Merrin, W.  (2001)  'To play with phantoms: Jean Baudrillard and the evil demon of the simulacrum', in Economy and Society, Vol 30, No 1: 85 - 111.

[This is an attempt to defend Baudrillard against those who want to criticise him as celebrating postmodernism and its effects and ignoring material realities --{ a very common way in which his work was received in Britain, largely through the lens of various kinds of marxists including gramscians}. Baudrillard in fact wants to oppose the development of hyperreality, although Merrin thinks that the grounds on which he bases his opposition are flawed. This article traces the development of and debates about hyperreality from early philosophical concerns about the simulacrum and its tendency to break away from symbolic and social life to occupy a level of reality of its own. It then considers ways in which this development might be resisted -- by attempting to strengthen the symbolic again; by discovering the playful aspects of representation as in 'seduction' [what I take to mean playful 'signification']; by invoking a development within hyperreality itself, which I see as akin to Deleuze's notion of how cinematic representation tends to allude to something unrepresentable. Other possibilities in different traditions are not discussed, however: seeing objective reality as something which is incapable of being fully represented, as in Adorno's argument that concepts can never capture reality; appealing to some level of meaning which is pre-representational as in the 'semiotic chora' of feminist work.]

Baudrillard's work on simulation and the simulacrum has become the central motif of his work for many British critics, and he has attracted considerable criticism for being pretentious, idealist, an apologist for postmodernism, and so on. It has become common to contrast such analysis to variants of Marxist materialism  [or in my case, to the materiality of everyday life]. In fact, Baudrillard himself has written many pieces about simulacra, and these writings show both an important context or tradition, and a development. Baudrillard is recognising the nihilism of hyperreality, but not supporting it: indeed, he is trying to 'discover and formulate a position from which it is possible to oppose the simulacrum' (88). He recognises that it is not enough simply to reassert a notion of the real, however.

The simulation/simulacrum, or image, has long been seen as a paradoxical human discovery. On the one hand, it permits us to symbolise, to do semiotics, to code ways of life. But on the other, the image and its world can come to confuse us, be taken for reality itself, and, finally, replace reality. What is described here is a kind of historical process, as meaning drifts from symbolic through semiotic to simulacrum  [as in  'the precession of simulacra' in Simulations, a text which is not referred to here]. The first statement of how this drift occurs can be found in the early work on the political economy of the sign: just like commodities, where exchange value develops as an abstract force all its own, so the signifier breaks away from the signified and the referent and becomes 'arbitrary'. Reality itself is reduced to being 'a product of the sign'  (90), and signs produce a  'reality effect'. What must be done to control this process is to revive the symbolic level, as in Durkheim  [where symbols code ways of life -- presumably, the symbolic still has the power to produce new and different signs, or to take on some power beyond that which is represented in the sign].

If this early work talks about the dangers of drift in the shift to the semiotic level,  'Baudrillard now seeks to escalate this picture dramatically' (90), in the familiar argument that signs increasingly take on functions and meanings by relating entirely to themselves. Any connection to social or political themes is lost  [hint here of the 'precession of simulacra'-- 90], as the sign becomes emancipated. This brings about a position of complete relativity as far as representation goes, and finally any referent whatsoever gets lost. [At this point, the argument reminds me of debates about the exchange of currencies in economics, and how they have become detached from the gold standard, the then from the actual industrial production of goods, so that currency exchange itself is a source of making money, in the peculiarly abstract world of the futures trader, for example]. This is not a good result, since it leads ultimately to a loss of social and human value. Merrin wants to suggest that Baudrillard's history is suspect, in fact, and that there is an earlier philosophical tradition which can cast light on this important process. [He also wants to suggest that the conceptual boundary between symbolic and semiotic orders is a problem -- 91 -- and seems to indicate a nostalgia for simpler forms of social solidarity -- see below].

Merrin sketches in a whole historical tradition, beginning with the Greeks, which offers criticism of the tendency towards developing images and simulations. On the one hand, images are seen as enabling us to manipulate the real. On the other hand, images seem to offer a threat to our understanding of the real: several examples are provided, pages 92 - 3, but perhaps the best one is found in the debates about idolatry in the Christian tradition. Idols and 'graven images' can help to represent the sacred, but also tend to replace it, indicating the notion of a good or evil simulacrum, 'as mediating or eclipsing the divine' (93). False images tend to threaten the very basis of attempts to understand and grasp reality, and much philosophy turns on how to guarantee the truth and efficacy of  'images' [ images here include models of social life or scientific theories. In another fascinating example, Merrin discusses empiricism as one approach aiming at such a guarantee, and explains its problems as relating to simulacra again -- in this case, connected to the ultimate unreliability of the senses which cannot be guaranteed to avoid producing a mere simulacrum of the world -- 94].

These examples underpin the anti-foundational arguments in Baudrillard, and in many others. The debate finds an echo in the discussions of mechanical reproduction involving Benjamin  [and Adorno], and the anxiety that mechanical reproduction misleads by stripping away authenticity or 'aura'. There are also clear connections with Marx on the commodity and its tendency towards fetishised misunderstanding. Merrin argues that Marx still retained the hope that the inverted understanding could be finally rectified, and traces the same hope through Adorno and Horkheimer on the culture industry [if it is there, it is well buried!], or Debord on the society of the spectacle. Merrin detects the same hope in the famous criticism of Baudrillard that he had simply overlooked the reality of the (first) Gulf War in his notorious and provocative view that it had only happened on TV.

Merrin's survey of the long philosophical struggle to control the image leaves him feeling more pessimistic. In Baudrillard's case, there is an attempt simply to reawaken an oppositional symbolic level to restrain the world of appearances. However, even Durkheim realised that simulation was already an important part of the symbolic, that mimesis and totemism became essential for effective reproduction 'giving access to its restorative and regenerative energies and producing that communal experience that Baudrillard understands as a symbolic relationship' (97) [Indeed, the whole point is that the religious is an image of the ideal society?]. It seems the same problem has recurred here -- there must be good and bad aspects of the symbolic as well as of the simulacrum. In effect, Baudrillard is forced to claim the symbolic as  'a guaranteed real', and to tell the story of the emergence of hyperreality in the familiar terms of the corruption and demonisation arising from the image.

As a result, a change occurs in Baudrillard's work, and a new potential is discovered in the sign to permit the extension of the symbolic. This argument is expressed in terms of the contrast between production  [of signs in this case] and seduction  'which involves  "a mastering of the realm of appearances"... in a game of signs creating a symbolic relationship -- to other participants or witnesses, to the order of appearances, or to the world itself' (98). [So that people can play with signs and engage in signification as a creative act instead of 'serious' representation?]. This process can be critical  [by revealing the processes involved in representation?]. At the same time, there is the danger that this excessive and sophisticated signification will lead to hyperreality, an image that is more real than the real, that has been subject to  'an excessive semio-realization of the real' (98).

Pornography demonstrates the tendency towards hyperreality, as a representation that transcends any actual sexual experience in its detail, its well-organised fantasy, its gynaecological reality. Baudrillard reserves the term 'obscene' as referring to  'that which is over-exposed, over-represented, and over signified in the  "all -too-visible"' (98). Playfulness and seduction are replaced by excessive realism, leading to the inability to resist the hyperreal representation, the absence of any way to reciprocate or respond to it --  'meaning is absolutely signified rather than reciprocally actualized, and... everything is resolved into a single "hyperreal" dimension'  (98).  [I think this takes care of the usual celebrations of the 'active viewer' able to interpret images in their own way, preserving the subjectivity, and offering a kind of in-built cultural resistance -- to put it in much simpler terms, the professionals who construct images have already added all these intertextual and mildly subversive meanings, leaving nothing for the viewer to do: check out the hyperreality of the Nike advertisement]. Again, the same themes of the absence of symbolic exchange, the reciprocal pursuit of meaning, are found in the work of other philosophers (99). Modern culture is pornographic, devoted to 'the hypervisibility of the world' (99)  [and there's a hint that meaning increasingly becomes the province of the technician and expert in representation].

The drive to produce even more perfect copies of the real ends by exterminating the real, and produces disenchantment.  [I thought of Ritzer's discussion of the paradoxes of disenchantment here. Customers become disenchanted, for example at baseball stadia, so the company replies by adding more enchantment, but this eventually exhausts the possibilities on behalf of the company, leaving the customers as mere spectators, with nothing to add]. Production replaces seduction

However, this very perfection leads us dissatisfied and suspicious. Merrin quotes Barthes here on the ways in which perfectly realist photographs still do not manage to capture the person. Hyperreality leads to banality --  'such a level of obviousness... [that]... no relationship is possible: there is no passion, no investment or belief... our only response is stupefied acceptance' (100). The real becomes something that is dead, fully visible, fully captured and fully signified. Baudrillard continues to try to find something that might be the basis of resistance -- including the refusal of simple realities in modern nuclear physics (101). He even refers to '"an authentic form of simulation as well as an inauthentic form of simulation"' (101). He seems to have in mind ironic versions of reality such as trompe de l'oeuil or Andy Warhol's reproductions  [or, presumably avant garde art or film designed to challenge representations -- which was a source of hope for Adorno, in the short term at least, until recuperation]. Merrin cites a notion in Baudelaire of a work of art which can transcend itself, become an  'absolute commodity', delivering irony and a sense of playfulness again as a seductive object. Apparently, photography and other forms of technology can deliver these results, allowing viewers to go beyond representation and realism  [the examples I think of here are the female 'narrative stoppers' referred to in Mulvey who break out of conventional representations of women by the sheer unrepresentable challenge of their image; or the tendency of cinema in particular to allude to something unrepresentable, the 'sublime' in Deleuze's discussion].

Although this seems a more sophisticated analysis than the one that simply opposed the symbolic to the hyperreal, there still may be a lingering notion of some authentic 'real' at work. Later discussions turn on the important role of  'the double' in human culture: in its authentic forms, this was a nonalienated doubling [a profane and a sacred person? early roles?]. In its modern form, this double dimension is collapsed into hyperreality. But this produces familiar problems with authenticity, and seems to admit that some form of representative doubling was always present in human culture [which leaves us with the problem of separating out good and bad versions of the simulacrum again]. Lyotard apparently specifically compares this notion to the familiar one of distinguishing between good and bad savages in Western racism [one which is not far away from the discussions of authenticity in tourism, of course].

[Baudrillard has encountered the familiar problem noted by other critics of postmodernism -- that anti-foundationalism is based upon a new foundation, that claims that there is nothing outside the text are based on some Archimedian perspective outside a text]. He is left with trying to develop critical possibilities that cannot be incorporated in hyperreality --'his aim is not for theory to be true, passively to reflect the real  (as then it is no longer needed, being reduced to obviousness, and uselessness); rather theory should not be true... but should provoke an agonistic opposition' (104) [sounds like Critical Theory to me]. In this sense, theory is a 'good' simulacrum, used to challenge reality. However, Baudrillard realises that reality can still incorporate critical theories, can absorb them in a new  'bad' hyperreality  [much in the same way that the Disney Company incorporates and caters for cultural critics by offering a kind of commercial irony just for them]. Ironically, this is what has happened to Baudrillard's notion of hyperreality -- it has become obvious, unremarkable, banal. [This is also what Morris means, presumably, by her argument that Cultural Studies has become banal -- its little platitudes, the eternal opposition between hegemony and resistance, have become obvious and unremarkable]. Theories always seem to risk this, because in their very formulation, they are encouraging the process of simulation and hyperreality. [The consequences seem clear -- to develop the negative, the unincorporatable, the esoteric, as in Critical Theory, or to develop the outrageous,  ludicrously speculative and verbally provocative as in Baudrillard].

Merrin believes that hyperreality has won and that Baudrillard has become incorporated and banal, that his work has been reduced to the simple idea of the simulacrum taking over, losing all its critical implications. [There's also the effect of student textbooks acknowledged here]. Everyone now knows that simulation has won, and so Baudrillard's critique is a commonplace. 'For his work is not wrong, but too true: the simulacrum has become reality and this is his end; the game is over' (106). The only way that Baudrillard continues to have importance is as a straw man, a target for those who wish to reassert an appeal to reality  [compare this with the straw men of Cultural Studies --  'orthodox marxism', Critical Theory, the textbook version]. They have to keep him alive and defend him in order to represent him as a threat.

Merrin concludes that those who dabble with simulations end up being consumed by them  [applied to academic theorists and academic simulacra, I think this is indisputable -- radical critics end up on Open University syllabuses as a series of bullet points].

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