Volume 2, Number 1
Lights, Camera, Action: Baudrillard and the Performance of Representations1
Richard G. Smith
(Department of Geography, University of Leicester, United Kingdom)
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
Written 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 famous5 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 and real.
Much of 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 “truth”:
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
The “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).
The “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 worldwide conspiracy.
The point 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.
III. …to Non-Representational Theory and the Performativity of Representations
The 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 the world.13 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.
The Reagan presidency was an example of a representation having a life of its own.14 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 anodyne affect:
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
Baudrillard is scathing in his criticism of Reagan and the exclusionary logic of the simulacrum17 and so is certainly not “Reagan-admiring” as Harvey contends (a transparent attempt at guilt by association with conservative Republican politics)18. 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
For Baudrillard, 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 Reagan”.21 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 and consequences.
From the 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 Harvey who 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 excellence.
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):
Non-representational 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 representations.28
For both 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 action”.30
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.
1 The author is grateful to the two reviewers who read the first draft of this paper and suggested modifications.
2 Gilles Deleuze. The Logic of Sense. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990:7.
3 Jean-Francois Lyotard. Driftworks. New York: Semiotext(e), 1984:9.
4 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. London: Verso, 1997). Editor’s note: In Fragments: Conversations With François L’Yvonnet. New York: Routledge, 2004:11, Baudrillard acknowledges this “Borges-like” fabrication.
Baudrillard was recently listed by the New Statesman as
one of the twelve great thinkers of our time. See J Cowley (Ed.)
“12 great thinkers of our time”, New Statesman Magazine,
14 July, 2003:20-37.
6 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.
7 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 Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company, 2002; and G. Yeffeth (Ed.), Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy & Religion in The Matrix. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2003.
9 See Jonathan Crary et. al., The Contemporary City. New York: Zone Books, 1986:189.
10 Jean Baudrillard. Paroxysm. London: Verso, 1998:116.
11 Jean Baudrillard. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983:10.
13 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. London: Verso, 1996.
14 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, 253-281.
15 Jean Baudrillard. America. London: Verso, 1988:109.
16 Ibid.:108. See also M. Rogin. Ronald Reagan: The Movie. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
18 David Harvey. “Postmodern Morality Plays”, Antipode 24 (4), 1992:316.
19 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Foucault. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987:12.
20 Jean Baudrillard. America. London: Verso, 1988:108-109.
22 See Alfred Jarry. Le Surmâle. Paris: Fasquelle, 1945. and Jean Baudrillard, America. London: Verso, 1988:115.
24 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.
26 D. Strinati. An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture. London: Routledge, 1995.
27 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. Thrift. 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.
28 J. Dewsbury, P. Harrison, M. Rose, and J. Wylie. “Enacting geographies”. In Geoforum, Volume 33, Number 4, 2002:437-440.
29 See Jean Baudrillard. The Gulf War did not take place. Sydney: Power Publications, 1995.
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2005)