Love and Death of the Simulacra

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.


  • Bruce says:

    Jim – are not simulacra also simply the same thing as images, representations? In that case a simulacrum is anything that stands-in or images another thing. We are simulacra of God — and perhaps our fascination with “replicants” in their various iterations in the scifi genre is just that — as echoes of our own ontology. Moreover, our nervousness about the images we make of ourselves (a nervousness that sometimes rises to violence) may have their root in our own refusal of that ontological status as images of another, more essential being. We could interpret the Genesis story of Adam and Eve in this way — as the rebellion of replicants against their maker (incited by another creature who refused creaturely status…”I have created myself!”).

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Bruce, thanks for your insightful comment and for connecting the idea of the simulacra to the image of God. While I do think that the simulacra are images, I also think that they are a particular kind of image: an image that takes leave of reality without allowing us to feel the loss of reality. So I might not apply the concept directly to the image of God, but I think you are right to point out that our fascination with the simulacra is closely related to human ontology. One commentator, whose name escapes me at the moment, suggested that the aesthetic of hyper-reality is like the touch of King Midas: it presents us with the possibility of making gold (reality), but it also separates us from the things and people we love. The story of Adam and Eve in the garden is not unlike King Midas because both are looking for autonomy and control where there should be givenness and trust. Perhaps the temptation to produce simulacra that are self-images, to seek autonomous self-determination, arises, as you say, from a ‘nervousness’ about trusting our own identities to another.

  • matt ballou says:

    a few thoughts:

    “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees” – robert irwin

    the above quote would seem to connect with your idea that simulacra “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?\'”

    but there’s real and then there’s REAL, as you show us in your final paragraph.

    you’re right there. i think good simulacra – artworks – are there to create a situation where we do indeed suspend our disbelief, embrace the illusion, etc, but in such a way that they cause us to reflect upon the truth of what is represented in a deeper, more transcendent way.

    i think lieutenant commander data is a great example of this. in the very beautiful episode “the offspring”, data “reproduces” and creates a daughter, lal. it’s an amazingly powerful episode. it doesn’t make me forget about what it means to be human, or to be a father, or what it takes to love someone who died. it heightens all of those things to a force and clarity that goes beyond mere description of the states or conditions inherent in emotion or parenthood. in this i don’t forget about reality, i inquire more deeply into it. you can see more on the episode here:

    also, check out zizek’s phenomenal “the reality of the virtual”. you can stream it at netflix or watch it in seven parts on youtube. it’s really amazing and speaks directly to these issues. more here:

    one last thing… tho it’s not totally related, these lectures by marianne robinson made me think a lot about these sort of issues:

    • Jim Watkins says:

      Matt, thank you for these comments. Thank you, especially, for bringing up the Star Trek episode where Data creates (reproduces?) Lal. I’m a huge Star Trek fan and that is one of my favorite episodes. That is certainly another excellent example of the kind of thing that I am trying to get at. What fascinates me most about Data in really difficult and intense situations, such as when Lal ‘dies,’ is his inability to experience emotion (of course, he does receive an emotion chip much later). I am always a little torn (and a little disturbed) between seeing this lack in Data as a blessing or as a curse. It raises questions such as ‘can Data love without emotion?’ Data’s friendship with Deanna Troi also highlights this aspect of Data’s character in interesting ways.

      Thank you also for the links. I hope to check them out when time permits.

  • Renae says:

    Your article made me think of how we tend to see others. There is a temptation to subconsciously view other human beings as simulacra. That is, to think that my thoughts, feelings, beliefs are somehow more human, or elevated than others’. I think that it shows up most when I judge others’ intentions as less noble than my own. Is my love for God or my family more real than anyone else’s? How is it that I come to judge my sacrifice as more “sacrificial” than that of my brother or sister?
    You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thanks for this post.

    • Jim Watkins says:

      Renae, thanks for this reflection. Yes, I think you are absolutely right that it is easy to see other people as like simulacra, as flat or insubstantial, and not with the appropriate personal depth that belongs to any human being loved by God. Thank you for your thoughts, and for taking my post in a direction I had not anticipated.

  • Bruce says:

    Renae’s posting raises the conversation to a whole new level–particularly where the new social media are concerned. If we can construct our own and others’ identities via electronic masking, we go another step further into the labyrinth. It’s only a matter of degree not a paradigm change, but its still disconcerting to think that these masks, these simulacra tend to gain credibility by long use.
    I tend to think that prejudice (like racism) depends upon our relating to false images we’ve constructed and by their repeated and prolonged, unchallenged use. As Renae points out, if I can divest the other of full reality and relate to my image of them I can persist in my prejudice. Current political campaigns are built upon this and the Balkanization of public discourse requires this deceptive, habitual resorting to thin simulacra.

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