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Representation and Simulation: Viewing White Noise through Baudrillardian Concepts

Jean Baudrillard, in his essay “Simulacra and Simulation”, contends that the contemporary world creates representations, symbols or simulations, which stand on their own without reference to the thing they originally represented. Using Baudrillard's essay as a blueprint, it is easy to see that much of the world does indeed fit into his ideas of representation, whether those ideas are applied to the various institutions of society (i.e., medicine, psychology, the army, theology, or even Disneyland) or to literature. A contemporary piece of literature such as Don DeLillo's novel White Noise provides an excellent example of many of the ideas and institutions Baudrillard considers in his essay. Although DeLillo’s novel was published a few years after Baudrillard’s essay, it seems unlikely that DeLillo was consciously illustrating the specific ideas from “Simulacra and Simulation”. Instead, White Noise can simply be seen as an unconscious validation of the ideas that Baudrillard considers present in all of contemporary society and contemporary literature.

Baudrillard's "Simulacra and Simulation" espouses ideas that challenge standard beliefs in philosophy and critical theory. His ideas revolve around simulations and the potential breakdown of their references to an original thing or idea. Without a clearly original source, a simulation becomes more than a mimicry or shadow, it gains its own sort of existence. Baudrillard states this by saying that "[s]imulation … is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal." (166) Baudrillard is not saying that there was never any original reference at all; he is saying that the original, for whatever reason, no longer has any reference to the simulation, if it ever even did in the first place. "In fact, since it is no longer enveloped by an imaginary, it is no longer real at all. It is a hyperreal: the product of an irradiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere." (Baudrillard 167) Hence in White Noise, when Jack explains the persona he has created for his Hitler studies program, J.A.K. Gladney, he doesn't see this persona as being either real or imaginary any longer. Instead, Jack considers himself to be "the false character that follows the name around." (DeLillo 17) The persona becomes larger than Jack himself, combining the real and imaginary but no longer clearly representing either and thus becoming hyperreal. Such a lack of reference is the main basis of Baudrillard's concepts.

Baudrillard believes that, "the age of simulation thus begins with a liquidation of all referentials." (Baudrillard 167) Referentials fail in this fashion within the pages of White Noise when Jack and Murray visit the 'most photographed barn in America.' Murray explains how the barn is lost in hyperreality. "'What was the barn like before it was photographed? … What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can't answer those questions because we've read the signs [which precede and define the barn], seen the people snapping pictures. We can't get outside the aura. We're part of the aura." (DeLillo 13) Jack and Murray are in hyperreality, "a real without origin or reality" (Baudrillard 166) because there is no way to establish a clear original reference to the barn and also because there is no sense of true reality in what is clearly a constructed situation surrounding the current barn.

Baudrillard's ideas go further than simply questioning the reality and referentiality of simulations. Baudrillard suggests that simulations actually encompass all uses of representation within reality. "Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as a false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum." (Baudrillard 170) Likewise the SIMUVAC program in White Noise makes its simulation more important than the real Airborne Toxic Event. As Jack points out, the "'evacuation isn't simulated. It's real,'" (DeLillo 139) but the SIMUVAC program responds that they "'thought they could use it as a model.'" (DeLillo 139) The simulation no longer is 'absorbed' by what it represents but instead has 'enveloped' the whole representation itself. This sense of a lack of differentiation, an inability to identify whether the simulation is a representation or a reality, is the focus of Baudrillard's essay and the source of his examples. "[P]resent-day simulators try to make the real, all the real, coincide with their simulation models. But … [s]omething has disappeared: the sovereign difference between them that was the abstraction’s charm." (Baudrillard 166) Thus when Jack and the family in White Noise see Babette on TV they are unable to make sense of this representation of someone they know. "What did it mean? What was she doing there, in black and white, framed in formal borders? … Was this her spirit, her secret self, some two-dimensional facsimile released by the power of technology?" (DeLillo 104) Babette exists as a simulacrum, a representation which is indeterminable from her real self and the simulation presented through the TV. Is she real, as Wilder seems to think when he "approached the [TV] set and touched her body" (DeLillo 105) or is she "only television" (DeLillo 105), "electronic dots swarm[ing]" into an image? (DeLillo 104) Jack and the rest of the family are unable to decide because the real and the simulation seem merged before their eyes.

Baudrillard supports his ideas through a series of examples which show the effects of simulation within various institutions of society, specifically medicine, psychology, the army, theology, and Disneyland, among others. Once again, White Noise illustrates Baudrillard's ideas across all of these institutions, clearly supporting the notions of representation seen in “Simulacra and Simulation”.

Baudrillard begins his series of examples by considering that the field of medicine can make little, if any, distinction between someone who simulates an illness and someone who truly has an illness. Someone might fake an illness and provide false symptoms, but to simulate an illness requires creating those symptoms as though they are real. The difference between faking and simulating is that "simulation threatens the difference between the 'true' and the 'false,' the 'real' and the 'imaginary.'" (Baudrillard 168) DeLillo echoes these concepts in White Noise. "Which was worse, the real condition or the self-created one, and did it matter?" (DeLillo 126) DeLillo shows lengthy examples of illnesses that blur the distinction between 'real' and 'imaginary.' Seemingly the mere mention of the symptoms of Nyodene D in White Noise is enough to stimulate the expected responses from Jack's girls. "'They get [the symptoms] only when they're broadcast,'" Jack tells Babette. (DeLillo 133) The radio announces that exposure to Nyodene D would cause "'skin irritation and sweaty palms'" and then later those symptoms are revised. (DeLillo 111) The girls very quickly fulfill the original symptoms, "complaining of sweaty palms," (DeLillo 112) but these are already old symptoms, no longer supposedly accurate and seemingly only resulting from a subconscious simulation of the expected signs.

Similar to these subconscious manifestations of symptoms in physical examples, psychological illnesses can proceed in the same fashion. "'[F]or each form of the mental alienation there is a particular order in the succession of symptoms, of which the simulator is unaware.'" (Baudrillard 168) Baudrillard believes that the simulator subconsciously blocks the underlying reasons for the symptoms they develop so that they will not have to face the knowledge “that truth, reference, and objective cause have ceased to exist." (168) Murray, in White Noise, makes similar observations. "'Fear is unnatural. … Pain, death, reality, these are all unnatural. We can't bear these things as they are. … So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise.'" (DeLillo 289) Murray, as Baudrillard, sees humanity as using subconscious simulations and hyperrealities, repressions or disguises, to avoid facing the realities of pain and death.

Baudrillard also considers examples regarding the army, an institution which can be seen as supplanted in White Noise by the SIMUVAC program. Baudrillard believes the military holds little distinction between practice exercises and real events. "Even military psychology … hesitates to make the distinction between true and false, between the 'produced' symptom and the authentic symptom." (Baudrillard 168) Along these lines, for the SIMUVAC officer in White Noise the simulation becomes more real than the actual event, even taking precedence over real-world traumas. "'If reality intrudes in the form of a car wreck or of a crash victim falling off a stretcher, it is important to remember that we are not here to mend broken bones or put out fires. We are here to simulate.'" (DeLillo 206) Simulation thus either becomes indistinguishable from reality or simply supplants it.

Baudrillard and DeLillo in many ways seem to share common insights, and in yet another example they observe religion similarly, viewing God as a simulacrum, a symbol referenced to a set of separate symbols with no real, definable original referent. (Baudrillard 169) Baudrillard shows skepticism toward a universal belief in God. "[I]f God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence … [t]hen the whole system becomes weightless; it is no longer anything but a giant simulacrum: not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference." (Baudrillard 170) DeLillo seems to agree. In White Noise, Jack is convinced that "'heaven, according to the Church, …[is] the abode of God and the angels and the souls of those who are saved'" (DeLillo 317), but he constitutes his faith simply upon these symbols. He in fact has no reference to God except through symbols that stand for a symbolic reference with no identifiable original referent. God is thus a simulacrum and religion and faith are hyperreal, simulations without referents.

Yet another of Baudrillard's examples regards Disneyland. "Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation." (Baudrillard 172) While DeLillo does not include Disneyland in White Noise, his views of the family echo Baudrillard’s Disneyland concepts in that the fantasy of Disneyland - perfect main streets and perfect families - acts to make the outside world seem to embody the real aspects of the fantasy land, yet the outside world is just as much a series of simulations and hyperreality as Disneyland, specifically in regards to the general perception of families. DeLillo, through Jack, states that "the family process works toward sealing off the world. … The family is strongest where objective reality is most likely to be misinterpreted." (DeLillo 82) The family is strongest, therefore, when it is hyperreal, when it is a Disneyland fantasy of the ideal family that is taken to be real.

It seems that DeLillo supports or at least shares Baudrillard's concepts of the effects of simulation. Reality and referentiality become questionable once they become connected to a simulation or a symbolic representation, and this breakdown of the dependability of signs is exactly what Baudrillard is trying to express in “Simulacra and Simulation”. White Noise, while it may not have been constructed based specifically upon Baudrillard’s ideas, nonetheless exposes the validity of Baudrillard’s ideas in reference to contemporary perceptions of the world and to contemporary literature.

Works Cited:

Baudrillard, Jean. “Simulacra and Simulation.” Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster.
1981. Oxford: Polity. 1990. 166-184.
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin. 1985.


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Representation and Simulation, by Paul Cales, © February 2003