The very appearance of this word gives the impression of erudition. It may have an almost-complete lack at its heart, braced between mu (either Zen emptiness or Greek microscopy) and um (hesitation, inchoate incoherence), but it opens with si, an eternal ‘yes’ or an eternal ‘if’ or both. And it presents itself as Latin, a dead language that is the badge of a live intellect… or an undead one, anyway.
Does it look similar to simulate? It does not dissimilate. Its root in Latin is simulare, ‘make like’. It is a material image, a representation, for example of a deity; or it is something that merely looks like something without having its substance; or, in its most pejorative sense, it is a deceptive likeness, a chimera, a phantom, a counterfeit, perhaps a specious homunculus.
Or, if you ask the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, it is everything and everything is it, as we are now in an age of hyperreality where the representation is all and there is no real basis anymore. In his small book Simulations, published in 1983 by Semiotext(e), he huffs into the paper bag and tells us
Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory…
It is no longer a question of imitation, nor of reduplication, nor even of parody. It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself, that is, an operation to deter every real process by its operational double, a metastable, programmatic, perfect descriptive machine which provides all the signs of the real and short-circuits all its vicissitudes. …
This would be the successive phases of the image:
—it is the reflection of a basic reality
—it masks and perverts a basic reality
—it masks the absence of a basic reality
—it bears no relation to any reality at all: it is its own pure simulacrum.
It is tempting to chalk this up to the effects of Gitanes, Gauloises, or those nasty clove cigarettes. But let us look at it for a moment. We know that everything refers to everything else, at root; you can’t have meaning without an understood universe for it to refer to, and every word carries limitless associations and memories. That in itself does not produce simulacra or illusions; it is reality confirming itself. But what about when the references are to fictions, and to references to fictions? If your jokes are based on cartoons, and on distortions of reality in cartoons or in conventions that were developed from cartoons and have to be learned, then are your jokes at all grounded in reality? If you are basing your self-image or personal philosophy on a brand that was deliberately designed to be more attractive than reality, and other brands in turn orient themselves to your desires that are based on that brand, and so on, are you not in a circular reference, a hall of mirrors, a semiotic ouroboros? A world where “yes, if” has gone with the if and called it yes, and you are caught in the lack between emptiness and unspeech?
But aren’t we still in the real? If you walk into a billboard, you’re going to bump. If you smash your screen, it is broken for real while the images that showed on it are no longer there.
But they’re somewhere. Other people can see them. They are infinitely reproducible.
Charles Sanders Peirce classified signs into three types: index, icon, and symbol. A symbol is like these words you’re reading now: it conveys meaning by convention; it has an arbitrary association with what it stands for, and when you see a symbol, you read it as being intentionally used to convey a meaning. An icon is something that conveys meaning by resemblance – although many things we call icons now have such a bare and stylized resemblance to what they represent that you have to learn them, so they are rather on the edge. But they, too, are taken as intentionally conveying a meaning. An index, on the other hand, in Peirce’s sense, is evidence, or it is deictic. A pointing finger is an index, and an intentional one (even if you’re pointing the middle, ring, or little finger). But smoke is an index too – of combustion – and conveys no intention.
So, now. The images you see on your screen. The words are symbols. The pictures are icons. But they are all also indexes, in that they tell you that there is a server somewhere delivering them to you, and people put them there, and there is a society and technology and universe, or at least an extremely durable and consistent illusion of it all.
And if you look in a mirror, or see a small image refracted in someone’s glasses, that is not an icon, because it is not intentionally conveying sense; it’s not representing you as a photo does. It is, as Umberto Eco explained, a prosthesis: it extends your power of vision. It is an index, telling you that the thing you see is in a location in relation to it. It is a visual fulcrum, the point in an optical lever between you and the object you perceive.
And at the same time it is a simulacrum. And if the image you see refracted or reflected in the glasses or the mirror is itself a picture, presented to communicate something, then it is an icon as well. And if the kind of picture it is also has conventionalized meanings that are not self-evident from the picture, then it is a symbol too. You might as well milk this simulactation for all it’s worth (or for all its worth).
And what, in all of that, is real? Well, the glass you’re looking in is, anyway. Unless you’re just seeing a simulacrum of it.