Even Better Than the (Hyper)real Thing

Matt Pillsbury

Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible. [Simulation and Simulacra, 19]

There is an enduring urban myth in our country about a form of outlaw cinema called snuff film. Now, as far as anyone has been able to document, these movies, supposedly produced by depraved third-world directors who kill people on camera, don't really exist. The fact that they do not certainly hasn't discouraged Canadian film-makers. Of course, it's interesting that belief in these movies persists, despite the fact that it never seems that you know anyone who's seen any. Certainly, despite the fact that they're against the law, no one's ever been prosecuted in relation to one.

We feel the idea that watching people die, or at least recordings of people dying, is something that would appeal to a segment of out society. We can stuff movies with convincing simulations of death, but someone, somewhere, won't think that's good enough. Indeed, this myth seems to have created a niche market of people looking for the frisson associated with staged murder. These folks, upon finding out that they can't find any, have to be content with the staged fakery in the movies, or they can always find solace in spontaneous death that supposedly happened to be recorded.

TV itself is also a nuclear process of chain reaction, but implosive: it cools and neutralizes the meaning and the energy and the explosion of events. [Simulation and Simulacra, 19]

Of course, given that so many people can imagine sitting down and watching a contrived murder, and given the alleged success of the videos of accidental death, it's hard to imagine it took so long for television shows that are devoted to the exposition of taped violence. Finally, Fox came along and provided us with this service. They started with shows like Cops, following police around with video cameras, and ended up with shows that were all animals beating people up and cars slamming into things. Of course, this in and of itself is simulation, through the editing and broadcast. When you watch a suspect belted with a baton, and then hear the beep as an obscenity is censored, this telegraphs more than the questionable standards of the network.

The simulation is more overt, though, in the "reality TV" shows, where you get to watch actors try and reproduce events, in order to catch criminals and at least simulate continuing careers for Robert Stack and William Shatner. There is an attempt to to lionize or demonize, all the while hoping you won't pay attention to the liberties that must be taken to recreate the reality on the screen. This requires the most serious framing, which you don't need if the camera work is jerky and the picture grainy. If television is to be believed, the only difference between an actual event and a later restaging is that the event only exists at low resolution.

...so The China Syndrome is a great example of the supremacy of the televised event which, itself, remains improbable and in some sense imaginary. [Simulation and Simulacra, 53]

Of course, Baudrillard tends to overreact to this sort of thing, and takes television far more seriously than it really takes itself. For someone who actually watches TV occasionally, the idea that The China Syndrome drains the disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island less real, stretches credulity. His complaints about Holocaust are even more bizarre when he complains that the

same process of forgetting, of liquidation, of extermination, same annihilation of memories and of history, same inverse, implosive radiation, same absorption without an echo, same black hole as Auschwitz. [Simulation and Simulacra, 49

The very idea that TV could erase the memory and history of the Holocaust is absurd. TV is too open about presenting only parts of the truth, and codes the distinction between recordings of reality and recreations of it too deeply for this to happen here. It's an open secret that you can't believe most everything you see on TV, and when things are stretched too far, we're rewarded with spectacle. Simply recall the case where 20/20 blew up a truck with highway flares to show how unsafe it was, and the multimillion dollar damages they subsequently paid to the manufacturer.

When the simulations of TV become so wan that the producers start soliciting tapes of real incidents, funny or violent in order to attract viewers, and even make programs like Fact or Fiction, where there are 5 brief skits, showcasing bad actors repeating worse lines, and the sole entertainment lies in figuring out which are based loosely on real events, it's obvious that even the television producers think that their medium is less powerful than Baudrillard does. Sure, TV may be isolated for reality, but that's only because television would be "effaced" by too much contact.

As the persistance of snuff film myth, and the need for grainy footage documenting violence attests, some simulations are better than others, and illusion is still a distressingly easy effect to create.

[To other discussions of Baudrillard by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]

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