Simulacrum

Simulacrum

[sim-yuh-ley-kruhm]
Simulacrum (plural: -cra, also -crums), from the Latin simulacrum which means "likeness, similarity", is first recorded in the English language in the late 16th century, used to describe a representation of another thing, such as a statue or a painting, especially of a god; by the late 19th century, it had gathered a secondary association of inferiority: an image without the substance or qualities of the original. Philosopher Frederic Jameson offers photorealism as an example of artistic simulacrum, where a painting is created by copying a photograph that is itself a copy of the real. Other art forms that play with simulacra include Trompe l'oeil, Pop Art, Italian neorealism and the French New Wave.

Simulacrum in philosophy

The simulacrum has long been of interest to philosophers. In his Sophist, Plato speaks of two kinds of image-making. The first is a faithful reproduction, attempted to copy precisely the original. The second is distorted intentionally in order to make the copy appear correct to viewers. He gives an example of Greek statuary, which was crafted larger on top than bottom so that viewers from the ground would see it correctly. If they could view it in scale, they would realize it was malformed. This example from visual arts serves as a metaphor for philosophical arts and the tendency of some philosophers to distort truth in such a way that it appeared accurate unless viewed from the proper angle. Nietzsche addresses the concept of simulacrum in The Twilight of the Idols, suggesting that most philosophers, by ignoring the reliable input of their senses and resorting to the constructs of language and reason, arrive at a distorted copy of reality. Modern French social theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right: the hyperreal. Where Plato saw two steps of reproduction — faithful and intentionally distorted (simulacrum) — Baudrillard sees four: (1) basic reflection of reality, (2) perversion of reality; (3) pretence of reality (where there is no model); and (4) simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatever.” Baudrillard uses the concept of god as an example of simulacrum. In Baudrillard’s concept, like Nietzsche’s, simulacra are perceived as negative, but another modern philosopher who addressed the topic, Gilles Deleuze, takes a different view, seeing simulacra as the avenue by which accepted ideals or “privileged position” could be “challenged and overturned.” Deleuze defines simulacra as "those systems in which different relates to different by means of difference itself. What is essential is that we find in these systems no prior identity, no internal resemblance.

Simulacrum in literature, film, and television

Simulacra often make appearances in speculative fiction. Examples of simulacra in the sense of artificial or supernaturally created life forms include Ovid’s ivory statue from Metamorphoses, the medieval golem of Jewish folklore, Mary Shelley’s creature from Frankenstein, Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio and the synthetic life in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later adapted for film by Ridley Scott as Blade Runner); another Philip K. Dick novel pertinently entitled The Simulacra centres around a fraudulent government led by a presidential simulacrum (more specifically, an android). Simulacra of worlds or environments may also appear: author Michael Crichton visited this theme several times, in Westworld and in Jurassic Park; other examples include the elaborately staged worlds of The Truman Show, The Matrix and Equilibrium. Some stories focus on simulacra as objects. One example would be Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The term also appears in Vladmimir Nabokov's Lolita.

Simulacrum and recreation

Recreational simulacra include reenactments of historical events or replicas of landmarks, such as Colonial Williamsburg, and constructions of fictional or cultural ideas, such as Fantasyland at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The various Disney parks have by some philosophers been regarded as the ultimate recreational simulacra, with Baudrillard noting that Walt Disney World Resort is a copy of a copy, “a simulacrum to the second power.” In 1975, Italian author Umberto Eco expressed his belief that at Disney’s parks, “we not only enjoy a perfect imitation, we also enjoy the conviction that imitation has reached its apex and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it. This is for some an ongoing concern. Examining the impact of Disney’s simulacrum of national parks, Disney's Wilderness Lodge, environmentalist Jennifer Cypher and anthropologist Eric Higgs expressed worry that “the boundary between artificiality and reality will become so thin that the artificial will become the centre of moral value.”

Simulacra in caricature

An interesting example of simulacra is caricature. Where an artist draws a line drawing that closely approximates the facial features of a real person, the sketch cannot be easily identified by a random observer; the sketch could just as easily be a resemblance of any person, rather than the particular subject. However, a caricaturist will exaggerate prominent facial features far beyond their actuality, and a viewer will pick up on these features and be able to identify the subject, even though the caricature bears far less actual resemblance to the subject.

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