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Ian Martin

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Baudrillard’s Rhinoceros

What has the plight of the rhinoceros got to do with Jean Baudrillard? You may well ask. The famous French philosopher, who died in 2007, is possibly best known for coming up with an idea so bizarre, it makes you wonder what he was smoking besides Gauloises. He called this concept the simulacrum, and it’s so weird, there aren’t many people who can get their heads around it. Let me try and simplify the thing and put it in a nutshell.

The simulacrum is not just an imitation of reality, it becomes reality itself, and the original reality dwindles into the background and becomes meaningless, and people then relate to the simulacrum and not to reality. See what I mean?

Now, just the other morning, me and my buddies were playing pool over at the Sea View. We were discussing the price of rhino horn.

“If you had a pet rhino,” I said, “would you cut its horn off and sell it?”

“For sure,” said Cupcake, straightening up after having sunk his white. “You know what a kilogram of rhino horn fetches nowadays?”

“Same price as cocaine,” said the other guy.

“Which is?” I said, not knowing the price of cocaine.

“Around $50 000 a kilo.”

“Holy shite fuckers!” I said. “That’s like R350 000! Bring me the chain saw.”

“Except you don’t own a chain saw,” said Cupcake.

“And where’s your pet rhino?” asked the other guy, squinting down his cue and dreaming of a 3-in-one ricochet.

“I suppose it’s all about supply and demand,” I said. “All those Orientals wanting a scarce commodity. The fewer the rhino, the more they’ll pay for the horns.”

“Basic economics,” said Cupcake.

The other guy struck his white one helluva shot, which resulted in just about every other ball on the table being displaced but not one of them ended up in a pocket.

“Basic stupidity,” I said. “These Orientals are paying 350 grand for a kilo of powdered keratin – the same stuff as your fingernails are made of.”

“So? It’s not the intrinsic value that counts. It’s the perceived value, my mate.”

“Just another fucking simulacrum,” said the other guy.

“Yeah, like that stupid watch of yours,” said Cupcake, pointing to the other guy’s imitation gold Rolex. “Does that piece of shit even work?”

“Of course it works. But it loses like two days in four hours. Doesn’t worry me, though. I don’t wear a watch to tell the time. Who needs a watch when you got a cell phone? Everybody’s got a cell phone.”

“So why wear the fucking thing?”

“Image, man, image,” said the other guy. “It throws people into a state of mental confusion. They can’t work out if it’s genuine or not; there’s so much fake shit about, you never can be sure of anything.”

“It’s not a watch you’re wearing,” I said. “It’s a signifier of something else. Some kind of hyper reality.”

“Yah, that’s how it works for me. People think it’s probably a fake, but maybe it’s not. Maybe I stole it, and that makes me kind of dangerous. Or maybe this Rolex is the genuine 50 thousand buck thing, and I’ve got millions in the bank, even though I look like a loser, And that makes me super cool, jy weet? Anyway, this watch, which I bought for a hundred buckaroos at a flea market, makes people treat me with more respect than if I wore some nondescript watch, or no watch at all.”

“Yes,” said Cupcake. “But this hyper reality bullshit, this simulacrum, is no good for our rhino population.”

“That’s for sure,” I said. “As long as the Chinese believe in the efficacy of the simulacrum, the demand will far outweigh the supply. We can say goodbye to the rhino.”

“Not so fast,” said the other guy. “We must turn the simulacrum to our advantage, the way I’ve made this stupid watch replace the reality of a genuine Rolex with something that is not an imitation of a Rolex watch, but an imitation of the Rolex brand. The watch itself is no longer of any consequence. We can do the same thing with the rhino – and make some money at the same time.”

“Is this your crazy thought for the day?” I said.

“What we do is this,” said the other guy. “We make ourselves a rhino horn mould. Then we get a whole lot of ground up cattle horn from the abattoir, and a good modern binding agent that sets really hard, and then we go into production churning out hundreds of imitation rhino horns.”

“Aha!” said Cupcake. “I think I know where you’re going with this little brainwave of yours. We make a quick fortune without having to work too hard, and then we flood the market with our imitation horns.”

“That’s it,” said the other guy. “You got the picture just like that.” And he snapped his fingers in the air. “At a critical point the market will collapse and rhino horn, genuine or fake, will acquire junk status.”

“Brilliant!” I said. “Not only will we have made a pile of lovely boodle and saved the rhino from extinction, but we’ll have exploded the simulacrum. “Those idiots in Viet Nam and China will have to find some other worthless commodity to which they can attach the pseudo magical properties they now attribute to rhino horn.”

“It seems,” said Cupcake, “that the human brain is becoming less and less capable of dealing with reality in its raw condition. But hey, we’re supposed to be playing pool! Whose turn is it?”

 

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