Reality, simulacrum, potentiality, the virtual and the actual

Huyghe’s interest in how fiction can create “an additief of reality” evokes Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum once again. Baudrillard first defined this term in his pivotal essay Simulacra and Simulation (1981). In his sophisticated thought on the development of the media image in contemporary culture, Baudrillard distinguishes “four phases: ” first, the image as a mere reflection of a reality; second, the image that is described to “masks” such a reality; third, the image that entirely covers up “the absence of a reality;” and fourth and last, the image that “has no relation to reality whatsoever” and has become, in Baudrillard’s words, “its own pure simulacrum” (Baudrillard 1994, p. 6).

This ever-increasing capacity of the image to simulate reality is Baudrillard’s pessimistic scenario of contemporary society, in which the subject is thought to be deeply affected by the “additives of reality” that the media create. Still, Baudrillard mobilizes his media theory to criticize contemporary events as represented by the media, such as the first Gulf War in his controversial La Guerre du Golf n’a pas eu lieu (1991). The Gulf War is Baudrillard’s schoolbook example of a situation in which reality (the war) and its representation (live coverage of CNN) have separated to such an extent that they can be argued to have no “relation whatsoever,” and the image has thus reached phase four – of the “pure simulacrum.” This is why Baudrillard declares, provocatively, that “the war did not take place.” Huyghe accepts Baudrillard’s theory of simulacra (as evident from the shared conceptual denial of an actual event in Baudrillard’s “The Gulf War that didn’t take place” and Huyghe’s “A Journey that wasn’t ) (24), but with a few major differences. First of all, Huyghe does not share Baudrillard’s ‘gloominess,’ which is a result of the fact that the latter does not see any possibility of human agency within the bastions of media power. Huyghe’s art, in contrast, is all about the role — and power — of the subject. As he shows in The Third Memory, the subject can (and does) interact with the constructed realities by the media. Media society as a whole can be seen as a closed system within and with which we all the same can interact politically, ethically, aesthetically, and socially.

Another difference between Baudrillard and Huyghe’s approaches to simulation culture is that the latter recognizes that a simulated reality — or a fiction in the double sense as described above — is ultimately a construction. Huyghe, in other words, does not believe in an objective relation to the image and thus takes the “make-ability” of images and events for granted. My reading of Huyghe’s interest in the make-ability of an event that produces “a certain kind of” or “additif” of reality is triggered by that pivotal billboard on (and of) a construction site at the start of his career, in which the artist pointed to the fact that images are being made. But I borrow the suffix “-ability” (or “-barkeit,” in German) from Samuel Weber, who in his latest book on Walter Benjamin, Benjamin’s Abilities, argues that the renowned cultural critic mobilized this suffix throughout his oeuvre — see for example his use of terms such as “citability,” “translatability,” and, of course, “reproducibility.” As Weber explains: “These are Benjamin’s “-barkeiten,” his “-abilities,” which define his major concepts in terms of what Derrida has called structural possibility rather than in terms of their actual realization (Weber 2008, p. 39). What the suffix refers to, then, is a state of possibility or potentiality. This idea of potentiality — which suggests a capacity rather than a reality, something active rather than passive — applies to the media image as problematized by Huyghe ever since his first billboard, where the becoming of images rather than their permanent status as a representation is the point at issue.

Before returning to A Journey that Wasn’t, and how that work relates to this idea of the make-ability, it is interesting to note that Gilles Deleuze phrased the Derridian problem of presence and representation in terms of the binary of actual and virtual. Each image, Deleuze holds, has two sides, the actual and the virtual, but they can develop in both directions by being either actualized or virtualized. I mention Deleuze because Weber relies heavily on the French philosopher’s theorizing of terms such as “virtual,” “possible” and “actual.” As Weber explicates Deleuze: “The virtual must above all be clearly distinguished from the possible….[S]ince the virtual, in contrast to the possible, already possesses a certain reality in itself [my emphasis], it cannot be simply defined in opposition to the real. It is already real, although not in terms of its representational content or reference. The virtual is not oriented or directed toward a reality outside of itself: rather, it is defined, negatively, with respect to the actual, the here-and-now (2008, p. 32).”And Weber continues: “[t]he virtual becomes actual, but only in altering itself. It realizes in staying what it was, but in becoming something different (2008, p. 32)” This passage on the actual and the virtual makes clear that Deleuze’s theory is more adequate than Derrida’s idea of the single and the double for thinking about presence and representation in regard to media images because it explains the way in which the virtual (or media) image can contain “a certain reality in itself” even if it is connected to reality. The Deleuzian distinction between the actual and the virtual, then, elucidates the ultimately ontological problem of the fundamental hybridity between facts and fictions in a time of advanced media conditions, to the extent that a fiction can have an impact on the real world instead of the other way round.

Note 24: Cultural critics have attacked Buadrillard’s provocative statements because his media perspective avoids to address any circumstance or relevant background, and is seen as immoral because he ignored the reality of people dying in this event. Huyghe’s work escapes such criticism because of his inoffensive topic of a journey.

Sjoukje van der Meulen