Jean Baudrillard

Cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard wrote: “Abstraction 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 hyper-real which is henceforth sheltered from the imaginary, and from any distinction between the real and the imaginary, leaving room only for the orbital recurrence of models and the simulated generation of difference.”

Artists work in semiotics now, trading in signs for things, rather than representing nature. Or they create hyper-realities that are simulations of things that never actually existed to begin with. This leads some pessimism, “marked by the loss of an organic relationship between experience and the representation of that experience.”

But there’s another person from which we can question why the natural world, or an authentic and pre-existing original, carries so much value.

We do not necessarily revere the painter who can most realistically represent an image; instead, we often value the deliberate or stylistic deviations from realism. That is where the artistry resides. Even with photography or image re-presentation, we look for the compositional or content choices made by the artist, rather than the perfect reproduction of reality. With re-presented images or readymade objects, artists find a way to offer personal expressions or cultural critiques through mediation, or recontextualizing a commonplace object. In video games, visual representation and sounds are secondary; these are elements from traditional media that are less relevant to video games than interactive systems, the differentiating aspect of the medium. It’s through the interactive systems–as related to the player’s agency–that we see the artistry in video games.

If we take this same line of thinking and we factor out the less valued, less characteristic aspects of human existence, treating it as a medium, we can distill it down to what is most germane, most sublimely unique…our emotional and intellectual responses, and our connections to one another.

The unorthodox question that follows is this: Might we be able to better experience, better appreciate these things in a fully simulated space? Again, if we ask why the real world should carry so much value, and we determine that the aspects of human existence that matter most are not related to the constraints of the real world, but to our intellectual and emotional responses, then we might agree that simulated reality is actually a better environment in which to be human.

Further, the nature of the real world is arbitrary; it’s the condition into which we’re born. Much of our experience with the real or natural world is about physical constraints, environmental vulnerability or resource scarcity. We share those things with animals and plants. Our emotional, intellectual and social capacity make us human; those are elements unique to humanity.

We might, paradoxically, have a truer experience swimming together through simulacra; an experience almost exclusively focused on the things that make us human, on the things that separate us from bacteria, shrubs or insects.

I don’t subscribe to this view, but it is not necessarily true that Baudrillard’s theories lead a pessimistic conclusion.

5 thoughts on “Jean Baudrillard

  1. Baudrillard didn’t seem to think this was pessimistic. In some ways, he seemed to romantically lament the receding distance of the “real” in relation to the simulacra of reference metaphors referencing metaphors. In others, he seemed to be accepting the passing of a period of human sense-making into another, in the sense of mono-no-aware, or aesthetic witnessing of the fluidity of meaning and the passing of beautiful constructs, be they natural or artificial. I will never forget his response to one of my fellow students when she asked if he had anything to say to those of us who never had a real as referent (in the Platonic or Kantian sense), those of us who have been cobbling together pieces into temporarily sufficient realities. His response as terse as it was beautiful, “maybe not.”

    Thank you for a great talk today at GDC. I believe this is relevant to your material. Very good work you fellows are doing!

  2. I have this feeling that representation hasn’t been too high on the list for thousands of years, in the tradition of story telling for example. In fact, the whole point of the bardic tradition in my cultures history was that they had the power to replace reality! We’re talking 2000 years ago here, people feared story tellers because of the power their stories had to take over their life, how people saw them, and curse them by the inbuilt power of their stories. I also feel that his idea of the “desert of the real” is a consequence of making the world into something that just runs simulations, bulldozing reality for movie sets. But that bulldozing is not as complete as he thinks, we can’t totally ignore the plumbing underlying our reality as environmental issues show.

    So anyway I have my issues with Baudrillard, but I’m not here to say he sucks, there’s a lot of value in his ideas, what I wanted to mention here was the way you can build truth back into simulations. Add a complimentary view:

    Basically, focusing on the uniquely human is only possible if we can abstract out everything else, but the world doesn’t let us do that. Changing circumstances and our own actions bust our abstractions and force us to re-engage with the non-human world, with the structure of reality, and if we have only the tools of story creation, we will suck at it. One feature that interactive media has is the ability to confront people with a situation that is inhuman and weird, but enable them to make a story from it. In other words instead of making human value from fragments of other representations, internal cultural borrowing of the iconic, we can make them from the way rocks fall, or bears protect territory, or the way markets shift. By making games based on mechanics from the real world we observe and bending them into the game, mixing them with human stuff and then leaving the rest of that job to the player, the player can expand their familiarity with the non-symbolic world.

    Basically, take real problematic dynamics we don’t yet have a handle on, systemize them into games, mix them with more conventional plot to introduce them to people, and get people working with them and being creative. In this way you increase the reality of their experience of the world, because they can now recognise those previously backround inhuman dynamics and make a bit of sense of them.

    That can form revolutionary umph as well, if people start building off those patterns that are being rejected and start hacking the superstructure of our culture.

  3. Ha, I should have read your post before this one! That synthesis of the systemic and non-systemic is exactly what I was talking about, so long as we leave a little bit of join the dots to the player. The reason for that should be obvious, we don’t have to only work with synthesises we fully understand, if we are willing for players to glitch and exploit their way through our stories, subverting them via emergent effects, then maybe they can teach us a little bit about the human effects of different systems.

  4. Pingback: On Simulation, Science, and Love « Digital Romance Lab

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