The Recession of Simulacra

Baudrillard wrote a lot of interesting things, but the one which sticks with me is his Precession of Simulacra. I have posted about this at length elsewhere, so I’ll try to just repeat the key idea, which is that our models of reality are nested, so that at first:

it is the reflection of a profound reality;

it masks and denatures a profound reality;

it masks the absence of a profound reality;

it has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.

We could think about detective fiction in this way.[1] In concept, the genre originates with the idea of gathering clues and reassembling reality from fragments of information. A prime example is Poe’s second detective story, The Mystery of Marie Roget. It was a fictionalisation of a real and ongoing murder and it ends with Poe basically giving up. The penchant for a certain breed of detective author for trying to solve the Ripper case is another example of this concept.

The form evolves from there by stretching the chains of logic and the perspicuity of the detective. If Poe’s representation of a real mystery was a reflection of reality, then Holmes’ obsession with minutae strains the chains of evidence to breaking point – reality is, at best, masked and denatured.

When SS van Dyne rolls around, he posits 20 essential rules for detection whose specifics decouple the detective story from any notion of reality. His rules, and similar pieces by others, explicitly construct detective narratives as a game to be played between reader and author, nothing more, nothing less. True “Fair Play” narratives exist as simulacra, while those who fall short of the van Dyne gold standard mask that absence of reality.

Considering things this way requires that we place reality in some form at the heart of our conception of literary origins and perhaps value. What if we invert that conception?

If we think about the deep structures of, say, Classical Mythology, we do not necessarily find much reality as such. We find narratives that encapsulate and express a conception of the meaning of the world, rather than its mechanics. Realism creeps into scenes and speech patterns, but it is subservient to the narrative.

Two very clever scholars, John G Cawelti and Stephen Knight, have looked at various kinds of genre fiction and shown that a sense of reality is like a skin stretched over the narrative mechanics. Christie et al are primarily formulaic, not realistic. To interpret their significance, you need to consider the interplay of the surface descriptions and characterisations, with the mechanics. The set of parts and the range of story operations is the same for all the stories. Eco describes this as a “model author”, but he is mostly interested in the surface, while Cawelti and Knight are interested in the machinery underneath.

Northrop Frye suggests that since the structure of these stories came first,  their essentially mythical structure is displaced onto the appearance of reality. The formulae are easier to accept in a realistic depiction. What we have is a simulacra in search of a reality: the Recession of Simulacra.

Baudrillard’s point is that we choose to use hyperreality instead of reality as the basis of our lives, and this is the convergence of that point from the other side, the way we adapt stories to make them appear like reality.

Chandler gets caught somewhere in between these two conceptions of how a detective story works: as descending or ascending from or to reality. He wants them to be lifelike as stories, but of course he can’t really have that and preserve the formulaic structure that is at the heart of the genre. He acknowledges that there are problems with the realistic murder story – that it is depressing and lacks the element of redemption, disqualifying it as art.

Yet, he clings to that structure, despite his protestations. He uses the detective story, but keeps trying to extend its reach. By the time The Long Goodbye rolls around, you have a series of circumstances that almost work as melodrama without a detective angle at all, but the detective element remains in the background, directing the action. He can therefore never actually bring his narrative closer to reality, he will always be conscious that it is a simulacrum.

It is more difficult to make generalisations about Hammett because he is far less consistent in approach across his oeuvre. The basic schema of the detective story is present in all of his mature works, but where the deep structure of Chandler’s novels are based around that schema, Hammett often uses the detective schema as an overlay for a novel with a different deep structure.

We can see that concept emerging from the treatments offered recently on Red Harvest, which has 5 or so distinct mysteries. The mysteries are solved in the usual way, but the structure of the novel as a whole is not a single mystery.

We could characterise Red Harvest as originating in what Frye calls a displacement, but to an extent it then relinquishes the form of the simulacrum. I think this helps explain why it has frequently been described as realist, despite numerous distinctly un-real aspects to the work. We recognise that the deep structure is not present, and Hammett further tricks us by obfuscating the mysteries as such. They are not “declared” in the usual way, and the usual investigative grind is omitted.

It clearly does not originate in a realist story and adopt elements of the detective schema; so it ascends toward reality as posited by Frye, rather than descends as posited by Baudrillard.

To an extent, Frye’s theory represents a correction that occurs within Baudrillard’s. We create a story schema, which we come to see as more and more as just a schema, triggering a correction like the intrusion of realism into detective fictions. This does not change the fundamentally fantastic nature of the schema, but for a while it enables us to pretend.

[1] Note that Baudrillard thinks that in fact, the simulacrum is made before a profound reality; so we would need, to really be following his intention, to have crimes change their form to match the fiction of the criminal. You can almost see this in operation with the way that people have changed their attitude toward forensics since CSI aired. That fictional representation of the capability of forensic techniques supplanted the real capability in peoples’ minds and so reality is playing catch-up.

The relationship between SF and technology is often like that also.

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