Table of Contents
2. Simulation and the Hyperreal
3. The Gulf War: shall we take it for (hyper)real?
4. A Conclusion – Maybe Not?
“How do things stand with the real event, then, if reality is everywhere infiltrated by images, virtuality and fiction?”, asks Jean Baudrillard in his The Spirit of Terrorism (Baudrillard 2003:27-28) He already seems to know the answer to this, apparently, purely rhetorical question. Or does he? Baudrillard has become (in)famous for his controversial claim that we are living in an age of simulation and hyperreality, or what he calls the ‘third order of simulacra’ (Baudrillard 1993:50).
The following paper will try to disentangle some of Baudrillard’s arguments clustering around ideas of the simulacrum, hyperreality and simulation. Arguing that the last two gulf wars constitute concrete examples of simulation and hyperreality, both in terms of the (hyper)real events on the ground and in terms of the images bombarding our living rooms, it will, then, explore these events in the light of Baudrillard’s ideas.
In Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard argues that in our current era of simulation the real is preceded by, and generated from, models, in a free play of signifiers which only refer to other signifiers (Baudrillard 1994:1-2). This constitutes the “third order of simulacra”, in contrast to the ‘second order’ which was still dominated by production and a market law of value (Baudrillard 1993:50). Baudrillard uses the term value in both its economic and linguistic sense. Drawing on Marx and Sausurre he differentiates between two dimensions of value. First, there is a structural aspect corresponding to Marx’s idea of exchange value. Each sign within a signifying system or each commodity within a system of exchange can be related to each other sign or commodity – “the structural dimension”. The second aspect is functional, relating each term to what it designates (signifier to signified; sign to referent) or each commodity to its potential use (Marx’s use-value) – “the referential dimension” (Baudrillard 1993:6-9). On entering our current era of simulation the dialectical link between these two aspects, still prevalent in Marx’s theory, is severed:
Now the other stage of value has the upper hand, a total relativity, general commutation, combination and simulation, in the sense that from now on, signs are exchanged against each other rather than against the real (it is not that they just happen to be exchanged against each other, they do so on condition that they are no longer exchanged against the real) (Baudrillard 1993:7).
In Symbolic Exchange and Death, which comes closest to a coherent account of the operation of the simulacrum, Baudrillard contends that the referential dimension, the sign’s relation to its referent, becomes arbitrary with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the end of the feudal order, which is still a “strong symbolic order” (Baudrillard 1993:50-51).
The arbitrariness of the sign begins when, instead of bonding two persons in an inescapable reciprocity, the signifier starts to refer to a disenchanted universe of the signified, the common denominator of the real world to which no-one any longer has the least obligation (Baudrillard 1993:50).
The rise of the bourgeoisie marks the passage from “the obligatory sign” to “the emancipated sign” and the “first-order simulacrum” (Baudrillard 1993:51). In this “classical period”, or the era of “the counterfeit” the sign functions “as the simulacrum of a nature” and is governed by a principle of analogy (Baudrillard 1993:51):
This problematic of the ‘natural’ and the metaphysics of reality was, for the bourgeoisie since the Renaissance, the mirror of both the bourgeois and classical sign (Baudrillard 1993:51)
The Industrial Revolution brings about a completely new configuration of signs and objects, a new phase in the order of signs – the phase of production. Signs are now technologically mass-produced in a series of potentially identical objects:
The problem of their specificity and their origin is no longer posed: technics is their origin, they have meaning only within the dimension of the industrial simulacrum.
That is, the series: the very possibility of two or n identical objects. […] In the series, objects become indistinct simulacra of one another and, along with objects, of the men that produce them (Baudrillard 1993:55).
Instead of referring to a ‘nature’ signs now refer to the law of exchange. This second order simulacrum “erects a world without images”, a reality which is ruled by “the immanent logic of the principle of operativity (Baudrillard 1993:54). The serial production already seems to anticipate the third and last order, the aforementioned order of simulation structured by “a metaphysics of indeterminacy and the code” (Baudrillard 1993:57).
Baudrillard has often been branded and criticized as an idealist, because he seems to be concerned with images (simulacra) rather than with material reality. His own concept of the simulacrum (a copy without original), however, makes it quite clear that material ‘reality’ is not a privileged vantage point for analysis, since what is commonly referred to as ‘objective reality’ is just a product of the sign (Merrin 2001:90). The fundamental epistemological problem of the relationship between images and ‘reality’ seems to underlie Baudrillard’s whole discussion of the simulacrum. Contrary to what many of his critics say, he does not occupy a nihilistic position of epistemological uncertainty. He describes the simulacrum’s nihilistic subversion of “the foundations for truth and falsity” (Merrin 2001:88) rather than his own nihilism. A quest for a critical perspective from which to oppose the simulacrum forms an important strand of his theoretical discourse (Merrin 2001:88). An analysis of Baudrillard’s shifts in formulating such a critical perspective would go well beyond the scope of this paper, but suffice it to say that Baudrillard’s work itself seems to be haunted by the epistemological problematic inherent in the operation of the simulacrum (Merrin 2001:102-106).
2. Simulation and the Hyperreal
Let me now shift the focus of attention to what Baudrillard has to say about the operation of the simulacrum today:
The great man-made simulacra pass from a universe of natural laws into a universe of forces and tensions, and today pass into a universe of structures and binary oppositions (Baudrillard 1993:57).
In our current age of simulation the real is (re)produced from models through the code-governed “play of infinitesimal signifiers, condensed into their aleatory commutation” (Baudrillard 1993:59). The industrial sign has been digitalized and gives rise to a “new operational configuration” (Baudrillard 1993:57). This new configuration involves an endless process of splitting – the search for the smallest indivisible unit. The smaller the pixels comprising, say, a digital camera image, the more ‘realistic’ it appears to us. This reality-effect is however due to an underlying code which is a miniaturized cell governing the structural, combinatory distribution of signifying units. Baudrillard argues that this production of ‘reality’ through the coded combinatory distribution of ever smaller distinct units destroyed our traditional epistemological foundations for deciding between true and false, real and imaginary (Baudrillard 1994:57-61). The ‘reality’, which is generated from models, is not unreal, far from it, it is hyperreal: more real than real. Hyperreality is, however, so real that, according to the logic of reversibility, it may already come closer and closer to the unreal. Hyperreality spells the end of the real. This simulated reality or hyperreality substitutes “social control by means of prediction, simulation, programmed anticipation and indeterminate mutation” for “social control by means of the end” (Baudrillard 1993:60). Hence there is no longer any finality or determinacy at the end of a process, rather it is “there in advance, inscribed in the code” (Baudrillard 1993:60). Thus, we are living in an age of hyperreality produced from models out of digital cellular units whose distribution is structured by codes. Baudrillard identifies “the test, the question/answer and the stimulus/response” as the most concrete forms of digitality (Baudrillard 1993:62). He holds that in societies dominated by global communication networks every message is presented in the form a question/answer binary which he regards as the syntax of modern mass-communication. The question imposes its meaning upon the answer; it short-circuits the communicative cycle by laying out the grounds on which the answer can be given:
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