I've forged my own understanding of the levels, picking and choosing the parts that made sense to me from various posts. But there was definitely a lot of picking and choosing -- parts that didn't make sense to me, I've simply discarded. So there are certainly versions I don't understand.
I'm planning to take a look back at some articles to indicate places of dissonance, but off the top of my head, I think the point of highest friction is the idea that each stage follows from the last in a systematic way. This story seems to almost work rather than actually working.
OK, looking back a bit, I think the main point of discordance for me is that the 3rd level "masks the absence of meaning". This was repeated often in simulacrum posts.
I can understand this "masks the absence of meaning" as a thing, but to me it seems more sensible to think of level 3 as "signalling". I like the interpretation where levels 1 and 3 are both "honest in their own way" (level 3 is like "vibing", an honestly expressing what is felt in the moment, just devoid of a concept of truth like that at level 1). This seems incompatible with "masks the absence of meaning".
A "show trial" was given as an example of the mask-absence-of-meaning level 3; this makes some sense, as it hides the absence of rule of law in which statements of guilt would be meaningful (as opposed to simply lying about guilt). But it makes less sense as "honest signalling" to indicate group affiliation with those who prefer rule-of-law-flavored vibes.
Quoting the original wikipedia summary which seems to have sparked much of the discussion:
Simulacra and Simulation delineates the sign-order into four stages:
1 The first stage is a faithful image/copy, where we believe, and it may even be correct, that a sign is a "reflection of a profound reality" (pg 6), this is a good appearance, in what Baudrillard called "the sacramental order".
2 The second stage is perversion of reality, this is where we come to believe the sign to be an unfaithful copy, which "masks and denatures" reality as an "evil appearance—it is of the order of maleficence". Here, signs and images do not faithfully reveal reality to us, but can hint at the existence of an obscure reality which the sign itself is incapable of encapsulating.
3 The third stage masks the absence of a profound reality, where the sign pretends to be a faithful copy, but it is a copy with no original. Signs and images claim to represent something real, but no representation is taking place and arbitrary images are merely suggested as things which they have no relationship to. Baudrillard calls this the "order of sorcery", a regime of semantic algebra where all human meaning is conjured artificially to appear as a reference to the (increasingly) hermetic truth.
4 The fourth stage is pure simulacrum, in which the simulacrum has no relationship to any reality whatsoever. Here, signs merely reflect other signs and any claim to reality on the part of images or signs is only of the order of other such claims. This is a regime of total equivalency, where cultural products need no longer even pretend to be real in a naïve sense, because the experiences of consumers' lives are so predominantly artificial that even claims to reality are expected to be phrased in artificial, "hyperreal" terms. Any naïve pretension to reality as such is perceived as bereft of critical self-awareness, and thus as oversentimental.
For me, I somewhat buy a natural progression between the levels in this model:
- Level 1: truth.
- Level 2: masks the absence of level 1; IE, lying.
- Level 3: masks the absence of even level 2; IE, masks the absence of meaning.
However, level 4 feels less like a natural next step and more like a summary of all the rest of the infinite levels of such a hierarchy -- as if to say "and so on". The implicit claim is that anything worse than level 3 is so bad as to be not worth classifying in further detail.
In my preferred interpretation, we instead think in this way:
- Level 1: truth.
- Level 2: Malign subversion of the level-1 system; IE, lying.
- Level 3: The behavior at level 2 corrupts the meaning of the symbols at level 1 (basically honest people are communicating, but using a language build with liars). What survives is a kind of looser meaning system. Meaning becomes "whatever you can infer"; words therefore have a tendency to say more about group affiliation than about reality.
- Level 4: Malign subversion of the level-3 system.
This leads to some slippage between 3 and 4 for me. If I go with the original description of the levels (in which 3 masks lack of meaning, and 4 indicates collapse of meaning, where symbols refer only to symbols), it seems like signalling should be level 4, not level 3.