Jean Baudrillard, a French philosopher, wrote Simulations and Simulacra in the early 1980s. In this book, Baudrillard takes on two major themes of a postmodern society that lead to an interesting problem: the loss of the Real.
For this entry, I will focus just on the simulacra of Simulations and Simulacra in the context of the challenges and opportunities we are faced with in this era in which we live. Simulacra is defined as: copies without an original. Baudrillard cites many examples of this phenomenon in his book, but one version of this phenomenon should be quite familiar to all of us -
- An original event occurs.
- The event becomes a reference point of meaning to its contemporaries.
- Time passes (the amount of time that passes can be surprisingly short), and this event becomes an historical reference point.
- The historical reference point gains new meaning with passing time, and the original meaning is lost, distorted, or completely changed (intentionally or not).
The Politics Of Experience
Consider the recent arguments between Republicans and Democrats about how we overcame the Great Depression. As most of us alive today don’t have direct experience with what happened then, we have to rely on the meaning of the event known as the Great Depression being mediated to us. To understand the meaning of this event, we have a wide variety of places to go to get information and analysis of the event: books, newspapers, television, radio, internet, etc. In fact, even to those who still lived through the Great Depression, their understanding of the event can change based on this overwhelming amount of information available with all of the various interpretations of the information.
The process of understanding this event which has taken on a new meaning in our society becomes, in a practical way, more important than the event itself. The search for truth can be endless, and yet can create more questions and ambiguities at each turn. What can we trust? This sense of ambiguity and the mutability of meaning is what I would like to focus on here in the context of writing.
The Poet’s Responsibility
As poets, our task at all times is to tell a story. For a story to have meaning, it must have a context. And this is where understanding how the simulacra works gives us some food for thought in our writing, and in analyzing the writing of others. Here are some things to consider:
- Even in our own lives, we are prone to creating and recreating the meaning of events. At the depths of this process, we are making many choices. When I read or write poetry, I examine carefully the reference points that are used and how they function.
- Common reactions to simulacra are irony, rebellion, alienation, and resignation.
- Mediation is a process that leads toward simulacra. The more steps between the original event and the last interpretation, the more room for difference. (Sidenote – Television is a deceiving form of mediation because we can feel that we are part of an event when we are getting a very distorted, removed view of it.)
- Identity is increasingly difficult to grasp, as the context of what makes us who we are gets more complex.
Li-Young Lee: A Postmodern Poet’s Simulacra
Look at this excerpt from Immigrant Blues by Li-Young Lee:
[...]Practice until you feel
the language inside you, says the man.
But what does he know about inside and outside,
my father who was spared nothing
in spite of the languages he used?
And me, confused about the flesh and soul,
who asked once into a telephone,
Am I inside you?
You’re always inside me, a woman answered,
at peace with the body’s finitude,
at peace with the soul’s disregard
of space and time.
Am I inside you? I asked once
lying between her legs, confused
about the body and the heart.
If you don’t believe you’re inside me, you’re not,
she answered, at peace with the body’s greed,
at peace with the heart’s bewilderment.[...]
Li-Young Lee is an accomplished postmodern writer, tapping into the realm of simulacra regarding his identity as an immigrant and connecting with his fragmented family past. Alienation isn’t new to literature, but what makes it uniquely postmodern in this poem is how Li-Young Lee ironically recognizes the distance and chooses to never reconcile it. The poem ends:
It’s an ancient story from yesterday evening
called “Patterns of Love in Peoples of Diaspora,”
called “Loss of the Homeplace
and the Defilement of the Beloved,”
called “I Want to Sing but I Don’t Know Any Songs.”
Li-Young Lee recognizes that resolution isn’t possible. He knows that ending the poem with new understanding, with a concrete sense of direction isn’t as impactful as the ambiguity that is left in the void of context. This void of context is the context. Starting this section by calling it an “ancient story” but ironically from “yesterday evening” he intentionally blurs the lines. He doesn’t have a concrete connection with his family history or himself – but that lack of connection is something that we can connect to.
How Simulacra Can Be Used To Connect Us
Many postmodern poets are very adept at connecting us to these fissures in context that we have in our lives, and turning those fissures around from points of confusion to points of unity between the reader and the poet. We understand and empathize, and thus, we experience relief from the conundrums of simulacra.
The take away point here is that as a writer – more than at any time in history – recognizing the challenges in understanding anything as being definite can be very helpful in constructing a believable poem that others can connect to.
Will B. is a high school teacher and owner of the blog The Search for Health in Decadence.