AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

AFB’S TERMS OF ART #40: SIMULACRUM

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Now that increasing numbers of people are stuck at home and sheltering in place, I figured I’d do a little series. Every weekday for the duration of this intense period, I’ll post a short definition of some term in/related to aesthetics and philosophy of art. Let’s see how this goes! See them all here.

Terms of Art #40:
simulacrum

Pronunciation: SIM-yoo-lack-rum

Definition: Simulacrum (plural: simulacra or the less popular simulacrums) can mean two things. Both have negative connotations.

simulacrum

One simulacrum, available for purchase at EdibleArrangements.com.
Large size $70 plus taxes. Free delivery.

First, it can just mean any slightly odd or off or surreal or vague-not-quite representation of something else, especially ones that have sort of creepy or disturbing capitalist undertones. Examples: a wax sculpture of Brad Pitt, over-filtered Instagram photos, bouquets of fake flowers (or even Edible Arrangements), Coachella’s hologram of Tupac.

Simulacrum also has a second, slightly different meaning. It is central to Jean Baudrillard’s theory (from the 1980s) that it has become impossible to tell what’s fake from what’s real.

On his view, a simulacrum is a copy without an original. What does that mean? Examples:

  • mannequins
    they’re not modeled on a specific person
  • CGI creations
  • Shrek
    He’s based on a character in a book who is based on … ogres in general I guess? but that book character isn’t real and ogres don’t exist…
  • copies of copies
    Okay so this is a common example, but I don’t get it. Like, if I make a copy of a handout, and then a student makes a copy of *their* copy for someone else, there’s still an original handout…

But sometimes it seems like a simulacrum is a copy that isn’t based on something real. And “real” here has a pretty specific meaning (that tbh is pretty difficult to understand). Real stuff is, like, natural and sometimes even sounds like it means pre-cultural. So an actual pine tree in your yard is real, but a plastic Christmas tree is not (even though in a different sense, plastic is definitely real and plastic trees are therefore also real). You see how this is confusing?

simulacrum2

just take a moment and let this really sink in

But you need to get in that headspace, where plastic trees aren’t real trees and therefore aren’t real, period. So now think of Disneyworld, which is just chock full of shit that isn’t real. Or so-called “reality” TV, where the central preoccupation of everyone participating seems to be to convince themselves that participants (actors?) are being “authentic” or feeling “real” things.

Why care about this stuff? Baudrillard thinks that at this point in history, simulacra are everywhere and we can’t even tell what’s real and what’s not. You can think of stuff like deepfakes, but it’s way more widespread. For example, Disney media and romcom narratives have so pervasively dictated our sense of what love is that now there’s no such thing as real love anymore because we’re too poisoned all the way down by this mutual reflecting of copies and variations and unreality.

Even that seemingly “real” pine tree in your yard – you see it through the lens of the pine tree emoji and Christmas tree imagery and it should be a sort of nice, longish isosceles triangle… And now because of all that you can’t experience or access the real tree anymore.

Bummer.

Or, at least, that’s Baudrillard’s view.

Related terms:
hyperreal and hyperreality – the current state where we can’t tell what’s real and what’s not

Not to be confused with:
simulation – according to this whole Baudrillardian taxonomy, a simulation is just a copy of something that is real (but like an event, process, or situation), like practice tests or fire drills

And now, to show you that it’s not all bad, please enjoy one of the most joyous simulacra that the world has to offer, Hatsune Miku, the Japanese pop star/software/databank:

Author: Alex King

AFB Editor-in-Chief. Assistant Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Buffalo, working in ethics, metaethics, and aesthetics.

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