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.

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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.

Also being simulated: people. I do not refer here to the artificial foot developed recently for the purpose of sweating mechanically in the service of a shoe manufacturer, or to the common Elvis impersonator, but rather to the ineffable issue of personal identity. A recent survey by Fodor's Travel Publications revealed that three percent of American travelers invent completely new personae for themselves when talking to strangers on planes, buses, and trains. The assumption, perhaps unconscious, that there can exist a stable, separate, simulated self is what underlies, surely, not only participation in Civil War re-enactments but also the prevalent verbal tic of referring to oneself in the third person -- a practice that for some has become, literally, second nature. In its most extreme version the simulated self may require a surrender of sovereignty -- a point brought home during last year's presidential campaign by several published comments from the supply-side-economics proponent Jude Wanniski. Wanniski, an adviser to the Republican vice-presidential nominee, Jack Kemp, described Kemp's political persona as, in essence, a themed environment built on a vacant lot according to specifications provided exclusively by Wanniski (making it, one is tempted to say, the only exact reproduction of Jude Wanniski's faux pearls).

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The debate over the relative merits of the actual and the contrived is an ancient one, filled with censorious voices. "Men often applaud an imitation," Aesop concluded in one of his fables, "and hiss the real thing." This is not a debate I care to join. But it is perhaps worth wondering, against a background of simulation, whether mundane reality may itself be emerging as something that can be considered radically avant-garde.

Picture of Fire on TV

Several signs are suggestive. An article in the section of The New York Times devoted to the forward lines of lifestyle makes note of a trend: instead of meeting with others socially at restaurants couples are actually inviting friends over to their homes for dinner. Another article in the same section reports that members of cutting-edge households are putting photographs of family members into frames and then making arrangements of the photographs on a wall. From a different newspaper comes a story about people forsaking conventional psychotherapy and, as psychologists look on with guarded hope, seeking emotional well-being by telling humorous stories to friends and then joining in the laughter.

A taste for the honest and elemental, if only as a garnish, is evident on a wide front. In music hardly a group exists nowadays that has not put aside its amplifiers and synthesizers and produced an "unplugged" CD. Food recipes in the best publications are becoming more arduous, as emphasis shifts from artificial ease and speed to the everything-from-scratch ethos that primitive authenticity demands. A recently published catalogue offers household appliances from fifty or a hundred years ago that operate without electricity. At Sotheby's last year four unornamented burlwood bowls were sold for $2,500. There are bars that serve only water to drink, and other bars that serve only oxygen to breathe.

People may hiss the real thing, but from time to time it can still get the upper hand.

Illustrations by Istvan Banyai

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1997; The Real Thing; Volume 280, No. 12; pages 14-16.