“If once we were able to view the Borges fable in which the cartographers of the Empire drew up a map so detailed that it ends up covering the territory exactly (the decline of the Empire witnesses the fraying of this map, little by little, and its fall into ruins, though some shreds are still discernible in the deserts – the metaphysical beauty of this ruined abstraction testifying to a pride equal to the Empire and rotting like a carcass, returning to the substance of the soil, a bit as the double ends by being confused with the real through aging) – as the most beautiful allegory of simulation, this fable has now come full circle for us, and possesses nothing but the discrete charm of second-order simulacra.”
– Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981
Embedded in this first sentence is a summary of Borges’s story that’s nearly as long as the story itself; the sentence in which the story is embedded is almost precisely the length of the story. The first sentence of Borges’ story goes like this:
“In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province.” (Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science,” 1946)
Borges attributes the story to Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658. This citation is entirely fictitious and should be considered part of the story itself. The story was originally published in 1946 under the pseudonym B. Lynch Davis; later Borges and Bioy Casares would publish a collection of detective fiction under the pseudonym B. Suarez Lynch.
Elsewhere Borges acknowledges American philosopher Josiah Royce as the inspiration for his story:
“Let us imagine that a portion of the soil of England has been levelled off perfectly and that on it a cartographer traces a map of England. The job is perfect; there is no detail of the soil of England, no matter how minute, that is not registered on the map; everything has there its correspondence. This map, in such a case, should contain a map of the map, which should contain a map of the map of the map, and so on to infinity.” (Josiah Royce, The World and the Individual, 1899)
Royce was an objective idealist: he believed that the material world exists only as it is known by an ideal knower who must himself be actual and not just hypothetical. It’s possible that Borges was inspired to write his story not by Royce but by Lewis Carroll:
“That’s another thing we’ve learned from your Nation,” said Mein Herr: “map-making. But we’ve carried it much further than you. What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful ?”
“About six inches to the mile.”
“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country, on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
“Have you used it much ?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet.” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.” (L. Carroll, Sylvie and Brumo Concluded, 1893)
Lewis Carroll was the pen name of the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who was by all accounts an excellent amateur photographer.
In Baudrillard’s hyperreality Borges’ story has been reduced to nothing but a second-order simulacrum, a story that once revealed the truth but that now conceals it. Once the world was inundated with copies of the original; now there are copies without an original. Now the map precedes the territory; the map stretches itself across the tattered vestiges of the real.
The representation no longer makes reference to the thing represented; the sign no longer points to the thing signified. Once the image reflected reality – this was the sacramental or iconic order of the image. Then the image masked reality – the satanic order. Then the image masked the absence of reality – the order of sorcery. Now the image “has no relation to any reality whatsoever: it is its own pure simulacrum.”
At the beginning of the first Matrix movie the Neo character is introduced as a programmer who moonlights as the designer of illegal virtual reality programs. A gang of punked-out clients comes to his apartment to buy Neo’s latest simulation. He gets them a copy of the simulation from his secret stash, hidden in a hollowed-out book on his bookshelf. The book: Simulacra and Simulation, by Jean Baudrillard.
Baudrillard’s book actually begins with a quotation, which perhaps should be regarded as the “real” first line:
“The simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true.” – Ecclesiastes