America by Jean Baudrillard


Last week, in the Congressional debate on John Tower's nomination for Defense Secretary, Dennis DeConcini claimed he had seen Tower drunk on the Senate floor. A Republican supporter of Tower's suggested that yes, Tower may have been drunk, but was he too drunk to carry out his duties? I struck my head a couple of times to clear it. The representatives of the greatest deliberative body in human history were debating not, was John Tower drunk, but were instead asking the question, how drunk was he, Johnny? Having heard Congressional debates before, I wasn't surprised that the arguments could veer into the absurd, but what did strike me was that this debate was dutifully reported on the television news and newspapers just as seriously as the latest results from the Iranian Book Critics Circle. To my knowledge, no one in the media laughed, no one pointed out the Emperor's nakedness.

A few things need to be said, not about Tower as a person, but about what the Tower process reveals about us and our institutions. First, John Tower is a liar: during his stint as an arms treaty negotiator he promised he wouldn't become a lobbyist, which he promptly did. Second, he is conceivably a crook, trading on his long government experience to earn almost two million dollars in two years by getting lucrative contracts for the very people he might soon have been in a position to control. But instead of focusing on the principal issue with respect to his fitness for the job of Defense Secretary, the precious time of Congress, and the vast powers of the FBI were given over to questions of whose bed the man shared and how much he drank.

This is politics? Or is this yet another example of a system that has lost sight of its function, and instead allowed itself to be purchased by the television networks? For surely the reason for this extended and comical debate was to allow individual Congresspersons to stand before the rolling videotapes of the television news cameras and posture, opposing drunkenness and womanizing. Did they think that there are groups who endorse alcoholism and infidelity? (Of course, there's always the Man-Boy Love Association.) No, what members of Congress learned following the Kennedy/Nixon debates, and what no politician has ever forgotten, is that how they are seen is much more important than what they are: they drink; some of them conceivably fool around. But the immense power of the television image, of the medium that puts a person into your living room who seems to be there but really isn't, prompted them to discuss how drunk John Tower was on the Senate floor. As this instance illustrates, simulating a debate is often politically much more important than actually engaging in one, because politicians' simulated images on television are more important than their real selves. Politicians, like so many others, have learned that in America, images of things are more important than the things themselves.

This insight is no ordinary one, given the history of Western thought on the relation of being and seeming. While the grand goal of metaphysics is to separate what seems to be from what is, to eliminate the Seeming and establish the truth of Being, in America what seems to be is more significant than what is, and the art of simulating things is one of the highest paid activities in the country, in films, in advertising, in architecture, and, sadly, in politics.

But then, I'm posing too, aren't I, striking a moral pose of outrage at our elected representatives. What I have failed to realize is that simulation is what America is all about. It took a European, however, to teach me this fact, a Frenchman named Jean Baudrillard.

One hundred and fifty eight years ago a Frenchman visited America and, in 1835 published a book about that visit. Thoughtful people still return to de Tocqueville when they want to make sense of America. But what of the country now, when it has abandoned sense-making, and instead thrown itself into a delirious whirl of military build-ups, followed by bullying small countries (Libya, Grenada, Nicaragua), a whirl of international loans, followed by the greatest indebtedness in human history, a whirl of leveraged wealth, followed by the willful impoverishment of its underclass, something unseen since the great Western migrations of the thirties (except now the migrations turn inward to the inner regions of what, for sake of convenient reference, are called cities)? Who can comprehend this mess?

With characteristic French grandeur, Jean Baudrillard has entitled his latest book America. Unlike myself, he doesn't take a moralistic attitude toward our goings-on. Instead, he says, "It is a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence, and yet I cannot help but feel it has about it something of the dawning of the universe."

Baudrillard finds America intoxicating to think about. Although as a European he employs the usual contrasts between the two cultures, congestedness versus openness, culture versus barbarity, reflectiveness versus speed, he is instructively void of any pompous moralizing about America's inferiority to its elder sibling, Europe. Instead, he sees America as having superseded Europe, replaced it, not only economically, but also intellectually. That is, he sees in the American spirit and substance a challenge to the reflection-based musings of European thinkers, theirs a backward-looking activity that seeks, like Hegel's owl, to understand something only after it has passed. Baudrillard sees America, in both substance and spirit, as futurally oriented, and yet directed toward many futures, rather than a single one. As he says, "If you approach this society with the nuances of moral, aesthetic, or critical judgement, you will miss its originality, which comes precisely from its defying judgement and pulling off a prodigious confusion of effects. To side-step that confusion and excess is simply to evade the challenge it throws down to you."

Baudrillard's search for America doesn't begin where you might imagine, in the cities, but in the desert:

I went in search of astral America, not social and cultural America, but the America of the empty, absolute freedom of the freeways, not the deep America of mores and mentalities, but the America of desert speed, of motels and mineral surfaces. I looked for it in the speed of the screenplay, in the indifferent reflex of television, in the film of days and nights projected across an empty space; in the marvelously affectless succession of sighs, images, faces and ritual acts on the road; looked for what was nearest to the nuclear and nucleated universe, a universe which is virtually our own, right down to its European cottages.

Baudrillard links the desert to speed. "Disaffection," as he says, "finds its pure form in the barrenness of speed." By focusing on the motion of the automobile, he shares with Kerouac and so many other writers the understanding of how the road is, in a sense, the American metaphor:

Speed creates pure objects. It is itself a pure object, since it cancels out the ground and territorial reference-points, since it runs ahead of time to annul time itself, since it moves more quickly than its own cause and obliterates that cause by outstripping it. Speed is the triumph of effect over cause, the triumph of instantaneity over time as depth, the triumph of the surface and pure objectality over the profundity of desire. Speed creates a surface of initiation, which may be lethal; its only rule is to leave no trace behind. Triumph of forgetting over memory, an uncultivated, amnesic intoxication. ... It is sort of a slow-motion suicide, death by an extenuation of forms--the delectable form of their disappearance. ... Perhaps, though, its fascination is simply that of the void. ... Speed is simply the rite that initiates us into emptiness ...

Marry the barren openness of the American desert with America's most profound invention, the automobile, and one discovers that "... driving is a spectacular form of amnesia. Everything is to be discovered, everything to be obliterated."

We imagine the desert to be a contrast with the town, and most American historians of idea have used the two terms as opposites, for example, Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden. Baudrillard doesn't see it that way:

American culture is heir to the deserts, but the deserts here are not part of a Nature defined by contrast with the town. Rather they denote the emptiness, the radical nudity that is the background to every human institution. At the same time, they designate human institutions as a metaphor of that emptiness and the work of man as the continuity of the desert, culture as a mirage and as the perpetuity of the simulacrum.

Indeed, the desert is not only a social metaphor, but also an individual one: "The desert is a natural extension of the inner silence of the body. If humanity's language, technology, and buildings are an extension of its constructive faculties, the desert along is an extension of its capacity for absence, the ideal schema of humanity's disappearance."

But the desert doesn't last forever. Rocketing along in two thousand pounds of supercharged metal, the American traveler must eventually arrive in a town. For Baudrillard, as for most of us, New York and Los Angeles are the geographic and metaphoric poles of the American megalopoloi, New York with its gothic verticality, Los Angeles with its sprawling horizontality.

Baudrillard visits New York, where he is struck by the "... wall to wall prostitution." " Puzzled, he (like myself), can't understand why anyone would live there. "Why do people live in New York? There is no relationship between them. Except for an inner electricity which results from the simple fact of their being crowded together. A magical sensation of contiguity and attraction for an artificial centrality. This is what makes it a self-attracting universe, which there is no reason to leave. There is no human reason to be here, except for the sheer ecstasy of being crowded together."

Not only can he not imagine living there, but cannot imagine those who do having any normal sort of relationship:

Such is the whirl of the city, so great its centrifugal force, that it would take superhuman strength to envisage living as a couple and sharing someone else's life in New York. Only tribes, gangs, mafia families, secret societies, and perverse communities survive, not couples. This is the anti-Ark.

While in New York, Baudrillard sees the New York marathon:

Can we speak of suffering freely entered into as we might speak of a state of servitude freely entered into? In driving rain, with helicopters circling overhead and the crowd cheering, wearing aluminum foil capes and squinting at stop-watches, or bare-chested, their eyes rolling skywards, they are all seeking death, that death by exhaustion that was the fate of the first Marathon man some two thousand years ago. ... Collectively, they might ... seem to be bringing the message of a catastrophe for the human race, which you can see becoming more and more decrepit by the hour as the runners come in, from the competitive, athletic types who arrive first to the wrecks who are literally carried to the finishing line by their friends, or the handicapped who do the race in their wheelchairs. There are 17,000 runners and you can't help thinking back to the Battle of Marathon, where there weren't even 17,000 soldiers in the field. There are 17,000 of them and each one runs alone, without even a thought for victory, but simply in order to feel alive. `We won,' gasped the man from Marathon as he expired. `I did it,' sighs the exhausted marathon runner of New York as he collapses on the grass in Central Park.
I DID IT! The slogan of a new form of advertising activity, of autistic performance, a pure and empty form, a challenge to one's own self that has replaced the Promethean ecstasy of competition, effort, and success.
The New York marathon has become a sort of international symbol of such fetishistic performance, of the mania for an empty victory, the joy engendered by a feat that is of no consequence.

But it is in the West that Baudrillard finds America, and its future, California, "... the aromatic hillsides of Santa Barbara, ..." and Los Angeles, a future filled with the ecstasy of a dance of death:

The microwave, the waste disposal, the orgasmic elasticity of the carpets, this soft, resort-style civilization irresistibly evokes the end of the world. All their activities here have a surreptitious end-of- the-world feeling to them: these California scholars with monomaniacal passions for things French or Marxist, the various sects obsessively concerned with chastity or crime, these joggers sleepwalking in the mist like shadows that have escaped from Plato's cave, the very real mental defectives or mongols let out of the psychiatric hospitals ..., these obese individuals who have escaped from the hormone laboratories of their own bodies, and these drilling platforms--`oil sanctuaries'-- keeping watch in the night, like grand casinos, or extraterrestrial spacecraft.

But the key intersection of the transcendental and the mundane, of the idea and its shadowy reality, is for Baudrillard our constitutional system and Hollywood. The political systems of Europe have been wrought from the limestone of history: each war, plague, royal death, and revolution have altered European governments, often imperceptibly, so that the current state of their governments is a result of a process that is literally centuries-long. Our American government, on the other hand, sprang into existence, like Athena, fully formed, in a constitutional action previously unknown to human history. Even Solon had to redefine the traditional demes, but for us, there was nothing but a vast wilderness, punctuated by a few hardy Europeans clinging to its eastern border. As that earlier Frenchman observed, in the absence of a state religion, with the enactment of the constitution the state itself became, ex nihilo, a religion. Our constitution created a self-consciously utopian system, and this utopia is fostered on the movie sets of Hollywood.

In America "... the driving forces are utopia and morality, the concrete idea of happiness and mores, all of which political ideology, with Marx at its head, liquidated in Europe in favour of an `objective' conception of historical transformation."

What Marx didn't see was that the utopianism of the Constitution erased the possibility for history; Americans in their theoretical moments don't focus on history but on those two poles of democracy, freedom and equality, opposed here since their birth. Marry this Constitutionally-based utopianism with a cheerful Calvinism and you have a "material utopia."

This material utopia of the way of life, where success and action are seen as profound illustrations of the moral law, was crystallized by exile and emigration and these have, in a sense, transformed [America] into a primal scene. For us, in Europe, it was the Revolution of 1789 that set its seal upon us, though it was a different seal, that of History, the State, and Ideology. Politics and history, not the utopian, moral sphere, remain our primal sphere.

But, of course, the materiality of Calvinism and the transcendence of utopianism don't jibe with one another; they, like freedom and equality, form two horns of a paradox:

If it is negativity, irony, and the sublime that govern European thinking, it is paradox which dominates that of America, the paradoxical humour of an achieved materiality, of an ever renewed self-evidence, of a bright new faith in the legality of the fait accompli which we always find amazing, the humour of a naive visibility of things, whilst we operate in the uncanny realm of the déjá vu and the glaucous transcendence of history.

Despite this, and other paradoxes, Baudrillard sees the paradox as the animating force of American life, both the tension of the two horns of the paradox from without, and the motivation by them from within. Indeed, the central paradox, that of freedom and equality, is the source of America's power.

It is this equality, the modern equalization of statuses and values, the uniformity of features and characters, which gives birth to power. It is around this equality that Tocqueville's paradox is recast: the American world tends both towards absolute insignificance (all things tending to become equal and therefore cancelling each other out in their power) and toward absolute originality--today even more than 150 years ago, the effects having been multiplied by geographical extension. This is a world that has shown genius in its irrepressible development of equality, banality, and indifference.
It is this overall dynamism, this dynamic of the abolition of differences which is so exciting and which poses, in Tocqueville's words, a new problem for the understanding of human societies.

This might seem to form a lesson for other societies bent on improving their lot by legislative change, striving themselves toward both freedom and equality. However, Baudrillard disagrees, and instead sees these twin ideals not as goals to be achieved, but necessary origins to be established by constitutional fiat.

The great lesson of all this is that freedom and equality, like ease and grace, only exist where they are present from the outset. This is the surprise democracy had in store for us: equality is at the beginning, not at the end. That is the difference between egalitarianism and democracy: democracy presupposes equality at the outset, egalitarianism presupposes it at the end. Democracy demands that all of its citizens begin the race even. Egalitarianism insists that they all finish even.

This intersection of utopia realized and Calvinistic morality is, for Baudrillard, a peculiar form of existence: "America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved."

Combine this hyperrealistic form of existence with personal technology, and from the outsider's perspective you have a bizarre form of existence indeed; "... the proliferation of technical gadgetry inside the house, beneath it, around it, like drips in an intensive care ward, the TV, stereo, and video which provide communication with the beyond ..."

This last comment, that the television, stereo, and video provide communication with "the beyond" is instructive in crystalizing the difference Baudrillard sees between Europe and America. Continental Europe, with its reflective-based, idealistic philosophical tradition, always saw the transcendental as something that informed the real, that is, the real derived its meaning from the immanence of the transcendental within it. The Christian religion follows this pattern with the concept of the soul, a religious term parallel to the philosopher's essence. The transcendental has been something that is over and above the real, and simultaneously brings it into being as what it is. This form of thought gives rise to what Baudrillard poo-pooed at the outset of his book, the notion of using moral or aesthetic terms to judge America. In doing that, we would be employing universal (i.e., transcendental) standards to judge what everyone agrees is a less- than-morally or -aesthetically admirable culture.

Baudrillard argues, however, that in America the terms are seemingly, reversed, but not quite: that the real gains its existence not from the transcendental, but from the shadow of the real, its image. The image differs from the transcendental in that whereas the transcendental informs the real and exists independent of it, in the beginning the image is dependent on the real. The peculiarity of America is that after giving birth to the image, the real becomes dependent on it for meaning and value. Reversing Plato, who claimed that art is an image of an image (that is, it's an image of a real thing, which is an image of its transcendental form), the real in America gains its existence from its image. We gain our sense of being moral from what Bill Cosby or Michael J. Fox does on television; we gain our sense of appropriate architecture from Disneyland or Heritage, U.S.A.; we gain our sense of the politically appropriate not from what politicians do, but what politicians seem to be doing on those lighted boxes in our living room. In the broadest sense, advertising is that by which we measure the real, not vice versa.

And that, according to Baudrillard, is what makes America so modern: "... as for Baudelaire, who knew that the secret of a true modernity was to be found in artifice, the only natural spectacle that is really gripping is the one which offers both the most moving profundity and at the same time the total simulacrum of that profundity."

Think back to any of our public spectacles, the Bicentennial celebration, or, more recently, the halftime at the Orange Bowl. Thousands of Elvis imitators, giving forth the image of America as the image of a man who we knew then and now, to be quite different from his image. Or at the Orange Bowl, the Fifties songs which evoke not the Fifties, but the image of the Fifties that the audience has in its minds. At a certain point, the saturation of advertising (and, by the way, advertising not only for products, but for political causes, for weapons systems, for invasion forces, for so-called drug crises, for all the significant elements of our public life) blurs the distinctions between the real and the image, and indeed, to paraphrase Nietzsche, permits us to witness the vengeance of the image on the real. When the image becomes the standard by which the real can be judged, then we can say, with a Russian comedian, or one whose image is that of a Russian comedian, "What a country."

For America, then, the key to understanding is not wading through what seems to be, discarding it for what is real, but rather recognizing that the simulacrum is the American Real.

Everything is destined to reappear as simulation. Landscapes as photography, women as the sexual scenario, thoughts as writing, terrorism as fashion and the media, events as television. Things seem only to exist by virtue of this strange destiny. You wonder whether the world itself isn't just here to serve as advertising copy in some other world.
When the only physical beauty is created by plastic surgery, the only urban beauty by landscape surgery, the only opinion poll by opinion poll surgery ... and now, with genetic engineering, along comes plastic surgery for the whole human race.

Baudrillard defines a simulacrum as "something which is a repeat performance of the first, but its repetition is something more real." While Marx argued that history repeats itself first as a tragedy, second as a farce, Baudrillard argues that in America, history recurs as a simulation, and the simulation acquires a higher ontological status than the original event. Kill off the Indians, then bring them back as extras; Tonto, not Black Elk, is the real Indian.

America, as we all know, always has been the major producer of images as objects of consumption, first as cinema. With the victory in two wars, this cinema became the fantasy images for all of the Western world. Second, as television, and as anyone who has been to Europe lately can testify, Dallas is more real than Bismarck. Films and television, with their clear ideological messages (the best example of this are the films of Frank Capra) consecrate the American vision, which foreign eyes and minds take as American reality, and in a certain perverse sense, they are right. In one of the more densely argued paragraphs in America, Baudrillard discusses this phenomenon.

Now, fiction is not imagination. It is what anticipates imagination by giving it the form of reality. This is quite opposite to our own natural tendency which is to anticipate reality by imagining it, or to flee from it by idealizing it. That is why we shall never inhabit true fiction; we are condemned to the imaginary and to nostalgia for the future. The American way of life is spontaneously fictional, since it is a transcending of the imaginary in reality.

Transcending reality has its consequences, both morally and politically. The goal of both moral education and politics is freedom, yet in America the freedom we have won is not exactly the freedom we have anticipated:

The liberated man is not the one who is freed in his ideal reality, his inner truth, or his transparency; he is the man who changes spaces, who circulates, who changes sex, clothes, and habits according to fashion, rather than morality, and who changes opinions not as his conscience dictates but in his response to opinion polls. This is practical liberation whether we like it or not, whether or not we deplore its wastefulness and its obscenity.

In politics, as I suggested at the outset, what we have is not politics, but the image of politics taken for politics. Governing today means, as Baudrillard says, "giving acceptable signs of credibility." In addition, the public manifestation of moral "credibility" is the puzzling formulation "taking responsibility for," a phrase that in my memory goes back at least to Richard Nixon. This phenomenon involves a public figure, who may well be guilty of a crime, going public with a austere and serious gesture of "taking responsibility." In the religious sphere this usually means the recognition of sin and the possibility for redemption; in the political sphere it should mean the admission of guilt and the willingness to accept punishment. But in America, as far as I can tell, it's a grand, television-charged public gesture, a hollow man making a hollow admission of something for which he is rarely prosecuted. Instead, we are to respect and admire the "candor" of the admission, the nobility of the resolve which led to "going public." Such a practice doesn't pervert morality; it spins it into a giddy, unreal sphere, what Baudrillard called "hyperreality."

This simulation confronts us not only on the psychological and political levels, but also on the social level. Baudrillard recasts Andy Warhol's famous pronouncement about everyone soon becoming famous for fifteen minutes:

In this country, it is not the highest virtue, nor the heroic act, that achieves fame, but the uncommon nature of the least significant destiny. There is plenty for everyone, then, since the more conformist the system as a whole becomes, the more millions of individuals there are who are set apart by some tiny peculiarity. The slightest vibration in a statistical model, the tiniest whim of a computer are enough to bathe some piece of abnormal behaviour, however banal, in a fleeting glow of fame.

This marks the victory of equality when it is perceived not through an interaction with your fellow citizens, but through an "interaction" with their images on the television screen.

One thing we've mentioned only in passing, but is sure to color the metaphysical level of American experience is the rapidly developing capacity of computers to simulate the material world. Soon, for example, computer graphics will be able to create full motion animation in which the casual observer won't be able to tell whether the image is that of a person or a graphic image of a person. We could have complete motion pictures featuring computer- simulated actors acting out narratives that are indistinguishable, and perhaps superior, to contemporary films. This will mark the real victory of the simulacrum: the image which we take to be an image of something material is in fact an image of an image, and yet no less morally or aesthetically compelling than the original cinematic image, which derived its effectiveness from the illusion that it was an image of the "real." The status of the "real," in such a computer world, will have lost all relevance.

While such a prospect may be intriguing for aesthetics, think about the possibilities for politics: no longer will a president or lieutenant colonel need a cabal to deceive the American public; all he or she will need is a talented programmer. At that point, America will regain its power, if it learns to control the image. For the future lies not in who controls pieces of land; the current dominance of international corporations is sufficient to disabuse us of that illusion. Instead, the powerful country will be the one capable of controlling the simulacrums, which will in turn control the people. Baudrillard sees America as the center of this development: 'Star-blasted, horizontally by the car, altitudinally by the plane, electronically by television, geologically by deserts, stereolithically by the megalopoloi, trans-politically by the power game, the power museum that America has become for the whole world."

Copyright © Steven E. Alford