According to Baudrillard what has happened in postmodern culture is that our society has become so reliant on models and maps that we have lost all contact with the real world that preceded the map. Reality itself has begun merely to imitate the model, which now precedes and determines the real world: “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory” (“The Precession of Simulacra). According to Baudrillard, when it comes to postmodern simulation and simulacra, “It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” (“The Precession of Simulacra). Baudrillard is not merely suggesting that postmodern culture is artificial, because the concept of artificiality still requires some sense of reality against which to recognize the artifice. His point, rather, is that we have lost all ability to make sense of the distinction between nature and artifice. To clarify his point, he argues that there are three “orders of simulacra”) in the first order of simulacra, which he associates with the pre-modern period, the image is a clear counterfeit of the real; the image is recognized as just an illusion, a place marker for the real) in the second order of simulacra, which Baudrillard associates with the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century, the distinctions between the image and the representation begin to break down because of mass production and the proliferation of copies. Such production misrepresents and masks an underlying reality by imitating it so well, thus threatening to replace it (e.g. in photography or ideology); however, there is still a belief that, through critique or effective political action, one can still access the hidden fact of the real) in the third order of simulacra, which is associated with the postmodern age, we are confronted with a precession of simulacra; that is, the representation precedes and determines the real. There is no longer any distinction between reality and its representation; there is only the simulacrum.
Baudrillard points to a number of phenomena to explain this loss of distinctions between “reality” and the simulacrum:
Contemporary media (television, film, magazines, billboards, the Internet) are concerned not just with relaying information or stories but with interpreting our most private selves for us, making us approach each other and the world through the lens of these media images. We therefore no longer acquire goods because of real needs but because of desires that are increasingly defined by commercials and commercialized images, which keep us at one step removed from the reality of our bodies or of the world around us.
As the things we use are increasingly the product of complex industrial processes, we lose touch with the underlying reality of the goods we consume. Not even national identity functions in a world of multinational corporations. According to Baudrillard, it is capital that now defines our identities. We thus continue to lose touch with the material fact of the laborer, who is increasingly invisible to a consumer oriented towards retail outlets or the even more impersonal Internet. A common example of this is the fact that most consumers do not know how the products they consume are related to real-life things. How many people could identify the actual plant from which is derived the coffee bean? Starbucks, by contrast, increasingly defines our urban realities.
As we continue to develop available geographical locations, we lose touch with any sense of the natural world. Even natural spaces are now understood as “protected,” which is to say that they are defined in contradistinction to an urban “reality,” often with signs to point out just how “real” they are. Increasingly, we expect the sign (behold nature!) to precede access to nature.
Language and Ideology
Baudrillard illustrates how in such subtle ways language keeps us from accessing “reality.” The earlier understanding of ideology was that it hid the truth, that it represented a “false consciousness,” as Marxists phrase it, keeping us from seeing the real workings of the state, of economic forces, or of the dominant groups in power. (This understanding of ideology corresponds to Baudrillard’s second order of simulacra.) Postmodernism, on the other hand, understands ideology as the support for our very perception of reality. There is no outside of ideology, according to this view, at least no outside that can be articulated in language. Because we are so reliant on language to structure our perceptions, any representation of reality is always already ideological, always already constructed by simulacra.