Insomnia | Commentary

The Simulacrum is True

By Alex Kierkegaard / February 11, 2010

The simulacrum is never what hides the truth — it is truth that hides the fact that there is none.

The simulacrum is true.

Jean Baudrillard


Riding on beams of light between the work of art and the eye of its beholder, flickering across the cinematographic canvas, or tearing through integrated circuits and across neural pathways, the simulacrum is an elusive object. It has been variously proclaimed as "demonic", "unreal", "more real than the real", and even "the authentic fake" (Umberto Eco) — and now, finally, courtesy of the hilariously bungled efforts of an idiotic videogame pseudo-theorist — "half-real". Apotheosis of ignorance. Zenith of mendaciousness and stupidity. A perfect case-study of an utter lack of intellectual cleanliness — for if previous attempts to define and describe the simulacrum in terms of existing concepts have been failures, this one is not even an attempt, let alone a failure. To borrow Wolfgang Pauli's expression, "not only is it not right, it's not even wrong!"
   But what has exactly happened here? Nothing that should by now surprise us: the same thing that happens every time some uneducated dingbat attempts to analyze the phenomenon of gaming by blissfully button-mashing on a word processor: a mere word, not even a concept, has been substituted in place of an existing and well-established, albeit troublesome, concept, and lol and behold — the troublesomeness has vanished! Perfectly childish shenanigans such as this have led us, step by step, in the space of less than a decade, to a point where phrases such as "the hidden meaning of the artistic message of the core emergent gameplay of this procedurally generated open-world half-reality" could well be received by a convention audience without anyone so much as raising an eyebrow. — And it's still early days yet! Who could guess where we'll be in another ten years' time! I wouldn't be at all surprised if at some point Game Studies people ended up having to learn Klingon (what with the English language being obviously far too poor and restrictive to adequately convey the scope and profundity of their preposterous blatherings).
   But all joking aside, it would be unreasonable to expect anything better from the uneducated rabble. The poor bastards believe in words with the same imbecilic fervor that religious nuts believe in their idols. And just as the latter possess no feeling at all for the ideals that a religion signifies, but are content to grovel before and worship mere icons, so too the former possess no feeling at all for the concept, and for the exclusive equivalence that must obtain between it and the word that designates it if a sentence that contains it is to convey any actual meaning. — Still, having said that, I guess it would be cruel to berate them too much over this, seeing as philosophers have often been, and most of them still are, guilty of the same blunder.

Nietzsche: "Philosophers (1) have had from the first a wonderful capacity for the contradictio in adjecto; (2) they have trusted in concepts as completely as they have mistrusted the senses: they have not stopped to consider that concepts and words are our inheritance from ages in which thinking was very modest and unclear.
   What dawns on philosophers last of all: they must no longer accept concepts as a gift, nor merely purify and polish them, but first make and create them, present them and make them convincing. Hitherto one has generally trusted one's concepts as if they were a wonderful dowry from some sort of wonderland: but they are, after all, the inheritance from our most remote, most foolish as well as most intelligent ancestors. This piety toward what we find in us is perhaps part of the moral element in knowledge. What is needed above all is an absolute skepticism toward all inherited concepts."


   Yet the above was written in the late 1880s — well over a century ago. In the meantime, moreover, we have seen another world-renowned philosopher, the great Ludwig Wittgenstein, arrive on the scene, survey the terrain, then grab this idea and run with it — and run with it so far indeed as to suppose, for a time — and to induce many others to suppose — that he had ran with it as far as to the end of philosophy itself! In light of all this, then, one would think probable that someone who describes himself as a "theorist" would have perhaps at least heard of this idea? Of the idea, that is to say, that most of the greatest philosophical problems hitherto had not been problems at all but merely idiotic misuses of poorly defined or even non-existent concepts? — I do not think at any rate that this would be an unreasonable assumption. So let us take a look at how Mr. Jesper Juul, videogame theorist extraordinaire, fares according to the above methodological guidelines. Is his writing and thought process free of the contradictio in adjecto? Does he adopt an attitude of absolute skepticism towards all his inherited concepts? Finally, has he purified and polished all these concepts, and made his new one adequately convincing? Let's take a close look at one key passage from his book and find out.

"The Half-Real of the title refers to the fact that video games are two rather different things at the same time: video games are real in that they are made of real rules that players actually interact with; that winning or losing a game is a real event. However, when winning a game by slaying a dragon, the dragon is not a real dragon, but a fictional one. To play a video game is therefore to interact with real rules while imagining a fictional world and a video game is a set of rules as well a fictional world."


   Second sentence, second clause: "real dragon", lol. He commits a blatant contradictio in adjecto right from the get-go, in his very introduction, in what is the book's most crucial passage, since it contains not only the explanation for the book's title, but also the definition of the brand-new term he is attempting to introduce... — A contradictio in adjecto, by the way, we might as well take a moment here to explain, for the benefit of the uneducated among my readers, occurs when the sense of an adjective clashes with that of the noun it qualifies. A "circular square", for example, is such a contradiction. The problem with such an expression is quite simply that it does not convey any meaning; it does not engender in the mind of the person who hears it any idea at all — for it does not correspond to any — all it does is awaken the suspicion that the person who used it is an idiot. Such is the case with Mr. Juul's "real dragon" nonsense — for dragons, Mr. Juul, are by definition unreal. A "real dragon" is no remotely intelligible concept — it should go without saying, therefore, that the thing on the screen, whose nature Mr. Juul is so desperately struggling to come to grips with, is something altogether different.
   But the inanity of the passage goes far, far beyond this — frightfully far in fact. For though Mr. Juul's proposition could be rescued from the contradictio in adjecto by substituting a real animal, such as for instance a wolf, in place of the mythological one, it cannot by any means be rescued from the preposterous suggestion that the player's adversary is somehow not real — "fictional", as Mr. Juul calls it. Mr. Juul seems to be under the strange and seriously alarming (at least for his friends and family) delusion that videogame adversaries are fictions, phantoms, immaterial and disembodied entities that have absolutely no existence outside of the player's brain.
   But there is nothing fictional, after all, about an artificial intelligence routine and its on-screen manifestation, any more than there is about a computer-controlled robot. The thing on the screen is as real as the desk the screen is sitting on — in fact at this point it would even be a mistake to distinguish between the thing and the screen, for they are one and the same object — the screen has metamorphosed into the thing (or things) — for this is the fundamental, the essential quality of screens: the power of metamorphosis. Strictly speaking, once the computer has been switched on the screen no longer even exists, for what we call "screen" (which is not the same thing as the monitor, the display — though it is part of it) is precisely this chameleon-like surface, this supple, malleable, formless substance — but in its original, inert state.
   In the context of videogames, therefore, and digital computing in general, the concept "screen" can assume one of two meanings:

1. The display surface of a video device: an evacuated glass screen in the case of a CRT, a matrix of liquid crystal cells in the case of an LCD, etc. etc.

2. The original, inert, blank state of this surface.

   And it's this second sense that concerns us here, for it is precisely this original state that vanishes once the computer has been switched on — it exits reality, in order to allow the thing (or things) which Mr. Juul thoughtlessly calls "fictional" to enter it. That which has entered reality, however, is real, having assumed through its passage into existence the form

"of a perfect simulacrum, forever radiant with its own fascination." (Baudrillard)


   And I wonder: what would it really take for people to understand this? Perhaps one or two carefully picked examples?... Let's give it a go then...
   Imagine playing Pac-Man on a PC running MAME, hooked up to an LCD screen and an arcade stick. And then imagine someone removing the monitor and replacing it with a miniature mechanical version of the game's first stage, complete with a miniature Pac-Man, ghosts, bonus items, etc. all of which can be made to appear or disappear through holes on the floor of the device (including the walls, so that they can be rearranged for each succeeding stage), the entire thing controlled by digital actuators hooked up to a custom-made expansion card plugged into one of the computer's I/O ports, and therefore completely controllable via additional instructions coded in to a hacked version of the game. — Did you get all that? It's nothing other than a pinball-style version of Pac-Man; it's not really even that high-tech — it is in fact a great deal less high-tech than the original LCD setup. And... ummmmm... come to think of it, I could have saved myself some effort and just used the example of a pinball machine and its digital adaptation... But hey, I've already typed the whole thing out, so let's just keep it. Here are your two examples, at any rate — but let's keep going with the first one. All it takes to grasp what is going on here is to consider what we mean by "Pac-Man" in the two different setups: in the first case Pac-Man is a few dozen liquid crystals, in the second a little plastic ball — that's really all there is to it. — And now I have to ask: What exactly is supposed to not be real about this whole business? If Mr. Juul wants to imagine that Pac-Man is not in fact a bunch of liquid crystals or a little plastic ball, but a living, breathing, thinking, organic being — well, he can knock himself out as far as I am concerned, but it is absurd to suggest that the reality of the crystals or the ball are in any way affected by his hysteric hallucinations. And besides, hallucinations can occur while in the midst of any activity — they are by no means a phenomenon limited to those who play videogames. One could decide, for example, to play basketball with one's friends while imagining them, not as people, but as little liquid crystals or plastic balls — but in what way would such imaginings suddenly render the basketball session "half-real" or one's friends "fictional"?
   — Fucking idiot.
   But there's more — a great deal more in fact! Here, for example, is one more little pearl that can be fished out of this man's deranged, utterly psychotic ramblings:

"video games are... made of real rules that players actually interact with"


   More blathering nonsense. And you gotta love that "actually"! It really clinches the deal! — For rules are an abstraction, Mr. Juul; one does not "actually interact" with rules — one interacts with the input devices of a digital computer which has been programmed to react according to a specific set of rules. Mr. Juul utterly lacks a conception of the difference between abstract ideas and concrete objects, just as he lacks a conception of the difference between reality and fiction. An abstraction is not a thing, Mr. Juul (you cannot, for example, put a rule in your pocket), it's not something one can manipulate and interact with; one does not, to give a wider example, interact with love, hate or passion; one interacts with human beings which exhibit patterns of behavior which we have abstracted and designated with the words "love", "hate" or "passion".
   Players "actually interact" with "real rules", lol. And this clown teaches at MIT. And his book is intended "to create a basic theory of video games", lol. — I wouldn't trust him to create for me a sandwich, let alone any theories, basic or otherwise.
   Anyway, I think I might as well take a moment here to clear up what a videogame is, before we get to the point where people start inventing cults and new religions, or defining games as "extraterrestrial relics which have somehow fallen onto earth through rifts in alternate dimensions".
   A videogame, dear readers, is neither a "collection of rules" nor a series of binary digits — a videogame is something one plays with, and one cannot play with rule collections or machine language — one cannot play with a ROM cartridge or an optical disc either (except in a non-electronic sense: by playing "fetch", for example, with one's dog). I blame removable and rewritable digital storage media for this hopeless confusion — people in the 70's and 80's would have understood what a videogame is (among many other things) far more easily than any of you clowns. The simplicity with which cartridges, disks and CD-ROMs can be separated from the rest of the videogame has slowly fostered the facile notion that the software and hardware part of a videogame are something fundamentally different — as if either of them were not perfectly useless without the other! This has had as a consequence the absurd overestimation of the importance of the software part (since that's the part that has the game's name stamped on it, lol), to the point where a little retard like Mr. Juul can crawl out of his hole, mount the steps to a convention center's auditorium stage, and in all seriousness and solemnity blithely declare the hardware part to be "unreal" without anyone laughing his ass off and getting up and throwing his chair at him (— a reaction which, let's face it, would have perhaps been reasonable). The absurdity of the whole business becomes obvious when one bothers to study a little computer science, and comes to realize that software is merely another kind of hardware, since when the disc is spinning in the drive — or the cartridge is plugged into the cartridge port — from the point of view of physics, the entire thing with which the player interacts is nothing other than a single electromechanical contraption. It's only then, once this simple fact has finally been grasped, that one is fully hit by the ludicrousness of the trendy "anti-hardware" fad, whose rabid advocates (with the pseudo-intellectuals and the artfags always leading the way, of course...) get their panties all in a bunch at the announcement of every technological advance, as if it were something reprehensible — as if a Civilization or a Deus Ex, as if a Tekki or a Blazblue, would have been possible on a PDP-1!
   A videogame then, to return to our little kindergarten lesson, is far more than a mere "collection of rules", dear reader — it's a machine; you switch it on and hook yourself up to it, it is no way "unreal" or "half-" or "a quarter-" or "six-sevenths-real", let alone fictitious — the very idea of a fractional reality is preposterous; reality is a binary concept — a thing is either real or it is not, and no amount of prayer or hallucinogenics can change that.
   All of which brings us back to Mr. Juul's "real dragon" and his hilarious bungling of the most basic principles of semantics. Let's clear it up for him then, and for everyone else who is still struggling with basic sentence construction.
   Start with the concept of reality.

Baudrillard: "That which is real exists; that is all we can say."


   One can see that reality is a derivative concept; the original concept is existence ("I think, therefore I am," etc.) "Real" then is simply another word for "existent": Baudrillard's proposition is a tautology. One can again see how absurd the idea of the "half-real" is, for, if what is real exists, then what is "half-real" must "half-exist". But how can something "half-exist"? A thing either exists or it doesn't!
   The above was said about physical objects; now we can move on to the slightly more complicated question of symbolism. A symbol is normally comprised of two parts: the signifier and the signified. In the symbol "wolf", for example, the signifier is the word wolf, i.e. the sequential letters w-o-l-f, whilst the signified is, according to Wikipedia, "the largest wild member of the Canidae family of carnivorous and omnivorous mammals". The symbol "dragon", on the other hand, does not signify anything — it is a pure signifier. And that is what we mean when we say that dragons are not real: that the signified part of this symbol is lacking — that it does not exist. The signifier, on the other hand, that is to say the symbol — that is to say the word — is of course perfectly real — for, after all, we ourselves have made it, and everything we make is by definition real (something which, nota bene, also applies to videogames...)
   What is unreal therefore is the signified of a symbol that is a pure signifier. That is also why all abstract concepts are by definition unreal — the very process of abstraction wipes out the signified object. (Of course, in the last resort all concepts are to a greater or lesser degree abstractions, so ultimately all concepts are unreal, and that is what nominalism is about — an idea, however, which, though strictly speaking correct, need not be taken into consideration when examining relatively coarse subject matters such as the present one.)
   Here, then, is a breakdown of all the different "dragons" that Mr. Juul mixed up in his little abortion of a passage:

"Dragon" used as symbol to designate a living creature is unreal

"Dragon" used as symbol to designate the fictional dragon in the brain of the player is real (that is to say it exists: inside his brain — as a mental object: see Changeux's Neuronal Man (1997))

"Dragon" used as symbol to designate the object on the screen — the small collection, that is to say, of liquid crystals (if the player is using an LCD display) — is perfectly real


   And there's still more to be taken away from this, but let's just replace Mr. Juul's terrible example of a dragon with, say a soldier, to make the matter a bit simpler to understand. Is the soldier on the screen then a real or fictitious soldier? Is the soldier in Mr. Juul's head unreal or half-real? Or perhaps he is surreal? Or hyper-real? Let's try to understand what's going on here.
   It is plain, for starters, that the soldier on the screen is not a real soldier. A real soldier, after all, is a human being, and the thing on the screen is most certainly not a human being. The thing on the screen is not a fictional soldier either, because fictional things only exist inside human brains — not on computer screens. He is not "half-real" either, because nothing is. So he has to be real, right? — Yes — but not a real soldier!
   Are you getting what's going on here? The only reason we use the word "soldier" to designate the thing on the screen is for convenience's sake ("It kinda looks like a soldier, especially if you are practically blind and braindead, so what the hell, let's just call it a soldier!") The strictly accurate way to refer to it would be as "a small collection of multicolored liquid crystals whose position on the screen is determined by an artificial intelligence routine in the code of the videogame I am currently playing". This, strictly speaking, would have been the accurate way to refer to each and every object in a videogame. But just try to imagine having a conversation with someone on the subject of SFIII strategies or Supreme Commander tactics using this kind of language... — Yeah. — So we have simply agreed to borrow the words "soldier", "house", "forest", "dragon", etc. to designate these little clumps of liquid crystals, with the implicit understanding that they are not in fact real soldiers, houses, forests, etc. — let alone "real dragons", lol — but simply little clumps of multicolored crystals or whatever, depending on the kind of display technology one happens to be using.
   But I think that's enough of Mr. Juul and his little elementary confusions. Suffice it to say, as a conclusion, that the passage we have been examining is a mental abortion of the first rank, as befits an author who, as I am told, occupies in (pseudo-)academic circles an equivalent position to that which Leigh Alexander occupies in journlolistic ones.
   And now, finally, after all the hilarity, and the jibes, and the potshots, and the cussing, and the kindergarten-level explanations, a serious word wants to be heard. It is time for us, I think, to begin cautiously approaching the problem of the simulacrum... I will therefore now, and without further ado, proceed to give its only tenable, logically consistent definition — so pay attention mankind — for this has never yet been done...
   Here, then, is the definition of the simulacrum: The simulacrum is that which pretends to be something other than it is...
   — But since pretension is a pattern of behavior we associate mostly with highly conscious, organic beings (i.e. plants and animals — in the inorganic world it seems to be completely lacking), it would be rather awkward to use it to describe computer-generated simulacra. The computer, after all, is by no means ever pretending anything — the poor thing is merely following its masters' orders (— indeed to the very letter, and often enough so well as to expose logical flaws in their instructions — in the form of crashes, bugs, etc.) So we should rephrase the definition to entirely purge it of overtones of conscious deception on the part of the object. The object, in other words, may be complicit in the deception, but not necessarily so — it could also, as in the case of digitally-generated simulacra, be entirely innocent. Thus the onus shifts to the subject, and the definition, to make a long story short, necessarily becomes:
    Definition of the simulacrum: The simulacrum is that which appears to be something other than it is.
   — And with that we are on familiar ground (or at least those of us who have an adequate grounding in philosophy...), for we have reduced the opposition between a real object and a simulacrum to the millennia-old philosophical problem of being and appearance — a problem which, according to the Heraclitean, Nietzschean and Baudrillardian philosophy — and now mine — is resolved once one realizes that "being is an empty fiction".

Heraclitus: "No man ever steps in the same river twice; for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man."
Nietzsche: "But Heraclitus will always be right in this, that being is an empty fiction."
Baudrillard: "... for identity has never existed... it has always been something we merely play-act."


   If, then, the simulacrum is that which appears to be something other than it is, everything is a simulacrum, since in a world of becoming, of perpetual metamorphosis — in a world, that is to say, of fluxno one and nothing is what it appears to be, and Baudrillard's seemingly bewildering declaration that "I am my own simulacrum" is merely the ultimate conclusion to be drawn from this line of reasoning. A conclusion, by the way, which earned the poor man, and still does, a truly depressing amount of hostility and derision from the "cultured" newspapermen and the "educated" rabble. But he was always far too dignified to stoop to explaining to them something which, as far as he was concerned, anyone with a basic understanding of physics and some dabbling in philosophy should be able to easily grasp. It follows, after all, right away once one realizes that the concepts "immediate certainty" and "absolute knowledge" are contradictia in adjecto (something which Nietzsche had pointed out already by 1885, in Beyond Good and Evil §16, nearly a century before simulacra became popular...), since light and nerve signals propagate at a finite speed.
   There is, therefore, absolutely no qualitative difference between reality and simulation, no contradiction between them at all. Simulation then — may we be bold enough to grasp this — is merely a kind of reality, as good is a kind of evil (Ecce Homo, Why I Am A Destiny §4), truth a kind of error (The Will to Power §493), morality a kind of immorality (The Will to Power §308), pleasure a kind of pain (The Will to Power §490), theory a kind of practice (The Ecstasy of Communication pg. 99), love a kind of hatred (On the Genealogy of Morals, First Essay §8), freedom a kind of slavery (The Intelligence of Evil, Do You Want to Be Free?), and so on and so forth. No shred of right exists then to speak of unreal or half-real simulations, unreal or half-real videogames. If one starts from the reality of the body, as one ought to start (for there is nowhere else to start from), it follows that everything the body interacts with will necessarily be just as real.
   It was thus never a question of whether the simulacrum was real or not — the simulacrum has always been real — what was in question, and still is, was its relationship to other real things — namely, those it simulates (i.e. those it resembles, those it appears to be like).
   Therein lies the riddle of simulation's destiny. There, too, lies its solution.