Rootlessness and Simulacra: The Loss and Recovery of Cultural Foundations

In recent years Marshall McLuhan's ideas concerning mass media on the one hand and Derridian post-structuralist literary theory on the other have strongly influenced cultural studies. Perhaps the most prominent philosopher/theorist of culture to integrate both of these arenas in his theory of culture is French theorist Jean Baudrillard primarily through his notion of the "simulacra." While Baudrillard's notion of the simulacra is a compelling notion for postmodern cultural studies, it is also quite limited in its scope. That is to say, even if we are able to affirm that the simulacra is an adequate appraisal of modern (or "postmodern") culture, it is very difficult to ascertain why the simulacra exists and therefore what the outcome of the simulacra may be. In this essay I will argue that Simone Weil offers us a far more persuasive and adequate philosophy of culture through her metaphor of roots.

Simulacra

A simulacra is essentially a sign which has no referent. [1] There is a severe breakdown in the relationality between different signs and their respective referents. A result of such a breakdown is in the appropriation of an endless supply of signs that do not have a referent.

Baudrillard defines simulacra as follows:

It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory - precession of the simulacra - that engenders the territory, and if one must rerun to the fable, today it is the territory whose shred slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself. [2]

One cannot help to note his characteristic cynicism in this fragment of his writing. From Baudrillard's perspective such things as television and advertising are compromising that which is real and replacing it with images that are hyperreal - not really reality, nor signs of reality, but simulacra. An example of this is in the Internet and the World Wide Web. The term "World Wide Web" signifies a hyperreality of a world, a geography, and a topology drawn up through the "cartography" of networked screens in the interconnectivity of the Web. "The scene/screen of simulation is a 'depthless surface' which allows for no play of images between metaphor and the world it (re)creates." [3] The severe potential problem regarding one's perception of the "real" and of the virtual lies in the implosion of distinctions between the "cyberreality" of the Internet and the primary world (which, in virtual reality terminology, is the world in which we live and have our biological being as opposed to a virtual world created by a computer program). Thus, for Baudrillard, the advent of a cyberreality or world, as it were, does not merely add to or augment the primary world, but abandons it and becomes its own entity, or in Marshall McLuhan's words "the medium (becomes) the message." [4]

The problem with which we are concerned is how reading the world as simulacra affects our understanding of history. David Harvey notes that a primary break between modernity and postmodernity is in the postmodern "total acceptance of the ephemerality, fragmentation, discontinuity, and the chaotic..." [5] Thus we are left with the aesthetic question of what constitutes art in this case if we no longer feel the need to appeal to some "transcendent subject" or the like. [6] The principle form of aesthetic production in postmodernity is in "collage" or "pastiche." The authority of the cultural producer is severely limited at the hands of those who wish to use what has been produced for the purposes of their own creativity. [7] But when this happens there is a strong danger of eliminating the history from whichever cultural product is used. The further danger is the ability for whatever is present to take into itself a historical artifact and use it for a new purpose perhaps unintended by the original author. The result is a loss of memory of what the past of the artifact actually was and a noted flatness in its presentation and interpretation.

Faced with these ultimate objects - our social, historical, and existential present, and the past as "referent" - the incompatibility of a postmodernist "nostalgia" art language with genuine historicity becomes dramatically apparent. The contradiction propels this mode, however, into complex and interesting new formal inventiveness; it being understood that the nostalgia film was never a matter of some old-fashioned "representation" of historical content, but instead approached the "past" through stylistic connotation, conveying "pastness" by the glossy qualities of the image, and "1930s-ness" or "1950s-ness" by the attributes of the fashion. [8]

The most recent of these "nostalgia" films is the recent Titanic (1998). The first half of the in-excess- of- three-hours film focuses on the growth of a relationship between a poor third-class passenger and a very wealthy first-class passenger. This relationship grows and hits its climax just as the ship hits the infamous iceberg. The second half of the film follows in detail the sinking of the ship. The majority of all reactions that I heard from others who had seen the film (mostly women) focused around the romance between the hero and the heroine. It is quite subtle, but the cultural and social frenzy this movie provoked was centered around the fate of these two young lovers on a ship. For many, the ship "really" sank as it did on the screen, and all of those characters were "really" there. Thus the nostalgia of the 1990's was not projected into the actual sinking of the Titanic, but rather, the sinking of the Titanic was sucked into and absorbed by the 1990's. The sinking of the Titanic thus became a cultural product of fashion and trends rather than a retelling of the actual historical event.

The problem with viewing society, culture, and value through this lens is that one's identity is relegated to a severe break with social relationships and history no longer has a shaping force for one's identity. This, however, is an area that Baudrillard never goes. He never explores the consequences of a culture that is no longer a culture per se but is a "virtual culture" composed of a series of unrelated and rootless fragments that are no longer grounded in any tenable reality. Thus Baudrillard can only look at his view of what has become of culture cynically without offering any exploration of why culture may have become this way or what needs to happen to culture in order for it to be grounded in something with a depth beyond its "celebration of the surface."

The Need for Roots

It is at this point that Simone Weil's view of culture adds an important corrective to Baudrillard's cynicism. Some may find it teasing to connect the concept of the simulacra with rootlessness for Weil. To be sure we can say that there are striking similarities. A simulacra is that which has no roots in anything except for its own existence. Simulacra may be described as the charicature and reification of that which has no roots. That is, we may say the simulacra is that which has become blind and perhaps numb to any relationality with that which is beyond or prior to its existence. However, Weil's notion of roots and culture is quite different from what Baudrillard has said when we go deeper than such surface similarities. The crucial difference lies in the existence of the good and the relationship between culture and the good.

One of the most crucial concepts that runs through Simone Weil's notion of attention is mediation. The pervasive question that she sets before us is to what extent we as individuals and societies mediate the good. School studies can mediate the good through varying degrees depending on how well they instruct our attention with a view to the purpose of prayer. [9] That is, in prayer and in schoolwork alike one is required to pay close attention to that which is other - in schoolwork it may be the problem or the paper, in prayer it is God. But attending to something that is other in this way leaves the self open to be filled with that other. Work and beauty mediate the good in so far as they have the capacity to open us to be filled with that which is not us. That is to say, work and beauty can remove us from a completely ego-centric world-view. In this way work and beauty train us how to pay attention to God in prayer and receive the good.

In order to understand her view of culture we must first look at her idea of the metaxu. A metaxu is "every representation which draws us towards the non-representable." [10] It is that which can act as a bridge to God by mediating the good. In another way, with a view to the world as metaxu, we may perceive the world as a sacrament which mediates grace. For Weil, all of the things in the world have at least the potential for mediating the good such as culture in this case. The problem lies in how we "read" the things of the world. An improper reading can lead one not to imagine that the things of the world are metaxu but rather, they are merely the things in-themselves.

It seems that Weil's "reading" of the world in this way is made more clear in her essay "Human Personality." Her argument is against the school of "personalism" in which the human being was essentially seen as a metaphysical and eternal being with a body. The "person", through personalism, is not socially formed but rather autonomous and self-formed. The problem that Weil saw with such a view of the human being is that it does not take into account the effects of affliction on the human being - effects that can eradicate the person and plunge them into mere things. For Weil affliction is not simply "hardship" or "pain" from which one is able to recover in due time. It is a far more severe instance of human suffering analogous to the experience of the slave or the imprisoned Jew during the Second World War. It is a complete loss of any freedom and a literal loss of one's ability to receive what is good on one's own. Her language regarding affliction is quite clear when she says, "Affliction is a device for pulverizing the soul; the man who falls into it is like a workman who gets caught up in a machine. He is no longer a man but a torn and bloody rag on the teeth of a cog-wheel." [11]

For personalism the rights of the person are central to the nourishment of that person. Of course, the notion of one's rights implies that there is a person - in this sense - still there. For the afflicted this cannot be the case for that which makes one a person is completely stripped from them.

Moreover, rights in so far as they nourish the person, are highly ego-centric. Rights are directed toward the self. They are on the level of sensation in which one reads the world as an end in-itself. But a reading such as this makes one dependent upon such things as social prestige in order to build up the self. Rights are on a phenomenal level of sensation and how to build up the phenomenal perception of the self. Thus, with rights and the person conceived in personalism, it is possible to divest importance in certain people who have a certain level of prestige. Others are then less important to varying degrees. But such a reading is completely relegated to the level of sensation which is an improper reading of the world. It is as if one with such a view is chained in Plato's cave looking at shadows on a wall which are perceived as reality when in fact they are merely shadows. If we reconsider Weil's notion of attention in which one is "de-centered" and thus open to be filled with that which is other than the self, reading the world with a lens of personalism prevents one from making contact with the truth - or the good. As Weil says, "Superimposed readings: we should read necessity behind sensation, order behind necessity, and God behind the order." [12] Such a person who cannot read the world in this way - through deeper and deeper levels of order and intelligibility that lead ultimately to God - and reads it only through the lens of personalism and rights is, to use Kierkegaard's term, "untruth." But for Kierkegaard one who is untruth cannot merely access truth as if it lies within one's self. Truth must be located somewhere other than the self. [13]

What then makes a human being if it is not the person or personality? "At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being." [14] What makes one human is the aspiration or the seed in us for perfect good. Weil calls this seed the "impersonal" which is "the realm of the sacred." [15] In affliction such a seed is prevented from growing at all and so, that which makes one human is not nourished and can die. When this happens one is no longer a human being or a "person" but a thing no more human than a rock or an artifact.

It is with the impersonal that attention plays a vital role as the practice by which one reaches the sacred. For Weil, we cannot reach God through our own volition. In anything, it is God who reaches us. "We cannot take one step towards the heavens. God crosses the universe and comes to us." [16] God comes to us in his own time. "We have the power to consent to receive him or to refuse." [17] When we consent to God, he places a seed in us which grows "of itself."

A day comes when the soul belongs to God, when it not only consents to love but when truly and effectively it loves. Then in its turn it must cross the universe to go to God. The soul does not love like a creature, with created love. The love within it is divine, uncreated, for it is the love of God for God which is passing through it. God alone is capable of loving God. [18]

Contact with God can only come if we let God pass through us. The act of de-centering the self is when knowledge is not limited to and contained in the self. "The difference results in, on the side of attention, a person who is transformed by what he or she is paying attention to, who sees some hitherto unsuspected value, and, on the side of will power, a person who is doing nothing more than trying to bring the problem into his or her own sphere of influence, thus remaining unchanged in his or her vision of what is unimportant." [19] In attention we do not possess the known but, to a large degree, the known comes to possess us. When the known comes to possess us, we are transformed. For this to happen we must be de-centered from ourselves and learn to place our focus on the relationship we have with the known which is through attention. The relationship we have with God in prayer follows this same relationality. For Weil, such de-centering can come through labor and the beauty of the world as well as through school studies. The attention one learns in school studies is a preparation for and opens the possibility for attention during prayer. Even the errors one makes during school studies are quite helpful in that they teach one humility. Work also teaches humility and "is a certain contact with the reality, the truth, and the beauty of this universe and with the eternal wisdom which is in order to it." [20] Thus beauty has the same effect of work and school studies which is the de-centering of the self in order that one may gain the ability to have contact with God and with truth.

These notions are highly opposite of personalism which locates the self at the center of knowing and acting. If we are de-centered in the way that I have been using the term above, there is no personal element, psychological or social, which we may simply build up. In this way the perfect good is the impersonal element which we ought to seek. Weil's language is far more penetrating than this: "Perfection is impersonal. Our personality is the part of us which belongs to error and sin. The whole effort of the mystic has always been to become such that there is no part left in his souls to say 'I'." The same notion must apply to collectivities as well. Centering the collectivity has the same effect as centering the self but to a higher degree for in a collectivity there is also oppression. "If (one) cannot root (their self) in the impersonal good so as to be able to draw energy from it, then he is in a condition, whenever he feels the obligation to do so, to bring to bear without any outside help, against any collectivity, a small but real force." [21] The key for sustaining a social order in which contact with the good is possible is by reading culture not through the self or through a collectivity, but by reading it in light of the good. Culture must then root itself in this good and serve in a master-apprentice for us to read culture in light of the good. Culture should not point to itself as and end in itself, as we have seen is her concern with personalism and rights, but to God.

While Weil in the essay "Human Personality" addresses the problem of personalism and collectivities and how they prevent one from reaching the good, she more clearly explicates the notion of roots in The Need for Roots. A right in-itself, as we have seen, merely centers the self in a misguided quest for nourishing self-sufficiency and prestige which prevents one from understanding that that which makes one human is an aspiration for the perfect and impersonal good. Now rights are not bad for a social order and should not be rejected. However, for rights to have the effect they intend, they must be rooted in eternal obligations. The roots for rights are in obligations which come from an aspiration for perfect the good at the heart of a human being and culture. That is to say, the obligation is related to the aspiration for the good which we have seen is that which makes the human being a human being in the first place. The obligations we have which come from the aspiration for the perfect good are what root human relations and are what constitute a community.

Weil seems to be viewing human relationality in a very different way than the modern mind conceives it. For the modern mind, adulthood is the label one attaches to someone when they reach a level of social development in which a group of self-sufficient people come together in order to form a community. Relationships between people are posited by the people. [22] However, for Weil, when one is in a society that draws from the self on the one hand or from the collectivity on the other to establish a social order based on rights rather than obligations, one is caught in a gravity that can prevent one from having contact with the perfect or impersonal good. For Weil such a perspective is fundamentally misguided. It once again returns us to what she has been arguing is wrong with personalism. She is talking about a relationality that is impersonal - rooted in the perfect good. Communities are not formed by like-minded people coming together, but they are formed by that which is transcendent - a divine revelation. [23] This is the perfect or impersonal good. In other words true communities and human relationships are formed and transformed by the good. When a community is able to continually re-center themselves around the good from which they came, gravity is overcome by grace. But for one to be centered on the good, one must also be de-centered from the self. Thus, rights are placed in a proper relationship to obligations and so, they are not seen as an end in themselves.

It is in this way that culture is "The formation of attention." [24] When culture continually seeks the good which is its root, it may then be read as metaxu and so, culture can be a medium through which God may pass. But in order for any of this to take effect, the culture must actively express its obligations rooted in the good. It is here where we encounter Weil's fifteen needs of the soul which "should correspond to the list of such human needs as are vital, analogous to hunger." [25] Obligations rather than rights are what a human being needs for survival. The difficulty, so it seems, with meeting these obligations is that one cannot be concerned with one's self - one must be continuously concerned with the needs of the other. Love of neighbor, however, is an implicit love of God rather than a love that one can posses. So once again, culture not only can but must serve the purpose of being a medium for the love of God to pass through. Thus "culture is the formation of attention." In this way culture can take on the ability to serve the afflicted because it is the love of God working in and through people that is actually serving the afflicted. A human being in a culture such as this is a medium for God. The paradigm for all of this is found in the cross of Christ who "emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient even to the point of death - even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:7-8).

An expression like the simulacra offers us a description of rootlessness in a postmodern culture. If we are living in a world where the virtual is more real than the real itself, where the sign has no referent, where any depth to meaning is rooted in depthlessness, there are no actual roots from which culture can find life and vitality - there are no roots through which the aspiration for good in every human soul is nourished. The entire concept of a simulacra is rooted in self-relationality which is not really fertile soil to be rooted in. What can be tragic is that most people will not be able to read culture in such a way as to see that they are not rooted in what will feed them. Many will think that they are rooted in a source of life, but the ultimate deception is that such persons are actually rooted in the self. We can become gods of our own manipulation, and deceived subjects that simply relate the self to the self.

But how is it possible for love of neighbor to work through such a situation? It seems that it cannot. Love is something that does not seem to concern Baudrillard as much as critique of culture as a discipline in- itself. It seems that the "real" that he seeks to find in culture is something that Weil can tell him about. He does not seem to see, or at least address, the self-relational tendency of human beings in modern or postmodern culture and so, he does not go to depth that a proper understanding of what is at stake necessitates. However, he does note that something is profoundly missing in culture and offers us a picture of a culture that is bathing in "virtuality," "hyperreality," and simulacra. But such a reading is only partial to what is really at stake. Weil offers us a more comprehensive reading of culture in which culture was and should be rooted in the good. While Baudrillard may describe what is happening in culture in the notion of simulacra, Weil does this and then goes on to describe why such a situation exists and where we need to go to fix such a problem. But thinking and paying attention to that which is not you and giving the other such a high level of respect is something that humans have a severe difficulty getting a handle on.

Kierkegaard noticed such a tendency in human nature more than 100 years ago when he wrote,

The misrelation of despair is not a simple misrelation but a misrelation in a relation that relates itself to itself and has been established by another, so that the misrelation in that relation which is for itself [for sig] also reflects itself infinitely in the relation to the power that established it.

The formula that describes the state of the self when despair is completely rooted out is this: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it. [26]

This seems strikingly close to what Weil has been arguing. To rest transparently in the power that established the self sounds like the outcome attention seeks and what culture should be like when it is rooted in the good. For Kierkegaard, as well as Weil, a culture and a self that is not rooted in the good will ultimately lead to despair for there is simply no where else to go.

But there is somewhere to go when one is in despair. When one is in despair one is then humbled to the extent that the grace of God can be received - perhaps more adequately to those that are not or have never been in despair. If we are all human in so far as we have a natural aspiration for the good, when we cannot reach that good for which we seek, we can starve. So let us call this aspiration a hunger analogous to food. As the body needs food to survive the soul needs the good. Hence Weil spends a lot of space outlining fifteen needs of the soul.

Simulacra and rootlessness are not exactly the same thing, yet they point to the same problem that a human without roots experiences - hunger. If Baudrillard was not tapped into such a hunger, he would not look at postmodern culture with the despair he does. Now what he needs to do is discover how to read culture to the depth Weil has seen in order to learn why it is that he may be in despair over what culture has become. This is rooted in none other than the cross of Christ.

Endnotes

[1] Here there is a connection with Ferdinand deSaussure's semiotics in which the meaning of a particular term can only be defined through its relationship to other terms. Thus, 'cat', means 'cat' only in so far as it does not mean 'bat, 'cad', 'mat' etc. Jacques Derrida argued against such a structuralist reading of language by saying that the meaning of any given sign can be found not only through the difference between terms but that it is constantly deferred as well (hence he uses his term deferánce which is a composite of the French words meaning "to differ" and "to defer"). The signifying chain is thus infinite and meaning of any specific term is never self-present. (Here he is also arguing against Husserl such that no meaning can even be intuited). Even in structuralism we have to find some terms with a self-present meaning in order that we may be able to define any given term. For Derrida this is an impossibility.

[2] Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 1.

[3] Mark Nunes. "Baudrillard in Cyberspace: Internet, Virtuality, and Postmodernity." ONLINE. 11/24/1998. Http://www.dc.peachnet.edu/~mnunes/jbnet.html.

[4] Nunes, Http://www.dc.peachnet.edu/~mnunes/jbnet.html.

[5] David Harvey, Postmodernity: an Inquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 44.

[6] This was of the greatest concern of the artists and authors during the inter-war period chiefly demonstrated in the American New Critics school of literary theory.

[7] Harvey, 52. - At this juncture Levi-Strauss' use of bricolage is an appropriate connection wherein cultural products are not created but simply re-introduced into new contexts and so, they acquire new meanings. In such cases the original meaning can be easily lost.

[8] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (Duke University Press: Durham, 1997), 19.

[9] Simone Weil. "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God." Simone Weil. Eric O. Springsted. Ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998), 92. - "Of course school exercises only develop a lower kind of attention. Nevertheless, they are extremely effective in increasing the power of attention that will be available at the time of prayer, on condition that they are carried out with a view to this purpose and this purpose alone."

[10] Simone Weil, Simone Weil, 117.

[11] Simone Weil. "Human Personality," 331.

[12] Simone Weil, Simone Weil, 72.

[13] This is his initial argument in Philosophical Fragments.

[14] Simone Weil. "Human Personality," 315.

[15] Simone Weil. "Human Personality," 318.

[16] Simone Weil, "The Love of God and Affliction," Simone Weil. Eric O. Springsted, ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998), 53.

[17] Simone Weil, "The Love of God and Affliction," 53.

[18] Simone Weil, "The Love of God and Affliction," 53.

[19] Diogenes Allen and Eric O. Springsted. Spirit, Nature, and Community: Issues in the Thought of Simone Weil. (Albany: State University of New York, 1994), 211.

[20] Simone Weil. "Human Personality," 322.

[21] Simone Weil. "Human Personality," 3320.

[22] See Kegan, Robert. In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1994.

[23] Allen and Springsted, 191.

[24] Simone Weil, Simone Weil, 119.

[25] Simone Weil, The Need for Roots. (New York: Routledge, 1997), 6.

[26] Soren Kierkegaard. The Sickness Unto Death. (Princeton University: Princeton, 1980), 14.

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