Volume 10, Number 1 (January 2013)
A Misreading Gone Too Far? Baudrillard Meets Philip K. Dick
Jorge Martins Rosa
(Department of Communication Sciences, FSCH-Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Lisbon, Portugal)
Say: ‘This is real, the world is real, the world exists (I have met it)’ – no one laughs. Say: ‘This is a simulacrum, you are merely a simulacrum, this war is a simulacrum – everyone bursts out laughing’ (Jean Baudrillard, ( 1996:95).
I. In the Shadow of Baudrillard
The first chapter of one of the most disquieting books by Jean Baudrillard, Le crime parfait [The Perfect Crime], starts by saying that: "Were it not for appearances, the world would be a perfect crime, that is, a crime without a criminal, without a victim and without a motive. And the truth would forever have withdrawn from it and its secret would never be revealed, for want of any clues [traces] being left behind" (Ibid.:1).
Arousing one’s awareness through paradox and a grandiloquent style is usually effective as a strategy – although not necessarily successful in the achievement of its goals. In any case, successful or not, such verbal filigree should not distract us from the gist of the message. “Were it not for appearances”, so goes the text, the world would be void; it would be its own crime. But a crime without a victim and without an offender because neither could be allowed to exist and, even if they could, both would coincide in the same entity. If we are playing with words, why not declare – Baudrillard doesn’t, at least not in that chapter – that crime is not a murder but rather a suicide?
On the other hand, why should it be maintained that there is a crime at all? Baudrillard does not persevere on that hypothesis – the whole book would be accomplished in that paragraph, and after all one cannot put up for sale such a short argument [this would be, however, the only way to be coherent with what is stated in the introduction: “If the crime were perfect, this book would have to be perfect, too, since it claims to be the reconstruction of the crime”. The book’s perfection would be accomplished by not having existed at all!]. Ironies apart, we may settle on the fact that Baudrillard’s boutades are not ends in themselves; they have a purpose, which is to account for a “disappearance of reality”, an assertion that stands – as it becomes clear as the book unfolds, just like a crime novel – on very precise historical and social grounds.
Let us then commit the heresy of going directly to the solution of that crime novel (provided that is not an excuse for not reading it thoroughly) and reveal that the key-clue is hidden in the expression “Were it not for appearances”. Appearance, states Baudrillard, is what remains after reality is taken away. Appearance is also what remains – like all criminal evidences – as a sign of what has been taken away. However, now we have nothing left but those signs, the fossils of reality, which means that in Le crime parfait Baudrillard must accept (with uneasiness, even anxiety) the fate that appearance must be saved, as there may be nothing else left: “The great philosophical question used to be ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ Today, the real question is: ‘Why is there nothing rather than something?’” (ibid.: 2).
Instead of pondering on that loss and the subsequent enthronization of appearance, we may focus on the fact that Baudrillard’s discourse also has about it a history of its own, a history that begins long before Le crime parfait. In L’échange symbolique et la mort [Symbolic Exchange and Death ( 1993)], Baudrillard articulates the “skeleton” of his most renowned concept, the simulacrum:
There are three orders of simulacra, running parallel to the successive mutations of the law of value since the Renaissance: The counterfeit is the dominant schema in the ‘classical’ period, from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution. Production is the dominant schema in the industrial era. Simulation is the dominant schema in the current code-governed phase. The first order simulacrum operates on the natural law of value, the second-order simulacrum on the market law of value, and the third order simulacrum on the structural law of value (Baudrillard  1993: 50).
Drawing from his former expansion of Marxist theory in Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe [For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign], Baudrillard’s “orders of simulacra” match the categories of value outlined in that book. To each period in History, a dominant form of value: before the Industrial Revolution, (natural) usage value and the corresponding mode of the “counterfeit”; along with that revolution, exchange (or market) value and the mode of “production”; and finally, in “post-industrial” societies, sign-value (or structural value) and the “simulacrum” in the proper, strict sense. Each epoch possesses, then, its own way of falsifying reality, and needs to cope with a different concern. At first, with Renaissance, discriminating what is real from what is counterfeit:
The modern sign then finds its value as the simulacrum of a ‘nature’. This problematic of the ‘natural’ and the metaphysics of reality was, for the bourgeoisie since the Renaissance, the mirror of both the bourgeois and the classical sign. … It is with the Renaissance, then, that the forgery is born along with the natural, ranging from the deceptive finery on people’s backs to the prosthetic fork, from the stucco interiors to Baroque theatrical scenery.” (ibid.: 51)
Nature is, however, still the arch-referent that warrants the ontological primacy to “Reality”. With the Industrial Revolution, the ascendancy of exchange value – the ability to reduce everything to that common denominator that is money – replaces faith in Nature by a new faith in production (and in serial reproduction). What matters (and what has a market value) is now the utilitarian achievement of a goal, not the plain (and useless) imitation of an appearance. Needless to say, the automaton gives way to the robot:
A world separates these two artificial beings. One is the theatrical, mechanical and clockwork counterfeit of man where the technique is to submit everything to analogy […]. The other is dominated by a technical principle where the machine has the upper-hand, and where, with the machine, equivalence is established. […] as for the robot, as its name implies, it works; end of the theatre, beginning of human mechanics (ibid.:53).
A faith in Reality remains, nevertheless: first order simulacra want to imitate every object to the minutest detail, disregarding its usage value; second order simulacra want to reproduce only its relevant features, i. e., its functionality. But, as mass production «inflates» reality, a third order arises, dismissing the former as a butterfly discards its chrysalis. Or, in a Marxist and Hegelian fashion, each period carried the seeds of its own demise:
[…] the stage of serial reproduction […] is ephemeral. As soon as dead labour gains the upper hand over living labour (that is to say, since the end of primitive accumulation), serial production gives way to generation through models. In this case it is a matter of a reversal of origin and end, since all forms change from the moment that they are no longer mechanically reproduced, but conceived according to their very reproducibility […]. We are dealing with third-order simulacra here (ibid.:56).
These third order simulacra are then the true simulacra in the strict and proper sense. Their rise and triumphal enthronement was, according to Baudrillard, irresistible. In other words, the swift and uncontainable reproduction of «Reality» has imploded it to a (formerly unthinkable) subsidiary status: given that the new simulacra are something generated by a model, by an algorithm or code, a new kind of reality – hyperreality, in Baudrillard’s wording – emerges and takes over. The realm of information, i. e., of the immaterial, is now the source of materiality itself, no longer its imperfect copy. Authenticity, formerly a crucial issue, is now obsolete.
II. The Fatal Connections: Baudrillard meets Dick. Or did he really?
Between L’échange symbolique et la mort and Le crime parfait, Baudrillard explored exhaustively all corollaries of that conceptual framework, which was articulated in its most renowned form in 1981, in Simulacres et simulation [Simulacra and Simulation]. Almost every essay he has published in the 80s and in the early 90s may thus be considered a footnote or case study that corroborates that framework – and for that matter, even Simulacres et simulation lacks the true originality one can find in L’échange symbolique…. This, of course, does not mean that his position remained unchanging throughout that period; however, slight nuances were the rule until the more substantial revision performed in Le crime parfait.
But we should not rush. Although there are no deep theoretical innovations between 1976 and 1981, we must take a closer look at Simulacres et simulation before proceeding to Le crime parfait. A peculiar (but noticeable) detail makes its appearance in the former book: there, Baudrillard acknowledges that a science fiction author had not only already reflected on simulacra but had also used that very same word on some of his novels. That author is none other than Philip K. Dick.
Dick is quoted four times in Simulacres et simulation, although in two of those instances – in the original French edition – improperly referred as «K. Philip Dick», a peculiar mistake that casts the suspicion, as we will argue in a moment, of a hasty and superficial reading of his novels, a reading that may have resulted from a recommendation by someone that had a deeper acquaintance with Dick’s material and had noticed the similarities between those sceneries and the concept proposed by the French sociologist in L’échange symbolique….
It is useful to look closely at each of the four occurrences. The first, in the chapter “L’effet Beaubourg: implosion et dissuasion” [“The Beaubourg Effect: Implosion and Deterrence”], is momentary, but leaves the reader in the expectation that there may be more to come:
An experimentation with all the different processes of representation: defraction [sic; it should be read ‘diffraction’], implosion, slow motion, aleatory representation – a bit like at the Exploratorium in San Francisco or in the novels of Philip K. Dick – in short a culture of simulation and of fascination, and not always [sic; ‘anymore’ is more faithful to the original] one of production and meaning […] (Baudrillard  1994:65).
A few pages further, in a chapter about the advertising industry, that expectation is confirmed with a reference to The Simulacra, the most obvious choice to illustrate the homonymous concept. It seems however that Baudrillard mistakenly took the papoola, a Martian creature (or its simulacrum!) for the annoying Nitz commercials – even though they both have, in the novel, a similar function of persuading the incautious. This is, in the original edition, also one of the instances where Dick’s name is incorrect:
…the anticipatory illustration of this transformation was Philip K. Dick’s papula [sic] – that transistorized advertising implant, a sort of broadcasting leech, an electronic parasite that attached itself to the body and that is very hard to get rid of. But the papula is still an intermediary form; it is already a kind of incorporated prosthesis, but it still incessantly repeats advertising messages (ibid.: 89).
Another revealing mistake occurs in the chapter appetizingly entitled “Simulacres et science-fiction”. The whole segment evokes We can Build You, but Baudrillard, without a reasonable explanation, attributes that plot to The Simulacra:
Perhaps science fiction from the cybernetic and hyperreal era can only exhaust itself, in its artificial resurrection of ‘historical’ worlds, can only try to reconstruct in vitro, down to the smallest details, the perimeters of a prior world, the events, the people, the ideologies of the past, emptied of meaning, of their original process, but hallucinatory with retrospective truth. Thus in Simulacra by Philip K. Dick, the war of Secession [sic]. Gigantic hologram in three dimensions, in which fiction will never again be a mirror held toward the future, but a desperate re-hallucination of the past (ibid.:123).
A few pages after, the last and lengthiest appreciation of Philip K. Dick’s novels, but again an inversion of his name:
Where would the works be that would meet, here and now, this situational inversion, this situational reversion? Obviously the short stories [sic; maybe ‘short novels’] of Philip K. Dick ‘gravitate’ in this space, if one can use that word (but that is precisely what one can’t really do anymore, because this new universe is ‘anti-gravitational’, or if it still gravitates, it is around the hole of the real, around the hole of the imaginary). One does not see an alternative cosmos, a cosmic folklore or exoticism, or a galactic prowess there – one is from the start in a total simulation, without origin, immanent, without a past, without a future, a diffusion of all coordinates (mental, temporal, spatial, signaletic) – it is not about a parallel universe, a double universe, or even a possible universe – neither possible, impossible, neither real nor unreal: hyperreal – it is a universe of simulation, which is something else altogether. And not because Dick speaks specifically of simulacra – science fiction has always done so, but it played on the double, on doubling and redoubling, either artificial or imaginary, whereas here the double has disappeared, there is no longer a double, one is always already in the other world, which is no longer another, without a mirror, a projection, or a utopia that can reflect it – simulation is insuperable, unsurpassable, dull and flat, without exteriority – we will no longer even pass through to ‘the other side of mirror’, that was still the golden age of transcendence (ibid.:124-125).
This is clearly the most relevant reference to Philip K. Dick, the one where the connection between his novels and Baudrillard’s concept of simulacrum is more fully developed. By that time – we cross the information between the articles by Daniel Fondanèche and Roger Bozzetto for Science Fiction Studies (Number 45) with Bibliothèque Nationale’s online database – the most significant novels of Philip K. Dick published to date had been translated to French (e. g., Now Wait for Last Year, Counter-Clock World, Dr. Bloodmoney, The Man in the High Castle, Ubik, The Simulacra, Solar Lottery), but Baudrillard’s references to his work amount only (regardless of the misattribution spotted above) to The Simulacra and We can Build You – something which is even more perplexing if we take into account the fact that other novels, such as Ubik and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, could have served has finer illustrations for his expression “the hole of the real” (“trou du reel”, in the original). It seems that someone did not do his homework properly.
III. Baudrillard and Dick: A Pact of Lucidity?
No matter what may be said of this somewhat sloppy reading, the pertinence of finding a link between Dick’s novels and the Baudrillardian concepts of «simulacrum» and «hyperreal» remains. And, as a corollary, the pertinence of Philip K. Dick as an interpreter of our contemporary condition. Whereas Dick – as has been repeatedly noted – taking shelter on being an Science Fiction writer, even if meddling with some of the genre’s protocols, rejects the naïvely realist conceptions of «Reality» while insinuating that the grounds to our experience (particularly our present experience) may be nothing but an inter-subjective agreement – and we are lucky if such an agreement, the koinos kosmos, is achieved at all! – Baudrillard focuses on the depiction of that collapse as a dialectic process. In Philip K. Dick’s novels, the explanation of the phenomenon oscillates between psychological and/or ontological grounds. For Baudrillard – at least the Baudrillard that has written L’échange symbolique… and Simulacres et simulation – the roots are sociological and historical: “Reality” is not a void, it became a void as a consequence of that slow development from the faking of reality to reality as a fake.
Hence the three orders – or periods – of the simulacra. At first the attempt to falsify what exists; then the reproduction of a functionality; and finally, when barely nothing is left to emulate from the original reality, the generation of a new one from models where all combinatory possibilities are explored – even if later filtered by an artificial selection. The map becomes the territory, as there is no territory left to be mapped. Maybe the most canonical illustration of the pinnacle of this process is (perhaps to force the average undergraduate student to read a little beyond the first chapter of Simulacres et simulation) Disneyland. Taking the risk of repeating for the thousandth time the passage where that example is given, here’s how Baudrillard describes it:
Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America that is Disneyland (a bit like prisons are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and to the order of simulation (ibid., 12)
Just like Disneyland, Baudrillard continues, everything else: “is neither true nor false: it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp” (ibid.: 13). There is a simple reason for our preference for that particular example: Philip K. Dick also mentioned Disneyland in his essay “How to Build a Universe that doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days later”. Right at the beginning, we may read:
First, before I begin to bore you with the usual sort of things science fiction writers say in speeches, let me bring you official greetings from Disneyland. I consider myself a spokesperson for Disneyland because I live just a few miles from it – and, as if that were not enough, I once had the honor of being interviewed there by Paris TV. [...] We also discussed Watergate, but we did that on the deck of Captain Hook’s pirate ship (Dick, in Sutin (ed.), 1989:259).
Not an auspicious start, in spite of the allusion to Watergate. But Disneyland returns later in the essay, and in that second occasion the ontological repercussions are unambiguously stated:
Fake realities will create fake humans. Or, fake humans will generate fake realities and then sell them to other humans, turning them, eventually, into forgeries of themselves. So we wind up with fake humans inventing fake realities and then peddling them to other fake humans. It is just a very large version of Disneyland. You can have the Pirate Ride or the Lincoln Simulacrum or Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride – you can have all of them, but none is true (ibid.: 263-264).
The similarity between what Philip K. Dick affirms in this essay and the concept of “simulacrum” as stated in Simulacres et simulation, published less than half a decade later, is striking. Such a coincidence may, of course, be devalued by the mystical context that was omnipresent in everything that Dick wrote after 1974. In that very same essay, Disneyland also appears under a theological – if not apocalyptical – framework. First as a counterpoint to the desired rationality:
I know perfectly well that the date is 1978 and that Jimmy Carter is president and that I live in Santa Ana, California, in the United States. I even know how to get from my apartment to Disneyland, a fact I can’t seem to forget. And surely no Disneyland existed back at the time of St. Paul. So if I force myself to be very rational and reasonable, […] I must admit that the existence of Disneyland (which I know is real) proves that we are not living in Judaea in a. d. 50. The idea of St. Paul whirling around in the giant teacups while composing First Corinthians, as Paris TV films him with a telephoto lens – that just can’t be. St. Paul would never go near Disneyland. Only children, tourists, and visiting Soviet high officials ever go to Disneyland. Saints do not.” (ibid., 270).
Then, closing the essay, to concede that, after all, we may be living in an artificial reality that is bound to be exposed (by God?) as a fake:
Perhaps time is not only speeding up; perhaps, in addition, it is going to end. And if it does, the rides at Disneyland are never going to be the same again. Because when time ends, the birds and hippos and lions and deer at Disneyland will no longer be simulations, and, for the first time, a real bird will sing.” (ibid.: 279-280).
Even when we are not reading one of his novels, Dick’s proposals appear as much more radical than Baudrillard’s notion of the simulacra, at least when compared with what the French author states in L’échange symbolique et la mort and in Simulacres et simulation. In those books, the dialectical grounds for his theory also allow for an interpretation according to which there could have been some kind of “Golden Age” before the dawn of the simulacra (i. e., before the Industrial Revolution, if not before the Renaissance), when “Reality” had still the chance to be “real”. The whole structure of his theory would in this case be, in a good old-fashioned way, “epochal”, even if the dialectic rule of thumb states that contradiction, the seed of change, has to be already presupposed in the original “thesis”. Dick’s assumptions for his approach diverge, particularly as he assumed the “theological” interpretation that shaped is later works: while maintaining that the threading of fake realities may be a human and therefore political act (cf. the posthumous Radio Free Albemuth), he suspects that, apart from that one and divinely endorsed “Reality” that awaits to be unveiled – which is the proper meaning of the word “apocalypse” – all other, no matter how they came to be, may be fakes. Either there was a time when “Reality” could be trusted – and, if so, we need desperately to be rescued from the Black Iron Prison that leads us to believe “we are not living in Judaea in A. D. 50” and prevents us from getting in touch with the “real birds” – or fakery is all we can count with. The former option leads to some form of “expectation”, the latter to that active form of nihilism that stands out in some earlier novels, particularly those written in the sixties (cf. The Three Stigmata…, Ubik or A Maze of Death), in which characters must keep on coping with what they perceive to be the reality even if already overwhelmed by mistrust about their own perceptions.
Baudrillard’s concept of simulacrum is then, or was by the time Simulacres et simulation was published, a pale version of the audacity – not to say insanity – we can find in Dick. A clearer picture of the differences between Baudrillard and Dick can be seen by looking at the distinct framing of their (at first sight similar) stances towards technology (Cf. Eric S. Rabkin, 1988). To Dick, more technology means more and better ways to produce “fake fakes” – androids, drugs, coldpacs, etc. – and thus less “Reality”. Until some kind of redemption restores it, aided or not by technology. To Baudrillard, who absorbed McLuhan’s peculiar interpretation of techno-determinism (even if only to tear it from the inside), the role of technology – particularly when it becomes a “logo-technology” ruled by the supremacy of code – can only be to move us further away from any chance to bring back “Reality”. Nevertheless, a refusal or some kind of subversion of technology may still be at our reach, just like, in Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe, the true gift was something that, given its gratuity, defeated the semio-economic value-system – or Mai 68’s writings on the wall, that were then, for Baudrillard, the sole alternatives to the logic of the mass media.
In Le crime parfait, however, Baudrillard’s cynicism overcomes not only his previous position but also Dick’s (who at least was at times hopeful of a divine intervention). The book authorizes two slightly different interpretations. According to the “weaker” one – which is also the most compatible with his other, earlier, works – we may now be at the dawn of a fourth order of simulacra: no longer committed to the need to produce reality, the production of appearances would suffice to these newest simulacra. Yet, according to the “stronger” one, the whole book may be read as a denial of everything he had previously stated, a renunciation to the residue of optimism entailed by the belief in a “Reality” preceding – at least ontologically, if not chronologically – all simulacra. Halfway between these two interpretations – in medio stat virtus, after all, no matter how much a book as Le crime parfait seems to evade any definite reading – the possibility of there having been a “Reality” (or a “reality effect”, in his words), but only for a short while:
Reality and the real world will have lasted only for a certain time, then. Just as long as it took for our species to pass them through the filter of the material abstraction of the code and calculation. Having been real for a while, the world was not destined to remain so for long. It will have taken only a few centuries to traverse the orbit of the real, and be very rapidly lost beyond it.
In purely physical terms, we may say that the reality effect exists only in a system of relative speed and continuity. In slower societies – primitive ones, for example – reality does not exist; it does not ‘crystallize’, for want of a sufficient critical mass. […] In societies which are over-rapid, like our own, the reality effect becomes hazy: acceleration brings a jostling of causes and effects, linearity gets lost in turbulence, and reality, in its relative continuity, no longer has time to happen. (Baudrillard, 1995: 45).
No matter how we read him, a trace of historicism remains. But that is now a minor detail when confronted with the new “ontoloclasty” that, perhaps unintentionally, surpasses all Dickian reveries. Reminding us again of McLuhan, technology is the key:
The key concept of this Virtuality is High Definition. That of the image, but also of time (Real time), of music (High fidelity), of sex (pornography), of thought (Artificial Intelligence), of language (digital languages), of the body (the genetic code and the genome). Everywhere, High Definition marks the transition – beyond any natural determination – to an operational formula [...] the transition to a world where referential substance is becoming increasingly rare (ibid.:29-30).
Though passages like this still evoke the constellation of Baudrillard’s books that orbit Simulacres et simulation, we must note the fundamental difference that pervades Le crime parfait: in the latter, the fact that there may be no “Reality” outside the one that is technically produced is no longer a misfortune to cry upon, but rather something unavoidable that merely needs to be acknowledged:
We labour under the illusion that it is the real we lack the most, but actually, reality is at its height. By our technical exploits, we have reached such a degree of reality and objectivity that we might even speak of an excess of reality, which leaves us far more anxious and disconcerted than the lack of it. That we could at least make up for with utopianism and imagination, whereas there is neither compensation for – nor any alternative to – the excess of reality (ibid.: 64).
In L’échange symbolique… and Simulacres…, the advent of the hyperreal was something to grieve over. In Le crime parfait, the confrontation between real and hyperreal is no longer an issue, as if Baudrillard is conceding, at last, that both coincide, after all, and there is nothing we can do about it. Can someone end up being more “Dickian” than Dick himself, who still believed in “fake fakes”?
It is not, then, the real which is the opposite of simulation – the real is merely a particular case of that simulation – but illusion. And there is no crisis of reality. Far from it. There will always be more reality, because it is produced and reproduced by simulation, and is itself merely a model of simulation. The proliferation of reality, its spreading like an animal species whose natural predators have been eliminated, is our true catastrophe (ibid.:16).
Note: This paper first appeared in Science Fiction Studies Number 104 (Volume 35, 1), February-March, 2008: http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/104/Rosa104.htm
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Philip K. Dick (1995). “How to Build a Universe that doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later”. In Lawrence Sutin (Editor), The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings. New York: Vintage Books: 259-280.
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