This is a collection of 20-ish essays that share as a theme the idea that we live not so much in a world of events, information, and things, but in a world of simulacra in which those things represent or symbolize something (either the true version of that object or something else altogether.) After an opening that introduces the idea of simulacra and simulations, the chapters each look at an example of illusion and simulation in our world. The book’s strength is in suggesting outside-the-box, thought-provoking ideas. This is not to say that said ideas are all sound or unassailably true. A reasonable reader might conclude that much of the book consists of crackpot ideas. I tended to find that there was a kernel of truth in the points that Baudrillard was making, but that he often blew that kernel up into an absurdity.
To clarify, let’s discuss a couple examples of events that Baudrillard says that we don’t know, but instead we know a simulacrum of. These two examples are very different, and I believe one is a stronger argument for Baudrillard’s ideas than is the other. One is the Holocaust and the other is the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. In both cases, Baudrillard argues what we “know” is not the event itself, but a representation that has been created through fictionalized accounts and “common knowledge” with varying degrees of accuracy. In my view, his point was more clearly made regarding the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. What people think they know of the event is more representative of what happens in the movie “The China Syndrome” than what actually happened. Most people grossly overestimate the costs and consequences of the event because they have a fictional representation of it in place of a factual understanding.
Besides events, Baudrillard considers a number of other ways we might be considered to be living in a representational world. The hypermarket doesn’t perform the same function as markets historically did. It exists to provide some hyperreal experience that is as much entertainment as it is the acquisition of necessary goods and services. Baudrillard also talks about how the media and advertising provide a façade in place of the real because of disincentives to provide accurate information. Journalism benefits from sensationalizing. Advertising benefits from hyperbolizing.
Baudrillard also ventures into the realm of science fiction. One of the most intriguing discussions is about holographs and how one might know whether one was the item being projected or the projection itself. There’s one chapter on J.G. Ballard’s novel “Crash” as an example of one of the more bizarre ways in which modernity conflates disparate things. [For those unfamiliar, Ballard’s novel deals with characters who are sexually aroused by car crashes.] An essay on “Simulacra and Science Fiction” proposes that sci-fi maybe dead by virtue of the fact that science fiction builds simulated worlds and since we already are a simulated world, the genre is passé.
I mentioned that this book’s strength is swinging for the fences with bold ideas about how modern humanity has built itself into a simulated world. So, what is its weakness? That’s easy. Low readability. The author assumes the reader has knowledge that it’s not reasonable to assume even an educated reader will have. If you weren’t familiar with the aforementioned J.G. Ballard novel or with the Beaubourg building in Paris, you’d have no idea what Baudrillard was going on about. Also, while it’s true that some of the ideas presented in the book are complicated, the author (and, perhaps, the translator) often make even relatively straightforward ideas complicated. There is a love of rare words. Beyond those issues, there’s a stream of consciousness approach to writing that makes the author’s train of thought hard to follow.
If you are interested in philosophy, this book is worth reading if you don’t mind struggling with difficult writing (a form of masochism with which I’m afflicted.) There have probably been more readable distillations of these ideas that will offer a clearer view of what Baudrillard means by ideas such as hyperreality. (We know Baudrillard means “more real than real,” but one only has one’s own intuition to make sense of that in a way that transcends Justice Potter Stewart’s dissatisfying definition of pornography as “I know it when I see it.”) If you don’t enjoy struggling with abstruse writing (or if you don’t know the meaning of the word “abstruse” without looking it up) this book is probably not for you.