Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Real and Simulation According to Jean Baudrillard (in "Simulacra and Simulation")

One of the most challenging concepts in Jean Baudrillard''s "Simulacra and Simulation" is that of "the real". Intuitively we tend to distinguish what happens in the real world from what is represented to us. We know (?) that what we see on television isn't the real world but rather a representation of it. But Baudrillard thinks differently. He uses the concept of "Simulation" which he defines as the occurrence of something real which has no origin or reality through the use of models: a hyperreality. A simulation is an event which "stages" an actual event and recreates its conditions and even experience. A simulation is like real life, only it's not.

Usually we think we can tell a simulation from an actual occurrence, but Baudrillard's definition of the concept argues the simulation is not something which follows the real, but rather a "real" which does not stem from any other source or origin. A simulation for Baudrillard is not something which disguises itself as the real, but rather something which eliminates the actual "real", the real which is distinguished from its representations.

When Baudrillard describes western culture's move away from the real he argues that what we are losing is a construction of the real. For Baudrillard, what we think is the real is always in fact a simulacrum of the real.

To understand this assertion we have to turn back to De Saussure's "The Nature of the Linguistic Sign" in which he argues the lingual sign is made up of an image or sound (signifier) and a meaning (signified). Saussure argues that the lingual sign is arbitrary and that meaning is assigned by the function and position the sign assumes within a system of structure. Baudrillars thinks that the problem with this supposition is the idea the one sign is tradable with the other, and that one sign can find its meaning through its relationship with other signs. Like Roland Barthes, (in Rhetoric of the Image as well as Myth Today), the sign always carries additional meaning, a connotation according to Barthes, which does not make it entirely tradable with other signs. A sign, in other words, always signifies an additional something else.

Baudrillard holds that at some point in history, objects have become signs and sings have turned into objects. Social trade ceased being one of objects and became one of signs and what they signify (this is very similar to Guy Debord's thought in the  Society of the Spectacle ).
This trade of signs means to Baudrillard that the referent is slowly diminishing.  We grow ever more detached from real objects in our lives and our relations with them are now determined by their signs and process of signification. The sign is therefore not arbitrary, as Saussure would have it, but rather an historical construct. Likw Debord's description of a shift from "having into being and then to merely appearing", Baudrillard replaces actual trade with "symbolic trade" as the only contemporary form of social reality.

The "real" of the sign or representation is established when signs "freed themselves" from social binds, an emancipation which occurred according to Baudrillard with the collapse of feudal society and the rise of the bourgeoisie. Only then did signs become arbitrary and a shift in their value began in the market of symbolic trade. In today's consumer society signs are presented as if they were still connected to the world, still having a referent, but this is only a pretended connection achieved by the distinguishing the sign from the world. A product signifies something added to my reality (success, comfort etc.). it does not represent the object itself but only all those meaning assigned to its sign, which are to have an effect in the real world. The real is constructed through the sign and through representation. Reality, for Baudrillard, can thus no longer function on the basis of its opposition to representation.

This is how Baudrillard describes the real as simulacra. The real only pretends to be authentic, a stable and objective originless reality, when in fact it is nothing but the product of symbolic trade of signs in culture. For Baudrillard, there is no longer any real difference between the real and the imagined, between the world and its representation. 

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