“St. James’s Palace released the details of the dress just as Miss Middleton stepped out of a royal Rolls-Royce with her father, Michael, to walk down the aisle at Westminster Abbey.” - New York Times, April 29th, 2011
“Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the most devastating attack on American soil in modern times and the most hunted man in the world, was killed in a firefight with United States forces in Pakistan on Sunday, President Obama announced.” –New York Times, May 1st, 2011
For the better part of the last two weeks I’ve been reading and rereading Jean Baudrillard’s essay “The Precession of Simulacra,” trying to make some sense of it and figure out something to say. I want to keep my thoughts under a thousand words, but it’s an elusive essay. How I think about it keeps changing. Baudrillard critiques contemporary Western culture—from religion to politics, from Egyptology to molecular science, from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland to the discovery and subsequent ‘replacement’ of Tasaday Indians in the Philippine jungles—as being based on “models of a real without origin or reality.” In short, he says that we no longer have a tangible relationship with reality, that we’ve mistaken the simulacra for the authentic. The myth, the model of reality since civilization began, now (and for the first time) precedes the objective fact, a situation he calls “hyperreality.”
I needed examples, one or two snapshots of so-called origin-less reality, of models without an authentic reference. Providence smiled upon me, offering up two perfect media bookends in a hyperreal world. On Friday, the world watched the choreographed celebration of a royal wedding in London. And then, as if on cue, on Sunday night with symmetry too sublime to craft, came the strange, jingoistic jubilation after the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden.
The gods of the absurd had granted my wish.
REAL: (adj): of or relating to fixed, permanent or immovable things.
It is Tuesday morning now, and I’m sitting in a beach-side café in San Diego on a resplendent spring day. I’ve been trying to write this essay for a week. It shifts and finds new subjects. I want it to be readable and short, but it keeps growing, getting more dense, and escaping me. Even with the royal wedding and the killing of the an arch-terrorist as its new framework, I’m still at a bit of a loss.
I smell musty wood inside the café, the sea, French roast coffee. Across the way, eighty-odd glass jars of tea are lined on bookcases beneath a blue neon sign that reads “Tea Store”. Pretty girls in running shorts wander in and out amidst furtive glances of the men, including my own. These things are real, tangible, verifiable; my words are only abstractions, feeble keystrokes in the realm of the sign and the imagination. “To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has,” Baudrillard wrote some thirty years ago. “To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have. One implies a presence, the other an absence.”
Through the act of writing (and reading) I pretend, which is the natural order of things. I attempt to ‘recreate’ a version of the real, but I know (and remember) that it’s not. I dissimulate because I accept the fact, painstakingly apparent, that my words will always fall short of the actual object or idea they describe. The real exists here, in front of me, as glass jars of tea, pretty women, and French roast coffee.
Baudrillard says that it’s the difference that matters, that by suspending disbelief, we keep the relationship between model (the words) and the real (the pretty girls) intact. But he argues that there is very little of the real left anymore, that it’s all a simulation of reality and that the model, the myth itself, is out in front of the real, thus the precession of the simulacra:
It is here, everywhere, in the metropolises, in the White community, in a world completely catalogued and analyzed, then artificially resurrected under the auspices of the real, in a world of simulation, of the hallucination of truth, the blackmail of the real, the murder of every symbolic form and of its hysterical, historical resurrection. (Emphasis original)
We have travelled from Plato’s cave and its shadows, observed reality, then returned to the cave and recreated new shadows on the wall. But these new shadows are no longer cast from tangible, objective forms, but are instead shadows of shadows themselves. Baudrillard suggests that we have built an ass-backwards reality. That it’s all a simulation.
Shadows of shadows and dead French philosophers. No wonder I drink!
SIMULACRA: signs that have no relation to reality; simulated simulations.
On Friday was the fairy tale, complete with horse-drawn carriages, men and women in strange costumes, princes and princesses and the promises of happy endings. Every detail of the royal wedding in London was parsed and portrayed with utmost concern. Venerable news organizations reported the events as real news, a fifty-million dollar affair so far removed from everyday reality that it seems absurd to even contemplate. “Ah, but the spectacle of it!” the dissenters cry out, defending the wedding as a pan-cultural celebration, a fairy tale writ large and acted out on a massive stage of instantaneous social media. But the fairy tale begins to be mistaken for something else. We convince ourselves that wedding is a dream and that our struggles are real, but perhaps not. Perhaps the wedding itself, the fantasy life we consume, is more real than our existence. The emperor (princess, in this case) has no clothes, or rather, she’s wearing an Alexander McQueen wedding gown but lacks a body. In Baudrillard’s universe, the gown creates the body, precedes the myth, and obliterates the difference.
Baudrillard would argue that the simulation was pre-created and the event staged to support the dreams of false reality. The real Kate Middleton simply doesn’t matter. Her reality is only a by-product of the simulation which came first. We are sold the simulation and happily fool ourselves that it’s something else.
The sign kills the real.
Baudrillard preferred Disneyland to royal weddings as a template for his essay, though I suspect the effect is the same. “Disneyland is the perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulacra,” he wrote. “Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the ‘real’country…Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make-believe that the rest is real…It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality (ideology) but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real.”
To muddle the metaphor a bit, the cultural anesthesia has become so strong that the patient is in a medically induced coma, unable to wake from the dream no matter how much she wants to. “The imaginary of Disneyland is neither true nor false, it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp.”
“Sorry kids,” I shout. “Looks like we’re not going to Anaheim this summer!
HYPERREAL: a condition in which “reality” has been replaced by simulacra.
Jump-cut to Sunday night and the euphoric political and media frenzy of American pride over the death of Evil. All of it rings undeniably false to me. Osama bin Laden, the poster-boy for all things sinister after 9/11, is dead. I swear I can hear munchkins chanting in the background. Over the past ten years and the course of two protracted wars, the symbol of evil became much more real than the isolated and (to a certain extent) irrelevant man holed up in a compound without electricity or telephone service. Don’t get me wrong; I think there is something gratifying in finally ‘getting him,’ but America has spent trillions of dollars and sacrificed countless lives to defeat and destroy a symbol. In Baudrillardian imagery, the figure, the simulation of the real, became much more important than the real man himself.
Some ten years ago, I watched in horror as airplanes crashed into New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. My five-day-old daughter was literally on her way home from the hospital as the towers fell. On reflection, in contemplation of Baudrillard’s essay, it now seems that the events of 9/11 were also a crime against the hyperreality of our world. American was attacked that September morning, but so was our very notion of the real.
On 9/11, reality stared back at us, piercing the pervasive myth of our culture in a tragic replay of jets piercing the Trade Towers. The events of that day were like a nightmare, but we were awake. Reality felt eerily unreal.
Within weeks, possibly sooner, hyperreality was rapidly being reconstructed from the smoldering aftermath of the crumpled buildings and lost lives. And it helped to give the new reality a symbol, and this one was perfect, the devil himself reincarnate: Osama bin Laden.
His end, perfectly scripted like the royal wedding which preceded it, came from the President himself, fighting back a grin as he announced bin Laden’s death. Cue the patriotic music and the dancing in the streets. Has there ever been, in human history, a war fought by a nation’s army versus a single man?
I realize these are broad strokes. The military quietly and dutifully sacrifices everyday, risking their bodies and lives. My wife is in on active duty. I’ve lost many classmates from Annapolis in the war. The question that gnaws at me is, why? People were dancing in the streets of D.C. Sunday night? How to explain this?
Tribal, communitarian, precapitalist structures, every form of exchange of language, of symbolic organization, that is what must be abolished, that is the object of murder in war—and war itself, in its immense, spectacular death apparatus, is nothing but the medium of this process of the terrorist rationalization of the social—the murder on which sociality will be founded, whatever its allegiance.
In the end, I think Baudrillard takes it too far. He gets carried away with his own gamesmanship, but his essay certainly makes me squirm. He kicks at the chair upon which my reality stands, a noose already around its fragile neck. We live in a post-ironic age, a time when we no longer question what we are doing no matter how absurd, destructive or greedy. At times we must look like lemmings sprinting toward the precipice with Kate & Will thimbles in our pockets and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags stitched to our jeans. Who reads French philosophers anymore? Who questions reality? I begin to feel adrift, unsteady. I begin to marvel at my own ability to see clearly while everyone else is asleep. I begin to create of myth of myself. This is dangerous territory, I know. It is a false reality of my own making.
Then a man passes by my table in the café and sees my book. He slows a bit as he passes and I look up.
“You reading that for a class?” he says, pointing to the Baudrillard on the table. He looks to be about my age, white like me, dressed casually on a Tuesday morning and not sitting in an office somewhere. I wonder where our similarities begin and end.
I shake my head in the negative. “No, not for a class.”
“I’ve never seen anyone reading it in public before,” he says. He smiles.
I smile back and nod again.
“Pretty wild stuff,” I say, suddenly ashamed by my own inability to articulate more, to start a conversation with him. I wonder about him, who he is, why and when and how he was reading Baudrillard.
“Enjoy” he says. Then he moves off.
I realize, in this glorious instant, how little I know of people, of the world, of French philosophy, or even of myself. I can’t even start a conversation about an essay I’ve been reading for two weeks.
Or maybe I’m just a bit dizzy from caffeine and typing and all this abstract French, post-modernist philosophy. “The vertigo of a world without flaws” Baudrillard calls it. His essay re-awakens me, but it leaves me a bit cold, too. There is a real here in this café—in tea jars, pretty women and well-read strangers—and no matter how much I fail to express it, no matter how inadequate my representation or comprehension of it are, the real is unchanged, unchallenged and undaunted by my failures or by Baudrillard’s philosophy. Reality is intact. And this essay is now two-thousand words long.