Hyperreality and simulacra: a primer

A simulacrum is probably the most familiar thing you’ve never heard of. We’re surrounded by them everywhere we go, objects and spaces that resemble things, but definitely aren’t those things. After having been replicated to a point where we no longer recognize what their original source was, these objects populate our world with a sense of inescapable falsehood. A wide selection of intimate online profiles, but little genuine intimacy, making us wonder if we’re the only ones not experiencing the joy of human closeness. Movies and TV shows with dramatized versions of real-seeming stories that would leave any isolated human ill prepared for the flesh-and-blood world. Altered photos that have us questioning whether our perfectly normal faces and bodies are freakish.

To define something as having existence, it must be compared to a theoretical anchor of something that does not exist; there is no light without dark, no sound without quiet. Hyperreality exists where the distinction between real and imaginary implodes and neither subject can be quantified or defined as “real,” because the anchor, or signifier, can no longer be identified.

A simulacrum is simply a copy with no original, and our lives are built upon them. Take our modern economy: what exactly does money represent? The origin of economy was an exchange of goods for goods, followed by exchange of a commodity that had an established value (like salt) for goods, followed by uniform money in the form of precious metals, which were exchanged for their assigned value, and eventually followed by the exchange of completely worthless pieces of paper and nearly valueless metal coins. Now we can exchange the mere idea of money in the form of lines of credit for goods, and the pieces of paper and near-valueless coins are no longer money themselves, but are representative of the real money, the bulk of which no longer even exists in a physical state. Economy has been replicated from a state of genuine realness to genuine nothingness, just ones and zeroes in an invisible network.

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” – Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

Language is another example of an elaborate simulacrum, as I described in my post Symbolism and semiotics: a primer. The words we assign to objects are completely arbitrary, and only have meaning by comparison to other words. If we started a movement to call apples “bablats,” and enough people replicated the name by sharing it until it became the accepted norm, then the word “apple,” which we would formerly have defined as “real”, would lose all meaning. This is precisely why language continues evolving long after the authorities have decided on the correct meanings and correct usages of words. It’s why you literally cannot stop people from misusing the word literally incorrectly now that it has caught fire.

Though analyses of hyperreality and simulacra can evoke a feeling of emptiness, or a desire to defend the validity of cherished objects that have no sincerity without our attachment to them, being alive means living in a replicated world. Since all life is created through replication, we could say that life on Earth is the original simulacrum. We no longer bear any resemblance to, nor can we identify (in extremely specific terms) our origin. Is it any wonder that we fight for sincerity with our every breath?

For more on hyperreality and simulacra:

Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation
Baudrillard, Hyperreality & Simulacra

(Painting at top of page is ‘Not to be Reproduced’, by René Magritte. Except it’s not a painting. It’s a digital image of a painting.)