When someone hears the claim that “we live in a simulation,” they would probably picture the kind of simulation that is portrayed in The Matrix or Rick and Morty: an ultra-advanced form of digitalized virtual reality that is created in and runs inside a computer, often containing subjects who are oblivious about the existence of an external “real” world. But the simulation that Jean Baudrillard describes in his seminal treatise Simulacra and Simulation is outrageously different from this kind of simulated life portrayed in popular media. In fact, Baudrillard himself once said in an interview that, “The Matrix is surely the kind of film about The Matrix that The Matrix would have been able to produce.”
Before one approaches this essay, it is important to keep in mind that, although Simulacra and Simulation is considered by many to be one of the more accessible works of Baudrillard, it would be more accurate to call it one of his less inaccessible works. Philosophers are generally hard to read; postmodernists are generally hard to read even amongst philosophers; and Baudrillard is generally hard to read even amongst postmodernists. To truly comprehend this essay, a basic understanding of, at the very least, Marx, Saussure, Lacan, Nietzsche, McLuhan, and Barthes is required. Those who are unfamiliar with the philosophical tradition that Baudrillard is operating in may be quick to dismiss this essay as being strange or crazy. Unfortunately, for casual readers and even the vast majority of committed philosophy amateurs, having all of the necessary philosophical background is close to impossible. But rather than being frustrated when an idea seems too abstract or ridiculous to understand, the average reader would gain far more by being patient and careful and always assuming complexity. Yes, that includes the part where Baudrillard says, “Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulacra.”
Put oversimplistically, Baudrillard’s main point in this essay is that “we,” by which he was referring to the citizens of developed media-entrenched societies of the late 20th century, are in a “hyperreality.” Hyperreality describes the state in which the real and the unreal are no longer meaningful concepts, the state in which there remain only pure simulacra without originals, and the state in which reality itself is a simulation of reality. Simulacra are representations or references of something; for example, the word “word” represents “word,” and a red traffic light communicates to drivers that they should stop. According to Baudrillard, due to the implosion of meaning caused by late-stage capitalism and the media that brings it to people, all of what may have been considered real has become hyperreal as simulacra come to precede the real itself. To use the example of the famous Plato’s Cave thought experiment, Baudrillard would say that, in a hyperreality, we indeed see the shadows on the cave walls, but when we go outside the cave, we see that there was actually nothing; the shadow had seemingly existed out of itself and had given the cave-dwellers a conception of reality that had resulted from the shadow instead of the other way around. There is no “outside the cave” to Baudrillard. There is not even “the cave.” There is only shadow—but are they truly shadows if they shadow nothing?
It has been forty years since this essay was written, and all the things Baudrillard described as being the causes of hyperreality have become magnified by several orders since then. Baudrillard’s society had TV; we have smartphones. Baudrillard’s society had primitive email; we have social media (and better email). The symptoms of capitalism have worsened. Language is as unstable as ever. As the first Gulf War erupted and became the first major war to be digitized on TV, news networks, etc., Baudrillard infamously declared, “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” referencing the hyperreal nature of the conflict and how, from the point of view of the West, the atrocities had been overwritten by propaganda—that, resultingly, there had been no actual engagement with “it.” How would he react to the war in Ukraine, while the official Twitter account of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense is posting memes (and good memes, too!)? How would he react to the deranged rants of celebrities that can end up impacting markets and erasing billions of dollars worth of “value”?
Many critics accused Baudrillard of being too pessimistic and dramatic about his comments on hyperreality when this essay was written. But one beautiful passage from the last section of Simulacra and Simulation indicates otherwise: “Melancholia is the inherent quality of the mode of the disappearance of meaning, of the mode of the volatilization of meaning in operational systems. And we are all melancholic.”
Indeed we are.