Baudrillard has become somewhat famous in popular culture through the play on his ideas in the movie The Matrix where an astute viewer can see the image of his face appear as a ghostly haunting throughout the film (he also helped in the writing and production of the film). However, he has been “famous” for some time in contemporary philosophy as one of the pioneers in theorizing about the body and the images. In his book, Impossible Exchange, he proposes a progression of simulation which can be seen in two examples: capital and identity.
The first progression is that from the object to signs. In other words, an object begins with some kind of arbitrary value which is the basis for exchange. Money and capital as we know it did not exist at this level. We can see this in action with historical transactions between two entities: I exchange ten pounds of fertilizer and receive 25 gallons of milk. However, the progression to signs involves a kind of “standardization” in which each objects value is given a relatively static exchange ratio: a gallon of milk will be 4 units of this new sign–be it a dollar or whatever. At this point, the object becomes a commodity that is freely exchangeable in the market; it has become a simulation of the object.
This ability to be exchanged brings about the second progression: fetishism. A fetish is a perversion of the object that further removes it from the “real” object. It becomes a “pure, unrepresentable, unexchangeable object–yet a nondescript one” (Baudrillard, Impossible Exchange, 129). Here, the object is taken to the point of being a desire for the sake of desire. Zizek sees this best in the example of Caffeine free Diet Coke: it lacks everything that makes “Coke” “Coke” but it is the pure semblance of Coke, “an artificial promise of a substance which never [materializes]” (Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, 22). The fetish is not just a simulation of a simulation (what Baudrillard calls a simulacra) but it is also devoid of the “original” object: it is the nothingness itself.
Here we can see the final progression: the spectre (or phantasm). The object now becomes an unrepresented non-being which haunts the “real.” Not only does the object become a simulation, but even its component parts become simulated: Toyota cars are manufactured 60% in the USA. Perhaps the best example of this progression is in the phenomena called “reality TV.” These shows are no more real than “normal TV”: absurd scenarios with unreal events, simulated events, false personas, etc. Here, the actors are not given a particular role but rather play their own made-up role, an idealized, distorted self-image.
A direct corollary can be seen in that of The Matrix where those in the “real world” are projected back into the “virtual” world of the Matrix as imagined bodies. One’s identity in the “real world” is fragmented and distorted as the Matrix is treated as being more real than real, a hyperreality. As the end of The Matrix trilogy shows: there is no real distinction between the “real” world and that of the Matrix because one’s identity is a composite of fragments from many different “worlds” which reach across all the boundaries.
Where does all of this leave identity? A poster put up in Berlin in 1994 poked fun at loyalties to identities: “Your Chris is a Jew. Your car is Japanese. Your pizza is Italian. Your democracy–Greek. Your coffee–Brazilian. Your holiday–Turkish. Your numbers–Arabic. Your letters–Latin. Only your neighbour is a foreigner” (quoted from Zygmunt Bauman, Identity, 27). As the above progression of simulation is explored, it will become more obvious that “‘belonging’ and ‘identity’ are not cut in rock, that they are not secured by a lifelong guarantee, that they are eminently negotiable and revocable; and that one’s own decisions, the steps one takes, the way one act–and the determination to stick by all that–are crucial factors of both” (Bauman, 11).