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Simulacra and Simulation

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Simulacra and Simulation (Simulacres et Simulation in French) is a philosophical treatise by Jean Baudrillard that discusses the interaction between reality, symbols and society.


The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth--it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.[1]

Simulacra and Simulation is most known for its discussion of images, signs, and how they relate to the present day. Baudrillard claims that modern society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that the human experience is of a simulation of reality rather than reality itself. The simulacra that Baudrillard refers to are signs of culture and media that create the perceived reality; Baudrillard believed that society has become so reliant on simulacra that it has lost contact with the real world on which the simulacra are based.

Simulacra and Simulation identifies three types of simulacra and identifies each with a historical period:

  1. First order, associated with the pre-modern period, where the image is clearly an artificial placemarker for the real item.
  2. Second order, associated with the industrial revolution, where distinctions between image and reality breaks down due to the proliferation of mass-produced copies. The items' ability to imitate reality threaten to replace the original version.
  3. Third order, associated with the postmodern age, where the simulacrum precedes the original and the distinction between reality and representation break down. There is only the simulacrum.[2]

Baudrillard theorizes the lack of distinctions between reality and simulacra originates in several phenomenon:

  1. Contemporary media including television, film, print and the Internet, which are responsible for blurring the line between goods that are needed and goods for which a need is created by commercial images.
  2. Exchange value, in which the value of goods is based on money rather than usefulness.
  3. Multinational capitalism, which separates produced goods from the plants, minerals and other original materials and the process used to create them.
  4. Urbanization, which separates humans from the natural world.
  5. Language and ideology, in which language is used to obscure rather than reveal reality when used by dominant, politically powerful groups.

A specific analogy that Baudrillard uses is a fable derived from On Exactitude in Science by Jorge Luis Borges. In it, a great Empire created a map that was so detailed it was as large as the Empire itself. The actual map grew and decayed as the Empire itself conquered or lost territory. When the Empire crumbled, all that was left was the map. In Baudrillard's rendition, it is the map that people live in, the simulation of reality, and it is reality that is crumbling away from disuse.

The transition from signs which dissimulate something to signs which dissimulate that there is nothing, marks the decisive turning point. The first implies a theology of truth and secrecy (to which the notion of ideology still belongs). The second inaugurates an age of simulacra and simulation, in which there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgement to separate truth from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance. [3]

Thus, Baudrillard further distinguishes three orders of simulacra associated with three historical periods: first order simulacra belong to the pre-modern era in which images were clearly copies or representations of some original; second order simulacra arise with the industrial revolution, photography and mass reproduction technologies in the nineteenth century - the image obscures (dissimulates) and threatens to displace the real; third order simulacra are part of our postmodern era; the image is said to completely precede and determine the real, such that it is no longer possible to peel away layers of representation to arrive at some original.

It is important to note that when Baudrillard refers to the "precession of simulacra" in Simulacra and Simulations, he is referring to the way simulacra have come to precede the real in the sense mentioned above, rather than to any succession of historical phases of the image. Referring to "On Exactitude in Science", a fable written by Borges, he argued that just as for contemporary society the simulated copy had superseded the original object, so, too, the map had come to precede the geographic territory (c.f. Map–territory relation), e.g. the first Gulf War (see below): the image of war preceded real war.

Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory - precession of simulacra - it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. [4]

With such reasoning, he characterised the present age — following Ludwig Feuerbach and Guy Debord — as one of "hyperreality" where the real object has been effaced or superseded, by the signs of its existence. Such an assertion — the one for which he is most criticised — is typical of his "fatal strategy" of attempting to push his theories of society beyond themselves. Rather than saying, that our hysteria surrounding pedophilia is such that we no longer really understand what childhood is anymore, Baudrillard argued that "the Child no longer exists".[5] Similarly, rather than arguing — as did Susan Sontag in her book On Photography — that the notion of reality has been complicated by the profusion of images of it, Baudrillard asserted: "the real no longer exists". In so saying, he characterised his philosophical challenge as no longer being the Leibnizian question of: "Why is there something, rather than nothing?", but, instead: "Why is there nothing, rather than something?"[6]

The MatrixEdit

The Matrix makes many connections to Simulacra and Simulation. In an early scene, the original French Simulacres et Simulation is the book in which Neo hides his illicit software. In the film, the chapter 'On Nihilism' is in the middle, rather than the end of the book.

Morpheus also refers to the real world outside of the Matrix as the "desert of the real", which was directly referenced in the Slavoj Zizek work, Welcome to the Desert of the Real. In the original script, Morpheus referenced Baudrillard's book specifically.

Keanu Reeves was asked by the directors to read the book, as well as Out of Control and Evolution Psychology, before being cast as Neo.[7]

In an interview, Baudrillard claimed that The Matrix misunderstands and distorts his work.[8]

Footnotes Edit

  1. Poster, Mark; Baudrillard, Jean (1988). Selected writings. Cambridge, UK: Polity. ISBN 0-7456-0586-9. 
  2. Hegarty, Paul (2004). Jean Baudrillard: live theory. London: Continuum. ISBN 0-8264-6283-9. 
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. In the essay "The Dark Continent of Childhood" in the essay collection Screened Out, 2002.
  6. In The Perfect Crime.
  7. Oreck J (director). (2001). The Matrix Revisited [DVD]. Warner Home Video.
  8. "Le Nouvel Observateur with Baudrillard". Le Nouvel Observateur (2004-10-15). Retrieved on 2007-12-07.

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