“The Omnipotence of Simulacra”: Tracing the Evolution of the Simulacrum Throughout the History of Theory, Criticism, and Human Subjectivity

by Joshua Commander


“The dissimulation of the woven texture can in any case take centuries to undo its web: a web that envelops a web, undoing the web for centuries; reconstituting it too as an organism, indefinitely regenerating its own tissue behind the cutting trace” writes Jacques Derrida in his pivotal book La Dissémination — an observation which proves especially germane when endeavoring to dis-simulate the woven and (perhaps inextricably) entangled texture of simulation as well as the simulacrum’s role throughout the history of human subjectivity and literary theory (Derrida 1697). While Jean Baudrillard notes in “The Precession of Simulacra” that “the precession of simulacra” is now “here, everywhere[…] in a world completely catalogued and analyzed and then artificially revived as though real, in a world of simulation,” such a world has nonetheless been with us since antiquity” (1562). From Plato’s Idea of God to Donna Haraway’s cyborg, the silent precession and procession of simulacra has accompanied the evolution of Western civilization and literary theory for millennia — a procession that has only gained momentum over the centuries, a procession that is forever-present despite its tendency to signify only absence. By using Baudrillard’s theoretical framework to reveal the masked presence of simulation in Plato’s Ideal Forms, Augustine’s interpretation of biblical scripture, the mirror stage of psychosexual development, constructions of the “Other,” mimicry and metonymy of presence, and the persistent human desire for a (mythic) visible past in literary theory and criticism, we will find that simulacra has not only evolved along with us in our cultural development, but perhaps that we too are nothing other than simulacra ourselves. Indeed, to believe otherwise would be tantamount to dissimulation.

       According to Plato, “any given plurality of things which have a single name constitutes a single specific type”—an Idea or Form—in which “God” is the creator of its original, perfect, and transcendent form, and any subsequent earthly reproductions are but imperfect imitations of that “Ideal” (65). In Book X of the Republic, Plato’s dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon serves to establish the Platonic order of things, but also anticipates the first two phases of the image that Baudrillard identifies in “The Precession of Simulacra” (Baudrillard 1560). Using a bed as an example, Socrates explains to Glaucon its three manifestations: first is the “real” one, the “product of divine craftsmanship”; second is the physical manifestation of the bed here on earth—the one the joiner produces; and lastly is the artistic reproduction of the bed, fashioned by a painter (Plato 66). Socrates and Glaucon move on to classify “God” as the bed’s “progenitor” (because it is God who produced the only “real bed”), the joiner as its “manufacturer,” and the painter as its “representer” (a label extended to all painters, playwrights, and poets) since s/he [2] “deals with things which are, in fact, two generations away from reality” (66). If we take Plato’s theory at face-value, his second classification of a thing—in the given example, the joiner’s bed—also fulfills Baudrillard’s criterion for the first order of simulation: a “reflection of a basic reality”; his third category, the product of a representer, then fulfills the second phase of the image since a “low-grade mother like representation” is not only “far from the truth,” but also “masks and perverts a basic reality”—both Plato and Baudrillard would agree with its classification of “an evil appearance” which belongs to “the order of malefice” (Plato 72; Baudrillard 1560). Plato and Baudrillard’s agreement ends there, however, for while the former considers his Idea of God an irrefutable reality, the latter considers it to be little more than an anthropocentric phantasm, a specter of tradition and a culturally-constructed illusion (1559). Indeed, according to Baudrillard’s subsection of his treatise titled “The Divine Irreference of Images,” the purportedly “real” Platonic Forms created by “God”— including “the Platonic Idea of God”—amount to nothing other than their own pure simulacra since they reference (in text, speech, or other images) things that do not exist and therefore mask only absences and bear “no relation to any reality whatever”—in short, they “dissimulate that there is nothing” (1559-60).

       Far from confining the “simulacrum of divinity” to Platonic Ideals, however, Baudrillard holds that “[a]ll of Western faith and good faith was engaged in this wager on representation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange—God, of course” (1559, 1560). The vessel through which Augustine of Hippo grounds his theories of how signs function—his interpretation of (and evident belief in) biblical scripture—is a case in point. In On Christian Teaching, Augustine instructs the gentle reader on the proper method of dealing with “the ambiguities of metaphorical words” in texts: first and foremost, one must take especial care not to mistake a figurative expression for a literal one lest that expression be “understood in a carnal way” (160). He exemplifies such a spiritual oversight by relating that when an individual hears the word ‘sabbath’ and literally construes it as merely one of the calendar days of a week instead of taking into account its figurative significance (as a day commemorating the resurrection of Christ), s/he is subject to “a miserable kind of spiritual slavery” and is “incapable of raising the mind’s eye above the physical creation so as to absorb the eternal light” (160). Augustine equates the inability to recognize figurative language to “spiritual slavery” because what is at stake here is not merely a misunderstanding of meaning, but the possibility that the reader might not recognize the ‘divine truth’ of “the word of God” in his/her interpretation of scriptural text (157). As Baudrillard explains, “[t]o simulate is to feign to have what one hasn’t. [It] implies[…]an absence”—but simulation is not merely limited to feigning; like an individual who simulates sickness and generates psychosomatic symptoms, the biblical advocate (Augustine) also unconsciously simulates belief in “the word of God” and in so doing generates conviction based on “an uninterrupted circuit without reference,” thereby threatening “the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false,’ between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’” (Baudrillard 1558-60; Augustine 157). Not unlike Plato’s Idea of God, Augustine’s “invisible attributes of God” have been “volatized into simulacra”—biblical texts—“which alone deploy their pomp and power of fascination,” therein masking the devastating truth “that ultimately there has never been any God, that only the simulacrum exists, indeed that God himself has only ever been his own simulacrum” (Augustine 157; Baudrillard 1559).

       The simulacrum’s role in human subjectivity is not limited to its manifestations as religious texts, however; indeed, its grasp first takes hold on an individual level the very moment an infant approaches the gateway to the imaginary order: the mirror stage. As Plato illustrates via Socrates and Glaucon’s dialogue:

Socrates: [G]et hold of a mirror and carry it around with you everywhere. You’ll soon be creating everything.

Glaucon: Yes, but I’d be creating appearances, not actual real things. (Plato 65)

So too does a young child create merely an appearance during its initial méconnaissance of itself, an appearance s/he mistakes for the real thing. In “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,” Jacques Lacan describes the transformation that a subject undergoes when s/he first (mis)recognizes her/himself in the mirror: the infant jubilantly identifies with the seeming wholeness of its specular form, but this form only serves to situate “the agency of the ego, before its social determination, in a fictional direction, which will always remain irreducible for the individual alone, or rather, which will only rejoin the coming into being[…] of the subject asymptotically” (1164-65)[4]. Thus, the child’s reflection occupies the second phase of Baudrillard’s “successive phases of the image”: as an image [5] forever in “discordance with [the subject’s] own reality,” it is of the second order of simulation in that “it masks and perverts a basic reality” by depicting a figure of wholeness while simultaneously representing only an “exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted” (Baudrillard 1560; Lacan 1165). In this way, the specular image can also be read as a text, just as a text can also be read as a second-order simulacrum: according to Jacques Derrida, “[a] text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible”(1697)[6].

       And yet, “the spectral light of ethnology” can at times appear to illuminate some of the darker passages of texts, but in reality this “fourth dimension[…]of the simulacrum” only serves to further obscure them—as Edward Said so ably demonstrates in his groundbreaking work Orientalism (Baudrillard 1562). Not unlike the incomplete image that a reflection provides a subject, Edward Said writes that “Orientalism is premised on exteriority, that is, on the fact that the Orientalist, poet or scholar, makes the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the West”; indeed, the Western conception of the Orient is so thoroughly composed of a continuous series of Western representations repeatedly mapped onto each other that Said contends that “[t]he Orient was almost a European invention” in that the latter’s culture was able to produce the former “politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-enlightenment period” (1882, 1866, 1868). The Orient is therefore less an Eastern reality and more a Western fantasy, an endless succession of signs, images, texts, and representations that defines the East on the West’s terms—a phantasmagoric simulacrum that at once distorts, perverts, and masks the real presence of the East. The means by which this Oriental simulacrum is fashioned, of course, is via a sub-branch of ethnology—Orientalism—by a specialist of that ethnological field: the Orientalist. According to Said, the Orientalist is “[a]nyone who teaches, writes about, or researches the Orient[…]either in its specific or general aspects,” whose work in turn produces seemingly scientific discourses that only result in the continued conquest and subjugation of the Orient (1867). In other words, “the Orient was not (and is not) a free subject of thought or action”: in order for “ethnology [and Orientalism] to live, its object [the East] must die” (Said 1868; Baudrillard 1561).

       This ethnologically induced death also manifests itself in the form of what Homi Bhabha calls “mimicry” in his essay “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse”; this death, however, is exacted as if it were administered via a double-edged sword without a hilt, simultaneously wounding its wielder as it dispatches its object—all the while generating its very own precession of simulacra. As Bhabha relates, “colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same but not quite” (126). To achieve its end, though, mimicry must not cease producing the said difference—what Bhabha calls “its slippage”—but it is that difference in itself which is also “a process of disavowal” that ironically “ensure[s] [the] strategic failure” of colonial appropriation, resulting in mimicry simultaneously functioning as both “ resemblance and menace” (127). The latter is self-evident and undeniable in the visible [7] aspect of mimicry: the colonized is “[a]lmost the same but not white,” which effectively unveils the inherent “ambivalence of colonial discourse” as well as undermines its narcissistic authority, therein furnishing itself with the inadvertent means to its own destruction (130). In the meantime, however, colonial mimicry’s “strategic production of conflictual, fantastic, discriminatory ‘identity effects’” produces a mimetic Other with “no essence, no ‘itself’”; in brief, “mimicry conceals no presence or identity behind its mask” (130-31). The resultant byproducts are colonized simulacra of the colonizers: individuals whose visible aspects mask an absence of self. On the other hand—and here can be descried the colonizers’ unconscious brandishing of yet another dual-edged blade without a hilt—the apparent ease with which colonized Others may perform the cultural codes of the colonial authority reveals precisely how hollow that authority’s claim to cultural superiority really is: not unlike the replica made just five-hundred meters away from the original caves of Lascaux, “the duplication is sufficient to render both artificial” (Baudrillard 1563). Both colonized and colonizer are reduced to simulacra by the latter’s counterproductive, and ultimately ineffective, strategic objectives to maintain power.

       Moreover, those self-serving strategic objectives also take shape in yet another form: the “inappropriate signifiers of colonial discourse” that Bhabha calls the “metonymy of presence” (130). These include, according to Bhabha, “the difference between being English and being Anglicized[…]the discriminatory [stereotypical] identities constructed across traditional cultural norms and classifications, the Simian Black, the Lying Asiatic”—and also, as Edward Said has identified, the Oriental (Bhabha 130). Bhabha styles such racist sweeping generalizations as metonymies of presence because these stereotypes represent a presence in part, a part that is intended to masquerade as a whole. In other words, these stereotypes are third-order simulacra: each stereotype “plays at being an appearance,” each “masks the absence of a basic reality”—the absence of an accurate representation of the Other (Baudrillard 1560). Consider the Occident’s stereotypical depiction of the Oriental: the Oriental female is represented as being strikingly exotic and overly eager for domination; the Oriental male is portrayed as feminine, weak, but also oddly threatening in that his untamed sexuality places Western white women in apparent jeopardy; and the West’s sweeping personification of the Orient “exhibits supine malleability and feminine penetrability” and is viewed as eccentric, backward, silently different, passive, sensual, despotic, and cruel (Said 1868; Said 2, 206). Said stresses the importance of viewing such representations as precisely that: re-presentations. According to Said, “[i]n any instance of at least written language, there is no such thing as a delivered presence, but a represence, or representation” (1883). Indeed, written accounts depicting Western stereotypes of the Oriental therefore depend very little on actual individuals; “on the contrary,” Said writes, “the written statement is a presence to the reader by virtue of it having excluded, displaced, [8] made supererogatory any such real thing as the Orient[al]” (1883). Said’s classification of the West’s “represence” of the Orient and the Oriental testify to the legitimacy of Baudrillard’s claim that “simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum,” since such stereotypical representations have progressed from masking and perverting a basic reality, to masking the absence of a basic reality by virtue of excluding and displacing it, and then finally to bearing very little relation to any reality whatsoever in its policy of simultaneous exclusion and alteration; in other words, such a stereotypical depiction of the Oriental is but the simulacrum of the highest order (Baudrillard 1560).

       “We need a visible past, a visible continuum, a visible myth of origin to reassure us as to our ends, since ultimately we have never believed in them” (Baudrillard 1563). Donna Haraway, in her critical essay entitled “A Manifesto for Cyborgs,” would qualify Baudrillard’s disillusioned observation with the need for novelty: we need a new past, “retold stories, versions that reverse and displace hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities”; and indeed, she answers her own clarion call by constructing her own “ironic faith, [her] blasphemy,” in “the image of the cyborg” (2215, 2190). Unlike the central myths of origin that masquerade as divine histories, the cyborg embraces its existential indeterminacy as “a creature of fiction” and “a creature of social reality”—a creature after our own hearts, for the cyborg’s very composition mirrors our own: we too are part fiction, part social reality, the latter being nothing more than “lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction” (2190)[9]. Cyborgs, like ourselves, “are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism,” and there is a certain legitimacy to be had in recognizing one’s own illegitimacy: in recognizing the illegitimacy of the origin myths that have colonized our minds and governed our existence for millennia, we liberate ourselves from believing that the fictional dictates we have always lived by are facts—and can now live a fiction of our own choosing (2192). For whether we persist in believing that we were created in a fictional “god’s” image, or if we choose to re-create ourselves in the cyborg’s image, or if we abandon the question entirely, the end result is the same: we are all of the highest order of simulacra, images that bear no relation to our real origins whatsoever simply because those origins are unverifiable, which leads us to instead forever construct ourselves on the basis of a simulated reality, a woven texture forever entangled with our subjective experience. Indeed, to believe otherwise would be tantamount to dissimulation.

Works Cited

Augustine of Hippo. “From On Christian Teaching.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 154-62.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1556-566.

Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” October 28. Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis (Spring, 1984): 125-33. JSTOR. The MIT Press. Web. 19 Aug. 2013.

Derrida, Jacques. “From La Dissémination.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1697-734.

—. “From Of Grammatology.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1688-696.

Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 2190-220.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1163-169.

Plato. “From Republic.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 45-77.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. London: Penguin, 1977.

—. “From Orientalism.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2010. 1861-888.


[1] “The Omnipotence of Simulacra” appears in Baudrillard, 1559.

[2] I employ the gender-neutral, and more egalitarian, pronoun not out of ignorance—I understand that during the Hellenic era women were not as likely as men to be “representers” (painters, poets, tragedians, etc.)—but out of preference. This same usage will follow throughout.

[3] This is the reason why Baudrillard attributes his epigraph—“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true”—to Ecclesiastes; not because this epigraph is found in the Old Testament book of that name, but because that is what a preacher (what “Ecclesiastes” means in Ancient Greek) as an alleged representative of “God” on earth is: a simulacrum, a signifier that has no corresponding signified (1556). By extension, the church (what “ecclesia” came to mean in Greece when Christianity was introduced), as the house of God, is also its own simulacrum: its existence is based on the object of its faith—a mythic object that does not exist.

[4] My emphasis.

[5] Which Lacan calls the Gestalt (1165).

[6] My emphasis.

[7] Bhabha brilliantly plays off the layered meanings of terms—reminiscent of Derrida’s development of the linguistic concept of the “trace” in his analysis of Rousseau’s use of the term supplement—when he notes that “the visibility of mimicry is always produced at the sight of interdiction. It is a form of colonial discourse that is uttered inter dicta,” because the Latin phrase “inter dicta” means “between,” but when combined to one term, “interdicta,” it means “forbidden” (Derrida 1691; Bhabha 130). Both meanings, of course, at once apply to his usage and highlight the characteristic ambivalence of mimicry.

[8] My emphasis.

[9] My emphasis.