The Theory of a Simulacrum

In order to properly understand what a simulacrum is, we need to travel to Jean Baudrillard’s original text on simulacra, titled Simulacra and Simulation. This monstrosity of a philosophical treatise not only proposes what a simulacrum is, but provides exhaustive examples and explanations of the enormous implications and repercussions of surrounding ourselves with simulacra. Though proposed by Baudrillard, he was not the only person to get involved in this school of thought, and certainly not the first to think in this way. Philosophers have debated the idea of a simulacrum, whether under this name or not, for centuries before Baudrillard wrote his paper, and will likely debate the implications and nature of simulacra for centuries more to come. However, Baudrillard is notable for pioneering one very important element of the philosophy: a common language and lens through which it could be discussed. For this reason, Baudrillard’s explanation is the widely accepted one. Thus, Baudrillard’s explanation is what will fill this page.

At the beginning of his paper, Baudrillard draws our attention to an old fable written by the modernist and later postmodern Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. The story goes something like this (this is not Borges’ fable; it’s a summary I wrote):

Once upon a time, there was a fabulously wealthy king. One day, as he looked down on his kingdom from his castle, he was particularly awestruck.

“This,” said the king, “is the most beautiful, extraordinary kingdom in the world. It is so extraordinary, I want to make sure the rest of the world is able to see its beauty for themselves.” So, he hired a man regarded as the world finest cartographer, for he was able to recreate the most minute details from reality on the map. When the cartographer had finished, he presented it to the king.

The king examined it. It was his kingdom, just as beautiful as he had seen it from the castle. However, as he was admiring the map, a horrible realization came to him.

“It doesn’t convey the scale and glory of my kingdom;” said the king, “I want it to be full size, an exact top view of my kingdom.”

“Yes, my lord,” replied the cartographer.

The next day, he returned to the king with a full scale map. Impressed, the king began to unroll the map in his field. He examined it, but once again came to a painful realization.

“This map,” said the king, “is beautiful, but even when I stand on my castle, nothing pops out the way it did in real life.  Can you make the map three dimensional?”

“Yes, my lord,” replied the overworked cartographer.

Weeks later, the cartographer returned with his finished model, dragged on ball bearings by a thousand horses. The king climbed to the top of his castle and looked down upon the model. It was perfect, except for one detail.

“The location of my kingdom is really one of its most marvelous features;” said the king, “I want everyone to see the glory and beauty of my kingdom in its exact location. Move the model to where my kingdom is now!”

“Yes, my lord,” replied the cartographer.

With a blow of his whistle, the horses began charging across the kingdom to place the corners of the model, leveling buildings and sending peasants fleeing to the hills. The cartographer blew his whistle again and the horses dropped the map and left. The king, finally satisfied with this replica of his kingdom, retired to the castle for a good night’s rest.

As the peasants returned from their cover in the hills,  they came to realize that although their homes had been leveled, they were replaced by exact replicas. Nothing had changed at all.

What is the purpose of this tale? After he has placed his model, the cartographer has effectively done nothing. Instead of making a map, a simple representation of the Kingdom, he copied everything about it, making a replica, which then replaced the original. This is the first stage of the development of reality which Baudrillard posited. The full development goes like this:

  1. Copies of Originals
  2. Copies of Copies
  3. Copies of Imaginary Things

or, put more grandiloquently:

  1. Art imitates life.
  2. Art imitates art.
  3. Life imitates art.

It is this third step, when life imitates art, or art becomes the reality, that the term “simulacrum” refers to.  A simulacrum is a made up world masquerading as reality.

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  1. Jeanie Balch

    I think our politicians have fully embraced a world masquerading as reality. Nice, concise summation! Be sure to have a text by Baudrillard in Barfee’s backpack!

  2. What about when life imitates life…?

  3. Perhaps. But what if life is imitating life that is NOT as we know it within the common body of knowledge? Who is to say that there are those who know of life that is quite different than that commonly thought of as life? We could not then call that art, for it would be, in fact, life of the other.

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