An imitation that reproduces the superficial (and sometimes idealised) appearance and/or recognisable behaviour of the original, but which lacks important functional aspects.
An example of a simulacrum might be a “piazza” in a modern shopping centre that was designed to resemble a public square in an (idealised) Italian historic town, including restaurants, cafés, shops selling Mediterranean delicacies, etc., but lacking authentic residential space or associated facilities such as schools, government offices, etc., which would be required to make up a “real” city.
The meaning of the term “simulacrum” is complex and has changed several times in the course of the history of philosophy: Originally, Lucretius used this term to describe a concept of his theory of perception. However, this theory is now considered obsolete and this specific meaning is no longer in use.
Later authors used the term to describe, for example, the relationship of a trace to its cause (such as the animal that leaves the trail), but especially also to describe the relationship of an artistic representation to the object depicted.
In the latter sense, the term evolved to describe circumstances in which a form of “hyperrealism” is produced by altering certain aspects of reality, i.e. a representation that appears to be realistic but exaggerates reality in an “unrealistic way”.
In the way that it is generally used today, “simulacrum” is mostly understood as a derogative: it implies that some reproduction (or simulation) does not attempt to be as faithful as possible to the original, but rather refers to a non-existent, idealised version of it – as in the example above, the shopping centre piazza recreates an idealised, rather than a realistic model of Mediterranean urban architecture.
In an even more negative connotation, this can also be understood to mean that a simulacrum is a kind of replica that recreates the outer form of the original in a realistic way, but does so without understanding the inner functions and modes of action of the original. Such a replica is “false” in the sense that it cannot achieve what it claims to achieve.
There are various interpretations within the framework of postmodernism that go even further, understanding simulacrum as a “simulation of a simulation” – quasi a “copy of a copy” – often with the implication that any connection to the original has already been lost and that the original possibly does not (or no longer) exist at all.
In summary, “simulacrum” can be described as a replica or simulation of something, which is, however, in one way or another disconnected from the original.
A similar concept is described by the term “cargo cult”. However, this refers specifically to (often ritualised) actions and behaviours that are based on imitating observed behaviour without understanding the essence of it and, as a consequence, without achieving the intended or claimed goals. However, the meanings of the two terms overlap considerably and in case of doubt, “simulacrum” should rather be chosen (for a discussion and more information, see cargo cult).