Simulacra and Subjectivity

Link post

In Ex­cerpts from a larger dis­cus­sion about simu­lacra, fol­low­ing Bau­drillard, Jes­sica Tay­lor and I laid out a model of simu­lacrum lev­els with some­thing of a fall-from grace feel to the story:

  1. First, words were used to main­tain shared ac­count­ing. We de­scribed re­al­ity in­ter­sub­jec­tively in or­der to build shared maps, the bet­ter to nav­i­gate our en­vi­ron­ment. I say that the food source is over there, so that our band can move to­wards or away from it when situ­a­tion­ally ap­pro­pri­ate, or so peo­ple can make other in­fer­ences based on this knowl­edge.

  2. The break­down of naive in­ter­sub­jec­tivity—peo­ple start tak­ing the shared map as an ob­ject to be ma­nipu­lated, rather than part of their own sub­jec­tivity. For in­stance, I might say there’s a lion over some­where where I know there’s food, in or­der to hoard ac­cess to that re­source for idiosyn­cratic ad­van­tage. Thus, the map drifts from re­al­ity, and we start dis­so­ci­at­ing from the maps we make.

  3. When maps drift far enough from re­al­ity, in some cases peo­ple aren’t even pars­ing it as though it had a literal spe­cific ob­jec­tive mean­ing that grounds out in some ver­ifi­able ex­ter­nal test out­side of so­cial re­al­ity. In­stead, the map be­comes a sort of com­mand lan­guage for co­or­di­nat­ing ac­tions and feel­ings. “There’s food over there” is con­strued and eval­u­ated as a bid to move in that di­rec­tion, and eval­u­ated as such. Any ar­gu­ment for or against the im­plied call to ac­tion is con­flated with an ar­gu­ment for or against the propo­si­tion liter­ally as­serted. This is how ar­gu­ments be­come sol­diers. Any at­tempt to sim­ply in­ves­ti­gate the literal truth of the propo­si­tion is con­sid­ered at best naive and at worst poli­ti­cally ir­re­spon­si­ble.
    But since this us­age is par­a­sitic on the old map struc­ture that was meant to de­scribe some­thing out­side the sys­tem of de­scribers, lan­guage is still struc­tured in terms of reifi­ca­tion and ob­jec­tivity, so it sub­stan­tively re­sem­bles some­thing with de­scrip­tive power, or “about­ness.” For in­stance, while you can­not ac­quire a physi­cian’s priv­ileges and so­cial role sim­ply by pro­vid­ing clear ev­i­dence of your abil­ity to heal oth­ers, those priv­ileges are still jus­tified in terms of pseudo-con­se­quen­tial­ist ar­gu­ments about ex­per­tise in heal­ing.

  4. Fi­nally, the pseu­dostruc­ture it­self be­comes per­cep­ti­ble as an ob­ject that can be ma­nipu­lated, the pseu­do­cor­re­spon­dence breaks down, and all as­ser­tions are noth­ing but moves in an ever-shift­ing game where you’re try­ing to think a bit ahead of the oth­ers (for po­si­tional ad­van­tage), but not too far ahead.

There is some merit to this lin­ear treat­ment, but it ob­scures an im­por­tant struc­tural fea­ture: the re­sem­blance of lev­els 1 and 3, and 2 and 4.

Another way to think about it, is that in lev­els 1 and 3, speech pat­terns are au­then­ti­cally part of our sub­jec­tivity. Just as ba­bies are con­fused if you show them some­thing that vi­o­lates their ob­ject per­ma­nence as­sump­tions, and a good ra­tio­nal­ist is more con­fused by false­hood than by truth, peo­ple op­er­at­ing at simu­lacrum level 3 are con­fused and di­s­ori­ented if a load-bear­ing so­cial iden­tity or re­la­tion­ship is in­val­i­dated.

Like­wise, lev­els 2 and 4 are similar in na­ture—they con­sist of noth­ing more than tak­ing lev­els 1 and 3 re­spec­tively as ob­ject (i.e. some­thing out­side one­self to be ma­nipu­lated) rather than as sub­ject (part of one’s own na­tive ma­chin­ery for un­der­stand­ing and nav­i­gat­ing one’s world). We might name the lev­els:

Si­mu­lacrum Level 1: Ob­jec­tivity as Sub­ject (ob­jec­tivism, or epistemic con­scious­ness)

Si­mu­lacrum Level 2: Ob­jec­tivity as Ob­ject (ly­ing)

Si­mu­lacrum Level 3: Re­lat­ing as Sub­ject (power re­la­tion, or rit­ual magic)

Si­mu­lacrum Level 4: Re­lat­ing as Ob­ject (chaos magic, hedge magic, post­moder­nity) [1]

I’m not at­tached to these names and sus­pect we need bet­ter ones. But in any case this frame­work should make it clear that there are some do­mains where what we do with our com­mu­nica­tive be­hav­ior is nat­u­rally “level 3” and not a de­graded form of level 1, while in other do­mains level 3 be­hav­ior has to be a de­gen­er­ate form of level 1.[2]

Much body lan­guage, for in­stance, doesn’t have a plau­si­bly ob­jec­tive in­ter­pre­ta­tion, but is purely re­la­tional, even if evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy can point to ob­jec­tive qual­ities we’re some­times thereby try­ing to sig­nal. Some­times we’re just try­ing to stay in rhythm with each other, or pro­ject good vibes.


[1] Some chaos ma­gi­ci­ans have at­tempted to use the lan­guage of power re­la­tion (gods, rit­u­als, etc) to re­con­struct the ra­tio­nal re­la­tion be­tween map and ter­ri­tory, e.g. Alan Moore’s Promethea. The post­mod­ern ra­tio­nal­ist pro­ject, by con­trast, in­volves con­struct­ing a model of re­la­tional and postre­la­tional per­spec­tives through ra­tio­nal epistemic means.

[2] A pre­pub­li­ca­tion com­ment by Zack M. Davis that seemed per­ti­nent enough to in­clude:

Maps that re­flect the ter­ri­tory are level 1. Co­or­di­na­tion games are “pure” level 3 (there’s no “right an­swer”; we just want to pick strate­gies that fit to­gether). When there are mul­ti­ple maps that fit differ­ent as­pects of the ter­ri­tory (poli­ti­cal map vs. ge­o­graphic map vs. globe, or differ­ent defi­ni­tions of the same word), but we want to all use the SAME map in or­der to work to­gether, then we have a co­or­di­na­tion game on which map to use. To those who don’t be­lieve in non-so­cial re­al­ity, at­tempts to im­prove maps (Level 1) just look like lob­by­ing for a differ­ent co­or­di­na­tion equil­ibrium (Level 4): “God doesn’t ex­ist” isn’t a nonex­is­tence claim about deities; it’s a bid to un­der­mine the monothe­ism coal­i­tion and give their stuff to the athe­ism coal­i­tion.
Book Re­view: Cailin O’Con­nor’s The Ori­gins of Un­fair­ness: So­cial Cat­e­gories and Cul­tural Evolu­tion
Schel­ling Cat­e­gories, and Sim­ple Mem­ber­ship Tests