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Simulation and Social Theory

Sean Cubitt
London: Sage Publications
Cloth: ISBN 0-761-96109-7; Paper: 0-761-96110-0

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Reviewed by
David Byrne
Department of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Durham, UK.

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This interesting, very well written and useful book deals only briefly with 'simulation' in the special and focused sense in which that word is employed in the title of this Journal. However, it should be of interest to readers of JASSS because anyone engaged in simulating the social should be aware of arguments about the nature of the social which is being simulated and about the role of simulation in the social world. The book takes the form of a commentary on significant European writers who regard the contemporary social as characterised by simulation (Debord, Baudrillard, Virilio and Eco) which is set within a more general discussion of theoretical debate in cultural studies. This first section on 'Theories' is followed by three case studies - of Disney World Culture, the Gulf War, and 'Working with Computers', in which Cubitt puts the debate to work. On the whole I thought the case studies, although they contain some interesting insights, were the less useful part of the text. Its value lies in the clear and comprehensible critical gloss on cultural theory and the place of simulation as a motif in it.

Cubitt spells out what he means by simulation in the introduction to the book:

'Simulation: a copy without a source, an imitation that has lost its original. The theory of simulation is a theory about how our images, our communications and our media have usurped the role of reality, and a history of how reality fades. Though it speaks at length of our mediated world, at its heart simulation is a philosophy of reality and of our changing relations with it.' (p. 1)
'Like the concept of ideology, simulation is a political theory, but it has also become a far more pessimistic theory, a theory of the endless reduplication of the same.' (p. 5)

This book is very much a critique of theories which themselves critique a contemporary social order in the West in which the processes of consumption and the encouragement of consumption have come to dominate all social life. It accepts that general description and works within its frame of reference. That is an issue. The description, characteristic of cultural theory, is at least contestable. Frankly, in important respects it is plain wrong, although the processes it identifies as crucial are of great importance. One reason for its error is that the account is founded in cultural criticism at a high level of generality. This is fine if that generality is founded on detailed empirical investigation of what actually is going on in the world. A central problem with cultural theory is that it has minimal foundations in detailed empirical research. To say this is not to dismiss it as irrelevant but it is to set a rather tight limit on the validity and general import of the claims it makes. In reading the likes of Baudrillard and commentaries on them, even commentaries as lucid and useful as this one, never forget that they derive from a kind of philosophical journalism which is addressed to a specific set of consumers - philosophy and literature agregés and that part of the French elite which took the Phil/Lit Baccalaureate at lyceé - and at their equivalents in other Latin societies and those who would be like them elsewhere in the developed world. The audience and its limitations shape the product in the best post-industrial fashion. If in the West, more workers now produce 'signs' than material goods, that does not mean that they are not absolutely engaged in the wage labour relation. They are! Consumption is important but it is not everything. Cultural journalists know more about it because they can read about its processes and even see and engage in it for themselves. Production has to be got at through systematic investigation but it is still fundamental.

That reservation noted, there is much of interest in this book. Cubitt takes the reader through the foundations of the approaches examined by outlining Marx's approach to commodities, the general account of semiotics, and the implications of the psychoanalytic programme. This is clear and necessary 'setting of the episteme' - ideal for the more advanced undergraduate student. His second chapter on 'Technology, Information and Reason' is similarly useful as advanced text, but says some things which are of considerable import for 'simulators' in the JASSS tradition. In particular his discussion of the cognitive turn in psychology is important for identifying a resonance in the general knowledge field. As he says: '...cognitive science is not only a child of information theory, but a clear relative of at least certain forms of simulation.' (p. 25) That is not just a useful description - to use Cubitt's own terminology it does more than denote - it connotes. If the cognitive model is relevant then that has important implications for any understanding of what any form of simulation is and what it can do. Chapter Three 'The Poetics of Pessimism' gives us Cubitt's fix on Debord, Baudrillard, Virilio and Eco - a lucid and stimulating exposition in each case. I will pass over this but must note that Virilio's encounter with the sea seems to be based on a fundamental ignorance that this 'mapless' domain is not a domain lacking fixed place. This is certainly an obsession of mine but the development of the science of navigation from the sixteenth century is exactly based on precise points of reference - ' a star to steer her by' - something profoundly contradictory to the relativism of these critics and absolutely in accord with: '...the older modernist belief in an ultimate grounding in objective reality.' (p. 27)

Chapter Four 'Making Sense of Simulation' begins by specifying a set of essentially ontological questions and then, in the tradition of cultural studies and the postmodernist programme, takes an epistemological turn in attempting to answer them. As always with this book the account of debate is lucid and comprehensive, but that very clarity displays the serious limitations of contemporary philosophical argument. A serious review must always address omission. The omission here is not personal to Cubitt, but rather he stands as representative of the tradition with which he is engaging. That tradition, I would argue, is now being bypassed by scholars who are concerned with the same issues but have avoided going up the dead end of postmodernism and much contemporary epistemology. In terms of meta-theoretical foundation I am thinking particularly of Lakoff and Johnson (1999) who seem to me to cut the Gordian knot of contemporary epistemological debate and to do so in large part precisely by reference to the cognitive turn which Cubitt appreciates. In terms of intellectual history, the programme of complex thinking delineated by Hayles (1999) is more important by far than that addressed by Cubitt, although there are thematicsin the second which are informative for us.

Cubitt's chapter on 'Working with Computers' will not tell readers of JASSS anything they don't already know but it is always interesting to see what an intelligent observer from a different tradition makes of your own terrain of work. Actually I think the central arguments of the book would have been strengthened if Cubitt had gone further into the developing nature of simulation in the virtual and encountered some of the debates about agent based systems and emergence in relation to complexity.

Overall this is an excellent book which should be of interest to any social scientist who wants to keep up with the general character of understanding in our inter-disciplinary field. I disagreed with much of it but I always knew why I disagreed, which is the mark of something which has been written to inform rather than obfuscate.

* References

HAYLES K. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

LAKOFF G. and M. Johnson 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books, New York, NY.

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© Copyright Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 2002