simulation / simulacrum
Whether or not we live in a world of simulacra, the term is certainly important in light of how we view media. Media theorists, especially Jean Baudrillard, have been intensely concerned with the concept of the simulation in lieu of its interaction with our notion of the real and the original, revealing in this preoccupation media’s identity not as a means of communication, but as a means of representation (the work of art as a reflection of something fundamentally “real”). When media reach a certain advanced state, they integrate themselves into daily “real” experience to such an extent that the unmediated sensation is indistinguishable from the mediated, and the simulation becomes confused with its source. The simulation differs from the image and the icon (and the simulacrum) in the active nature of its representation. What are forged or represented are not likenesses of static entities, but instead the processes of feeling and experiencing themselves. Beginning as a primarily visual representation, the simulacrum (provisionally: the image of a simulation) has since been extended theoretically, and in the recent theory exemplified by the work of Baudrillard functions as a catch-all term for systems still operating despite the loss of what previous meaning they had held.
The terms simulation and simulacrum have subtly different meanings. Simulation is defined first as “the action or practice of simulating, with an intent to deceive,” then as “a false assumption or display, a surface resemblance or imitation, of something,” and finally as “the technique of imitating the behavior of some situation or process…by means of a suitably analogous situation or apparatus” (OED online). In total these three definitions convey the ideas that the simulation is usually of a set of actions, and furthermore is deceitful in its display of “some situation or process.” In comparison simulacrum is defined as “a material image, made as a representation of some deity, person, or thing,” as “something having merely the form or appearance of a certain thing, without possessing its substance or proper qualities,” and as “a mere image, a specious imitation or likeness, of something” (OED). Like the simulation, the simulacrum bears a resemblance to the thing that it imitates only on the surface level (see: surface), but as opposed to the simulation’s mimicry of a process or situation, the simulacrum is defined as a static entity, a “mere image” rather than something that “imitat[es] the behavior” of the real thing on which it is based (see mimesis).
Simulations are now a part of everyday life. A fire drill is one example, as it is a process which has all the outward appearance of an orderly escape from danger but none of the danger itself. Pilots and astronauts now train in flight simulators before taking to the air. Simulacrum has very little modern and vernacular use, and instead is employed almost entirely in the theoretical field. According to the OED’s first definition, a simulacrum is almost impossible to distinguish from a representation (see: representation). But in the second and third definitions we can see that the simulacrum supercedes representation in terms of the accuracy and power of its imitation. It is only when the viewer of the simulacrum penetrates the surface that he can tell that it differs from the thing it imitates.
Michael Camille elucidates the classical notion of the simulacrum in his article “Simulacrum” in Critical Terms for Art History. Camille analyzes Plato’s opinion of the simulacrum in The Republic: “The simulacrum is more than just a useless image, it is a deviation and perversion of imitation itself – a false likeness” (Camille, 31-32). Imitation, resulting in the production of an icon or image (see: image), results in the production of a representation that can be immediately understood as separate from the object it imitates. The likeness, however, is indistinguishable from the original; it is “a false claimant to being” (32). While the simulacrum is defined as static, it nevertheless deceives its viewer on the level of experience, a manipulation of our senses which transforms the unrealistic into the believable. Camille writes: “what disturbs Plato is…what we would call today the ‘subject position’ of the beholder. It is the particular perspective of human subjectivity that allows the statue that is ‘unlike’…to seem ‘like’ and, moreover, beautifully proportioned from a certain vantage point’ (32). The simulacrum uses our experience of reality against us, creating a false likeness that reproduces so exactly our visual experience with the real that we cannot discern the falseness of the imitation.
Jean Baudrillard writes in Simulations that an effective simulation will not merely deceive one into believing in a false entity, but in fact signifies the destruction of an original reality that it has replaced. He writes: “to simulate is not simply to feign…feigning or dissimulation leaves the reality intact…whereas simulation threatens the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ (Baudrillard, 5). As evidence he provides the example of psychosomatic disorders, conditions whose surfaces are complete likenesses of real disorders yet are untreatable using standard medical techniques. The simulation in this case destroys all notions of truth underlying the original illness in its complete replacement of everything apart from the logical reality of the disorder in medical practice. This reality is so nebulous, couched in metaphysical terms like “truth” and the “real,” that an effective enough simulation will destroy it completely, leaving the deceived in a world devoid of meaning. The simulation for Baudrillard brings us into a circular world in which the sign is not exchanged for meaning, but merely for another sign. He poses the question: “what if God himself could be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole system becomes weightless…never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself in an uninterrupted circuit…” (10).
If for Baudrillard the simulation is the process through which reality is usurped, then simulacrum is the term for the condition produced, namely a system where empty signs refer to themselves and where meaning and value are absent. In continued discussion of a God with a fear of divinity “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” (8). Fascination is here a term for empty occupation, a state in which we are held rapt by the visible and disregard anything beneath the surface. For Baudrillard work has become a simulacrum, existing for its own sake instead of with any definite purpose: “Everybody still produces, and more and more, but work has subtly become something else: a need…the scenario of work is there to conceal the fact that the work-real, the production-real, has disappeared” (47).
According to Baudrillard, what is simulated is what is mediated and vice versa. Those experiences in our lives that are explicitly presented as mediated the author classifies as simply of a higher order of simulation, one which simulates simulating in order to falsely suggest a real that exists outside of the surface truth. Baudrillard uses Disneyland as the prime example of this phenomenon: “Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation” (25). For Baudrillard, the explicitly mediated betrays us in its suggestion of an unmediated system outside of it (see immediate, immediacy). As there is nothing that is not simulated (e.g. devoid of what previous meaning it may have had), our everyday experience is mediated through simulacra.
Our experience in a “hyperreal” world (held in the grip of simulacra and where nothing is unmediated) is one in which media and medium are not simply located in their own hermetically sealed spaces, but dispersed around us, in all forms of experience [see: reality/hyperreality, (2)]: “No more violence or surveillance, only ‘information,’…and simulacra of spaces where the real-effect comes into play…There is no longer any medium in the literal sense: it is now intangible, diffuse and diffracted in the real” (54). The medium is no longer presented to us as a medium in the sense of a mediator, and the diffuseness of the medium means that what the individual still believes to be the “real” is never unmediated. We know that we are living in a mediated world, but in result of the ubiquity of the simulation life is now “spectralised…the event filtered by the medium–the dissolution of TV into life, the dissolution of life into TV” (55).
Gilles Deleuze agrees with Baudrillard’s conception of the simulacrum as a system of empty signs that signals the destruction of the original reality it is modeled after, though for Deleuze this destruction is brought about because the simulation of the original is so perfect that it is no longer clear where or what the original is. The original could still exist, but its existence is irrelevant as we do not know where to locate it. The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics summarizes his philosophy: “The artwork, then, is neither an original nor a copy nor a representation. It is a simulacrum, a work that forms part of a series that cannot be referred to an original beginning” (Kelly ed., 517). When the work of art is viewed in such a way the consequences are not negative, on the model of Baudrillard’s dread at the impending death of the real, but instead reveal new possibilities of interpretation in a critical realm where sensation is the focus instead of meaning. “Signs are not about the communication of meaning but rather about the learning of the affects, perceptions, and sensations to which we can be subject” (518). This fits perfectly with the conception of simulation as a process which affects our experience and not (as the image is) a signification of a fundamental reality. Michael Camille selects a quote from Deleuze’s essay “Plato and the Simulacrum” which ably demonstrates the simulation’s positivity: “The simulacrum is not a degraded copy. It harbors a positive power which denies the original and the copy, the model and the reproduction…There is no longer any privileged point of view except that of the object common to all points of view” (Camille, 33). The simulation changes the way that we view a work of art or experience a sensation, disposing with an earlier hierarchy that valued the original work highest, and what we are left with is exactly what Plato condemned, a system in which the viewer and his manipulation become more important than any underlying ideas.
David Cronenberg’s film eXistenZ engages the concept of the simulation and presents us with a vision of the future in which impression is valued over content. The film follows the first experience of a bodyguard uninitiated in the world of virtual reality videogames with a new product created by the videogame designed he was hired to protect. Speaking directly to Baudrillard’s concerns, the film leaves the viewer uncertain as to when the characters are in a virtual world (see: virtuality) and when they are experiencing the real. The self-referentiality within the film, with its framing of a virtual reality videogame inside of another videogame, portrays the simulated world as not only tied directly to the experience of emotion and sensation, but as a world in which logical action is rewarded and meaning sublimated. Any moral or allegorical conclusion that could be drawn from what appears to be the film’s initial conclusion, that simulations create a system which precipitates its own demise, is invalidated by a further expansion into another reality in which the real videogame designer is congratulated for having created a really fun game. The simulation in the film is reduced to the status of a ride or a contest, containing its own rules and raising the status of the videogame to deific proportions. The port into which the gamepods are plugged (directly into the player’s spine) becomes a metaphor for desire and oblivion in its simultaneous recollection of sexual intercourse and intravenous drug use. This is the realm of the simulation, a process whose responsibility lies only in what it makes us feel.
The simulation, as we can see by contrasting the philosophies of Baudrillard and Deleuze, can be interpreted in nearly opposite ways, as either the death knell for meaning and the “real,” or conversely as an avenue to new methods of interpretation. For Deleuze, the simulation raises the work of art beyond representation to a level where it is on equal footing with the original, and hence the original is destroyed. Plato’s fear of the simulacrum as described by Michael Camille is based on the distortion of real experience that the convincing image causes. The terms simulation and simulacrum are important to media study, as the simulation is total mediation without meaning. The content is shifted to a surface level, into the realm of experience rather than communication of truth, and the way that the medium affects us becomes our main interpretive focus.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations, Semiotext(e), 1983.
Cronenberg, David. eXistenZ.
Kelly, David, ed. Encyclopedia of Aesthetics V.1, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Nelson, Robert S., and Richard Schiff, eds. Critical Terms for Art History, University of Chicago Press, 1996.