Are we all living in a simulation? If you were to ask the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard this question, his answer would be a resounding yes. Although what he means by simulation and what you mean by simulation might be two very different things (which is funny considering the most influential example of a simulation — The Matrix — was directly inspired by Baudrillard’s 1981 work Simulation and Simulacra.)
This is the book that Morpheus quotes from, that we see Neo hiding the computer disks he sells inside in the first Matrix and it’s the one book that the Wachowski siblings made required reading for everyone on the crew of the Matrix movies.
But despite this famous example of the mainstream idea of the simulation being directly inspired by Baudrillard’s work, what the French postmodern philosopher means by the term simulation is something much more insidious and much scarier than what we find in the Matrix movies.
In this instalment we are going to be exploring what Baudrillard means by this term simulation and at why Baudrillard thinks that we are already walled inside a simulation — permanently cut off from reality.
This Baudrillardian idea of simulation is to my mind one of the most hauntingly prescient philosophical ideas you’ll ever come across—more relevant and scary than either 1984 or Brave New World. Simulation and Simulacra is the dystopia of our present, a dystopia that is so all-encompassing and yet impossibly hard to grasp that we have walked blindly into it. It is the most accurate diagnosis of the slope we find ourselves free-falling down with our culture’s departure from modernity into the unreal simulation that is the postmodern condition.
Simulation and Simulacra
After rewatching the Matrix movies a couple of months ago, I thought it might be a nice idea to have a poke into Jean Baudrillard’s iconic work Simulation and Simulacra.
It’s a small book but my god it’s very far from being easy. It reminds me of my first dabblings in philosophy reading Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus and later Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. When I first read the latter, I had the sense that 90% of the book was going over my head but the 10% that was seeping in was reordering my mind.
Baudrillard’s work was actually quite a neat completement to my other obsessions over the past year: Jamie Wheal, Tristan Harris and above all Daniel Schmachtenberger. I fully believe that if Simulation and Simulacra had been written as a novel it would be spoken about with 1984 and Brave New World—I suppose in a bastardised form it is with the Matrix movies. On the other hand maybe it wouldn’t have been. Because the thing about this book is that it’s really hard to pin down.
When I sat down to write this article, I thought I’d tackle three key ideas in the book: simulation, simulacra and hyperreality. So I started with the term simulation and tried to define what the word meant and I immediately found myself in the weeds.
This is the first major difference between Baudrillard’s book and the Matrix movies. The idea of the simulation is super easy to define in The Matrix. The simulation is this technological virtual reality world that we are all plugged into. It’s essentially an updated version of Descartes’s epistemological demon.
This is one of Baudrillard’s (numerous) bones to pick with the movie series. For Baudrillard, The Matrix is dealing with the problem of illusion not the problem of simulation.
Because The Matrix is really a question of illusion right? You have the virtual reality that is the matrix which seems real and then you have the actual reality of Zion. The matrix is an illusion. The red pill takes you out of the illusion and into reality. It’s a neat hero’s arc.
But that’s not what Baudrillard is talking about at all.
Baudrillard’s simulation is much more insidious and terrifying. Because with Baudrillard’s simulation there is no Zion. That’s the whole point. There is no way out of the simulation. It is a straitjacket; it’s a prison that we are locked into. And that’s why it’s so terrifying.
Baudrillard tells us that the binary opposition between illusion and reality implodes with the entry into the postmodern age. There is no longer any distinction between illusion and reality. The reality is no longer reachable and thus neither reality nor illusion have any meaning any longer. We are, to use Baudrillard’s semiotic terminology, stranded in a world without referents; we live in a sea of signs that are disconnected from any real thing. The real is decaying, falling to pieces in our world of simulation; it has become what Baudrillard calls “the desert of the real”.
Now on the face of it this may sound like everything that commentators warn about with postmodernism. It’s everything that’s scary about it – the relativism and scepticism of knowledge and truth and everything we hold sacred in the West. But it’s a complete mistake to look at it that way. What this caricature of postmodernism misses — and Baudrillard is one of the classical postmodernists (even being called the “high priest of postmodernism”) — is that the postmodern philosophers aren’t puppet-masters of this new postmodern reality. They are the Cassandras, they were quite often the only ones willing to stare into the face of what was coming.
The Analytic Philosophers were busy trying to catch up with science and with the humble quest of making their discipline rigorous. A lot of these French philosophers however were more concerned with the present day — with the activity of philosophy and the course of history. They were philosophers of the day. That’s part of the reason a lot of them became celebrities — because what they had to say was relevant to the world that they lived in.
And so with Baudrillard I hope we get an insight into this other lens of looking at the Postmodernists – not as spectres and shadows of everything that is wrong with the world as many see them but as diagnosticians who were diagnosing the great shift that was occurring in culture.
Now obviously they weren’t all objective unbiased individuals sitting on the sidelines. Foucault was certainly someone who threw his weight to one side of the movement and acted as a catalyst to bring about the change he believed should come. But to say that Foucault or Derrida or the other postmodernists created this world is to get caught up in the fallacy of mistaking the reflection of the stars in the pond for the night sky. Or in the language of Baudrillard, it’s to attribute to individuals what is properly a function of the simulation.
The Difficulties of Defining Simulation
The big question then is what exactly does Baudrillard mean by simulation? As it turns out this isn’t such an easy question to answer. At first I thought it was just my inexperience with Baudrillard that kept me from understanding but after scouring four or five different books on Baudrillard and reading through a lot of articles online, it seems that this struggle to understand the idea of simulation is not just a personal quirk but a ubiquitous struggle.
None of the books I went through came up with a satisfactory definition of the term. They left the term float around without pinning it down. The closest I came to a definition was the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s page of Baudrillard where Douglas Kellner defines Baudrillard’s simulation as:
“the cultural modes of representation that “simulate” reality as in television, computer cyberspace, and virtual reality.”
That seems quite apt as a definition except that it doesn’t work. When you think about it this is just a slightly expanded definition of The Matrix’s simulation. It’s the virtual reality of the matrix and its antecedents — TV and computers — that absorb our lifeforce. This is a really important aspect of the simulation and one we’ll be digging deeper into in future articles but it doesn’t explain how Baudrillard can justify saying the entire world is a simulation — that we are all living in a simulation. It just doesn’t track.
But despite Kellner’s attempt being wide of the mark I do appreciate the attempt at nailing the term down and thought I would try and add to this quest somewhat although I’ll probably just end up muddying the waters a bit more.
One of the books I studied was by a scholar called Rex Butler who talks about the inherent difficulties in talking about the term simulation:
“in all of this there is raised the difficulty of speaking of simulation, a difficulty that Baudrillard slowly realizes as his work progresses. Simulation is difficult to talk about not simply because it is not real but more profoundly because it is a total process, there is nothing outside of it. The analyst of simulation, therefore, is subject to the very rule he or she analyses. If the fundamental law of simulation is that we cannot come too close to the object represented, this is also true of the analyst’s attempts to represent simulation itself. The question is thus raised, if there is nothing outside of simulation and nothing before it, how are we to think it at all?” (Butler 1999: 25)
So if everything in this article seems muddy and unclear to you that is only partly to do with my inadequacy.
It also explains why Simulation and Simulacra will never be so easy to summarise that it can stand beside 1984 or Brave New World. Its watered-down version in The Matrix is about the best we are going to get at a mainstream level.
All of this being said, the rest of this article will be an attempt to demystify this idea of simulation at least to some degree.
What is Simulation?
After reading Butler it seems that, like the first rule of fight club, the first rule of the simulation is that you don’t talk about the simulation. Baudrillard says that:
“The moment you believe that you’re in a state of simulation, you’re no longer there. The misunderstanding here is the conversion of a theory like mine into a reference whereas there should never be any references.” (quoted in Butler 1999: 24)
He is using reference here in the semiotic sense as being the referent i.e. the thing in reality that the sign refers to. This is the first key aspect of Baudrillard’s simulation: it is first and foremost a hypothesis. As Butler points out the simulation:
“is not an empirical phenomenon, something that actually happens. Baudrillard is very well aware of the paradox that, insofar as the simulation he is describing exists, it makes any way of verifying it impossible. It means that the very real which we say is lost in simulation and against which we compare it is now only conceivable in simulated form. Indeed, we might even say that, insofar as we can speak of simulation at all, it has not yet occurred, that simulation is proved in its absence. Simulation is not real, then, but a kind of hypothesis.” (Butler 1999: 24)
So I hope you’re beginning to see both why this topic has been wrecking my head and also why I find it so fascinating. It’s both incredibly dense and difficult to understand but at the same time it is one of the most fascinating ideas I’ve come across in years.
Okay so having established that anything we say about the topic is going to be inadequate and blundering past Wittgenstein’s injunction that “What cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence” let’s try to say a little more about simulation.
Another important clue in attempting to understand simulation is the idea that:
“Simulation attempts to resemble the real, to ‘realize’ it, to bring out what is only implicit in it and make it explicit. But at a certain point in its progress it draws too close to the original, and further increases in perfection, instead of bringing the system closer to this original, only drive it further away. The system begins to reverse upon itself, gives rise to the opposite effects from those intended.” (Butler 1999: 25)
So again that all sounds very interesting but what does it actually mean. One example that Baudrillard uses in the book is the idea of the hypermarket. And this rather mundane example is a good way of understanding this point.
So a hypermarket is a common term in France for a supermarket so your Tesco, your Wallmart or for those of you in Ireland your Dunnes Stores. And what is a supermarket — it’s an attempt to perfect the idea of a market.
Originally a market was a place you went and you would get your meat off this person, your bread off that person and your candles off the guy over there. As Baudrillard puts it the traditional market was “the place where the city and the country came to rub elbows.” (Baudrillard 1981: 77)
But along comes the supermarket and it attempts to perfectly realise this idea of a market. It brings all these things together under one roof. The vegetables are here and the meat there and the candlesticks are over there. But at a certain point in its progress it draws too close to the original and instead of bringing the system closer to the original it only drives it further away.
This makes perfect sense in the supermarket example because supermarkets — while theoretically closer to the perfection of the market — couldn’t be further from it. There is something soul-destroying about a supermarket. You go in and under these fluorescent lights you pick out your groceries and now you don’t even have to talk to anyone you just go up to the machine and touch your phone and you’re out.
But it’s not even that it’s the systematisation of it all; it’s the machine-likeness of it all. You go in — another dot in a crowd — and you pick out some items from their perfectly organised ranks. In your wake the ranks are replenished so the machine is in a constant state of homogenising itself. You, the customer, proceed in an ordered linear fashion around the supermarket, you come to the till and proceed out into your car and home.
It’s not just the supermarket either. Baudrillard writes that:
“The hypermarket cannot be separated from the highways that surround and feed it, from the parking lots blanketed in automobiles, from the computer terminal – further still, in concentric circles – from the whole town as a total functional screen of activities.” (Baudrillard 1981: 76)
Compare all this with going to the market where there’s a wholesome buzz. There’s people interacting there’s the people at the stalls there’s someone busking over in the corner. There’s limited stock and humans you have to overcome to get access to that stock.
I find there’s something nourishing about going to the market. I feel good after it. I would never go to a supermarket for a walk around but a market? Absolutely. There’s something wholesome about the market that is completely missing in the hypermarket. It has lost its soul in its attempt to perfect the idea of the market.
This reaching for this perfection of the market — for this ultimate market — creates a homogenised market experience across the country and across the world. The market becomes something hyperreal in this approach to perfection and somewhere along the lines it loses its soul.
There’s more than enough lessons there to consider as far as human perfection goes as well; perhaps we are better off being thwarted by the haphazard chaos of our instincts. A Stoic world could become as soulless as the hypermarket.
The Tasaday Tribe
Obviously this is a mundane example but to try and bridge between this example of the hypermarket and the globalised all-encompassing truth-destroying idea of the simulation it’s worth taking a look at Baudrillard’s example from ethnology.
In 1971, the Philippine government decided to return a few dozen Tasaday tribespeople to the depths of the forest they had recently been discovered in. The Tasaday had lived there for eight centuries with no contact with the outside world but upon contact with this outside world they were, as Baudrillard puts it, “disintegrat[ing] immediately upon contact, like mummies in the open air” (Baudrillard 1981: 7).
And so at the recommendation of the anthropologists the government decided to return the tribespeople to virgin forest beyond the reach of colonizers, tourists and ethnologists.
Baudrillard’s analysis of this event is sublime. As with everything else it’s difficult to fully grasp but there’s something incredibly powerful in it. He says that “In order for ethnology to live, its object must die” (ibid.). In the process of studying the tribes the ethnologists were causing them to decay.
But this returning of the tribespeople to the virgin forest is precisely what is so peculiar. The science sacrifices these tribespeople in order to preserve its reality principle. The Tasaday are frozen in their natural element. They have become “posthumous: frozen, cryogenized, sterilized, protected to death, they have become referential simulacra and science itself has become pure simulation.” (Baudrillard 1981: 8)
These tribespeople become the model of simulation — of all the possible tribespeople from the times before ethnology.
What Baudrillard is getting here captures the difficult to grasp essence of simulation. Earlier he writes about how, with simulation, the real is no longer what it was. We see the implosion of the real – the collapse of the difference between illusion and reality. Now there is no illusion or reality there is only simulation.
“There is a plethora of myths of origin and of signs of reality – a plethora of truth, of secondary objectivity and authenticity. Escalation of the true, of lived experience, resurrention of the figurative where the object and substance have disappeared. Panic-stricken production of the real and of the referential…this is how simulation appears in the phase that concerns us – a strategy of the real, of the neoreal and the hyperreal” (Baudrillard 1981: 6)
Looking at the case of the Tasaday tribespeople in this light, we see the attempt to get back to reality, to restore the Tasaday to their true form in the virgin forest; it’s this idea of what is natural — this reality principle. But in trying to grasp for that real we are only simulating it. When you hear people arguing about what our ancestors ate, how our ancestors lived and why you should live that way now, it’s not getting back to the way our Paleolithic ancestors lived; it’s another simulation just like the Tasaday.
Another example that came to my mind is the idea of a Wilderness Reserve. If you think about it, a wilderness reserve is something of a paradox. Wilderness used to be the unsafe space that existed beyond the city walls; it was the dangerous wild lands where anything could happen. It was the dark path, the thick forest the untamed wilderness in which wolves and mountain lions hung about. It was a place of danger and uncertainty. But not just that. The wilderness was the world. Civilisation was nothing but a series of islands in this untamed world of wilderness. That’s what made it wilderness — it was the untamed and all-encompassing other.
But now you have wilderness reserves. Instead of the wilderness being the thing that walls in civilisation you now have this area we’ve walled off and called a wilderness. We’ve tried to preserve this idea of wilderness but in doing so we’ve just created a simulated wilderness. It’s this simulation of wilderness that in its attempt to perfect the idea of wilderness has lost all touch with it.
Summary and Conclusion
These are relatively mundane examples of Baudrillard’s simulation but you can begin to see what he means by saying that everything has become a simulation — that the simulation has become all-encompassing. This isn’t just a question of the internet or the media; it’s everything.
When we talk about the internet and technology and how they have warped our lives, the simulation is easy to understand. The Matrix is an easy thing to understand because we look at our non-virtual lives and see something that is less warped. But Baudrillard’s point — that I have no doubt inadequately blundered over — is that the simulation is much more insidious and has penetrated far deeper into our lives. We now live in an entirely simulated world.
What exactly this means, I’m still wrestling with and I am fully confident that anyone who has studied Baudrillard deeply would probably cringe at my indelicate attempt to capture what he’s talking about but in future instalments I want to circle this work of Baudrillard more because I genuinely feel that there’s something critically important in it and something that might be imperative to understanding the mess we find ourselves in in the third decade of the twenty-first century.