the baudrillard blues


A few weeks ago, two of my excellent graduate students got into the following seminar discussion about Dave Grazian’s recent book Blue Chicago. The book is an ethnographic account of how people search for the “authentic” blues experience in Chicago nightclubs. Not surprisingly, Grazian’s account discusses how the performances in these clubs play into white stereotypes about what counts as real black culture. Here’s a debate, as recounted/edited by me:

Gifted Student #1: Are these blues clubs like Baudrillard’s simulacra?

Gifted Student #2: No, these performances are not reproductions of earlier musical performances.

Gifted Student #1: But they are tightly scripted performances designed to portray a historically inaccurate version of musical history.

Gifted Student #2: True, but they aren’t attempts to recreated a specific act. Elvis impersonators, that’s a simulacra. They’re trying to literally redo what the King did. [Ed. And of course, they can’t really do what the King did, because there was only one King.]

In the discussion, I think I sided with GS #2 – Chicago blues club musicians seem to be doing more than just mechanically recreating what Robert Johnson did 80 years ago. The blues club performance is more of a script, which can be altered or appropriated for other purposes. That doesn’t seem to be the obsession with reproduction suggested by Baudrillard. What do you orgheads think?

Written by fabiorojas

April 9, 2007 at 3:36 pm

5 Responses

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  1. For Baudrillard, a simulacrum is a performance or a sign that is self-conscious of its fakeness, but that points to a “real” world by which it differentially gains its status as “fake.” A sign is a simulacrum in the technical sense however (as opposed to just being “fake”) when the objective conditions for that real world that the simulacrum points to no longer exist so that what the simulacrum “really” conceals is that the original to which the performance or sign refers as being a copy of is already dead or non-existent.

    Thus, Disney is a simulacrum, because it portrays itself as a “fantasy” land, thereby creating the misconception that the world outside of Disney is “real.” But this world is absolutely not real, since it has already been conquered by the pristine surface of the ad-image and the commodity form. So what Disney (and Vegas for that matter) truly conceals is that the “real” world does not exist.

    So, in order for the Blues Clubs to be simulacra in this Baudrillardian sense, we would have to be ready to make the strong argument that the “original” black culture that the performance refers to as being a copy of is already “dead” overrun by the forces of capitalism, racism, internal colonialism or any combination of the above.

    Here a peculiarly postmodern moral dilemma arises: is any white (or Hispanic) scholar in a knowledge-political position to claim that “true” or “original” black culture is already dead, and that therefore the blues clubs are simulacra concealing this death? Who’s to say whether a culture is really dead or not? Should we not ask the alleged participants if they think that their culture is dead? Baudrillard did not care for these questions because he was both a structuralist and a Marxist, which meant that he cared about people’s real experiences and reports of their own standpoints as much as he cared for a Big Mac. We ain’t either of those things however. So Genius Student #1 should think about the empirical (and knowledge-political) implications of what calling the chicago blues clubs a “simulacrum” are, before making up his or her mind.



    April 9, 2007 at 6:35 pm

  2. As an avid reader of and a soon-to-be former student of Fabio’s I could not help but to read today’s posting by you about simulacra and gifted IU graduate students.

    An important note I would have added had I been there: Gifted student 2 is seems focused on the “process” by which simulation occurs — that is, the impersonator goes on stage and mimics the best they can, point for point, what the kind “did” on stage. To be fair, mimicking (or simulation) is never a point-for-point rendition (in fact, it was Alchian in the 1950s that made the point for org scholars). So, even simulations of the real, of the truth or of “authenticity” to some extent augment the initial act (the authentic reality).

    In contrast to process concerns, I think of outcomes. I always read Baudrillard as being foremost concerned about instances where “reality” and “authentic meaning” are being actively replaced (or unknowingly displaced) by merely symbolic images, which is most obvious and evident when “images of the real” begin to replace the “reality of the real world” — wasn’t that the point of the Matrix, which is far from the student’s point about Elvis (God save the King).

    Now, the example of Blues Clubs just off of Lake Shore Drive — is it more like the Matrix or more like the King?

    An interesting case, no doubt, for deciding about differences in the process of simulation (like the process of painting a still life of pears, a favorite of Cezanne) and the outcomes of simulacra (like the replacement of the real with “hyperreal” — a more real than real world, like how the selective new coverage over decades can make me think there is crime around every corner despite the fact that nobody wants to break into my car, even left unlocked).

    Therefore, is THE ONE DAY YOU GO TO see the Lake Shore Blues renditions going to supply you with an exact example of simulacra? The student (#2) pursuasively argues no, and for good reason. But, is the reality of the “Blues of Chicago” the outcome of sedimented layers of simulacra? Probably.

    Further, the intentionality issue — impersonators of the King “intend” to mimic the King EXACTLY while Blues stars looking to make fat cash in Chi-town “intend” to mimic an imagined (or selective) past (that even they may not have access to) — does that matter as much as the audience’s willingness to “go along with it” thereby making it a culturally sactioned rendition of Elvis or the Blues?

    At least half of any notion of simulacra must involve the audience no matter the intention of the impersonator. That is what makes reality TV tick: we have to “go along with it” for it to have any semblance of reality.

    And one last bone to pick: aren’t Elvis impersonators also recreating a “selective” history of the King? My mom saw the King in Hawii and he was a drugged-up mess, slurring and staggering. Does that “sell” as well as the young, wild, and sober Elvis of Las Vegas chapels? Sure doesn’t, just like (I assume) completely accurate renditions of Robert Johnson with a half-tuned six string would not attract the market interest that the “Blues Brother’s” restaraunt and bar does a few blocks off of Michigan Ave.



    April 9, 2007 at 7:19 pm

  3. Interesting post Fabio. I had a debate once with a fellow grad student about the “authenticity” of Beck, the pop star, that was similar to this discussion. He claimed that Beck wasn’t really authentic as he pieced together bits of other genres, often mimicking the sounds precisely from their original sources, to come up with something like a “simulacra.” I disagreed with him because, like Omar, I doubt that there was anything out there in the world of music that could be described as real or authentic (according to his definition). Every sort of music descends from somewhere else. Blues artists were paying homage to someone who came before, and the result was something entirely new and innovative. That’s the essence of creativity, isn’t it? It’s hard to imagine constructing anything that is truly authentic if the definition of authenticity is so rigorous that any sort of mimicry immediately disqualifies you.

    I prefer to think of this using Harold Bloom’s concept of “misreading.” Texts of any sort can NEVER be thought of as original works. Any text is embedded in a conversation of texts between great (or lesser) masters of the cultural form. Real creativity occurs when someone “misreads” the original meaning of a work and translates it in a new light.



    April 9, 2007 at 7:53 pm

  4. Related to the above – there is an ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) versus recombination (historicism relates) debate in the creativity/innovation literature as well.



    April 9, 2007 at 10:46 pm

  5. […] the drive home last night I found myself thinking about our recent discussion of simulacra and reality. A simulacrum is intendedly not real, but rather it is a representation of […]


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