Essay On Simulacra

The first full-length translation in English of an essential work of postmodernism.

The publication of Simulacra et Simulation in 1981 marked Jean Baudrillard's first important step toward theorizing the postmodern. Moving away from the Marxist/Freudian approaches that had concerned him earlier, Baudrillard developed in this book a theory of contemporary culture that relies on displacing economic notions of cultural production with notions of cultural expenditure.

Baudrillard uses the concepts of the simulacra—the copy without an original—and simulation. These terms are crucial to an understanding of the postmodern, to the extent that they address the concept of mass reproduction and reproduceability that characterizes our electronic media culture.

Baudrillard's book represents a unique and original effort to rethink cultural theory from the perspective of a new concept of cultural materialism, one that radically redefines postmodern formulations of the body.

Sheila Glaser is an editor at Artforum magazine.

Praise / Awards

  • "Simulacra and Simulation is arguably Baudrillard's most important book. In it he moves from a theory of consumer society governed by a 'code' to a general theory of culture that problematizes 'reality.' His idea of the hyperreal informs most discussions."
    —Mark Poster, University of California, Irvine

  • "Baudrillard's studies in simulacra and simulation are among his most important work, particularly as they pertain to his concept of postmodernity and analyses of postmodern culture. The English translation of these essays is therefore very welcome."
    —Douglas Kellner, University of Texas, Austin

  • ". . . a very accessible introduction to [Baudrillard's] thought."
    The Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser
University of Michigan Press, 1994
Originally Published in French in 1981
UofM Press / Amazon

This is not an easy book to read, in part because Baudrillard starts off with his ideas in full development and then talks around them, to explain them. He will start off with an example, develop the idea within the example, and then end by wrapping the example around itself, rather than ending on continual applications of the idea. In any case, he doesn’t do the historicity thing by telling you the past, where the idea may have come from, and then develop the series of thoughts that outline the form of the idea. Instead, Baudrillard plops you in the middle and makes you flounder. And unlike other thinkers, he doesn’t quote too many philosophers; in fact, nearly none at all. Instead of giving you guide posts along the way, he’d rather you sink or swim. Get it or not.

Baudrillard’s basic idea is that we don’t live in reality—that is, in the common sense use of the word, there is no thing-in-itself. He doesn’t even talk that way, as though the thing-in-itself is unnecessary. Following Quentin Meillasoux, Baudrillard is an absolute correlationist: the relationship we have with language is what also determinates any outside of language. Thus, for Baudrillard, we live in a world of simulacra. That’s easy so far. But there’s a catch. For Baudrillard, reality has already been exceeded because the processes that we buy into. These processes are unthinking, mechanical means that produce the simulacra which we then take for the actual thing. The easy examples of postmodern malls in America come to mind, or Disneyland.

Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation.

But such simulations only act to hide the fact that we can’t get back to reality because we’ve lost it. So this explains why Baudrillard drops us into the mix. He can’t explain why this happened. Once we’ve gotten sucked into hyperreality we’re here. It’s a traumatic event. The sheer force of hyperreality obscures any possibility of a central signifier. There is no metaphysics of presence; in fact he doesn’t even mention such a concept because it’s not important. Instead, he talks of what remains when the model has exhausted itself. “When a system has absorbed everything, when one has added everything up, when nothings remains, the entire sum turns to the remainder and becomes the remainder (144, original italics).” One of the key sections, philosophy-wise, in this book has to do with the remainder, which is another way of talking about emptiness as a thing. The remainder is the excessive real, “in a strict sense, it cannot be defined except as the remainder of the remainder (143)”—that is, left over after processes have stopped.

You might say hey, wait, isn’t everything real? And yes, that’s how language is, but the model for what is real and what is hyperreal have become the same. For instance, in talking of diplomas, their ubiquity and the ease at which they can be acquired—for whoever goes through the process gets one—signifies nothing but their meaninglessness. What makes diplomas meaningless is that it’s not about knowledge; it’s about process. Diplomas connect in a system of simulacra that only point to other simulacra. Similar to Derrida, with Baudrillard, we end with a passed reference that is always missed. What’s left over is the reality we deal with, the remainder that we must recycle back into a process for it to be what we think it is, which is a problem we have today with things that are “meta,” that the meaning of a thing today is often exactly what it is, a simulation, a context that determines our locus, not what it should be for us. For example, if we go to say, Paris, that trip will be like “a family trip,” with all the clichés and potholes of a family trip, which might as well be a sitcom simulating a family trip. The process of going through replaces the reality of a family trip, so that really, you’re just “doing” the “family trip.” You can’t otherwise because we are trapped in hyperreality. This is like how fake internet money in a game treated like real money in an economy becomes real money. The caveat is that real money then is just as fake as fake money because it’s just another simulation due to a formal process. Baudrillard notes that, like the Borges story, the territory itself decays when the map of the territory replaces the territory by being the territory itself. The simulacra of simulation, the pattern itself, the hyperreality has taken over reality by replacing reality. In hyperreality, the map meant to represent reality becomes a simulacra of reality itself so that we don’t get real; we get the map qua real qua map.

The fact that he is able to note the lack of a lack, as Zizek would say: the anti-philosophy at the heart of philosophy, so to speak, places Baudrillard with all the other philosophical greats of our time. He notices the void that persists throughout simulation: that which organizes simulacra and leaves only sense making in its wake.

Meaning, truth, the real cannot appear except locally, in a restricted horizon, they are partial objects, partial effects of the mirror and of equivalence. All doubling, all generalization, all passage to the limit, all holographic extension (the fancy of exhaustively taking account of this universe) makes them surface in their mockery.

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