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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 2, Number 2 (July 2005)

“Phantom Objectivity”: Selection From Digital Matters: Theory and Culture of the Matrix1

Dr. Jan L. Harris
(The Institute for Social Research, University of Salford, Greater Manchester, UK).


Dr. Paul Taylor
(Institute of Communications Studies, Leeds University, UK).

I. Introduction

We are familiar with the parodic, palinodic event, the event Marx analysed when he depicted Napoleon III as a grotesque stand-in for Napoleon I. In this second event – a debased avatar of the original – a form of dilution, of historical entropy set in. History presented itself as though it were advancing and continuing, whereas it was actually being undone. The current period offers numerous examples of this debased, extenuated form of the primary events of modernity. Ghost-events, espensterereignisse – cloned events, farcical events, phantom events – a little bit like phantom limbs, those phantom extremities which hurt even when they are no longer there. Spectrality – of communism in particular.2


        Both Marxs critique in Das Kapital of the commodity’s “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”, and Benjamins unfinished opus The Arcades Project3, in which he sought to develop this vision of the commodity through an exploration of the phantasmagorical nature of commodities in nineteenth-century Paris, provide embryonic descriptions of this growing domination of social reality by second-order images and forms. Marx and Benjamin provide early descriptions of the growth in phantasmic commodity forms and their role in the confusion of the boundaries between the internal psychological world of the individual and their external social environment.  We suggest that Baudrillard’s poor reputation amongst a certain body of censorious academics perhaps stems from their unease with the concerted nature of the effort he makes to engage with this confusion in its more mature and advanced contemporary forms. In this paper we continue the theme encountered in "Baudrillard Bytes" relating to the increasing ontological confusion between the inside and outside of our imaginations manufactured within the social matrix . We take from Georg Lukács the notions of phantom objectivity and reification to go directly to the heart of the manner in which digital technology reconfigures the abstract and the material in an unprecedentedly complex amalgam. To Lukács we add the work of additional theorists such as Georg Simmel and Niklas Luhmann to reintroduce Baudrillard’s interpretation of the hyperreal.

II. Phantom Objectivity

man in capitalist society confronts a reality made by himself (as a class) which appears to him to be a natural phenomenon alien to himself: he is wholly at the mercy of its laws, his activity is confined to the exploitation of the inexorable fulfilment of certain individual laws for his own (egotistic) interests. But even while acting he remains, in the nature of the case, the object and the not the subject of events. The field of his activity thus becomes wholly internalised: it consists on the one hand of the awareness of the laws which he uses and, on the other, of his awareness of his inner reactions to the course taken by events.4


            Early in his essay, “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat”, Lukács identifies as a crucial question: how far is commodity exchange together with its structural consequences able to influence the total outer and inner life of society?” 5 – a problematic that Simmel's work shows to be accentuated by the complex interplay between subjectivity and environment that characterizes the development of a metropolitan sensibility. Lukács identifies the dialectic of reification in which the “individual” under capitalism confronts an “external” reality that increasingly objectifies the nature of their thought processes. Lukács, however, is not interested in the concept of reification for its own sake but rather as a means of apprehending the social processes that result in a situation whereby the true relation between people is refracted through an accretion of objects and processes, to quote:

The essence of commodity structure has often been pointed out. Its basis is that a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a phantom objectivity, an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.6


            In this light, it is interesting to compare Lukács perspective with that of Georg Simmel. The latter also explores the interplay the commodity structure” and “modernity” (e.g. his discussion of the hyper-individuation of the blasé type). These two elements, one apparently internal and the other external, are increasingly imbricated and provide one of the first instances of the apparent paradox of the im/material that lies at the heart of digital matters and which is physically manifested in the city. It is in the city that the phantom objectivity of the commodity form manages to assume both external physical shapes but also an invasive immaterial presence in the mind of the nascent consumer – the phantasmagoria of “dream objects” (as Benjamin described them). The mobile privatisation engendered by the city reflects Simmels observation that increasingly the individuals experience becomes one where forms are fluid. A major element of Simmels thinking can thus be seen as an exploration of  Marx and Engels famous image that, as a consequence of the ubiquitous spread of the commodity form, under capital “all that is solid melts into air” and a prefiguring of Morse (1998) and Baumans (2000) later emphasis upon the liquidity of the contemporary experience.7 As Simmel puts it:

The essence of modernity as such is pyschologism, the experiencing and interpretation of the world in terms of the reactions of our inner life and indeed as an inner world, the dissolution of fixed contents in the fluid element of the soul, from which all that is substantive is filtered and whose forms are merely forms of motion.8


            For Simmel, the internalization of the monetary economy results in a non-local “psychologism, the world as a solute dissolved in the flows of commodity takes on the fluid of the mind and, in turn, the world reflects this fluidity. The urban experience consists of a paradoxical and disorientating situation whereby the repeated experience of reality in fluid form gives such fluidity more apparent substance than the previously grounded reality more fluid perception has now largely superseded. Like Marx and Lukács who emphasize phantom objectivity, Simmel speaks of the “spectral” and, as Frisby argues, his work “is located within the context of a permanent and accelerating opposition between subjective and objective culture”9 precisely the juncture that we believe to be the locus of the emergence of the im/material as discussed in Baudrillard Bytes. Simmels Über sociale Differenzierung of 1890 argues that “the increased externalisation of life that has come about, with regard to the preponderance that the technical side of life has obtained over its inner side, over its personal values”,10 a sentiment that recalls the positions of Ellul and Heidegger. But, whilst Heidegger and Ellul's work is couched in rather philosophical terms, Simmel and his fellow commentators, in addressing modernitys social elements, flesh out what it means to live out the implications of these philosophical changes. Of particular relevance to our examination of digital matters is Frisbys succinct summary of the central effect of a pervasive sense of fluidity (which recalls the previous citation of Ballards description of the realignment of the external and internal worlds in "Baudrillard Bytes"). Frisby asserts: The external world becomes part of our inner world. In turn, the substantive element of the external world is reduced to a ceaseless flux and its fleeting, fragmentary and contradictory moments are all incorporated into our inner life”.11 In other words, unbeknownst to us, humanity has created an all-pervasive socio-technical assemblage that redefines our own conditions of subjectivity.  Ellul’s la téchnique is not simply a matter of an external rationalized system, but a redefinition of the nature of inner life: the training of the sensorium that the city-machine induces operates at the affective level. This blurring of the boundaries between inner and outer environments leads to a situation in which the reproductive process no longer require an initial model, grounded in the real, instead the objects and commodities of the external world begin more and more to be determined and to reflect the needs and desires of the subject. In this manner the category of the object becomes further divorced from the material process of its own production.

            This transformation in the nature of the object is borne out in various ways by various thinkers. Thus, in The Philosophy of Money,12 Simmels sociological analysis of objects and our relationship to them, like that of Heidegger, grants a privileged position to the artist/craftsperson and prefigures the work of later theorists such as Baudrillard, who as we have seen from "Baudrillard Bytes", provides practical examples in his System of Objects (1996) of the otherwise abstract descriptions of technological change in the letting be” of furniture. For both Simmel and Baudrillard, the example of furniture illustrates how these processes make themselves physically apparent in the bland functionalism of objects designed with an a priori sense of their position relative to background systems of style and fashion. This argument can perhaps best be illustrated by contrasting flat-pack furniture with inherited family furniture. The former is both bought within a functionality-led warehouse system of codes and catalogues and then placed in the home in a modular manner that is highly adaptable to new fashions or later additions from the same or similar furniture ranges. The basic physicality and appearance of such furniture, from its colours to the material it is made from, are subordinate to its systemic qualities it holds in relation to the overarching systems of fashion and the furniture companys total product range. This constrasts sharply with the case of furniture traditionally handed down between generations, the physical appearance of which is imbued with the patina, marks and associations of the familys history, and its basic material of wood is more likely to have particular qualities worthy of attention in its own right.

            Simmels analysis emphasizes the way in which these traditional, practical, or emotional values of objects are all thrown into the melting pot of exchange-value which, despite its inherently changeable flux-driven nature, becomes a paradoxically unifying and stabilizing force. Despite its immaterial nature it assumes qualities of substance. In Simmels perspective, which prefigures Baudrillards later privileging of the symbolic exchange typical of non-technological “primitive societies” over the exclusively commodified exchange of capitalist society, the blurring of the inside/outside distinction stems from the crucial role the abstract nature of the capitalist exchange system plays in colonizing, in a form of cultural extinction, the traditional life-world that preceded capitalism and replacing it with an enframed matrix of pre-packaged, commodified alternatives.

III. The Economic Origins Of Cyberspace       

            The historical process of the recasting of the subject and object within the context of urban centres results in a reconfiguration of space, one in which the distinction between the inner and the outer, consciousness and commodity reaches a new threshold. We have seen how this process may be treated in terms of a dialectic of reification, in which capital acts as a solvent that puts into suspension previously distinct capital. Lukács spoke of this process and of the crucial role that technology played within it when he declared that “man”:

is a mechanical part incorporated into a mechanical system. He finds it already pre-existing and self-sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or nota process mechanically conforming to fixed laws and enacted independently of mans consciousness and impervious to human intervention, i.e. a perfectly closed system, must likewise transform the basic categories of mans immediate attitude to the world: it reduces space and time to a common denominator and degrades time to the dimension of space.13


            In this manner, his work prefigures both Heideggers distinction between authentic craft and challenged-forth objects/processes and Elluls notion of la téchnique. More relevant still for digital matters is the way in which Lukács’s  focus upon the circumscribing and calculative nature of capitalist laws of production serves to identify a key point in the formation of cyberspace. Thus, building on Marx, Lukács identifies the same quantity/quality relationship explored by Benjamin and consistently emphasised in McLuhans thought. Lukács describes how:

Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everythingThus time sheds its qualitative, variable, flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable things (the reified, mechanically objectified performance of the worker, wholly separated from his total human personality): in short, it becomes space.14


            This is very similar to Benjamins assertion of the symbiotic relationship that exists between the matrix and the mass: The mass is a matrix from which all traditional behavior toward works of art issues today in a new form. Quantity has been transmuted into quality”.15 This is a vital point. It both shows how digital technologies share this common root with these early analyses of capitalism. Digital technologies represent a further technologically-mediated speeding up where qualitative change results from quantitative increases. This marks the same fundamental creation of qualitative differences from quantitative change that Benjamin, Lukács et. al., identified as a key social aspect of industrialised mechanical processes. In the digital, despite the dominance of the phrase cyberspace, space is actually less important than the speed and the social flux it causes: “The principal factors in media impact on existing social forms are acceleration and disruption. Today the acceleration tends to be total, and thus ends space as the main factor in social arrangements”.16 The fact that it is space that is still the nominal focus of the Matrix despite digitalitys undermining of it, is in keeping with McLuhans concept that we tend to emphasize a feature of our understanding just as it is being made increasingly irrelevant by the newly dominant technology:

Just before an airplane breaks the sound barrier, sound waves become visible on the wings of the plane. The sudden visibility of sound just as sound ends is an apt instance of that great pattern of being that reveals new and opposite forms just as the earlier forms reach their peak performance”.17


The digital represents a radical departure to the extent that it converges previous technologies and dramatically increases their speed of output still more and with further qualitative consequences.

            In analysing 20th Century history, Lukács argued that the essential focus needs to be upon the commodity form and its central role in the structures of the subsequently capitalist society that is built around that commodity form: “The commodity can only be understood in its undistorted essence when it becomes the universal category of society as a whole”.18 Lash, however, suggests that the digital information age may have superseded this category. Commodities, themselves have become subordinate to their prior status as informational flows: “the spread and ubiquity of the information and communication networks cannot be reduced to commodification”.19 and “it may no longer be commodification that is driving informationalization, but instead informationalization that is driving commodification”.20 It is interesting to note in this context that the cyberpunk novelist William Gibsons latest work, Pattern Recognition illustrates how his previous fascination with information flows has evolved à la Lash into the informationalization of the commodification process.21 To the extent that it is premised upon, not uncovering and curing our deepest neuroses and complexes, but rather discovering them in order to massage them and exploit them for commercial gain, the culture industry has been described as psychoanalysis in reverse. For Gibson, this psychoanalysis-in-reverse uses information to effect the process as effectively and subtly as possible.  As one of his characters, the head of a cutting-edge advertising agency puts it: “I want to make the public aware of something they dont quite yet know that they know – or have them feel that way. Because theyll move on that, do you understand? Theyll think they thought of it first. Its about transferring information, but at the same time about a certain lack of specificity”.22 In the digital, what matters is not an objects essential qualities but its position within a set of relations.

            This set of relations has evolved from Marxs notion of exchange-value. For Marx, exchange-value was a distortion of use-value; now, the separation of use-value from a particular object is taken further. The alienation associated with the production of goods for an abstract market beyond the immediate needs of the goods producer (exchange-value) is transformed into the informational processing of those needs themselves. Lashs analysis highlights the central issue repeatedly encountered in McLuhans work (and later in Baudrillards in the form of reversibility) whereby quantitative increases pushed to their limit produce qualitative change. Likewise, Lukács points out that the basis of the qualitative change from use-value to exchange-value is the quantitative increase in supply and this is mirrored in the cultural sphere with Benjamins analysis of the social effects of the mechanical reproduction of photographic images: the quantitative increase in their output leads to a qualitative change in their mode of reception. In Lashs analysis digital technology represents a further qualitative change whereby the old use-value/exchange-value dualism is replaced by a new, “immanentist” logic: “It explodes and partly marginalizes the exchange-value/use-value couple”.23 This new logic is about rapid circulation rather than time for reflection, it is about “all at onceness rather than temporal depth. Lash and Baudrillard argue that with digital matters exchange-value has morphed into a yet stranger form. Thus we appear to arrive at another threshold. Although cyberspace may have its origins in the transformation of space and commodity, in the digital we arrive at a new scenario in which flows of information appear to take precedence over flows of commodities. Information appears to subsume all previous flows and determines the distribution and direction of these flows and it is to Niklas Luhmann's characterization of this new matrix that we now turn.

IV. Luhmanns Autopoietic Matrix

the technology of dissemination plays the same kind of role as that played by the medium of money in the differentiation of the economy: it merely constitutes a medium which makes formations of form possible. These formations in turn, unlike the medium itself, constitute the communicative operations which enable the differentiation and operational closure of the system.24


            Like a number of media theorists before him, Luhmann focuses upon mechanical reproduction as a key development in human communication to the extent that it provides the key to way in which the contemporary media operates: “it is the mechanical manufacture of a product as the bearer of communicationwhich has led to the differentiation of a particular system of the mass media”.25 Luhmanns theory places the emergence of mechanical reproduction within a unique vision of society and communication, one that is anti-humanist and radically constructivist.  Luhmanns complex systems theory provides a crucial insight into how information has emerged as crucial component of the contemporary matrix. The specific relevance of Luhmanns theory for our purposes is its deterministic account of the contribution made by media technologies to the blurring process between representations and reality. This is a major attribute of the media, of which digitality is for Luhmann, like Kittler, but an extended and literal example of the coding that exists in other media forms. And like Kittler, Luhmann approaches society as an information processing system. However, whereas Kittler emphasizes the crucial importance of media technologies, that is to say the nature and evolution of hardware itself, which he views the primum mobile of network transmodulations, Luhmanns approach is systemic. Society, individuals, and the messages that they produce are seen in terms of an evolving system which, through an ongoing process of differentiation and subsequent stabilization, adapts and evolves.

            Drawing upon a range of theoretical perspectives (including that of the Frankfurt School whose influence on our own account is crucial), Luhmann develops an account of society that places communication and increasingly communication technology at its centre. Like Kittler, his basic model is that of information theory, and posits the existence of a sender, message and recipient. The senders message is not guaranteed to be correctly received by its recipient, since it is subject to the destabilizing presence of noise and the possibility that its recipient will interpret its noise as its signal and vice versa. Thus communication must evolve in such a way as to exclude the possibility of misinterpretation, and media are a means to ensure this process. However, innovations in media in turn introduce further instabilities or occasions for noise and misinterpretation, and so the process is one of constant negotiation or adaptation. In this manner Luhmann places systemic formation via differentiation at the heart of his media theory. Systems (and for Luhmann this term would encompass both society and the individual) are processes of differentiation that establish and maintain dynamic boundaries with their environments; thus, they differentiate themselves from events and operations that cannot be integrated into their internal structures. To describe this process, and the entities that result from it, Luhmann adopts the term autopoiesis (derived from the biological theory of Valera and Mantura).26 Autopoiesis refers to a system that maintains its boundaries through a process of compensating for the external perturbations to which they are subject. Thus, any stability they possess is entirely dynamic, and their coherence is the result of their continual differentiation. When society and individuals are approached in terms of autopoiesis, media emerge both as agents of destabilization and elements of coherence. What Luhmanns theory does is to grant priority to this differentiation, such that its apparent terms must always be related back to the differential process through which they are constituted. This position results in a profound reflexivity: through media representation, a system can observe itself via the distinction between the system and its environment through which it has differentially determined itself. In other words, the systems own representations of itself become terms in its ongoing disparation:

the concept of society has to be defined not by an idealized state with compensatory functions but by a boundary, that is, by a boundary-drawing operation. Such an operation produces the difference between the system and its environment and thereby produces the possibility of observing the system, that is, the distinction between the system and its environment. This distinction can re-enter the system, it can be copied in the system and then allows for the stability of the system, for referential oscillation between observations, respectively indicating external and internal states and events.27 


            For Luhmann then, the environment external to the media system generates McLuhanite frictions with the system itself, but these are still dealt with by the system according to its self-generated values which Luhmann describes as “condensates of meaning” so that “topics, and objects emerge as ‘Eigenvalues of the system of mass media communication, [which] are generated in the recursive context of the systems operations and do not depend upon the environments confirmation of them”.28 This has important implications for our discussion of the complex interplay between internal and external worlds within advanced capitalism and its phantasmagorical commodity forms.

            According to Luhmann: “in the systems perception, the distinction between the world as it is and the world as it is observed becomes blurred”.29 Luhmann argues that this is a systemic condition, that is to say that it is not that individuals or collectivities mistake representation for the real, but rather that representation has become an irreducible component of the world, an operator in its ongoing auto-differentiation: “in the operationally current present world as it is and the world as it is being observed cannot be distinguished”.30 Thus, social evolution for Luhmann takes place “on the basis of very specific evolutionary achievements, such as the invention of coins”.31 Inventions of this kind create over time a differentiated system so that, with coins for example, a whole economic system is differentially produced. The inherently deterministic element of the process stems from the fact that an artefact has the ability to create: “a productive differentiationwhich, in favourable conditions, leads to the emergence of systems to which the rest of society can only adapt”.32 Despite the prevalence of such misleading terms as “interactivity”, according to Luhmann, the mass media only functions on the basis of the effective operational exclusion of its audience. In terms of the other writers we encounter in Digital Matters, this ability to create a differentiated system based upon the exclusion of non-systemic, humane concerns, can be understood as the basis of la téchnique (Ellul), the institutionalization of withdrawal from withdrawal (Heidegger), the synchronicity of a Network (Kittler) etc.

            Again, as for Benjamin et. al., this process of exclusion begins with the way in which mechanical reproduction creates an increase in quantitative output that leads to a qualitatively new experience of reception. For example, in terms reminiscent of those Baudrillard33 uses to describe the nature of the fatal masses, Luhmann describes how the printing press creates a volume of output that by its very nature excludes direct oral participation amongst its consumers who: “make their presence felt at most in quantitative terms: through sales figures, through listener or viewer ratings, but not as a counteractive audience. The quantum of their presence can be described and interpreted, but is not fed back via communication”.34 Luhmann accepts that verbal commentary by individuals can of course be made, but the point he emphasizes is that such direct feedback is not essential to the functioning of these operational observations: “This is how, in the sphere of the mass media, an autopoietic, self-reproducing system is able to emerge which no longer requires the mediation of interaction among those co-present”.35 This is the basis for the important concept of operational closure.

            A definition of the hyperreal as the generation of models without origins in reality is here manifested in a system that: “reproduces its own operations out of itself”.36 This is a crucial development because it represents the medias independence from external reality where it: “is instead oriented to the systems own distinction between self-reference and other-reference”.37 The link between such a type of operationally closed system and digital technologies is the way in which the system both defines itself against the external environment and processes its own operations: “this typically occurs by means of a binary code which fixes a positive and a negative value whilst excluding any third possibility”.38 There is the further irony that, although premised upon a prodigious capability for memory, this system is designed to both remember and forget quickly. It is the flows of information and differentiations made by the system that are privileged and we now look at depictions of those differentiations and flows in the work of Baudrillard.

V. Baudrillard And The Hyperreal

If we were able to take as the finest allegory of simulation the Borges tale where the cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory (but where the decline of the Empire sees this map become frayed and finally ruined, a few shreds still discernible in the deserts[)]then this fable has come full circle for usAbstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territoryit is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.39


             Out of the many tropes and figures that Baudrillard has proffered over the years, we will concentrate on one in particular,  the hyperreal, since this term best encapsulates the insidious effect of the logic of enframement and systemic totality that we seek to emphasise within Digital Matters. Before we consider the various orders of the hyperreal that Baudrillard has identified, it is necessary to establish some of the conceptual assumptions that underpin his use of this term, and to place these within the context of the ideas we have explored to this point. Baudrillard is concerned with the gradual occultation of the real by what he terms “simulation” – a condition we have already touched upon in our discussion of the gradual commodification of space and subjectivity in the transformation of the urban experience throughout the twentieth century. Baudrillard argues that our contemporary condition is that of the precession of the simulacra. We might consider in this light his retelling of Borges tale quoted above, in which the desire for a perfect cartography results in the production of a map that eclipses the terrain. According to Baudrillard our current situation is even more surreal. The map does not simply occlude the territory: it has become autonomous. It has been uncoupled from a referent, any necessary relation to a real that precedes it, and this is the order of simulation or the hyperreal. The copy or simulation precedes the real. The terrain formerly known as the real, is emptied out, desiccated by the proliferation of representation, it is a desert because it is no longer the site of the life, which is ensnared in simulation, as in the world outside the Matrix that Morpheus reveals to Neo.

            For Baudrillard this condition is inseparable from the proliferation of media technologies, what now passes for “the real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models –  and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times”.40 This condition is to be understood in terms of a liberation of signs from their signifieds: simulation begins “with the liquidation of all referentials”. Relieved from their designatory office and transferred to digital matrices, signs run in an endless loop. Thus Baudrillard posits a history of the sign and image as representation in terms of successive phases that culminate in this so-called precession of simulacra, the image begins as the reflection of a basic reality; it becomes a mask or perversion of this reality, in time (as that reality withers) it comes to mask the absence of reality, and finally; “it bears no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum”.41

a) The orders of the simulacra

            Baudrillard identifies four major stages or orders of simulacra in the revolution of our perceptions of social reality as it proceeds to the space of pure simulation. These are: 1) Renaissance perspective and the trompe loeil; 2) Industrial production and the mechanical reproduction of the image; 3) The advent of the hyperreal; and 4) The fractal. By way of illustration we might say that in the first stage, perspectival paintings portray in an abstract, mathematical form a physical reality beyond their canvas, whilst in the second, photography produces similar, yet even more mathematically accurate images through a mechanical and chemical process. These first two stages, although aiming at producing independent representations, are still premised to varying degrees upon an external reality, which these productions refer or represent. In contrast, the hyperreal and fractal orders are distinguished by the way in which media content increasingly has no external origin: the source of its representations are internally generated. We can see this process with the evolution of the photographic image into the infinitely manipulable digital image. As he is not bound by Kittlers stricture with respect to the impossibility of analysing a contemporary network, for Baudrillard this internal generation of models stems from la téchnique reaching a new order of autonomy. The digital translation of external phenomenon into binary 1s and 0s facilitates an enframed order, which, once operational, to a significant degree no longer “needs” reference to an external reality. Before there are mechanical copies, a representational work of art privileges the notion of an “original”, perspective retains a close link between the observer of scene or object and the representation of that scene (à la Benjamins analysis of aura). With the advent of photography in the second order of simulacra, the strength of the bond between reality and its representations is undermined: the quantitative increase in the number of reproduced images begins to imply a qualitative change in human perception of representations. There emerges a realm of images that is at least partially independent of a prior reality that yielded up those images. The third and fourth orders of simulacra describe the process of this independent realms gradually uncoupling from the real.

b) Renaissance perspective, the trompe loeil and the origins of hyperreality

            The sign and the image are both understood in Baudrillards theory as originally representational terms that have become increasingly divorced from this function. For Baudrillard their initial function can be grasped through a consideration of the culture of the Renaissance. Here the sign is marked by its constancy; thus, dress as signifying system is not the site of play “there is no such thing as fashion in a society of cast and rankone is assigned a place irrevocablyAn interdiction protects the signs and assures them total clarity; each signrefers unequivocally to a status”.42  As is well known, the Renaissance marked the development of perspective and its essentially illusionary representation of reality that portrays three-dimensional space upon the two-dimensional plane of either paper or canvas, an illusory space that attains its fullest expression in the trompe loeil of the Baroque. This portrayal of figures in three-dimensional space provides the initial premise for the subsequent development of autonomous space in its own right, as ultimately embodied in the technologies of virtual reality and computer imaging. The key feature of the representational forms of the Renaissance and Baroque for Baudrillards schema rests on the fact that, even with the trompe loeils deception of the eye, there is a clear sense of the difference between the representation and the reality from which it is derived. Simulation is here understood in terms of a counterfeit, analogy or theatre of representation.

c) Industrial production and mechanical reproduction

            Baudrillard focuses upon the difference between the orders of simulation as well as the crucial role of technics in their transformation by juxtaposing the concept of the automaton with the machine. The automaton partakes of the economy of analogy or the counterfeit; it mirrors the functions of the living organism, but in a manner that emphasizes the distance or distinction between them (hence its role in philosophical debate in the seventeenth century). The machine is of another order; it breaks with a play of representation by establishing a functional equivalence. Rather than a mirror of man in toto, it extracts and replicates an abstract function, establishing “an immanent logic of the operational principle”.43 Thus Marxs analysis of the machine as fixed capital describes it in terms of the exaltation of dead work over living labour. It is work that is reproduced or simulated. The machine is in essence marked by simulation, and it inaugurates an economy of simulation. This is precisely Baudrillards redefinition of the Industrial Revolution. It is the occasion of mass (re)production of signs and objects, and this resides not in its promethean liberation of natural and mechanical forces, but in its economy of equivalence. Humans and machines become equivalent, individuals as “force of work become equivalent and interchangeable”, and “objects become undefined simulacra one of the other”.44

            Thus for Baudrillard the significance of the analyses of Benjamin and later McLuhan is their lucid recognition of the true nature of industrialized capitalism. By making reproduction the locus of industrial culture, Benjamin apprehends the importance “of what Marx negligently called the nonessential sectors of capital”,45  namely the role of media and later information technologies. Rather than mere super-structural effects, mechanical reproduction reveals technology as media or simulation “as form and principle of a whole new generation of sense”.46 And, since technology represents the crucial operator in the realization of industrial capitalism, then the latter must be understood as a process of mediatization, of the progressive simulation of the entire social body. Thus, “Benjamin and McLuhan saw more clearly than Marx the true message: the true ultimatum was in reproduction itself.47 Reproduction or rather mediatization – that is the endless productions of copies without an original – was the hidden logic of industrialization and the analyses of Benjamin and McLuhan are situated on [the] limit of reproduction and simulation, at the point where referential reason disappears, and where production is no longer sure of itself”.48 In other words, we now inhabit the culmination of the processes first described by Benjamin: the hyperreal.

d) The hyperreal

            The passage from mechanical reproduction to full-blown simulation or the hyperreal can again be related to a transformation of the technological matrix. Hyperreality, by which Baudrillard means the absolute triumph of the copy without original, the concept of objects and their environments that are more real than the real itself, is an illuminating addition to the concept of withdrawal. It is the result of the replacement of mechanical reproduction by digital or informatic simulation.  Sontag analyses the way in which photography tends to transform reality into a tautology, a statement that signals the distance that has been travelled from Benjamins analysis of reproduction.49 Reproduction is no longer a death or extirpation of aura, but the impossibility of conceiving of aura; hyperreality is the ruin of the concept of originality. Warhols serial canvases and prints (of soup cans, Marilyn Monroe, car crashes etc.) enact this transition. Here reproducibility does not fall upon an original and replicate it sans aura, instead it is implicit in the artwork from its inception. This is at once the fulfilment of the revolutionary potential Benjamin glimpsed in reproducibility (in other words the long-cherished avant-garde dream of the delivering the aesthetic from the canonized work so that it could transform life itself) and its negation: “art enters into its indefinite reproduction: [but] all that reduplicates itself, even if it be the everyday and banal reality, falls by the token under the sign of art, and becomes esthetic”.50 In world of pure artifice everything becomes art, and so arts specificity or challenge is diffused: “art and industry can exchange their signs. Art can become a reproducing machine…”.51 One can see here how close the analyses of Benjamin and Baudrillard relating to technological reproduction are, but with Baudrillard's concept of the fractal suggests negative cultural consequences unconsidered by Benjamin.

e) The fractal

            We have seen how the ultimate basis of the hyperreal lies in the process of abstraction begun by the act of perspective where the physical gives way to increasingly pure forms of representation. Mechanical reproduction thus merely exacerbates a process of abstraction begun with perspective, and hyperreality is a further development of the same process whereby representation is liberated by its dramatic growth to create a new perceptual space no longer closely tied to original sources. The decline in importance of authenticity and originality leads to a rise in a new realm of media and a wholesale recreation of the concept of context. The fractal is the fourth order of this simulacral process that Baudrillard uses to conceptualize the further qualitative changes that have occurred to perceptual experience as a result of the evolution from the mechanical reproduction of images and communication to their digital generation.

            The hyperreal is inseparable from a transformation of technology and in particular the emergence of information technology. Here, Baudrillards analysis is particularly incisive, in that it identified in the early 1980s a number of trends that have only become fully realised in the new century. Baudrillard places the question of digitality, code or information at the centre of hyperreality: “The real is producedfrom matrices, memory banksand with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times”.52 When information is digital or digitized, there is no difference between one copy and an infinite number of copies; this for Baudrillard is the ultimate state of simulation, an endless proliferation of reproducibility based on information technology. Baudrillard sees this in terms of a fractaline multiverse of code and data: from the information of system of DNA to the structures of the built environment, “the matrix remains binary”,53 and more and more aspects of the social environment participate in this multiverse and reflect a general economy of informatic replication that with its unchecked spread has taken the previous notion of urban disorientation to a new level. Baudrillard refers to this disorientation in terms of cancerous metastases, viral infections and fractal dispersions.

VI.  The Danger Of The Hyperreal

            Baudrillard's interpretation of the hyperreal helps to clarify Heideggers ambiguous notion of the danger and his argument that an apparently essential quality of technology is its deeply alienating effects upon human agency. Baudrillard's descriptions of the cultural manifestations of the hyperreal put useful flesh on the philosophical bones of Heideggers notion of the “withdrawal of withdrawal”.  In "Baudrillard Bytes" we have previously seen that he means not simply the withdrawal of Being in presence of technology but the forgetting of Being in this presence. In other words, technologys danger is the way its effects are insidious and/or unacknowledged. Mirroring the essential torsion of Being that is predicated upon disclosure and withdrawal from immediate explicit qualities of physicality, the technological being-in-the-world of the matrix similarly involves both the full disclosure of the physical artefacts we interact with and the much more indeterminate, immaterial mental processes and broader conceptual and technological frameworks that lie behind such overt physicality. The technological object is replete with and presupposes the sedimented meanings of the underlying values of the society that produced it.

            The crucial difference between Being and being in the matrix is thus that, whilst in the former ambiguity and withdrawal are an inherent part of the existential condition, in the matrix they are lacking. An authentic physical object is always both less and more than a complete self-contained entity. The basis of its existence is its opposition to the greater reality of which it can only ever be but a small and incomplete part. At the same time, it is also more than it appears to be. As part of Being an object partakes of the existential analytics inherent torsion between past, present and future – its present explicit state also includes implicit qualities derived from its non-explicit past and future. In contrast, technological objects prodced by the matrix fulfil a predetermined role in the standing-reserve from which they are challenged-forth. They play a precise, unambiguous role in the enframement of Being of which they are one small, exactly replicated part. Their most fundamental relationship is not to Being but to the standardizing matrix from which they derive their meaning. The crucial feature of hyperreal phenomena is this way in which they are freed from their dependence upon an original reference point in Being, against which they can be assessed for authenticity. This freedom from dependence upon the Being of reality is embraced. “Withdrawal from withdrawal” is instantiated in a hypostasized matrix: Baudrillard's models without an original.

            We began this paper by addressing the concept of reification as it presented by Lukács et. al., and claimed it is a useful notion with which to understand better the transformation of identity, space and object in the changing urban landscape of the 20th Century. However, contemporary conditions introduce a new problematic in the form of the flows of information, described by thinkers such as Lash and Bauman. In order to offer some sense of how information and its dissemination could have come to assume such a critical role in an economy that had formerly had as its locus the manufactured object (e.g. the “dream objects” of Benjamins Arcades), we turned to bodies of theory, which offer something of a genealogy of information. Thus, in Luhmanns system theory, we encounter a model of society as an “autopoietic” process of differentiation and complexification whose nature is irretrievably altered by the appearance of information technology as at once a product of the ongoing differentiation of society and as term that stimulates further differentiation. In contrast to the evolutionary dynamic of Luhmanns theory, Baudrillards provided us with a “fatal” or nilhilistic vision of society, in which information became the final term in the triumph of simulation, a concept that owes something to Heideggers notion of the danger of forgetting the disclosure of Being in conditions of enframement.

VII. Conclusion: Obscenity Or Why The Digital Matters

            Hyperreality, the symptom of the hypostasized matrix, is marked by the “oversimulation” of the real; the verisimilitude of the copy is of such exactitude that it negates the original. Baudrillard often deploys pornography as a trope for this brutality of overrepresentation, what Baudrillard calls the obscene. His use of the latter term is not in the usual moral or pejorative sense. Instead, it is an appeal to the etymology of the ob-scene – as that which is literally off the scene or stage: that which is not shown. The hyperreal is obscene because it shows everything, the stage no longer exists as reality implodes into first the mechanical and then the digital reproductions that supercede it. Again this is not an appeal for the preservation of modesty, what is sacrificed to the obscene is seduction, understood as a play of signifiers that at once reveals and conceals. A disproportionate amount of the romantic pleasure to be had from human relationships is the ambiguous and indeterminate nature of the likely responses to an amorous advance. Physical desire is kindled and stoked in the stylistic mores of courtship; it is sublimated into a ritualized process of indeterminate/ambiguous advance and retreat/withdrawal of which the eventual physical possession is but the eventual climax.

            The erotic is seductive because it both shows and hides. What is shown is charged with that what is concealed or withdrawn. Seducitve modes of participation are extinguished by technology. The medias technological intrusion promotes the explicit at the expense of the ambiguous. What is on display contains within it an implicit dimension, it is this non-present presence that constitutes its seduction and Baudrillards version of withdrawal that dies under the invasive penetration of the digital binary. Pornography is the end product of lenses that provide more physical details to the viewer of the sex act than are immediately available to its direct participants. Pornography exemplifies the obscenity of the hyperreal and technology's role in the withdrawal from withdrawal. Its display exceeds ordinary presence and so banishes seduction. In pornographys:

...anatomical zoom, the dimension of the real is abolished, the distance implied by the gaze gives way to an instantaneous, exacerbated representation, that of sex in its pure state, stripped not just of all seduction, but of the images very potentiality. Sex so close that it merges with its own representation”.54


This coalescence of act and representation is a direct consequence of technology: pornography is “a voyeurism of exactitudethat can only be revealed by a sophisticated technical apparatus”.55 From this perspective the ubiquity of pornography in more and more previously mainstream cultural fields is the cultural epiphenomenon of a deeply rooted socio-technical process we have explored in terms of digital matters and its complex imbrication of the material and the immaterial: the im/material. We have delved deeply into these roots and so it is to the surface-level cultural theme of social pornography – the widespread dissemination of the obscene.

            In both this paper and "Baudrillard Bytes", Baudrillard's work has frequently been discussed in terms of its development of the implications of Walter Benjamin’s “Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. Whilst there is much to enjoy in Benjamin's essay, his optimistic affirmations of the cultural consequences of technologies of reproduction fit rather uneasily with the logic of his own analysis. Unfounded optimism, as we pointed out in "Baudrilard Bytes", is not an accusation that easily sticks to Baudrillard. His refusal to water down the pessimistic conclusions of his central argument, is one of the reasons his work is both challenging and off-putting to academics with a Panglossian bent. This is unusual amongst theorists of the relationship between society and technology. For example, rather like plucking a rabbit out of a hat, towards the end of the Question Concerning Technology, even as dark a theorist as Heidegger succumbed to the temptation to see a “saving power” within technology’s enframing reach. Similarly, in his “Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Benjamin saw mechanical reproduction saving the masses and producing unprecedented levels of social empowerment. We conclude, by way of contrast, with Baudrillard's response to the thought that culture can save us and ask the reader to appreciate the all-encompassing socio-technical and im/material nature of the contemporary matrix Baudrillard describes, a hint of which we hope has been seen in our portrayal of why the digital matters:

It is culture that clones us, and mental cloning anticipates any biological cloning. It is the matrix of acquired traits that, today, clones us culturally under the sign of the monothought – and it is all the innate difference that are annulled, inexorably, by ideas by ways of life, by the cultural context. Through school systems, media, culture, and mass information, singular beings become identical copies of one another. It is this kind of cloning – social cloning, the industrial reproduction of things and people – that makes possible the biological conception of the genome and of genetic cloning, which only further sanctions the cloning of human conduct and human cognition.56


Jan L. Harris
is interested in
the intersection of continental philosophy, culture, and technology. Recent publications include (coauthored with Paul Taylor) Digital Matters. New York: Routledge, forthcoming 2005.

Paul A. Taylor is a senior lecturer in communications theory at the Institute of Communication Studies, University of Leeds. His research interests focus upon digital culture and critical theories of mass culture. His recent work includes (with Tim Jordan), Hacktivism & Cyberwars: Rebels with a Cause? New York: Routledge, 2004.


1 “Phantom Objectivity” and “Baudrillard Bytes” appear here as extended and significantly amended excerpts from Digital Matters: Theory and Culture of the Matrix. Forthcoming: Routledge, November 2005. See also “Baudrillard Bytes” in this issue. In Phantom Objectivity the analysis is more tightly focussed upon Baudrillard's specific concept of the hyperreal and the role other writers can play in aiding our deeper understanding of this notion.

2 Jean Baudrillard. “Paroxysm: The End of the Millennium or the Countdown.” Economy and Society 26/4. November 1997: 447-455. http://www.egs.edu/faculty/baudrillard/baudrillard-the-end-of-the-millennium-or-the-countdown.html

3 Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project (1927-1940). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 1999. Translated by H. Eiland and K. McLaughlin.

4 G. Lukács. “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat” (c 1922), in History and Class Consciousness, London: Merlin Press, 1968:135.

5 Ibid.:84.

6 Ibid.:83 (our emphasis).

7 See M. Morse. Virtualities: television, media art, and cyberculture, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1968; and Z. Bauman. Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity, 2000.

8 Simmel cited in D. Frisby. Fragments of Modernity: theories of modernity in the work of Simmel, Kracauer and Benjamin, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986: 38.

9 Ibid.:41.

10 Ibid.:42.

11 Ibid.:46.

12 Georg Simmel. The Philosophy of Money (c1907). London: Routledge. 2001.

13 G. Lukács. “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat” (c 1922), in History and Class Consciousness, London: Merlin Press, 1968:89. (Our emphasis).

14 Ibid.:90.

15 Walter Benjamin. “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” (c 1935) in H. Arendt (Ed.) Illuminations. Translated by H. Zohn, London: Fontana, 1973:241.

16 M. McLuhan. Understanding Media (c 1964). London: Routledge, 1995:94.

17 Ibid.:12.

18 G. Lukács. “Reification and the consciousness of the proletariat” (c 1922), in History and Class Consciousness, London: Merlin Press, 1968:86.

19 Scott Lash. Critique of Information, London: Sage, 2002: viii.

20 Ibid.: 3.

21 W. Gibson.  Pattern Recognition, London: Penguin, 2003.

22 Ibid.:63.

23 Scott Lash. Critique of Information, London: Sage, 2002:9.

24 N. Luhmann. The Reality of the Mass Media.  Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000:2.

25 Ibid.

26 For a detailed discussion of these theories see Katherine Hayles. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual bodies In Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. (Ed). 

27 N. Luhmann, N. “Globalization or world society: how to conceive of modern society”, International Review of Sociology, 7(1), 1997: 75. 

28 Ibid.:37.

29 N. Luhmann. The Reality of the Mass Media.  Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000:11.

30 Ibid.:11.

31 Ibid.:15

32 Ibid.

33 Jean Baudrillard. Revenge of the Crystal: Selected Writings on the Modern Object and its Destiny. London: Pluto Press, 1990.


34 N. Luhmann. The Reality of the Mass Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000:16.

35 Ibid.:16.

36 Ibid.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 Jean Baudrillard Simulations.  New York, NY: Semiotext(e), 1983:2. Emphasis in original.


40 Ibid.:3.

41 Ibid.:11

42 Ibid.:83

43 Ibid.:95.

44 Ibid.:97

45 Ibid.:99.

46 Ibid.

47 Ibid.:100 (Emphasis in original).

48 Ibid.:102.

49 Susan Sontag. On Photography, London: Penguin, 1979.

50 Jean Baudrillard Simulations.  New York, NY: Semiotext(e), 1983:151.

51 Ibid.:151.

52 Ibid.:3

53 Ibid.:134.

54 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. New York/London: Semiotext(e)/Pluto, 1990: 29.

55 Ibid.:45.

56 Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:25.


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