Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) wrote:
‘Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the territory‘. (Baudrillard, 1981: 1).
And he went on to write:
‘It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real‘. (1981:. 2)
Modern (postmodern?) culture is not artificial – we do not live in a computer game – but we have lost the ability to decide what is real. What is natural, the real world, and what is artificial.
Baudrillard argues for three kinds of simulations:
- The first is as close a copy of reality as we know how to create. We know it is an artifice – we know it is counterfeit – but we accept it as a representation. Paintings, throughout history, would be examples.
- The second is a copy so good that it blurs the boundaries between reality and representation. The early debates on photography as being just like reality illustrate this. Idealogical positions can also blur reality and artifice. We still, however, believe that we can analyse, politic or critique our way to separating the real from the imaginary.
- The third is hyperreality, where the copy comes to our mind and is accepted as real, even before the ‘actual’ real world. As an example, he notes that the huge tail fins on American cars of the 1950/60s suggest speed, but actually create drag. There is thus no longer a distinction between reality and representation – just simulacrum. Baudrillard discusses the empty functionalism of such an approach to technologies – he calls these tech objects ‘machin’ (or ‘gizmo’). These things operate, for us, in an imaginary world rather than a real one.
He goes on to show how these levels of simulation affect many fields.
- Media. Television, film, magazines, the Internet are all concerned not just with relaying information but also with interpreting things for us – including our selves. We tend to approach life first through these media images, rather than address life directly, ourselves, first.
- Capitalism. Baudrillard suggest that it is capital that defines our identities, with multinational companies no longer defining national identity. We have lost touch with labour. The people who make our products and services are invisible. In hyperreality, we, as consumers of goods and services, have come to accept exaggerations as determining what is real. It is part of our belief system, for example, in accepting a manufacturer’s promise.
Manufacturers exploit this tendency in their advertising, underpinning the capitalist system. Can any of us identify coffee plants? Yet, Starbucks populates and to some extent defines our global, urban reality. The concept of ‘Free Trade Coffee’ is better known than the actual process of coffee production.
- Exchange-Value. Karl Marx wrote that we consider everything in terms of what it is worth, rather than its value to us. In other words, we define things as to what they can be exchanged for. Marx defined exchange-value as the labour/power necessary to create something, rather than the thing itself. Money allows us to measure everything in our lives – and, again, we have lost sight of the real value of labour. Life is all about capital, not about actual value, and that is a simulacrum, according to Baudrillard.
- Urbanization. We are losing (have lost?) touch with the natural world. Often natural spaces are ‘protected’, reserved, fenced off. The sign ‘nature’ (e.g. Natural Park) precedes our actual relationship with the reality of the natural world.
- Language. Baudrillard shows that in both obvious and subtle ways, language stops us from accessing reality.
Marx noted that some kind of false consciousness keeps us from seeing the real workings of the world – government, industry etc. We ought to be able to analyse our way to understanding such power relationships – as suggested in Baudrillard’s second level of simulation – but we don’t.
Postmodernism, with its lack of one underlining ideology, relies on articulating everything via language, and combining all kinds of ‘centres’ of thoughts, themes and executions. And language is always ideological rather than perceptual – it is constructed with simulacra.
Related, I am reminded of Hassan’s comparison of Modernism and Postmodernism (1987) .. a very useful ‘cheat sheet’
When creating photographs, are we addressing the modern, post-modern, or (as is more likely) something in between?
The more I ponder this, the more I consider that it’s becoming a blurred issue in the way that we today strategise and then execute things – maybe it always was blurred in reality? Perhaps just the ‘Theory-Nazis’ want to keep it all separate? Maybe we need new definitions?
To quote Alison Gibbons , in the Times Literary Supplement (2017):
‘Postmodernism seems essentially to involve a questioning of the real, both in terms of the actual world, and in the representational efficacy and fidelity of fiction.
Postmodernism might not be as emphatically over as some critics like to claim, but it does seem to be in retreat. Its devices have become so commonplace that they have been absorbed into mainstream, commercial and popular culture. Postmodernism has lost its value in part because it has oversaturated the market. And with the end of postmodernism’s playfulness and affectation, we are better placed to construct a literature that engages earnestly with real-world problems.’
So, postmodernism is not over – but we are trying to engage again in real-world problems (and thus, in representation). The best of all worlds? I can see another blog post there.
Back to Baudrillard. He writes:
‘Representation stems from the principle of the equivalence of the sign and of the real (even if this equivalence is Utopian, it is a fundamental axiom). Simulation, on the contrary, stems from the Utopia of the principle of equivalence, from the radical negation of the sign as value. … Whereas representation attempts to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation itself as a simulacrum.
Such would be the successive phases of the image:
- it is the reflection of a profound reality;
- it masks and denatures a profound reality;
- it masks the absence of a profound reality;
- it has no relation to any reality whatsoever;
- it is its own pure simulacrum.‘ Baudrillard, (1981: 4).
When we create photographs, an open question is what level of simulation are we aspiring to?
The examples Baudrillard uses – coverage of 9/11, the Gulf War and so far, all decry the mis-representation of events by the media. Yet it seems logically impossible to deny an event unless one ‘knows’ that it has happened – anything else is pure guesswork and fantasy.
None of Baudrillard’s simulacra examples are pure fantasy – that requires The Matrix, which overtly paid homage to his ideas.
I would concur with Baudrillard that today’s audience no longer always looks for the truth, but often lives with the media simulation of it. His call for us to wake up against being programmed is both valid and urgent. He is in effect arguing that we should be seeking ‘truth’, and in the complexity of the modern world, I would suggest that we are looking for both correspondence and coherence to find that truth.
We can see things in The Matrix movie which are real (the actors, even Baudrillard’s book). We know the actors are just that – real people, playing a role, a simulation. We follow the story, judging the coherence of the various narratives within it, as believable or not. Yet we also know that it is a movie.
We know it is just not ‘true’.
Header image: Unknown photographer. Baudrillard. Available at: https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/in-theory-baudrillard-4/ (accessed 29/04/2019).
BAUDRILLARD, Jean. 1981. Simulacra and Simulation. 1994 trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
BAUDRILLARD, Jean. 1983. The Precessions of Simulacra. Translated extract. Available at http://layoftheland.net/archive/art6933_mapping2010/readings/BaudrillardPrecession.pdf. (Accessed 28/03/2019).
FELLUGA, Dino. 2015. Critical Theory: The Key Concepts. Abingdon: Routledge.
GIBBONS, Alison. 2017. Postmodernism is dead. What comes next? TLS. Available at: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/postmodernism-dead-comes-next/. (Accessed 29/03/2019).
HASSAN, Ihab. 1987. Toward a Concept of Postmodernism. Available at http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/HassanPoMo.pdf. (Accessed 29/03/2017).
LANE, Richard J. 2000. Jean Baudrillard. 2009 Edition. Abingdon: Routledge.
MERRIN, William. 2003. Did You Ever Eat Tasty Wheat? – Baudrillard and The Matrix. University of Nottingham. Available at: https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/scope/documents/2003/may-2003/merrin.pdf (accessed 23/05/2019).