Volume 2, Number 1
Action: Baudrillard and the Performance of Representations1
Richard G. Smith
(Department of Geography,
University of Leicester,
I have no secret to
reveal, everything is there, exposed on the surface.3
The simulacrum is
never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals
that there is none. The simulacrum is true.4
and directed by The Wachowski Brothers the film The Matrix
was released in 1999 and was such a financial success that two
sequels (The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions)
were released in 2003. The writer-directors (Larry and Andy
Wachowski) draw inspiration for their trilogy of films from the
ideas of the poststructuralist theorist Jean Baudrillard who is
above all for his ideas about simulacra and simulations (a.k.a.
hyperreality). In one of the early scenes of The Matrix the
lead character, a computer hacker called Neo (played by Keanu
Reeves), is seen to possess a copy of a book entitled “Simulacra and
Simulation” which is a reference – a nod and a wink for those in the
know – to the title of perhaps Baudrillard’s most famous text6
on the non-distinction, or non-representation, between image
The Matrix revolves around the question of what the “Matrix” is7.
The answer comes from the character Morpheus (played by Laurence
Fishburne) who is the leader of the human resistance:
The Matrix is
everywhere, it is all around us, even now in this very room you can
see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your
television, you can feel it when you go to work, when you go to
church, when you pay your taxes, it is the world that has been
pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth …
Morpheus explains the
That you are a slave
Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage, born into a
prison that you cannot smell, or taste, or touch. A prison for your
mind. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You
have to see it for yourself.8
“Matrix” is revealed to be a neural interactive simulation (a
computer generated dream world replication of the world as it was at
the end of the twentieth century) masking the “desert of the real”
where humans exist in a sunless and desolated world, and are grown
(not born) or farmed, to be no more than batteries (we are told that
the human body generates bio-electricity) powering both a race of
machines (a product of artificial intelligence) and the ideological
simulation that serves as an instrument of control (its sole purpose
being to change humans into batteries).
“Matrix” is shown to Neo to be an ideological computer generated
construction that functions as a shroud to hide the truth and horror
of the real world. What is more the “Matrix”, as its name
indicates, is a digital structure – a structural substratum – that
remains in tact despite changing empirical circumstances (just like
structuralism). Indeed, the world of the “Matrix” is one that
structuralist and structural-Marxist theorists of ideology such as
Lacan, Althusser, and perhaps even Žižek could strive to unmask. If
you are inclined to believe in theoretical models such as Lacan’s
(symbolic-imaginary-real), or Althusser’s (economy-polity-ideology),
then the “Matrix” satisfies your paranoid fantasies because the film
unfolds to reveal that the real is hidden behind an illusionary
of the Matrix trilogy is to tell the story of the revolutionary
struggle to unmask the dominant ideology or Matrix and so liberate
humankind. In other words, the aim of the film’s revolutionaries is
just like that of the Parisian students of May 1968 shouting their
famous slogan; “Under the paving stones lies the beach”.9
However, the simulacrum described by Baudrillard is where false and
real have concertinaed together and cannot be revealed like the
“Matrix” to be a mask that conceals some pre-existing real. The
simulacrum is not an illusion, a complex mimesis, a disguise, an
idealism that denies reality, a replacement of the world by its
image, a reference, a force that has somehow “taken-over” reality.
Simulation is not an imitation or distortion of reality, and it is
not a copy of an original either. Rather the simulacrum is the
loss of the possibility of reality through the exorcism of illusion.
Non-Representational Theory and the Performativity of
simulacrum is a sophisticated foe. There is no machinery of
representation, only a machinery of simulation and consequently
nothing can be “revealed” as the truth or the real. To paraphrase
Nietzsche, “We must not believe that the truth remains the truth
when we strip it of its veil”.10
With simulation the sign does not relate to meanings or objects, but
rather to the promotion of signs as signs. The simulacrum is not
part of a representational imaginary that assumed, “… that a sign
could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange
for meaning …”11,
but is rather a space where signs are self-referential “… in an
uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference”.12
Baudrillard’s simulacrum is the pure actuality of representation
(where everything is immanent, hypervisible, and obscene) where the
inside is out and the outside is in. With this invagination there
is no separation of image and world, sign and referent, signifier
and signified, abstract and concrete, or eye and world that would
permit the opening of a critical space and gaze (a window of hope).
There is no longer a scene, the simulacrum is obscene (a
pornographic proximity of things). The simulacrum is not a mask,
conspiracy, sediment, special effect, veil, dream, reflection,
pretence, ideology, code (to be deciphered through cryptology), or
whatever you want to imagine that somehow covers or obscures.
Baudrillard’s non-representational simulacrum (a hyperreal theory of
a hyperreal space) is a challenge to take the actions, the
performances, the doings, of representations seriously. Baudrillard
is not representing, explaining, or merely presenting the world, but
is provoking us to consider the possibility that representations are
For Baudrillard representations are performed, not preformed as a
part of a plan, vision or conspiracy that can be unveiled or exposed
as the ultimate truth or cause. Representations have agency
in-themselves (there is nothing behind them), they are not the
causes or effects of actions, but are actions in their own right.
presidency was an example of a representation having a life of its
Reagan was an obscene simulacrum of power, his popularity had
nothing to do with the real:
No one keeps count of
the mistakes made by the world’s political leaders any more … no one
much minds these now within our present system of simulation of
government and of consensus through indifference. The people no
longer take pride in their leaders and the leaders no longer pride
themselves on their decisions.15
Reagan was elected for
his representation of leadership not for his possession of the
qualities of leadership. The Reagan simulacrum had a magical
In the image of
Reagan, the whole of
America has become
Californian … (though) in reality it is not always sunny in
California. You often get fog with the sun, or smog in Los
Angeles. And yet you retain a sun-filled memory of the place, a
sunny screen memory. That is what the Reagan mirage is like.16
scathing in his criticism of Reagan and the exclusionary logic of
and so is certainly not “Reagan-admiring” as
Harvey contends (a
transparent attempt at guilt by association with conservative
Rather Baudrillard views the presidency of Reagan as evidence that
Foucault’s discourse on power is obsolete because it still attends
to an objective order of the real. With Foucault, “Power … is still
turned toward a reality principle and a very strong truth principle;
it is still oriented toward a possible coherence of politics and
discourse (power no longer pertains to the despotic order of what is
forbidden and of the law, but it still belongs to the objective
order of the real)”.19
For Baudrillard, Foucault’s writings on power do not attend to the
order of simulacra to which Reagan and US power belongs:
Americans are no
keener than anyone else today to think about whether they believe in
the merits of their leaders, or even in the reality of power. …
Governing today means giving acceptable signs of credibility. It is
like advertising and it is the same effect that is achieved –
commitment to a scenario, whether it be a political or an
advertising scenario. Reagan’s is both at once. … leaders must
produce all the signs of the advertising ‘look’. The slightest
failing becomes unpardonable, since the whole nation would be
diminished by it. Even illness can become part of this ‘look’, as
for example with Reagan’s cancer. By contrast, political weakness
or stupidity are of no importance. Image alone counts.20
Reagan and by extension America is a hysteresial or dead power:
an effect that persists and continues to develop by inertia even
when its cause has disappeared: “America has a sort of mythical
power throughout the world, a power based on the advertising image,
which parallels the polarization of advertising images around
Power is a special effect. In other words, Baudrillard appropriates
Jarryesque imagery to assert that the hysteresial US system
functions like the cyclist in the novel Le Surmâle (1945) “…
who has died of exhaustion on the incredible trip across Siberia,
but who carries on pedalling and propelling the Great Machine, his
rigor mortis transformed into motive power”.22
In short, there is nothing behind the representation to be exposed,
rather truly critical or radical thought should turn its attention
to the performativity of the representation itself and its effects
Frankfurt School, to semiology and structuralism, to the ideological
critique of Marxism and political-economy you find a habit of
thought that desires meaning, desires something, and simply cannot
tolerate the idea that there is nothing (no truth, no real) waiting
to be revealed. It is not just Marxists, but also semiologists such
as Charles S. Peirce who have a horror vacui: “A sign
is something by knowing which we know something more”.23
Baudrillard’s radical thought is a critique of the very thesis of
The Matrix, of structuralism (the ideas of Spencer, Durkheim,
Lévi-Strauss, Saussure, Jakobson, Chomsky, Piaget, Barthes, etc.),
of theorists of ideology (structuralists such as Lacan, and
structural-Marxists such as Althusser), and in sum all radical or
critical theory that relies on dualistic styles of thinking such as
image and real or false and true to mount a challenge and critique.
For Baudrillard the simulacrum is immune to these forms of critique.24
Images do not overlay the world but are that which the world lays on
for itself. In other words, a critique should not be concerned with
style, surfaces, appearances, son et lumière rather than
substance, content, and meaning (the so-called “real world”).
Baudrillard is not simply arguing the opposite of a writer such as
complains that “images dominate narrative”25
as a kind of “designer ideology”.26
Rather Baudrillard argues for a way of thinking that is quite
different to that all too common intellectual habit of analysing
images in order to “find” (or manufacture) meaning. In
short, Baudrillard is the non-representational thinker par
And that is why the
recent emergence of non-representational theory27
should be of interest to readers of IJBS. Some
non-representational writers are – knowingly or not – striving to
present the world as a pure simulacrum just as Baudrillard does.
Indeed, the take of Dewsbury et. al. on non-representational
theory reads like a rendition of Baudrillard’s non-representational
theory of the simulacrum because it claims that the world is real
and all there is left to do is to operate it (a kind of technocracy
where there is no illusion):
theory takes representation seriously; representation not as a code
to be broken or as a illusion to be dispelled rather representations
are apprehended as performative in themselves; as doings. The point
here is to redirect attention from the posited meaning
towards the material compositions and conduct of
Baudrillard and non-representational writers such as Dewsbury et.
al. the world is a performative flow of appearances not indexed to
the truth. Both are highly critical of the fixity of the thinking
subject and the remarkably widespread acceptance of representational
thought that has shaped modern thinking. Both are making the same
argument that it is not the meaning, but the performativity of
representations that we need to take seriously.29
And both would agree with the quotations from Deleuze, Lyotard and
“Ecclesiastes” that preface this article. Those quotes indicate
that what we need to attend to is the surface because, as Deleuze
said to Foucault, “Representation no longer exists; there’s only
is a Lecturer in
Human Geography at the University of Leicester in the United
Kingdom. Recent research has been published in the journals
Progress in Human Geography and Environment and Planning
D: Society & Space. He is an editor of IJBS.
The author is grateful
to the two reviewers who read the first draft of this paper and
Gilles Deleuze. The Logic of Sense. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1990:7.
Jean-Francois Lyotard. Driftworks.
Jean Baudrillard. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e),
1983:1. Baudrillard attributes this quote to Ecclesiastes.
However, the quote is a fabrication (see Jean Baudrillard.
Cool Memories III, 1991-95.
Verso, 1997). Editor’s note: In Fragments:
Conversations With François L’Yvonnet.
Routledge, 2004:11, Baudrillard acknowledges this “Borges-like”
In 1981 Baudrillard published the book Simulacres et
Simulation. This was partly translated in 1983 by
Semiotext(e), but did not appear as a full translation until
1994 under the title Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press.
The film The Matrix has generated considerable comment
from philosophers and other academics. See W. Irwin (Ed.) The
Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real
Open Court Publishing Company, 2002; and G. Yeffeth (Ed.),
Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy & Religion in The
BenBella Books, 2003.
See Jonathan Crary et. al., The
New York: Zone Books,
Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm.
Jean Baudrillard. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e),
Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. London: Verso, 1996.
Jean Baudrillard. “The Precession of Simulacra”, in Brian Wallis
and M. Tucker (Eds.), Art after Modernism: Rethinking
Representation. New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art,
London: Verso, 1988:109.
Ibid.:108. See also M. Rogin. Ronald Reagan: The Movie.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
David Harvey. “Postmodern Morality Plays”, Antipode 24
Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault.
London: Verso, 1988:108-109.
See Alfred Jarry. Le Surmâle. Paris: Fasquelle, 1945.
London: Verso, 1988:115.
See R. G. Smith. “Baudrillard’s non-representational theory:
burn the signs and journey without maps”, Environment and
Planning D: Society & Space 21, 2003:67-84.
D. Strinati. An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture.
Non-representational theory is an emerging approach –
predominantly in UK human geography – that has been created by
Nigel Thrift to direct and aid the study of mobile practices and
notions such as performance. The basic argument of Thrift is
that practices and performances, rather than representations,
are at the root of the geographies that humans make everyday.
His approach draws on a range of social theorists who have
developed poststructuralism (e.g. Deleuze), actor-network theory
(e.g. Latour), and theories of practice (e.g. Heidegger).
Thrift does not cite Baudrillard as an influence on his thought,
and in many ways his ideas are different to those of Baudrillard.
Indeed, I have argued that Thrift’s ideas are
anti-representational rather than non-representational (see
Smith, 2003). However, the similarities between Baudrillard’s
ideas and those of non-representational writers such as
Dewsbury, Harrison, Rose and Wylie (2002) is striking. To read
more about non-representational theory see R. G. Smith.
“Baudrillard’s non-representational theory: burn the signs and
journey without maps”, Environment and Planning D: Society &
Space 21, 2003:67-84; N.
Spatial Formations. London: Sage, 1996; N. Thrift. “The
still point: resistance, expressive embodiment and dance”, in
Geographies of Resistance edited by S. Pile and M. Keith.
London: Routledge, 1997:124-151; N. Thrift. “Steps to an Ecology
of Place”, in Human Geography Today. Edited by D. Massey,
J. Allen and P. Sarre. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999:295-322;
N. Thrift. “Performing Cultures in the New Economy”, Annals
of the Association of American Geographers, Volume 90,
Number 4, 2000:674-692; and G.
Rose and N. Thrift (Eds.) Special Issue on Performance and
Performativity (Parts One and Two) Environment and Planning
D: Society & Space, Volume 18, Numbers 4 and 5, 2000.
J. Dewsbury, P. Harrison, M. Rose, and J. Wylie. “Enacting
geographies”. In Geoforum, Volume 33, Number 4, 2002:437-440.
See Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War did not take place.
Sydney: Power Publications, 1995.