In his essay (2009), Baudrillard argues for the idea that people no longer distinguish between reality and a constructed representation of reality or a simulacrum. He initially draws an analogy with , where a map is created, so precise in scale and detail that it is impossible to tell it apart from the empire it maps. So the map, a simulation, becomes confused for the real terrain until it rots away. However, Baudrillard goes on to say that this allegory is no longer relevant for us, because in today’s world the simulation is no longer a reflection of reality, nor a reference to it, but a creation of a new real by models that are not based on reality. He calls this the “hyperreal”, saying the difference between the map and the territory disappears completely.
Baudrillard then talks about the power of images and symbols to subvert reality. He draws the distinction between pretence and simulation via the example of illness. If a man pretends to be ill, he may sit in bed, but does not possess any symptoms of illness. A simulator, however, will posses some of these symptoms, making it impossible to tell whether he is sick or not, provided he produces true symptoms. Baudrillard argues the impossibility of making a distinction between reality and simulation undermines the real itself. This is in line with Lyotard’s concept of “incredulity towards metanarratives” (1984), which he ascribes to postmodernism: a skepticism towards traditional frameworks of what is true or right or wrong and how to establish it. The idea that anything can be simulated, from God’s divinity in icons to symptoms of insanity, not only questions the systems that traditionally determine what is real, like religion and science, but the relevance of reality altogether.
Baudrillard suggests that we are being coerced into believing the simulacra around us are real (presumably by the ruling class together with our desire to believe). He uses Disneyland as an example, saying that it is “presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real”. He points out that the obvious childishness and fictitiousness of this world is contrasted to the rest of America so we believe that outside of Disneyland we’re living in the real world, but in truth, the outside world is just as childish and based on fictitious ideologies. Baudrillard furthers his argument by suggesting that the Watergate scandal was only portrayed as a scandal to make us believe that such corruption and immorality was a one-off instance, rather than the daily occurrence in the politics (which is also a simulacra), and to restore faith in the system of justice. This asserts the need for a critical approach to information and questioning whom it benefits.
I am convinced by Baudrillard’s analyses of how simulation displaces the real, but feel that precession of simulacra is not unique to this era. Simulation was probably born when humanity first started to search for meaning instead of accepting reality as it is. It is not by chance that Baudrillard mentions religion (perhaps the oldest simulacrum) and the fears of Iconoclasts that icons would replace the idea of God and his very existence. What is unique to postmodernism is our uncapped ability to produce and disseminate information, which leads to greater volumes and heterogeneity of the hyperreal, ranging from world politics to fan-fiction. On the other hand, who is to say that objects and actions are more real than the products of our minds, considering that our only access to reality is through the prism of our own perception?
Baudrallard J. (2009) The Precession of Simulacra. In J. Storey (Ed.), Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader (4th ed.) (pp. 409-415). Harlow: Pearson
Lyotard J. (1984). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (B. Massumi & G. Bennington, Trans.). MN: University of Minnesota Press