Baudrillard, Jean

Assigned: Baudrillard, Jean. From “The Precession of Simulacra” (1483-92). Also read the editors’ introduction (1480-83).

From “The Precession of Simulacra” (1981)

1. On 1483-84 (“If we were able to take…”), Baudrillard begins with a reference to the Jorge Luis Borges tale in which “the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory…” (1483). Why, in his view, is this once powerful “allegory of simulation” no longer appropriate in the age of simulacra? What has changed about “the sovereign difference” (1483) between the real and that which supposedly signifies it? How does Baudrillard’s term “hyperreal” (1483) capture the strangeness of the change that he is marking? What characterizes “the age of simulation” (1484) from its beginning—in sum, what happens to the very notion of “the real”?

The Divine Irreference of Images

2. On 1484-85 (“To dissimulate is to feign not…”), how does Baudrillard explain the difference between simulation and dissimulation? (1484) In what sense does “simulation” challenge fundamental distinctions between truth and falsity, between what is real and what is imaginary? What are we to make of someone who simulates an illness as opposed to someone who merely feigns illness? (1484) What other kinds of simulation does Baudrillard call attention to in making his case that “simulation” constitutes a deep threat to the firm distinction between reality and the signs that supposedly represent it? (1485)

3. On 1485-86 (“Outside of medicine and the…”), turning to the realm of religion, Baudrillard explores the question, “what becomes of the divinity when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra?” (1485) According to him, what does such simulation imply about the divinity itself? Why are “Iconoclasts” (1485) so afraid of simulations when it comes to representing God? (1485-86) All the same, why might it be said, according to Baudrillard, that iconoclasts actually invest great value in simulacra or images of the divine, while iconolaters (worshipers of images) are “the most modern and adventurous minds”(1486) with regard to images of the divine? In what sense are the Jesuits an example of the latter—an example, that is, of savvy iconolaters?

4. On 1486-87 (“Thus perhaps at stake has always…”), Baudrillard continues to offer variations on the opposition between simulation and representation, this time in the context of religion. What happens to religious faith, according to him, when “God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence” (1486)? What are the four “successive phases of the image” (1487) or simulacrum? When does “nostalgia” for the real come into play as these phases unfold, and what sort of activities take place that might be said to constitute “a strategy of the real, neo-real and hyperreal” (1487) over against the stark acknowledgment that signs can no longer genuinely be thought of as representing anything real?

Rameses, or Rose-Coloured Resurrection

5. On 1487-89 (“Ethnology almost met a paradoxical…”), according to Baudrillard, what is the significance of the treatment given to the Tasaday Indians by the Filipino government in the early 1970s? What inferences does he draw from that episode about the aims of ethnology? (1487-88) In the Tasaday example, how does science supposedly “distance itself ever further from its object until it dispenses with it entirely…” (1488)? How does Baudrillard expand this point to include not only ethnologists’ treatment of the Tasaday but that of “all living things,” and modern human beings in particular? (1488) Finally, how do French attempts to preserve the celebrated caves of Lascaux provide another instance of what Baudrillard sees as ethnology’s sacrifice of the object?

6. On 1489-90 (“In the same way the whole of…”), what lesson does Baudrillard draw from successful efforts made during the late 1970s to preserve the mummy of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, which had been deteriorating in a museum basement? Why did the mummy’s peril cause so much consternation in the modern West? What does Baudrillard apparently mean by his term “museumification” (1490)? In what sense does the museumification of Ramses II, according to Baudrillard, amount to “irreparable violence towards all secrets, the violence of a civilization without secrets” (1490)?

7. On 1490-91 (“And just as with ethnology…”), how, in Baudrillard’s view, did French attempts to return the cloister of St-Michel de Cuxa to the French Pyrenees from its placement in a New York City museum called The Cloisters amount to little more than “subterfuge” (1490) rather than a restoration to original status? What similar point does Baudrillard make about Americans’ attitudes towards the native peoples whom they killed in droves during the movement westward? How could white Americans claim (however absurdly) to have “restored” those natives to something better than their original condition? (1490-91)

Hyperreal and Imaginary

8. On 1491-92 (“Disneyland is a perfect model of…”), how does Baudrillard assess the appeal of Disneyland? If that appeal is not due to the “imaginary world” (1491) that Walt Disney created for his visitors in Anaheim, California, what effect accounts for its popularity? In what sense, as Baudrillard sees it, is America itself a kind of Disneyland, and how does Walt Disney’s park (along with the other theme parks Baudrillard mentions) function as a “hyperreal” entity that helps to conceal this unpalatable truth from American sensibilities and intellects? (1491)

9. General question: In our selection from “The Precession of Simulacra,” why does Jean Baudrillard begin with a transparently false assertion that his epigram about “The simulacrum” (1483) is a quotation from the book of Ecclesiastes? No doubt a few people have been taken in by this bogus attribution, but what might be the point of Baudrillard’s humor? Why pretend to link modern theoretical discourse with Ecclesiastes?

10. General question: In our selection from “The Precession of Simulacra,” Jean Baudrillard asserts that by the early 1980s, simulacra (images or signs) have replaced reality itself, that cultural manipulation has obliterated all notion of the natural world. Most modern people would probably admit that he has a point: we live in an age that manufactures variations on our desires (or even whole new desires), and then peddles to us what it has told us we want or need. This is not a new idea—in one form or another, it is as old as Plato, who accused poets of “feigning” in a dishonest manner and of leading people astray by appealing to their baser desires. In any event, do you find that Baudrillard takes things too far in his disdain for “the precession of simulacra,” or do you think his critique is accurate? Does he accord simulacra an excessively deterministic power over us, or is he registering—pardon the irony—reality to an unsettling degree? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake