Simulacrum

Lindsay Koso

Rene Magritte, Ceci N'est Pas Une Pipe, 1928-1929.  Oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Figure 1. Rene Magritte, Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe, 1928-1929. Oil on canvas. Los Angeles County Museum of Art

A simulacrum is commonly understood as a representation of a person or thing. It is an imitation, and not the thing itself, and thus one step removed from what it denotes. The notion of the simulacrum dates back to the Greek philosopher Plato, circa 360 BCE, when he discussed it in his Sophist. Simulacra are seen by Plato as an element related to a dipartite relationship within artmaking; that is, the relationship between an original artwork and its copy. Platonist discourse differentiated between the image and what it represented, making the clear distinction that an artwork, its copy, and simulacra are separate entities and cannot be interpreted as equals, for the simulacrum distorts the truth of the original. A copy, however, had a direct, often physical relationship with the original and thus retained some of its “truth” in its production.

Understanding what is or is not the original, and therefore what is or is not the simulacrum, has been complicated across the centuries. As Walter Benjamin wrote:

Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence…The whole sphere of authenticity is outside technical – and, of course, not only technical – reproducibility.1

With the advent of printmaking, and the subsequent inventions of photography and the digital age, creating multiples of an image has become increasingly easy and increasingly common. However, the simulacrum is not merely a copy. As Gilles Deleuze writes, “The copy is an image endowed with resemblance, the simulacrum is an image without resemblance.”2 Deleuze draws out the distinction between a copy and a simulacrum: a copy is an exact reproduction, a product derived directly from and with a physical relationship to the original, whereas a simulacrum is independent from the original, connected to the original only by a theoretical understanding.

Therefore, a simulacrum is an idea separate yet intrinsically linked to both the original and the copy. Although this distinction may seem at first daunting, it is easier to understand when looking at René Magritte’s Ceci N’est Pas Une Pipe (1928-29) [Figure 1]. Magritte’s painting highlights the idea of the simulacrum. If a viewer is asked, “What is this?” and responds “It is a pipe,” the viewer would, in fact, be wrong. For, as the inscribed title of the painting warns, this is not a pipe. It is not even a copy of a pipe; it is a painting of a pipe.3 A simulacrum cannot be a thing, nor is it even a copy of a thing. Rather, it is the arbitrary representation of a thing that signifies the thing itself, existing both inside and outside of itself at once. Magritte’s Pipe, a simulacrum, is only called “a pipe” because of the visual relationship that the painting has with an existing concept, that of a pipe.4 As Michael Camille distinguishes (calling the simulacrum “phantasm” as a more direct translation of the Greek used by Plato,):“Whereas the icon is ‘other but like,’ the phantasm only appears to look like the things it copies because of the ‘place’ from which we view it.”5 A simulacrum only exists in relationship to other things; it cannot exist independently.

Some critics find the idea of the simulacrum troublesome, and a distraction from “authentic” art. Camille posits:

An image without a model, lacking that crucial dependence upon resemblance or similitude, the simulacrum is a false claimant to being which calls into question the ability to distinguish between what is real and what is represented…The simulacrum is more than just a useless image, it is a deviation and perversion of imitation itself–a false likeness.6

A simulacrum cannot exist without the original, and yet it is a completely separate idea from the original on which it was based. For this reason, some scholars believe that a simulacrum is a liberated image. Deleuze writes:

The simulacrum is not a degraded copy. It harbors a positive power which denies the original and the copy, the model and the reproduction. At least two divergent series are internalized in the simulacrum–neither can be assigned as the original, neither as the copy… There is no longer any privileged point of view, except that of the object common to all points of view. There is no possible hierarchy, no second, no third… The same and the similar no longer have an essence except as simulated, that is as expressing the functioning of the simulacrum.7

In this way the simulacrum is a universal concept; neither original or copied, but rather an independent image that depends on an understanding of the original to exist. And, as Baudrillard writes: “The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.”8 A simulacrum surpasses the original, creating its own reality by reaching to the heart of the thing it represents and overturning the preconceived notion of their essence.

 

Footnotes

  1. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, trans. Harry Zohn, 1998. Originally published in  Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, 1936. https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm.
  2. Gilles Deleuze, “Plato and the Simulacrum,” October 27 (1983): 48.
  3. To read more on this particular work, see Michel Foucault, This Is Not A Pipe, trans. and ed. James Harkness (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008).
  4. For more on this relationship, see Scott Durham, “From Magritte to Klossowski: The Simulacrum, Between Painting and Narrative.” October 64 (1993): 16-33.
  5. Michael Camille, “Simulacrum,” in Critical Terms for Art History, ed. Robert S. Nelson and Richard Shiff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 36.
  6. Ibid., 36.
  7. Deleuze, 53
  8. Jean Baudrillard, Jean Baudrillard, Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster (Stanford; Stanford University Press, 1988).