Jean Baudrillard and Simulacra

JEAN BAUDRILLARD (1929-2007)

Simulacra and Simulations (1988)

The Precession of the Simulacra” (1981)

 

As the Bible once stated,

The simulacrum is never that/Which conceals the truth—it is/The truth which conceals that/There is none./The Simulacrum is true.

Ecclesiastes

Writing in the wake of May 1968 in Paris, the former Marxist Jean Baudrillard moved beyond Marxism and into a critique of Marxism and then, by the early eighties began a long engagement with the new economic system which appears in embryonic form in his early works. The System of Objects (1968) was essentially a book for its time–based on the philosophy of Ferdinand de Saussure and Structuralism. If consumer goods are signs that are symptoms of desire, then logically Baudrillard would take the next step which is to make the case that nothing is “real” and that we are functioning in the hyperreal non-world of simulacra. As Baudrillard explained in his opening to his 1981 essay,

Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory — precession of simulacra — it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.

However, Baudrillard refused to be categorized as a Postmodernist and even suggested that the Postmodern was itself a simulacra. Due to his long roots in Modernism, one could call Baudrillard a late Modernist or an ultra-Modernist, living as did many writers of his generation at the tail end of modernity without every taking the step into a territory he considered fictitious. In fact the writer rejected Postmodernism in 1986, because all old ideas were swept away in 1968, leaving behind only a state of total exhaustion without leaving anything new or a viable alternative in its wake. Centuries of critical thought were ended. Political and sexual revolutions were finished. For the new generation there was nothing left, only “soft revivals” in the empty void of a postmodernism that functions by means of what Baudrillard termed a “lack of events,” or pseudo modernist “revolutions” or uprisings such as, “soft feminism,” “liberal Marxism,” “green politics,” and “enfeebled ideologies.” In many ways, like it or not, Baudrillard’s scorn for post 1968 efforts to change the world echoed the Postmodern refusal to accept “change,” something attached to Modernism. Of course, such refusals and scorn reinforce the dominant forces in play, the same forces that supported Modernism, a near entirely white and male phenomenon. Typical of Postmodernism which is essentially passive, it would seem that the only form of resistance that Baudrillard might allow would be no political action whatsoever.

Baudrillard’s main point is that the current system of hyper-spectacle supported by mass and all-powerful media which produces endless spectacles. For the writer, “mass media” was one entity, defined in his time by film, movies, print press and so on, which diverts meaning and any hope of critique into specular forms–the spectacle that a diverts and misleads the enchanted spectators in to hyper-conformism. Trapped in this spectacle, we are shaped and constructed by its un-real premises. Baudrillard attempted to explain this effect by using a metaphor for the unreal or an inversion of the basis of reality: the map preceds–comes before–the territory and engenders–creates–the territory. As Baudrillard argued,

The real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models – and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times. It no longer has to be rational, since it is no longer measured against some ideal or negative instance. It is nothing more than operational. In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imaginary, it is no longer real at all. It is a hyperreal: the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.

Baudrillard stresses the significance of the resulting Simulacra based on the word “simulate.” “To dissimulate is to feign not to have what one has,” he said. Simulation threatens the difference between the true and the false and the real and the imaginary and there are no longer any references points, only emptied signs. The simulacra or simulations have always been feared in some quarters, particularly institutions that wish to control imagery or information. Even today, the Muslim faith prohibits some imagery such as that of Mohammad. The Jewish faith long had prohibitions on “graven images.” Early Christianity, being largely Jewish in origin, also reacted against attempts to create religious icons with a deliberate campaign of iconoclasm or breaking images–destroying icons. Baudrillard found this example of the dangers of simulacra or simulated images of holy figures an interesting example of the threat to the real and to the imagination. Early Christian leaders feared that the credulous congregation would become attached, not to a religious concept or faith, but to a base image. To the early Christians, the image had a murderous capacity and the iconoclasts destroyed the images (of religious figures), lest the images take the place of the “original” or the “real.” Baudrillard said,

It can be seen that the iconoclasts, who are often accused of despising and denying images, were in fact the ones who accorded them their actual worth, unlike the iconolaters, who saw in them only reflections and were content to venerate God at one remove. But the converse can also be said, namely that the iconolaters possessed the most modern and adventurous minds, since, underneath the idea of the apparition of God in the mirror of images, they already enacted his death and his disappearance in the epiphany of his representations (which they perhaps knew no longer represented anything, and that they were purely a game, but that this was precisely the greatest game — knowing also that it is dangerous to unmask images, since they dissimulate the fact that there is nothing behind them).

The simulacra then is opposed to representation which always assumes an equivalency between the sign and the thing (the real). The simulacra is the inverse of representation and is, in fact, the “death” of the sign. Baudrillard set up the stages the image progresses as “1. a reflection of basic reality, 2. a mask or perversion of basic reality, 3. masks and absence of reality, and finally 4. has no relation to any reality.” Baudrillard considered Disneyland to be the prefect model of all orders of simulation. Disneyland is a deep frozen infantile world where ideology blankets and covers over the third order simulation–a simulation of a simulation that has no origin and conceals the fact that the real is no longer real or perhaps the real never existed and is only nostalgia. What Baudrillard called “the Disneyland Imaginary” is neither true nor false, but America in miniature existing in isolation as one of the many “imaginary stations” that exist in Los Angeles as islands of deterrence. An idea of a imagined America, created by Disney “imagineers” envelopes the visitor in a safe place where time loses all meaning and has been folded into past, present and future. Here in Disneyland, as Baudrillard posited, everything has metamorphoized into its inverse to be perpetuated in its purged form–the pirates of the Caribbean are not criminals but entertainment.

Speaking of criminals, Baudrillard moved on to Watergate, the scandal that ended the political career of the American president Richard Nixon. This event, pockmarked by many criminals and freighted by clusters of criminal activities was, from Baudrillard’s point of view, a simulacra. The system provided a “scandal” which allowed a shadow play of investigating aimed at purging the miscreants in order to protect the system itself, masking the (unseen) reality of the way in which citizens cannot see what actually happens and that the individual is now totally defeated and is subject to the object world. Watergate, like other political examples he brought forward, was about power. Baudrillard noted,

Everybody belongs to it more or less in fear of the collapse of the political. And in the end the game of power comes down to nothing more than the critical obsession with power: an obsession with its death; an obsession with its survival which becomes greater the more it disappears.

Elsewhere in the book on Simulations,Baudrillard wrote in the essay, “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media” that, the end result is implosion, as the system of simulacra collapses in upon itself. He wrote,

..the mass media, the pressure of information pursues an irresistible destructuration of the social. Thus information dissolves meaning and dissolves the social, in a sort of nebulous state dedicated not to a surplus of innovation, but, on the contrary, to total entropy.* Thus the media are producers not of socialization, but of exactly the opposite, of the implosion of the social in the masses. And this is only the macroscopic extension of the implosion of meaning at the microscopic level of the sign. This implosion should be analyzed according to McLuhan’s formula, the medium is the message, the consequences of which have yet to be exhausted.

Media makes events and then absorbs the events in a manner that is circulatory–a new postmodern system of false exchange in which nothing is exchanged but information is served up to an addicted and enchanted audience. The result is an implosion, an inward collapse. When meaning is neutralized and imploded, society too reaches its implosion point. This is who we are now. Today we live in a world that has vastly more media and more information than Baudrillard could have even imagined. Even in his own time, culture, after all, was dominated by the hyperreal in which there is no possibility of critique and all that is left is “intellectual dandyism.” or a display of information as style, also known as “talk radio” and cable television.

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Postmodernism in Photography

POSTMODERNISM IN PHOTOGRAPHY

Photography became the postmodern art form par excellence, taking the place of painting when the Modernist precepts of European art became exhausted by the 1960s. Unlike painting, photography did not have to grapple with and overcome a high art past, nor was it touched by high art theories. Because photography was, as Pierre Bourdieu would say, The Middle Brow Art, it was ideally suited for Postmodernism to occupy the practice. Even in its virginal state, photography was also impacted by the fact of the “Image World.” As Guy Debord explained it in The Society of the Spectacle,the world had become a “spectacle.”

In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation… The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images. The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.

Therefore, contemporary visual culture was, by definition, a spectacle disseminated though photographic forms, reproductions of reproductions, simulacra of a reality that never existed. Through photography, visual culture had become part of the spectacle of popular culture that fascinated its audience and hypnotized them from critiquing society and created a certain kind of social relation. As Debord said, “In a world that is really upside down, the true is a moment of the false.” When Debord’s influential book was published in France in 1967, the vernacular photography of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, and Lee Friedlander had exhausted itself. The innocence that had allowed photographer or the audience to assume that direct photography was a reliable form of “truth” was crumbling on the disillusionment of the Viet Nam War.

In an Image World overflowing with images and stuffed with history, it is impossible to “take” pictures with a fresh and innocent eye: all pictures are seen only through other pictures–pictorial intertextuality. Photography is no longer about capturing realism, as it was in the days of Robert Frank and his followers, but was concerned with re-creating images of images. Without the possibility of reality, postmodern photographers are not photographers in the historical sense and they cannot photograph objects in the traditional sense. They can only fabricate simulacra or record the hyperreal of the Postmodern world. It would be correct to question the term “photography” in the context of Postmodernism. “Photography,” as a direct and immediate capturing of reality takes a certain amount of naïvité, no longer available in the Postmodern era. All photography has already been done. The term “re-photography” would be more precise to describe Postmodern photography.

By the 1970s, photographers were beginning to explore three issues in the discipline. First, “straight photography” and its corollary documentary photography were played out. Second, the “truth” value of photography had been undermined and the role the medium was playing in constructing a particular kind of society—of spectacle and of complacent citizens—was becoming clear. Third, it “straight photography” could be manipulative of society then it would seem that it was once again permissible to manipulate photography. Postmodern photographers would confront these particular conditions during the eighties in a knowing and often highly theoretical fashion.

Photography as a discipline began to participate in the favorite Postmodern pastime–that of devising strategies and creating tactics that would allow the artist to make art in a world where everything had already been done. Photography became photography about photography–a form of conceptual photography. The Rephotographic Survey beginning in the 1970s is an example of the postmodern attitude towards the act of photographing by rephotographing the already photographed. The artists participating in this project, Mark Klett, Rick Dingus and Linda Conner, meticulously followed in the footsteps of 19th century photographers of the West, re-photographing the famous photographs: photography about photography. Part of the research of this group was to revisit famous sites in the West, first photographed on Survey excursions by Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson, was to take note of the changes over the century. But in the process they discovered that the supposed documentation was actually manipulated by O’Sullivan who produced near abstract images through cropping his prints and/or tilting his camera.

Postmodernism is characterized by self-conscious and deliberate intertextuality. One of the best-known photographers who played with simulacra is Cindy Sherman. Sherman should be termed a performance artist who restages images from mass media. Concentrating on how women were represented by movies, she had herself photographed in a series of small black and white photographs called “Film Stills” during the late 1970s. None of these theatrical re-presentations can be traced back to any actual movie but all remind the viewer of movies they have seen or have heard of and evoke the construction of women in the 1940s and 1950s. Sherman is what can be called a “post-feminist,” or an artist who takes up feminist concerns, not from a political and activist perspective but from a theoretical stance. Because society manipulates the social being who is proved to be infinitely malleable, Postmodernism no longer believes in the Modernist possibility of evolution towards a goal. There is only arbitrary change, determined by the dominant class for its own purposes.

All Postmodern theory can do is to point out that gender is constructed by the culture and by mass media. Unlike early feminism of the 1970s, post-feminism is not essentialist but is constructivist, maintaining that there is no such thing as a “women” only an image that is created by ideology and is named “woman” by the culture. Sherman’s Film Stills are pure simulacra: there is no “woman,” there is only the image of woman. A film is an image of an image of a woman. A film still is an image of a woman of an image of a woman of an image of a woman. Simulacra is a “third order” of “reality,” meaning that a simulacra is three moves away from a reality that never existed in the first place. Because Sherman performs a variety of female roles, playing the woman for a male audience, she should be considered a performance artist who photographs her work, rather than as a traditional photographer.

Sherman was not the only photographer to stress the importance of performance and artifice in Modernism, present in Western art since Édouard Manet. Like Sherman, Jeff Wall uses intertextuality by reenacting significant “major monuments” of Modernist art through the Postmodern art of manipulated photography. One of the early users of computer manipulation, Wall, like Sherman, is less a “photographer” in the classical sense, and actually works in the “directorial mode.” His actors perform for Wall in staged photographs representations Manet and Degas and Cézanne. His recreations are subtle. For example The Destroyed Room refers to Delacroix’s The Death of Sardanapalus and After Ralph Ellison, showing an African-American man, his back turned to the viewer, is lit by hundreds of lightbulbs, but he remains invisible. Because he is referring to invented works of art, in addition to staging and directing, Wall must manipulate photography. In A Sudden Gust of Wind, Wall uses the computer to throw white sheets of paper into the stiff breeze, combining postmodern technology with the past. Like most Postmodern artists, Postmodern photographers re-explore the past and revisit history. As Wall said in 2010:

In the nineteenth century, with Manet and the others, there was such a high level of pictorial invention, such an interesting take on the now. They created something that is still very important to anyone concerned with pictures, and so, I’m keeping in touch with that, but not in an exclusive way, not as a model for my own work. My work derives from photography also, that is, photography as photography, and from other art forms. But it also comes from things that I’m experiencing directly. So, I’m trying to use the nineteenth century, in a way, as one of the frames of reference for a pictorial practice. We could say that, in many ways, we are still experiencing the nineteenth century in art.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

 

Podcast 44 Painting 10: Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol and “Decorative Art”

Andy Warhol played many roles in the art world of the sixties. Although he produced more films than paintings and sculptures, he re-defined “painting” and “sculpture,” bringing these traditional practices into the modern age. Using serigraphy as a metaphor for commercialism and consumerism, Warhol brought his advertising sensibilities to fine arts. Wooden boxes with purloined logos suggested that the art world was a market place for the high-end consumer. Casting aside hierarchy and judgment, the artist consumed the ubiquitous imagery of his time and put together an encyclopedia for his decade. Acting like a bricoleur, he gathered the pictures of mass media and re-produced and re-presented the already known and the already seen and forced the viewers to examine the overlooked and the banal of the culture.

 

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

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