I read half of a book two months ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I had to stop at half, because I had to think. Its premise is a simple concept, but is a model of such clarity it shines a light on so much of our modern world.
The title—Simulacra and Simulation—was written in French, translated to English, and would surely be clearer in its original tongue, but even in translation is intriguing, if hard to penetrate. I think my interpretation and especially conclusions are quite different than the author’s, but I have to credit such a powerful mental stepping stone.
Simulacra, plural of the Latin simulacrum, means likeness, or similarity. Specifically, in this case, it refers to a copy for which the original no longer exists. A reproduction of an archetype that has been allowed to die. An inferior manifestation of a reality that is lost.
The author’s primary example early on is television. Much of television at one time depicted reality. Real images of life—real either from life, or from stories, made real in their telling, hearkening to a reality that exists apart from ourselves. But slowly, the reality dims in importance. As we stare at the copy, we are consumed by it. We forget that there ever was an original, true image. We begin to experience life, not through our own bodies touching the world, but through images on television. Adventure, romance, creativity, achievement, are all forgotten as actual experiences, in preference to their reproduction, optimized, cleaned-up, and delivered to hold our attention. Rather than risk the effort and potential disappointment of actually living, we experience these through their image. As our focus shifts so completely to the reproduction, we lose sight of the truth.
And it is at precisely this moment that simulacra gains a perverse power over us.
For once the original has been thoroughly suffocated, the copy is free to take on a life of its own. Once art loses its connection to truth, all that is left is lie. Divorced from Truth—death. Story without purpose lives for itself and absorbs all into itself until eventually even it, without purpose, must die. But not before destroying all those who follow it.
Now we have ‘reality’ television, which shares nothing with Reality but a worn out piece of a dying language. We have stories that exist only for their own sake, stories of ugliness for no greater reason than that beauty has been forgotten, lost and confused in a world that did not reject it—for rejection requires knowledge—but merely did not care enough to save it. And it absorbs our lives too. We are patterning our lives after the perverted copies of stories that we have to believe were once real. And with nothing to compare them to, what choice can there be? But there is nothing left.
And simulacra are everywhere. We used to have friendship, now we have Facebook. Created to represent our real life interactions, it replaced them. We have become connected to the point of isolation. Five people can sit in a room, but thanks to the power of smartphones that connect them so completely and so instantly, they are not really present to each other at all. Not present in the world people once long ago used to walk. But what are they connected to? People? Real relationships? They are connected to connection. To the image of something that is past. Technology has created such a perfect, such an efficient means of connectedness that its archetype has been optimized into the grave.
But lest we think technology is the problem, let us not be fooled. It’s we humans, and the nature of our weakness, our laziness that opens this door. Simulacra pervades everything we do.
Most people don’t live real lives at all, but copies of an image they have come to believe—in the absence of anything else—is the ideal of life.
The American Dream.
Progress is a beautiful thing. Wealth, production, material progress have led to the greatest advances in the human condition the world has ever seen. Let the one who dislikes the astronomical fall in infant mortality or the gradual disappearance of famines and plagues cast the first stone upon capitalism and the material progress and industrialism of the modern world as the grossly imperfect successor to the systems that preceded it.
But as the purpose of progress is forgotten, marketing slowly changes the story. We no longer pursue goods for the elevation of the human spirit, but for the goods themselves. The archetypal life we were once striving for is forgotten, and in its place a copy that so closely resembles it, it’s hard to distinguish. The concept of Enough disappears. And although the changes in the story are subtle, the result is a complete implosion. We are transformed into people who exist to serve material goods, rather than people who know how to make material goods serve our ends. But lacking a connection to the original story, what can we do but follow the image presented to us? Everyone does. What else is there?
The mist is thick, and our vision so weak. And unless we care enough to peer through the mist, the easy answer beckons to us as well. But a real connection to the archetype is still possible. Or if not, if it has already died completely, we have the free will and judgment to recreate it and to live our own story. But we are creatures most comfortable taking our cues from others. Following is easy, and leading hard.