Simulacra and Simulation
Jean Baudrillard
1981

You’ve got to be quite the academic mind to pick up Simulacra and Simulation – or anything by critical philosopher Jean Baudrillard. But that doesn’t mean you’ve not been impacted by his work. Indeed, if you’ve seen The Matrix, you’ve been introduced. The film was profoundly influenced by Simulacra…, and the book was required reading for actors who were going to participate in what became one of the most important and successful films of recent decades. Now, Baudrillard himself  certainly had his concerns about the link between his philosophizing and Keanu Reeves, calling The Matrix’ interpretation of his work a misreading or distortion at best. But whatever, Baudrillard. That’s what happens when you toss ideas out there. They get altered with every reading.

Simulacra and Simulation explores the relationship between forms of communication and the social relations that develop in a society. It is a major text of  postmodern/ post structuralist social theory and vaulted Baudrillard to the heights of academic reach. The gist of it? Contemporary social order is so thoroughly symbolic, so thoroughly mediated through images rather than realities that we can no longer speak of any truly existing reality at all. The social world today is all sign, communication about social relations having thoroughly eclipsed social relations themselves such that there is no distinction between the real and the symbolic. Sound like a fun read? Yeah, and it gets better.

There are four stages of the sign: the faithful image or copy, the sign a depiction of the real; the unfaithful or distorted image, in which the sign is no longer true to the real but provides some insight into it; the sign which pretends to represent the real, but behind which there actually is no real substance to speak of; and the sign entirely divorced from any reality, simply reflecting other signs in a never-ending loop of symbols. Contemporary society is an order based upon this last hyper-symbolic stage of the sign, an order in which alienation of what we believe to be from what is is at its most profound and far-reaching, in which language, belief, and social interaction obscure more than they reveal.

Now – The Matrix connection makes a whole lot of sense, doesn’t it? Does the movie capture the sophistication of Baudrillard? Does it engage the nuance of his work, the ways he sees the sign system operating in contemporary capitalism? No, course not. Nor, for that matter, does this little post do either the man or the book justice. But it makes the point, nonetheless. And really – watching Keanu and Laurence Fishbourne take on the simulated world that masks really-existing relations of power is way more fun than reading complex and dense academic theory. And you don’t have worry about your butter-flavoured-greasy fingers marking up any pages.

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