ACCORDING TO BAUDRILLARD, what has happened in postmodern culture is that our society has become so reliant on models and maps that we have lost all contact with the real world that preceded the map. Reality itself has begun merely to imitate the model, which now precedes and determines the real world: “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” (“The Precession of Simulacra” 1). According to Baudrillard, when it comes to postmodern simulation and simulacra, “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” (“The Precession of Simulacra” 2). Baudrillard is not merely suggesting that postmodern culture is artificial, because the concept of artificiality still requires some sense of reality against which to recognize the artifice. His point, rather, is that we have lost all ability to make sense of the distinction between nature and artifice. To clarify his point, he argues that there are three “orders of simulacra”: 1) in the first order of simulacra, which he associates with the pre-modern period, the image is a clear counterfeit of the real; the image is recognized as just an illusion, a place marker for the real; 2) in the second order of simulacra, which Baudrillard associates with the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, the distinctions between the image and the representation begin to break down because of mass production and the proliferation of copies. Such production misrepresents and masks an underlying reality by imitating it so well, thus threatening to replace it (e.g. in photography or ideology); however, there is still a belief that, through critique or effective political action, one can still access the hidden fact of the real; 3) in the third order of simulacra, which is associated with the postmodern age, we are confronted with a precession of simulacra; that is, the representation precedes and determines the real. There is no longer any distinction between reality and its representation; there is only the simulacrum.
Baudrillard points to a number of phenomena to explain this loss of distinctions between “reality” and the simulacrum:
1) Media culture. Contemporary media (television, film, magazines, billboards, the Internet) are concerned not just with relaying information or stories but with interpreting our most private selves for us, making us approach each other and the world through the lens of these media images. We therefore no longer acquire goods because of real needs but because of desires that are increasingly defined by commercials and commercialized images, which keep us at one step removed from the reality of our bodies or of the world around us.
3) Multinational capitalism. As the things we use are increasingly the product of complex industrial processes, we lose touch with the underlying reality of the goods we consume. Not even national identity functions in a world of multinational corporations. According to Baudrillard, it is capital that now defines our identities. We thus continue to lose touch with the material fact of the laborer, who is increasingly invisible to a consumer oriented towards retail outlets or the even more impersonal Internet. A common example of this is the fact that most consumers do not know how the products they consume are related to real-life things. How many people could identify the actual plant from which is derived the coffee bean? Starbucks, by contrast, increasingly defines our urban realities. (On multinational capitalism, see Marxism: Modules: Jameson: Late Capitalism.)
4) Urbanization. As we continue to develop available geographical locations, we lose touch with any sense of the natural world. Even natural spaces are now understood as “protected,” which is to say that they are defined in contradistinction to an urban “reality,” often with signs to point out just how “real” they are. Increasingly, we expect the sign (behold nature!) to precede access to nature.
5) Language and Ideology. Baudrillard illustrates how in such subtle ways language keeps us from accessing “reality.” The earlier understanding of ideology was that it hid the truth, that it represented a “false consciousness,” as Marxists phrase it, keeping us from seeing the real workings of the state, of economic forces, or of the dominant groups in power. (This understanding of ideology corresponds to Baudrillard’s second order of simulacra.) Postmodernism, on the other hand, understands ideology as the support for our very perception of reality. There is no outside of ideology, according to this view, at least no outside that can be articulated in language. Because we are so reliant on language to structure our perceptions, any representation of reality is always already ideological, always already constructed by simulacra.
“…The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true” (Baudrillard, “Simulacra and Simulation”)
The concept of Simulacra, or Simulacrum, was not invented by Jean Baudrillard, and was a reappearing concept in French philosophical thought like that of Deleuze, for example, before the publication of Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” in 1981. In its lexical ordering, simulacra is a material image which appears as something else without having that something’s features or essence. This is somewhat reminiscent of Plato’s objection to representations which come to replace the “real” to which we lose access. In “Simulacra and Simulation” Baudrillard asks what happens in a world that is ultimately denied all access to the real and in which only simulacra and simulation exists. For Baudrillard, this is in fact the world in which we live. Simulations take over our relationship with real life, creating a hyperreality which is a copy that has no original. This hyperreality happens when the difference between reality and representation collapses and we are no longer able to see an image as reflecting anything other than a symbolic trade of signifiers in culture, not the real world.
In the chapter “Precession of Simulacra” Baudrillard describes three orders of simulacra. The first in which reality is represented by the image (map represents territory). The second order of simulacra is one in which the distinction between reality and representation is blurred. The third order of simulacra is that of simulation which replaces the relationship between reality and representation. Reality itself is thus lost in favor of a hyperreality. Baudrillard famously gives the examples of Disneyland and Watergate to demonstrate the function of the third order of simulacra and the production of a hyperreality that lets us believe that we can tell reality from representation, the real from the imaginary and the copy from its original.
Simulacra and Simulation (French: Simulacres et Simulation) is a 1981 philosophical treatise by Jean Baudrillard seeking to examine the relationships among reality, symbols, and society. Simulacra are copies that depict things that either had no original to begin with, or that no longer have an original. Simulation is the imitation of the operation of a real-world process or system over time.
…The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.
—The quote is credited to Ecclesiastes, but the words do not occur there. It can be seen as an addition, a paraphrase and an endorsement of Ecclesiastes’ condemnation of the pursuit of wisdom as folly and a ‘chasing after wind’—see for example Ecclesiastes 1.16.
Simulacra and Simulation is most known for its discussion of symbols, signs, and how they relate to contemporaneity (simultaneous existences). Baudrillard claims that our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is of a simulation of reality. Moreover, these simulacra are not merely mediations of reality, nor even deceptive mediations of reality; they are not based in a reality nor do they hide a reality, they simply hide that anything like reality is relevant to our current understanding of our lives. The simulacra that Baudrillard refers to are the significations and symbolism of culture and media that construct perceived reality, the acquired understanding by which our lives and shared existence is and are rendered legible; Baudrillard believed that society has become so saturated with these simulacra and our lives so saturated with the constructs of society that all meaning was being rendered meaningless by being infinitely mutable. Baudrillard called this phenomenon the “precession of simulacra”.
“Simulacra and Simulation” breaks the sign-order into 4 stages:
The first stage is a faithful image/copy, where we believe, and it may even be correct, that a sign is a “reflection of a profound reality” (pg 6), this is a good appearance, in what Baudrillard called “the sacramental order”.
The second stage is perversion of reality, this is where we come to believe the sign to be an unfaithful copy, which “masks and denatures” reality as an “evil appearance—it is of the order of maleficence”. Here, signs and images do not faithfully reveal reality to us, but can hint at the existence of an obscure reality which the sign itself is incapable of encapsulating.
The third stage masks the absence of a profound reality, where the simulacrum pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original. Signs and images claim to represent something real, but no representation is taking place and arbitrary images are merely suggested as things which they have no relationship to. Baudrillard calls this the “order of sorcery”, a regime of semantic algebra where all human meaning is conjured artificially to appear as a reference to the (increasingly) hermetic truth.
The fourth stage is pure simulation, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever. Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims. This is a regime of total equivalency, where cultural products need no longer even pretend to be real in a naïve sense, because the experiences of consumers’ lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial, “hyperreal” terms. Any naïve pretension to reality as such is perceived as bereft of critical self-awareness, and thus as oversentimental.
Simulacra and Simulation identifies three types of simulacra and identifies each with a historical period:
First order, associated with the premodern period, where representation is clearly an artificial placemarker for the real item. The uniqueness of objects and situations marks them as irreproducibly real and signification obviously gropes towards this reality.
Second order, associated with the modernity of the Industrial Revolution, where distinctions between representation and reality break down due to the proliferation of mass-reproducible copies of items, turning them into commodities. The commodity’s ability to imitate reality threatens to replace the authority of the original version, because the copy is just as “real” as its prototype.
Third order, associated with the postmodernity of Late Capitalism, where the simulacrum precedes the original and the distinction between reality and representation vanishes. There is only the simulacrum, and originality becomes a totally meaningless concept.
Baudrillard theorizes that the lack of distinctions between reality and simulacra originates in several phenomena
Contemporary media including television, film, print, and the Internet, which are responsible for blurring the line between products that are needed (in order to live a life) and products for which a need is created by commercial images.
Exchange value, in which the value of goods is based on money (literally denominated fiat currency) rather than usefulness, and moreover usefulness comes to be quantified and defined in monetary terms in order to assist exchange.
Multinational capitalism, which separates produced goods from the plants, minerals and other original materials and the processes (including the people and their cultural context) used to create them.
Urbanization, which separates humans from the nonhuman world, and re-centres culture around productive throughput systems so large they cause alienation.
Language and ideology, in which language increasingly becomes caught up in the production of power relations between social groups, especially when powerful groups institute themselves at least partly in monetary terms.
A specific analogy that Baudrillard uses is a fable derived from “On Exactitude in Science” by Jorge Luis Borges. In it, a great Empire created a map that was so detailed it was as large as the Empire itself. The actual map was expanded and destroyed as the Empire itself conquered or lost territory. When the Empire crumbled, all that was left was the map. In Baudrillard’s rendition, it is conversely the map that people live in, the simulation of reality where the people of Empire spend their lives ensuring their place in the representation is properly circumscribed and detailed by the map-makers; conversely, it is reality that is crumbling away from disuse.
The transition from signs which dissimulate something to signs which dissimulate that there is nothing, marks the decisive turning point. The first implies a theology of truth and secrecy (to which the notion of ideology still belongs). The second inaugurates an age of simulacra and simulation, in which there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgment to separate truth from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance.
It is important to note that when Baudrillard refers to the “precession of simulacra” in Simulacra and Simulation, he is referring to the way simulacra have come to precede the real in the sense mentioned above, rather than to any succession of historical phases of the image. Referring to “On Exactitude in Science”, he argued that just as for contemporary society the simulated copy had superseded the original object, so, too, the map had come to precede the geographic territory (c.f. Map–territory relation), e.g. the first Gulf War (which Baudrillard later used as an object demonstration): the image of war preceded real war. War comes not when it is made by sovereign against sovereign (not when killing for attritive and strategic neutralisation purposes is authorised; nor even, properly spoken, when shots are fired); rather, war comes when society is generally convinced that it is coming.
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.