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On Baudrillard and “Impossible Burgers”

“The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” – Ecclesiastes*

* (this is not a direct quote from Ecclesiastes but something invented by Baudrillard to stands as a strong metaphor to idea of simulation – that it is not real!)

“Burger” is a pejorative term that entered Pakistani popular discourse in the recent decade to denote young, westernized, affluent, urban elite, who study at expensive private schools, speak English rather than Urdu in their social circle, and prefer eating burgers over the local cuisine. They are constantly derided for being out of touch with mainstream Pakistani politics and society. “Impossible Burgers” are the vegetarian substitute for beef-based hamburgers created by Impossible Foods and introduced by the fast-food chain, Burger King, that became immensely popular with the ‘conscious’ consumers for being an environmentally friendly product, which not only simulates the real meat but also tastes better than it. Burger King even offers a promotion to try both products out and find any difference. To make it real – or surreal or in Baudrillard’s definition of the situation, hyperreal – the Impossible Burger patties ‘drip blood’, which happen to be just beetroot juice. Impossible Burgers, hence for the sake of thought experiment, are a milestone simulacrum in our journey towards a total simulated reality in which the sovereign difference between the simulated and the real will gradually disappear – turning us into “burgers” who will no longer be able to distinguish between the real and the simulated. 

Or have we already entered that stage of hyperreality where our reality has become gradually divorced from the real? Have we entered the Baudrillardian age of simulation? And no, it is not a computer simulation. It is a simulation of the real and that is exactly the subject of this post. In the following passages, I will describe some phenomena I find pathological while it appears normal in contemporary societies. Following Baudrillard, it treat this new condition as a simulated reality. It is normal in a pathological sense; it’s pathological normalcy made up of layers and layers of false (not fake) objects – objects that have no sui generis meaning.

And now to set the context, “the age of simulation” is the “liquidation of all referentials” and “the substitution of signs of the real for the real itself” (Baudrillard, 1994). The reality for Baudrillard has been reduced to a copy of a copy of a copy in which the possibility of recovering the original has become impossible. The real, the authentic – let that be experiences or objects – no longer exists. What exists is a nostalgia for the lost and a shroud of anxiety that what is real is no longer real, and an uneasy longing for an escape (which feeds into what I described elsewhere). The reality in Baudrillard’s imagination is a step away from Plato’s representations in the cave, such that the real is so real that it conceals that truth that it is not real. It no longer resides in the realm of shadows; it is the manifestation of the fact that there is no fire, no shadows, and no cave. It is something, but we don’t know what it is; it is nothing. It feels more real than the authentic. It looks and feel like real, but there is not a shred of reality in it – like Impossible Burgers. In the absence of any referent; it becomes the reference. We know what an Impossible Burgers tastes like, and from it, we conclude what beef tasted or would have tasted like! Fast-forwarding the timeline of events, we will soon forget whatever is left of the authentic. The sovereign difference between the real and the copy would disappear!

What epitomizes theage of simulation for me – besides Impossible Burgers – is the laughter track in sitcoms. What is surreal about this experience is that your experience of amusement becomes inauthentic that you laugh not because you feel amused, but the television forces you to laugh – or worse, it laughs for you![1] You are not laughing but imitating laughter. Your experience is reduced to a copy of a copy, which extends to most of our experiences. We feel uneasy about our urban life, so we want to escape to wilderness. We go on Airbnb and rent a cottage that has a bed cozier than we have at home, water clearer than we have in the city; we sit next to a fireplace, burning cedarwoods, peeking through the tall glass window, and enjoying nature. We feel uneasy about our loneliness. We go online, watch simulated intimacy among paid characters, have a vicarious erotic experience. We want to enjoy the taste of butter on our morning toast but are too afraid of the calories involved, we open the pack of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! and voilà we experience butter in the absence of butter. We want to travel but don’t have time for that; we can put on our virtual reality headset – or even better, pay someone to show us around (Amazon’s new service)! We are also hyped about the metaverse that Zuckerberg (Suker-burger) is pushing, which aims to transport us into a universe of total simulation – turning us into bulky folk from Wall-E constantly gazing at screens, fed by machines, yet totally oblivious of the reality!

Our longing for genuine experience at this stage is satisfied by simulated retreats; we want to escape the simulation – out unauthentic life – only to enter another phase of the simulation. The simulated experience is more real than the real in the sense that our retreat to nature is effortless, the pornographic film we just watched involves perfectly curated and usually prolonged scenes of intimacy, our Impossible Burger, and our synthetic butter tastes better than the authentic beef and butter. Simulation just feels so much better than the reality that reality itself becomes a secondary choice! We start preferring vicarious experiences over genuine experience. We become unable to distinguish our real need from the simulated desire. We end up buying stuff that makes sense but has no purpose in our life. We hoard deals and coupons and end up with stuff that is superfluous but gives us simultaneously a feeling of surfeit (of objects) and anxiety of dearth (of resources). We buy iPod, then iPhone, then iPad, then iMac, the Airbuds, so on, suddenly realizing what we hoarded is a bunch of ‘half-eaten apple’ signs through which we define ourselves (i for I), who seem to be indispensable, but also are disposable. We end up in the desert of objects, lost, confused, parched yet chasing the mirage — the televised reality mismatches with our reality. We don’t live the life of Kardashians or TikTok influences. We start thinking about what’s wrong with us, with our lives, are we not doing enough to live that idealized (yet vulgar and gaudy) life. We, for a second, think that maybe our reality is not real. But instead of returning to reality, we choose to go back to simulation.

We started with the first phase of simulation, which Baudrillard so perceptively anticipated, and now we are entering the second phase. Each stage of the ongoing simulation is more complex and hollow than the previous. While the first phase still shows vestiges of the referent objects, we have stepped into a phase of ‘nothingness.’ I am referring to the phase of Blockchain. Take how we arrived at the phase of cryptocurrency. In Baudrillardian phases of reality transforming into the simulation (Baudrillard, 1994), we started with a material object (gold, silver) to facilitate exchange; that was replaced by paper money, which did not have any intrinsic value as its predecessor; that in turn was replaced by credit cards, which obscured the concept of tangible money; that now has been replaced by total ‘nothingness’ – a pure simulacrum that bears no relation to reality. It’s a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy – so remote from the original that it vague reminiscence of something that is so obscure (not yet) in memory that it is difficult to recall. It recalls something, but no one can really tell what; it recalls nothing. This impending immersion of nothingness as reality manifests itself in relation to a different facet of nothingness – the NFTs. In such a market, we are simulating exchange – an exchange of nothing for nothing. This nothing does satisfy some needs, i.e., the experience and feeling for producing something for a purpose and exchanging it for some that have some utility. It is as vicarious but more visceral feeling than porn, than meat substitutes. It is a totally simulated experience, which is conquering our reality. We are at the brink of a total simulation. We are all, with all due respect, are turning into “burgers” – maybe “Impossible Burgers”.

[1] See Adorno’s “The Culture Industry” for discussions of similar nature.

Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan press.

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