Bereft of a concept of the 'real', Marx's economic base and dependent superstructure simply collapsed into each other. All that remained were empty signifiers of value and meaning which no longer belonged to any larger social or economic system. This created, in a terminology that became extremely fashionable during this period, the reign of the 'simulacra.'
-- Eleanor Heartney, Postmodernism
The simulacra are presences or appearances that have lost their ground in being or reality. They appear to us as real, but are only illusions that cause us to forget about reality, or toforget to ask the question, "what is real?" A simulacrum is like a reflection in a glass window: it has all the appearance of reality, but none of the substance. Heartney is refering to the popularity of this term in 1980s art criticism. Although its entrance into art critical discourse appears to correspond with technological changes, such as genetic research, that suggested the possibility of producing sythetic life, questions surrounding hyperrealistic representation have been a feature of art theory for a very long time (e.g Pygmalion).
Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner is a captivating exploration of issues surrounding the presence of simulacra in human society. The world of Blade Runner is a post-consumer apocalypse in which human industrial and technological expansion has ravaged the earth. The market for genetically modified and produced objects, food, etc. is huge, and scientists even discovered a way to create 'people', called replicants, who act almost exactly like human beings. But they are different in significant ways. In producing the replicants, these future dwellers of earth committed one of the top ten big Sci-Fi mistakes: never create humanoid creatures that are exactly like you in all respects, except for their superior strength, agility and intelligence. Fortunately, the (real) humans were not completely inept. They did program the replicants to to have a life span of 4 years and to be emotionally impaired.
Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a 'blade runner'. He catches and kills replicants living on earth. All replicants are forced to live off of planet earth (in fear of a hostile take over), and so the blade runners were organized as enforcers. Even at the beginning of the movie it is clear that Deckard does not like his job. He is a reluctant blade runner. As the film progresses, it becomes clear why hunting and killing physically superior beings is not for everyone. But perhaps more disturbing than the fear of fighting a replicant is the injustice implied by the killing of creatures that are so similar to humans, and that only exist because humans made them.
One of the most remarkable scenes in the movie is a chase with Deckard and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). Zhora is a replicant that Deckard finds performing in a bar, and she proves to be a very difficult catch. Realizing that Deckard is a blade runner, Zhora gets a head start and the chase ensues. Eventually, as they approach something like a mall or shopping center, Deckard catches up. Zhora smashes through the closed glass door or window and runs down an aisle flanked by more glass, and mannequins posing and watching from behind the glass. As she runs down the aisle, Deckard shoots and fresh red blood erupts from her chest and spatters on the inside of Zhora's clear plastic jacket. Zhora continues to run, though she begins to slow down, and eventually dives through another window as she is shot again, and she falls to the ground dead.
The scene in the mall is utterly dazzling and disorienting. The large amount of glass and reflected light confuses the eye, and one wonders where reality and reflection begin and end. As she dashes through this hall of mirrors, Zhora is surrounded by mannequins who, like her, are only imitations of the real. They gaze upon her in solemn, undisturbed reflection as she lunges to her death.
Confronted with the simulacrum of death, it seems as though Zhora has transcended her own status as imitation and approached, perhaps become, the real. Certainly Deckard, and myself as the viewer, feels uneasy about all this because it raises questions about how one defines humanity. We feel that out actions in the face of death is some part of what makes us human, and yet to see Zhora die, and to feel the loss of her death, requires us to reconsider what it means to live and die as a human, and not merely as a simulacrum.
Throughout the movie, Deckard develops a friendship, and then more intimate relationship, with Rachael (Sean Young), who is also a replicant. By the end of the movie it is clear that they love each other, and it is only suggested that Deckard helps her to escape those who would hunter her down. But, again, we are left to question what is it that makes us human? If love is not a quintessentially human action then what is? Does Rachael love Deckard, or is she only capable of the imitation of love? When the simulacra love and die, we are shaken to our core. If we cannot distinguish our love or death from theirs, then who is to say that one is real and the other imitation.