Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard is among the most famous philosophical books to come out in the 20th century, somewhere alongside Tractutus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Anti-Oedipus by Deleuze and Guattari, and the writings of Theodor Adorno. Baudrillard in many ways builds off of the work of the latter two to create an immensely challenging, controversial and stimulating work of philosophy.
Simulacra and Simulation isn’t an easy book to summarize, but I’ll make a bland attempt. The core idea is that, as part of the postmodern condition, we have been, by degrees, severed from reality. He calls this the precession of simulacra. Imagine a scale and one side there’s reality, and one degree removed from that is the simulation of reality. Where are we? We are a degree removed from simulation; we are living in the simulacra. The simulacra is the reality that’s been created, the reality that’s divorced from the actual reality, the reality that has its own referentials that have little bearing on reality itself.
Jean Baudrillard goes a step forward to say the simulacra revolves around a system of symbols, but these aren’t symbols like Ferdinand de Saussure imagined them. These are symbols that lack signifiers, and instead refer to other symbols. Take, for instance, capitalism. To the philosopher, capitalism is both a product of simulacra and in some ways the cause of simulacra. Now, in capitalism, instead of every object having a definable value, every object has a monetary value, and money is just the symbolic order of the simulacra.
With Baudrillard’s philosophy, the world is a pretty bleak place. Not much of anything seems to have real significance. Even religion he categorizes as a series of symbols that is disconnected from the possible reality of religion (consider the collection plates, the plethora of different denominations, the codes of orthodoxy).
And that’s the really disturbing part of what’s described in Simulacra and Simulation: it amounts to one big impasse. I remember thinking early on, “Well if all of this is true, why not try to raise people’s consciousness?” Then, Baudrillard specifically says that by trying to raise consciousness, I’d just be doing what the establishment wants, i. e. helping create a glut of information that would prevent movement rather than compel it. So then I start thinking, based on this, maybe it’s best to be a nihilist and not believe in the false symbols and so on, but in the last chapter titled “On Nihilism” he says that nihilism too is just a pleasant fantasy.
Simulacra and Simulation then was a very upsetting book. It certainly made me feel that nothing I was doing was worthwhile (and indeed, by blogging I am only accelerating the entropy of information). It even depressed me when I finished it (whereas usually I’m happy to finish a book), making it a pretty lachrymose piece of work. Despite some of my quandaries, I’d still recommend Simulacra and Simulation just for the first essay, The Precession of Simulacra. After the first essay, the book has a mixed quality, and some of the essays I skipped entirely after trying to trudge through the opening paragraphs. If you do like this sort of thing, I’d recommend you check out The Anti-Oedipus and the books of Slavoj Zizek, works that have similar themes to Simulacra and Simulation but also have a good amount of humor, so as to prevent the books from seeming too despairing.
This book is also a useful key to understanding po-mo fiction. For one, Baudrillard frequently mentions Jorge Luis Borges and Philip K. Dick, and for another, I’m positive Simulacra & Simulation helped inspire Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.
How else to describe this book in simpler terms? Maybe an aphorism. Imagine if you’re doctor diagnosed you with a bad case of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and you’d tell your doctor, “Well, I still have to eat.” Simulacra and Simulation is similar to the doctor, telling you that everything is moot and capitalism is bunk, and you’ll say “Well I still have to eat.”
—-If you’re looking for new fiction to read, check out my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories, available on Amazon in paperback and as an ebook.
Have you read Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard? If so what did yout think?