Simulacrum [sim-yuh-ley-kruhm] (Latin: ‘likeness, similarity’) was first recorded in the English language in the late 16th century, to describe a representation, such as a statue or a painting, especially of a god. By the late 19th century, it had gathered a secondary association of inferiority: an image without the substance or qualities of the original.
Philosopher Fredric Jameson offers photorealism as an example of artistic simulacrum, where a painting is sometimes created by copying a photograph that is itself a copy of the real. Other art forms that play with simulacra include Trompe l’oeil, Pop Art, Italian neorealism, and the French New Wave.
The simulacrum has long been of interest to philosophers. In his ‘Sophist,’ Plato speaks of two kinds of image-making. The first is a faithful reproduction, attempted to copy precisely the original. The second is distorted intentionally in order to make the copy appear correct to viewers. He gives an example of Greek statuary, which was crafted larger on top than on bottom so that viewers from the ground would see it correctly. If they could view it in scale, they would realize it was malformed. This example from visual arts serves as a metaphor for philosophical arts and the tendency of some philosophers to distort truth in such a way that it appeared accurate unless viewed from the proper angle. Nietzsche addresses the concept of simulacrum (but does not use the term) in ‘The Twilight of the Idols,’ suggesting that most philosophers, by ignoring the reliable input of their senses and resorting to the constructs of language and reason, arrive at a distorted copy of reality.
Postmodernist French social theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right: the hyperreal. Where Plato saw two steps of reproduction — faithful and intentionally distorted (simulacrum) — Baudrillard sees four: (1) basic reflection of reality; (2) perversion of reality; (3) pretence of reality (where there is no model); and (4) simulacrum, which ‘bears no relation to any reality whatsoever.’ In Baudrillard’s concept, like Nietzsche’s, simulacra are perceived as negative, but another modern philosopher who addressed the topic, Gilles Deleuze, takes a different view, seeing simulacra as the avenue by which accepted ideals or ‘privileged position’ could be ‘challenged and overturned.’ Deleuze defines simulacra as ‘those systems in which different relates to different by means of difference itself. What is essential is that we find in these systems no prior identity, no internal resemblance.’
Simulacra often make appearances in speculative fiction. Examples of simulacra in the sense of artificial or supernaturally or scientifically created artificial life forms include Ovid’s Galatea from ‘Metamorphoses,’ the medieval golem of Jewish folklore, Mary Shelley’s creature from ‘Frankenstein,’ Carlo Collodi’s ‘Pinocchio,’ Karel Čapek’s ‘RUR’ (the work from which the word ‘robot’ derives), and Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis,’ with ‘Maria,’ the robotrix, as well as the illusions of absent loved ones created by an alien life form in Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Solaris.’ The philosophically oriented
American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick returned obsessively to the theme of simulacra both in the form of artificial environments, events, artifacts, organisms, and even worlds. Examples include the artificial humans and animals in his ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,’ ‘We Can Build You,’ the protagonist of ‘The Electric Ant’ and, more realistically, the fake antiques present in his ‘The Man in the High Castle’ (which also deals with a counterfeit world, of sorts). The pertinently entitled ‘The Simulacra’ is about a fraudulent government led by a presidential simulacrum (more specifically, an android).
Apart from the ever-popular notion of virtual reality worlds found in much cyberpunk (such as ‘The Matrix’), physically created appear in countless works. Michael Crichton visited this theme several times, in ‘Westworld’ and the ‘Jurassic Park’ series. Other examples include the elaborately staged worlds of ‘The Truman Show,’ ‘Synecdoche, New York,’ and ‘Equilibrium,’ among countless other examples. (In ‘The Truman Show,’ Truman has, in effect, a simulated life as well, which an invisible team of media professionals have created entirely without his knowledge. This arguably makes Truman, an ordinary human otherwise, in terms of his nature, a partially artificial being.)
Some stories focus on simulacra as objects, such as Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.’ The term also appears in Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ and in Stanislaw Lem’s ‘Solaris.’ Another noteworthy example of the usage of the term simulacrum in literature comes from 20th century Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story ‘The Circular Ruins.’ The ‘dreamed man’ in the story is an example of a simulacrum, as he is a representation of a mortal human being. In the context of the prominent magical realism in ‘The Circular Ruins,’ a simulacrum can create its own simulacrum.
Recreational simulacra include reenactments of historical events or replicas of landmarks, such as Colonial Williamsburg and the Eiffel Tower, and constructions of fictional or cultural ideas, such as Fantasyland at The Walt Disney Company’s Magic Kingdom. The various Disney parks have by some philosophers been regarded as the ultimate recreational simulacra, with Baudrillard noting that Walt Disney World Resort is a copy of a copy, ‘a simulacrum to the second power.’
In 1975, Italian author Umberto Eco expressed his belief that at Disney’s parks, ‘we not only enjoy a perfect imitation, we also enjoy the conviction that imitation has reached its apex and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it.’ This is for some an ongoing concern. Examining the impact of Disney’s simulacrum of national parks, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, environmentalist Jennifer Cypher and anthropologist Eric Higgs expressed worry that ‘the boundary between artificiality and reality will become so thin that the artificial will become the center of moral value.’ Eco also refers to commentary on watching sports as sports to the power of three, or sports cubed. First, there are the players who participate in the sport, the real; then the onlookers merely witnessing it; then, the commentary itself on the act of witnessing the sport. Visual artist Paul McCarthy has created entire installations based upon Pirates of the Caribbean, and theme park simulacra, with videos playing inside the installation itself.
An interesting example of simulacra is caricature. Where an artist draws a line drawing that closely approximates the facial features of a real person, the sketch cannot be easily identified by a random observer; the sketch could just as easily be a resemblance of any person, rather than the particular subject. However, a caricaturist will exaggerate prominent facial features far beyond their actuality, and a viewer will pick up on these features and be able to identify the subject, even though the caricature bears far less actual resemblance to the subject.
Tibetan scholar and artist Robert Beer employs the term ‘simulacrum’ to denote the formation of a sign or iconographic image whether iconic or aniconic (the avoidance of depictions of deities) in the landscape or greater field of Thanka Art (silk paintings with embroidery) and Tantric Buddhist iconography. For example, an iconographic representation of a cloud formation sheltering a deity in a thanka or covering the auspice of a sacred mountain in the natural environment may be discerned as a simulacrum of an ‘auspicious canopy’ (Sanskrit: ‘Chhatra’) of the Ashtamangala (Eight Auspicious Signs). Perceptions of religious imagery in natural phenomena approaches a cultural universal and may be proffered as evidence of the natural creative spiritual engagement of the experienced environment endemic to the human psychology.