Stage 4: ApocaLEGO and Self-Simulation

Baudrillard’s explanation of his fourth stage, in which “[the image] is its own simulacrum,” is, like much of his work, dense and difficult to follow. LEGO can illustrate this stage, but it will make more sense if we first consider Baudrillard’s idea with an analogy from Jorge Luis Borges.

Borges wrote a short story called “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” in which the protagonists discover, in a single copy of an encyclopedia, an entry about the fictional realm of Uqbar, but cannot find the same entry in any other copy of the same edition.8 As they track down more references to Uqbar, other people begin to construct their own geographical, historical, linguistic, and other references to this place. Importantly, the accuracy of new references is judged in terms of how well they fit with previous references, and not in terms of how well they accord with reality. As these references develop and expand, Uqbar slowly comes into being, eventually replacing our own world. The language and thought processes laid out in the invented entries for Uqbar become dominant, replacing the languages and thought processes which had arisen organically throughout the world. The fictional realm ultimately comes to be more real than the real world it originally was created in.

LEGO sky-fi does not quite correspond to Borges’ story, because there are still original images—namely, WWII airplanes—that exist independent of their representations in LEGO and to which MOCs can be compared. However, post-apocalyptic scenarios have no real- world counterpart. Even those events which could be argued to have inspired apocalyptic scenarios, such as the two world wars, are not actually apocalyptic themselves, however horrible they may have been (not to mention that apocalyptic stories, such as H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds and, for that matter, the Biblical Revelations, precede the world wars).

Apocalyptic LEGO MOCs, or ApocaLEGO, began by combining various elements of the apocalyptic, as well as additional pop culture references such as zombies and steampunk. These images were themselves based on other cultural products such as film, video games, books, illustrations, and even Biblical references. At no point, however, do any of these cultural products represent reality as we experience it. Although it is possible to argue, with some merit, for some degree of symbolism in many of these texts, they do not explicitly refer to any real-world event or scenario. The key factor here is that ApocaLEGO, like other apocalyptic texts, is characterized by the way in which it remains in the realm of the fantastic or hypothetical, with each image referring primarily to other images. Countless MOCs refer back to each other, and to film, books, etc., endlessly.

An example of this can be found on the website Bricks of the Dead, which highlights a MOC based on Metro 2033, a novel by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky.9 Metro 2033 was subsequently turned into a video game, sold film rights, and has been turned into a major franchise. The original novel that inspired this Bricks of the Dead MOC is itself influenced by nuclear war scenarios, a common form of post-apocalyptic work since the 1950s. Metro 2033 draws from nuclear war texts, but which ones? Glukhovsky lists the influence of Roger Zelazny, Ray Bradbury, and the video game Fallout, but even that only adds layers to the problem.10 Authors may cite specific influences, but there are invariably other sources of unconscious inspiration, and what’s more, Zelazny, Bradbury, and the makers of Fallout all drew their own ideas out of the culture they were immersed in. There is still an interchangeable aspect in which these texts very well could have referred to numerous other sources in ways that can never be parsed out. This may be what Baudrillard meant when he claimed that it is the “reality principle” [emphasis added] that is no longer intact, rather than reality itself. After all, we are still living beings that inhabit and interact with a world external to ourselves. But, Bau- drillard argued, the distinctions between representations of that world and the world itself are no longer clear or even meaningful.

ApocaLEGO MOCs on The Brothers Brick feature references to the Fallout video game franchise, The Walking Dead TV show, the films I Am Legend, World War Z, and the Mad Max films.11 This endless circularity of images referring back to each other, without ever representing the real world, illustrates Baudrillard’s last stage. ApocaLEGO goes far beyond what creators of sky-fi did when they began to combine real-world WWII airplane styles and designations with steampunk sensibilities. While a sky-fi creation can be checked against the historical record, it would likely be impossible to point to any real-world equivalent, and difficult to even find inspiration, for ApocaLEGO MOCs: what actually existing house, or subway station, or deserted cityscape does a particular MOC refer to or even use as an influence? Certainly some may have specific, real-world references, but most do not—and even with those that do, it is rarely clear what that reference is. In the Metro 2033 example, a book led to the creation of a video game and LEGO MOCs; MOCs influence other MOCs and even influence official LEGO sets (such as 2012’s The Zombies (set #9465) in the Monster Fighters theme, which also shows a steampunk influence), which themselves will almost certainly influence further MOCs. Whether or not an ApocaLEGO MOC is judged to be accurate or good depends solely on its relationship to other fictional apocalyptic creations. This takes the interchangeable nature of reality and fiction demonstrated by sky-fi and eliminates even the appearance of referring to reality. Instead images refer only each other. Baudrillard would argue that reality is only something to compare to those images—as anyone who has heard or said, “that reminds me of [a particular movie]” could understand.

Baudrillard would find ApocaLEGO, like the rest of 21st-century culture, to be a hall of mirrors, everything reflecting off and influencing everything else and in the process modifying reality. To Baudrillard, reality is actually preceded by images: images come first and reality is simply a secondary function of them. His four stages merely describe the process from reality producing the image to the image producing reality. We can start with bricks that seem to effectively represent the real, but through subsequent developments the bricks have come to supplant the real. Baudrillard argues this happens throughout media- saturated culture. LEGO is just one example. If Baudrillard is correct, ApocaLEGO does not just consist of MOCs; it is, in a way, actually building the apocalypse. Certainly not in the sense that LEGO will cause an apocalyptic downfall of civilization, but rather in the sense that images and ideas that arise from MOCs and other cultural constructions end up modifying the culture they arise in. On one level this may seem commonsense, but Baudrillard’s argument takes an important piece of received wisdom and turns it on its head—namely, that images or signs represent real-world objects and ideas. Like Borges’ Uqbar, Baudrillard’s work shows us that the proliferation of signs can actually produce reality.

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