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Le simulacre

Articles on the simulacrum published in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse by Xavier Audouard and Patrick Hochart contributed to the explosion of interest, in French philosophy and theory of the 1960s, in notions relating to mimicry, difference, and simulation.

Plato’s late dialogue The Sophist distinguishes between ‘two forms of imitation’ (The Sophist 235d-236c). The first consists in the making of an accurate copy or ‘likeness’ (εἰκόν). ‘The perfect example of this consists in creating a copy that conforms to the proportions of the original in all three dimensions.’ The second type of imitation involves deliberate deformation. It applies, for instance, to the techniques of ‘sculptors or painters whose works are of colossal size.’ If such artists were simply to reproduce an object exactly, then to spectators at ground level it would appear distorted; the proportions need to be adjusted to accommodate the viewer’s perspective. Such artists, ‘leaving the truth to take care of itself, put into the images they make, not the real proportions, but those that will appear beautiful’ (Sophist, 236a).

This second type of imitation ‘seems to be a likeness but is not really so’. Plato calls it a φάντασμα (phantasma). Benjamin Jowett translated this term simply as ‘appearance’, and Francis Cornford rendered it as ‘semblance’.1 The Renaissance Platonist Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) opted to translate phantasma, in his commentary on the Sophist, as ‘simulacrum’; Auguste Diès’ 1923 French translation (the one used by Xavier Audouard and Jean-Claude Milner in their contributions to CpA 3) likewise opted for le simulacre. (Responding to Audouard’s presentation on the Sophist in his 1965 Seminar, which he praised as the ‘best introduction’ to Plato’s text, Jacques Lacan himself indicated his preference for the French term fantasme2).

In the 1960s the notion of a distorted copy or simulacrum became the object of considerable discussion in French philosophical circles marked by a radicalisation of the more general modern crisis of representation, most notably in the work of Pierre Klossowski, Gilles Deleuze and Jean Baudrillard (and echoed in the work of people like Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, among others). As Daniel Smith notes, it was ‘Klossowski who first formulated the concept in his extraordinary series of theologico-erotic writings’, when he ‘retrieved the term from the criticisms of the church fathers against the debauched representations of the gods on the Roman stage.’3

Soon after Audouard introduced the term simulacrum to his Lacanian audience (in May 1965), Deleuze also reconsidered the concept in terms of its Platonic reference. According to Deleuze, Plato’s general effort to distinguish between reality and appearance, and between legitimate and illegitimate copies (true and false ‘pretenders’) of that reality4, served to ground a whole series of distinctions that came to dominate the European metaphysical tradition: idea over sensation, being over becoming, identity over difference, etc. In the late 1960s, in keeping with his Nietzschean inspiration, Deleuze came to formulate his project in terms of a generalised effort ‘to reverse Platonism’5, and thus to liberate becoming from being, difference from identity, and so on.

Based in part on a reading of Plato’s Sophist 235d-236c,6 for several years Deleuze’s emphatically ‘modernist’ affirmation of simulacra was an important aspect of this project. ‘Modernity is defined by the power of the simulacrum’ and for us ‘everything has become simulacrum, for by simulacrum we should not understand a simple imitation but rather the act by which the very idea of a model or a privileged position is challenged and overturned’.7 This act provides access to the condition not of merely possible but of ‘real experience’, experience beneath representation, the experience of a ‘sub-representative domain’, i.e., a domain composed of ‘difference of difference as its immediate element.’8 Deleuze defines simulacra as ‘those systems in which different relates to different by means of difference itself. What is essential is that we find in these systems no prior identity, no internal resemblance.’9 In other words, ‘pure becoming, the unlimited, is the matter of the simulacrum […] insofar as it contests both model and copy at once.’10 ‘In simulacra, repetition already plays upon repetitions, and difference already plays upon differences.’ According to Deleuze ‘the modern world is one of simulacra’, and ‘the task of life is to make all these repetitions coexist in a space in which difference is distributed.’11

Baudrillard’s warrants comparison with that of Deleuze to some extent, but lacks its affirmative enthusiasm. Baudrillard’s analysis of contemporary forms of representation and simulation led him to conclude that such forms could no longer be understood in terms of ideological distortion, mis-representation or obfuscation of some underlying truth. Simulation generates a world of simulacra insofar as a simulacrum is not a copy of some external real but a substitute for it, a ‘hyper-real’ that eliminates any reference to ‘actual’ reality as such. A simulacrum ‘bears no relation to any reality whatsoever’, for the simple reason that it acknowledges no reality; by the same token, ‘the simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none.’12 Baudrillard interprets the significance of the contemporary proliferation of simulacra in terms that go back to theological disputes about the status of icons and idols. ‘What becomes of the divinity’, he asks, ‘when it reveals itself in icons, when it is multiplied in simulacra? Does it remain the supreme authority, simply incarnated in images as a visible theology? Or is it volatilized into simulacra which alone deploy their pomp and power of fascination – the visible machinery of icons being substituted for the pure and intelligible Idea of God?’13 Today’s world, according to Baudrillard, is one in which such ‘volatilisation’ has run its course, in every field and every dimension. Today we live in ‘an age of simulacra and simulation, in which there is no longer any God to recognize his own, nor any last judgement to separate truth from false, the real from its artificial resurrection, since everything is already dead and risen in advance.’14

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Xavier Audouard’s reading of Plato’s Sophist, ‘Le Simulacre’ (CpA 3.4:57-72) was first presented as a paper in Lacan’s Seminar, on 26 May 1965. Audouard presents the sophist as a figure who questions and undermines the beliefs of his interlocutors (and Audouard concludes by reading this figure as an anticipation of the psychoanalyst [CpA 3.4:72]). The sophistic method involves the testing and disrupting of opinions so as to ‘purge’ the soul of received ideas (Sophist, 230b-d; CpA 3.4:62). The sophist is a sort of ‘conjurer’, an expert in the art of appearances and simulacra (Sophist, 235b). As we have seen, simulacra are constructions which include the angle of the observer in order that the illusion may be produced from the very point where the observer finds himself; the sophist uses simulacra, then, to create illusions by appealing to the interlocutor’s own point of view. Audouard notes that in this sense he creates the ‘representatives of a representation’; the Sophist’s art is ‘the art of the fantasy [fantasme]’ (CpA 3.4:64).

The Platonic figure in the dialogue, the Stranger, seeks to exclude the falsity and deceptions of the sophist by consigning them to the domain of non-being. But the problem posed by the simulacrum is that it exists or is as a form of falseness. By recognising the existence of simulacra manipulated by the Sophist, the Stranger deprives himself of the means of consigning sophistry, i.e. falseness or non-knowledge, to mere non-being or non-existence.

Audouard goes on to argue that the status of non-being thus vindicated in the Sophist is ‘ultimately transposable onto that of the status of the subject’ (CpA 3.4:65). This dimension of the simulacrum takes on a particular significance insofar as a simulacrum can be both an instrument, and a person who makes a simulacrum by lending themselves to it as an instrument. In other words, one may imitate or deceive knowingly or unknowingly (Sophist, 263d). The sophist knows nothing true, and thus can only imitate mere opinion, unknowingly, unlike a wise man, a man of knowledge and truth. In Audouard’s Lacanian terms, the latter lays claim to the deluded position of a ‘subject supposed to know’, while the sophist understands that ‘to know and not to know amount to the same thing, because there is no truth in the simulacrum, and because the gap [écart] which created the simulacrum differentiates it as much from the copy of reality as from reality itself’ (CpA 3.4:71). Retrospectively, we can say that it is the simulacrum that institutes the subject by incorporating this gap. The subject can only be brought to light at each moment of the dichotomic procedure, in such a way that it will never achieve a full view of the totality of the gaps through which it has been constituted. The subject to be known is thus itself finally a simulacrum, a ‘fantasy’, because it can never be known except from the particular point of view of the subject to whom it reveals itself.

Patrick Hochart’s article on Rousseau’s social theory, ‘Droit naturel et simulacre’ (CpA 8.3:65-84), draws attention to the unstable relation between an original natural ‘model’ and any actual social ‘simulacrum’. It is ‘the ambiguity of this concept’ of the simulacrum, Hochart notes, that allows it ‘to assume the contradictory demands’ of the relation between a particular body of civil law and the perfect and universal model that is natural law. In actual historical time, the natural model is no longer directly accessible or present. ‘The simulacrum is opposed to the model insofar as it is fundamentally other [than it] and is only constituted in and through the model’s absence. Simulacrum and model are incompatible, as are civil society and general society, and the simulacrum disfigures and dishonours the model. And yet the simulacrum retains an irreducible relation of filiation which attaches it to the model from which it proceeds, and in this sense it is that which saves the model’ and guarantees some access to it, however compromised (CpA 8.3:81). ‘As a simulacrum of general society, [a] civil society refers to it as its foundation and model, but since the model is always already simulated’, the true or ‘perfect model can only be fictionally reconstituted on the basis of the simulacrum.’ Drawing on a deconstructive logic developed by his teacher Derrida, Hochart argues that the only way that Rousseau can ‘fix’ the slippage that would otherwise undermine this logic is to refer it - ‘in a move that nothing in the Rousseauist structure of the simulacrum justifies’ - to a ‘theological provenance. Only the notion of a “divine simulacrum” can authorise an end to the chain [of referrals] at a point where the simulacrum […] can serve as a genuine model’ (CpA 8.3:82).

Select bibliography

  • Allen, Michael J. B. (ed.), and Marsilio Ficino. Icastes: Marsilio Ficino’s Interpretation of Plato’s Sophist: Five Studies and a Critical Edition with Translation . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.
  • Baudrillard, Jean. Simulation, trans. Paul Foss et al. NY: Sémiotext(e), 1983.
  • ----. Seduction, trans. Brian Singer. Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1990.
  • Deleuze, Gilles. Différence et répétition. Paris: PUF, 1968. Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
  • ----. Logique du sens, Paris: Minuit, 1969. The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XII: Problèmes cruciaux pour la psychanalyse (1965-66) unpublished transcript produced by l’Association Freudienne Internationale. No date.
  • Plato. The Sophist, trans. Francis Cornford. In Plato: Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press/Bollingen Series, 1961.
  • Smith, Daniel W. ‘The Concept of the Simulacrum: Deleuze and the Overturning of Platonism’. Continental Philosophy Review 38 (2006): 89–123.


1. Benjamin Jowett’s translation of the Sophist is online at; Cornford’s translation is included in Plato: Collected Dialogues, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press/Bollingen Series, 1961), 978-979. Latin translators of Greek texts would make a similar distinction when they differentiated between a genuine icon from a false idol.

2. Jacques Lacan, Seminar XII: Problèmes Cruciaux pour la psychanalyse, 381-382.

3. Daniel Smith, The Concept of the Simulacrum, 89. ‘In Klossowski, a phantasm is an obsessive but uncommunicable image produced within us by the unconscious forces of our impulsive life; a simulacrum is a reproduction of the phantasm that attempts to simulate (necessarily inadequately) this invisible agitation of the soul in a literary work, in a picture or a sculpture, or in a philosophical concept’ (ibid. 117n.1).

4. See Gilles Deleuze, Logic of Sense, 292.

5. Deleuze, Logic of Sense, 253. ‘Overturning Platonism, then, means denying the primacy of original over copy, of model over image; glorifying the reign of simulacra and reflections’ (Difference and Repetition, 66). Against Plato, Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal return ‘does not express an order opposed to the chaos engulfing it. On the contrary, it is nothing other than chaos itself, or the power of affirming chaos’ (Logic of Sense, 264).

6. Deleuze doesn’t mention Audouard, and approaches the text in terms suggested by ‘Plato himself’. In relation to the ‘superior identity of the Idea’, true ‘copies are secondary possessors, well-founded pretenders, guaranteed by resemblance’ with the Idea itself. By contrast, simulacra or simulacra-phantasms appear as ‘false pretenders, built upon a dissimilarity’. In keeping with Plato’s evocation of ‘colossal’ scale, ‘the simulacrum implies huge dimensions, depths and distance that the observer cannot master […]. In short, there is in the simulacrum a becoming-mad, or a becoming-unlimited’, and ‘to reverse Platonism’ means ‘to make the simulacra rise and to affirm their rights among icons and copies’ (Logic of Sense, 256-262).

7. Deleuze, Logic of Sense, 265.

8. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 69.

9. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 299; cf. 277. ‘Things are simulacra themselves […], and the difficulty facing everything is to become its own simulacrum, to attain the status of a sign in the coherence of eternal return’ (67).

10. Deleuze, Logic of Sense, 2.

11. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, xix.

12. Baudrillard, Simulation, 1.

13. Baudrillard, Simulation, 8.

14. Baudrillard, Simulation, 12.

Pornography, for instance, ‘is said to mask either the truth of capital and the infrastructure, or that of sex and desire. But in fact pornography does not mask anything (yes, that is indeed the case). It is not an ideology, i.e., it does not hide some truth; it is a simulacrum, i.e., it is a truth effect that hides the truth’s non-existence […]. Disenchanted simulation: pornography - truer than true - the height of the simulacrum’ (Baudrillard, Seduction, 35, 60).