Pure simulation: The triumph of the sign

June 6th, 2002

Module: 305CCM – Film Studies
Student Name: Guy Carberry
Tutor Name: Val Hill
Date Due: May 2000

Question: According to Jean Baudrillard the postmodern age is
characterised by the triumph of the sign, which loses any reference to
reality and therefore becomes pure simulation. How might this statement
be used to illuminate formal and narrative concerns of films studied this

This essay will answer the question above by using “The Matrix”
as its main focal point. During the course of the essay “Aliens”,
“Terminator 2” and “Blade Runner” will also be
used to represent some of the ideas surrounding the notion of simulation.
The essay will look at the postmodern writings of Jean Baudrillard and
in particular his ideas of the simulacrum and reality. Using these ideas
the essay will firstly examine the ways in which the simulated world can
be seen and secondly the way that the characters in the film can be seen
to be simulacra. The essay will then examine the ways in which the films
use these characters and landscapes to air their particular concerns in
both form and narrative.

Before looking at the films it is important to outline Jean Baudrillard’s
central ideas of the simulacra. He defines ‘simulacrum’ as
“Simulacrum: an image, the semblance of an image, make believe or
that which conceals the truth or the real” (1981:32-33) Baudrillard
(1981: 202) says that people now live in an age of hyper-reality and simulation
where the notion of the ‘real’ no longer exists as all there
is are simulations. He says that the world of today no longer resembles
reality because of the mass influx of signifiers which no longer represent
any signified. He uses the example of Disneyland (Kellner, 1989:82), saying
that the very fact that it is marketed as a simulated place is to conceal
the fact that the rest of the USA is also a mass simulation. Through the
postmodern architecture, food and art the whole of America has become
a ‘hyper-real’ place which is a simulated copy of other places.
He says that Disneyland is actually appears more real than America itself.

Baudrillard (1991) is keen to suggest the idea that the simulacrum is
considered more real to people than reality itself. This is a key concept
in The Matrix. The world in which Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, lives is
discovered to be entire simulation to hide the reality that the world
is a breeding ground for human beings who are used as batteries to power
‘The Matrix’. The world that Neo lives in turns out to be
a simulation of the late 20th Century that has been and gone. Zizec (1999)
says The Matrix “functions as a ‘screen’ that separates
us from the real”. This narrative aspect of the film seems to refer
directly to Baudrillard’s notions around ‘hyper-reality’.
Baudrillard says that the huge proliferation of media images has contributed
to the loss of reality. These images hide the wider reality of the real
world – capitalist oppression. This is more of a Marxist view than a postmodern
one. People such as the Frankfurt school have suggested that the role
of the media is to hide the reality of the capitalist word and to maintain
the status quo. Baudrillard is suggesting that it is no longer possible
to distinguish between reality and simulation. This is where his ideas
of the hyper-real originate. Planting in Bordwell (1996:307) argues against
Baudrillard saying that whilst he agrees with Plato that images reveal
nothing and produce no knowledge, Baudrillard may be taking it a little
too far suggesting that reality does not exist. One of Baudrillard’s
(1993:61) ideas surrounding hyper-reality is the notion that the world
has become a binary construct of zeros and ones saying “Digitality
is among us. It haunts all the messages and signs of our society”.
The narrative of the Matrix certainly subscribes to this idea. The Matrix
in the film creates virtual-reality programmes as the life experiences
of the human beings enslaved by it. This idea can also be seen in Blade
Runner. The replicants are planted with artificial memories and given
doctored photographs of a past that never existed. Both The Matrix and
Blade Runner use the idea of the simulated world to a great extent. In
both films, the ‘real’ world is constructed to hide the wider
reality of reality itself.

The narrative of the Matrix owes a great deal to Baudrillard. In one
scene, Neo opens a book to obtain some illegal discs. The book is Jean
Baudrillard’s “Simulations” and it opens on the chapter
“On Nihilism. The book in the film is not a book, but a simulation
of a book and a means to hide illegal material. Rovira (1999) points out
that the chapter “On Nihilism” is not in the middle of the
book, but is the closing chapter. It can therefore be said that the very
book is simulacra as it not representative of the original. An even more
important direct reference to Baudrillard is in the scene where Morpheus
is first showing Neo the reality of the world via a simulated programme.
Using a simulation of an old-fashioned television, Morpheus shows Neo
a simulation of 20th century earth. He then shows Neo the world of now,
a devastated world, damaged by the nuclear attempt to block out the sun
from the computer that was taking over the world. Morpheus then says “Welcome
to the desert of the real”. The ‘Desert of the real’
is a direct quote from Baudrillard (1983:1). In his opening chapter in
Simulation and Simulacra Baudrillard says that the world today is a place
without origin. “The territory no longer precedes the map.”
In today’s world the map precedes the territory rather than the
other way around and this is the “desert of the real”. Reality
no longer exists, only the simulation, the map, remains. In The Matrix,
the map is the computer programme itself. The programme that imprisons
the mind of the people is the simulation of 20th century earth. The artificial
intelligence of the computer is the ruler of ‘The Matrix’,
creating the simulated world to keep human brains active so that they
can be used as an alternative power source instead of the sun. The humans
are kept alive by being fed dead humans. The few humans left outside of
The Matrix want to destroy it thus liberating humankind. They want to
do it at all costs, even though many will probably share the view of Cypher
that the simulated world is far more appealing than the post-nuclear world
destruction that is reality. The world can never be inhabited again in
the way that The Matrix programme allows them. Human Kind, even if liberated
is condemned to living beneath the ground, eating disgusting food and
dreaming of better days. This is central to Baudrillard’s writing
as the next paragraph will discuss.

Baudrillard in Kellner (1989:82) says that people do not want the reality
of the world, they would rather live in ignorance, as cypher would like
to do. The Matrix programme is Baudrillard’s ‘Hyper-Reality’,
a copy without an original. The thing that ‘The Matrix’ copies
was destroyed when people started messing about with nuclear warfare to
destroy the computers. Baudrillard in Kellner (1989:83) says people would
rather live in a hyper-reality than reality. He further says that even
if they did want to live in reality they could not as it does not exist
anymore. He says that the reality is a baron dessert if anything and simulacra
offers so much more. The hpyer-real world has all the signs that people
recognise and are secure with. The hyper-real world is media orientated.
Baudrillard (1993:69) says that the media rule the hyper-real world as
they create the illusions of the world through television, advertising
and promotion. People no longer need to visit other places as every day
they are shown what they are like. In the film, Morpheus is fighting against
the false reality created by The Matrix. He believes that the truth is
more important to ignore. Cypher would rather live in ignorance. Baudrillard
(1993:71) says that people like to live in ignorance because the wider
reality does not even exist. The ‘reality’ in the film also
does not exist. There is nothing but destruction. The reality is terrible.

Questions can be raised in what Morpheus is saying though. He is fighting
to liberate all of those ensnared by The Matrix so that they can live
true lives in the real world. However, earlier in the film he asks Neo
of how he defines ‘real’. He denounces the power of the senses,
basically saying that it is impossible to define ‘reality’.
Therefore he seems to be fighting a loosing battle. As even he can only
define reality through he basic sense then the real that he is fighting
for may also be a simulation – and a far less appetising one at that.
Baudrillard (1993:71) has a theory for this sort of thing. He says that
there is no reality, reality can not be defined any more. The ‘system’
absorbs everything. It takes all thinking and neutralises it. There can
no longer be any definition of reality. Zizec (1999) says that for Lacan,
“…the thing in itself is ultimately the gaze, not the perceived
object. So back to The Matrix: the Matrix itself is the Real that distorts
our perception of reality.” What is being suggested here is that
the real distorts people’s perception of reality. For this reason
Baudrillard’s idea that there is no longer any reality can stand
because everything is a distortion of reality and therefore reality can
never be seen. Everything is pure simulacra.

Baudrillard’s ideas of simulacra can be found in many science fiction
films. In Blade Runner, Terminator 2 and Aliens there are examples of
simulacrum. In Terminator 2, the cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger
is a simulation of a human who has been sent back in time to save John
Conner from termination. In Aliens “Bishop” is a cyborg too,
who is again a simulation of a human being. In both films it is these
very simulacra that end up being more human than human. Collins and Radner
(1993:238) explain that Schwarzeneger’s cyborg ends up displaying
the characteristics of a father. John’s mother explains that the
robot has been more of a father figure to John than anybody else. Collins
and Radner (1993:241) explain that the simulacra of the Terminator leans
like a human being and eventually gives the ‘thumbs up’ gesture
to John. In Aliens it is Bishop who saves Ripley’s life at the end,
even though he has been ripped apart and his synthetic body is nearly
completely destroyed. In Blade Runner, Baudrillard is ever present. The
‘replicants’ are simulations of human beings who have been
constructed as an economical labour force to build inhabitable places
for humans. The simulacra in Blade Runner are in effect ‘more human
than human’ in their super-human strength and overwhelming desire
for survival. In The Matrix there are a few other simulacra that are observable.
Rovira (1999) suggests that Neo is a simulacra of Jesus Christ and there
are many similarities between the film and the bible. The hidden city
“Zion” is a simulacra of the biblical city. He also says that
the character names are simulacra of Greek Mythology.

Crosby (1999) looks at formal concerns of The Matrix, and in particular
– the theme of reflections in the film. The ‘image’ is everywhere
in the film. The image is reflected in mirrors, monitors, doorknobs and
sunglasses. The notion that people can do sub-human things like dodge
bullets is simulacra. This formal concern of The Matrix has no reference
to reality. No person in the ‘real world’ can dodge speeding
bullets with such ease and apathy. The idea that someone can also do Kung-Foo
as fast as Neo and Morpheus is also simulacrum – there is no territory
from which the copy exists. In Terminator 2, the T-1000 terminator can
morph because he is made from mercury-like matter. He can simulate any
shape or thing that he looks at. Using this method he is able to deceive
those he is hunting. The notion that any body in ‘real life’
could do this is also an example of simulacra. The scenery in Blade Runner
is a formal concern of the film. The landscapes are a postmodern ‘mishmash’
of styles all referring to a dead bygone age. They are all simulacra.

In The Matrix, Terminator 2, Blade Runner and Aliens there are all examples
of Baudrillard’s ‘simulacra’. The notion of what reality
actually is taken for granted. Planting in Bordwell (1996:307) says that
the truth of reality is ‘merely the latest media consensus.’
Reality therefore only exists as far as there is a consensus amongst people.
It is the power of argument that wins. If this is the case then it is
hard to tell if there is a reality at all. Massumi (1987) is critical
of Baudrillard saying:

“Baudrillard’s framework can only be the result of a nostalgia
for the old reality so intense that it has deformed his vision of everything
outside of it. He cannot clearly see that all the things that he says
have crumbled were simulacra all along: simulacra produced by analzable
procedures of simulations that were as real as real, or actually realer
than real, because they carried the real back to its principle of production
and in so doing prepared their own rebirth in a new regime of simulation.
He cannot see becoming, of either variety. He cannot see that the simulacrum
envelops a proliferating play of differences and galactic differences.”

(Massumi, 1987: internet essay)

The Matrix seems to side with Cypher at points and addresses this very
question in the scene where Cypher suggests to the AI’s that he
would rather be ignorant of the reality. The reality of the world in the
Matrix is that the world is dead, there is no sun, no food – the whole
human race could not survive outside in the ‘real world’.
Therefore for people to continue good, ‘normal lives’ they
would be better off staying ‘plugged in’ to the Matrix. Neo
says he would like to be in control of his own destiny, a view which would
be shared by many ‘plugged in’ when in fact they are not because
the programme controls all. The point is raised by Rovira (1999) that
on all levels there will be domination. Cypher is not the leader on the
ship, he is told what to do by Morheus, as they all are. Cypher merely
swaps one form of systematic dominance for another, more pleasant one.
For this reason the simulacrum of The Matrix can be seen to be the ‘good
guy’ whilst the reality is the enemy.

In conclusion the essays main objective was to look at some films and
show how they were relevant in the study of Baudrillard and his notion
of simulacra. The points raised were:
1. That The Matrix draws upon the work of Jean Baudrillard to inform the
narrative. It does this by creating a simulated world whereby people are
oblivious to the reality. It related the film to the ‘real world’
of today where, as Baudrillard suggests, all there is are simulacra. 2.
The idea that even though people are living in simulacra they have no
desire to leave it for the grim reality. Evidence for this was illustrated
by Cypher in the film wanting to be plugged back into the Matrix so that
he too could be oblivious. 3. Following on from the previous poin, the
essay then examined the fact that the simulated can seem more real than
the original. The simulated in The Matrix was comfortable and nice as
long as the status quo was accepted. The Matrix is the reality of the
late 20th Century. The essay then took the example of Blade Runner, where
it became hard to tell who was a replicant. The simulations in the film
were shown to be so real that the viewer never knows for sure whether
Deckard was a replicant or not. 4. The notion that The Matrix film is
itself a simulation of Biblical and Mythological pasts. Ideas, largely
found on the internet were discussed, especially with regard to Neo being
a simulation of Jesus Christ. 5. Baudrillard’s notion that nobody
can escape the simulated world as there is no reality left to escape to.
The essay has shown that movies embrace the notion that society is at
the end of history and that Baudrillard is one important theorist in which
to locate meaning in film. Brian Massumi (1987) says that Baudrillard
“sidesteps the question of whether simulation replaces a real that
did indeed exist, or if simulation is all there ever has been”.
He then uses the work of Guattari and Deleuze to suggest that “simulation
does not replace reality…but rather it appropriates reality…”
concluding that “Reality is nothing but a well-tempered harmony
of simulation.” If this really is the case, maybe someone should
tell Morpheus so that he could at least enjoy a more fruitful life even
if inside The Matrix. Even Morpheus suggests that one can only define
reality through their own senses and own perception. Yet as Agent Smith
says “..I believe that, as a species, human beings define their
reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that
your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.” Morpheus can
thus be seen as the ultimate human, who totally defines his reality through
misery and this is why he prefers to live outside of the Matrix. Zizec
(1999) talks about the ‘real’ status of reality in The Matrix
being that human beings are the slaves of the programme. Yet It could
be argued that human beings can never escape slavery. As Lyotard (1991:8)
suggests people are even slaves to time itself and reality is only defined
by individual perception within the limits of their life on this planet.
This appears to be one large oversight by Baudrillard, who seems to think
that there ever was a reality.

Word Count: 2954

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Lyotard, Jean-Francois (1991) “The Inhuman”, Polity
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Internet Sources
Crosby, Mark (1999) “Reflections Upon The Matrix”
Massumi, Brian (1987) “Realer Than Real: The Simulacrum according
to Deleuze and Guattari”
Zizek, Slavoj (1999) “The Matrix, or, The Two Sides Of Perversion”
(email) found at

Jameson, Fredric (1993) “Postmodernism & The Cultural Logic
of Late Capitalism”, Verso
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Science”, Cambridge University Press
Donald, James (1989) “Fantasy & The Cinema” British Film
Wheale, Nigel (1995) “The Postmodern Arts” Routledge
Bertens, Hans (1995) “The Idea Of The Postmodern: A History”

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