The emancipation of the sign or the impossibility of the real in Jean Baudrillard

text by: Matteo Cremonesi

The work of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) can be considered among the most manifestly critical elaborations of postmodernity and simulacrum society; the skepticism and philosophical relativism that characterize his thought cast doubt on the very concept of reality, a concept that, in the era of virtual communication (television, radio, journalism and information technology), fails in favor of an appearance which is nothing but the total opposite of what we can say real and therefore true.

In order to demonstrate this narrative reversal, Jean Baudrillard calls into question the first Gulf War. A conflict in 1991 that marked a watershed in the history of the media. In fact, this was defined the first global village war (1) becoming a world media event.
However, even though millions of connected viewers around the world saw (or thought they were seeing) the war live thanks to the most sophisticated communication technologies, what they actually saw was not the “real” war, but its appropriate and obscene counterfeiting; a story made by the overlapping of news, images with a strong scenic and spectacular impact, but at the same time aseptic and artfully selected, a narrative project aimed at obtaining the maximum misinformation by communicating excessively.
It was not the “real” war that penetrated the apartments of all citizens by means of the television screen, but another war, narrated and imaginary; a narrative of the conflict that, just when the public was convinced of having witnessed “live” at its demonstration, precisely by virtue of this “truth” effect, was nothing more than the remote-controlled, the sweetened, technologized, calculated administration of a story that not only did not reflect the course of reality, but that was its perfect antithesis.

In more general terms, Jean Baudrillard maintains that what is happening through the pervasive technologies available to the media machine is an artificial and totalitarian diffusion of the “Good”, a story planned by the media power in order to strengthen internal social cohesion : whether it is to show spectacular and gruesome images of a natural disaster that affects a distant Asian country, (a story perhaps emphasized to prepare public opinion to welcome an armed intervention by western nations, disguised as a “humanitarian mission”) whether it is an appeal to urge viewers to help raise funds for victims of a famine; the ultimate goal according to Baudrillard is always to implement a falsification of reality, make its true image disappear and replace it with an unreal one: mannerist, manipulated, narrated, disciplined and able to discipline.

According to Baudrillard, all modernity is founded on this “obscene” technique: a thought that has pushed the philosopher into two curious directions that see on one hand producing an implacable, radical and millenarian critique of modern civilization and on the other hand the approach to a certain neo-surrealist tradition, enough to make him accept the appointment of the College of Pataphysics at Satrapo in 2001, and to place him as the spiritual father of a certain cinematography based on the will to demystify the deceptive appearances of the virtual world. («Matrix» to take a title known to all.)

If for Baudrillard, in fact, the mass media and especially television operate a systematic reversal of reality, a reversal by which the citizen of modern society finds himself in the paradoxical situation of no longer being the subject of his own information, the object and subject that the viewer acts become television and its communication. A proof of this assumption, according to the philosopher, was seen with the story of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of 11 September 2001: a media event that ended up obscuring and completely hiding, as well as reversing in its opposite, the real event.

The essayist and television journalist Benjamin Wolley, summarizing the central aspects of Baudrillard’s critique of modernity and especially the use of techno-science (criticism that he, personally, did not fully share), replied to the classic of the French philosopher «Simulacra and simulations”, of 1981, with the volume ” Virtual Worlds “, of 1992, a text of which we report a significant passage:

« Where other critics, such as Charles Jencks, look at postmodern experience with confidence and optimism, celebrating its pluralism and playfulness, Baudrillard is disgusted by it. At the heart of this disgust is the discovery that reality no longer exists, and that indeed it has become its opposite, pure fiction. The concept of objective reality independent from the observer is a hypothesis of the modern era, which could no longer withstand the pressure of technological and economic developments of the late twentieth century. Even “critical theory”, or even structuralism, had operated on the principle that, at the end of all the speeches, the definitive statement of what was being sought would finally remain: the basis of truth, that is reality. But now no longer. According to Baudrillard, reality, like the Gulf War, is a simulacrum, a perfect copy of something of which the original never existed. »

Baudrillard begins his famous essay on postmoderrn, “Simulacra and simulations”, with a quote from Qoelet (2): ” The simulacrum is never what hides the truth; but it is the truth that hides the fact that there is no truth. The simulacrum is true “.

Baudrillard found the idea of “the most beautiful allegory” of simulation in a Borges story, in which imperial cartographers draw a map of the empire so precise that it covers exactly its entire territory.
Baudrillard comments: “Today the attraction is no longer that of the map, no longer the duplication and mirror of the concept. And simulation is no longer the simulation of a territory, or of a referential entity, or of a substance. it is something that, through models, generates a real that has neither origins nor reality: a hyperreality. While in Borges’ story the map first undergoes the same decay of the territory it covers, but in the end the latter reaffirms itself, now it is the territory that disappears, and it is the map that survives. Worse still: the empire is now capable of building the real itself, so as to adapt perfectly to the shape of the map.

Although Baudrillard has distanced himself from Marxist criticism, it remains under the author as a necessity, a modernist condition, an optimistic way of being which underlies the belief that, under all simulations, reality must somehow survive.
Baudrillard identifies the collapse of reality as a process developed through a series of distinct historical stages. These stages concern the history of signification, that is, the way in which signs are used: for example, the relationship between a picture with what it represents, or that takes on a sentence with its content. The different stages mark the gradual disjunction of the sign from what it means, the separation between nature and culture, the separation between “truth” and reality.
If in the first stage the sign reflects an underlying reality and in the second stage it hides that reality, in the third stage the sign hides and covers the absence of that reality.The importance of these stage changes, which Baudrillard identifies in some historical phases, is all in the fact that they offer the conditions and the ground for a race towards the terminal stage of the linguistic emancipation of the sign: the stage of pure simulation, in which the sign ceases to mean something real.
Today culture continuously produces signs that mean nothing, or that have only very low frequency significance. The technical and industrial emancipation, in the consumer society, is able to offer everything, to produce practically anything for any need. Technological progress has reached the point of being able to more than adequately satisfy all basic needs for the great majority of the population, an addiction which gives rise to the need by economy and language to satisfy the consumer’s whim or desire, meaning these like new territories.
If desire as an alternative to need considers the positive aspect of being the motivational equivalent of a white space in which to invent, a space that the producer fills at his own will with a proposal, it is advertising that, taking on the task of generating desire, elaborates a narrative system that believes more appropriate, not promoting the usefulness of the product it tries to sell, but manipulating its meaning.
For example: since it contains cocoa butter, a chocolate bar is sold by associating it with the idea of a tropical paradise; which, of course, does not have its own geographical reality, but has some meaning only because it makes one think of the Hollywood film or the brochures of tourist agencies, things in turn associated with the novels of the late nineteenth century, colonial adventures, and so on. The chocolate bar becomes the very meaning of this whole association network.

This does not mean that the advertising of chocolate is false, or misleading: but that without that “meaning” the product would not exist and the chocolate bar would be an object without any sense and therefore that desire is the material of meaning and manipulation of signs.
What keeps the consumer society alive, the ability of producers to carry out these manipulations, that is the ability to produce meaning and narrations that can hide the real, also applies to culture as a whole. A production of signs not dissimilar sees politics, arts, entertainment, and everything that human industriousness and intelligence is capable of producing, falling into the same linguistic mechanism and narrative practices that dominate the market.
The result, or the landscape produced starting from this capitulation of the relationship that binds the sign to reality, is what Baudrillard indicates as hyperreality: “ When reality is no longer what it once was, nostalgia takes on its full meaning. Then there is a proliferation of myths about the origin and signs of reality; on second-hand truths, on objectivity, on authenticity. (…) And there is, we would say almost created by panic, a great production of referential “».
Baudrillard gives a very effective example of the concept of hyperreality: in the numerous Disney “cities” scattered all over the world, which present themselves as small totalitarian worlds where everything works perfectly and where all social distinctions disappear, the simulacrum consists in the fact that they suggest that outside those fake worlds there is a real world, there is reality; on the contrary, all Los Angeles, most of the United States and Europe itself are, says Baudrillard, worlds now fake, which align their city model to that of a “real” America that is not the ordinary one, but that, precisely, Disney.

The suppressed reality is replaced with the opposite of what it was, or was believed, or perhaps never existed; an anti-reality, a hyperreality, whose only raison d’etre is to suggest by contrast that true reality exists and is all around, while we have instead sunk into its caricature, its lie, its opposite.
Baudrillard’s speech is radical and profound: he categorically denies that, in the context of modernity, one can still speak of a “reality”. If it has been there, it is no longer there. In its place, modernity has seen its virtual counterfeiting, its deceptive, comfortable simulacrum, a hyperreality that everyone identifies as the “real” thing.
The ancient association between sign and real thing that had determined the communication of the world to the world and with this the forms necessary for orientation is now totally arbitrary. The emancipated signs ended up “working” by themselves, expressing nothing but themselves and the reality, at that point weak, that must conform to them if it wishes to be “believed”.

(1) The phrase “global village” was first used by Marshall McLuhan, a well-known mass communications scientist, in 1964, in his essay “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”.

(2) The Qoelet or Ecclesiastes (Hebrew קהלת, Qohelet, “gathering”, from the pseudonym of the author; Greek Εκκλησιαστης, Ekklesiastes, “gathering”; Latin Ecclesiastes or Qoelet), is a text contained in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) and Christian Bible.The Qoelet is composed of 12 chapters containing various sapiential meditations on life, many of which are characterized by a pessimistic or resigned tenor.

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