Epistemic Status:


A Note on Scope

I suspect that much, if not all, of this discussion may be generalizable to art forms besides literature, but as a literary academic I have concentrated on my own field here.


The correspondence between reality and literature (or any kind of art, hence the above) is debatable at the best of times. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of literature is its ability and flexibility when it comes to representing reality. As a literature enthusiast and academic, I couldn’t resist applying trying to apply the simulacrum framework to my field. Literature on the whole is very difficult to fit into the structure, but the simulacrum framework is particularly effective in examining 1) the way we consume and criticize literature, and 2) the interplay between art and reality.

I: The Perils of Defining ‘Art’

Subjective Correlative

The objective correlative is a literary term coming from T.S. Eliot. He defines the objective correlative as “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion” (“Hamlet,” 1919). In straightforward cases, an artist and author have aligned information about the world and how to describe it. They know precisely the emotion (or whatever else might be) communicated through an object, situation, or chain of events. Essentially, this would be a literary piece which imparts the same emotion from author/speaker/character to audience/listener/reader. While a versatile and useful concept, the objective correlative swiftly runs into difficulties. Art occupies a liminal space, ranging from attempts to provide insight into ‘reality’ (potentially through highly imaginative means) to explorations of the surreal and abstract, in extremis removed from referents and ‘reality.’ Particularly when texts cross the chasm of individuality, let alone time and space, symbols are not necessarily clear stand-ins for what they symbolize (in Baudrillard’s model) or statements which accurately describe reality (in the LW model). The correlative is subjective.

A Starting Framework

The most straightforward way to apply the simulacrum framework to literature is to define the levels as follows:

  1. Reality, perhaps described in physical terms;

  2. Abstraction or representation of reality through literary texts;

  3. Literary criticism, debating the relationship between reality and the literary text of the second level; and

  4. Literary theory, a tool for constructing, identifying, and utilizing the pseudostructures of literature.


The primary difficulty applying the simulacrum framework to literary texts is that literature itself is incredibly difficult to define broadly, and the term is an example of “you know it when you see it.” The curious nature of literature leaves it in limbo—a given text might occupy any of the four levels, frequently with the full knowledge and intent of the author. If a literary text is the map, the territory is hard to specify. It might be scientific reality, or a metaphysical framework, or the nebulous and perilous realm of ‘human nature and experience.’

Much literature, especially “fiction” (a rabbit hole in itself), depends on emotional authenticity. That is, convincing the reader that the text can provide them with something ‘real:’ a relatable situation, a ‘realistic’ picture of society, a transformative practical tool or philosophical insight. Some texts reproduce the author’s actual or proposed map for a given territory. Other texts, particularly those with subcreated worlds, introduce a layer of imagined or constructed territory intended, at least usually, to correspond with some key elements of the ‘real world.’ Supposedly ‘real-world’ settings can be misleading as well. For example, the geography of Ulysses’ Dublin is famously impeccable, but the significance of the text is just as famous for being difficult to grasp. Due to these complexities, significant time must be spent surveying the territory in order to map it.

II: Critical Discourse

The Conundrum

Literary criticism is as simple as critical reading and response to a text. Any ‘good’ literary criticism will at least implicitly define the territory (reality) and clarify its relation to the map (text). Since the territory is so often debatable, a host of critical readers might present excellent and compelling interpretations, but these might be irreconcilable (though not necessarily mutually exclusive) due to a difference in the territory surveyed by different critical pieces. For example, a critical response to HPMOR might map Yudkowski’s work onto rationalist theory and technique, the world of Harry Potter, or the author’s biography. By mapping different territories, literary criticism has significant flexibility.

Criticism as a Lever

  • Good criticism concentrates on identifying the territory mapped by a text, and the relationship between the two. An effective piece of criticism helps readers map a given territory more easily. That means the criticism effectively lowers the text’s simulacrum level, or at least the reader’s.

  • Less good (maybe even bad) criticism fails to effectively define a territory for the text and/or describe the relationship between the two. The simulacrum level is raised for the text/reader.

The role of literary criticism as a simulacrum lever is a more precise way to describe ‘good’ criticism that improves a reader’s understanding of a given text.

The Lever is Also a Map

Criticism itself corresponds to simulacrum levels, a refreshingly straightforward change of pace.

  1. At the first level, criticism can perform a relatively low-level summary or analysis of the text in question, for instance with the tools of formal analysis;

  2. At the second level, we find those using criticism as a tool for social signaling and/or career interest. Here we find people scholars caught in “publish or perish,” or arrogant critics who may produce good work but do so primarily for social political capital.

  3. At the third level, criticism can introduce readings that fundamentally distort the text (this probably from a more intentionalist standpoint), or, phrased more positively, recontextualize a work according to a new cultural, temporal, or ideological perspective. Either way, the territory shifts; critics examine texts in a new light/with a different lens (often involving political signaling). Critical circles justify this by arguing that worthwhile literature can be generative across time, space, culture, experience, etc. The simulacrum framework names the distortion (an admittedly negative word) fundamental to this critical approach. From the position advocating literature’s generative ability across Kuhnian paradigms or (broadly considered) territories, the recontextualization is a feature rather than a bug.

  4. The fourth level is the worst kind of criticism, bearing no meaningful relation to the text or the reader. The empty article or book does not spring from active reading, and does not point back to it.

There is a clear divide between the first two simulacrum levels of literary criticism, which respond to reading in generally productive ways, and the latter two, increasingly detached from the original text but potentially producing very clever and possibly interesting work. Though the third level can operate in the overall framework’s image of generational decline, literary theory can also justify itself by applying texts as maps for new territories. The insistently nebulous fourth level begs the question of why a critic is engaging with the work at all.


My original goal, constructing a framework using simulacrum levels to classify and assist in interpreting literature, is accomplished best with the help of literary criticism. Personally, I tend to be skeptical of most criticism and agree with my thesis advisor who said: “Criticism never changed my life, but plenty of poems have.” Since literature’s simulacrum level and epistemic status are often debatable, criticism has the ability to cover a remarkable amount of ground. Explicitly or implicitly, it is the role of literary criticism to apply the simulacrum framework to one or more texts. Criticism acts as a simulacrum lever with the help of its territorial flexibility. An effective critique will have a low level itself, working closely with the text, and will go far enough to try and understand why a text operates at its given level. The result should be a better understanding of the text, and the wild world that gives it life.


New Comment

New to LessWrong?