The Precession of Simulacra

I just want to begin my second look at Simulacra and Simulation with a caveat: I may be utterly wrong. This is a book dealing with stuff unfamiliar to me that assumes the opposite: that I will be familiar with all the allusions and references. It’s language is dense and highly elliptical, possibly not helped by the translation from French.

Reading it is like listening to one half of a conversation with someone who’s agitated and excited, and on a bad line with lots of static. Almost all “sentences” are lengthy (the opening sentence is 128 words long), and are really a concatenation of sentence fragments rather than well-formed subject-verb-object constructions.

And a shout out to my class-mate Asher, who provided some of the key insights for today’s portion of S&S.

Precession of Simulacra

The main text is prefaced by a short quote:

The Simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is truth that hides the fact there is none.

The simulacrum is true.
– Ecclesiastes

From this opening, which is not a quote from the bible but merely purports to be, I wondered if this is what Alice felt like at the top of the rabbit hole. At the top of the hole, it must have looked fairly small and innocent. But the hole is just the entrance to a large and tricky world, a world often in defiance of mortal cause-and-effect. The only way for Alice to find out about Wonderland is for her to go there. Part of the charm is Wonderland is that I think it would defy the Cartesian logic of map-making altogether: there is only the reality to explore, there is no duplicate to peruse in advance. I think that this engenders a sense of mystery and wonder which is at the heart of true fantasy – from the landscape in Spenser’s Faerie Queen to Bowie’s Labyrinth and Piers Anthony’s Xanth.

A map is a simulacra of the territory it describes. Moreover, the map represents a kind of mastery over the original territory – that’s why one of the major occupations of late Victorians was mapping their conquests. The survey of India was a massive undertaking, necessary only in real terms to give them a sense of power and control. It made a foreign and fairly bizarre place into a comprehensible and malleable possession.

I think that for similar reasons, fantasy authors since Tolkien have been at pains to draw detailed maps of their imaginations. Tolkien’s “Middle Earth” is indeed as detailed a facsimile of an imaginary world as you could hope for: it has detailed maps covering every inch, a long and detailed history, and even its own languages. On many levels, that causes it to be no longer a fantasy, but a documentary of alternate reality. I think the very concreteness of Middle Earth was a key part of its success, in comparison to the wildly sketched and probably unmappable contemporaneous early fantasies. I think Middle Earth is perhaps concrete more even than some stories based nominally on real places – Howard’s Conan series or the 1001 Arabian Nights reference real places, but these are islands in a matrix of the imagination, un-mappable, always eluding complete specification.

The English used this power of the map after the WWI and again after WWII to create most of today’s geopolitical arrangements through Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. They drew a map, and the “real world” was re-ordered to match. Arbitrary lines dissected and amalgamated ancient civilizations with a care-free abandon. The map, a “simulacra” of the real world in this case preceded it. Without the map, this would have been a
futile and impossible notion. Which raises the important question: which is more real between the map and the territory. In this instance, the territory was powerless to affect the map, surely its reality is therefore open to question?

Baudrillard investigates this concept by discussing a fable devised by Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentinian critic and miscellaneous literati. The fable goes like so: there was an Empire who wished to have a map made of its territory. It’s cartographers were so skilled, that they made successively more and more detailed maps, until eventually they made a map at 1:1 scale, which was co-incident with the territory itself. The map however, was less durable than the reality, and wore out in key places, leaving eventually only vestiges of the map in the unpopulated deserts.

In Baudrillard, the fable is first inverted – the map remains in good condition while the territory below it fades. He asserts that the users of the map become so used to it, that they rely solely on it without reference to the real world below. Another way of perceiving this event would be that someone arriving from outside the empire would not know at first whether they perceived the map or the territory – and indeed might consider them functionally equivalent.

It seems to me that this is the kind of analogy that is easily dismissed in summary fashion as silly. But if you take just a few minutes, the reality of this situation should become blindingly apparent. You can barely miss it in the headlines all around the world for the past couple of years. And that is the imaginary quality of our whole capitalist paradigm. Though the example that most closely corresponds in my understanding is the failure of Enron.

You see, our society gives its imaginary nature away in its very title: capitalism. Capital really roughly refers to a financial resource that a company can draw upon. And it is a very new thing in historical terms. While we’ve had money for a very long time, capital is something slightly different. In the broadest possible historical terms feudalism was about labour: the control of what a person actually did. Their produce from that labour was simply owned by their lord, in exchange for protection and sundry
other benefits. The black plague caused a shortfall of labour supply by killing millions of serfs, and the mercantile system was developed to trade not the labour itself but the product of the labour. This evolved into early capitalism, but until FDR de-coupled the value of the US dollar from an arbitrary amount of silver, there was always a literal equivalence between money and something tangible.

So in short terms, what happened to Enron was that they began trading with themselves, and counting the profit from these transactions as, well, profit. The mechanisms that allowed this to work were built around a very complex set of arrangements with subsidiary companies, but the core operations were pretty largely operating successfully within the artificial landscape of the stock market – while the stock price of Enron was high, the system was self-perpetuating. If you look at the core assets and
conventional asset ratios that any 6th form accounting student knows, Enron’s shares were grossly over-valued years before their collapse.

The shareholders and Enron executives both became so involved in their simulacra of the company, that they lost touch with the actual reality of their position. Eventually, someone stood on a soft part of the map, and fell endlessly through space where the territory used to be, and the whole thing came to a tragic but inevitable end.

I think that Enron is emblematic of the fictitious nature of a western capitalist society. But Baudrillard is not actually done yet – because he moves on to argue that there is no reality at all behind the simulacra. He argues that the map is made first, and a reality constructed to go with it – imperfectly constructed at that. And for that case, you need to look at a more recent headline – the sub-prime mortgages.

In, again, rough terms, the sub-prime mortgages were an invention that allowed the construction and purchase of houses that were to be owned by the most marginal investors. Their model of buying packages of mortgages some of which were expected to foreclose was calculated on capitalizing on human failure. Using the simple and elementary law of the supply and demand curves, they increased supply, reduced cost and demand had the corresponding surge – it swamped any kind of plausible safety net that would usually
operate. This allowed people to “buy” homes they couldn’t afford, and then foreclosed on them. It was a monster that gave birth to itself.

All of which demonstrates the absolute power and supremacy of the simulacra in our society. If you can imagine it, you can cause it to exist, and to supplant the reality which should be its origin. Baudrillard to close:

it is the reflection of a profound reality,
it masks and denatures reality,
it masks the absence of a profound reality,
it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own perfect

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4 Responses to The Precession of Simulacra

  1. I thought the formatting was being messed up by my LJ theme, but it’s messed up on yours too. Intentional?

    This is a book dealing with stuff unfamiliar to me that assumes the opposite: that I will be familiar with all the allusions and references. It’s language is dense and highly elliptical, possibly not helped by the translation from French.

    Is this your first translated French theoretical work?

    Finally, the inevitable question, what do you do with this?

    • mashugenah says:

      Formatting hopefully fixed. One disadvantage of posting via e-mail is formatting things can’t be proofed easily in advance.

      Finally, the inevitable question, what do you do with this?

      Yeah, its a great question. Baurdillard doesn’t provide much of an answer: just rails against how things are right now. He doesn’t talk a huge amount about how we got there either – but I’ll get to that.

      I guess the simple answer is that you can’t really take things at face value – that you need to dig and look around for what’s really going on. It’s a call to engage with the world around you in the most fundamental and comprehensive way you can.

      • Much as I like that sort of general philosophical precept at times, I always find myself thinking that there’s some way I should be able to use these French theorists in an interesting way. Perhaps I should start thinking of them as simple aids to thinking.

        I’m interested to see where you take it.

      • mashugenah says:

        Well “they” are very much new territory for me. :/ I’ll let you know if something interesting occurs to me.

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