In the course of my thesis project I’ve been working with Baudrillard’s Simulacra & Simulations, a piece of post-modern theoretical philosophy. The essay is rather dystopic, maybe, asserting for example that prisons are not isolated social islands where we send criminals, but exist exactly as a symbol of the truth, the real of our society: by creating these physical islands of experience and locking others (not us) up in them, the rest of society can psychologically simulate that the not-criminals are not in prison, even though the prison itself is not really distinguishable from the actual truth of society and our imprisonment within it. It exists instead as a sort of microcosmic representation of society.

Prisons, prisoners, incarceration, the whole system has grown out of an internal symbolic order and provides a set of oppositional concepts that signify only a hyperreal simulation of freedom for everyone else.

Spoiler alert: we are all in prison. We are all free.
(essay continues below)

This painting was made on a page that faces one accompanying an earlier sister-post, Colonized. They are split down the middle, divided from one another, by the sketchbook’s spiral binding. That other one depicts the simulation that overshadowed my body and psyche for so long, and in some ways continues to do so. This painting depicts the real: the map musically blended with the territory, the text of the body which is paradoxically both prison and freedom from it. Baudrillard seems to insist that the post-modern peril is that the territory succumbs to the map. That our ability to simulate is such that it can obliterate the real before the real is even conceptualized: “the territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory . . . the map that engenders the territory.”

(forgive me for taking a break from academic citation conventions).

In some ways, he may be right. Human social groups have formed their environments in ways that other animal species do not. As we have actively created artifacts, societies, civilizations, and institutions that both symbolize and compose our environment, epigenetic changes have certainly responded to them and revised the story of our DNA (the “map” which precedes each one of us before we emerge into the native territory of our own bodies) accordingly. This process continues and accelerates even after we are born; born into the care of people who have no idea how to relate to us as natives of our own being, but only as they have been taught to relate to themselves and to others by the society that has engendered them.

But we have done all this, no matter how powerfully or thoroughly, in tandem with—belayed by—the forces of nature. At most we have only ever been co-authors of humanity, writing alongside the planet itself.

Thank goodness.

Baudrillard’s pessimistic treatment of the manifestations of simulation is predicated on the increasingly dangerous extremity of its departure from logic and reason coupled with its also-increasing ability to simulate them: “that weightless nebula no longer obeying the law of gravitation of the real.” And there are many, many, bone-chilling examples of such manifestations unfolding daily in the world around us.

But nature, however incomprehensibly random and chaotic it has often appeared within the limited scope of human rational faculties, does have immutable laws of reason, logic, and order that govern it. Whatever humans have proven, we have never proven our relative power over nature. Predicting it, forecasting it reliably, a little. Mitigating its more harrowing effects, harnessing elements of it in ways both useful and destructive, we have done. Even our drive to create something like the atomic bomb gave humanity a sobering taste for just how wildly out of our grasp the true power of nature really is, and just how unshakeably “the law of gravitation of the real” really is in its ability to bring the nebulous insanity of human death drives back down to earth.

Covid-19 offers another prominent example.

Baudrillard is not alone in his pessimism. I think a majority of people tend to share it. But even the dismal tones Baudrillard paints with are lightened by his consideration that the “the only weapon of power, its only strategy against this defection [the defection of simulacra from the real], is to reinject realness and referentiality everywhere.” He refers us to two routes of expression and it turns out I had unintentionally followed both routes with my paintings on the topic of my own body (made years before I’d ever read or heard of Baudrillard). The first route he calls “the discourse of crisis,” which is by far the loudest and most pervasive mode. The second he calls “the discourse of desire,” almost laughingly resigning that it is far less dangerous to confuse our desires with our reality than it is to perpetuate a hyperreality unanchored to a real reference point; desire is at least something “principle[d],” something real.

I’d go a step further than Baudrillard does and suggest that the discourse of desire is the real, the only actual real, from which references can be drawn at all; that desire, working in concert with the human cognitive capacity to simulate that which resides in its absence, is exactly what powers the dialectical machinations of the symbolic order. The discourse of crisis, thus, is itself either a simulation or a dissimulation (“feigns not to have what one has”—the example Baudrillard gives is that a person pretending to be sick is a dissimulator, preserving the truth of their health precisely by the act of pretend. A simulator creates the symptoms of illness itself because the desired state of “health” is obliterated from the simulation).

To claim, to describe, a crisis we must draw on referentials derived necessarily from a desirable state of non-crisis.

Nature is desire, manifested. What else can it be? A hungry animal doesn’t simulate lack. It desires food. The planet is teeming with desire in the form of creatures, flowers, plants, rivers, oceans, insects, earthquakes, eruptions, storms . . . what are they other than the pure expression of planetary passions, various and emanating, disseminating, desire brought to life?


Of course, we too are nature. There is no oppositional relationship between “humanity” and “nature,” only a simulation of separation.

The bacterial organisms which inhabit the microbiome of our skin tissue are not considered separate from ourselves and we would not differentiate artificially between ourselves and this beneficial microbiome. Neither can humans be considered separate from the planet. We are the planet: organisms inhabiting a microbiome layer of its dermal crust. That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to consider us symbiotes. Partners. Or as I suggested earlier, co-authors.

Simulation is irrational in that it replaces the real rational with its irrationality. Baudrillard quotes Ecclesiates at the beginning of the essay, circumscribing this perilous irrationality: “the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth–it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” I think simulation’s drive is rooted in a reflexive fear of the unknown—the unknown which is the necessary counterpart for the development of human consciousness, an evolutionary development that we undeniably recognize as morphemically distinct from our animal nature: we named ourselves “homo-sapiens.” Where desire is real, and true, and the mind develops the inexplicable ability to blot out this real, this truth, terror is an understandable, even if irrational, response. Much like ancient peoples were occasionally (not always) terrorized by the blotting out of sunlight during an eclipse. Not understanding the sublime scope of the rational cosmic order which produces such an event, nor the forces which make it feel so cataclysmic, the imagined order of the irrational is superimposed over the abyssal cognitive void. The unknowing which kindles a desire for knowing is smothered; simulation precedes the real.

Simulation is the product of, the artifact of, our courtship with the void created by our cognitive ability to suspend our contact with desire. It is an irrational set of controls bent on governing the rational. It is hell on earth, which tries to fix consciousness—driven by the desire to render the previously unknown not just abstractly but also phenomenologically uttered, manifested—into familiar circuits of an imagined known.

So the discourse of desire is the only reasonable means to disarm the “crisis” of simulation. Passions and desires are not matters that can be so irrationally governed because they are ordered—instinctual, responsive, vital, and evolutionary. Humans are animals with sapience as part of our essential nature, which is a dance of discovery born out of this very ability to create on the basis of both our desires and our simulations and then experience the relative effects of those creations.

Sapience expands perpetually as it develops, and we spend all of our lives in the process of developing it, which means we are uncontrollably generating the endless possibility of an imagined void. But desire is likewise ever-evolving, always brimming, ready to flow, and always emerging at the leading edge of sapience; mind and body working together as co-authors of our experience. So our experience of the gap between our desires and our reality is determined completely by our relationship to the unknown. Simulation desperately—impossibly—attempts to curb, control, and truncate the expansion of sapience.

Because fear.

Sometimes fear is wise. Sapience is responsible for the creation of every invention we have today, for better or worse. We humans probably needed a slow and steady pace, and it seems even rational that simulation’s irrational activity would grow ever more frenetic as our inventions symbolize more and more a confused mixture of the desire principle/reality principle—one in which the truth of our freedom is only signifiable in a world still so cluttered and distorted by its relationship with the concept of prison.
No wonder so many of us feel trapped in crisis on a planet, in our bodies, in relationship to other bodies.

It isn’t crisis, but only desire that has the power to turn prison into paradise. And sometimes humans require crisis before we grow more sensitive to our desires. Desire is a native life force, universal and unique to each of us. Society generates endless simulacra to feed the void created when we are out of touch with that native force, but it generates a lot of good, too. When we allow our own desires to culture us, it’s like reorienting, reestablishing our own compass. We are guided in our choices by a cooperative dialogue between the power of our own principles, and the rational principles of the reality around us.

We are all cells in a social organism—cellmates—inhabiting the dermal microbiome of the planet itself: a body thrumming with desire for life, and wellbeing. What kind of co-author will you be?