Preserving the Principle of Coherence:
Foucault’s Unity and Baudrillard’s Reality

Both Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault attempt to deconstruct the lenses through which they believe the world becomes coherent, valid, and comprehendible. In Foucault’s The Archeology of Knowledge, this lens is comprised of the notions of unity and continuity that guide and are maintained by discursive practices. In Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, this is the myth of a true “reality” in opposition to that which is unreal, simulated, representative, or symbolic, and his assertion of “simulacra” and “hyperreality.” Foucault and Baudrillard engage in a theoretical deconstruction and in doing so, (1) identify the articulation of coherence as continuity and reality, (2) isolate the relational networks the discursive unities and symbols/signs engage with to mimic coherence, and (3) interrogate the ordering of the world by discursive formations and hyperrealities as generative structures. In framing Baudrillard’s deconstruction of reality and reconstruction of hyperreality as a form of Foucault’s “negative work,” reality emerges as an interpreting structure of coherence that resides on the surface of a discursive network. Reality is articulated as continuity, discourse emerges as the surface on which reality is constructed, and reality appears dependent on the relational network of discourse as Baudrillard is absorbed by Foucauldian deconstructive schema.

Foucault and Baudrillard are both working to dismantle structures that maintain coherence; however, Foucault’s definition of coherence on the basis of continuity incorporates Baudrillard’s conception of coherence on the basis of reality. Foucault identifies this structure of coherence as that of the “whole mass of notions [that diversify] the theme of continuity” (421). He proceeds to incriminate notions of “tradition,” “influence,” “development,” “evolution,” and “spirit” as mechanisms that endow individual entities of events, facts, phenomena, or theories with an illusion of coherent continuity. Foucault asserts that these concepts produce the illusion that continuity conquer time-space to create false validities that establish themselves as “discursive unities,” as they are made unified by the practice of association. He views such consequences of the myth of continuity—the divorce of individual elements from their time-space and qualities of truth and interrelatedness—as the deformation of information into artificial unities that service the principle of coherence.

Baudrillard directs his deconstructive efforts toward the myth of reality: a myth that sustains the coherence of a stable, real world by the simulation of the real. The notion of reality then appears to be one of the “whole mass of notions” Foucault refers to alongside such themes as tradition, influence, development, evolution, and spirit. Baudrillard’s investigation of “reality” becomes a question not of “does reality exist?” but instead of “what does the guise of reality do? What does it obscure? How is it maintained? What does it produce? How does it order the world into a condition of coherence?” Baudrillard’s destabilization of the notion of reality is then an exercise in Foucault’s breakdown of discursive unities antagonized by the inherent question of reproduction and simulation.

In order to breakdown the coherence of continuity, Foucault must understand how continuity is built from these artificial discursive unities that support the survival of continuity. Foucault’s interrogation of these accepted discursive unities is to reveal that the bases on which these groups are linked “are not intrinsic, autochtonounous and universally recognizable characteristics” (422). Once destabilized, discursive unities emerge as purely relational constructions in which the networking of disperse events creates fields of discourse. This re-endows discursive unities with a unity that is instead “variable and relative” rather than innate and artificial. For Foucault, it is this breakdown in the integrity of discursive divisions that reveals the need to understand how it is that these discursive unities are formed and reformed relationally and the basis upon which the world is thus understood and ordered.

Baudrillard is engaging in a similar exercise: questioning how the way reality is ‘practiced’ and things are made “real” or “unreal” by a network of relations that create things socially reproduced, but no longer really produced. Just as Foucault combats the manufactured unities of discourse, Baudrillard is combating the myth of reality, of the real by interrogating the way the classification of reality is a reflexive category that can only exist in relation to a non-reality, an imitation, a falsity, and in such a way breaks down under individual scrutiny. Baudrillard articulates this assertion-as-reality as occurring during the practice of simulation in which engagement with signs and symbols is the basis upon which an interpretation is read, rather than actions taken for their own ends: “where [simulations] function as a group of signs dedicated exclusively to their recurrence as sign, and no longer at all to their ‘real’ end” (21). Thus, the unities of the orders of simulation that Baudrillard outlines as the establishment of simulacra are re-presented as discursive unities.

Simulacra is the epitomical state of relative reality, relative coherence, as they are simulations that reference no reality because reality can only affirm itself in relation to other things. Simulacra expose the dependence of “realness” on its ability to exist relationally to itself. They behave as though they are real and are thus interpreted as and assumed to be the real, even though they are a complex networking of associations that only allude to their “reality.” Baudrillard employs the example of how all forms of holdups and airplane hijackings to demonstrate the reliance on this premise of simulation as the source of reality because they are no longer predicated on a sequence of actions to their own ends, but a sequence of actions that will engage the media, law enforcement, and the individuals/institutions involved in a pre-known and anticipatory sequence. This is Baudrillard’s “precession of simulacra” that renders “reality” obsolete—simulacra intervene and structure mere reenactments of “reality” and construct an entire “hyperreality” upon the surface of a network of association, the surface of discourse.

Reality asserts itself in its ability to engage in a network that is reaffirmed through its constant exercise: reproduction, simulation, and eventually simulacra. The validity of an event, action, image, etc. no longer relies in an inherent causal relationship or quality of the event, action, etc., but instead in the relational network it invokes and is supported by. Because discursive unities are relative and variable, but at the same time a finite grouping, the thing believed to exist in “reality” is actually something that has entered and re-entered a discursive network with itself and other sign-symbol constructions so that it works to establish coherence.

Foucault’s revelation of the co-existent unities of discourse—those that are artificial, that obscure, alongside those that “are not arbitrary, and yet remain invisible”—invokes a new method of reading such statements as events that are produced by and continue to produce the other discursive events in the field of discourse in which it resides (425). The question Foucault asks becomes a question of not what is intended in significance, but instead what rules of construction allow for the existence of what he calls a “discursive formation” to exist in its distinct occupation of time and space and complexity unique to its “historical irruption” (425). Foucault defines a discursive formation as the product of a regulatory network of discourse that must be questioned in terms of its “conditions of existences (but also of coexistence, maintenance, modification, and disappearance” (425). It is thus no longer a discussion of what is produced, but what the relational network is producing, and according to what rules of formation each discursive event emerges when liberated from the illusion of discursive unities and allowed to stand freely in its own complexity of networked coherence.

Baudrillard’s hyperreality emerges then as the discursive unity to which rules of formation are articulated as its “genetic” nature. Writing on the genetic dimension of simulation, Baudrillard explains, “The real is produced from miniature cells, matrices, and memory banks, models of control—and it can be reproduced an indefinite number of times from these” (2). This ordered production is Baudrillard’s hyperreality: a reality that is divorced from the real, that is populated by simulations of the real with no true contact to its origins, and is only a system of refracted significances that designs a reality divorced from any “realness.”

Baudrillard’s dismantling of reality, invocation of simulacra and simulation, and assertion of hyperreality is a Foucauldian breakdown of the discursive unity of reality in order to understand how this liberated notion of hyperreality reveals the forces of order and coherence at play. This realization of the coding and modeling of signs and symbols and departure from reality, implodes the discursive unity of a “reality” and renders the whole theme of reality’s dedication to preserving the principle of coherence defunct, as reality is then proved to no longer exist. It only exists as relationships, on the surface of discourse, dictated by a discursive formation, and understood only through its nodular moment in an interpretive network.

Works Cited

  1. Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press, 1994.
  2. Foucault, Michel. “The Archeology of Knowledge.” Post-Structuralism, Deconstruction, and Post-Modernism, pp. 421–428.