Signs, Simulacra, And Hyperreality: An Introduction To Jean Baudrillard
Updated: Jan 23
Baudrillard is usually classified as a postmodern thinker, so to get a good understanding of his ideas we must first situate him in the context of what postmodernism actually is.
Postmodernism is a critique, or as some of its proponents may believe, an antidote to the fallacies of modernism. Modernism was a philosophical movement which gained traction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is characterized by the sidelining of religion and belief as to the main ideologies of society and replacing them with those based on science or rationality (Butler, 2002). Modernist thinkers believed that the world could be explained and hence improved through theories or narratives which are based on science or rationality. These rationally based narratives were seen as overarching explanations of how society functions and how it could be improved. They were seen as truths by their followers. This perception of these theories as truth coupled with the ideological division at the time certainly contributed if not led to the disastrous outcomes of the Second War.
These outcomes led to a new school of thought to be formed in the late 20th century, Postmodernism. The term was first used by Jean Francois Lyotard and we can begin our understanding of postmodernism through some of his ideas. In his work, Lyotard says that postmodernism can be characterized by the declining legitimization of the metanarratives of modernism. He goes as far as saying:
“Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.”
Etymologically, metanarratives mean a story about a story. What Lyotard means through the term is that these overarching narratives which gained prominence during modernism were nothing but a created narrative of seemingly unrelated events, a narrative that was created to legitimize certain thoughts and beliefs. For example, the metanarrative of Marxism says that everything in society can be explained through the economic class structure. So a subscriber of Marxism would claim to believe he completely knew how society works if he understood these class structures. Similarly, the Freudian metanarrative claims that everything in society can be explained through the unconscious, and anyone who understood the unconscious understood how society functions. This is obviously problematic.
Postmodernism then is characterized by its suspicion, scepticism and paranoia towards these grand narratives. Postmodernists claim to see past the illusions and fallacies of modernism and see these narratives for what they actually are. They are likely to believe that universal truth is impossible, and that relativism is our fate.
Signs, Reality and Simulacra
Another thing which we must get out of the way before we delve into Baudrillard’s ideas is understanding what different terms which he repeatedly uses mean, Signs and Reality being the two most common ones.
Structuralism argues that there are deep and subconscious mechanisms and elements that interact with each other in a systematic way which produces phenomena or events that we encounter in reality. Sociologists, at least from the structural-functionalist school believe that these underlying mechanisms influence our behaviour in combination with other factors, but structuralists on the other hand believe that the influence these mechanisms have is absolute, that is, it is not influence at all but rather a type of command given to us by our very own subconscious which we absolutely follow, every time, While upon first impression this deterministic outlook may seem unfortunate, structuralists believed that the existence of such a system meant that human behaviour could actually be studied as a science. If such a deterministic structure actually existed we could study it and in return be able to explain, predict and even control human behaviour. Now, the question that arose was that where could such a structure be found? The answer many structuralists arrived at was language. This school which studied language for structure was called linguistic structuralism and owed its foundation primarily to the work of Ferdinand Saussure (see Allan, 2011, pp. 314-17, for more on structuralism and Saussure).
Saussure divided language into signifier (or ‘referrant’) and signified. A signifier is the word or image or sound which are used to refer to objects or conjure up images. The words you are reading on this page right now are signifiers which are referring to some objects or ideas. The signified on the other hand are the ideas or objects which are being referred to by the signifiers. For example, if I write the word “dog”, the word dog is the signifier and the object (the concept of a dog) it is referring to is the signified. Now while signifiers are used to refer to the signified, the relationship between them is completely arbitrary and socially constructed. What this means is that there is nothing inherent in the word “dog” which conjures up the image or lets your mind know that it is referring to a dog. This signifier is attached to the object through the social creation of language. You and I and the rest of the English speaking population have agreed that the word dog means a “dog”. The point Saussure is trying to make by establishing this arbitrary relationship is that language precedes order in the physical or social world. We could not not classify animals into dogs and cats before we created language. Similarly, our thoughts and ideas were nothing before we constructed language. Therefore, language does not refer to any pre-existing order in the real or social word, it creates order from a chaotic reality (Cobley & Jansz, 2010).
Another thing which Saussure pointed out was that language is a collection of terms which are interdependent. What he means by this is that the terms are defined using other terms.
This interdependence functions on two levels. First, there is interdependence between words in a sentence. You read a sentence linearly, which means that the meaning of the words within it is affected by the words which precede them. It also means that the number of words which can be used in a particular sentence becomes smaller and smaller the farther you move in a sentence. The second interdependence and perhaps the more important one, transcends the limitation of a sentence and refers to the interdependence of terms within a language as a whole. As said before, the meanings given to words are arbitrary, but once they are assigned they become one and the same. How then, do we understand the meaning of a word? Saussure believed that we do this, at least in part through difference. What he means is that we define a word by defining what it’s not. For example, we define the word homosexual by defining what it is not. Let’s turn back to the example of a dog. When we refer to a dog we define it by determining what it is not. What makes a dog a dog is the elements which it does not share with other animals, like when compared to a cat, dogs are usually larger in size, have different eyes, are canine instead of feline and usually have longer snouts, so in this way while both dogs and cats are animals you can differentiate a dog from a cat using characteristics which they do not share (Tom Nicholas, 2017).
Baudrillard expands this notion of a sign or a referrant to things far beyond language. Baudrillard believed that we live inside a hierarchy of signs. The things we own, the way we talk and behave, and recently, how or what we post on social media are all signs, which are differentiated from other signs, which place us in one place or the other in this hierarchy. Now while these commodities or behaviours are signs, the signified is Reality, or at least it used to be. Just like the relationship between the word dog and the actual animal is socially constructed, Baudrillard believed that the relationship between signs and reality has now become the same.
In earlier times, pre-modernism, pre-industrial revolution, the signs which a person displayed were closely linked to, if not the same as reality. If you had a muscular body, it meant you worked hard physically, if you wore premium robes and crowns, it meant you were royalty and on top of the social hierarchy. But now, in postmodern times, these signs mean nothing. A muscular body is no longer a by-product of hard physical labour, rather, physical labour is a by-product of wanting the body of the model in the latest Calvin Klein ad. Premium clothes are no longer premium because of the rarity of their materials or designs, they are premium because of the way they are advertised and positioned in comparison to other signs. Derrida would have said that these signs are considered high status because of the way language has etched them into our brains (see Allan, 2011, chapter 14, for more). To him these signs are text, in fact for him, there is nothing but text. But even he admits that this text references something (other text). Baudrillard, on the other hand, goes a step further and says that these signs do not reference anything real at all (Baudrillard & Poster, 2001). To him, in postmodern times, these signs have become simulacra, an image of an image of a reality that does not exist.
Baudrillard’s Simulation Society
According to Baudrillard, these signs have gone through three phases: pre-capitalist (where signs signified actual reality), Modernity (where signs became commodified), and postmodernity (where the link between signs and reality was completely broken).
Baudrillard believed that true human nature comes out when we have excess, not when we are struggling for survival (Then & Now, 2019). He takes the example of the meaning humans generated from rituals, sacrifices and other symbolic interactions which took place in the pre-capitalist era, where humans only exchanged when they had excess and not because of commodification. In pre-capitalist societies meaning was largely based on symbolic exchanges which people had in their everyday lives. Further, because there was no written text during these times, these exchanges happened face to face, they took place in reality. Symbolic exchange is an exchange in which the value exists in the act of exchange and not in the value of the object which is being exchanged. So for example, if you had excess food while a relative had nothing, and you gave some of your food to that relative, the symbolic exchange would not be the actual value of the food but rather the social dynamic and relationship which was created by you donating it. During this phase, the sign (symbolic exchange) was very closely linked to if not the same as the actual social reality.
The second phase of the sign began between the renaissance and the industrial revolution. During this period forms of communication other than face to face interactions started becoming normalized. This led to a very slight discord between signs and reality. So for example, meanings communicated through art were “polluted” by mathematical considerations which are intrinsic to art. So, in this period, signs were no longer equal to reality, but still represented a fairly accurate picture of it. More importantly, signs did not attempt to replace reality but were merely obvious placeholders for it.
Modernity (Consumer Society)
After the Industrial Revolution and the arrival of modernity, signs started to become commodified. People now had more wealth than at any other time in history, they had more leisure time, but the most important factor which contributed to this commodification was the never-seen-before speed and precision at which these signs or commodities could be replicated. During this period, the creation of meaning shifted from real, face to face symbolic interaction, to purchasing and exchanging commodities. Commodities were no longer valued for their use or exchange value, but for their sign value, the position they occupied in the hierarchy of signs. Signs began to shape people’s identities. Driving a Ferrari signalled something different than driving a Ford. Your identity was now shaped according to the commodities you buy. This is why Baudrillard says that the central labour of modernity was consumer labour or the labour which consumers undertake to find and purchase signs which signal the identity they want to showcase.
Postmodernity (Simulation Society)
In postmodernity, this sign value and commodification of identity are taken to the next level because of the constant presence, volume and power of contemporary mass media and advertising. In modernity, the sign value of commodities was still linked to their use and exchange value, but in postmodernity, this link disappears. Signs are no longer more or less valuable because of their use or exchange values, their value is now decided by how they are staged by the media and advertisements. The media has now become so powerful that it can make any sign more or less valuable, it can create meanings and value according to its whims. Clothing no longer has to have premium materials to be expensive, it just has to be staged in the right way, through the right medium, which is broadcasted to enough people, enough times. Kanye can sell a simple cotton t-shirt for as much as $100. In that example, clothing as a sign is not expensive because it refers to the reality of being made from premium and rare materials, it is expensive because it “refers” to a simulation created by the mass media (a simulation which says that the clothing is valuable because of the constant bombardment of the same message). The sign is now a simulacrum with no link to reality. Baudrillard says that the proliferation, appropriation and widespread circulation of these simulacra have lead to a Hyperreality, a reality that is not based on any actual or social reality but which still seems more real than reality itself. This Hyperreality is based entirely on simulacra and the only purpose of its existence is stimulation. The stimulation it provides with its artificial and exaggerated signs cannot be rivalled by reality and maybe that’s why we even prefer the hyper to the real. Baudrillard warns that this Hyperreal society can lead to fragmented identities and a meaningless existence and admits the only way out is to either join the game and play with the empty signs or to passively resign and not show up to the war at all.
Allan, K. (2011). Contemporary social and sociological theory (2nd ed.). SAGE.
Baudrillard, J., & Poster, M. (2001). Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Stanford University Press.
Butler, C. (2002). Postmodernism: A Very Short Introduction (Very short introductions). Oxford University Press.
Lyotard, J. (2005). The postmodern condition. Manchester Univ. Pr.
Smith, R. (2010). The Baudrillard dictionary. Edinburgh University Press.
Then & Now. (2019, July 25). An Introduction to Baudrillard [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Yxg2_6_YLs
Cobley, P., & Jansz, L. (2010). Introducing Semiotics: A Graphic Guide (Illustrated ed.). Icon Books.
Tom Nicholas. (2017, November 17). Semiotics: WTF? Introduction to Saussure, the Signifier and Signified [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JtJu9HdQVM