In his essay "Simulacra and Simulations," Jean Baudrillard presents the view that almost nothing is real anymore. Starting from the basic assumption that signs cannot really refer back to those things that they attempt to signify, Baudrillard goes on to demonstrate the ways in which many common everyday things or events exist only within their own artificial signifying systems. His points about religion and the religious images best prove his point.
Thus perhaps at stake has always been the murderous capacity of images: murderers of the real; murderers of their own model as the Byzantine icons could murder the divine identity. To this murderous capacity is opposed the dialectical capacity of representations as a visible and intelligible mediation of the real. All of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meamng and that something could guarantee this exchange God, of course. But what if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence? Then the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a gigantic simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an umnterrupted circuit without reference or circumference
Baudrillard brings a new spin to a centuries-old debate about the value of symbolic objects and images in a religion. However, the ideas he brings up suggest further questions.
1. Do you agree with Baudrillard's arguement that the ability to symbolize God automatically rips the entire signifying system out of "reality?"
Yes and no. He makes an interesting point in that, God, for all intents and purposes, is defined as omnipotent and beyond all human understanding. How, then, could a cross, or even a fully sculpted crucifix, encompass the mystery that is God? What purpose can human symbols serve when referring to something supposedly so far beyond them? If God is indeed meant to be onmipotent and completely alien, then symbols mean nothing. However, if, as I tend to believe, God has always been created in the image of humanity, symbols serve to reinforce the fact of divine closeness and prescence.
2. Do images, as Baudrillard asserts, actually "murder" the real? How so?
I personally do not think that they do. Baudrillard draws on the probably prehistoric belief that an image of a person could actually steal that person's soul. However, I believe that an image in the likeness of a person serves to make that person perhaps more real to the creator of the image. Why else do painters, photographers, and other artists portray their lovers and friends in some of their greatest art?
3. Baudrillard seems to imply that signs themselves have no meaning; no sign can directly represent or reflect anything in the "real" world. What are the implications of this?
Baudrillard's claim (ironically -- and confusingly -- made in the signifying system known as written language implies that any attempt at communication wherein the represented object is not physically present had no meaning, and any sign expressing an abstract concept or emotion, for example, is completely useless. Quite simply, this is idiotic. While I certainly will not argue that any signifier can completely express the intended signified meaning, the entirety of human society is built on the concept that ideas can be exchanged. To argue with this is to argue with, well, everything.
4. How does Baurdrillard fit into the largest concept of post-modern thought?
Baudrillard essentially takes the technique developed by Derrida -- searching for "gaps" that undermine the supposed validity of a text -- for analyzing literature, and applies it to everything. He states that nearly every system, whether religion, Disneyland, Watergate, or power itself ultimately undermines the ideology it pretends to espouse. This claim, I feel, is perhaps a little bit overboard.
Baudrillard, Jean. "Simulacra and Simulations" in Selected Writings Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998. 166-184.
Last modified 10 March 2005