–noun, plural -cra [-kruh]
1. a slight, unreal, or superficial likeness or semblance.
2. an effigy, image, or representation: a simulacrum of Aphrodite.
In this age of such extreme communications technology overload, the value of original art is one nearly obliterated by the proliferation of copies and easily-accessible images. One no longer needs to visit the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa (let alone have a copy of their very own, printed on t-shirts, coffee mugs, posters, or even beach towels), or leave the comforts of their home to gain an understanding of the geography of Vatican City. Through the increasing role of technology in our lives, we have begun to replace the necessary experience of the original with mere copies, to the point where the copies have come to overwhelm the original to such an extent that the original becomes something we can never truly know. Through the creation and copying of these Simulacrum, technology has stripped away the power of an original – and this effect is not simply one experienced by artworks. Simulacrum have also come to represent certain iconic people, in some cases to the point where the original – in particular, those who were most guarded over their personal lives – is forever lost.
While today’s celebrities have their every move traced and followed (and then documented) by gossip magazines and instantly-updated gossip blogs, the biggest star figures in the past have taken on an intriguing role following their deaths – one that is viewable to us only via the Simulacrum available to us. For example, the Marilyn Monroe today’s audiences still know and love is one based purely on the image and characteristics we can observe of her – and it’s all that remains. What we end up with is just a mere copy, a simulation, an approximation of who she really was. Andy Warhol’s silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe have come to serve as the perfect visual analogy for her enduring legacy – copy after copy is made, further and further from the original deep in the ground. It’s the approximations and faulty copies that come to represent the original. Warhol’s Monroe is realer to us than Monroe herself.
Where the use of Simulacrum comes into heavier play is in the way it can warp historical figures and our understanding of them. A key case in point comes in the form of Hitler, a man whom, no matter how well documented by outsiders, never bothered to document himself past the publication of Mein Kampf in 1927. With his image supremely controlled by the Propaganda department of the Nazi government, even Hitler’s screen appearances were carefully considered and timed so as to not overwhelm or bore the audience with too much. In essence, all in Germany were left waiting to see more of their Führer. When he did appear, it created frenzy akin to the arrival of The Beatles (it’s worth noting just how long into the infamous Triumph of the Will Hitler finally arrives on camera, and the crowd goes wild).
Furthermore, by this point in history other Simulacrum of Hitler are just as identifiable and recognized as Hitler himself, calling into question just what we actually know about the real figure vs. the copies with which we’ve become overly-familiarized.
Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator:
A scene from Downfall, featuring actor Bruno Ganz as Hitler:
An imaginative re-edit of Downfall, in which Hitler hears of his on-screen death in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (this video is just one of many such subtitled re-writes on the internet):
A short sequence from Inglorious Basterds (a film in which even Hitler’s death is re-imagined), “re-mixed”:
A popular viral youtube video titled Hitler Me Elmo:
While the leaps made here are admittedly huge, the above clips and images provide striking examples of the power of when a Simulacrum comes to take on a power greater than that of the original object or person. By this point in history, it sometimes seems as though we deal more in copies than originals – from Hollywood to history, it’s all second-(and third- and fifth-) hand.
01. Can you think of another example of a modified Simulacrum from history that’s come to be just as recognizable as the original?
02. Are we well-equipped enough to determine the differences between a faulty Simulacrum and reality? (Think of Tarantino’s re-write of Hitler in Inglorious Basterds).
03. Is there a positive value to a Simulacrum “taking over” from an original in our popular perception?