A simulacrum (plural: simulacra from Latin: simulacrum, which means "likeness, similarity") is a representation or imitation of a person or thing. The word was first recorded in the English language in the late 16th century, used to describe a representation, such as a statue or a painting, especially of a god. By the late 19th century, it had gathered a secondary association of inferiority: an image without the substance or qualities of the original. Philosopher Fredric Jameson offers photorealism as an example of artistic simulacrum, where a painting is sometimes created by copying a photograph that is itself a copy of the real. Other art forms that play with simulacra include trompe-l'œil, pop art, Italian neorealism, and French New Wave.
The simulacrum has long been of interest to philosophers. In his Sophist, Plato speaks of two kinds of image making. The first is a faithful reproduction, attempted to copy precisely the original. The second is intentionally distorted in order to make the copy appear correct to viewers. He gives the example of Greek statuary, which was crafted larger on the top than on the bottom so that viewers on the ground would see it correctly. If they could view it in scale, they would realize it was malformed. This example from the visual arts serves as a metaphor for the philosophical arts and the tendency of some philosophers to distort truth so that it appears accurate unless viewed from the proper angle. Nietzsche addresses the concept of simulacrum (but does not use the term) in the Twilight of the Idols, suggesting that most philosophers, by ignoring the reliable input of their senses and resorting to the constructs of language and reason, arrive at a distorted copy of reality.
Postmodernist French social theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right: the hyperreal. Where Plato saw two types of representation—faithful and intentionally distorted (simulacrum)—Baudrillard sees four: (1) basic reflection of reality; (2) perversion of reality; (3) pretence of reality (where there is no model); and (4) simulacrum, which "bears no relation to any reality whatsoever". In Baudrillard's concept, like Nietzsche's, simulacra are perceived as negative, but another modern philosopher who addressed the topic, Gilles Deleuze, takes a different view, seeing simulacra as the avenue by which an accepted ideal or "privileged position" could be "challenged and overturned". Deleuze defines simulacra as "those systems in which different relates to different by means of difference itself. What is essential is that we find in these systems no prior identity, no internal resemblance".
Alain Badiou, in speaking with reference to Nazism about Evil, writes, "fidelity to a simulacrum, unlike fidelity to an event, regulates its break with the situation not by the universality of the void, but by the closed particularity of an abstract set ... (the 'Germans' or the 'Aryans')".
Recreational simulacra include reenactments of historical events or replicas of landmarks, such as Colonial Williamsburg and the Eiffel Tower, and constructions of fictional or cultural ideas, such as Fantasyland at The Walt Disney Company's Magic Kingdom. The various Disney parks have by some philosophers been regarded as the ultimate recreational simulacra, with Baudrillard noting that Walt Disney World Resort is a copy of a copy, "a simulacrum to the second power". In 1975, Italian author Umberto Eco argued that at Disney's parks, "we not only enjoy a perfect imitation, we also enjoy the conviction that imitation has reached its apex and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it". This is for some an ongoing concern. Examining the impact of Disney's simulacrum of national parks, Disney's Wilderness Lodge, environmentalist Jennifer Cypher and anthropologist Eric Higgs expressed worry that "the boundary between artificiality and reality will become so thin that the artificial will become the centre of moral value". Eco also refers to commentary on watching sports as sports to the power of three, or sports cubed. First, there are the players who participate in the sport (the real), then the onlookers merely witnessing it, and finally the commentary on the act of witnessing the sport. Visual artist Paul McCarthy has created entire installations based on Pirates of the Caribbean and theme park simulacra, with videos playing inside the installation.
An interesting example of simulacrum is caricature. When an artist produces a line drawing that closely approximates the facial features of a real person, the subject of the sketch cannot be easily identified by a random observer; it can be taken for a likeness of any individual. However, a caricaturist exaggerates prominent facial features, and a viewer will pick up on these features and be able to identify the subject, even though the caricature bears far less actual resemblance to the subject.
Beer (1999: p. 11) employs the term "simulacrum" to denote the formation of a sign or iconographic image, whether iconic or aniconic, in the landscape or greater field of Thangka art and Tantric Buddhist iconography. For example, an iconographic representation of a cloud formation sheltering a deity in a thanka or covering the auspice of a sacred mountain in the natural environment may be discerned as a simulacrum of an "auspicious canopy" (Sanskrit: Chhatra) of the Ashtamangala. Perceptions of religious imagery in natural phenomena approach a cultural universal and may be proffered as evidence of the natural creative spiritual engagement of the experienced environment endemic to the human psychology.
The Latinised plural simulacra is interchangeable with the anglicised version simulacrums.
- Jean Baudrillard
- Gilles Deleuze
- Generation loss
- Internet meme
- Simulacra and Simulation
- Simulated reality
- Uncanny valley
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