In a world marked by the overflow of information, it is worryingly easy to feel confused and cognitively paralyzed. French philosopher and social theorist Jean Baudrillard can help us understand the universe of media. From politics to art to love, the hyperreality of the technological medium has reached every sphere of human life. His philosophy is one which argues just how signs and symbols permeate our existence in the age of media.
Jean Baudrillard: The philosopher of the media age
Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) is one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century. Although he is most commonly associated with postmodernism, the roots of his philosophy are Marxist. In The System of objects (1968), he provides a critical analysis of consumer society, in which objects lose their intrinsic value at the expense of their exchange value. This leads to commodity fetishism: the lay religion centered on the purchase and accumulation of goods regardless of their use. However, he introduces a third important category: sign value. This element leads the Frenchman to break from Marxism in 1973, with The Mirror of Production: in it, he declares the end of the modern era of material production and the coming of the postmodern age based on the production of signs.
But it is Simulacra and Simulations (1981) that grants him a unique position in the history of philosophy. This seminal text outlines how the production of signs, narratives, and images in mass media leads to the inability to perceive what is real. We live in a world where signs and symbols assume an independent existence and exercise a great influence on our lives. The spread of television networks, cinema, and media reports creates a situation in which the narration becomes somewhat independent from the narrated event. Baudrillard warns us that media are not merely means of communication: they are a mode of representation and simulation of reality. In other words: the medium is the message.
What does, however, the author mean by “simulacra and simulations?” He outlines four types of images:
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- Reflection of a basic reality: what he calls the order of “good” appearance involves the faithful representation of a real object/event.
- Perversion of a basic reality: in the order of “evil” appearance, an object/event is portrayed falsely or misrepresented.
- Mask of the absence of a basic reality: in the order of “sorcery,” the image pretends to represent a real object/event, but it is a copy with no original.
- No relation to any basic reality: in the order of pure simulation, there is no relation to any original reality whatsoever. Signs merely connect to other signs without a material referent. They are pure simulacra. (Baudrillard, 1983)
We can think of 1-2 as belonging to the order of representation, whereby an object can be depicted either accurately or falsely. For instance, a landscape can be portrayed in a clear photograph (1), or with the artificial addition of filters (2). Here lies the problem of ideology and political propaganda. In 3-4, on the other hand, the “sovereign difference” between the real and the simulation is under question. The simulacrum is a copy of a copy whose relation with the original has been so dissipated that it can barely be called a copy.
Imagine, for example, photocopying a book ten successive times (photocopy, then photocopy of the photocopy, etc.). It will appear in such a different form at the tenth photocopy to the point of being unreadable. The simulacrum, therefore, has its own ontological autonomy as a copy without a model.
The simulation bears a relation to the imitated thing, though only superficially. Its “sorcery” consists of masking the absence of an original: while there can be a resemblance with it, the simulation has its own independence. A videogame might well draw inspiration from some original reality (e.g. Medieval Europe, 20th century Japan, etc.), but the simulated world does not actually have such a reality as its referent. The simulation is nothing but a set of bits that appears to refer to an outside world, but it does not. Thus, it constitutes a world with its own independent reality: in Baudrillard’s words, a hyperreality.
How real is hyperreality?
This is one of the most subtle points of his work. Although simulations and simulacra dissipate their relation to an unmediated reality, they are not “unreal” per se. Rather, they belong to a different kind of reality, namely hyperreality:
“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.”
Similarly, the simulacrum is said to be “true.” Rather than concealing a pure, unmediated truth, the simulacrum shows that there is no such thing. Its hyperreality is highly real, with deep consequences in concrete lives. Indeed, the hyperreal dominates the real. Algorithms control financial transactions, Youtube preferences, and social media (even influencing political elections!). Contemporary science utilizes computer models, large data sets, and simulations to confirm hypotheses. Economic and statistical models dictate policy. If in the history of Western philosophy the original has preceded the copy (i.e. Plato’s concept of mimesis), in Baudrillard’s universe the copy precedes the original (the “precession of simulacra”).
The wide range of application of his theory matches his eclectic examples, which include medicine, wars, Disneyland, and the Watergate case. With the Gulf War in 1990, war reportage grew to an unprecedented level. Far from merely representing facts, TV reportage brought war to the dimension of cinematic construction. War became a spectacle made of extended live reports aimed at the dramatization of conflict. According to the French theorist, war is no longer a matter of winners and losers: rather, what counts is who narrates oneself as a winner. The USA might well have lost the battle on the ground in Vietnam, but they won the war on the screens. In other words, if the USA lost the real Vietnam war, the hyperreal war had a different outcome.
Furthermore, he suggests that we reached a point of symbolic overflowing such that the truth-status of images has become difficult to determine. Nothing could sound more appropriate in the world of deep fakes and fake news. Indeed, he can be considered a premature theorist of fake news. Fake news is not merely a matter of the truth or falsity of the representation: for this would be the old problem of objectivity and political propaganda. The issue of fake news concerns the reality principle itself: is the depicted event even real? This question precedes whether the event is narrated correctly or misrepresented. It is the reality of the event itself that is increasingly difficult to discern in our world of simulacra and simulations.
Overall, Baudrillard’s philosophy shows that our lives have become deeply enmeshed with hyperreality. We are increasingly disconnected from nature, organic life, and materiality itself: we live in the purely cultural realm of hyperreality. Even the world of art is facing the problem of immateriality with the growth of digital art. The existential relevance of hyperreality entails that simulacra precede the real in the understanding of our lives. Further, a world of infinite symbolic configurations and hermetic truth carries with itself the problems of meaning and identity: “when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning” (Baudrillard, 1983).
Simulacra and simulations in sports
Baudrillardean ideas could hardly sound more fitting than in a context of intermittent lockdowns. Indeed, this is not to disregard the urgent material problems caused by the pandemic, both medical and economic. Nonetheless, the degree of disconnection from unmediated reality is unprecedented. Every dimension of human life reached a new level of mediation: education, entertainment, work, friendships, and erotic relations.
It is particularly telling to look at the case of sports. Medical necessities made the fruition of sports events (almost) entirely mediated by TVs and streaming platforms. Incidentally, the normal functioning of sports events has shown the live spectator to be unnecessary. The “obsolescence of the live spectator” (to paraphrase a famous expression by Günther Anders) has been there for quite some time, but the empty stadiums help us realize it. In the pandemic era, sports are effectively reduced to streamings, match analytics, bets, and video games (eSports). Although such streams of signs suggest the presence of something real, the original event is intangible and hermeneutically inaccessible.
The hyperreality of sport is signaled by the fact that the event takes place first and foremost on the screens. If a stadium can well be empty, then the simulacrum precedes the original event. Recent developments in the most followed sport, i.e. football, go in the same direction. The introduction of VAR (Video Assisted Referee) establishes the mechanical eye of the camera as the main authority over important decisions in the game. Human referees still have a predominant role, but the point is another: the hyperreality of the screen precedes the (fallible) human representations of the original event. The same principle is embodied by the Goal Line Technology, namely an automatic sensor detecting whether the ball has fully crossed the line of the goal.
It is interesting to note how football clubs are embracing not only VAR but also new ways to engage fans. Video streams with fans, PlayStation-like cameras, and partnerships with video games companies for the elaboration of “immersive experiences.” Some football clubs have also started to reproduce highlights of real matches in a “gamified” version, i.e. in their videogame equivalent. Such tendencies indicate an active effort to blur the line between (videogame) simulation and reality.
Relatedly, in connection with the rise of eSports and augmented reality technologies, the physical design of stadiums is starting to be conceived under the lenses of “transmedial architecture.” The structure that hosts the event has to take into account multiple dimensions of reality. Thus, transmedial architecture can be seen as an adaptation to the hyperreality of the sporting event. These elements show that hyperreality is not an abstract concept, but it influences the reality of the event.
Hyperreality and participation
The reflection on hyperreality leads to a political consideration. Technologies mediate and sometimes replace the human point of view. The spectator cannot support at the stadium, while the referee has to accept the authority of the machine. As such, the perceived necessity and desirability of such technologies create a void of participation. In parallel, as we have noted, there is an attempt to create participation through social media, immersive cameras, and the like. However, such participation is superficial, if not purely illusory.
Even the tendency of football clubs to actively blur the line between simulation and reality may be interpreted as the intention to nurture such an illusion. For in the videogame, the user has the power to direct the course of events in a way that the spectator of a real match doesn’t. By blurring the two dimensions, the spectator can feel involved almost as if s/he was a user.
The intriguing question to carry with ourselves is to what extent our democracies have become a Baudrillardean game of signs. The practice of voting is increasingly perceived as an empty ritual, as signaled by the existence of a mass of disengaged citizens. Has political participation entered the hyperreal – with its proliferation of statements, news, talk shows, scandals, social media activism and indignation? How real is political participation in contemporary democracies? Such questions give shape to a debate on whether contemporary citizens are mere spectators in what is effectively a “spectator democracy.” The issue is too large to discuss in detail. Nonetheless, Simulacra and Simulations offers a perspective from which to interrogate the status of political participation.
Baudrillard’s philosophy of simulacra and identity
Growing digitalization increases the force of simulacra in shaping our identity and relationships. Hours and hours spent on video calls and social media dramatically amount to a higher technological mediation of life. In this regard, the case of erotic relations and new encounters is interestingly pronounced. The difficulty to meet has relegated erotic life completely to dating apps and online platforms.
Goffman’s pioneering analysis on the presentation of the self applies to the virtual world. In it, we choose what part of ourselves we want to show. Baudrillard’s philosophy can rather point out how the precession of simulacra is at play in this space. A Tinder profile can be seen as a copy of the copy of ourselves, i.e. a simulacrum. For not only does it involve photos but also a particular arrangement of them (perhaps with filters), matched with a short biography, which elicits specific impressions on others. Such quick impressions regulate the choice of potential partners.
In this sense, Tinder perfectly exemplifies the simulacrum preceding the original. As it stands, without verification procedure, one cannot even be sure that the Tinder profile represents an actual person, i.e. that the copy represents an original. Yet, what counts is that users are selected on the basis of an identity constituted of simulacra. A rebalancing of the real and the imitation is possible only when two people engage in extensive interaction after having matched.
Besides the fact that such meetings surely constitute only a tiny fraction of the total encountered users on the app, the point is that a Tinder profile is not simply a representation of ourselves: it assumes an independent existence on the basis of which we are chosen as potential partners. If the selection of potential partners takes place on the basis of simulacra, then the image precedes the original. Even in erotic relations, the hyperreal regulates the real.
Indeed, living a completely digital life (the “onlife”) entails that identities are increasingly mediated. This does not mean that before digital society people’s identities were more authentic.
If anything, Baudrillard’s analysis compels us to see how the mediation of language and ideology is always a component of human identity. He claims that simulacra exist even in the pre-modern world (“first-order simulacra”), although their connection with an original is more evident. Portraits of wealthy characters are pre-modern simulacra: one might wonder, for example, how Lucrezia Borgia’s Tinder profile would look. Furthermore, images do not simply conceal a “truer” original identity, but they can be powerful revealers of people’s identities.
In any case, although social media and dating apps were already flourishing before the pandemic, Covid-19 restrictions led to a condition of increased mediation of identity and relationships. In this sense, one could suggest that the connection between the law and simulacra has never been so direct and explicit. The impossibility to leave our houses and meet with other people has led to an increasingly mediated existence – one that swims in an ocean of simulacra and simulations. Whether we mourn the death of the real or we embrace the possibility for new modes of existence, Baudrillard’s philosophy helps us to understand the world of signs in which we are constantly merged.