Simulcra and Simulation is a provocative examination of the state of reality (or lack thereof) with respect to the modern political economy and media atmosphere. It’s a heady, challenging treatise that integrates examples from popular culture (film, novels, current events) into a sweeping investigation of semiotics, cybernetics, and information theory. I’ll touch on some key terms and then move towards my thoughts on a few of Baudrillard’s conjectures.
To start, let’s define that key term, “simulacram,” We can understand the “simulacram” as the mangled hyper-representation of what was once once an identifiable facet of reality. We move, in succession, from: reality in a defined setting, to an unfaithful copy of this reality, to an imitation of reality that masks the essence and makeup of that reality, to, finally a pure simulation that’s entirely detached from all aspects of reality.
Baudrillard points to a fable from Borges, wherein cartographers produced a map of an Empire with such exactitude and attention to detail that they managed to (virtually) terraform the mass they were aimed to delineate, as a rendering of simulation.
From there, Baudrillard situates Borges’ tale in our current epoch. This paragraph is worth studying closely as we wrap our heads around the “hyperreal,” the other important concept coined in this work:
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. 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, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.
This phenomenon deludes us into subscribing to a set of facts and assumptions that doesn’t have a bearing on any real objects. We’re witness to a landscape that produce itself with no original reference point — no “origin or reality” (3). We are bereft of representation and reality; in their stead, an alterior construction.
Let’s look at some of the applications of these concepts, starting with Baudrillard’s views on how information spreads and what inheres truth.
Virality and Meaning
The first aspect of this work that stands out to me sees Baudrillard voicing an interesting proposal about how we understand and discuss events and historical occurrences. For instance, in the aftermath to a public tragedy such as a terrorist strike, Baudrillard contends that the totality of explanations of its origins (Organization A states it was Group X, Organization B states it was Group Y) are “simultaneously true.” How can this be?
Well, to start, he writes, “a single fact can be engendered by all the models at once” (13). And, I buy that; when the basics of a situation (the who/where/when) are made public, respective groups apply their preconceived biases and explications to them. In the case of a high-stakes robbery, for instance, identical tweets from the accused will invariably elicit two different responses to two different groups of people. Furthermore, the “simulation” undergirding this phenomenon is reified merely through that fact that its disseminated. As Baudrillard puts its: “…even the most contradictory [explanations]- all true, in the sense that their truth is to be exchanged” (13, emphasis mine).
This sequence is especially relevant to our current media ecosystem. Our political climate is an amalgamation of “facts” (alternative, or not) reified insofar as they are (rapidly) diffused.
A platform like Twitter, then, red is a multiverse container, possessing an infinite number of ecosystems each bespoke with their own logic, rules, heroes and enemies. It’s precisely as Talking Heads reminds us: “Facts just twist the truth around.”.
Entropy and Information
The next idea from this piece I want to examine entails the deluge of information produced by a networked, connected society. Baudrillard entertains the following possibilities regarding information and meaning:
- Information produces meaning (thus, more is better).
- Information is purely functional (meaning is divorced from its operational significance).
- Information and meaning are correlated: “to the extent that information is directly destructive of meaning and signification. (55).
Baudrillard endorses that final point in spite of its prima facie liabilities. To start, he analogizes information to productive forces in the economy. A society’s standard of living is detached from its productive capacity. Likewise, information manufacturing, in both a personal setting as well as through mass-media conglomerates, “devours” meaning. The circuitous neologisms that form the backbone of most of our conversations are mere “phantom content” to Baudrillard. We’re nothing but our stop words. This sort of “business-speak” is endemic to modern office settings. And it is remarkable how the destruction of meaning through information parallels the hallowing out of concrete production in our economy. Baudrillard was certainly onto something here.
To continue, Baudrillard extends Marshall McLuhan’s famous dictum, “the medium is the message.” Baudrillard stipulates that interrogating the distribution channels of information inadequately addresses the externalities of a society dominated by mass-media. He contends that an “implosion” of sorts is taking place between both poles of McLuhan’s phrase. “[T]he reabsorption of every dialectic of communication in a total circularity of the model” leaves us with nothing corresponding “meaning” of any time to make sense of (56). Don’t let platforms fool you; forget your posts, you are the product.
A era dominated by wall-to-wall media cycles makes Baudrillard’s work almost trite; of course a society that traffics information as currency impacts our brains in negative ways. I can only imagine what he would make of some of the new stock-phrases of our era like “data is the new oil.”
This work is worth engaging with if you find yourself frustrated with the jittery reactions that litter Twitter feed. It’s overwhelming, certainly, to take a step back and think critically about the massive amounts of information generated every day. Baudrillard, for all his verbosity, makes clear that this could hardly be a good thing, and it’s for this reason that I think his work ought to find a place on your shelf (of things you’re actually going to read).