“The Precession of Simulacra”

July 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

Is this real life?

In “Simulacra and Simulation,” Billy-Jack Baudrillard discusses the role of simulation in modern thought and forwards a stern-faced postmodern (is there any other kind?) account of “reality,” you know, that thing they talk about in The Matrix. He grounds his argument is a discussion of simulacra, epistemologically empty units of not-quite-meaning. On his view, no-thing refers to any other thing; all moments of reference merely reflect reflection (1-3). This courts “hyperreality,” the idea that simulacra dictate meaning, and that this meaning is necessarily severed from truth-slash-reality (more accurately described as “truth” and “reality,” which themselves are simulations). According to Baudrillard, hyperrality (and its relationship to simulacra) can be traced to the development of Capital, and the simultaneously emergent capitalist system, mass-production etc etc. The ultimate ideological framework, capitalism obscured the really real and rendered it impossible ever to look out from behind its invisible veil. In other words, because the ideology of capitalism precluded (and continues to preclude) truth, capital compromised (and continues to compromise) unmediated reality (14-15).

Regarding the internet (which isn’t itself mentioned because this book was first published in 1981, though TV is discussed at length, sort of in English), Baudrillard is the grumpy old frog people who already don’t like the internet throw around to convince other people who already don’t like the internet that they shouldn’t like the internet. The basic argument is straightforward enough: Not only do individual subjects disappear online (the horror, also what does that even mean), not only are people once or twice or sometimes even three times removed from the people they talk to, the images they see, and the online personas they create, but meaning itself has shifted to encompass an endlessly referential, free-floating spider web of fragmented cultural artifacts — bonus points for anyone who, with a pained little moan, cites Wikipedia’s threshold for “truth” (if you can source it, you can say it). And it’s so super seriously terrible you guys, since unmediated reality, problematic enough in “real life” (due to the evils of CAPITALISM) becomes a logical impossibility online—the internet is not merely overrun by simulacra, these simulations are simulacra of existing simulacra. The signs parading as signs attempting to approximate, but always falling short, of their intended virtual signifieds are, in a very literal sense, hyper-hyper real, best understood as reflections of reflections of reflections. We should all go kill ourselves like yesterday!

Oh I’m sort of kidding. To a certain extent I actually agree with the above analysis — the difference is that I don’t think it’s something to lament like Grandpa Simpson shaking his fist at a cloud. Yes, hypermediation can be problematic, but it’s also very interesting, and results, among other things, in a particular kind of emotionally-distant engagement with online content. Which factors significantly into my work with trolls and online humor/culture. So keep that simulacra shit coming, internet, mama’s gotta a dissertation to write.

In terms of the exam…I guess the B-man’s characterization of simulacra (endlessly self-referental non-things inhering in an epistemologically inchoate amalgam of nothing in particular) would throw a monkey-wrench in Mary Douglas’ account of secular ritual — who’s to say what qualifies as “dirt,” i.e. matter out of place/something to contain, if the very system is predicated on disorder and widespread out-of-place-edness? That’s an interesting thought, actually. The idea that the “postmodern condition” is all dirt and no clean. At some point, wouldn’t order become that which is anomalous and therefore dangerous and therefore cast out? lol prolly

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