The Real Thing

Real Fire

I HAD been reading and hearing for years about the broad popularity of Civil War "re-enactments," and yet until a recent chance encounter had never seen one for myself. A battle materialized in a field I happened to be passing, near a highway thick with traffic and within sight of modern homes. A sulfurous swirl of gun smoke hung above the tall grass as Union cavalry dashed into the open, from behind a fitness course. In various places men lay motionless, red stains spreading across their uniforms. From time to time the almost soothing fusillade of riflery was overwhelmed by a disruptive discharge of cannon.

I have no idea how any of the participants felt about the issues that were actually at stake in the Civil War, but they seemed deeply committed to the integrity of the simulation itself. In addition to the Yankee and Rebel combatants the re-enactors included nurses and water boys, journalists and field artists, all of them unshakably faithful to character. When they replied to questions, they often did so in a hill-country, border-state twang, and exclusively from within a nineteenth-century perspective.
One dashing man in an ornate uniform that evoked light opera, sporting a moustache and a cane, seemed at once properly matched to the time period and also somehow out of place as he viewed the proceedings from atop a strategic knoll. What Civil War role could this dapper fellow be playing? He responded to a query with aristocratic forbearance, affecting an Italian accent. He was, he said, the military observer of the House of Savoy.

* * *

Americans enter easily into the spirit of simulation. The very premises of our culture condition us to the legitimacy of reinvention, a process that for many starts with becoming American in the first place. Historians and novelists have been elaborating on this subject, and worrying about its potentially mischievous consequences, for years. The most prominent prophet and expositor of simulation in an American context today is the social theorist Jean Baudrillard, who argues that politics, the news media, entertainment, advertising, the academic disciplines, and just about everything else now consist almost entirely of simplified or sophisticated simulacra of the formerly real. "To dissimulate," Baudrillard has written, "is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn't have."


Fire on TV

Baudrillard, with his semiotic tropes and his insatiable revulsion for the American way of life, can be a little hard to take, but he has a point. Leave aside those instances in which simulation is overt -- the simulations done in the name of science and industry, the "role playing" promoted for reasons of therapy or empathy, the re-creations and dramatizations found on television, the electronic pastimes encompassed by the word "virtual" -- leave all of these aside, and the seep of simulation into ordinary life will seem unremitting nonetheless.

In the New York metropolitan area a television station is known for broadcasting during the Christmas season a fire burning in a fireplace; the station has been tuned in by more than 250,000 households at a time. Not long ago I received in the mail a brochure for Take Two Photocraft, a company offering "a creative new process that takes the art of photography a step beyond the camera." Do you have favorite pictures to which you wish some missing person could be added, or from which you wish someone could be subtracted? Take Two will make appropriate revisions with seamless guile -- $55 for additions, $119 for subtractions (the higher fee no doubt covering disposal of the negative). The Franklin Mint continues to run prominent advertisements in national publications selling a manufactured item that is in effect being marketed as a simulation of a simulation: "the only exact reproduction of Jacqueline Kennedy's famous faux pearls."

The simulation phenomenon affects geographic issues. Having some years ago backed away from its wise policy of never considering requests to have ZIP codes changed, the U.S. Postal Service now faces frequent pressure to allow neighborhoods to change their codes in order to simulate inclusion in more prestigious zones nearby. Also to take advantage of ZIP code cachet, mailbox condominiums have been established in storefronts in many of America's choicest communities, allowing owners of a post-office box to convey the illusion of local habitation. A related sort of cosmetic geoplasty is occurring at the international level, as various Third World countries that were never British colonies seek affiliation with the members-only Commonwealth of Nations. Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, is the first such applicant to have been granted admission. Other countries that have expressed interest in joining the Commonwealth include Cambodia and Rwanda.


Civial War Reenactors

"Everywhere," Baudrillard has written, "we live in a universe strangely similar to the original." There is no point belaboring the omnipropinquity of theme parks, except to note how blind to simulation we sometimes can be. One of my children, on a school visit to the Washington, D.C., area, took a side trip to a major local amusement park, part of which features streets made to look like the streets in various countries of Europe. The official itinerary for the afternoon read simply, "Germany, England, Italy, France." Environments that are "themed," to use the industry jargon, are not confined to amusement parks -- they also take shape as hotel lobbies, pedestrian malls, entire rehabilitated downtowns. And they constitute, in the words of one commentator, "the most powerful trend in American architecture." So much lightweight material, including plastic designed to simulate nonplastic, is now used in the construction of the physical world that, according to a study published in a recent issue of the journal Daedalus, the amount of mass required to build the physical reality around us has on a per capita basis actually begun to decline.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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