A simulacrum (plural: simulacra from Latin: simulacrum, which means "likeness, similarity") is a representation or imitation of a person or thing. The word was first recorded in the English language in the late 16th century, used to describe a representation, 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 Fredric Jameson offers photorealism as an example of artistic simulacrum, where a painting is sometimes created by copying a photograph that is itself a copy of the real. Other art forms that play with simulacra include trompe-l'œil, pop art, Italian neorealism, and French New Wave.
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 intentionally distorted in order to make the copy appear correct to viewers. He gives the example of Greek statuary, which was crafted larger on the top than on the bottom so that viewers on the ground would see it correctly. If they could view it in scale, they would realize it was malformed. This example from the visual arts serves as a metaphor for the philosophical arts and the tendency of some philosophers to distort truth so that it appears accurate unless viewed from the proper angle. Nietzsche addresses the concept of simulacrum (but does not use the term) 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.
Postmodernist 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 types of representation—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 whatsoever". 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 an accepted ideal 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".
Alain Badiou, in speaking with reference to Nazism about Evil, writes, "fidelity to a simulacrum, unlike fidelity to an event, regulates its break with the situation not by the universality of the void, but by the closed particularity of an abstract set ... (the 'Germans' or the 'Aryans')".
Literature, film, television, and music
Another noteworthy example of the usage of the term simulacrum in literature comes from 20th-century Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story "The Circular Ruins". The "dreamed man" in the story is an example of a simulacrum, as he is a representation of a mortal human being that can create other human beings – that can create the real out of a representation. The movie "Welt am Draht" (1973), from Rainer Werner Fassbinder, plays with the concept of simulacrum both in story and in cinematography.
- Automaton – A self-operating robot.
- Replicants from Blade Runner (directed by Ridley Scott)
- Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio – A puppet that comes to life.
- Feathertop – A scarecrow created and brought to life by a witch.
- Frankenstein's Monster from Frankenstein – A creation of Victor Frankenstein made from various body parts.
- Fritz Lang's Metropolis – Featuring "Maria" the robotrix.
- Galatea from Metamorphoses – A statue of a female created by Pygmalion and brought to life by Aphrodite.
- Gargoyles – Statues sculpted to resemble monsters.
- Hatsune Miku – A virtual idol VOCALOID known well among the otaku culture.
- Holograms – Computerized images of anything.
- Homunculus – Small miniature humanoids created through alchemy.
- Karel Čapek's RUR – Originated the word robot.
- Neutrinos from Solaris – A race of creatures made from the memories of humans.
- Pintosmalto – A statue of a man brought to life by a Goddess of Love.
- Simulacrum – An illusion spell from Dungeons and Dragons that creates a partially real duplicate of someone, though it only has half the power and abilities of the original.
- Snegurochka – A little girl made of snow.
- Terracotta Army – Terracotta sculptures of the armies of Qin Shi Huang.
- The Gingerbread Man – A gingerbread man that came to life.
- The Golem of Jewish folklore – A creation of a rabbi.
- Thumbelina – A small girl created by a witch.
- Ushabiti – Egyptian figurines.
- Vasilisa the Beautiful – A doll that came to life.
Several notable movies have adopted the idea of simulated environments.
Apart from the popular notion of virtual reality worlds found in much cyberpunk (such as The Matrix), physically created simulacra appear in countless works. (It should be noted that the hollowed-out book used by Neo in The Matrix to hide his illegal software was titled "Simulacra & Simulation".) Michael Crichton visited this theme several times, in Westworld and the Jurassic Park series. Other examples include the elaborately staged worlds of The Truman Show, Synecdoche, New York, and Equilibrium. (In The Truman Show, Truman has, in effect, a simulated life as well, which an invisible team of media professionals have created entirely without his knowledge. This arguably makes Truman, an otherwise ordinary human, a partially artificial being.)
- North by Northwest (1959) (directed by Alfred Hitchcock) includes a type of simulacra. The story focuses on a cat-and-mouse game between spies and counter-spies, which revolves around the identity of an agent named George Kaplan. The CIA wish to protect Kaplan's secret identity, while enemy spies wish to unmask it. The only problem is, George Kaplan is a man who never existed. He is an invention made by the CIA to lure a master spy, Van Dam (played by James Mason), from hiding. The CIA go to great lengths to make Kaplan seem real, including applying fake dander to the shoulders of his jackets. Hitchcock uses the fake identity of George Kaplan to explore the nature and ephemeral quality of human identity.
- In The Game (1997) (directed by David Fincher) the protagonists, Nicholas Van Orten (played by Michael Douglas), enters a type of simulated environment which overlays the real world, the eponymous Game. The Game has been purchased by Van Orten's younger brother, Conrad (Sean Penn), as a gift to celebrate Van Orten's 48th birthday. It is an elaborate ploy that uses the real world as the stage on which the simulated environment is set and the simulated drama unfolds. The Game proceeds in real time, using actors who assume the roles of various characters. The experience of participating in the Game disorients Van Orten, and by extension the audience, because the Game imitates reality so seamlessly. Van Orten (and the viewer) is never quite sure where reality ends and the Game begins. As a result of his total submersion into the alternate reality of the Game, Van Orten begins to choose to act in ways that are contrary to his nature and character. Under normal circumstances, he has been a morally conservative and socially uptight person. However, as he faces various obstacles in the Game that stand in the way of his progress, Van Orten chooses to break with his personal moral conventions and to take actions that fulfill his desire to win. He lies, steals, and resorts to using the threat of violence to get what he wants. His experience of transgressing normal behavior is characterized as a type of personal awakening. As one character in the film, who went through his own Game, puts it, 'Whereas once I was blind, now I see.' Van Orten comes to see that he can re-invent himself according to his desires, rather than social conventions. In this sense, The Game is a more mature, rugged, and dystopian version of Fantasy Island.
- The film that may have the most simulated environments, Inception (2010) features several fabricated worlds. As the story progresses, the main character, Dominick "Dom" Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), enters one simulated world after another.
- The Cabin in the Woods (2012) depends on a simulated environment as a major plot device. The cabin in the woods is a platform, simulating the real world, in which young people are lured to their death as a sacrifice to appease the anger of 'the gods.' The narrative begins like many traditional horror stories but transforms into a meditation on the nature of evil, the origin of religion, and the role of sacrifice as a means of assuaging a sense of guilt.
Simulated environments have been used as a major plot device in many television series on U.S. networks:
- Mission: Impossible (1966–1973, CBS network) featured simulated environments in some of its storylines. A simulacra first appeared in season 1, episode 3, entitled 'Operation Rogosh.' The IMF agents trick a bio-terrorist into divulging the location of his bio-weapons by inserting him into a fake time and place. He is led to believe he is in a law court in his home country, three years in the future, to stand on trial for crimes against humanity. The simulated legal trial is so convincing, the bio-terrorist believes his experience is true. The IMF agents manage to obtain the information of the real weapon before it detonates.
- Fantasy Island (1977–1984, ABC network) was based on the premise that a high-end adults-only resort existed somewhere in the South Seas, where customers could pay a large sum of money to experience their greatest fantasy. Each week, a new set of customers would enter simulated environments in which they played the leading role in their personal fantasy.
- Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994, first-run syndication) contained the holodeck. The reality created within the holodeck was so powerful that one of its creations, Professor Moriarty, the arch-enemy of Sherlock Holmes, took on a life of his own in Elementary, Dear Data, in episode three, season two.
- Dollhouse (2009–2010, Fox network) often employed simulated environments as part of the fantasy that customers wished to experience.
In Virtual Insanity (1996), British musical artist Jamiroquai comments on the confusion that can arise in a world where simulated environments not only exist, but compete for domination with the real world.
Philip K. Dick
The philosophically oriented American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick returned obsessively to the theme of simulacra in the form of artificial environments, events, artifacts, organisms, and even worlds. Examples include the artificial humans and animals in his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (aka Blade Runner), We Can Build You, the protagonist of "The Electric Ant", and, more realistically, the fake antiques in his The Man in the High Castle (which also deals with a counterfeit world of sorts). The pertinently entitled The Simulacra is about a fraudulent government led by a presidential simulacrum (specifically, an android). A working simulacrum of Philip K. Dick himself was created by his fans after his death, as a memorial to honor him.
Recreational simulacra include reenactments of historical events or replicas of landmarks, such as Colonial Williamsburg and the Eiffel Tower, and constructions of fictional or cultural ideas, such as Fantasyland at The Walt Disney Company'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 argued 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". Eco also refers to commentary on watching sports as sports to the power of three, or sports cubed. First, there are the players who participate in the sport (the real), then the onlookers merely witnessing it, and finally the commentary on the act of witnessing the sport. Visual artist Paul McCarthy has created entire installations based on Pirates of the Caribbean and theme park simulacra, with videos playing inside the installation.
An interesting example of simulacrum is caricature. When an artist produces a line drawing that closely approximates the facial features of a real person, the subject of the sketch cannot be easily identified by a random observer; it can be taken for a likeness of any individual. However, a caricaturist exaggerates prominent facial features, 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.
Beer (1999: p. 11) employs the term "simulacrum" to denote the formation of a sign or iconographic image, whether iconic or aniconic, in the landscape or greater field of Thangka art and Tantric Buddhist iconography. For example, an iconographic representation of a cloud formation sheltering a deity in a thanka or covering the auspice of a sacred mountain in the natural environment may be discerned as a simulacrum of an "auspicious canopy" (Sanskrit: Chhatra) of the Ashtamangala. Perceptions of religious imagery in natural phenomena approach a cultural universal and may be proffered as evidence of the natural creative spiritual engagement of the experienced environment endemic to the human psychology.
The Latinised plural simulacra is interchangeable with the anglicised version simulacrums.
- Jean Baudrillard
- Gilles Deleuze
- Generation loss
- Simulacra and Simulation
- Simulated reality
- Uncanny valley
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