Yesterday we looked at Madan Sarup’s notions around identity. Some of that work overlaps with the work of French social critic and lapsed sociologist Jean Baudrillard. In order to properly receive Baudrillard’s perspective – and address how it relates to contemporary conceptions of identity and belonging – a little background is appropriate. Sarup explains:
Our identities are influenced, among other things, by what we consume, what we wear, the commodities that we buy, what we see and read, how we conceive our sexuality, what we think of society and the changes we believe it is undergoing.
In Baudrillard’s view “identity is increasingly dependant upon images” and this leads to replication, imitation and simulation. This is marked off in four stages:
- the first is faithful copies,
- the second is a perversion of reality,
- the third is an absence of profound reality (but where there is a pretension to a faithful copy),
- the final stage is pure simulation.
This is the concept of simulacra – which is composed of all “references with no referents, a hyperreality.”
Baudrillard is very clear in his description:
Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.
This is an intimidating turn for an address of social conception of identity and community. Long held markers of tribe or clan are dissolved. More modern boundaries or nation or even imagined community seem far off. Contemporary indicators – even those up for review – like ‘race’, gender and ethnicity are compromised and suspect within this simulated context.
In a hyper-real environment, both memory and identity are illusive. Sarup says that: “Identity is contradictory and fractured. Identity in postmodern thought is not a thing; the self is necessarily incomplete, unfinished – it is ‘the subject in process’.” Recognizing the illusive nature of past identifiers is one thing. Preparing for the radically redefined and abstract nature of a consumer culture is quite another.
In previous generation addressing the means of production was a significant engagement. Now we are talking about a ‘vast system of production’ in which a consumer must invest large amounts of time and energy in order to orient themselves to new products and brands. Consumers “cannot avoid the obligation to consume” because consumption itself provided the “primary mode of social integration and the primary ethic and activity within the consumer society.”
Thus researching the products, earning the money to purchase them, mastering their use, and embracing the brand associated with them is a laborious task.
Branding and brand identification is a result of simulacra where icons, logos and images provide a proliferation of signs. These signs provide indicators of identity and belonging in a new fashion with ‘hyper-reality’ where “images, spectacles, and the play of signs have replaced the logic of production and class conflict.”
The collateral damage of this development is catastrophic. The devastation is not only to cultural elements of community and memory but physical and environmental realities. Umberto Eco elaborates:
The technological society is tending to become a society of used and useless objects, whereas in the countryside we see deforestation, abandonment of cultivation, pollution of water, atmosphere, and vegetation, the extinction of animal species and so on.
The ripples of implications effect everything from sex and sexuality as a commodity to politics –which Baudrillard equates to advertising, publicity, sports, fashion and special effects.
It is spectacle, stimulation, and simulation.
Our emerging context is filled with simulacra and the hyper-real. Constructing notions of social identity and community belonging is only going to become more difficult and more elusive.
 Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, 105.
 Jesse Russell and Ronald Cohn, Simulacra and Simulation (Book on Demand, 2012), 6.
 Ibid., 14.
 Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, 47.
 Ibid., 107.
 Baudrillard follows the work of Marshall McLuhan closely here.
 Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, 111.
 Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1990), 78.
 Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World, 116.