JEAN BAUDRILLARD and the HYPERREAL
“Abstraction today 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 survives it.
Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981
Jean Baudrillard was the prophet of simulation. His most famous work, Simulacra and Simulation (1981), concerns the point at which representation loses connection with reality, and ultimately displaces it, trapping humanity in a synthetic world of copies of copies, images without originals, references without referents: a closed circuit of artificiality, where that word loses all meaning since it’s all there is. He defines the stages through which simulation must pass, to arrive our present moment, and projects a world which is neither real nor unreal, but hyperreal.
A first order simulacrum takes any of the traditional forms of representation: a map, a diagram, a work of art. It is aware of its own artificiality, referring and deferring to a reality which is irreproducible, acknowledging the ineffable uniqueness of the original. The map is not the territory. And therein lies the value of the map: in its simultaneous difference from and similarity to the original. A map which achieved perfect accuracy and detail would be identical to the territory in every way, including extent – as in J G Borges’ one paragraph story (which pretends to be a literary forgery), On Exactitude in Science – in which an ancient Empire’s cartographers have created a map so faithful that it is contiguous with entire Empire; but as soon as this consummation has been achieved, it ceases to have any use or value. In the end the map rots away, scavenged by beggars for clothing and animals for their nests. Shreds and rags of the map litter the desert, stirred by the wind.
Baudrillard, however, thinks that Borges neglected a more interesting possibility. Rather than the map, in his vision it is the territory which fades away; the map replaces the territory; the simulacrum usurps the reality. This is ‘the precession of simulacra’. In a world saturated with maps, models, images, effigies, representations and simulations of every kind, primary experience dies, and we can no longer access the real. Reality no longer forms the basis of our experience. We live in the map.
Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.”
In Baudrillard’s historical theory, it is the industrial revolution which gave birth to this new order of simulation. Mass-produced objects are copies, even if they’re not fakes, but they no longer refer to a real original, as a portrait does to a real face or a map to a real place. So what are they copies of? In the industrial age, a tide of mass-production overwhelms authentic making, and eventually destroys even the concept of originality. A mass-produced product is a second order simulacrum: indistinguishable from its ‘original’, the image now threatens to displace reality. Such second-order images are described by Baudrillard as being of the order of malefice. This dramatic word-choice resonates with the strange anxiety reified in literature of that period as doppelgänger stories such as Edgar Allen Poe’s William Wilson (1839), or Dostoevsky’s The Double (1846).
Images can be sacraments to reality, or they can pervert and mask it; or they can obscure the fact of its absence, covering up the ‘death of the real’. When the religious icon becomes the object of worship, God, the only guarantor of truth, dies. Looking back, Baudrillard understands the iconoclasts, and credits them with an instinctive prescience that religious icons hasten the Death of god.
What becomes of the divinity when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra? Does it remain the supreme authority, simply incarnated in images as a visible theology? Or is it volatilized into simulacra which alone deploy their pomp and power of fascination – the visible machinery of icons being substituted for the pure and intelligible Idea of God? This is precisely what was feared by the Iconoclasts, whose millennial quarrel is still with us today. Their rage to destroy images rose precisely because they sensed this omnipotence of simulacra, this facility they have of erasing God from the consciousnesses of people, and the overwhelming, destructive truth which they suggest: that ultimately there has never been any God; that only simulacra exist; indeed that God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum. Had they been able to believe that images only occulted or masked the Platonic idea of God, there would have been no reason to destroy them. One can live with the idea of a distorted truth. But their metaphysical despair came from the idea that the images concealed nothing at all, and that in fact they were not images, such as the original model would have made them, but actually perfect simulacra forever radiant with their own fascination. But this death of the divine referential has to be exorcised at all cost.
In his third order of simulation, the original has all but disappeared; images are now of the order of sorcery. The journey has now almost reached its destination, the state Baudrillard calls hyperreality. Culture has traveled through reality and out the other side, into a world of copies without originals, where the concept of authenticity has no meaning.
“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none.”
Once God is gone, religious iconography becomes a closed circuit of reference without referent. The proliferation of images organizes itself into an infinite regress, an image of an image of an image, as in twinned mirrors, or a Dali painting. Pseudo-religions such as Marxism must be defined in the same hyperreal terms.
“It is through the death of the social that socialism will emerge – as it is through the death of God that religions emerge.”
The shadows on the wall in the antrum Platonicum do not mimic reality, rather they mask its absence; a wall of shadows screens the desert of the real. Your experience in the simulation simulates nothing, when the simulation is all there is. It is now both completely inauthentic and the only reality; that is hyperreality. The original, now, has not only disappeared — it never existed at all.
Baudrillard’s theme crystallizes the emergent zeitgeist. In 1981 only the merest hints could be discerned of the virtual realities that would offer sanctuary from twenty-first century reality. It was not until 2003 that Linden Labs released its virtual society, Second Life. In 1981, Nintendo had not yet released its first Mario Brothers game. The metaverse was rising, but all you could see of it were a few flickering rays of artificial light peeping over the horizon. Reality was still realer than its rivals, still appeared, at least, to have a monopoly on itself.
But what Baudrillard wants us to understand is that all of us, not just these early-adopting virtual ‘residents’, are disappearing into a world of simulacra: that in terms of Western culture, the reality principle (realitätsprinzip) is in irreversible retreat, the territory rotting away to rags and shreds clinging to various points of the map.
Baudrillard’s work is itself coolly psychedelic, giving us the same sense of dizzying replication that we love in doppelgänger stories and much science fiction. He was not the only prophet of our deracinated Age of Artificiality, of course. As a theorist of media and mediation he has a lot in common with Marshal McLuhan – whom he knew and collaborated with. Not to mention Leo Strauss, with his prescription of a system of delusion designed to reverse the ‘disaster’ of the enlightenment and re-occult the human faculty of reason.
Probably his greatest modern forerunner in articulating these themes was the novelist Philip K Dick, working through the genre of science fiction. The screenplay for Blade Runner, based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was in production at the precise time that Baudrillard published the work for which he is most admired. The freelance killer Rick Deckard, hired to track down and terminate a group of rogue replicants, sees himself as one of the remnants of a human reality defending itself against rogue simulacra, which he views merely as malfunctioning equipment. The moment when he realizes that he too is a Nexus 6 series replicant, implanted with memories which are not his own, is essentially hyperreal, and embodies in archetypal and dramatic form the precession of simulacra, the coming change in the human condition.
Dick’s slow-burning influence, as much as Baudrillard’s, is probably behind the extraordinary proliferation of a novel story type over the past forty years, in which the main character is somehow awoken from an artificial reality: a specific variation on the archetype of awakening, healing, rebirth from Plato’s Cave onwards. In The Matrix (1999) Baudrillard is name-checked onscreen, when Neo hides cash and computer files inside a copy of Simulacra and Simulation. The philosopher distanced himself from the Wachowski brothers’ splendid metaphor, saying that the film-makers had misread his work. The moral of this: agree with a philosopher and he will disagree right back.
Actually, Baudrillard has more in common with these producers of imaginative fiction than he pretends. His work is more rhetorical than epistemological, and what he presents not so much an argument as a vision. I see him more as a poet masquerading as a philosopher – a description which might apply also to McLuhan in some respects. His work is ‘probe, not package’; and his writing is dense, hyperbolic and paradoxical, making a secure reading problematic. It’s as if he crafted his work to resist synopsis: perhaps paraphrase is to Baudrillard what photography is to certain tribespeople – he instinctively fears the simulacrum, as they do.
The Simulacra (1967) is a novel by Philip K Dick set half-way through the 21st century. The political setting in the novel projects ad absurdum the Straussian model of puppet politicians masking the actual source of power (Dick’s vision of humanity is fundamentally absurdist – a note which rarely survives into cinematic adaptations). In Dick’s story, US presidents are simulacra, while political power is vested in a permanent First Lady, Nicole Thibodeaux, who died forty years ago but has been played ever since by a series of actresses. In Dick as in Baudrillard, the true center of power is impossible to locate, as fewer and fewer individuals or even phenomena can be identified as anything other than simulacra. Indeed, the masking of its true power centers would undoubtedly be the purpose of such a system.
I was getting flashbacks to Dick’s novel during the 2016 US presidential campaign, when it became apparent that Hillary Clinton was seriously ill, and that on a number of occasions her role had been played by doubles. I imagined her getting into office and being replaced by an actress, or a series of actresses; perhaps, like Thibodeaux, she would live forever.
That’s what sent me back to reread Simulacra and Simulation (1981), and flesh out my scant knowledge of Baudrillard’s subsequent career. I revisited The Perfect Crime (1995), and The Vital Illusion (2000). Then, realizing for the first time that Baudrillard had lived into the twenty-first century (dying in 2007), I turned to The Spirit of Terrorism (2002), wondering how he had responded to the epoch-making pseudo-event that would utterly vindicate his vision. What I found was that at the exact moment of his victory, Baudrillard had vanished and been replaced by a replica. The original had disappeared; from that moment on, as his theory dictated, he was a shadow of himself, a simulacrum among simulacra.