Baudrillard, Postmodernism, and the Reinforcement of Power

Noah Raizman

The challenge of simulation is never admited by power. How can the simulation of virtue be punished? However, as such it is as serious as the simulation of crime. Parody renders submission and transgression equivalent, and that is the most serious crime, because it cancels out the difference upon which the law is based....
     The only weapon of power, its only strategy against this defection, is to reinject the real and the referential everywhere, to pursuade us of the reality of the social, of the gravity of the economy and the finalities of production. To this end it prefers the discourse of crisis, but also, why not? that of desire. "Take your desires for reality!" can be understood as the ultimate slogan of power since in a nonreferential world, even the confusion of the reality principle and the priciple of desire is less dangerous than contagious hyperreality. (Simulacra and Simulation, pp. 21-2)

In Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulations, he theorizes the emergence of a new theory of signification, one that resembles the Saussurean system of signs in reverse. It is almost anti-representational in nature. Baudrillard's theory of simulation, which holds that the ordering of the basic elements of signs, usually considered in terms of signified preceding the signifier, is now, in the postmodern society, reversed, such that the signifier, the image, the symbol, icon, and index, precedes the signified, the real basis of the sign, posits a world where capitalism has run rampant, and where any concept of the real, or of meaning, or of history, has been eroded. Baudrillard's postmodern world is that of mass communication, mass media, and the proliferation, across all boundaries, of signs. Baudrillard's formulation of postmodernism, in its extreme conclusion, would entail the eventual disintegration of the Saussurean concept of the sign, leaving a world completely divorced from the real and containing only infinitely recursive simulacra.

The simulation has many bases. It is a direct result of capitalism in that the fetishization of the commodity has come, in a society that places more and more value on information itself as a commodity, to be applied to ideas and images themselves. Just as the concept of use-value had been eroded for material goods that came to have only exchange-value, so did the concept of use-value of the signified's relation to the signifier become eroded, leaving only exchange-value between signs. This is the origin of the simulation, a sign whose only value is that of exchange with other signs, its use-value, which for a sign means the connection between signifier and signified, eroded into nothing. Simulations are removed from the real, like currency whose value is only exchange and no longer based on a real weight of gold.

Furthermore, in a society where a constant flow of images via mass media and mass communication becomes part of everyday life, we are treated to an endless barrage of signs which we accept, not as being real, but, as Baudrillard would argue, as supplanting the real. The real loses its meaning, and what we believe and deal with are simulacra. Baudrillard would, as Jameson did, relate this idea to history. Without any grounding in the real, and having no way to prove the real, our knowledge of the past is confined to whatever symbols we associate with it when we attempt to portray it. For example, "The 80's," as an historical entity, is not anything real, but merely the amalgamation of the symbols that we have accumulated for it, whether they be images of stonewashed designer jeans, new wave pop, breakdancing, Ronald Reagan, Just Say No, glasnost, greed, or the Challenger. There is no history, only a distorted nostalgia, distorted because it relies only on the symbols, icons, and indexes that we have access to at any given moment.

Baudrillard further argues that, in a political sense, simulations prove the existence of the reality that is opposite of the simulation. Thus the symbolic simulacrum of breaking a law implies the existence of that law; the ascendancy and reality of truth is proved by the simulacrum of scandal, and the reality of the idea of morality by the simulacrum of unethical behavior, both true in Baudrillard's example of Watergate. Furthermore, the popularization of the portrayal of the perverse and/or unfortunate in modern media, as in, for example, the Menendez trial, the Unabomber, natural disasters, life in ghettos and third world countries,etc., can be seen as simulacra used to reinforce the existence of the American Norm, the middle class family that is watching their television during the evening news, even though that norm does not exist.  The society in the throes of postmodernism is busily involved with asserting the real, which is threatened by the predominance of simulacra. This it attempts vainly through the increasing proliferation of simulacra, divorced by definition from the real. In the constant flow of images and sound-bytes and concepts, the cultural currency in the age of information, even the idea of the real has been supplanted and subverted by its sign, hence the extreme vision of the future of postmodernism, following the lines of Baudrillard, will see simulacra replace the real entirely.

Baudrillard's essays on simulation portray the world in which we live as one whose power structures have become radically altered. Marshall McLuhan, in The Medium is the Message , may have anticipated some of what Baudrillard is saying in terms of the confusion of the real and the simulation of the real, but Baudrillard takes this even as far as to say that the real no longer exists. We use images to lend an implicit credibility to that which has no existence in and of itself, often by using parody or contrast. The modern sitcom is the perfect example - take it in the same way Baudrillard takes Disneyland: the middle-class idyllic family doesn't exist. Not outside of Home Improvement. A simulacra has been created, something without its own reality, a signifier without a corresponding signified, against which we judge ourselves and our own positions.

This is a relatively simple simulation. But, as Baudrillard tells us, such simulations have permeated our society, which cannot itself be defined except by way of various simulacra. The social and ethinic and vocational and economic categories into which we are placed and into which we place each other and the implicit moralities and laws and rules by which we operate are all based on concepts which have no real basis, are devoid of concrete referentials.

But what does this have to do with power? Power is itself a simulacrum, devoid of referentials, but it operates through the imagining of the real, through the simulated reclaiming of the real. The enforcement of the law, the creation of morality, the evolution of those implicit codes of conduct and those statements we take for fact create the simulation of society and it is whichever entities control that production that exercise power. But there are no real entities which produce it - having power is itself a simulation of something that is not real. Power is produced through the media, through our daily interactions with people, through every aspect of our society which seems already generated.
 The tool that is used to reinforce power is the idea of the real, as Baudrillard says. Through the language of crisis, and the portrayal of the unfortunate and those subjected to tortures of the body and heart, the status quo (which is not the same as any idea of the norm) of those not involved in the crisis is reinforced.

But Baudrillard also speaks of desire as an instrument of power. To exhibit a desire is to crave something real, something bodily, something sensual. We cannot tell if what we desire is real - emotions are hyperreal by nature, signifiers without signified, floating concepts, possessing only illusory referentials - but we assume what we desire is real because it is so close. We perceive ourselves as real and what we desire is almost an extension of ourselves and we see what we desire as real because of that. To build that extension of the real is to reinject us with the idea that there is a real at all, and the ultimate idea of corporeality and metaphysical presence (because it leads to the idea of being subject ot a physical, corporeal law and set of cultural/social/political assumptions) is what allows power to assert itself.

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

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