I’ve recently been reading a lot about the idea of the simulacrum for my art degree research. Don’t stop reading. I’ll explain.
The simulacrum (in Latin: likeness, similarity) is defined on the Internet as:
- an image or representation of someone or something
- an unsatisfactory imitation or substitute
This definition implies a negative notion. Traditionally, in the West at least, the simulacrum is seen in a very derogatory way. It still is. However, it was the likes of thinkers such as Nietzsche and Baudrillard who studied the idea in more depth. Deleuze, of course, went a step further and decided it was A Good Thing. But this blog will look at the negative aspects only and how they relate to our current version of reality.
Plato’s allegory of the cave is perhaps the most famous example of simulacra: people here were chained up in a cave for their entire lives and only saw shadows of real objects, believing that the shadows were reality. Only the shadow of things existed for these prisoners in the cave. That was their reality. This is a simulacrum: fake reality which often seems more real than the actual reality. Since Plato roamed the earth, philosophers had been trying to move away from this simulacrum, to become the one prisoner who leaves the cave and discovers reality.
Before Jean Baudrillard came along, everyone believed that the simulacrum was entirely two-dimensional and only one aspect of reality. Baudrillard argued, however, that the simulacrum was inescapable and a integral to our current reality. The simulacra were as real as reality, he believed.
I think this is quite forward thinking for his time (1980s). He said all this before the days of social media and reality TV. To Baudrillard, simulacra stopped being projections of reality, they became a separate body of symbols which exist irrespective of reality. These symbols, or shadows to use Plato’s term, became more important than the objects casting them. We covert objects and status not for what they are, but for what they say. We own that particular pair of shoes because of what they say about who we are.
Baudrillard argued that we could no longer describe what was good in objective terms. We could only describe goodness relative to what is bad. This is most evident in the politics of the last 30 years: you know who I am talking about I am sure but I would argue that the likes of Thatcher and George Bush started this trend.
Next we should consider the hyperreal. This is the generation of the simulation of the real – more a copy than an emulation. Science fiction loves this idea. Think Inception, The Matrix and The Truman Show as three examples. There are many other examples in literature too. Have you ever dreamt of electronic sheep? Did you burn your books at 451 degrees Fahrenheit? That is, assuming you are an android or a fireman – a shadow, or simulacrum, of a ‘normal’ human.
Reality TV, which some would argue is now on the wain, gave the next wave of simulacrum. In the early 2000s, we lapped up reality TV as if we were desperate for an escape from the real. Reality TV was created to imitate and parody life. However, it became a hyper-dramatized version of reality. We refused to see it thus. It became, in our view, a mirror of society. It became a mirror of a society we wanted to belong to.
I would argue that we are currently in a new stage: a stage of accepting that reality TV is a complete farce. We don’t readily admit to enjoying reality TV. However, in it we fail to see that our current constructed reality is similarly a farce. As social media got its paws on our lives, we started to imitate reality TV through social media: the drama, the humour, the selfies. Take a look at Facebook now and look at the statuses that you flick through with your finger. How much of that is a mask of people’s reality and how much of that is genuine? How much is a projection, or a ‘shadow’ (Plato stands grinning).
Fast forward to the year 2017. It could be argued that reality has now almost completely lost its substance. Donald Trump is the human embodiment of that (yes, him again). Think Donald Trump and add Twitter, think #alternativefacts and add post-truth (one of the newest entries into the Oxford English Dictionary). Where has reality gone?
The mass media has become the frame through which we see what we think of as reality. But it isn’t reality. Simulating is not longer faking. It is what we think of as existing. But we are faking it as much as they are. We are all faking it.
Social media has now become all encompassing in our lives and has even further accentuated the trend. Many of us, most of us in fact, live behind the facade of our social media masks. We have a ‘self’ online that is not our true self. Our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram self is a virtual version of Plato’s shadow.
Do we even know what our real self is now, I wonder? Will we ever get it back?
Perhaps we should just accept the current ‘reality’ for what it is and not mourn the old reality. The future will change things whether we like it or not.