20th Century French philosopher Jean Baudrillard is not considered the most accessible, nor truly enlightening of thinkers.
He has often been criticised for deliberately obscurant and obtuse language.
However, one idea for which he deserves credit for furthering, is his conception of human existence as merely a facsimile of reality.
In arguably his most important work, 1981’s Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard ponders the detachment of our world from any version of true reality.
Through culture and media, we tried to understand and shape the world around us into a narrative. The problem, as Baudrillard sees it, is this narrative has become so far removed from the truth, as to render it meaningless.
This detachment from reality and the resulting tragic denoument of human existence, plays out through what Baudrillard refers to as the Precession of Simulacra.
It’s become something of a meme, that perhaps the world did indeed end in 2012 as the Mayans predicted, and we are now living through some bizarre, post-history version of life.
With the procilivty of what I’d academically refer to as the “absolute fucking batshittery” of modern events in politics and culture over the last few years, such a theory doesn't immediately cause revulsion or ridicule.
And so, it’s hard to escape the feeling that with the likes of Trump, and in the case of my home nation, Brexit, we are very much living through the bizarro-endgame, the post-Thanos-click, of hitherto ‘civilised’ western society — something Baudrillard foresaw, or perhaps intuited nearly forty years ago.
His prescience then, is worth exploring as a guide to the current paradigm.
In this piece, I’ll examine Baudrillard’s theory in more depth— and how all this ties in with Brexit — and through this, try to see if there’s any possible way to get out of this simulated reality we now inhabit.
The Stages of Simulacra
The Precession of Simulacra — i.e. the descent into non-reality, or better put, the replacement of reality with simulation— comes in four stages, so says Baudrillard.
A good way to think about these is like the different dream stages in the movie Inception.
Each stage becomes more and more strange, less and less real, and conforms only to the realities in which it is related.
The first stage is the faithful recreation — this is when a society creates a sign or symbol that recreates reality in as close a way as it is physically able. An example would be an accurate replica of an existing object such as an ancient vase.
The second stage is the perversion of reality — here the original reality is obscured or denatured, but within the perversion there exists some hint of truth — a nod to reality. An example would be a parable or apocryphal tale — though the story itself is not true, it harks towards a truth or real meaning.
The third stage is the masking of the absence of reality — when something pretends to be a faithful recreation, as in the first stage, but actually references no orginal reality. Here we have crossed into the realms of pure symbols — fiat Currency, political power, job titles — these would all be examples of this stage.
The fourth stage is pure simulacrum — where the simulacrum not only does not relate to reality, it doesn’t even pretend to be a recreation of reality. Instead, it is a new reality that only makes sense in the context of other fake realities. This is what Baudrillard calls Hyperreality — where experience is only describable through the compounding of untruths. An example would be something like ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians’ — this reality makes no sense without the maelstrom of other unrealities that preceded it, such as other scripted reality TV shows, Paris Hilton, celebrity sex tapes, the concept of celebrities etc.
The Phenomena that cause the Precession of Simulacra
A Simulacrum doesn't happen on its own. It requires a steady, ongoing shift away from true reality.
In the case of our own move towards it, there have been five key contributing factors:
1. Contemporary media owned by billionaire moguls
2. Exchange value, in which the value of goods is based on money, not their intrinsic value.
3. Multinational capitalism.
4. Urbanisation to the detriment of nature.
5. Language and ideology as a means of drawing meaning.
When a society is structured like ours — with the above factors of abundant media, fiat currency, capitalism, urbanisation and nationalism at the helm — an event of “absolute fucking batshittery” like Brexit becomes an inevitability.
Brexit is as pure a Simulcrum as they come — the fourth stage of precession — because nothing about it makes any sense, none of it adheres to what we thought we knew about reality.
When you have a referendum that was illegally won, with interference from nefarious states, and a public woefully misinformed of the truth over decades, you arrive at a situation that didn’t seem possible — Brexit.
And no wonder then, that no-one, no politician has any real, concrete plan with how to deal with it. Because it doesn’t correspond to reality.
And yet even still, we push further into the abyss, despite a public about-face and then some, all because this entirely fake reality we created is so hard to see beyond.
So how the fuck do we get out?
Taking the Red Pill
Like Inception, The Matrix is hugely influenced by Baudrillard’s theory.
In the movie, Neo must choose between the red pill or the blue pill — red will remove all of the simulcra from his perception, and he will leave the Matrix entirely; blue and he carries on as normal.
We too must take the red pill.
Our red pill means renouncing the phenomena that caused Brexit.
All of the factors discussed must be thrown away from our society.
This is not easy, perhaps not even possible.
But if we truly want to awake from this simulated nightmare, then we must be willing to try.
So capitalism… gone. Fiat currency… gone. Media at the behest of billionaire owners… gone. Urbanisation at the expense of nature… gone. Nationalism, borders themselves even… gone.
All very John Lennon’s Imagine, and no doubt naivety is the easiest criticism of this approach.
But it only takes one bug in the code, one glitch in the Matrix, for the whole reality to fall apart.
The question is, are you ready for that? We don’t know what comes next, we don’t even know if it’s better.
If your answer is a resounding yes, then pick your line of code, start debugging, and get ready to see things a whole lot differently.
I’ll leave you with Neo’s words, rather than Baudrillard’s:
I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid… you’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future.
I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin…
… I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you…
Jackson Rawlings is a political philosopher, writer and thinker with some big ideas about how we can change the world for the better.