52B/52W, Week 8: Simulacre et simulation

Post by Maxime Rousseau

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Simulacres et simulation - Jean Baudrillard

I had one more week to read something not related to my university work, and I decided to go hard in the proverbial paint. I've been wanting to read this since I've heard about it on a documentary showing off the philosophical content of the Matrix trilogy, and as it turns out it was a very pertinent read that I will probably cite and use in my 20th Century Political Ideas course. I think I've talked about French intellectuals and their tendency to write non-linear, elusive works much harder to digest than their english counterparts, and Baudrillard definitely fits right into this phenomenon. The theme central to the book is the constant cultural contact of modern westerners with "hyperreality", an augmented reality where the latter is transformed through emulation or replaced by simulacrum, the copy of an original which never existed. This theme is faint throughout the book, and addressed by demonstrating the presence of the phenomenon of hyperreality in various aspects of life, socialization, arts, politics, etc.

As with any critical work, it is important that the reader take some and leave some when reading: Baudrillard goes to great lengths to interpreting many things in his chapters, and sometimes, you've gotta wonder what the hell this guy was smoking. Most of the analyses seems honest and grounded, but some of it definitely smell like conspiracy theory in certain parts. Mentions of "the system" are repeated over and over in many chapters, which at times evokes Kafka-esque uncoordinated systemic oppression, other times just sounding like the leftist conspiracy theorist. At some point, the author discusses how the attempted murder of figures of power confirms their power (that much I get), and goes and to say that Kennedy HAD to die, because he incarnated real power which is proscribed in the world of simulacrum in which we live; as if all events were to be blamed on this system of simulacrum, bar none. Forcing events to coincide with theory a posteriori is too easy, and Baudrillard does it throughout his essay. You have to stay on guard for the nonesense, yet with open-minded enough to read between the lines; this is exactly what makes it a pretty difficult read.

This book seems to be generally regarded as quite left-field even in it's genre, since the university classified it in a code reserved for general literature, and not with the other works on philosophy. It's real merit is it's originality, predating Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent (which I will not doubt be reading very soon) and other serious works on media imperialism by a couple of years, but also it's audacity in pushing the logic hyperreality to the furthest it can go. Some of the passages on mass culture and reality TV are even eerily prochronistic, perfectly applicable to the media environment of today with it's social media and user-powered (inspired?) web.

Bottom line, if you can find a copy, definitely read it. It's the kind of book you that you can grab when you reek of scotch at the of the night and want to talk metaphysical nonsense with a lady friend. It's that book you mention right after you can use to say "meh, I've read worst" after going through something particularly stiff. It's also great bookshelf fodder. But buy it used... prices are getting a little bit insane, as reprints probably haven't been done in a while.