Sunday, January 11, 2009

The notion of simulacra

The highly-mediated society in which we live finds us constantly surrounded by signs, usually in the form of images which “represent” reality. Baudrillard argues in his essay “The Precession of the Simulacra” that in actuality, this representation of reality is a replacement of reality, for in the process of creating the image reality is completely destroyed, compromised, and in this process the image becomes a simulation, a poor excuse for a substitute of reality. Baudrillard uses some concepts that are similar to Benjamin’s ideas about aura and art in the age of mechanical reproduction, although the similarities end there; Baudrillard is mostly speaking about historiographies whereas Benjamin is speaking about paintings, photographs and film.

Let us think about something on a simplistic scale: say, a painting hanging on a wall of flowers in a vase. This image is created with a paintbrush by the hand of a painter, and was most likely a still life based on an actual vase of flowers that at one point in time existed in reality. This image is therefore a reflection of reality since it was based on something similar in the tangible world. At the same time, however, this image also masks or covers up reality, which Baudrillard states “is of the order of maleficence” designed with nothing but trickery in mind (457). Realized and constructed with atoms and particles of paint instead of atoms and particles of flower petals and ceramic pottery, this painted image can therefore be said to be playing with the idea of appearance, masking “the absence of a profound reality” (456); in this phase of the precession of simulacra, the idea of reality has almost completely been forgotten, is suggesting and playing with the idea of appearance, until Baudrillard’s fourth step in the precession becomes realized and ultimately, the image of the flowers has no relation to reality for it is now an iconic image, “it is [now] its own pure simulacrum” (456).

Baudrillard essentially states that the reparation of an historical artifact is merely a restoration of its "visible order"; we cannot, however, restore original mythical intent because it has transferred over into the realm of the unreal, of the simulacrum (459). This concept of visible order and this original intent is quite similar to Benjamin's idea of the aura, which he believes is destroyed in a work of art by its reproduction. One can never replicate the feeling that is created by an original work of art; it is for this reason Baudrillard states "Ramses does not signify anything for us" and he never will, for no one who is alive today ever knew him, nor can anyone ever comprehend his significance fully (459). Only through a recreation, a simulation, of written and oral history can we ever attempt to know the significance or the meaning of a mummy, and for that matter a static, almost mummified work of art. In this case, the simulation of a nostalgia for a past that we as modern day persons can never understand (for even through written or oral history we who never experienced Ramses, never knew Ramses, can never understand his meaning or significance in life) is fairly apparent.

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