Yvonne Junya Yuan

From Jean Baudrillard’s view, there are three orders of simulacra that he articulated in Symbolic Exchange and Death in 1976. They are pre-industrial /classical order (simulation exists as counterfeiting), industrial order (simulation is affected by the technologies of mass production and standardization) and the contemporary postmodern order (simulation becomes the social rule and invades our entire everyday world). The modernism is characterized by its manufacture of products, whereas the postmodernism is focused on the consumption of symbols. Nowadays, what people need is not the value-in-use, but rather the meaning granted to the products and its discrepancies. To be more specific, when a woman purchase a trench coat, what she concerns more is the brand value or fashion taste the dress represents, rather than escaping cold, since the brand and the style stand for the personality and the social caste. In substance, the occupancy of an article is the possession of the symbol value behind its utilization value. It is abstract, and associated. We are living in a highly symbolized society; people prove the identities of self and others by exchanging the symbolic values of the consumption.

The Comparison of the Video Clips of CCTV News & the Movie Top Gun
This also relates to another significant phrase “SPECTACLE”. As Guy Debord once put it, “The spectacle grasped in its totality is both the result and the project of the existing mode of production. It is not a supplement to the real world, an additional decoration. It is the heart of the unrealism of the real society. In all its specific forms, as information or propaganda, as advertisement or direct entertainment consumption, the spectacle is the present model of socially dominant life. "Spectacle is not simply a term referring to image, presentation or image plus sound, “but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” In Debord’s mind, in the society of spectacle, people are always wrapped in the night of unreal; the imagery illusion has a firm hold over the real life. The truth of spectacle is that it is the ruling tool of the governing class, it “has become actual, materially translated” and “effective motivations of hypnotic behavior.” People are reigned by the hyperrealized imagery, drifting far away from the truth without self-awareness. I am deeply impressed by Debord’s argument that “the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires.” We are swallowed by the floods of messages, images and voices that are made of mediated symbols; we are taking the hyperrealized world as the true one unconsciously. We relied too much on the media to perceive the whole world. As Baudrillard talked about photography, he pointed out that only the lens “sees” things, and the main body manifests at the sacrifice of THE OTHERs’ disappearance. However, the disappearing OTHERs are often the truth. So-called "realist" photography does not capture the "what is." Instead, it is preoccupied with what should not be, like the reality of suffering for example. It prefers to take pictures not of what is, but of what should not be, from a moral or humanitarian perspective.

The image could turn into the accomplice of those who choose to conceal the truth. It reminds me of one famous example of the doubtable news report in mainland China last year. On January 23th, the CCTV News made such a report, saying that the China J-10 Fighter Aircraft launched a guided missile and the object was struck and exploded. A netizen named Liu Yi pointed out that the object Fighter Aircraft demonstrated in the news picture was actually USA F-5 and the news video might be took from the Hollywood Blockbuster Top Gun starring by Tom Cruise in 1986. In addition, he took screenshots of both the online news and the related scenes in Movie Top Gun. Although the news clip only appeared two seconds, scrupulous audiences discovered the questionable points. As seen from the comparison picture, the direction of the scattered fragments and the shape of the smoke fog are almost identical. Maybe the Top Gun could ask CCTV for copyright fee.From my angle, the raise of SUPERREALISM is an expression of disappointment to the media reality, is a delivery of the distrust of the mediated world.

With the astounding development of electronic media, symbols, signals and codes perfectly inhabit as the floating signifiers. They could be arranged and dominated at will, whilst manipulate people who are living among them. This is the “MATRIX” in our true life. We are governed by the capitalized control in a more comprehensive, systematic and covert way. Not only the symbols and signals blurred our judgments towards the world, as we are forced to enter the third situation of simulacra-simulation, things become trickier.

According to Baudrillard, “A simulation is different from a fiction or lie in that it not only presents an absence as a presence, the imaginary as the real, it also undermines any contrast to the real, absorbing the real within itself.” Take myself as an example, before I went to United States for the graduate program, I watched bunches of American TV Series, such as Gossip Girl, Sex and the City and numerous American movies. Thus, I'm quite familiar with the America major cities, like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago where lots of scenes are shot and most heroes and heroines live. The first time I traveled to NYC, I was totally looking for “memories” cause I’ve already pictured the Fifth Avenue, the Central Park and even the Columbia University hundreds of times with all the detailed scenes I acquired from those movies and TVs. I could even tell the Cafe where Serena and Dan used to date. When I stepped into the reality NYC, I found myself led by the nose by the movie scene. It seems to me that the life and the people in the TV screen are authentic and palpable. “The whole country is cinematic” said by William Marrin is indeed the experience of me. As radical as the theory of Debord and Baudrillard may be, their brilliant exposition render us keep sober-minded in the face of the all-directional poured message and information.


Jasmine Wee

Simulacrum in Mapping: GIS and GPS in the Google Map Age

According to Baudrillard, Benjamin and Malraux, technology has brought about changes in how people consume, produce and perceive cultural products, and heavily changed how we perceive our reality and environments around us. Another example of technology changing how we see and operate in our world is with maps. From the dawn of time since man began mapping locations, drawing lines demarcating territories and separating “us” from the “Other”, maps have been a deceivingly subjective man-made creation, full of symbols, meanings that serve a specific purpose, whether it be overtly political (such as propaganda maps) or not. In contemporary times, mapping has seemingly taken on increasingly objective traits, because humans entrust all mapping to digital robots, which, using satellite imagery, take photographs of the Earth, stitch them together, draw in the appropriate borders and form the world as we know it. But does that make the map completely objective? Recent technology has seem the emergence of two mapping systems that dominate within our lives: GPS (Global Positioning System) and GIS (Geographic Information System). The GPS is something many Americans use on a day-to-day basis; but the GIS, though lesser understood by the ordinary person, may in fact have more impact on our daily lives than even the GPS, which we have come to rely on so heavily for orientation and navigation.
Ask yourself: Is this Reality?
Ask yourself: Is this Reality?
The GIS is a system that first captures and stores all types of geographically reference data, then manipulates, analyzes and presents it in map form for the purposes of statistical analysis and cartography. Geographic reference data could cover everything from land type to population number to political affiliation to preferred mode of transport. Once this data is compiled, the GIS could arrange and compile the data in a way that would answer a specific question regarding the geography or population within that territory. GIS is used not only by (obviously) statisticians and geographers, but urban planners, transportation managers, and more importantly perhaps in our current day and age, marketers and advertisers. Advertising companies would use socioeconomic data to deduce which of their advertisements would be most impactful within that area; and if people are shaped by what they see and sense, then the GIS has shaped the advertisements and media we see; so, our tastes and interests are in fact controlled and shaped according to the GIS as determined by where we live. If we are to put ourselves into Baudrillard’s orders of simulacra, the GIS and GPS has definitely launched us into the contemporary postmodern order, where simulation has more or less become our reality, and in which reality affects simulation and both feed into each other in a constant process. As Baudrillard stated, a simulation “not only presents an absence as a presence, the imaginary as the real, it also undermines any contrast to the real, absorbing the real within itself.” And of course, one only has to access Google Map and see the entire world laid out before you, where you can use different signs and functions—Baudrillard claims that signs are “substituting…of the real for the real itself” and in the case of mapping it becomes ever more apparent—and one could demarcate the world however you wish; by country, by territory, by “significant buildings” within your area. It could also function as a GPS and even tell you how bad the traffic is in real time. Note however, that although the Google maps can embody practically any function one could wish for, it is not reality. The real world is not on a 2D plane, there are no symbols demarcating only landmarks you picked out, and roads are not conveniently color-coded in yellow and white; and yet this is increasingly how humans think of the world, and technology has shaped the way in the ways we perceive space, territory and reality. In the contemporary age of hyperreality, it is shocking how we take so many things for granted as “real”.


I like the fact that in “‘Did You Ever Eat Tasty Wheat?’” author William Merrin isn’t afraid to poke fun at The Matrix, both on account of the film’s desire to be too cool for school (everyone wears sunglasses and black leather) and its fundamental non-breaking of the Hollywood blockbuster mold with regard to action sequences, plot development and protagonist love interest. Merrin goes on to make intriguing points about experiential reality, virtual reality, and even “virtual, virtual reality,” as he calls virtual reality that is depicted virtually, i.e., through a medium such as cinema.

What separates dreams from real life? How do I know that, right now, as I type this response on the class wiki, I’m not dreaming? As Merrin argues, using The Matrix as an example and channeling theorist Jean Baudrillard, I can’t be sure. Baudrillard contends that today the virtual reality models, or “maps,” precede and produce experiential reality, or “territories,” which makes distinguishing between the virtual and the real impossible. Before Baudrillard, as Merrin notes, Descartes had echoed that sentiment, stating that “sensory evidence is inadequate,” to quote Merrin, since a perfect simulation would use our senses so well that they’d work against us, not only making us unsure if we were living real life or dreaming, but making us positively certain that we were living real life. An example of this occurs in the 1995 cyberpunk American film Strange Days, in which ordinary people can experience infinite virtual realities by "jacking in" to the tape recorded memories of others. These tape recordings record using all five senses. Unlike Neo in The Matrix, people in Strange Days know they are not really living in the recorded virtual reality. But the thrill of experiencing a fantasy that is as real as real life is as addicting as the hardest drugs, so a black market for virtual reality begins. The movie's famous opening scene shows what I'm talking about.

external image WrestlerPoster_000.jpgWhat’s so bad about assuming that the virtual is real? According to Merrin, this misconception results in the “desertification”—“the obliteration and replacement”—“of the real.” In Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord says the same thing, noting that when we become so convinced that the virtual is real, we are not really living, but are moving in ways that make sense in a virtual context but are meaningless in the real: We are “the liar [who] has lied to himself” (2). In fact, with pertinence to Debord’s theses, something I wanted to note is that technology is not required for the creation and sustenance of a virtual reality. I feel that recent cinema has lent that impression. One movie that suggests otherwise is The Wrestler, which I saw for the first time this weekend. In the movie, a washed-up wrestler (Randy “The Ram” Robinson) is getting along just fine in a realm of his own creation—one in which he can wear sparkly spandex and fake serious injury en route to money, fame and fans—before he has a heart attack that makes him reevaluate his lifestyle. He realizes he had been living in a fantasy world for twenty years, and that his actions as an inhabitant of that fantasy world—taking loads of prescription drugs, mostly—placed a great strain upon elements of the real world: His daughter barely knew him, his health was failing, and he had no marketable skills aside from hitting grown men with folding chairs.

external image the-wrestler-poster.jpgDebord and The Wrestler speak a lot to each other. Debord says that “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (4). Both in the movie and in real life, wrestlers are idolized—put on posters and in video games. But it’s not the posters or video games that are spectacle. The spectacle is the wrestlers’ performance, which draws adulation. People often wonder why wrestlers put their minds and bodies through so much strain, just to enact what amounts to a violent soap opera. Wrestlers do this because, as Randy “The Ram” demonstrates, “The spectacle cannot be understood as an abuse of the world of vision” (5)—it is the world vision. An actualized Weltanshauung (Debord) is virtual reality, and The Ram so confuses his “maps” for his “territories” (Baudrillard) that his real world is now a “desert” (Merrin), with relationships that can’t be saved. In the end The Ram decides he’d rather die as a wrestler than live normally with his health. He is Neo returning to the ignorant bliss of the pods rather than leading humanity against the machine-based simulacrum.

(An interesting side note: Critics have said The Wrestler is so affecting because Mickey Rourke, an actor who rose then fell, is portraying a man who rises and falls. Rourke was a boxer who was bludgeoned so badly that his Hollywood good looks were destroyed by a bad plastic surgeon, and his new/destroyed face lends itself perfectly to the portrayal of man who has had his face beaten for twenty years as a wrestler. Rourke was often introduced to the Guns-N-Roses song "Sweet Child O'Mine," just like The Ram is in the movie. Is this an example of the real world mixing with the virtual? The virtual becomes more profound the realer it is...)

Lin Lu

As Lessig suggested, the Read-Only Culture would replace the Read & Write Culture; however, I would wondering whether the term “Read-Only” would be appropriate for the digital era. Images, rather than texts, gain more attention from audiences and have more influence on audiences. As Benjamin indicated that “the mass mediation of the images and films shift the way Western culture understands arts, representation, and the transmission of visual culture.” After read The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, I am keeping thinking about how should we perceive and understand contents of images in the digital era. How should we redefine “reality”?

Historically, photographic film was used to record the “reality” and human beings were dedicated to improve photographic technologies of the construction of reality. Nevertheless, reality and originality are obsolete in the digital era in some extent. As Benjamin stated, the “aura” indicated a privilege owned by a unique authentic artwork, which is diminished in the digital era. Pop culture embraced by technologies and techniques has less pure art works. Photographic film, especially photograph that enters the market, is less real in the Read-Only Culture. In the digital era, all digital photographs can be understood as a combination of tons of pixels. Colors of pixels are determined by the mix of red, green, and blue. Consequently, algorithm determines presence of digital photographs. Can we agree with the fact that algorithm determine the “reality” that we have seen in digital photographs? Personally, I disagree. Reality is no longer objective in the digital era.

Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff

This week’s readings were tough to get my head around. Mostly, I’m left with a bunch of questions

1) Walter Benjamin said that works of art in our age of mechanical reproduction have lost their aura. But I would argue that although they are no longer used in a cult or religious sense as perhaps icons of the past were, but it seems to me that there is still a great deal of aura around art works understood as “originals”, or “masterpieces”. Is visiting and photographing the Mona Lisa with millions of other guests, while not quite understanding why she has such meaning not a ritual full of aura and spiritual awe? How does such an activity fit into Benjamin’s understanding? And although I agree that with the advent of photography, we favor works and experiences that can be photographed, there still seems to be room for the less reproducible experiences to play an important part in our lives. Even the contemporary trend toward conceptual, performance and space-based art seems to show that the force of reproducibility is not all-powerful.

2) Both Benjamin and Guy-Ernest Debord in Society of the Spectacle” seem so frightened by the implications of reproducibility and a world based on representation. Is this fear really justified, and more importantly, is it useful to us when we think about the implications of their writings for our world? I would agree with Debord that a higher percentage of our life is lived experiencing reproductions and mediated reality rather than the natural world, but I’m not quite so sure that natural is automatically good and thus mediated is automatically bad. Often one will see a “real” sight (take for example, the Grand Canyon) for the first time after seeing many reproductions of it, and will think “oh –that looks just like the photograph!” or “That is even more beautiful than the photograph”. While it strikes me as fascinating that our point of comparison, the “original” of our experience is the photo, not the real view. But this fact doesn’t have to be menacing, does it?

3) Which brings me to The Matrix. The film too seems to understand without question that the “real world” is more desirable than the virtual reality, world at least once you are enlightened. Characters argue that once one knows the truth, one can no longer live in the Matrix. But I think it’s worth stopping for a moment, and not just taking for granted the superiority of the real. Today, in our lives, be it through a good novel, a virtual reality video game or a movie, many humans put themselves into virtual worlds quite consentingly, and return again and again. Of course, these virtual worlds have their limits, and so a return to the real world is always necessary. But what if a virtual world was perfectly like life? You could taste/see/smell, love/hate/fear, play sports/read books etc. (This is arguably the situation in The Matrix). In this case defining the “real” world as better seems arbitrary.

Jen Lennon

This week opened up the stuff we’ve been talking about to bigger life proportions, didn’t it? The idea that everything has become the virtual reality or the simulation is an interesting thought, and one that’s been portrayed a few times in recent film history. The Truman Show popped into my head, and I think is even more pertinent when considering Baudrillard’s views that the media and advertising culture of modern times is what is creating this false world. In the Truman Show, Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, a guy who doesn’t realize that his life is really a constructed reality TV show, broadcast to the “real” world outside of him. Truman was part of the show since his birth and only knew his constructed reality, which was essentially built for the entertainment of others. But Truman eventually starts to notice little things that seem off and basically figures it all out and decides to escape. The producer of the show warns him that reality outside of his fake world isn’t any more “real” than the world with which he was living. After Truman leaves, they show the audience looking for something new to watch.

There’s something to be said for this idea of simulated reality and voyeurism in the world of reality TV and social media. People looking for their 15 minutes of fame create personas that will appeal, or even in some cases repel, a wide viewer audience and broadcast their “life” for the world to see. But what is real and what isn’t? I think this is the point that Baudrillard is making about modern society. He felt that society had become so saturated with the simulacra and constructs of a capitalistic, media-hungry society, that all meaning has been rendered meaningless. We’re in that stage that he considers the pure simulation, where simulacrums have no reference to any real reality.

If you look to the world of social media and blogging, there are so many “personas” out there, and these feel like real people. They post about a project they did, or an outfit they wore, or what recipe they made for their family so they seem real. And the person reading unconsciously compares him or herself to this persona, for good or bad. Yet these personas online aren’t real people. Sure, a physical human being wrote the material and took the photo. But the photo itself is a representation of what actually happened. From the get-go, this is already simulation. And much like an actor, these are roles that are slipped into, only it’s sold as reality. People don’t usually film their bad days or what really happens when the cameras go down. Watch any reality show and you see that certain things are filmed for shock value and certainly edited later to become more interesting. So not only is this probably actually scripted by a producer somewhere to be more entertaining to an audience and to make a profit, but the people themselves have adopted personas for themselves that they find as a more attractive version of their personality, their looks, and their personhood.

I watched a documentary a few years ago called “We Live in Public” which followed this guy Josh Harris who started a couple of revolutionary internet experiments in the 1990s. The first was essentially a bunker in New York City where people volunteered to live and everything would be paid for them as long as they didn’t leave and they agreed to have their lives taped. Cameras were put in every person’s bed, in the bathrooms and showers – everywhere. At first people loved it, but inevitably people started questioning who was in charge and freaking out. In his second project he turned the camera on himself and filmed him and his girlfriend living in their apartment. Eventually a similar trajectory happened and they both cracked under the pressure of constant invasion of privacy and the pressures this simulated reality placed on them as people.

I think these examples show the dangers of this kind of false reality where the people who are involved as the subjects eventually crack and feel the pressure of their own lives being simulated versions of themselves. But also the viewer loses because they look for meaning in their lives from the so-called simulated world around them – from the media and TV and film. Like in the Truman Show, even if one of these realities cracks, people will always be looking for the next thing. And in some ways, we look for that within ourselves. People want to capture those cinematic moments of their own existence that Merrin talks about in his essay.

This is the experience of mundane, everyday reality in all its banality at that moment when the matrix breaks through, when the lighting, the scenography, the editing, are just right. It is the moment of the confusion of real and image; of the cinematographisation of everyday life: of that hyperreality that we hope for that simultaneously heightens life and degrades reality; of that disquieting "hallucination" that transforms experience into imagic spectatorship and the world's "substance" into a digitally perfect screen effect. “

Who doesn’t want that?