Thursday, January 19, 2012

These are a few of my favorite words: Simulacra

Simulacrum (pl, simulacra): Likeness, or similarity.

From The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory simulacra,simulation is defined as, "Associated with the work of Jean Baudrillard, these terms refer to the idea that "signs of the real" substitute for reality. The "orders of simulation" extend from simple mimetic copies (i.e., exact representations of an external referent) to copies that have no referent at all, that create the illusion of reference and, thus, of reality." (from page 322 of the copy I have)

In John Barth's The Literature of Exhaustion the main message is that literary topics and devices are so used up that there's nothing original to write about so writers must rehash old ideas in order to make something new. This may be discouraging at first, but it provides a concept itself that can create some interesting ideas as well. I'm just adding this because I like Post-Modern stories and this also goes along with simulacra.

Well, this is just Post-Modern Literary theory at this point so what does it matter to me?

I'm glad you asked because the more you look around the more you should realize how much of the world as it is now is part of simulacra. The easiest place to find simulacra in a natural environment would be those shopping centers that often spell shop as "shoppe" for old timey effect. These shoppes are usually strip malls or collections of big boxes all in one general location, but sometimes the facades are manufactured to make the businesses look a little old-fashioned. 

Lifestyle Centers are the next step in this evolution where upscale shopping centers have developed a place to spend your money in a location made to feel like you're shopping in an old (possibly European, definitely "fashionable") city where you'd walk from shop to shop and the buildings are obviously much older...but in these cases you're really in a manufactured experience that was built specifically for that effect of deception. The buildings are new, but look historic or quaint on the outside--they look like any other mall-based boutique on the inside-- and there's the park-like atmosphere of brick walk-ways and fountains and small garden areas and it's different than shopping in a real old city because, well, the authentically old places were not planned in the way in which a Lifestyle Center was planned. The old cities that these shopping experiences were based on were built up prior to cars, they were kind of utilitarian in the nature of planning, and the design of the buildings were generally fit for that time period.

So, what we have now are shopping centers with conveniently-located stores, (and parking garages nearby) with layouts based on updating older shopping mall designs into a design based on an interpretation of how old storefronts were before there were malls to organize shopping for the purpose of convenience,(also with market research and planning), but exterior designs based on the aesthetic of historic buildings which are pretty awesome to look at (architecture nerd). Then there's the functionality of modern retail-oriented interior layouts paired with the manufactured atmosphere outside provided by a simulation of a park in which they even have speakers piping in classical music and effective lighting solutions to make sure it's all safe, and a cleaning crew comes in and...well you see where I'm going, it's a real place, but it's not authentic... 

Is the simulation better than the original?

Shopping centers that provide a manufactured atmosphere are one thing, but one of my favorite places to visit for simulacra is Disney's Epcot theme park (Magic Kingdom, and just about any theme park, would also be good for this). Go to space, play with sciency things (not simulacra exactly, but it's fun), then just walk around the pond and visit a number of countries without ever boarding a plane. Walk from China to England to Morocco like it ain't no thang. Yeah, I said it.

Pay for the park ticket and you can experience a general feel of what a typical tourist might want to see, all in a shrunk down and extremely confined space as far as the size of countries would go. It's like a cultural hors d'oeuvres tray. You can even move between night and day in some parts--the Mexico exhibit has a fantastic star-lit sky over one of their indoor restaurant areas, there's also a "river," desert scenery and a cool evening breeze courtesy of the HVAC system. It's all fake, though...well, some of it's pretty real like the food and trinkets and the line at the French pastry shop, but the experience is falsified and processed. It's cleaned up...I don't even think you're supposed to spit on the ground at any of the Disney parks, but outside in the real world there are different things, ugly things. 

Countries have their own experiences, drama, and history, good and're not going to see a ride called "Experience The Great War" in the England and France portions of the park (also no cartel wars in Disney's version of Mexico), but you will find a a park where a group of Beatles impersonators play every couple hours. Really, how cool is that? They sound convincing enough and all those dudes are, you know, alive and on speaking terms. Also, the version of China that you get is old China, not the modern Post-Communist Revolution China we actually have in the world... but Orientalism is a word for another day.

So, what we get at Epcot is all the adorableness of ethnicity without the drama of political conflicts, and the best authenticity that research can provide of a created world that was made safe for mass consumption of an ideal. Disney has looked at everything that represents a country and decided what is intended to create this "authentic" experience of another culture at their park. (note, England, England)
If all we experience is Disney's version of the world do we know the authentic? Do we even want to look for it if we've already been given the "perfect" version? It is easier to think about Germany as one big Biergarten with Oompah bands (okay, well maybe no Oompah bands if you find them to be painful), rather than  let the specter of Hitler ruin everything.

What is authentic and does it matter?

I can't really answer this because I believe that the experience you have is what makes the world authentic to you. You should just be aware that when you go to Epcot you're seeing a version of the world like it's written in a one-page tourist guide. It wants you to go there, it's kind of superficial, but it can still be fun. It's by no means a "real" experience of the countries represented, but you can have an authentic experience of Epcot, but not of China through Epcot for example... no matter how good their research is.
These locations are planned, but experience should be felt and reacted to as you encounter it. What's the point of faking an experience? Or faking an emotion for that matter? 

So, I leave you with a song by Marilyn Manson. This particular song is "Ka-boom Ka-boom" from The Golden Age of Grotesque  which is a musical interpretation of the historic debauchery of the Wiemar Republic. I particularly like the line "I am a big car and I'm a strip bar. You call it fake, I call it 'good as it gets.' Nothing in this world in for real ..." it has Disney references as well.
And since I've written about Simulacra you can expect me to apply this concept to other posts in the future...Steampunk, I'm thinking of you in particular.

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