Reading Guide to: Baudrillard, J. (1983) Simulations, New York: Semiotext(e)

This is a very free-flowing long French essay. It is full of appealing quotations and aphorisms, rather than following an academic argument as such . Why am I attempting to summarise it in this way? Hélas, je ne sais pas-- c'est incroyable.

The Precession of Simulacra

[Some general examples of simulations and their dire effects begins the discussion] '... museumification is only one more turn in the spiral of artificiality' (21), and any attempt to rebuild and re-install a museum on its original site is 'even more artificial: it is a social simulacrum that links up with  "reality" by a complete circumlocution' (22). There is a link here with ethnology, which also domesticate the past by fitting the civilisations of the ancient world into our past. The preservation of the past generally is a  'simulated sacrifice of  [the] object in order to save its reality principle' (14). It is a means of anchoring the floating signifiers of science through such  'referential simulacra' (15).  

Disney theme parks are described as a classic mixture of simulations. They are obvious fantasy worlds and  'real America', a  'deep frozen infantile world', for where the values of the USA are  'embalmed and pacified' (24). The parks can be read as ideological, as Marin does, but the ideological elements cover a  'third order simulation': theme parks conceal facts about real societies, just as prisons conceal the fact that society itself is carceral. Los Angeles and its environs are hyperreal, and what Disney does is not just falsely represent reality but rather  '[conceal]... the fact that the real is no longer real... thus saving the reality principle' (25). The deliberately infantile nature of the parks conceals the real childishness of adults to visit it. Lots of other theme park sites in Los Angeles had the same function, to conceal the fact that the city is  'nothing more than an immense script and a perpetual motion picture' (26). 

Watergate concealed an effacement of difference between facts and their denunciation  (27).  The Washington Post journalists who exposed the scandal only regenerated capitalism's moral superstructure. There are links here with Bourdieu, and the ways in which relations of force get disguised as symbols. however, Bourdieu is also inclined to denounce such practices, and thus preserves some mythical  'order of truth' beyond all relations of force. He is thus complicit in the view that capitalism is rational, capable of rational control or moral restraint, but capitalism is  'a monstrous unprincipled undertaking, nothing more' (29). The system should be challenged as a threat to Symbolic Law  [as a threat to social life itself? -- sounds like Habermas here].  

It is an illusion to claim that there is some sacred sphere of rationality. In reality, there is an endless  'vertigo of interpretation' [such as an infinite regress of causality if we inquire about origins] (32). We are in the realm of simulation rather than logic. All our models [of society] claimed to be based on facts, but these facts themselves are derived from or common to models. [All the examples here are rather impenetrable political edicts and proposals -- Baudrillard seems to show that they are partly  'real', partly phoney and partly tactical]. It is now radically impossible to determine what is true, real or rational. As Deleuze argued, desire is universal -- we desire our own repression, and desire lies behind paranoid and fascist regimes as well  (35).  

'... it is now impossible to isolate the processes of the real or to prove the real' (41). For example  'all hold ups, hijacks and the like are now as it were simulated hold-ups... inscribed in advance in the decoding and orchestration rituals of the media'. They are  'hyperreal events... [with]... no particular contents or aims but... [are]... indefinitely refracted by each other' (42). [This is the basis of the extraordinary claim, made later, that the Gulf War never really took place. There is also the famous example of the Russian plots at the Paris Air Show who crashed and were able to watch their own deaths on TV, and thus took on the meanings iimparted by the media representations even as they experienced the event itself.]

Capital was the first to destroy referentials, to smash the differences between good and bad by abstracting and disconnecting. Then it liquidated the reality principle because it destroyed use value. There is now endless simulation. Power itself is in danger of disappearing: the last obsession with it was demonstrated best by fascism. [A prequel to the discussion of the redundancy of Foucault and the subsequent demand we forget  him -- Baudrillard and Lottringer (1987)]. The social itself is threatened which produces a [mistaken?] demand for socialism. Work and leisure also threatens to become a mere  'scenodrama  (not to say melodrama) of production' (48).  

Attempts at 'exhumation of the real' has led to a search for  'radical authenticity' such as in TV verité in the USA (49). A case study follows (50f): such programmes provide the  'thrill of the real' for viewers, a delight in 'phoney exactitude' and 'excessive transparency at the same time'. Television generally inextricably constructs the real for us: 'No longer is there any imperative to submit to the model or to the gaze."You are the model!",  "You are the majority!"' (53). [A note on pages 77 - 8 amplifies this point. We are complicit in awarding power to others, and it is very easy to  'trap the subject in his own questioning', as psychotherapists do. We have developed a pathological version of democratic theory]. 

The real is confused with the model as in statistics or as in verité TV. This makes the effect of the medium itself impossible to locate. There are links with McLuhan on the merger between the medium and the message, and the familiar argument in favour of an end of ideology, and an end of spectacle (54). The media interpenetrate life, the gaps vanish (eg between cause and effect, reality and meaning/interpretation). This is the general  'implosion of meaning' (57). Analogies can be drawn with living organisms and their genetic codes to explain how media conventions programme events. War is best seen as an attempt to  'remould and domesticate social relations', as another example of the interpenetration of motives. Media coverage again maintains the official reality.

[So Baudrillard is explaining here how simulation is released as a major force. Genuine democratic discourse turns into a simulation of itself. Capitalism is a major dynamic behind  these changes, and Baudrillard sounds like Durkheim (or Habermas)  in warning against the effects of social change in destroying the social itself].  

The Orders of Simulacra

There are three orders of appearance -- the counterfeit, production and simulation. These are  'parallel to the law of value' (the natural law of value, the commercial law of value and the structural law of value)  (83).  

  1. The counterfeit order appeared with the Renaissance, the emergence of the bourgeois order to replace the feudal one, and social competition as forms of distinction. There were previously tight connections between signs and fixed social hierarchies, a symbolic order, certainly but a  'ferocious' one (84). These were transparent but also cruel societies. Disenchantment produced the first arbitrary signs. Signs became emancipated, but the democratic use of signs brought about the first counterfeits, since meaning was now connected with restriction. Using signs could no longer be seen as a natural process, but followed a system of reasons and obligations (86). Symbolic obligations lead to an exchange of equivalents, with signs as well as with labour. The nostalgia for some natural referent still persists, though.

There are many historical examples of counterfeits and fakes: wearing false shirtfronts, using forks, developing stucco and baroque art, the growth of theatre and fashion [a curious list -- extended from page 87 in some detail] social life displayed a general  'demiurgic ambition to exorcise the natural substance of the thing in order to substitute a synthetic one' (88). The incipient rise of technology helped. There was a new universalisation under doctrine [or positivist methods] held by a central State. The growth of theatre included the  'theatre of the great', in politics, and training and education also developed. All this preceded the productivist rationality of capital -- universalising trends were already apparent. Counterfeiting focused originally on substance and form, but soon spread to consider social relations and structures, as in social engineering. All alike showed the effects of an underlying 'fantasy of a closed mental substance'.

Counterfeiting enters production, through mechanical automata for example, and develops into robotics  (showing the move from analogy between machines in humans to equivalence -- page 92 -- and a shift from play to work). Thus we move from first to second orders of simulation. The fascination with automata also shows the nostalgia for the natural, while the development of robots is based on a concern for mechanical efficiency: the latter abolishes the old problematic differences between appearance and reality by absorbing appearances and liquidating the real. This break with the natural ends all ties with resemblance, and promises proliferation for its own sake -- it is a decisive way to leave natural law and enter reproduction.

  1. The production of signs in the industrial revolution finally breaks with counterfeiting. Now new signs especially produced, and the issue of origin or uniqueness is irrelevant. Signs relate to each other as equivalents, indifferently, in a series, so they can become simulacra of each other too  (97). Any  'originals' are absorbed, and production now emerges fully as a phase in the order of signs. This is part of the hegemonic project outlined above, beginning with a more modest goal of infinite reproducability rather than tight mastery as such.

Benjamin illustrated the basics -- reproduction absorbs production, it alters the status of the product and producer, especially with 20th century activities such as arts music and cinema. These were non-essential sectors for Marx but crucial to 20th century capitalism. Technique was a medium rather than a productive force, and the 'form and principle of a whole new generation of sense', arising from seriality. Reproduction itself is the issue, and production alone makes no sense without it.

There is a feedback loop to production, however, since goods are produced from techniques aimed at reproducibility. This takes place via a deliberate modelling process, no longer a counterfeit or a series. The models take the place of referents -- and this introduces the third order of simulacra.

The series is modulated for example by a series of distinctive oppositions  [since structuralist analysis pointed out that this is how signs work, this is presumably why this stage follows the  'structural law of value]. The genesis of this code and type of simulacra is not rooted in production, but rather the reverse --  '[it is the] very possibility of industrial production that we should look for in the genesis of the code' (101). [Here the analogy is  made again between this kind of cultural code and DNA]. Benjamin and McLuhan, and Marx, were describing the last stages of progression from the industrial to the structural phases.

  1. The shift to the structural shows signs following the rule of structures and binary oppositions rather than natural laws or the  'universe of force and tensions of force' (103). There is a shift to a metaphysics of indeterminacy and the code, an interest in cybernetic control, the general form of the model, in modulation, feedback and digitalisation. Referents and finalities, resemblance and designations are lost or abolished. As a result, many questions about signs, their representation or ownership, are erased in favour of concerns about genesis, the underlying code where all questions and solutions are produced. There is no longer any aura, only  'inscription and decodage' (105). It is the end of signification. Just as with the discovery of DNA, issues become reduced to information management as the key to all cultural/biological and linguistic systems.

A pragmatic or 'strategic' inflection follows, replacing issues of ideology as such. Teleology dominates over finality or determination. The DNA model becomes a necessary if fictional objective basis --  'molecular Idealism' (109), the delirium of unity under one principle, offering a new form of the old biological models of society and modern cybernetic forms.

There is an end to the myth of origin and all other referentials, an end of contradictions and thus of critique, and to the myth of a revolutionary termination. There is no longer any golden origin or good life, no external rationality to judge the system by. But is the code itself a myth?  (113).

Science bases its claims on the coherence of its discourse rather than on any claims to objectivity. To objectify the world is to have an interest in it, although this was formerly hidden in science.  [Much of this appears as a dialogue with Monod, it seems]. Or is science a set of conventions which are then defended as useful for all of us? Science still needs some external claim, for non-logical reasons. It already manipulates its objects to make sure they obey  [very like Adorno here]. Objectivity is a claim to permit this  'vicious circle' (115). Digitality appears in everyday life as well, in tests or behavioural psychology. The same vicious circle also appears -- indeed, vicious circles are everywhere, even in fashion with its  'instant verdicts', and where the  'question assimilates the answer'.

The universal binary appears in the question-and-answer sequence. [Incidentally, Lévi-Strauss's analysis of binaries as a natural system is another example of how he projects current logic on to primitive societies]. The referendum dominates over referentiality (116). The questions impose a sense and prefigure answers. Any differences between the responses and the simulacrum is a  'tactical hallucination' (117). The question calls forth an instant response instead of provoking contemplation. Benjamin was right to describe film as offering a similar immediate participation. The Yes/No response dominates, hence  'the reading of the message is then only a perpetual examination of the code' (120). The media test reality, but ask only questions which  'answer back' to them, responding to structures they have imposed on reality. The world is indeed like a text to be read or deciphered, but we are also selected and tested by the medium itself [the old structuralist denial of the subject here?]. The media  'localise and control' samples rather than dealing with real autonomous groups. 'Public opinion' is based on a sample -- it is not unreal but rather hyperreal  (122).  

The binary code abolishes the Dialectic, which depends on distance, and critique. The real and imaginary, the true and false are all abolished in a  'hyperreal logic of montage'. Examples are found in the many ways that subjects anticipate the best way to answer questions -- as when they rehearse IQ tests  (123). 

Politics is reduced to a matter of seeking an answer, as an operationalised form of social exchange. It can therefore safely be universal but only as in  'universal suffrage'. There are rather convergences, for example between the political and the economic, or between propaganda and advertising. The media themselves become politics in the third order of simulacra. There are conjunctions between the two party system and the binaries of opinion polls. The polls themselves generate the simulacrum of public opinion which takes on a life of its own: it is necessary only to reproduce itself and can serve to measure changes and thus provide feedback to the production system. The whole use of statistics becomes part of the vicious circle mentioned above.

However, overall, the system is not influential. It is negated by public inertia and resistance, but meanwhile it does take over social life. The analogy here is with the development of leukaemia --  'the substitution for blood of the white lymph' (129). The system of Yes/No, question/answer appears even in ethnology, unless we are prepared to see the natives as wholly natural, and thus incapable of simulating their answers [ see Bourdieu on this]. In psychoanalysis too the vicious circle appears, in the form of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The answers simply mirror the questions in all these areas. Psychoanalysis is thus dead -- the patients short-circuit analysis by offering responses ready-analysed. The unconscious is no longer  'natural' but is constructed by discourse, showing how deep hyperrealism penetrates -- to  'libidinal hyperrealism' (157). But this is also the result of a definite strategy pursued by the powerless, a matter of vengeance,  'letting power bury power' (131).  

Politics becomes a matter of alternations between two identical parties, demonstrating the law of equivalents. Any minute differences between these parties is put to the test of public consensus. Votes are obligatory, either legally or in the form of  'statistical constraint': but voting is irrelevant anyway. Voters find elections more fascinating than the issues, a further indication of the end of representational politics. There is the mere simulation of representation and opposition -- in reality parties are fully absorbable and reversible. It is a pure form of representation, in the sense that simulation is a pure form of the political economy of the sign --  'beyond the signifier and signified... beyond use and exchange value' (133). [There is also in here a remark about how currency becomes a pure form of value like this, irrespective of its actual relation to productive wealth].

Any remaining unitary system must  'acquire a binary regulation', enabling a regulated ['loyal'] opposition and permitting even more complex ramifications. Binaries appear from the smallest unit, the question and answer, to the largest, world systems. Binary logic even affects the architecture of New York, where there is no longer extensive competition between thrusting styles, but a monopoly -- the example of a regulated opposition here is the twin towers of the World Trade Centre: duplication shows the end of representation. [There is more on New York pages 136-7].  

There are still  'repressive spaces': the hard sell, political propaganda, raw industrial violence -- but these no longer have any meaning. There are far more general forms of regulation now, which include active responses, a  'ludic participation' (139), an imaginary contact-world. Hence the spread of  'tropisms, mimetics, empathy... operationalisations of the notion of need, perception, desire' (140). Social life becomes  'total theatre'. Reality collapses into hyperrealism, the  'minute duplication of the real preferably on the basis of another reproductive medium -- advertising, photography etc' (141). Hyperrealism began in realism; surrealism  'augments the intensity' of realism; the hyperreal removes the contradictions between the real and imaginary via the  'hallucinatory resemblance of the real with itself' (142). 

This is already a tendency, for example in the  'new novel', to empty out the real, to render it as pure objectivity  [that is stripped of subjectivity], as a form of  'circular seduction where you can easily detect the unconscious desire of no longer being visible at all' (143). We get the development of a  'pure look',  an  '"objective" minuteness'. We find representation for the sake of representation, the end of perspective and depth, via a four-part process:

(I) the  'deconstruction of the real into details...flattening linearity and seriality...

(II) [an] endlessly reflected vision, another type of seriality rather than the Dialectic... the real no longer is reflected, instead it feeds off itself...

(III) The properly serial form (Andy Warhol). [This abolishes] not only the syntagmatic dimension [as in  (I)], but the paradigmatic as well

(IV)... binarity... digitality... minimal separation... The very definition of the real becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction... the real  [will become, at the limit of reproducibility] not only what can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced. The hyperreal.' [original emphasis]  (144 - 6).

Reality and art still exist, and hyperrealism is only a limit case. But there is an  'implosive madness' under way. For the Surrealists, reality could become surreal, but  'only in certain privileged moments that nevertheless are still connected with art and the imaginary' (147). Everyday reality now incorporates hyperrealism, leading to a radical disenchantment concealed in the euphoria of simulation  [everyone knows that the media simulate, but no one cares -- so much for all those conscientious media educators!]. The emotions are assimilated, critique is simulated. The differences between reality and the circus, theatre, or movies is still used in  'naturalistic denunciation' [a classical tactic of the educated petit bourgeoisie who disapprove of the media -- and also found in those media educators] but these differences are now obsolete. The media now offer  a  'non-intentional parody... to which is attached an aesthetic pleasure, that very one of reading and [awareness ] of the rules of the game' (150). There is now a universal loss of art and of the aesthetic. Even industry becomes a matter of production for its own sake -- in other words art. Art is everywhere and art is now dead --  'The cool world of digitality has absorbed the world of metaphor and metonymy. The principle of simulation wins out over the reality principle just as over the principle of pleasure' (158).  

[NB  a note on education on page 155 follows a section on youth's abstract desire for emancipation without substance. Baudrillard cites a certain F. Richard on how students ask to be seduced and how ironically they play the game, demanding that teachers speak and give them the word. This provides an element of contestation, but demonstrates the need for authority. Students simulate desire, they play out Oedipal scenes. There is no real  'mourning for the absence of  [knowledge and power]  (as could have happened after '68 in the universities)' (156)].