The simulacra are presences or appearances that have lost their ground in reality. They are, as it is sometimes said, a copy of a copy. They appear to us as real, but are only illusions that cause us to forget about reality, or to forget to ask the question, “what is real?” A simulacrum is like a reflection in a glass window: it has all the appearance of reality, but none of the substance. The term ‘simulacrum’ is commonly used in much recent art criticism, although it has a very long history in the theory of art (e.g. Pygmalion). Critics sometimes use the term simulacrum negatively to describe a culture that, like a reflection in a mirror, has lost its moorings in reality. But the term might also take on a more positive sense, as the mirror metaphor might suggest, because the simulacra can also allow us a new perspective through which to see ourselves.
There are a wealth of examples that attest to contemporary culture’s fascination with the simulacra. One could point to any number of things from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, to the popular TV series Star Trek, and even to medieval times fairs. The creation of hyperrealistic virtual environments is compelling because it suggests the possibility of entering another world. But beyond the initial interest that such things illicit from us, there is a much deeper reason why the simulcra are fascinating. By taking leave of reality, the simulacra call into question who we really are.
Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner follows the exploits of Deckard (Harrison Ford) who is a ‘blade runner’ (someone whose job is to catch and kill renegade replicants). Replicants are manufactured human beings made to be like humans in nearly every way, but who are made for a purpose and treated as a lower life form. Throughout the movie, Deckard develops a friendship, and then more intimate relationship, with Rachael (Sean Young), who turns out to be a replicant. By the end of the movie it is clear that they love each other, and it is only suggested that Deckard helps her to escape those who would hunter her down. But we are left to question what is it that makes us human? If love is not a quintessentially human action then what is? Does Rachael love Deckard, or is she only capable of the imitation of love?
In the series Star Trek: The Next Generation, Data (Brent Spiner) arguably became the series’ most popular character precisely because he helps us to ask, “what does it mean to be human?” Data is an android, but he is often shown to ‘exceed his programming.’ A primary motivation in Data’s ‘life,’ as he constantly reminds us, is to become more like human beings. In Star Trek: Nemesis, a recent movie adaptation of the series, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is captured by his own clone whose sole purpose is to destroy his doppelganger. Data comes to the rescue of his captain and friend, but in doing so willingly sacrifices his life. In choosing death for the good of another, Data shows us what it is to be human in an act that is nothing short of Christ-like. Has Data ‘become’ human in his death? To see Data die, and to feel the loss of his death, requires us to reconsider what it means to live and die as a human, and not merely as a simulacrum.
When the simulacra love and die, we are shaken to our core. If we cannot distinguish our love or death from theirs, then who is to say that one is real and the other imitation. And yet, it may not be that the simulacra are merely a hall of mirrors in which we find ourselves lost and disoriented. They also challenge us to ask questions about ourselves that we had forgotten to ask, or, perhaps, that we never thought to ask in the first place. By unsettling us, the simulacra may also return us to a ‘real life’ that is enriched.