The idea of the simulacrum which I discussed in the following review (slightly revised here) I did for a sociology class in my undergrad days strikes me in retrospect as a good example of a postmodernist tendency to take a good concept and overextend it – a tendency which, ironically enough, postmodernist thinkers have criticised modernist, Enlightenment-inspired thinkers of having in abundance, manifesting in particular as an impulse to create “totalising” ideologies. The dangers of sweeping generalisation are perennial.
Chapter 7 of Sturken and Cartwright’s “Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture“, titled “Postmodernism and Popular Culture”, begins by discussing the “simulacrum” in the context of postmodernism. The simulacrum is what replaces the idea of “the original” – whether that original is an image, a text, or a more abstract entity such as “an ideal small town” – as a result of what might be called the postmodern reordering of cultural space. It has been able to do so because of the rise to predominance of the image over other forms of cultural media and of technologies of (apparently) perfect reproduction.
The simulacrum cannot be, and does not need to be, tied to a particular referent. In the case of “an ideal small town”, Disneyland’s Main Street is a simulacrum par excellence: it refers to no particular town anywhere, as opposed to the referent of, let’s say, an actual town in Maine as referred to in the memory of someone who has been to it. Its very generic nature is its essence, and thus it is easily reproducible, and any and every re-production is as essentially “original” as the initial production. The fact that an image or other entity might be the first instance of production rather than the thousandth has no significance when that entity is a simulacrum. They are all originals and thus none are originals.
Postmodernism questions the modernist assumption of progressive linearity of development, of historical necessity, and thus the temporal causal chain with which one would trace back to the “original” potentially is brought into question. [pp. 251-252] “Presence”, the immediacy of direct perception, of experience, is itself challenged as not so direct, in fact as always mediated. [p. 252] (This is a centrally familiar concept in phenomenology.) How do you know that this is the “original” you are experiencing? All you have are your sense impressions, interpreted by your brain; thus you perceive not the “real world”, but your brain’s constructed simulacrum of it. Postmodernism also challenges the claims to universality of various philosophical concepts and the institutions which are founded upon them. How do you determine “authenticity” when its basis – the values underlying it – may be culturally contingent and thus limited in scope? [p. 252]
As a musician who works in digital media, as well as a philosopher, I find a certain irony in the notion of the predominance of the simulacrum in the age of the image and digital reproduction, in the notion that there are, or may be, no longer any originals. I would say that even if the first instance, the first digital file, of a composition I create on my laptop in Ableton Live is not “original”, in the sense that it’s indistinguishable from every subsequent copy I make and distribute electronically, there is yet an irreducible and inextinguishable originality in the act of its creation, which, after all, happens first in one and only one place: my brain. (The memetic question of how original any creative person actually can be, given unconscious influences by others, and the deterministic causal chains those imply, is a different one, not requiring resolution for this determination of the originality – in the sense of being different from and prior to all copies – of the products of my brain’s activity.) This sense of originality adheres to the composition forever thereafter, no matter how many copies I or anyone else may make of it. Its referent is durable. Thus, the irony lies in the sweeping nature of the claim of ubiquity for the simulacrum; perhaps just the sort of metanarrative which postmodernism aspires to abjure.