Simulacra (sing. simulacrum) refers in contemporary social science discourse to multiple copies that have no original or, in Baudrillard’s words, “models of a real without origin or reality.” The concept has emerged in postmodern social theory as a key term for talking about commodification, intellectual property, popular culture, and multinational cultural flows. It is usually closely linked to the concept of the hyperreal, simulated realities that are experienced as more real than the realities for which they substitute.
The term originates with Plato, who used it to distinguish between two modes of representation. Whereas the icon is a representation that participates in the idea of the thing it represents, the simulacrum captures only the outer form of things. The idea of the simulacrum was borrowed by social theorists Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, and Giles Deleuze and developed to analyze and critique aspects of modern and postmodern society.
Fredric Jameson makes simulacra a touchstone for his conceptualization of postmodernism. His primary example is photorealism, in which people create paintings that are copies not of real things but of photographs of real things. Deleuze furthers (and diverges from) this argument by pointing out that beyond a certain point, the simulacrum is not a copy twice removed but rather a phenomenon of a different nature altogether, something that undermines the normal distinction drawn between copy and model. A copy, no matter how many times removed, is nonetheless defined by some relationship to an original. A copy, in other words, is always made in order to stand in for its model. A simulacrum, on the other hand, takes on a life of its own. Simulacrum, in this sense, is a perfect descriptor for the synergistic blend of com-modified texts and goods that make up an increasingly large component of contemporary popular culture.
The most complete theorization of simulacrum comes from Jean Baudrillard’s essays Simulation and America. Baudrillard argues that the distinction between mere copies of copies and simulacra can be understood as a series of stages:
- Representation. The image is the reflection of a basic reality.
- Counterfeit. The image masks a basic reality.
- Simulation. The image masks the absence of a basic reality.
- Simulacrum. The image bears no relation to any reality.
To illustrate these, it is useful to take examples from popular culture. Consider, for example, the life of Zorro as a popular culture form spanning 80 years of time and three continents of production. The “basic reality” is the novel by Johnston McCulley, first published in 1919. Over its span, Zorro has gone through all the stages described by Baudrillard:
- Representation. At this stage, we find signification through reference. This is the realm of the sequel or the movie version of the novel. Here we find the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks film The Mark of Zorro “based on the novel by Johnston McCulley” and McCulley’s own four sequel novels and 50 short stories.
- Counterfeit. Here we find the dozens of reinventions of the film that sprang up in the wake of The Mark of Zorro’s success. Borrowing signs from that film, they re-create Zorro but weave the character into new narratives that are not consistent with the original film or the novel. The new adventures of Zorro in these films imply an original story, but do not make it explicit or seek consistency with earlier Zorro texts. Zorro may have won a bride in a previous film; here he is courting another. He may have been unmasked at the end of the original film, yet here no one knows who he is.
- Simulation. There is no Zorro in Zorro’s Black Whip (1940) or in Don Daredevil Rides Again (1951), or in several other films and stories featuring the image of the black masked swordsman. The Black Whip resembles the Zorro of earlier films (except for her gender), but aside from his name in the title, there is no mention of Zorro in any episode of the serial. Zorro is absent as a referent, yet his costume, his weapons, and his name indexically link these films to the character. “Zorro” has become an absent signifier into which new meanings can be poured.
- Simulacrum. A blonde, teenaged Zorro swash-buckles his way through the 1975 animated TV series The Legend of Zorro. Two rival queens hire Samson and Zorro, respectively, to recover a dead king’s will in Zorro Contra Maciste (1963). Zorro encounters Dracula in one comic book incarnation and crosses swords with the Three Musketeers in another. Four different Zorro action figures graft Zorro’s head to metallic bodies with bulging biceps and six-pack abs that more resemble other cyborg action figures than the “gay renegade” of old California. In these incarnations, the signifiers of Zorro remain intact yet disembedded from any of the narratives that originally constructed its meanings.
Baudrillard claims that America, in particular, is the perfect “simulation society,” an artificial world constructed of signs without reality. Modern Americans are, he writes, more likely to compare the real to representations of it than the other way around: to compare a sunset to a painting or to compare experience of a place to the images they have seen of it. He argues further that Disneyland and Disney World, with their “Main Street, USA” and other simulations of America that exist only in the imagination, are the most perfect examples of the American simulation society.
But simulacra are by no means limited to the United States. More and more popular culture fits the notion of simulacra. In particular, much of contemporary children’s popular culture is released in simultaneous synergistic packages of electronic games, television series, movies, collectors’ cards, and other commodities. None of these are spin-offs of the others—or they all are. Either way, they clearly fit the definition of simulacra.
- Baudrillard, J. (1983). Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e).
- Baudrillard, J. (1988). America (Chris Turner, Trans.). New York: Verso.
- Jameson, F. (2000). Postmodernism, or the logic of late capitalism. In The Jameson Reader (pp. 188-232). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
- Massumi, B. (1987). Realer than real: The simulacrum according to Deleuze and Guattari. Copyright, 1, 90-97.