Pop Culture
May 04, 2010, 06:01AM

Simulacra: The Condition of Modernity

"Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth." -Baudrillard

The replacement of substance with style is a pervasive problem in modern America. The difference between contemporary cultural products compared with those of 50 years ago is quite obvious: even as production costs have consistently gone up, the actual content has significantly declined. Transformers 2 is famous for its lack of actual plot: It throws in scene after scene of gorgeously rendered robots pounding each other and destroying aircraft carriers and Great Pyramids, and it succeeds so well that no one can deny that it’s really cool looking. But that’s all it is: appearance is apparently of value, while reality is more or less irrelevant.
Don’t you think this way sometimes? I hate it when I see a web page whose design screams “1998” at me. Or what about those catalogues with the merchandise crowded on the pages in a way that just looks wrong? Those are the last bastions of style-less content in this country, and no one pays any attention to them because they look so weird.
What’s popular, the videos with five million views and the magazines with a million readers have become so slick that nothing sticks to them, so smoothly and neatly produced that they are impossible to criticize. But underneath the slickness, there is very little substance.
The greatest philosopher of the modern era, Immanuel Kant, sought to resolve the impasse between the rationalists and the empiricists. According to the rationalists, innate ideas were the best way to know truth. According to the empiricists, there were no innate ideas; instead, all knowledge came through the senses. But inevitably, empiricism leads to the conclusion that perceptions are all that we have available, and therefore it is impossible to know things as they really are. In other words, the substance is not just unknown, but unknowable: only the appearance can be known.
Kant examined this dilemma and “solved” it by dividing reality into two realms, phenomena and noumena—literally, “seen things” and “mind things.” God, the self, and the world as it really is; all of these were categorized safely in the noumena, where they could be safely ignored as unknowable. Instead, the appearance of the world to our own self is itself reality; this is the only legitimate foundation for knowledge. The Platonic idea of true, justified, belief—belief that corresponds to reality—is simply impossible.
In this way, Kant saved knowledge by saving the appearances, the “phenomena.” But if some aspect of reality is not important, then the natural reaction is to ignore it. Hence, the noumenal realm is practically forgotten. Instead, the focus shifts to appearances; less important things like plot and character development get shifted far into the background, where they can barely be seen between robot fist-fights and inter-galactic battles.
Video games, commercial fiction and pop music—all of these genres are ubiquitous in modern life, and they’re generally superficial. Their production values are stratospheric: static or background noises are out. No one would think of producing a scratched, grainy video, or a piece of beach chick-lit with improper subject-verb agreement. But even as technical skill increases, the things we say using this new technical skill grow more and more banal.
Music prides itself on being content-free. I once attempted to argue with a guy playing a certain song about the point made by its utterly absurd lyrics. He was shocked that I would think that song lyrics were subject to rational analysis. Stunned, he looked at me and said, “It’s just a song, dude!” Content can be true or false; apparently song lyrics cannot. The style is all that matters, and veracity is not something that applies.
What about books that have been written for the sole goal of selling millions of copies? As I read them, the technical virtuosity of the writers impresses me. The authors can describe anything, right down to the smallest rivet on a bulkhead; concoct the most implausible and mind-bending plots; and in general, write a flawless book which deploys every trick of the writer’s trade and still avoid saying anything of importance. A slick, smoothly rendered, fat-free simulacrum that avoids facing any issues or offering any genuine solutions, has neatly replaced reality, in all its rough outlines.
Video games, too, are exercises in futility. Oh, they sharpen your reaction speed and increase manual dexterity (shoot, it’s scientifically proven). But what they also do is reinforce, over and over, the idea that some form of virtual reality is both possible and desirable—that a world where you can die 200 times and re-spawn 201 times is somehow valid. Some people like “realistic” gaming, in which the graphics are really, really good. But for some reason, I have never heard anyone asking for a truly realistic game, in which you die once and stay dead. Video games, too, are part of this replacement of reality by appearance. Grand Theft Auto is “just a video game.” Sure it is. Whether playing it actually makes you more likely to go and shoot up ambulances is largely irrelevant; the point is that it teaches you that some actions don’t impact the real world, that for entertainment you can retreat into the realm of appearances and do your virtual thing. The realm of the real is where you work for a demanding boss doing a job you hate; the realm of appearance is where you have a level 115 RuneScape account and are the local big shot.        
Style is important; without it, one’s work will never even get a hearing. But apart from genuine, vital content, style is valueless. Understand reality, and then represent it. Not the other way around. Quit speaking until you have something to say—because unless it’s worth saying, I don’t care how well it’s said.


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