Simulation & Stories

In the early phases of his book, Baudrillard thinks a lot about how we interact with reality. A pretty key idea which underpins all of his writing on the topic is that there is a reality. While he believes that it is a reality inaccessible to us, without a reality of some kind, his whole notion of hyperreality strikes one as tautological. On some level, his argument becomes a rallying call to a new primitivism – the kind of society which interacts directly with reality.

After outlining this argument, he naturally turns to deliberately simulatory acts – storytelling. He attacks in detail a number of movies, from Crash to Apocalypse Now. If I understand correctly, by no means guaranteed, the gist of these articles is that we live in a reality we construct, the hyperreality, and so the realities we construct (i.e. stories) become wish-templates of the reality we are to live in. His most powerful expression of this idea relates to Terrorism. He sees it as the only way to tell stories about reality – the only affecting medium left is destruction. He famously, though not in the book I own, constructed a reading of 9/11 as the fulfilment of the destructive wish on display in Independence Day.

I read this sentiment, this idea, as a justification for storytelling generally. If reality is lost to us because we live in a totally mediated world of the hyper-real, then stories become maps or templates of our relationship with the equally-constructed hyper-real. The conscious creation becomes a method of accessing the unconscious creation of the hyper-real. It becomes a way of processing that hyper-reality, if not in search of the lost real, then at least as a way of making sense of where we actually are. Thus his read of Independence Day as a formulation of the destructive wish later to be enacted by 9/11 – fiction becoming truth through terrorism.

I think there is a more general position you can take out of the precession of simulacra – that stories express the aleatory experience of living, they are simulacra of how we understand the world, or how we wish to understand the world. There is a broad spectrum for just how stories do this, but I think that the most powerful and affecting stories normalize the world – they are structured to let us accept what we know to be a capricious and terrible world without offering a simplistic model of cause-and-effect.

You could compare the works of Sophocles and Euripides using this prism. They are both working in a highly structured environment. They have a limited number of actors, must use a chorus, have a limited scale for their production. Their plays are deliberately not the verisimilitudinous productions we expect from TV – they are highly ritualistic and symbolic. Sophocles offers closed-form stories of cause-and-effect, of inexorable effect in fact. Euripides does not accept that view of things – his stories are often resolved by arbitrary and external forces. A Sophoclean tragedy leaves me sad about the inevitability of human frailty: we are weak flesh indeed. A Euripidean tragedy leaves me lost and desolate about the meaningless of the universe, the arbitrary nature of fate.

Sophocles’ plays are thus inherently tidy. He bundles up a perfect parcel of disaster, complete in itself. He creates a perfect little simulation, a what-if scenario where the variables are there to be seen and consequences extrapolated. Euripides offers no such comforting structure, there is no reason, just suffering. Sophocles to an extent is a wish-template for an ordered world, Euripides is a reflection of life’s arbitrary quality.

The more artfully constructed the scenario, the less life-like it is. Storytellers align their structures with positive moral values to encourage us to accept their untruth. Bad things happen to bad people, and the good guy triumphs in the end. Thus is born the “tragic flaw” in classical and neoclassical tragic theory which justifies the terrible things we witness in tragedy. The simulation is appealing.

I’m not arguing, and I don’t think Baudrillard would argue, that there is no cause-and-effect in the world – just that the simplistic modes on offer in most stories blind us to the deeper truth of an unfair universe. They are a carefully constructed simulation that masks the truth. We tell stories to make sense of it, and thus we tell ourselves lies – how do you think we got into this hyper-reality in the first place?

If you accept this aleatory assertion about the world, and hence the counter-instinct expressed in stories, you can easily understand the conflict that arises in articles like how to fix Doctor Who?.

Russell T Davies was a writer deeply interested in the Euripidean approach to writing. Grand, sometimes terrible, events and moments of drama and action, ultimately resolved through fiat, through deus ex machina. Moffatt has a different pre-occupation: fun rather than grandeur, but the approach is typically similar. This is what passes for science fiction. The attempt to “fix” the episodes by systematizing and rationalizing the characters and their actions destroys the essential quality of arbitrariness that shines through the writing every second of every show. If the Doctor is, as asserted, Peter Pan, then consistency is expressed solely as the continuity of change. Others obey rules, but Pan makes or breaks rules at his whim, with no apparent pattern.

The whole article is very interesting in the way that it consistently puts models ahead of the art itself. Her model of how things should be seeks to over-ride the original creator’s judgement about the original itself. The reality must be changed to match the simulation: an inversion of the creative process in this instance. Art’s value then, is in its conformity to thematic ideals, it’s reinforcement of them. In itself, it has no value – we cannot enjoy the episodes which do not conform to our pre and post conceptions of the rules of the simulation.

It’s not much of a leap from all of this to at least ask the question about the derivation of holy texts which purport to offer a perspective on “why”. Assuming you’re prepared to believe God didn’t write the things with a human instrument.

Ultimately, all writing is in some sense a simulacra of life. The choices involved in that construction may not reveal much about reality, but my instinct is that if those choices reveal nothing about a Baudrillardian hyperreality, they probably have little to no value.

This entry was posted in Criticism, Film and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Simulation & Stories

  1. mr_orgue says:

    Mash – go visit my blog, where there is a comment about your post here for you to answer…

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