Friday, July 24, 2009

Simulacra and Simulation

by Jean Baudrillard

Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser

The essays collected in ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ envision a means of looking at the world beyond the formidable shadow of Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt school. Or, Jean Baudrillard furthers the extent of this shadow, but through an extension in time and space; he demands we once again consider our models of representation. The point of origin of such a model must also be revised. Can we perceive such an origin? Does one even exist? And what is the model itself? Baudrillard contends that our lives are inundating with so many models, so much simulation, that the old distinction of authenticity is no longer relevant. So where does that leave us? Baudrillard writes that “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…” Postmodern culture is not artificial, that must be stressed, as the very concept of artifice is archaic, seeing as there is no binary upon which to qualitatively judge. Therefore, strictures of authenticity as a basis of aesthetic judgment have collapsed, or rather, dissolved. We have lost our ability to perceive a distinction between the real and the artificial – is Baudrillard also saying that no such distinction even exists? We can see our world, then, as a great dissolve.

The hyperreal is not a facsimile reality shorn of consequence. A thing that is not real is not without danger, an order of intent, consequence or definition. For example, Baudrillard suggests a person “Organize a fake holdup. Verify that your weapons are harmless, and take the most trustworthy hostage, so that no human life will be in danger (or one lapses into the criminal)… remain close to the “truth,” in order to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulacrum. You won’t be able to do it: the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements…” It is impossible to place simulation outside the real, just as the intrusion of the real into the simulated furthermore questions the very realness of an event. Power structures are ill-suited to work in mind of such a distinction, as “The simulation of an offense, if it is established as such, will either be punished less severely (because it has no “consequences”) or punished as an offense against the judicial system… but never as simulation since it is precisely as such that no equivalence with the real is possible, and hence no repression either. The challenge of simulation is never admitted by power.” Ah! Power, and with it capital, are addressed in relation to this emerging culture of the simulacra. We must look at “Simulacra and Simulation” according to the interstices between culture and dominant power structures.

So, therefore, “The only weapon of power, its only strategy against this defection, is to reinject the real and the referential everywhere, to persuade us of the reality of social, of the gravity of the economy and finalities of production. To this end it prefers the discourse of crisis, but also, why not? that of desire.” To maintain itself, power must utilize the myth of disaster in order to perpetuate the crisis of the real. Power remains so, then, by virtue of its ability maintain an imaginary status quo from perceived disruptions. Baudrillard calls this deterrence. He investigates the American film, “The China Syndrome,” in which a nuclear disaster is averted. But, Baudrillard argues, “... nuclear catastrophe does not occur, is not meant to happen, in the real either, any more than the atomic clash was at the dawning of the cold war. The equilibrium of terror rests on the eternal deferral of the atomic clash.” What could then be made of the endless ‘War on Terror’ perpetuated under the Bush-Cheney administration? Terror’s purpose is “…making real, palpable violence surface in opposition to the invisible violence of security.” But in the Bush-era ‘War on Terror’ isn’t terror itself the specter of deterrence?

Baudrillard touches upon economic theory, yet thankfully retains a degree of skepticism. “Capital was the first to play at deterrence, abstraction, disconnection, deterritorialization, etc., and if it is the one that fostered reality, the reality principle, it was also the first to liquidate it by exterminating all use value, all real equivalence of production and wealth, in the very sense we have of the unreality of the stakes and the omnipotence of manipulation.” This had lead to an implosive dissolve as “…power played at deterrence and simulation, disintegrating all the contradictions by dint of producing equivalent signs. Today when the danger comes at it from simulation… power plays at the real, plays at crisis, plays at remanufacturing artificial, social, economic, and political stakes.” But it’s too late for that, since “Power itself has for a long time produced nothing but the signs of its resemblance.” Since an empty equivalency still maintains its stranglehold upon power, how can this chain of command be disrupted?

The very structure of “Simulacra and Simulation” must at this time be inspected. The collection begins with ‘The Precession of Simulacra,” by far the longest single essay in the book, consisting of roughly a third of its length. It is also with this extended essay that Baudrillard establishes many of the book’s themes, positioning concepts of the hyperreal, fascination, implosion, the end of the panopticon and deterrence in larger constellations of interrelation. This ‘precession’ must be understood as both a movement through space, or rather an insertion into space, and also a position in time – that is, the representation precedes and defines the real. Again, we must remember the hyperreal does not alleviate the danger of the real – this truism in fact neuters the suppositions of power, founded on deterrence, which wishes to perpetuate the danger of the real. Because a simulated “…war is no less atrocious for being only a simulacrum – the flesh suffers just the same, and the dead and former combatants are worth the same as in other wars.” So, we are left with the simulacrum, and not with either reality or its artificial constituent. The hyperreal is not a movement outward, as in an explosion, but an implosion - a consolidation?

Having established a basis of intent, that is, a basic lexicon, through “The Precession of Simulacra,” the remainder of the book can be understood as modular points of entry rather than a linear accumulation of an argument. I am reminded at times of Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizome. Hegelian history, the shopping mall, science fiction and motion pictures are all investigated in dense, consolidated essays, often running three to eight pages. Any argumentative arc is contained in its totality within each individual essay. It is simply a question of compression in terms of each individual essay. Take, for instance, “Clone Story,” in which Baudrillard chases the significance of scientific advantages in cloning technology. So, “If all information can be found in each of its parts, the whole loses its meaning.” The whole is deprioritized, as each part is in a sense the whole – though such distinctions are further marginalized as we acknowledge a cultural implosion.

Baudrillard expands upon the prospective place of information in such an implosion. He states, “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” But he provides three possibilities: “Either information produces meaning (a negentropic factor), but cannot make up for the brutal loss of signification in every domain…” or “… information has nothing to do with signification…” or even that “…very much on the contrary, there is a rigorous and necessary correlation between the two, to the extent that information is directly destructive of meaning and signification, or that it neutralizes them.” Baudrillard contents that “the third hypothesis is the most interesting, but flies in the face of every commonly held opinion.” Information must be reimagined – it “…devours its own content. It devours communication and the social,” because “Rather than creating communication, it exhausts itself in the act of staging communication,” and therefore “…information dissolves meaning and dissolves the social in a sort of nebulous state dedicated not to a surplus of innovation, but, on the contrary, to total entropy.” So we are left with the media producing the implosion of the social.

The media must be further interrogated. Baudrillard wants one to ask, “…do the media neutralize meaning and produced unformed [informe] or informed [informee] masses, or is it the masses who victoriously resist the media by directing or absorbing all the messages that the media produce without responding to them?” Baudrillard states that the media are “…themselves terrorists, insofar as they themselves march to the tune of seduction…” But whereas in past writings he “…condemned the media as the institution of an irreversible model of communication without a response…” he did so under an old model of appraisal. Because “…this absence of a response can no longer be understood at all as a strategy of power, but as a counterstrategy of the masses themselves when they encounter power.” In this instance, then, perhaps the old methods of judgment have been rendered inadequate.

Is “Simulacra and Simulation” simply another aesthetic or academic condolence to the myth of the new - an era which must be envisioned with new eyes, even if it is an era of simulation? Or is there instead a layering and consolidation of methodology, an implosion and dissolve? Baudrillard calls JG Ballard’s “Crash” “…the first great novel of the universe of simulation, the one with which we will all now be concerned – a symbolic universe, but one which, through a sort of reversal of the mass-mediated substance… appears as if traversed by an intense force of initiation.” Baudrillard’s collection is perhaps, much like Ballard’s novel, just such an initiation. The book must arguably be judged based on its merits as a piece of science fiction. In the novel of galactic empire, “…the conquest of space constitutes an irreversible crossing toward the loss of the terrestrial referential.” And “…science fiction can no longer be a romantic expansion… it would evolve implosively, in the very image of our current conception of the universe, attempting to revitalize, reactualize, requotidianize fragments of this universal simulation that have become for us the so-called world.” Science fiction is an exploration of this new universe, but what is this new universe doesn’t expand, but implodes? Then, “…this new universe is ‘antigravitational,’ or if it still gravitates, it is around the hole of the real, around the hole of the imaginary.” In that regard, then, ‘Crash’ or ‘Pattern Recognition’ are works of science fiction, not solely because their authors are ‘SF writers’ but because they chart this imploded terrain. In this sense, Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” is also a work of unparalleled speculative fiction.

NEXT: William Hope Hodgson's the Night Land.

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