A Basic Understanding to Baudrillard’s Theory
Baudrillard’s arguments in “The Precession of Simulacra”, the first section of Simulacra and Simulation, are initially impenetrable. They then begin to appear uncomfortable and contentious. The reader, then, finally begins to engage critically with the notion of simulacrum, and appreciate its relevance to modern society.
The first difficulty encountered is to try to pinpoint whether Baudrillard’s is making a claim about some new development in society, or whether he is simply developing previous ideas to theorize about the contemporary. It is clear that Baudrillard wants to make a claim about a cultural shift in postmodernity that is marked by something that is entirely different from the culture of previous eras. Simulacrum is not simply a development from simulation. It is a seismic shift in cultural understanding: “the most beautiful allegory of simulation… has now come full circle for us, and possess nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra” (Baudrillard, Page1). Similarly, Baudrillard is arguing that the idea of the referential object, that which is being represented, “disappears” (Baudrillard, Page1–3). Baudrillard’s thesis is that postmodernity and contemporary culture is profoundly different and new. There is no longer a real that is being represented, because signs of the real have replaced the real. Thus, “never again will the real have the chance to produce itself” (Baudrillard, Page2). In its place is a hyper-real: “a hyper-real henceforth sheltered from… any distinction between the real and the imaginary” (Baudrillard, Page2–3). Initially, this perplexing argument can seem unsustainable, contentious and uncomfortable, since it is an argument that culture lacks any real depth. Instead, society is made up of surface. Layer upon layer of representation has buried the real, and sent reality hurtling into the hyper-real world of simulacrum.
This is an uncomfortable notion at first, since there is a near-universal human preference for the “authentic”, the “real”. These are highly marketable commodities and ideas. It is much easier to sell something as being the “authentic” look or sound of some thing than it is to consumers and audiences something as the “synthetic” or “fake” look or sound of some thing. This hierarchy where real and authentic are privileged over synthetic and fake is what makes Baudrillard’s arguments so contentious and uncomfortable. There is a desire to resist and refute them, because human nature does not want to accept that there may be nothing real, no authentic referential point. There is a human wish to hold onto the hierarchy of some things being real and genuine, and thus good; and some things being synthetic representations and false, and thus bad, or at least inferior. Baudrillard’s concept of simulacrum and of the hyper-real threatens this hierarchy, and thus controversial and uncomfortable.
There is, however, an uncomfortable truth in Baudrillard’s arguments. For example, Baudrillard discusses the experiment by American TV producers to film the Loud family for seven months in 1971 (Baudrillard, Page27–32). This may have been original in 1971, but it has now spawned an entire genre: “reality television”. The most obvious example of this genre is the television show, “Big Brothe”r, created by a Dutch producer in 1997, and exported worldwide in the following years. Baudrillard’s analysis of the Loud family would be just as accurate if he was describing Big Brother. Baudrillard argues that what is most “interesting is the illusion of filming… as ‘if TV weren’t there’. The producer’s triumph was to say: ‘they lived as if we were not there.’ An absurd, paradoxical formula” (Baudrillard, Page28), Baudrillard concludes. “Reality TV” — either the Loud family or Big Brother and etc. it present a very obvious example of simulacrum. In these shows, the aim to show something real, something genuine, something authentic. They attempt to show life how it is lived in the real, unscripted world. It is the antithesis to scripted TV drama. However, the real cannot survive, what Baudrillard calls, “excessive transparency” (Baudrillard, Page28). In order for something to exist as real, it cannot be exposed to the unnaturalness of permanent exposure.
This is analogous to Baudrillard’s idea of the “paradoxical death” of the ethnology of primitive cultures (Baudrillard, Page7–14). By encountering the Tasaday tribe, who had lived for eight centuries without any contact with humans, ethnography had the opportunity to study a tribe in their primitive state. However, in interacting with a primitive tribe, the tribe loses its virginity: “in order for ethnology to live, its object must die; by dying the object takes its revenge for being “discovered” and with its death defies the science that wants to grasp it” (Baudrillard, Page7). Ethnography is, ultimately, left without its object of study, because the subject is no longer primitive and no longer without contact with outsiders.
Both the examples of “reality TV” and ethnography may seem peripheral to daily life. However, simulacrum does have very real examples in our everyday life. Baudrillard’s opening example of the map is a good example of this (Baudrillard, Page1–3). The aim of the map is represent the territory it depicts. The map acts “the double, the mirror” of the real thing (Baudrillard, Page1). However, when maps are so ubiquitous, so accessible and so detailed, they cease to represent the world. Instead, the world is approached first through the map. Prior to experiencing a new place, one experiences it by taking a walk through the place in Google maps. One can rotate the view to see whatever one wants to see, and see areas that one might not be able to see if one actually visited that place. Thus, the pre-gazed upon map shapes expectations and understanding of the place before it is visited. The place is not viewed through virgin eyes, but through the pre-conceived idea of what the place is like based on how it appeared in Google maps.
Baudrillard’s theory of the role of simulacrum in structuring our lives is pertinent. It is unsettling; however, the “reality” that the “real” is only experienced after it is experienced in the virtual is a defining feature of contemporary postmodern society.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and simulation. University of Michigan press, 1994, Page1–42.