Jean Baudrilliard’s Simulation and Simulacra in Chuck Palahniuk’s 'Survivor'

Term Paper, 2011
12 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents






1. Introduction

In Ferdinand de Saussure’s terms a sign always consists of a signifier, arbitrarily connected to a signified. Jean Baudrillard used Saussure’s structuralistic ideas as a base for his concepts of simulation and simulacra, artificial signs that have lost their connection to a real signified. This idea is a central pillar of his postmodern theory of sign systems and their relation to the real. It is a complex and revolutionary theory discussed by some as unscientific and overly generalized (Kellner, 1). Even if this were the case it can be used in interpreting contemporary postmodern literature such as Chuck Palahniuk’s works.

Survivor, Palahniuk’s second novel, is peppered with appearances of simulacra and the concepts of simulation and hyperreality. And Palahniuk himself gives a direct hint which shows that he knows about Baudrillard’s ideas. On page 88 of Survivor Tender Branson states: “The signifier outlasts the signified, the symbol the symbolized.” (Palahniuk, 88)

In this term paper I will give an overview of where and how Palahniuk uses Baudrillard’s concepts of simulation and simulacra in Survivor and how the reader could interpret these concepts and appearances in the context of his critique of consumer society. Beforehand I will summarize Baudrillard’s main concepts which are related to Survivor.

2. Jean Baudrillard’s Simulation and Simulacra

The main idea behind Baudrillard’s theories in and on Simulation and Simulacra is: reality has vanished. It is no longer existent, because it is no longer possible to distinguish between the real and the imaginary. This is a direct conclusion from the assumption that through simulation it is now impossible to distinguish between de Saussure’s signifier and signified. (Blask, 29-30) Baudrillard himself defines the real in Symbolic Exchange and Death as “that of which it is possible to provide an equivalent reproduction.” (73) Empirical sciences, the force that drives our world since the age of enlightenment, also follow this definition. Every idea that cannot be proven by an experiment remains a hypothesis and every experiment that cannot be reproduced cannot proof the truth value of that hypothesis. Taking this into account “the real is not only which can be reproduced, but that which is always already reproduced”. (Baudrillard Symbolic, 73) The world has reached a state of hyperreality.

2.1 The Order of the Simulacra

Based on considerations on the end of production and the structural revolution of value in the economy, Baudrillard defines three hierarchical orders of simulacra or “forms of reproduction” (Schoonmaker, 169) of which “[e]very order subsumes the next”. (Smith, 34)

The counterfeit or imitation is the first order of simulacra. It allows overcoming the feudal or archaic limitation of signs in number. Because imitation made it possible to easily reproduce signs of wealth, those signs were no longer class distinctive because from then on the production of such status symbols was no longer limited and grew with demand. (Baudrillard Symbolic, 50) What stucco was for the renaissance is now concrete, a material that is able to replace every other material and that is able to imitate almost everything in substance and form but there is still no impact on relations and structures. (Baudrillard Symbolic, 51) It is still possible to tell if something is an imitation or if it is real because the simulacrum and the real are in noticeable competition. (Baudrillard Symbolic, 53)

The second order simulacrum then dissolves the possibility to distinguish between the simulacrum and the real. Baudrillard’s example is the difference between automaton and robot. The automaton follows the principle of analogy which means that there are certain characteristics which automatons and human beings have in common. The automaton is a kind of human counterpart that tries to imitate him.

The robot in contrast is an equivalent of a human being in functional terms. The robot no just longer tries to imitate humans in appearance but rather is able to replace them in the working process as a total equivalent. (Baudrillard Symbolic, 53-54) Second order simulacra no longer want to imitate nature, they want to control it. (Blask, 27) They are signs that were never related to classes and power and this is why there is no need for them to be imitated. Because they are serially produced from start on, there is no longer an original-imitation-relation, no analogy, there is only equivalence. (Baudrillard Symbolic, 55)

But serial production not only renders serially produced objects indistinguishable from each other, it also affects the way in which objects are designed. Design now follows the principle of making the designed reproducible. Design then becomes a creation of models. This is where reproduction drifts of into total simulation and this is the starting point for third order simulacra. Everything is now a slight variation of a model which no longer obtains its meaning by trying to imitate something real, but only by belonging to a certain model or code. Equivalence of characteristics is no longer important, but rather the characteristics that allow us to distinguish. (Baudrillard Symbolic, 56-57) “We have reached the stage where appearances become reality, in which the real is replaced by images that serve as ‘the real’.” (Smith, 31)

Regarding communication the idea of third order simulacra makes it impossible to interrogate in a way “where questions and responses have meanings that are not predetermined. […] [Q]uestions and responses have become indistinguishable.” (Schoonmaker, 171) So every answer is in itself a kind of simulation because answers are a predetermined part of the question which they merely reproduce. (Schoonmaker, 171)

2.3 The Implosion of Meaning in the Media

In Simulacra and Simulation Baudrillard describes three hypotheses considering the loss of meaning in the media.

The first states that “information produces meaning […], but cannot make up for the brutal loss of signification in every domain.” (Baudrillard Simulacra, 79) Information in this case is then a “neg[ative ]entropic factor” (Baudrillard Simulacra, 79), meaning it is a factor that resolves chaos and leaves an order out of which a meaning can be deduced. But information still “cannot make up for the brutal loss of signification in every domain” (Baudrillard Simulacra, 79) because meaning is lost much faster than it can be newly deduced.

In the second hypothesis information is completely unrelated to signification. Information then is only as “a technical medium that does not imply any finality of meaning.” (Baudrillard Simulacra, 79) This also means that there is no relation between the growing amount of information and the dissolving of meaning.

The third and “most interesting” (Baudrillard Simulacra, 80) hypothesis is the direct complement to the second. Information is strictly correlated to meaning. This means that the mass media’s inflationary production information is directly proportional to the “destruct[ion] of meaning and signification.” (Baudrillard Simulacra, 79) Related to the impossibility of interrogation in a non predetermined meaningful way, in the context of third order simulacra, there is no need or even possibility to ask what destroyed meaning. It is indistinguishable if the surplus of information destroyed “any possibility of communication” (Baudrillard Simulacra, 81) or if information loses its meaning through communication becoming an event of self celebration. The notion that “whoever is underexposed to the media is desocialized or virtually asocial”, (Baudrillard Simulacra, 80) leads to the conclusion that no longer the content of communication is important, but communication, the medium, has become the focus of our attention and the message itself.

This is also the outline of Marshall McLuhan’s theory on media and communication, which Baudrillard uses here. Related to his simulation theory Baudrillard again takes McLuhan’s idea one step further. Not only is the medium the message but because of the “neutralization of content” (Baudrillard Simulacra, 82) the medium becomes the only part of communication that still has a value in use. (Baudrillard Simulation, 82)

3. Simulation and Simulacra in Survivor

On the background of this theory it is now possible to analyze specific occurrences of these concepts in Survivor. To structure my analysis I want to categorize the occurrences of simulacra in Survivor into three categories. The first category contains those which are object related, like for example the flowers in the garden of Tender Branson’s employers. The second will explore people in the novel who have become or just are nothing but an image of their selves. Surely Tender himself is the best example here. The third category then is about actions and events that can be seen as a perversion of a reality that never existed like the mock wedding the agent arranged for Tender.

3.1 Object-related Simulacra

The most obvious category of simulacra in Survivor contains objects like the fake flowers which Tender collects at the crypts, the pills for every known and still unknown disease and the book of very common prayer. All of those are not the result of a reality but a replacement for it - hyperreal objects.

Conceived by the agent, the pills and The Book of very Common Prayer can easily be seen as third order simulacra which help Palahniuk to show the meaninglessness of a wide range of consumer products that are only designed to make money out of nothing. The only distinctive characteristic of all the pills, in their all the same brown bottles, is their brand name. They are produced to be copyrighted. Everyone that might come up with a real product afterwards will have to pay for using one of the product names. But even as there is nothing in them but chocolate and powdered sugar, Tender later uses them to cure his upcoming emotion with some “Endorphinols” (Palahniuk, 131), which he knows to be placebos. So even if they are hyperreal, they still can have an effect on reality (Blask, 29) like in this case the Tender’s ability to keep calm. The Book of Very Common Prayer works almost in the same way. The name of the book alone shows that there is nothing substantial behind it. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary common means that something is “of a type that is regularly seen and not considered special or unique” (common). This is what the book proofs to be. What Palahniuk presumably wants to point at here is the vast amount of how-to literature that claims to help people in every situation of daily life they will ever encounter, often supported by the name and face of a publicly know person on the spine. Like The Book of very Common Prayer their only purpose is to generate value in form of money for the writers and publishers. So both, the pills and the book are used by Palahniuk to directly criticize the way people are misguided or even forced to buy things they do not need only to create a cash flow for their producers.

Flowers in Survivor in contrast are more than a simple criticism of consumer society. They are a sign for the change in Tender’s life. Palahniuk first mentions flowers as Tender explains how he replaces the real flora in his employer’s garden with artificial flowers from the graveyard. At this stage the flowers are a second order simulacrum, serially produced artificial replacements of reality. What Palahniuk shows here is that people, once they have accumulated enough wealth, do no longer want to have things like a nice garden because they enjoy it, but because it is a symbol for their economic wellbeing. If his employers would only once have visited their garden they would have noticed that the flowers were not real. But they seem to have no interest in doing so, which fits nicely in them communicating to Tender only via a speakerphone.

Palahniuk uses flowers in the novel at several other occasions. One is the wedding of Tender with Trisha. In this case the flowers again are a symbol for the meaninglessness of the wedding itself. But the flowers do change to real ones throughout the novel. When Fertility meets up with Tender in desert she hands him “some flowers, real flowers” (Palahniuk, 24) which she says to be “another big symbol […] [t]hese flowers will be rotten in a couple of hours […] but for right now they are so beautiful” (Palahniuk, 24). The flowers here say: Give your life meaning now, do not search for something you cannot find. For Tender that what he cannot find is something final, like death, which he wants to discover so hard for throughout the whole story, because it would proof that there is a meaning to life. What he misses and what Palahniuk wants to tell the reader here is that it is important to live your life now and not to waste your time by searching all your life for something transcendental you will not find.

3.2 Person-related Simulacra

A lot of Baudrillard’s simulation theory and his critique of the media as a means to destroy meaning can be directly applied to protagonists in Survivor.


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Jean Baudrilliard’s Simulation and Simulacra in Chuck Palahniuk’s 'Survivor'
University of Würzburg  (Neuphilologisches Institut)
Masters of Transgressive Fiction: Ellis, Palahniuk and McCarthy
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baudrillard, survivor, simulacra, simulation
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Andreas Burger (Author), 2011, Jean Baudrilliard’s Simulation and Simulacra in Chuck Palahniuk’s 'Survivor', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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