Definition of Simulacra
Jean Baudrillard argued it was increasingly difficult to separate representation from reality because we live in a culture of consumerism where the electronic mass media maintains the “illusion of an actuality” to keep us shopping and entertained.
Think about how advertising uses signs which do not reflect the real world, but still generates desire for those products. Our experiences are cropped and filtered before they are posted on social media. We watch whatever is “trending”. You listen to someone else’s playlist. It seems every website wants to know your location and allow notifications. Fake news. The metaverse.
When your personal data is being sold around the world, you are no longer the audience. You are the product.
In “Simulation and Simulacra”, which was first published in 1981, Jean Baudrillard concluded we were now living in a simulation constructed by the media.
Since simulation refers to the inescapable blurring of reality and representation, we are going to begin with an explanation of the theory in terms of signs. We will then try to illustrate his concept of the simulacrum with specific examples of each stage to help you get to grips with this important media studies theory.
Successive Phases of the Image
Baudrillard defined four phases in a sign’s transition to simulacrum. The first phase consists of “signs that dissimulate something”. In other words, the connotations are linked to the real world. By contrast, the simulacra are “signs that dissimulate there is nothing”. These empty signs do not reference reality – they are constructs for us to consume.
The Sacramental Order
The first stage of simulacra is a “reflection of a profound reality”. Baudrillard described the image having a “good appearance” so the “representation is of the sacramental order”. At this point, we accept the sign’s authenticity because it resembles its real-life equivalent.
An unedited video recording of a concert is an excellent example of this first stage because it is a faithful copy of the original moment. Think about the traveller photos uploaded to Tripadvisor. Presumably, this user-generated content reflects their true experiences of those holiday destinations.
The Order of Maleficence
The second stage “masks and denatures a profound reality” because the sign takes an “evil appearance” and is no longer a faithful copy of the original message. Baudrillard called this distortion of reality the “order of maleficence”.
Is anything really genuine or fresh? The next time you order homemade lasagna in a restaurant, ask the chef where the meal was prepared and cooked. The following advertisement for Kraft Barbecue sauce was created in 1968 for an American audience:
The advertisement claims the sauce “simmers real cookout flavour”, but does that phrase denote a meaningful comment on the sauce’s taste? The sauce is available in “hot or hickory smoke” flavours. Let’s assume the factory-made sauce was not actually smoked over burning hickory logs but simply stirred in an industrial-sized vat. Therefore, the signifier corrupts and distorts reality.
It is also worth noting Kraft sponsored “Music Hall” on NBC TV in the late 1960s when this advertisement appeared in magazines. Have we always been consumers rather than the audience?
Think back to our Tripadvisor example. We can easily argue the official images uploaded by the holiday companies distort reality because they are representing the hotels and restaurants in a way that does not reflect the real-life experience. If you were to read some of the one-star reviews, you might even say the images reach the third stage of simulacra.
The Order of Sorcery
The third the stage “masks the absence of a profound reality”. Baudrillard labelled this phase the “order of sorcery” because the sign “plays at being an appearance”. These are signs which claim to represent reality, but they are merely copies where the original reference does not exist.
If you have ever experienced a fire drill in your school when everyone leaves their desks and makes their way to the assembly point, that shrill and awful sound from the fire alarm is one of the best examples of this third phase of “sorcery”. The signifier is supposed to convince the students and faculty there is a real threat to our safety, but we all know there is no fire. It is a rehearsal.
The final stage is simulation where the sign has “no relation to any reality whatsoever”. The sign is its own pure simulacrum. The most popular example of the fourth phase is Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park”. In the following screenshot, the protagonist is surrounded by hungry velociraptors. Of course, these dinosaurs went extinct over 75 million years ago so we can say with absolute confidence that this image is pure simulacrum.
In our postmodern world, the simulation contains more truth than reality.
The weather report is much more interesting than the weather outside your own window. Talking to a reporter, an eyewitness might describe a shocking event as “like something out of the movies” and the viewer will completely understand what they meant. You should follow the arrows around IKEA because the store’s path will be more pleasing than your own exploration. We vote for politicians who have the best superficial soundbites. We buy products which come with the most entertaining slogans and narratives. We follow celebrities who are famous for being famous.
The simulation is more real than real. And we are lovin’ it.
Society has been succeeded by technology and the media. We have personal relationships on social media rather than in real life. We measure our social groups in terms of followers and subscribers. We don’t need parents because YouTube teaches us everything we need to know about the world. Why play football in the park when you can take your team to the top of the league in a computer game?
The fact reality can be copied and pasted demonstrates we live in a simulation.