Disneyland, Selfies, and Simulacra: Remembering Jean Baudrillard
It was in the last week of December 2015, I took my young kids to visit Disneyland — we spent a whole day in the park, amidst fun and frolic, taking in the rides, the theme-shows, the carnival, the Christmas celebrations, the beckoning stores, and the overall cloyingly sweet ambiance around us.
The kids had great fun of course … they were more than willing to walk miles and patiently wait in long queues to encounter Mickey, Elsa (originally the Snow Queen), games, rides et al. They were stoked to no end as the amusement park reinforced their own fantasies — driven by what they have encountered in movies, television, comic books, and hopefully some aspects of their own individual imagination.
But I was left with mixed feelings and questions as I trudged back to a grimmer reality, leaving behind screaming ecstatic kids, excited adults relentlessly flashing their selfie-sticks amidst that ‘dramatic’ music buzzing in my ears the whole day — permeating all and sundry across the park.
I cannot deny that I had fun that day — I did. As a professional, I was in awe of human creativity, craftsmanship, and engineering feats that had created the park, impressed by how the Disneyland customer was managed at all interfaces, and truly amazed by the systems and infrastructure created and sustained to manage huge traffic. But then an old memory cropped up in my head, a spoiler alert of sorts, countering this amazement like an aching knee on a lovely walk — a memory of having read about Disneyland from Jean Baudrillard’s lens.
It was almost two decades ago, I had read Jean Baudrillard — a French post-modernist, who wrote about hyper-reality in his epic work — Simulacra and Simulation. Baudrillard defined Simulacra in 1981 as “… copies that depict things that either had no original to begin with, or that no longer have an original…”
It took me some time to understand Simulacra, but I was more fascinated by his confident claim that the human society has become replete and saturated with symbols and signs (simulacra) and that all meanings today were being rendered meaningless by these being infinitely mutable and thrown at us.
Baudrillard explains this saturation process of symbols and signs, thus creating simulacra through a four-stage evolution (for lack of better words) — a phenomenon he termed as the “precession of simulacra”. This precession was very useful for my understanding:
- Stage 1: In this stage, the symbol or the sign is a faithful image/copy where we believe, and it may even be correct, that a sign is a “reflection of a profound reality” that we encounter. Not many examples come to my mind beyond a 3D image or a map today.
- Stage 2: In the second stage we experience a ‘perversion of reality’. This is where we believe that the sign to be an unfaithful copy, which “masks and denatures” reality as an “evil appearance — it is of the order of maleficence”. Here, signs and images do not faithfully reveal reality to us, but can hint at the existence of an obscure reality which the sign itself is incapable of encapsulating.
For example, have you discerned how gymnasiums in India use symbols to peddle their offerings — whether it is the humble gym across the street (the traditional akhara) or the luxurious gym cum spa in a five star hotel — the array of posters, drawings, images, and pictures placed outside and inside are most likely to display the golden haired white-skinned lean women or the muscular pumped up dark skinned man.
No Indian models are used! These alien symbols promising the prospect a developing a great body (by occidental standards) and an enriching experience of fitness are already in the stage 2 of the precession of the simulacra. The Indian physique is worked with through distortion and substitution.
Another example that I would like to talk about is Elsa — the Disney version of the Snow Princess, famously depicted in the film Frozen, and which has captured the imagination of kids, especially young girls worldwide.
The original fairy tale version depicts the Snow Princess as cold-hearted, neutral, and at times villainous. Disney found it difficult to work with this symbol and found it easy to reduce her to an amiable girl-child, who has been misunderstood and who is restless because of this inner turmoil. I doubt it very much that my seven year old daughter would even wish to change the Disney’s Elsa for the next ten years at least…
The perversion of reality has often rampant consumerism at heart — try and talk a kid out of buying an Elsa doll. My wife and I accomplished this by the way but it was tough …
The Indian gyms of course leverage the unconscious and deep self-hate (of the Indian body) that many Indians have, possibly as a consequence of colonialism and modern capitalism that looks at the body as an instrument. I carry vestiges of this as well.
- Stage 3: The third stage of precession masks the absence of a profound reality, where the sign pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original! Signs and images claim to represent something real, but no representation is taking place and arbitrary images are merely suggested as things, which they have no relationship to.
Che Geuvara and Jim Morrison t-shirts are rampant in Indian streets — chances are that you have seen an auto driver or a shop’s attendant wearing one of these symbols. The other day, the electrician who came to my house to repair some wiring was wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt.
There is a plethora of such signs and symbols that are being thrown at us — symbols and signs that only pretend to be a faithful copy but are quite arbitrary.
- The fourth stage is the pure simulation, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever.
Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims.
Baudrillard claimed that our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and that human experience is of a simulation of reality. Moreover, these simulacra are not merely mediations of reality, nor even deceptive mediations of reality — they are not based in a reality nor do they hide a reality, they simply hide that anything like reality is relevant to our current understanding of our lives. (Source — Wikipedia)
If I were to look back at my Disneyland experience or even the recent viewing of Star Wars — The Force Awakens, I would have to concur with him — the human experience is getting steadily fainter beyond the symbols and signage proliferated and thrown at us. And it is not just our movies, television or the internet, but also the text that we deploy in our working world.
Let me give an example by referring to the term ‘traction’ used by countless number of my clients amongst other phrases and symbols, as they discuss business strategy or policies or market research.
Originally the term Traction was been defined as — A physical process in which a tangential force is transmitted across an interface between two bodies through dry friction or an intervening fluid film resulting in motion, stoppage or the transmission of power (Copyright: “Mechanical Wear Fundamentals and Testing” by Raymond George Bayer).
So if a factory were to use this term for their complex physical throughputs and link it to efficiency or energy measures, the term is being used in the stage 1 realm of the precession that Baudrillard speaks of.
However if the HR head speaks of ‘no traction’ within the leadership team when it comes to driving performance management ratings or a policy across the organization — or how the sales head describes the product marketing strategy and how marketing has to creates a significant ‘traction’ — my mind boggles…
Technologies such as Big Data and Cloud have only aided this process of Simulacra and Precession. The human mind is flooded or deluged with symbols and signs that are in stages 3 and 4, and that this relentless mutation of such symbols and signs aid in creating a certain meaninglessness and a vacuum.
Lets look at the proliferation of the Selfie wave … aided of course by the Selfie stick, Facebook, Mobile phones and of course the Internet.
On Facebook each day, I get to see (and am really choice-less here — if I have to use FB) — countless selfies of friends and acquaintances being unleashed on me. Most of these selfies have the same face, the same angles, and the same set of expressions taking up nearly 75% of the picture — the teeny-weeny backgrounds change from time to time — from a beach to an airport to mountains. The relentless mutation of the same face unleashed on me leaves me cold and untouched — but also very intrigued.
I hardly get to hear a creative word or expression of the experience being ‘shared’ on the forum — all I see is the same ol’ mug shot pushing me towards judging it to be meaningless and having no link with the original — a Simulacra…