Rex Butler's Baudrillard I: Simulation
July 22, 2021
I’m going to spend a couple of posts pulling out some extracts from Rex Butler’s book on Baudrillard, widely considered to be one of the more subtle readings in the secondary literature (a view even expressed by the man himself—no small accolade).
I’ll start with what Butler takes to be the central problematic that runs throughout Baudrillard’s career:
We would say—and we hope to demonstrate—that there is but one simple paradox of the sign repeated throughout all of Baudrillard’s work. It is that, insofar as the copy completely resembles the original, it is no longer a copy but but another original; or, to invert this, that the copy is only able to resemble the original insofar as it is different from it. (Butler, 1999, p. 14)
First thing to note about this is that it frames Baudrillard as primarily concerned with semiological systems in general. This is a theme Butler sticks to throughout the book—while this orientation does place an illuminating focus on certain methodological quandaries that arise for Baudrillard as a theorist, I also felt that it tended to downplay the emphasis Baudrillard himself places on particular semiological structures, specifically the ones we currently find ourselves in and on the concrete historical path that got us here. This focus gives the book what I can only describe as a “Derridean” tint, complete with all the “affirming the paradox” type tropes distinctive of 90’s secondary lit. Exhibit A:
However, if simulation is irrefutable, if any outside to it is only conceivable because of it, at the same time the statement that makes this possible also makes it impossible. The very statement which means there is no outside to simulation, that simulation is total, also means there is an outside to simulation, that simulation is not total. (Butler, 1999, p. 152)
There’s a lot of this kind of stuff, which I think is unnecessarily mystifying. Ultimately it results from trying too hard to detach Baudrillard’s claims about simulation from the historical particularities they pertains to. (Butler does not give much attention to Baudrillard’s engagement with and extension of Marx’s critique of value, for instance, which seems central to me.)
Anyway—despite finding myself in disagreement with Butler quite often, these tended to be fairly illuminating disagreements, and he certainly provided a wealth of great insights. I’ll go through a couple of comments on what he takes to be common misunderstandings of Baudrillard notion of simulation. Here’s the first:
[W]hat must be grasped first of all about simulation is that it is not only the loss of reality, but also its very possibility. The aim of simulation is not to do away with reality, but on the contrary to realize it, make it real. Simulation in this sense is not a form of illusion, but opposed to illusion, a way of getting rid of the fundamental illusionality of the world. (Butler, 1999, pp. 23-4)
I agree with Butler’s assessment here but think this way of putting it is confusing. The main claim being made is that Baudrillard understands “reality”—in the sense of intersubjective or consensus reality—as an effect of particular discursive practices. I tend to reach for Brecht as an interpretive lens on this particular issue: Brecht criticised Western bourgeois theatre on the basis that its representational character (its “naturalism”) results from an artificial separation of the audience from the narrative space of the performance. The notion of representational fidelity only makes sense in light of this displacement of the viewer to an Archimedean point outside the narrative space—it does not happen, for instance, in the Chinese opera (Brecht’s example), where the actor is constantly making contact with the audience as a member of their social space, via eye contact and other gestures. The theatrical distinction between the real and the imaginary, which supports the possibility of a representation relationship between them, is itself only possible on the basis of the staging apparatus: it is a technical effect.
Similarly I think Baudrillard sees the various items of consensus reality as byproducts of certain discursive practices, which both establish a disjunction between two terms (the real and its imaginary) and position the subject at an abstract point outside of the space of participation. Take this often quoted passage from Symbolic Exchange and Death:
The symbolic is neither a concept, an agency, a category, nor a ‘structure’, but an act of exchange and a social relation which puts an end to the real, which resolves the real, and, at the same time, puts an end to the opposition between the real and the imaginary. (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 133)
By my reading, what Baudrillard is here calling the ‘symbolic’ is a massive generalisation of what Brecht called ‘interruption’—the fourth-wall breaking act which establishes a relation of recognition between perform and viewer, thus undermining the boundary between the space of the narrative world and the space of observation. He continues:
The initiatory act is the reverse of our reality principle. It shows that the reality of birth derives solely from the separation of life and death. Even the reality of life itself derives solely from the disjunction of life and death. The effect of the real is only ever therefore the structural effect of the disjunction between two terms, and our famous reality principle, with its normative and repressive implications, is only a generalisation of this disjunctive code to all levels. The reality of nature, its ‘objectivity’ and its ‘materiality’, derives solely from the separation of man and nature[.] (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 133)
The adoption of this ‘disjunctive code’ as part of discursive practice functions similarly to Brecht’s staging apparatus, simultaneously:
- creating a disjunction between the imaginary and the real (or between thought and world, the sign and its referent).
- making possible the notion of an explicit representation relation between them.
- displacing the subject to a view-from-nowhere, a point outside the world from which the representation relation may be grasped.
There’s a paradoxical air to the notion that the reality of nature derives from the separation of man and nature. But really the point is just that when one is unseparated from nature—i.e. when the relation between man and nature is participatory—nature is not a graspable content but rather a horizon of all grasping activities, and is unrepresentable as such. When nature as a whole becomes available as a content, as one relata of the representation relation, one is implicitly suspending participation in it, and entering the detached space of the view-from-nowhere.
Read this way, Butler seems to be identifying as ‘simulation’ the introduction of the disjunction that produces the real: the reality principle. (Seduction, or the initiatory act, can then be read as the reverse process—the liquidation of the reality principle, or destruction of the view-from-nowhere—that plunges one back into the surreal space of participation.) I think this is a plausible reading given how confusing and contradictory Baudrillard can be about this, but as mentioned it sticks fast to a generalist interpretation. It interprets simulation as the process that moves up the ladder of simulacra levels; what it doesn’t do is focus in on Baudrillard’s explicit tying of simulation to 3rd-order simulacra, and the particular significance of 3rd-order simulacra within the organisational logic of the present cultural milieu.
This is worth bearing in mind for Butler’s second comment:
The other thing to be understood about simulation, the other mistake often made with regard to it, is that it is not an empirical phenomenon, something that actually happens. Baudrillard is very well aware of the paradox that, insofar as the simulation he is describing exists, it makes any way of verifying it impossible. It means that the very real which we say is lost in simulation and against which we compare it is now only conceivable in simulated form. Indeed, we might even say that, insofar as we can speak of simulation at all, it has not yet occurred, that simulation is proved in its absence. Simulation is not real, then, but a kind of hypothesis. (Butler, 1999, p. 24)
Again I’m kind of half on board with this—while I agree that there is a sense that simulation is not something that ‘actually happens’, I would also want to stress that it nevertheless has ‘actual’ effects. The point being alluded to here is that simulation involves a kind of social causality—is has no substantial reality in the sense that it belongs entirely to the realm of the social imaginary, to our collective expectations or perceptions of one another’s perceptions. But since we are the kind of creatures who base our actions on these perceptions, this means simulation can have causal influence in the real world, despite not being part of it per se. In this sense simulation is similar to concepts like hyperstition or hauntology—what in more Deleuzian terms might be called the “agency of the virtual.” But Baudrillard’s account contains far more fine-structure, identifying simulation explicitly at the interface between social reality, semiology, and normative pragmatics.
I’ll stop there for now—in the next post I’ll address some comparisons Butler makes between simulation and seduction.
- Baudrillard, J. (1993). Symbolic Exchange and Death (I. H. Grant, Tran.). Sage Publications.
- Butler, R. (1999). Jean Baudrillard: The Defence of the Real. Sage Publications.