13 Mar 2017

The Man in the High Castle: Simulacra and Simulation


Warning: this post includes spoilers for the film North by Northwest (1959) dir. Alfred Hitchcock, novel The Man in the High Castle (1962) by Philip K. Dick and its TV series counterpart.

The 1959 Hitchcock film North by Northwest features an ordinary everyman, Roger Thornhill, who is forced to go on the run from counter-spies after being mistakenly identified as an agent named George Kaplan. After dodging the police, low-flying planes and dangerous hitmen, it is revealed that "Kaplan" is a creation by the CIA to distract an opposing master spy, Vandamm. The government's plan is so complex that they go as far as booking dinner reservations in Kaplan’s name, staging fake phone calls and moving around props to make it believable that he exists. This is the simulacrum in full effect, a demonstration of a copied object, person or idea that had no original to begin with. Thornhill impersonating Kaplan is a simulation, but since Kaplan never existed in the first place makes it part of the simulacrum.

In his philosophical treatise, ‘Simulacra and Simulation’, French social theorist Jean Baudrillard calls the image of the simulacrum ‘the truth that there is no truth,’  that all human experience is a simulated reality created from different symbols and signs. He identifies four existing stages from the real to the hyper-real aspect of simulation:

1. The image is an authentic copy of reality
2. The image perverts reality
3. The image masks the absence of reality
4. The image has no relation to any reality, it is its own simulacrum

Baudrillard says that anything in existence today does not have an origin, and is instead part of a simulated reality created by culture or the media, and thus the consequences of this results in life being meaningless due to the easily mutable nature of living.

Just like in Hitchcock’s film, the simulacrum is also employed in the axis-occupied world of Philip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle. Robert Childan’s collection of American antiques acquaints the reader with familiar imagery of American symbols, such as the ‘mirror from the time of the 1812 War’ or ‘framed signed photo of Jean Harlow.’  As well as flipping the culture around, these types of antiques excite Childan due to it being a part of history that no longer exists, and adheres to the third stage of Baudrillard’s signs of simulation that the absence of ordinary American life has been disguised by the appearance of Childan’s Americana. When it later becomes apparent to Childan that most of his inventory is counterfeit, he says: ‘I am ruined. I have lost a fifteen-thousand dollar sale. And my reputation, if this gets out […] I will kill myself, he decided. I have lost place. I cannot go on; that is a fact.’ His reaction draws attention to the consumerist position in simulation. Due to commercial images present in the media, products that once were viewed as a luxury or niche, such as antiques, are now viewed as a necessity just like food or water. When that image becomes a fake, it haunts him due to the fact that the counterfeit becomes indistinguishable from the real and paranoia of a simulated surrounding occurs.

This theme becomes more clear and impactful in the part of the novel that Mr. Wyndam-Matson, who runs a successful counterfeit antiques company, first appears in. He produces two cigarette lighters: one that he claims was carried by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as he was killed, and the other being a full replica of it. ‘One has historicity, and one has nothing. Can you feel it? You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no “mystical plasmic”, no “aura” around it’ is what he refers to this phenomenon as, that an object’s significance cannot be physically noticed, but rather has an invisible characteristic assigned to it that sets it apart from any replicas. He explains that ‘a gun goes through a famous battle, like the Meuse-Argonne, and it’s the same as if it hadn’t, unless you know.’ This takes to meaning that history is not a physical entity, and that any historical relevance that an object may have is dependent on memory and knowledge that people may hold. This is what sets apart the authentic from the false, that delegation of historic meaning on an object gives it more importance than a simulacrum of that object. Since the replica is a replica, it cannot be a true simulation due to the fact that it lacks historicity.

This makes a larger impact later in the novel, when Childan visits the Kasoura’s in their home. Expecting a household full of Japanese-inspired furniture and memorabilia, Childan notices that everything about the Kasoura’s is focused on an American lifestyle, such as the offer of scotch and soda with the ‘T-bone steak broiling in the oven’; two things that are heavily ingrained within American social culture. They even renamed themselves to Paul and Betty, two English-language names that further the estrangement of having a simulated modern life in this home. The Kasoura’s home obeys the second and third stage of Baudrillard’s signs of simulation; that the reader’s understanding of reality becomes perverted by the presence of estrangement, and these images begin to mask reality as they know it as hyper-reality begins to take command.

The Nazi-occupied side of America is not seen in the novel, but features prominently in Amazon's TV series.
Baudrillard’s final stage, where full simulation occurs when the image has no relation to reality, does indeed appear in the form of commercial images within The Man in the High Castle, mainly through the appearance of the ancient Chinese oracle, the I, Ching and the fictional novel by Hawthorne Abendsen, ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’. Abendsen’s novel is a spin-off of Dick’s world that is not too unfamiliar from our own. In ‘Grasshopper’, the Allies win the war in 1947 and put Hitler on trial. In a short excerpt, it says: ‘They have stripped this superman, shown him for what he is […] Adolf Hitler had lied to them. He had left them with empty words’. The ‘Hitler’ that is referenced about here is a simulant of an already fictional Hitler that exists in our world, making him a copy of a copy and therefore becoming its own simulacrum.

Interestingly, 'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy' as it appears in Amazon's TV series becomes a film featuring real images of World War II and V-Day from our world, which further places the show into its own world while simulating our own.

The appearance of the I, Ching in Dick’s novel allows insight into the characters and the world they live in. In this world, the oracle is part of several Asian and eastern customs that have been adopted in the Pacific States due to the Japanese influence there. Juliana’s use of the oracle is portrayed as reliant and needful: ‘too bad I didn’t consult the oracle; it would have known and warned me’. Juliana treats the book like how an alcoholic may treat their next drink, as she begins to feel ‘dizzy’ while using it; her dependence on it yields any free-will she may have into whatever it tells her to do. In PKD’s work, this has allowed the I, Ching to become more than just a simple oracle that people follow, but rather a drug that addicts need to use in order to carry out very basic tasks. The true meaning of the oracle comes at the end when Abendsen reveals that he consulted the I, Ching about every detail present in 'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy': ‘One by one Hawth made the choices. Thousands of them. By means of the lines’ also showing that a book that involves heavy simulation is also reliant on a fatalistic oracle in order to exist. This all comes to fruition when Juliana asks the oracle why it wrote 'Grasshopper': ‘Inner Truth’ is the answer; that maybe Juliana’s world is not true, or may be true to an extent. 

Multiple universes is a recurring theme in PKD’s work, and other characters in The Man in the High Castle experience this, for example Tagomi in the park briefly shifts over to a 1960s America that is not unlike our reality. PKD wanted to use this novel to explore parallel universes, where he believed that multiple iterations of them co-exist together, as he once said: ‘if they do indeed exist, and if they do indeed overlap, then we may in some literal, very real sense inhabit several of them to various degrees at any given time.’  This is where the boundaries of simulation become blurred, as the existence of multiple universes means there are now multiple images that the reader can interpret from this text. While Juliana learns of other realities, the reader is made conscious of these lying, simulated images that exist in today’s world.

This is how the simulacrum exists in the world of The Man in the High Castle. By using cultural images, such as those from movies or real-world historical figures that are familiar to the reader, realities that reveal new truths are simulated, and estrange readers by drawing cognition into the real world. Once the revelation that everything is counterfeit is made, one can become independent of these images and see reality for what it is; a consensus, where everyone believes the same thing therefore making it true. Just like in Hitchcock’s movie, the simulacrum reveals that no image is true and that, whether subtle or not, everything can be replicated with identical precision.

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