The Precession of Simulacra
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About the Author
The Precession of Simulacra was written by Jean Baudrillard, a Frenchman who, among other things, was famous for his thoughts on hyperreality and simulacra. One of his most famous pieces was Simulacra and Simulation, a treatise on the nature of reality where he argues that the classical notion of reality has been dissolved and replaced with a 'hyperreality', a kind of melding between reality and representations of reality to the point that they are indistinguishable.
- The simulacrum is never what hides the truth - it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true. -Ecclesiastes
Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation opens with this quote, which serves as a chilling introduction to the first part of this treatise, The Precession of Simulacra. In this piece, his main argument is that humans have constructed symbols and representations of reality so realistic to the point that we have become unable to distinguish reality from representations of reality. His initial example of what he means is the map. He argues that if one constructs a map so precise that it contains every detail of that which it maps, what is left to distinguish the map from the real thing? He then proceeds to argue that, as the landscape changes and yet the map remains the same, we begin to substitute the reality of the landscape with that of the map, and so the symbol has become the reality to us.
His next point is in making the important distinction between pretending and simulation. The example he provides is that if a man pretends to be ill, he may sit in bed all day and act as though he is ill, but he is not actually ill and does not possess any of the symptoms. A man who is simulating illness, though, will possess some symptoms of that illness. He then clarifies,
'Therefore, pretending, or dissimulating, leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between the "true" and the "false," the "real" and the "imaginary." Is the simulator sick or not, given that he produces "true" symptoms? He then proceeds to list more such examples.
The next argument for his thesis comes from the notion of divinity and representations of divinity. He quotes, '"I forbade that there be any simulacra in the temples because the divinity that animates nature can never be represented."' His argument is that by allowing representations of God in places of worship, worship will focus on the icons of divine being(s) rather than the divine being(s) themselves. The fear is that God never existed, and that he was only ever a simulacrum of himself.
He then proceeds to list a succession of several different levels of reality and its representations/simulacra. The closest to reality a 'reflection of a profound reality'. Next, is a masking and denaturing of a profound reality. Followed by that is a mask of the absence of a profound reality. The next is something with no relation to reality whatsoever, and finally a pure simulacrum.
Another telling example employed by Baudrillard is that of ethnology. Here, we see that ethnologists seek to preserve primitive cultures by restricting access to them by the outside world, lest the culture be destroyed. In this manner, the only way to preserve the reality is to pretend that it does not exist.
Later in the piece, he gives an example of a situation where simulation and reality are completely indistinguishable. The example is that of a robbery. If one simulates a robbery perfectly - taking a hostage, demanding a ransom, etc., the reaction of all participants who do not know that the robbery is a simulation will be identical to that of a real robbery. Thus, although the intentions of the perpetrators of the robbery were that of a simulation, all of the consequences of a real robbery occur.
He also claims that political power today is an example of a simulation. Long ago, power was genuinely maintained primarily through physical means (i.e. violence). Eventually, though, the need for this has decreased, yet people have clung to the need for signs of power. Thus, he claims, we fall under the hallucination of power, up to the point that the hallucination has completely replaced the original notion of power, which he argues has already happened today.
Baudrillard proceeds to discuss nuclear warfare. He says that, with the exception of the very start of the cold war, where nuclear warfare was confused with conventional warfare, we note a change in the way war is conducted. It used to be that actual violence put a stop to further violence. However, in the case of conflicting nuclear powers, the threat of annihilation prevents violence itself. Thus, only the simulacrum of conflict remains.
Influences on Other Media
The series of movies, The Matrix Trilogy, written by the Wachowski brothers, was influenced in part by Simulation and Simulacra. The philosophy of Baudrillard inspired the philosophy in the Matrix, where they investigate matters such as how to tell what is truly real. Baudrillard has criticized The Matrix, claiming that it missed the point of his philosophy.
Some of Baudrillard's ideas have been preceded in a sense by mathematicians, especially in the field of abstract algebra. In abstract algebra, a geometric object such as a triangle may be defined entirely in terms of the symmetries it obeys, and the mathematician will replace the triangle with something called a representation of its symmetry group. This representation is still a concrete object, and it will be apparent from its definition that it certainly is a faithful reproduction of the triangle. But then, the mathematician notes that other objects may obey the same symmetries that a triangle obeys, but the representation of their symmetry group is different. Thus, another level of abstraction is added, and these objects may be considered to have the same symmetries, even if their representation is different. Then, the mathematician studies this abstract object directly. In this sense, the original object, the triangle, has been wholly replaced by a symbolic representation of the triangle, its symmetry group. This is analogous to Baudrillard's notion of symbols representing reality replacing reality itself.