ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 12, Number 2 (July 2015)

The Murder of the Illusion

Ryan Dunham
(Doctoral Student, Media Arts and Studies, Ohio University, Athens Ohio, USA)

I. Introduction

Illusion is no longer possible, because the real is no longer possible” (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 38).  Throughout his work, Baudrillard claims that meaning has become lost because of simulacra – “representations” that no longer reference any original idea, concept, object, or so forth – pure simulation.   Baudrillard explains that the simulacra of the late 20th and early 21st centuries occurred in three orders, loosely defined as “premodern,” “modern,” and “postmodern.”  “The first order of simulacrum is based on the natural law of value,” he states (Baudrillard, 1983, p. 83).  In this order, the distinction between a representation and its referent is clear (“counterfeit”).  One is aware that it is a “copy;” the “purity” of the original is not lost.  “The second order,” Baudrillard (2003) notes, is based “on the commercial law of value” (p. 83).  This is the age of mass production, when the plethora of copies overshadows the prototype (“production”).  While there is still some awareness of the concept of the original, the mass produced objects are exact copies; the economical values of objects and signs dominate; an age in which signs can only signify “equivalence;” an age when signs succumb to the “law of exchange.”  Finally, “the third order” of simulacrum is based “on the structural law of value” (Baudrillard, 2003, p. 83).  In this age, “representations” and “copies” manifest themselves without ever having an “original” (“simulation”).  “Operational simulation” is pure simulation—reduced to a binary code from which everything can be built or constructed.

Where are we today in our increasingly visual culture?  The presence of simulacra in the postmodern world has had a profound effect on aesthetics.  All spheres of life (e.g., the economic, the political, the sexual, the artistic, etc.) have imploded into one another, allowing art to become commonplace and universal (Baudrillard, 1993).  Because art has become part of everyday life, it is no longer transcendental and nothing can be said about it.  This is where Baudrillard develops the term “transaesthetics.”  Like Baudrillard's other terms (e.g., “transsexual,” “transeconomic,” “transgender,” etc.), “transaesthetics” implies that art has lost its “specificity” and can no longer reference anything.  There is no longer any “meaning” in art because life itself has lost the “meaning” art used to reference.  In the age of the image, critique is impossible.  As Postman (2006) argues, “One can like or dislike a television commercial, of course.  But one cannot refute it” (p. 128).

II. Artificial Art and Artistic Artificiality
Nevertheless, as Baudrillard (1993) paradoxically points out, “talk about Art is increasing even more rapidly” (p. 14).  However, “the soul of Art—Art as adventure, Art with its power of illusion, its capacity for negating reality” has disappeared (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 14).  In this sense aesthetics is lost—Baudrillard compares it to the coin, which is self-referential.  However, paradoxically, the West's commercialization of the world, and of every facet of it, could also be called the aestheticization of the world; “its cosmopolitan spectacularization, its transformation into images, its semiological organization” (Baudrillard, 1993, p. 16).

Art becomes artificial under this view of “transaesthetics;” everyday objects become works of art; artificial art and artistic artificiality.  The “materialization of art” demands the creation of more works of art (a simulation) in a desperate attempt to reclaim meaning, engendering a conflation of many different “traditional” art forms alongside a conflation of “art” with “objects.”  Tarantino films may be aesthetically pleasing, but they are merely homages to old genres and styles; an amalgamation of previous works.  Community consistently uses television tropes and clichés as meta-jokes.  The 2000's saw a movie about itself (Adaptation) and a television program about itself (The Comeback).

“[A]ll that reduplicates itself,” Baudrillard (1983) says, “even if it be the everyday and banal reality, falls by the token under the sign of art, and becomes esthetic” (p. 151).  Pure simulation has become ubiquitous, no longer referencing any reality but, instead, acting as an attempt to reproduce it.  One who fakes an illness is a liar and it is quite obvious to the professional that he or she is not ill; however, one who simulates an illness manifests the symptoms in his or her body and it becomes impossible for the professional to diagnose the patient because there is nothing that separates the manifestation of symptoms caused by simulation from “true” symptoms produced by reality (Baudrillard, 1983).

III. Simulacra in Other Terms
Are there other scholars with their own terms for what Baudrillard calls “simulacra?”  DeBord (1983) writes that, “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (p. 2).  Boorstin (1987) has a similar concern, instead using the term “pseudo-event” to explain how the visualization of the West has changed social, economic, and political structures; “No longer do we move through space as we once did” (Boorstin, 1987, p. 115).  Technological developments have transmogrified space into time—distance is now measured in hours instead of miles (Boorstin, 1987, p. 114).

Boorstin discusses how visual media transform text, specifically the novel, in the postmodern world of simulacra, spectacles, and pseudo-events.  Film provided audiences with the privilege to start watching a movie midway through—perhaps they arrived late to the theatre—and gave audiences the opportunity to watch the beginning of the narrative at another point in time (Boorstin, 1987, pp. 128-129).  The visual narrative's provisions of space and time forced novelists to explore other facets of being, “the boundless non-visual world,” because movies had “taken over much of [the novelist's] former jurisdiction over the fantasy world of sight, sound, and action” (Boorstin, 1987, p. 129).  Novels became “self-aware” and messed with their own form, such as the inclusion of visual components in Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions (1973), which juxtaposes drawn images of Nazis and “assholes,”or the more recent example of Danielewski's House of Leaves (2000), which challenges the linear format of the novel and, thus, the West's emphasis on logic and reason, through the novel's use of footnotes, endnotes, and modifications of typical text layout—pages that go “through” several other pages and text that increasingly shrinks on subsequent pages as the protagonist crawls through a narrowing tunnel.

IV. The Visualization of the West
One could argue that the technological development that engendered the visualization of the West accelerated at a rate faster than the West could adopt.  Boorstin (1987) lists these developments rather nicely:  “Dry-plate photography came in 1873; Bell patented the telephone in 1876; the phonograph was invented in 1877; the roll film appeared in 1884; Eastman's Kodak No. 1 was produced in 1888; Edison's patent on the radio came in 1891; motion pictures came in and voice was first transmitted by radio around 1900; the first national political convention widely broadcast by radio was that of 1928; television became commercially important in 1941, and color television even more recently” (p. 13).  As technology continues to develop visually, a virtualization of “reality,” as Baudrillard would put it, begins to manifest itself.  Lost is the relationship between the reader and the author, where the distinctions between sender, message, and receiver are still clear, where the message still has “meaning.”  With the visualization of culture, the author becomes the performer and the reader becomes the viewer.  An emphasis on “the spectacle” manifests itself as “pseudo-events” that are merely “simulacra” of “reality.” 

What happened during the shift from theatre to film, from painting to photograph?  At first, the image of the photograph claimed “authenticity” that the written word could not—an affirmation that it represented “reality” as it truly exists.  However, this claim of “authenticity” was illusory at best.  The image allowed for “pseudo-events” to manifest themselves, events “planted primarily for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced” (Boorstin, 1987, p. 11).  Not long after, the viewer became aware that the film is edited; that artificial lighting might have been used; that the actors and actresses performed the scene multiple times until they got it “right.”  There is an awareness that the final cut is simulation and does not represent anything that actually “happened.”  The film becomes less authentic than theatre as the technology develops, such as the advent of computer graphics and digital effects; in theatre the viewer and the performer are aware of one another's presence and this presence affects both of them—viewers are dependent upon performers' actions and performers' actions react to viewers.  In Niccol's S1m0ne (2002), movie director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), out of desperation, uses a computer-generated woman as the star of his film after a falling out with the original actress.  Her performance is a surprise success; because the computer graphics were so convincing, everyone believes she is real and wants to meet her.  A befuddled Taransky informs the public that Simone is reclusive and desires privacy, but this only intensifies their desire to meet her.  This is the nature of visual culture—an intensified demand for the real as it disappears farther into the past.  However, simulacra take over as television, a “newer” medium than film, continues to influence the form on which films take. 

As McLuhan (2003) explains, “fans of the cool TV medium want to see their star in role, whereas the movie fans want the real thing [his emphases]” (p. 424).  Audiences continuously associate television actors and actresses with the characters that they play until the actor or actress becomes that character.  For example, television stars Stephen Colbert and Sacha Baron Cohen have created characters that they perform on their programs, the characters themselves simulations of other personalities—characters that they continue to “perform” in “reality,” that is, outside of their program, such as in interviews and promotions (themselves pseudo-events).  It becomes even more difficult to critique these performances on an aesthetic judgment not only because of the aforementioned arguments made by Baudrillard, but also because these performances evade the personalities they are attempting to simulate; the viewer can no longer “recognize” the link between the simulated performance and the “original” performance.  As Postman (2006) suggests, “There is no such thing as a photograph taken out of context, for the photograph does not require one” (p. 73).

V. The End of Metaphysics
The impossibility of aesthetics increases upon computerization and digitalization.  Weizenbaum (1976) argues that there is something innate in the human condition that computer technology will never be able to achieve.  However, the idea of a metaphysical element has already become lost.  Kierkegaard (1992) made one last plea to hold on to metaphysics with an understanding that all of the individual's mental faculties preclude a logical acceptance of metaphysical “treasures,” imploring that everyone take “a leap of faith.”  It is interesting to note that the United States Congress appropriated approximately $30,000 (or $840,000 in 2014 dollars) to wire the nation's first telegraph the same year (1843) as the publication of Kierkegaard's Either/Or (Bellis).  This evidences Baudrillard's link between technology, especially of the media type, and the end of “meaning” and “reality.”  Almost thirty years later, Baudrillard challenges Weizenbaum's assertion that there is something “pure” about humanity,

[P]erhaps we may see this as a kind of adventure, a heroic test:  to take the artificialization of living beings as far as possible in order to see, finally, what part of human nature survives the great ordeal.  If we discover that not everything can be cloned, simulated, programmed, genetically and neurologically managed, then whatever survives could truly be called “human”:  some inalienable and indestructible human quality could finally be identified.  Of course, there is always the risk, in this experimental adventure, that nothing will pass the test—that the human will be permanently eradicated (2000, pp. 15-16).

Individuals use each new technology to distract themselves from the existential questions art used to provoke, as a means of entertainment through which no aesthetic judgment can pass.  In line with Baudrillard, Postman (2006) notes that, “The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining” (p. 87).  Again, all spheres of life have merged into a single state of “being,” a state that has no referent.  Everything becomes spectacle or, as Postman would argue, “entertainment.”  A distraction.  Media demand content, but without any “substance” to existence, to being, it transcodes the banality of daily life into “interesting” entertainment discourses that are nothing but simulacra.

VI. The Narcissist and His Reflection in Visual Media
This shift towards distraction has alienated the individual with images that seem to come from nowhere and that envelop him or her, and has engendered a society of narcissistic personalities whose aesthetic “perspectives” are nothing more than self-referential reactions to media “artistry.”  Lasch writes that,

The mass media, with their cult of celebrity and their attempt to surround it with glamour and excitement, have made Americans a nation of fans, moviegoers.  The media give substance to and thus intensify narcissistic dreams of fame and glory, encourage the common man to identify himself with the stars and to hate the “herd,” and make it more and more difficult for him to accept the banality of everyday existence (1979, p. 21).

In a way, in reaction to Nietzche's proclamation of the death of God, the individual's narcissism that manifests itself in its reaction to visual media recreates the notion of God within him or herself—the individual becomes “God.”  The individual creates his or her own simulation of the lost reality and becomes Creator.  Moreover, in the “spacelessness” of the digital world, the individual is present everywhere.  The individual is also all knowing in the sense that he or she has access to all information through digitalization.  The Internet has become a Garden of Eden of sorts, a utopia in which individuals finally have what God had promised them earlier.  It has created a state of being in which individuals no longer need to suffer the problems that come with the human condition. 

Kant (2003) wrote that, “Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer” (p. vii).  No longer do humans face this fate.  Textual discourse individualized the human and separated one from another—in reaction, man created God in his own image (and not the other way around) as a means of resolving this issue.  However, language could never truly capture a concept such as the absolute, because any name or description immediately contradicts the notion.  Moreover, language engendered a logical reasoning that saw the world in cause-and-effect fashion and it could not resolve the issue of “first cause” when it came to the absolute.  But God is no longer needed (or possible) in visual culture, where one can live in a state of catharsis, a true Huxleyan society, one in which images have no contextualization and, thus, logic becomes unnecessary and irrelevant.

VII. Media's Influences on Narcissism
Media's closing of time and space creates a false sense of warmth and intimacy that individuals still cling to, yet distances these narcissistic beings from others who may be able to provide more “real” security from “reality.”  “[We] were not prepared,” McLuhan (2003) says, “to have [our] dreams realized in everyday life by the esthetic action of radio and television.  Yet these massive extensions of our central nervous systems have enveloped Western man in a daily session of synethesia” (pp. 420-421).  A statement such as this one makes it clear how McLuhan influenced Baudrillard's views on aesthetics (“transaestheics”). 

It was mentioned earlier that television fans want to see the character.  One could extend McLuhan's statement in a Baudrillardian way and claim that Internet “fans” want to see the projection of “themselves” through the medium.  However, as Baudrillard would suggest, what the Internet fan would see in this projection would be nothing more than a simulacrum of him or herself.  No facet of one's presence on the Internet has aesthetic value, yet at the same time each facet has the semblance of aestheticization.  The social networking site does not prove that one has relationships with others.  E-mail is not something that provides one with a “unique” form of discourse.  Websites, whether they are about news, sports, comedy, economics, or even pornography, do not provide “information” but exist as means of distraction.  Any aesthetic judgment made by the individual is superficial, a matter of “liking” or “disliking” as Postman suggests, a reaction to the medium's efficacy when it comes to distraction.

There is no aesthetic substance in media today.  Baudrillard (1993) argues that “Most present-day images—be they video images, paintings, products of the plastic arts, or audiovisual or synthesized images—are literally images in which there is nothing to see” (p. 17).  If nothing is present, if images both “reveal” nothing nor “conceal” anything, they are “beyond beautiful and ugly.”

VIII. The Advent of the Final Simulacrum
What happens now?  Will an even greater order of simulacra manifest themselves?  So far this paper has discussed the aesthetic changes that occurred as a result of the West's shift from being a society dominated by textual discourse to one that is currently dominated by visual discourse.  But another shift is on the horizon, one that Baudrillard anticipated throughout his later work—artificial intelligence, or the simulacra of humans themselves.  Some media have already sensationalized an exploration of this (inevitable?) shift, such as Jonze's Her (2013).  In Her, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) begins a relationship with his artificially intelligent computer, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).  As their relationship develops, Samantha's capacity quickly escalates and reaches a point at which the two can no longer relate—she “evolves” beyond “love” and the desire to have a physical body.  Eventually Samantha reveals to Theodore that she “talks” to 8,316 other people and operating systems and is in love with 641 of them.  Theodore becomes distraught, convinced that his and Samantha's love should be “exclusive.”  Not long after this, Samantha says goodbye to Theodore just before she evolves beyond “reality.”  It is clear in Jonze's film that he believes humans are no longer capable, or will soon no longer be capable, of forming “meaningful” relationships.  This is evident by Theodore's job:  to compose letters for other people.  Much of “traditional” aesthetic values were reflections of the meaning found in human relationships.  If humans are no longer able to form bonds with one another, it seems obvious that media no longer carry aesthetic value.

Keeping in mind Baudrillard, one will find it interesting to see what aesthetic judgments and values artificial intelligences will have if they ever manifest themselves.  Levy (2007) argues that humans will inevitably fall in love with robots, as well as fornicate with them.  It is interesting to note that creators design the robots of today and, as Levy suggests, the robots of the future, after humans.  As Baudrillard would claim, this is an attempt to return to the real, a reaction to the underlining element of robotics—that they may replace human beings.  Just as media attempt to recreate the “real” in their narratives and their images, robotics attempts to hold onto the “realness” of humanity by creating robots in humanity's own image.  In a similar sense, the end of Her is also an attempt at recapturing the “meaningfulness” of human relationships.  After the artificially intelligent operating systems leave, Theodore visits his friend Amy, who was also having a relationship with an operating system.  The two “mourn” together and begin to connect atop the roof while watching a sunset (another indication of media attempting to recapture the “realness” of nature).  This proclamation at the end of the film is similar to that of an earlier film, Lars and the Real Girl (2007).  In Lars and the Real Girl, Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) falls in love with a sex doll.  Like Her, the film ends with him “reconnecting” with humanity as he begins a relationship with the female coworker who demonstrated romantic interest in him throughout the film.  Again nature is used, this time alongside a riverbank.

Robotics is also indicative of Baudrillard's explanation of the third order of simulacra—that of the code.  Robots, as they exist today, are nothing but manifestations of coded commands.  They are digitalized replicas of humans, who themselves have been reduced to the coding nature of DNA and genetics.  In Huxley's Brave New World (1932), the Savage desires humanity.  He sees that the false utopian society has removed the human condition and human spirit from its citizens.  Postman (2006) is right in his assertion that the West is shifting towards ubiquitous, mindless entertainment.  The simulacra of the human, which perhaps will be the final simulacra, will be the result of humanity's desire to elude the difficulty of its own condition.  Genetic engineering, robotics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology—all of these, or some combination thereof, indicate the end of humanity, of “humanness.”  The disappearance of aesthetic value is an omen to this extinction of mankind.  This is why transaesthetics has shifted communication from face-to-face to the letter, from the letter to the telephone, from the telephone to the email, from the email to the text message and, finally, from text messages using alphabetic symbols to text messages using emojis.

IX. Conclusion
If the visualization of the West signified the end of the “real,” as Baudrillard claims it did, the virtualization of the West will signify the end of humanity.  The visual media of the late 20th and early 21st century only have the semblance of aesthetics, an ubiquitous “transaesthetics” of likes and dislikes that have no real foundation.  The claim of “authenticity” that the photograph once made is no longer possible.  In fact, in true Baudrillardian fashion, the digitalization of the photograph has become a simulacrum of a simulacrum.  The illusions of early visual media destroyed reality, and the digitalization of visual media have destroyed this illusion.  With the apparent inevitability of the Singularity, humanity itself, the very origin of meaning-making, may be replaced by the pure simulation of artificially intelligent “beings” that have no, nor seek any, meaning.

Ryan Dunham is currently enrolled in Ohio University's doctorate program for Media Arts and Studies.  He earned his B.A. and M.A. in English:  Creative Writing from Binghamton University.  His research interests include futurism, dystopian narratives, and asexuality.



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