The Disappearance of Jean Baudrillard
“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
1 LIVING IN THE MAP
Jean Baudrillard was a French social theorist 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 and is replaced by the map; 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.”
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 profound 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.
NEXT: 2 THE DEATH OF GOD
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.