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Jul 15, 2014

Notes on Jean Baudrillard, "The Precession of Simulacra"

These notes cover the Baudrillard excerpt appearing in Heather Masri’s textbook Science Fiction: Stories and Contexts. Page citations refer to that text.

"Baudrillard argues that in the world created by modern post-inudustrial capitalism, things have become detached from their meaning. Instead of the worth of an object being directly related to its usefulness, worth is attached to the image of the product. Accordingly, he suggests that we live in a world where artificial simulations are overtaking and indeed replacing reality, because we only interact with those things in the world whose images can be commodified and reproduced" (Masri 443).

The Divine Irreference of Images

Note the pun on "irreverence". Images do not refer. They do not exhibit divine correspondence to reality.

What is the difference between the terms "to dissimulate" and "to simulate"? Dissimulation means pretending not to have what you have. This implies an absence - I have something, but I make you think I really don't have it. The falseness is in the absence. Simulation means pretending to have what you don't have. This implies a presence - I don't have something, really, but I make you think I do have it. The falsity is in the presence.

According to Baudrillard, dissimulation "leaves the principle of reality in tact." What is the principle of reality, you might wonder. It is, firstly, that there is such a thing called reality, that it can be referred to, discussed, and represented, and that it can be distinguished from the artificial and imaginary.

Signs/symbols/images >>>> REFER TO >>>> SOME REALITY OUT THERE / IN THERE

So when I dissimulate, I pretend to not have something. Remember, it implies an absence. I don't have it. But I do have it. Actually, it exists in reality, but I am hiding the fact that I have it. So I mask the "truth". For dissimulation, think "mask" - covering the truth. The truth is behind it though.

When I simulate, something more sly happens. I am implying a presence. I make like I have something (but I don't, really). But in order to convince you that I have what I don't possess, I must produce 'symptoms', appearances, representations of the thing I do not really have. So it is not a matter of covering, masking, hiding the truth. I have to in effect copy the truth I don't have. But when I represent it, those representations or simulations assume a kind of presence or reality. This is what Baudrillard means when he says that "simulation threatens the difference between the true and the false." By making it seem like I have it, I'm clouding the true/false distinction.

To illustrate, he cites how people can simulate sickness by producing the symptoms of illness, how soldiers simulate insanity or homosexuality to be discharged from the field of battle. The homosexuality point is worth exploring in some detail. Let's say I am a soldier and I don't want to fight, and homosexuality is forbidden in the ranks. If I produce the symptoms of homosexuality, perhaps in cooperation with another soldier who also wants to get out of the army, all we have to do is perform a homosexual act and be seen doing it. We have simulated homosexuality. Does that mean we are homosexuals? Does it matter? The simulation is destabilizing the principle of reality (of truth).

Baudrillard then turns to religion and the "simulacrum of divinity" (444) and the question off iconography and iconoclasts. Can divinity be represented in an image? Traditionally, this idea has been resisted.. A religious icon [[show examples]] threatens to limit, dazzle, distract and fascinate with its visual machinery, and thus substitute the image (simulacra) for the "pure" concept of divinity. This is what iconoclasts feared so much, and why they went about destroying religious iconography.

Baudrillard thinks the iconoclasts were on to an important insight: that simulacra are capable of erasing God and destroying the truth that they simulate, and they imply the pernicious truth that deep down there is no God, only the images of God. So by destroying the images, you preserve the Idea of God.

On the other hand, the icon worshippers are most modern in their assumptions that God can be manifested in the simulacrum, thus making God disappear behind the representations of God but then hiding (dissimulating) the fact that there is nothing behind the image of God.

Images then have a murderous power. They annihilate the real, they kill the thing they model. But opposed to this way of thinking about images is the idea that images have a dialectical power, that the mediate reality, make it visible and intelligible. This leads us to consider the meaning of signification (making signs). To represent means to establish an equivalence between sign and the real. This sign = that reality.

It works like a contract. "A sign could refer to the depth of meaning, ...a sign could be exchanged for meaning," and God (as a ground for truth) could guarantee this exchange. But if God can be simulated too, then you don't know if the simulation is really referring to God or an absent God or no God, and then the entire system of signifying becomes unmoored and we float around in space, where nothing is real quite, nor is it quite unreal. Images exchange with other images in "an uninterrupted circuit" free of reference and unbounded.

From the standpoint of representation, to simulate means to represent falsely. That is, the simulacra is pretending to be something it isn't. The copy, the image, the clone. But from the standpoint of simulation, all representation is nothing but simulation. There is no getting outside the process of simulation.

Baudrillard describes the successive phases of the image:

1. Image as reflection of a profound reality (naive equivalence of representation with divine truth - image incarnates or animates the reality). The image is a good appearance. It represents the sacramental order. No simulation is really suspected, just signification.

2. Image then masks and denatures this reality (false representation - it doesn't or cannot represent truth - it pretends to equivalence). The image is an evil appearance - the order of maleficence. The awareness that images can lie, can be manipulated.

3. It masks the absence of a profound reality (it covers up the fact that the profound reality -- God / Truth / Reality -- doesn't exist). It plays at being an appearance (order of sorcery / magic). Image as illusion.

4. It bears no relation to reality at all (pure simulacrum). Leaves off the order of appearances and enters the order of simulation.

What is the decisive turning point in this succession of phases? When signs that mask the truth become signs that mask that there is no truth. There is no longer a God who can judge the false from the true, the real from the artificial.

With reality no longer as reliable as it used to be, NOSTALGIA assumes greater value. [[this paragraph is confusing]] (446)

Ramses, or the Rosy-Colored Resurrection

Baudrillard now brings in examples to illustrate his theory. He starts with an ethnological example: primitive members of the Tasaday tribe were returned to their "primitive" state in a virgin forest by the Philippine government.

When anthropologists study a primitive culture, they kill the thing they study. It's unavoidable. Instantly, the primitive culture begins to disintegrate on first contact.

So why did the ethnologists agree to "sacrifice" the object of their scientific study and "preserve" the Tasadays in the virgin forest where they couldn't be touched? For Baudrillard, their true intent was to preserve the reality principle. The preserved Indian in his virgin ghetto "becomes the model of simulation of all the possible Indians from before ethnology." It is the idea of primitivism that is being simulated. The idea that these natives have not been encountered. But these savages are already dead, sterilized, preserved in a frozen state as it were. They have become referential simulacra.

The same kind of thing happens with "living history" museums. One thinks of colonial Willilamsburg, say, or wildlife parks. What is going on with places like this? In Williamsburg (my example), we have the simulation of a colonial town. The 'residents' are in period costumes. Think "Ren Faire" too. Same idea. We pretend, mimic, but what are we simulating? Some actual experience? Real history? Or are we rather simulating other representations of Williamsburg, the Renaissance, the Serengeti Plain? What is being preserved in these reconstructions?

This anti-ethnology and how the museum is everywhere now. It is not circumscribed but an invisible presence of the simulacrum. "We are all Tasadays, Indians who have again become what they were -- simulacral Indians who at last proclaim the universal truth of ethnology." Baudrillard’s meaning is confusing and will take some time to tease out.

The confinement of the scientific object is equal to the confinement of the mad and the dead. Inverse mirror effect (this is also a difficult, confusing point. Insert higher intellect here...)

"As ethnology collapses in its classical institution, it survives in an antiethnology whose task it is to reinject the diference fiction, the Savage fiction everywhere, to conceal that it is this world, ours, which has become savage in its way, that is to say, which is devastated by difference and by death" (448).

Next example, the caves at Lascaux. On the pretext of saving the original, they blocked access and built an exact replica 500 meters away. "The duplication suffices to render both artificial" (448) How so??

Next example, the crumbling mummy of Ramses II. Scientists panicked because the mummy's decay threatened the principle that accumulation has meaning, that if we can't stockpile the past, it loses meaning and our acquisitive society collapses. We need a visible order, a visible past, visible myths of origin to reassure us about the end.

We are fascinated by Ramses just as Renaissance Christians were fascinated by the encounter with American Indians. They come from a past outside our own.

Demuseumification is "nothing but anothe spiral in artificiality" (449). Examples: the Cloisters in New York. Reinstituting appropriated museum pieces (buildings, statuary, etc.). Consider also the Elgian marbles in the British Museum. "Their reimportation is even more artificial: It is a total simulacrum that links up with 'reality' through a complete circumvolution. The cloister should have stayed in New York in its simulated environment, which at least fooled no one." You can't restore and pretend as if the thing is in its original state, as if nothing happened in the centuries since it was removed in the first place.

Another example: American pride at bringing the Indian population back to pre-Conquest levels. As if that erases all the atrocities!

"Everywhere we live in a universe strangely similar to the original -- things are doubled by their own scenario."

The Hyperreal and the Imaginary

What is the perfect model of the entangled orders of simulacra? Disneyland. It plays first of all in illusions and phantasms, the imaginary world.

Crowds are most attracted to "the social microcosm, the religious, miniaturized pleasure of real America, of its constraints and joys." (450) The crowds are tender, warm, made so and directed by multitudinous gadgets. The contrast to the "absolute solitude" of the parking lot is enormous. Disneyland simulates the profile of America, of the American individual in American society. It exalts American values. It embalms them. Pacifies them. This is the ideological analysis of Disneyland. It represents American ideology: our values and ideals. Baudrillard takes this even farther. Disneyland is an ideological blanket, covering for a third order simulation. It exists to hide the fact that it is the real country. It presents itself as imaginary and persuades us that the rest of life "out there" is real, whereas, out there nothing is real. All is hyperreal. (450) Disneyland is the prototype of toxic excrement of a hyperreal civilization.

The End of the Panopticon

The ideology of lived experience is referred to in the TV experiment of the Loud family in 1971. The vérité experience is a frisson of the real more than a violation of privacy. "A frisson of vertiginnous and phony exactitutde, a frisson of simultaneous distancing and magnification, of distortion of scale, of an excessive transparency." "Pleasure in the microscopic simulation that allows the real to pass into the hyperreal."

The Louds were already hyperreal, a typical American family, statistically speaking. The camera lens pierces lived reality in order to put it to death. A sacrificial spectacle. "The liturgical drama of a mass society."

TV is the truth of the Louds. TV renders truth. Truth is no longer reflexive like a mirror. The manipulative truth of the test that sounds out and interrogates. The eye of TV is no longer the source off an absolute gaze. End of the panoptic system (we're always watching you, so behave) to a "system of deterrance, in which the distinction between the passive and the active is abolished. Such is the watershed of hyperreality, in which the real is confused with the model.

This is the final stage of the social relation in which persuasion (the realm of propaganda and ideology and publicity) has given way to deterance. You are always already on the other side of the model, the gaze. No more perspective. No more focal point. No more violence or surveillance, only "information". It is the abolishment of the spectacular. The confusion of the medium and message is "the first great formula" of this new era. The medium is so diffused and diffracted in the real, that nobody can say that medium is changed by it. I wonder what he'd say about the Internet.

We are all Louds because we are doomed not to violence and blackmail by the media but to media induction, innfiltratioon, illegible violence.

This however is not to be understood as a disease or innfection. The media is like a genetic code that "directs the mutation off the real into the hyperreal". So the media is the codemaker, the engine for this.

What has given way is reality and its attendant lords: causality, perspective, determinism, criticism, analysis, binary distinctions between cause/effect, end/means, active/passive. The media is not this external agent "out there" doing things to us. Now we must conceive us the media along the lines of DNA.

Nothing separates the poles anymore. They contract over each other. Where the polar distinctions cannot be maintained -- in politics, biology, psychology, media - that is where simulation begins and one enters an absolute manipulation.