‘A commodity appears at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’ (Marx).
It has long been a condition of western culture to act for the accumulation of material objects. This is in part due to the capitalist nature of the world within which we live. Marx identifies in ‘The Critique of Capitalism’ the emergence of two new classes of people, namely ‘capitalists’ and ‘labourers’.
The term ‘capitalist’ describes any person who has personal ownership of capital, which ‘consists of raw materials, instruments of labour and means of subsistence’ (Marx). In contrast a ‘labourer’ has only the value of his labour (life activity), which he exchanges with the capitalist for a wage and as such ‘the worker sinks to the level of commodity’ (Marx).
Because the labourer produces for the capitalist a commodity of greater value than that of his wages and in addition those wages are paid back to the capitalist in return for subsistence, therefore social control in exerted over the working class, whilst providing the capitalist with excess commodity.
The labourer consentingly becomes a slave to the system on which he depends. In addition Marx states that as the relation between capitalist and labourer (manufacturer and consumer) develops, so competition between rival capitalists becomes apparent.
In effect the capitalist is forced to capture more of the market by selling goods more cheaply by the consolidation and exploitation of labour power e.g. by machinery. Such a strategy ultimately limits the demand for labour and so new industries must be developed for exploitation. These new industries are necessary because capital exists only in relation to its ability to command labour and social control and as such ‘they reciprocally condition the existence of each other’ (Marx). These forced increases in demand and therefore production are evident in the contemporary world market.
Important to the development of Capitalism is the use of money which abstracts labour and commodity values to a common unit for the purpose of trade. In effect the labourer discovers that ‘the product of his activity is not the object of his activity’ (Marx) thus a level of abstraction occurs, which was consistent with the modernist values of the time.
Karl Marx and early capitalism were mainly concerned with production which remains important but it was Situationist, Guy Debord, who gave the first insights into late capitalism and the theories that best apply to today’s world economics and culture of commodities. Debord, in his book ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, bases his examination of commodities around consumption, media, information and technology. As such Debord suggests that ‘in societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.’ By this he means to describe the world and its products as mere appearances, where the real meanings and values of commodities are translated into signs.
Essentially ‘it is a world vision that has been objectified’ (Debord). Debord explains the phenomenon of the spectacle as resulting from the ever increasing production of capitalism. Because competition between capitalists inevitably leads to an excess of produce, so consumer demand must be increased. Such an increase is controllable by the spectacle as ‘the real consumer becomes a consumer of illusions,’ (Debord) so he can be manipulated to believe he must consume beyond the basic necessity for survival e.g. leisure products. Therefore ‘the spectacle’s form and content are identically the total justification of the existing system’s conditions and goals’ (Debord).
The spectacle is mediated in society ‘as information or propaganda, as advertisement or direct entertainment consumption,’ (Debord). The effects of the mediated spectacle tend to lead the consumer to an experience of alienation as the consumers’ want for commodities is dictated to serve and maintain capitalism. In addition the spectacle constantly reinforces itself, for example the television, which is in itself a product of the spectacle that is then used by the capitalist to implement the advertisement of other spectacles.
Essentially the ‘spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society’ (Debord) and explains the transition from the ‘degradation of being into having’ to ‘having into appearing’ (Debord).
Jean Baudrillard took Marx’s ‘Critique of Capitalism’ and Debord’s ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ to their conclusions with his own theory of simulation and simulacra. Similar to the idea of the spectacle, Baudrillard describes a world where the subject of everything has been replaced by a semiological value that has become more important than the original, ‘real’ meaning of the object. This object he calls a ‘simulacra’. In ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ Baudrillard adds extra complexity to these ideas by establishing a hierarchy of simulation, which he gives four orders. In the first order the object is a copy of an original and so can be linked to a basic reality, for example a photograph of an actual event.
The second order of simulation misrepresents the original subject; in the example the photography has been digitally manipulated in Photoshop to present a non-occurrence. In the third order a reality is recreated from a simulation of an original reality, when in fact, through the process of simulacra, the original has been lost, e.g. a scene is recreated from the digitally manipulated photograph of the original event. Finally, the forth order of simulation is the combined process of the first, second and third order to such an extent that the object bears no relation to reality or the original, for example the photograph has become a virtual reality.
In this instance the link between reality and the signifying systems is almost impossible to ascertain, thus creating a ‘hyper-reality’. It is the use of one simulacra as a basis for the formation of another simulacra that shows the first signs of relevance to post modernity. Consequently, in post modernism, everything is understood in relation to everything that has come before, which in design manifests itself in referencing. Post modernism is also concerned with the fact that there is no right or wrong and essentially that no real truth exists.
It is of course possible for a sign to make a transition through all four of the orders of simulation, constantly abstracting meaning and widening the gap between simulation and reality. However due to the complexity of repeated abstraction and signification it becomes necessary for an amount of speculation and simplification to occur when examining transitional examples. If we take, for example, the now famous emblem of automotive company Rolls Royce, it becomes apparent the extent to which a symbolic object can be re-simulated, each time loosing a part of it’s original meaning. ‘Spirit of Ecstasy’, designed by sculptor Charles Sykes and mass produced in 1911, is a cast metal emblem representing the figurine of a girl with arms outstretched to hold the folds of her gown blowing in the breeze.
To the present day this emblem has been displayed on the bonnets of Rolls Royce cars and is the first order of simulation in terms of it being a representation of a real person from which the sculpture has been modelled. The object also references the figure heads of classic sailing ships in an attempt to convey the automotive product as an elegant, quite and reliable vehicle, which were the mediated associations with the brand during the early development of the company. In this instance the object enters the third order of simulation as a real event (model posing for sculptor) is created from an existing symbolic object (sailing boat figure heads) in order to be recreated as a new symbolic object (Spirit of Ecstasy emblem).
At this point it is important to note that this example as an investigation could examine many more stages of referencing prior to the sign’s use as figure heads, though this could prove too difficult and inaccurate, again reinforcing the existence of a hyper-reality.
The tea pot, designed by Michael Graves in 1985 for Alessi, brings the symbol to its conclusion. The tea pot employs a plastic emblem of a bird that is attached to the spout of the kettle and creates a whistling noise when the water is boiled. This creates a pun between the whistling of a kettle and the singing of bird but more importantly, its similar visual appearance (i.e. the wings of the bird and the outstretched arms and gown of the girl) makes a reference of Rolls Royce cars.
Because during the late 20th century the values associated with Rolls Royce have matured to convey the brand as one of top class and status, so it are these value that are associated with Grave’s tea pot, supposed to the original associations that Rolls Royce was referencing from classic sailing ships. Therefore the product has clearly entered the forth order of simulation is it holds no relation to the original meaning that the original object as sign attempted to represent. Also, by referencing past signs, it can be described as a post modern object.
Like Debord, Baudrillard agreed that simulation was important to the survival of capitalism as it, through mediation, can control the level of consumption within society. Baudrillard used the term ‘valorisation’ to describe the process through which symbolic objects attain value. An excellent example of valorisation is Pokemon cards, which are essentially printed illustrations on card and so their use value is very low. However, via mediation, Pokemon cards have been given a simulated symbolic value that has made them desirable and powerful as a commodity.
As well as design, Baudrillard’s theory of simulation and simulacra has also proved influential in film making, for example in ‘The Matrix’, directed by the Wachowski brothers. The Matrix is set in the future at a time when the real world has been reduced to a desert waste land by a war between humanity and machines; after the invention of artificial intelligence. Because the machines are dependant on solar power, the humans have caused the equivalent of a nuclear winter by blocking out sunlight. This has caused the machines to retaliate by imprisoning humans in gel filled pods so that energy can be extracted from them in the form of heat. In order to control the humans in this procedure a computer simulated world called the matrix exists, that all of the imprisoned humans are connected to, living their lives in what they believe is the late 20th century, oblivious to the fact that their real bodies are in stasis in the real world.
The film therefore acts as a metaphor for contemporary western cultures. Firstly the matrix is an existence of the fourth order of simulation in that it is a system of mere signs that are completely detached from reality, i.e. hyper-reality. Just as in contemporary cultures, the people who live in the matrix are unaware that they are controlled by a system through simulation. “You are a slave, neo, like everyone else you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch, a prison for your mind… What is the matrix? Control. The matrix is a computer generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this” (he holds up a copper battery) (Morpheus talking to Neo, The Matrix).
In addition the film suggests that the prisoners of the Matrix are also dependant upon it, to the extent that they will fight to protect it. Baudrillard’s idea of mediasation appears in the film when it is suggested that there was a machine “spawning a whole race of machines” (Morpheus talking to Neo, The Matrix), thus the social control of the machines (mediation of signs) increasingly exert themselves with every new generation. Interestingly The Matrix seems to offer a solution to simulation and social control by the system, which is one of enlightenment. Once Neo understands the systems and can see the signs (computer code) of the matrix for what they really are, then he can choose to follow a different set of rules thus gaining control of his environment.
As well as a theological basis on Baudrillard, The Matrix tends to convey the story via symbolic references and thus is post modern by nature. For example the ‘follow the white rabbit scene’ employs a tattoo of a white rabbit, which is referenced from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in order to convey the uncertainty in discovering the truth of an alternate reality. In the same scene Neo also opens a copy Baudrillard’s ‘Simulacra and Simulation’ in effect reinforcing links to that element of the film.
In conclusion, I have identified the main themes surrounding Baudrillard’s orders of simulacra and simulation, shown how they relate to modern and post modern design and have given contemporary examples of their use in product design and film making. I believe that such an understanding of simulation has served well to better understanding referencing in post modernity.
- Debord, G., (1977) The Society of the Spectacle, Black & Red
- Poster, M., (1998) Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings, Polity Press
- Tucker, R. C., (1978) The Marx – Engels Reader Second Edition, Norton & Company
- Hebdige, D., (1994) Hiding in the Light, Routledge
Cite this essay
Jean Baudrillard’s and Baudrillard’s theories of simulation and simulacra. (2017, Aug 21). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/jean-baudrillards-concept-of-the-orders-of-simulacra-essay