premodern period, where representation is clearly an artificial placemarker for the real item. The uniqueness of objects and situations marks them as irreproducibly real and signification obviously gropes towards this reality.
- Second order, associated with the modernity of the Industrial Revolution, where distinctions between representation and reality break down due to the proliferation of mass-reproducible copies of items, turning them into commodities. The commodity’s ability to imitate reality threatens to replace the authority of the original version, because the copy is just as “real” as its prototype.
- Third order, associated with the postmodernity of Late Capitalism, where the simulacrum precedes the original and the distinction between reality and representation vanishes. There is only the simulacrum, and originality becomes a totally meaningless concept.
Baudrillard theorizes that the lack of distinctions between reality and simulacra originates in several phenomena:
- Contemporary media including television, film, print, and the Internet, which are responsible for blurring the line between products that are needed (in order to live a life) and products for which a need is created by commercial images.
- Exchange value, in which the value of goods is based on money (literally denominated fiat currency) rather than usefulness, and moreover usefulness comes to be quantified and defined in monetary terms in order to assist exchange.
- Multinational capitalism, which separates produced goods from the plants, minerals and other original materials and the processes (including the people and their cultural context) used to create them.
- Urbanization, which separates humans from the nonhuman world, and re-centres culture around productive throughput systems so large they cause alienation.
- Language and ideology, in which language increasingly becomes caught up in the production of power relations between social groups, especially when powerful groups institute themselves at least partly in monetary terms.
Baudrillard’s comprehensive analysis and almost genius identification of the metaphorical symbols which dominate our contemporary reality in the media (which is ironic, as this piece is written from 1981) really opened my mind of how to diagnose and label what is real and unreal in the media. It also also made me extra conscience of how to carefully dissect the misconceptions which drive the world of art. It furthermore was compelling to see the potential the “forecast” of the contemporary digital world from the 80s almost perfectly came true, according to Baudrillard’s breakdown of analysis.