Simulations – Jean Baudrillard
Nothing like some hot French postmodern (or post structural?) philosophy to kick things off. It would make me appear erudite and complex, if I then didn’t go on to reveal how bloody hard it was to read and (probably) how little of it I really understood. Gotta try though.
Also, taking selected chunks out of one important thinkers’ works, in isolation, and trying to get the whole meaning over is a little naughty of me: suffice to say if you want the full story on Baudrillard you won’t find it here (try the tell-all celebrity autobiography “Baudrillard: Mad, bad and French to know” hitting shelves this Christmas)
Baudrillard also seemed fairly chummy (at least with the writing of) Marshal McLuhan, also known as the guy who said “The medium is the message”, and I will have to get round to reading something of his soon. “Simulations” is is actually two long essays: “The precession of Simulacra” and “The orders of Simulacra” so isn’t particularly long, but is translated from French so is still challenging to focus on properly. In addition to it’s naturally challenging subject material; reality. (His Wikipedia page, under Reception has some worthy criticism on how he uses language a little too obscurely or with too much hyperbole. I believe his language to be most compunctuous; one might even say, frasmotic)
You might know a little about Baudrillard, even if you think you don’t, because you’ve seen a film called ‘The Matrix’
In which reality and simulation are all jumbled up together like pants and socks in the cinematic wash basket. The mind bending fun is largely based around the experience of a our protagonist (A lovely piece of 2×4 birch. Sorry, I mean Keanu Reeves! I say, what a world class burn!) proceeding to A: realise that his life is in fact a complete simulation, B: escape to the real world, C: then being able to manipulate the simulation in the knowledge that it’s not real. Then two more really quite bad films happened, also proposing D: maybe the real reality and the simulation still kind of bleed into each other. But I’m not here to poorly discuss one great installment of a rubbish trilogy, I’m here to poorly discuss Baudrillard. (Also, have you seen the Truman Show recently?)
Indeed, ideas of Baudrillard and the ideas of Matrix films were so close that Baudrillard (allegedly) considered suing the producers for a screen credit while also calling the films a pretty bad misreading of his ideas. (in his own words here, takes a sec to load). Like I said, by watching the Matrix you “might know a little about Baudrillard” , even if the man himself would have disagreed with you. Some of the basic elements are there in a pretty entertaining form anyway.
So we’re familiar with the idea of simulations and reality, anyway. We deal with simulations all day – photos, recordings, TV, images etc… compared to earlier human societies we probably spend more time in the presence of simulated reality than reality. But it’s not just a straight case of ‘this is real’, ‘this is fake’: A point worth reminding ourselves, is of the different orders of ‘simulacra’ and the symbolism that comes along with it:
Counterfeit – “Renaissance level” or “Painting of a tree” or “You know it’s a copy”
Production – “Industrial level” or “Looking at a photograph of a tree” or “It is a perfect copy (and you could make as many of these perfect copies as you wish)”
Simulation – “Modern level” or “Making you believe you’ve seen a tree” or “It is a tree”
Reality is a tree. A Counterfeit reality, is you being shown a painting of a tree and thinking: “Wow, that reminds me of seeing a tree.” A Production reality, is you being shown a photo of a tree and thinking “Wow, that is almost like looking at a real tree.” And a Simulation reality is you being strapped into a chair, having the top of your head sawn off, and chemicals and electrodes shoved in so you think “Wow, I am looking at a tree! Also, I know kung fu, and there is no spoon.”.
Perhaps. That’s how I read it anyway.
Your experience of these very different scenarios (looking at molecules of paint arranged on a canvas, looking at a wall to wall high-resolution print, undergoing brain surgery) are nevertheless trying to convey the same information (the fundamental “tree-look-at” experience), with varying degrees of subtlety.
It’s not just a visual thing, though this is the easiest way to get the point over, I think. What about behaviour? Public image? Politics? What about, for example, the pope telling us all that he has got the direct line (the ‘bat signal’ if you will) to the big God-man upstairs? And what about one of my most evergreen moans (it happened in 2006!): the Sandi Thom debacle? In a world where stuff like this happens daily, does anyone really expect anything to be real any more? Maybe just a level of contrivance they can deal with. (On the other hand, someone like Ed Sheeran can’t seem to get over quite how ‘for real’ he is, and is just as irritating despite that)
Maybe by creating a simulation you change reality?
One often mentioned example (whether directly referencing Baudrillard or not) is that by building nuclear weapons, you make using nuclear weapons impossible. Wha-? He does add (effectively) “with a few notable exceptions”, but being at the stage where human societies can now eradicate each other with the touch of a button, makes the possibility of doing so, shall we say, a lot less appealing? Okay, it’s because you know you’ll get blown up by the other guy too, but the symbolism of bombs being built for war, but causing peace does give some pause for thought. Although it could be that on a long enough timescale they won’t be used 99% of the time, just the 1% of that will matter. Or anti-matter! (fnar)
What about Disneyland?
Baudrillard has some head-meltingly great things to say about Disneyland:
“The objective profile of America, then, may be traced throughout Disneyland, even down to the morphology (structures of/types of forms/shapes) of individuals and the crowd. All its values are exalted here, in miniature and comic strip form. Embalmed and pacified. Whence the possibility of an ideological analysis of Disneyland: digest of the American way of life, panegyric (like a eulogy but typically very positive/praising) to American values, idealised transposition of a contradictory reality. To be sure. (I love that ‘to be sure’ here. Like he’s saying: oh my god, duh?!)
But this conceals something else, and that “ideological” blanket exactly serves to cover over a third-order simulation: Disneyland is there, to conceal the face that it is the real country, all of real America which is Disneyland.”
Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality, but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.”
Disneyland is the real America, and America is the fake Disneyland? Or maybe more like: America was real, Disneyland made an ideal image of America, and now America is suspended in a kind of postmodern gloop: where it is impossible to separate real-reality, fake-reality or real-reality-reacting-to-fake-reality.
A little too paranoid for you?
“Yes, but who is really that devious to think in terms like that? Isn’t the modern world one big, random mistake: neither benevolent or hateful, just a directionless mess?”
Hang on, he’s not at any point saying
“…and its these crazy robots doing it to us to harvest us for fuel!” or even “…it’s the Illuminati doing it to suppress the working class!”.
All the layers of artifice and simulation are just a product of the way we live now; he’s making an observation, not necessarily saying that there is anyone ‘behind it all’ (though we can safely assume there are some who benefit from the situation, even if they have no idea how it came about or really how to sustain it). I don’t think anyone is suggesting the old “Well, let’s go back to the stone age” solution, but simply that we should probably bear in mind these concepts as we get ever more out of our depth with our tiny mammal brains: which, as far as they are concerned, maybe still live in the stone age. Me write good word.
The quote on the back of the book, I would assume one of his most famous, gives a pretty good summary of the issue:
“The very definition of real has become: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction… The real is not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced: that is, the hyperreal…which is entirely in simulation.”
By making it possible to simulate something, we must alter reality. (at least in our perceptions: as if anything else matters?). If you have seen a simulation (of whatever order) of a tree, it affects your future interactions with other trees: real or fake, your brain takes in the same data and treats them in the same way: and recalls this data when you have another fundamental “tree-look-at” experience. If it is real, it must be possible to make a copy of it. Who’s ever thought “Wow, this sunset looks just like a photograph” or “Wow, that rain effect on my window is really realistic!” or “Wow, that pedestrian bounced right off my car just like in Grand Theft Auto!”. Actually, those are all still visually-based, what about listening to music while studying, or working or exercising and getting psyched up because, just for a second, it feels like you’re in a film? I know I still want to apply for the full time position of “Professional Tyler Durdan” or “Durdanator”
If you can fake a real thing, does that mean all real things are (or might as well be) fake? What’s the difference? Our view of the world is that everything can be reproduced, manufactured. Everything can be copied, technologically or atomically if needs be. Hey, the natural world has been doing it for ages, copied things at a cellular levell. Look at DNA. (There’s some hiding under your chair!) If DNA and it’s endless strings of code isn’t somehow related to the Matrix, boy, I don’t know what is.
Getting to the point now
Or, I can at least point to someone who made the point far better than I could (in this case comedian Stewart Lee, click through to point in the clip: about 60 secs long) “A sign to say that you should have liked the kind of thing that ought to have been there but isn’t”
Is this the most recognizable downside to ‘hyperreality’ we can identify with: that lurking sense of postmodern ennui in even the simplest corners of our lives today? (I had to use ennui there, I don’t think despair or miserable-ness does the trick. Futility might, but it’s a bit late now)
Now, I’m clearly not going to suggest (for example) that the “kids today” are playing too many “video games”, or that “society today” is “pissing away their lives in a horrible, grasping pursuit of a somehow crushingly mundane but nevertheless over-reachingly fantastical, self centred lifestyle”. Well, partly because I live in that society and am subject to all the same desires, dreams and problems that “society” gets stuck with, and partly because I don’t think the morality of “just giving up on reality” is not neccesarily a black or white thing. Peoples lives have been ruined by fantasy and simulations, but lives have been ruined by reality for quite a while too. What’s the difference? Be happy with your modern distractions, you prole! Actually, I am quite happy with them- some of the time.
Perhaps the best thing to come from reading Baudrillard is simply an enhanced sense of how natural for the brain to be duped by simulation, in it’s many forms. And I mean ‘natural’ in the same way it’s ‘natural’ for the brain to think getting hooked on opiates, slipping into a coma and dying is a really awesome idea. Duped to the point that through seemingly logical steps, you end up with no original thoughts, living what some marketer has persuaded you is the dream life, unsure why you are so alienated and lonely, all the while telling yourself: “I had no choice. This was the right thing to do.”
In that ‘our natural brains’ quite easily get us doing not neccesarily good things. We don’t naturally have the ‘bullshit compensators’ required to interpret our contemporarily hyperreal surroundings, so it’s a wise idea to hone them up to deal with the (aforementioned) post modern gloop that we find ourselves in. Then ideally you can live in a world with knowledge of both reality and simulation, without cocking up your life and the lives of others.
(I am beginning to question whether this particular book was the best one for me to start this semi-reviewing lark with. Next, I think will struggle with this epic tome instead:)
For extra credit, why not watch this: The matrix is a remix