DOUBLETHINK AS AN ART FORM
“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 a French sociologist who became known as a prophet of artificial reality. 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 at our present moment, and projects a world which is neither real nor unreal, but hyperreal.
A first order simulacrum — ‘the order of sacraments’ — 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, 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).
Lena Mikulinskaya, “Double”
Such would be the successive phases of the image: it is the reflection of a profound reality; it masks and denatures a profound reality; it masks the absence of a profound reality; it has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum. In the first case, the image is a good appearance – representation is of the sacramental order. In the second, it is an evil appearance – it is of the order of maleficence. In the third, it plays at being an appearance – it is of the order of sorcery. In the fourth, it is no longer of the order of appearances, but of simulation.
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’. 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.
Once God is gone, religious iconography becomes a closed circuit of reference without referent. The proliferation of images organises 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 Plato’s parable of The Cave 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 crystallises 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 was a faint glow of artificial light peeping over the horizon. Reality was still realer than any rival, 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.
A contemporary 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 development at the precise time that Baudrillard published Simulacra and Simulation. 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 realises that he too is a Nexus 6 series replicant, implanted with memories which are not his own, is essentially hyperreal, and embodies in dramatic archetypal form the ‘precession of simulacra’, a coming — or recent — change in the human condition.
Dick’s slow-burning influence, more than Baudrillard’s, is probably behind the extraordinary proliferation of a particular 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 and 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, and quoted by the character Morpheus, when he describes the world outside the Matrix as ‘the desert of the real’.
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.
Perhaps Baudrillard has more in common with these producers of imaginative fiction than he knows. His work is more rhetorical than epistemological, and what he presents not so much an argument as a vision. Re-reading him, I find a poet masquerading as a philosopher – a description which might apply also to McLuhan in some respects. Like the Canadian, Baudrillard’s work should be taken as ‘probe, not package’; the 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 centre of power is impossible to locate, as fewer and fewer individuals or even phenomena can be identified as anything other than simulacra. The masking of its true power centres is of course 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 (non-speaking) 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.
It was that frightening thought that finally 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, realising for the first time that Baudrillard had lived into the twenty-first century (he died in 2007), I turned to The Spirit of Terrorism (2002), wondering how he had responded to the world-changing pseudo-event that would utterly vindicate his vision.
‘Never resist a sentence you like,’ wrote Baudrillard in Cool Memories (1990), and his incandescent style overflows with beautiful sentences. If you interrogate them, however — which is perhaps to ‘misread’ Baudrillard — you find that his dazzling paradoxes mask assumptions and transitions which must be explicit in a valid argument.
Take, for example, the passage on religious iconography and the death of God, leading up to the stunning epigram: It is through the death of God that religions emerge. A beautiful sentence, acid with anticlerical hatred, and I’m sure that the first time I read it I applauded it to the echo.
The ‘death of God’ is, of course, a logical contradiction, since any definition of God must, a priori, include the property of immortality. To say that ‘God is dead’ assumes not that God doesn’t exist but that God has existed and no longer does. Death-of-God theology, therefore, is incompatible with atheism. And with theism, too, unless you worship a strange kind of God, one who is mortal. Death-of-God philosophers from William Blake to Hegel to Altizer to Paul Tillich and so on are not atheists, and for the most part they are not claiming that God has died. They mean that belief in God has died; that the connection with God has been lost, specifically in Western society.
But it is the contradiction that gives the phrase its glamour, its daring; the shock of the paradox. Friedrich Nietzsche, who did not originate the idea but gave it widespread currency, milks it — bleeds it, I should say — for melodramatic imagery. We are God’s blood-drenched murderers.
What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
— Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft Section 125, tr Walter Kaufmann.
Baudrillard follows Nietzsche’s lead in important ways, firstly in requiring to be read as much as a creative artist as a theorist; as a rhetorician rather than a logician. Inspired by the German’s romantic archetype of the philosopher, post-war theorists like Baudrillard, Foucault and McLuhan developed what was essentially a hybrid form, part argument, part incantation. The device of the paradox, which short-circuits the faculty of reason, is paramount in this form.
Nietzsche appears to have believed that the Enlightenment released us from the necessity or even the possibility of believing in God, while challenging us to become gods ourselves to atone for the deicide. Transhumanism is also implicit in Baudrillard’s simulation theory, in which reality itself becomes anthropogenic: this is the world the technological Übermensch creates, the limitless fields of simulacra he spreads before us.
Baudrillard takes the death-of-God formulation as axiomatic, but he is more nonchalant about it than his forerunner. For the post-modern theorist, the death of God is so automatic an assumption that it has lost the shock of paradox, and lives on as only as cliché that must be wrapped in further paradox to make it taste of anything. God must be killed by his own symbols, and without its ‘divine referential’,
…the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference […] 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.
Then comes the kicker, the phrase that encapsulates Baudrillard’s project.
The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth — it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.
The idea of reference without referent, of ‘perfect’ simulacra ‘radiant with their own fascination’ is foundational to all of Baudrillard’s thinking about simulation. From this metaphor he develops his central theme of hyperreality, the fourth order of simulation which is ‘no longer of the order of appearances at all’. The word ‘never’ expands the discussion beyond the emptiness of religion to embrace all human culture; for him ‘the murderous capacity of images’ eventually puts at stake our access to reality itself, calling in question ‘the dialectical capacity of representations as a visible and intelligible mediation of the real’. The perfected map, rather than becoming redundant, destroys the territory; not because it is inaccurate, but precisely because of its accuracy. In the history of religion, there have been many waves of iconoclasm — literally, the breaking of statues. Baudrillard refers to ‘the iconoclasts’, not specifying whether he is thinking of Christian, Jewish or Moslem iconoclasm, but regardless of creed he ascribes a new motive for the fury against the image.
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 […] This death of the divine referential has to be exorcised at all cost.
Baudrillard’s iconoclasts understand that a God that can be reduced to symbols is already dead. Iconoclasts destroy religious icons not out of fidelity to an ineffable Godhead beyond time and space, but out of fear that the God they worship no longer exists. At first glance, a strange motive to impose on Sunni Moslems and Calvinist Christians over a thousand year span… but let’s grant the speculation that iconoclasm and fanaticism in general might conceal a fear gnawing at the faithful that the belief for which they kill or destroy is false. It’s a plausible suggestion: that religious (or political) violence is engaged in as an exorcism of doubt.
The priest class destroys itself by reducing God to signifiers. The divine identity is lost under a mountain of simulacra, and we no longer know what God is. So far so reasonable. Does that mean we no longer know what reality is? Baudrillard presents the death of truth as absolute truth; a new orthodoxy.
‘Henceforth’, he decrees, ‘it is the map that engenders the territory.’
There is a kind of shamanic glee to Baudrillard’s provocations. For him the most beautiful sentence is the articulation of a paradox. Whereas in philosophy, as in science, logical contradiction is a problem, not an adornment, for the post-modern social theorist paradox is the whole game. It more or less becomes a structural device, a vehicle of liturgy, the cadence marking the end of each verse.
Is to read Baudrillard closely to misread Baudrillard? Perhaps. We can take his work, like McLuhan’s, as ‘probe, not package’, but we must be careful not to be seduced by his style into ignoring gaps in his reasoning. The thing is, having seen and named the phenomenon of hyperreality, Baudrillard makes it clear that he embraces it, wants to disappear into it. And that’s exactly what he does, over the course of his career. Paradox is his pass to this utopia, his key to The Cave where he wants to chain himself in place and gaze entranced at the shadows on the wall in a willing suspension of disbelief.
‘The simulacrum is true’: it’s Double-think, the ability to maintain two contradictory beliefs at the same time. Perhaps the most economical encapsulation of that Orwellian concept to be found anywhere outside of 1984.
Doublethink as an art form.
“Meanwhile in the years immediately following the publication of Simulations, the Disneyland of European terrorism only got weirder. In a series of slaughters in the Brabant region of Belgium, assailants in face paint and carnival masks gratuitously executed bystanders and hostages, including children, seemingly immune from police bullets and discernible motivation alike.”