Jean Baudrillard has always been a doppelganger for me when it comes to the study of contemporary media. For good or ill, he is one of the chief architects of the joyful nihilism which seems a reasonable fallback stance to take with regard to life in the mediadrome. This is so when one thinks for example about the nature of the “reality” of reality TV, or of the dog-chasing-the-tail fate of political engagement in an era of opinion polls and press release news, or of the firm and earnest navel gaze of media “events” in which the story inevitably ends up being about how the media covered the event. (That is, in a tortured literalization of McLuhan’s motto, the media is the message). The leap from the idea that the world is lived through the spectacle – “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (Debord) – to the idea that it is lived through the simulacrum, unhinged from “social relation” or lived experience altogether, is strangely compelling. To some degree, when it comes to mediated experience, we are all Alices who have fallen down a rabbit hole. Like Alice, we are armed only with an outmoded metaphysics and thus the sense of our rabbit hole eludes us.
So the recent emergence of a re-history of Rock’n’Roll should come as no surprise. It is just another evolutionary augmentation in a process long underway when dead rock stars are reborn as holograms. Crowds rock out to Tupac Shakur’s holographic hip hop performance with Snoop Doggy Dogg and Dr. Dre, (Tupac died in 1996), or to the “live” performance of the completely virtual pop star and vocaloid demo model Hatsune Miku, (designed from vocal samples, a colour scheme, and the conventions of Manga comics). Why should a celebrity’s death or lack of bodily existence interfere with the live experience of going out to a rock concert to hear them? Or, do we need to revise our concept of “live” to get our head around this?
That is why I listened with interest not so long ago to CBC’s Q episode on the reported resurrection of Elvis as a hologram. The brain children at Digital Domain Media Group had apparently reached an agreement with Elvis Presley Enterprises to recreate the King. The spokesman was careful to state that what they produce is not an actual hologram but the “live projection of a digital human.” What is nevertheless interesting is that the live projections do not rely on existing stock footage. They are generated, as Baudrillard might say, from computer matrices and algorithms. In the age of the simulacra, “the real is produced from miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command modules – and with these it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times” (Simulations and Simulacra, p. 2). In other words, they are generated “live” from a digital model of the original Elvis or Tupac. What is the relationship between the model and the original? Well, in the case of Elvis and Tupac, who traded on their authenticity as originators to become self-caricatures as celebrity personalities, we would have to argue that they were already holograms before their reproduction as holographic images set in. The celebrity image had already replaced the original; the hologram is just the digital aftermath. But that’s not really the end of the story.
There is an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the unlucky-in-love engineer Geordi La Forge gets to meet the woman who designed the warp drive engine of the Starship Enterprise. The problem is that he’s already met her before, as a computer generated hologram on the holodeck, and he’s got big expectations that things might work out well for them in real life, in a romantic way. The barkeep Guinan, played by Whoopie Goldberg, tries to puncture his fantasy with the driest of irony, “So you met a computer simulated female…” and this sets up the drama of rejection that eventually reinforces the reality principle: computer simulations are not real. We need always to be able to maintain a clear distinction between simulated reality and real reality.
The point about the hologram that is passed over too quickly in the episode however is the nature of the hologram itself. The computer has generated the hologram from the personality profiles in the Starfleet database. Its verisimilitude is constructed from answers on a personality test. We have to guess that in the future these profiles are insanely detailed because the hologram is a perfect double. The hologram ‘has’ the personality and agency of the real person. This is a case of the map pretty much covering the territory as
in the Borges’ story “On Exactitude in Science.” In this case it is the profile that completely covers the subject. The Starfleet profilers have matched the zeal for detail that Borges attributes to the mad cartographers in his tale. So when the real warp engineer gets pissed off at Geordi because of the invasion of privacy the holographic image represents, there is considerable dissimulation here. She must have had precious little privacy to begin with if the Starfleet profilers had worked up such a complete set of personality traits from her psychological tests. In the future life must have become a continuous personality test for the profilers to have accumulated such a complete data set. In such a scenario it would be difficult to tell where a real life left off and a simulated life began.
So the live projection of Tupac should be seen as more than a little disturbing. The Tupac image is generated from a catalogue of gestures and mannerisms that are identifiably Tupac, but are not Tupac. It is a duplication of Tupac through the signs of Tupac, which can in principle be recombined without limit into any configuration. It might not be so far off that you could download Tupac into your dining room to rant at you over dinner. But with the holographic Tupac, one can have all the signs of his presence, without the concern that some inconvenient or unpredictable circumstance might arrive to disrupt the programmed course of events. There is no concern that something might happen, not with Tupac, not with the audience. The live projection is generated from a model of Tupac so convincing that it can be consumed as a live performance, rippling with the aura of authentic hip hop subversion and excess. But note here that “live” now means simply to occur at the same time. The audience is there at the same time as the hologram. It does not mean “live” in the sense that anything can happen. “Facts no longer have a trajectory of their own; they arise at the intersection of the models” (Simulation and Simulacrum, p. 16). It means that people can go and rock out and establish an emotional, quasi religious bond with their hip hop icon, but only in what amounts to a pre-programmed pantomime in which all the variables are controlled, locked in an eternally reoccurring algorithm that floats quite free from any relationship with reality.
So to go back to the question of what the relationship is between the original and the model, I think the criticism of the holographic rock star phenomenon largely misses the point. It is all based on the originality of the original, the realness of reality, and the falseness of appearances. However, the radical uncertainty of these distinctions is precisely what is at stake in the age of simulacra. For example, the criticism by Nathan Rabin on Q and in his article in A.V. Club, emphasizes the exploitive nature of the use of Tupac and Elvis as holographic images. These are figures that had very little agency or decision making power in life, and absolutely none in death. They are puppets that can be put into situations, like rapping on stage with Dr. Dre, (the object of Tupac’s real life scorn apparently), that they never would have consented to in life. Moreover the authentic reverence and emotional connection of the fans to their stars is being taken advantage of and “molested.” Rather than the joy and liberation owing to the fans of rock and roll, a cheap fraud, at once creepy, disturbing and fascinating, has been perpetrated. So Rabin’s point is, why can’t Elvis and Tupac be allowed to die? They are after all really dead.
This is all very interesting, but the impression one gets from it is that Baudrillard’s intervention into these sorts of issues seems to have been completely forgotten. The attempt to cling to some notion of authenticity in the face of the copy is a strategy that has been preempted by the times. For Baudrillard, this critical language is a product of an order of representation that has been surpassed. What needs to be recognized in the era of the (third order) simulacra is how these holographs essentially act as massive sinks and vanishing points, sucking the possibility of all authenticity, meaning, reverence, emotional connection and liveness out of the system. Baudrillard would have viewed this positively.
Baudrillard’s been dead since 2007, but it’s as if he never existed. Did he just become his own vanishing point? I don’t think that was his idea. Baudrillard needs to be resurrected, perhaps not as a hologram or invisible screen projection, but as the full fledged theorist of disappearance and gadfly he once was, to suck a little virtual blood out of the already bloodless resurrection industry. The odd thing is that I believe his position would be, “Bring it on! Let’s resurrect Tupac, Elvis and everybody!” In his eyes, this would be a passage into the age of seduction.
“Such is also the secret of the hypertelie, of what goes further than its own end. It would be our own mode of destroying finalities: going further, too far in the same direction—destruction of meaning through simulation, hypersimulation, hypertelie…. And without a doubt this is a good thing: meaning is mortal. But that on which it has imposed its ephemeral reign, what it hoped to liquidate in order to impose the reign of the Enlightenment, that is, appearances, they, are immortal, invulnerable to the nihilism of meaning or of non-meaning itself. This is where seduction begins” (Simulation and Simulacra, p.s 161, 164).
For my taste, everything social has become a little too reality TV-like, and yet it’s difficult, if not impossible, to escape this way of living in the world. The verisimilitude and attention to creating realistic effects in contemporary media forms, means more or less what Baudrillard said 30 years ago, that reality is now only found fitfully, lying in shreds, in the deserts and back roads of the empire. It’s not that immediate “lived” reality lacks a visceral component; it’s that the access that we have to lives of others, to politics and other matters of the public sphere, to society itself, even to our own images (on Facebook and where have you), has been lost in the surfeit of spin and information. It’s viscerality itself that has been lost in therapies and theories of the visceral. In the era of the simulacra, it’s not just that communication has been alienated as Guy Debord argued, it’s that the referent of what we might communicate about has been altered. It’s the “real” Coke phenomenon. The real has been both destroyed and resurrected in a way that ensures that the real will never be the same again. Every day is an Easter celebration of the resurrection. The God will never be able to bleed enough. And moreover, every place is an Easter Island, where monuments exist without a living people.
I note that Digital Domain went bankrupt on September 7th, 2012. Maybe it’s not dead rock stars that need resurrecting, maybe it’s the charm of the holograph that we’ll develop a nostalgia for?