Difference does not lie between things and simulacra, models and copies. Things are simulacra themselves, simulacra are the superior forms, and the difficulty facing everything is to become its own simulacrum. To attain the status of a sign in the coherence of eternal return. [. . .] In reality the ‘nth’ power does not pass through two, three and four; it is immediately affirmed in order to constitute the highest power; it is affirmed of chaos itself and, as Nietzsche said, chaos and eternal return are not two different things. The sophist is not the being (or the non-being) of contradiction, but the one who raises everything to the level of simulacra and maintains them in that state.
—Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (p. 67)
PICTURE a see-saw: two ends teetering back and forth always producing difference. The ends are simulacra and the fulcrum in the middle is a simulacrum. The ends don’t even have to relate to each other, they are not opposed, other, or classically dialectic. They just pop up, appearing because of a machine of which their materialization is part. Each differentiation is a moment, an attribute, impression, vision, blockbuster film, political lie, bridge or building, the birth of a serious or more likely a ridiculous idea, or the see-saw itself. The center that it teeters on is one simulacrum, the foundation that gives rise to a sequence of differences. The whole thing is a difference-machine.
The contemporary grandfather of simulation, Jean Baudrillard, was very concerned about the relationship this difference-machine has to real events, more particularly the diminishing criteria we possess to discern whether or not we are in a real or simulated experience. If you take stock of where we’re at, you can understand his worry. Despite our gaudy, distorted carnival, it truly is one of the oldest problems of conscious experience. You can go all the way back to Plato criticizing simulacrum in The Republic as “more than just a useless image [. . .] a deviation and perversion of imitation itself.” Removing our view from the social for just a second, in terms of plain epistemology simulacrum don’t only imitate but are, as Plato says, a perversion, not only of what is supposed to be imitated, but a corruption of imitation itself.
The simulacrum is a system where the production of the form remains even when it is absent of all content and value. In many cases, this can reveal the scheme of modern power: a television playing to an empty room, voting for someone you’ve never seen, or Cold War nuclear holocaust drills where kids stuff themselves under their desks regardless of the fact that there is no bomb. Wherever object fails to meet its subject (usually because the subject has been eviscerated by some form of power)—which is a reverse of typical agency in the first place—it reveals the lie doubled into their codependence.
For Baudrillard, the inability to tell the difference between the simulated and the real is cause for great despair about the death of the world. For Deleuze, it is exciting. It gets rid of authenticity, which gets rid of aristocracy and old power, as well as false consciousness and tolerance of a foreign self who acts bizarrely against the interests of itself and everything around it. Deleuze sees the production of difference as endless possibility. It is easy to fall victim to reifying objects with value and meaning they don’t have, to dismiss physical objects as unchanging and the space between them as empty or dead. But our world is the ephemera of difference itself. We possess normative logic to navigate and comprehend our realm because this is the machine that produced us and continues to produce us.
The simulacra get individuated under the simulacrum’s system. But a rogue current runs counter to these innate natures. The simulacra shoot up into the stratosphere of being and become something: qubits get booted from the machine to the network, spreading influence but never staying in the same place as the same thing again. Eventually atomic centers gain complexity, structure, and mass. Brains proliferate new neuroplastic networks. A settlement becomes a village, that village a town, the town a state, the state a rebel then an empire and that empire soon a desert again, ready to be remapped and remade by the force of a new idea.
Lone simulacra yearn to become simulacrum, to give up on being haplessly influenced and become the one who does the influencing. The simulacra are the true origins, and in their departure or chaotic orbit they obtain characteristics, needs, and influence, becoming a new point of origin. Meaning continually assembles itself in a vast relative nothing, reacting to but somehow steadfast against all entropy. Meaning speaks from the past to itself in the near future and recycles itself into a form.
This form of continual cycling back (Nietzsche’s eternal return) is where signs gain meaning. We can look at two different types, the concrete and the abstract sign. The stop sign and the traffic light gain their meaning by producing similar results over billions of interactions. A different set of actions resulting in different circumstances, at a different time every time, produces the same normative outcome the best it can as often as it can—we stop at the red octagon and proceed forth at the sight of an electric green circle.
In math, the same applies to the equals sign. The equals sign had only to be inserted once into one equation at one point to produce an outcome. It worked, really well, so it was used for a second equation, then a third, and so on. To date, an nth amount of vastly differentiated values have been produced by the function of the same static sign. Even though it interrelates with everything surrounding it in an essential way, it succeeds in influencing and ordering the various qualities subjected to it. Signs bring truth to the simulacra around them and set them on the path of becoming simulacrum themselves. Symbolism gains its implicit status by performing an essential function where the content produced is the form producing it, and vice versa.
Abstract signs grow much in the same way. Esoteric images of religion and myth cause an immeasurable amount of possible reactions, from joy to utter dread to fear as an expression of love to salvation and oneness. We find truth in the Cross, at Mecca, in the generative power of the mandala, in the peace somehow found along no specific point of the labyrinth.
The same is true of linguistic signs, too. Literature, song, and the word as truth. These simulacrum have been elevated to a level where their meaning returns to us from the past at each interaction, making them different from instrumental objects like drinking cups and plastic chairs. Deleuze goes out of his way to stress how simulacra are the superior forms. We start with nothing, always, and that nothingness either grows, consuming more and more into itself, or it decides to take a break from the boring stasis of being nothing by becoming something. Without this wild differentiation we suffer and relish and rejoice to leave behind, simulacrum would never emerge. There never would be a rebellion without a state, sure, but there also would never have been a state—a literal order of things—without the first rebellion to name a thing, to lay claim to all influence that results from one ordination.
The mistakes and hard earned lessons of our dead are on display each time we contemplate a lover, cross the street, pay taxes, read a book, watch a film, and wade through our perceived wasteland of prejudice and impunity. Difference is waiting to be interpreted and added to because everything is literally producing its own future. That which has been gained over time returns again in the present to guide, alter, and perfect us. We receive this differentiated order on the moment-by-moment end of an eternal game of trial and error.