Volume 4, Number 3 (October 2007)
Author: C. J. P. Lee
I first heard Jean Baudrillard speak at the Fourth World Conference at Essex University in 1992 – an event that changed my life1 . It may be possible that breakthroughs in knowledge only ever come about by accident and the Essex conference led to a breakthrough which in turn led me to become an academic – one who immerses his students in theory. The highlight of Baudrillard’s session came when he answered a question from an aggressive American student who had earlier told me off for smoking. “So Mr Baudrillard, what about the Native Americans? You appear to leave them out of the picture altogether. Doesn’t that kind of make your work defunct?”. “I am from France, I speak as a Frenchman,” was Baudrillard’s entire reply. The terseness of this reply, given the relative kindness he had shown to previous questions came like a bolt of lightening. In several of his writings he had much more to say on the topic as he did to hyperreal America in general.
There is no other country on earth other that so epitomises the search for utopia as does America – what Baudrillard described as the problem of living with an “achieved utopia”. Perhaps that was part of my long fascination with the place.2 A psychotherapist once informed me that my hated of America was a form of projection, casting off everything evil in my world onto a place thousands of miles away. She obviously had not studied comparative history, where America’s foreign policy atrocities are so obvious, particularly its interventions in Latin America.3 But on the utopian front, most recently, we have football superstar David Beckham, manufactured by the media as “perfect sportsman”, choosing to live and play football in Los Angeles. Beckham says it has always his dream to live in America.
Baudrillard had a rather different view of America than the Beckhams. After claiming that Disneyland is a deterrence machine which exists to rejuvenate the fiction of the rest of America he wrote:
Enchanted Village, Magic Mountain, Marine World: Los Angeles is surrounded by these imaginary stations that feed reality, the energy of the real to a city whose mystery is precisely that of no longer being anything but a network of incessant, unreal circulation – a city of incredible proportions but without space, without dimension. As much as electrical and atomic power stations, as much as cinema studios, this city, which is no longer anything but an immense scenario and a perpetual pan shot, needs this old imaginary like a sympathetic nervous system made up of childhood signals and faked phantasm.4
What is so interesting about the Beckhams is that they in many ways epitomise what Baudrillard was talking about. Victoria (aka Posh Spice) seems to have always desired to be a brand, more famous than Persil, and she has achieved this.5 David is also now a powerful product and his new team, the L.A. Galaxy, tell us they have sold 250,000 of his shirts before he has even kicked a ball for them. “Becks” and Posh lives have become an extended photo shoot so perhaps LA was an inevitable destination for them.
The Beckham’s force us to wonder if we are at the end of the real and the end of art due to a total mutual reabsorption? I think not since, at the level of simulacra, hyerrealism is the apex of both art and the real by means of a mutual exchange of the privileges and the prejudices that found them. The hyperreal is beyond representation only because it is entirely within simulation, in which the barriers of representation rotate crazily, an implosive madness which, far from being ex-centric, keeps its gaze fixed on the centre, on its own abyssal repetition.6 Just as Baudrillard comments that it is now psychoanalysis that produces and reproduces the unconscious as its institutional substance, so too, Baudrillard is dogmatic, nearly tautological, for example: “‘reality has passed completely into the game of reality”.7 For Baudrillard the simulation principle rules and all is connected by this, just as with Freud the pleasure principle dominated. The simulacra, however much related to fragmentation, is a unifying principle and a preconceived notion, a concept presented as a metaphor for sameness.8 “Alienation of man is a thing of the past: now man is plunged into homeostasis by machines”.9 It might be argued, therefore, that through the mass media, and the computer age, we are “plunged into homeostasis”. People buy the Beckham shirt, or any product he endorses such as sunglasses, and try to replicate him. This alleviates alienation but, ironically, takes people away from their “actual” selves and causes further alienation. The quest for self-knowledge, the biggest quest of the twentieth century, is now over. Apart from die-hard psychotherapy advocates and those involved in New Age spirituality, the quest is now over.
When I first started to read Baudrillard I was attracted both to his language and his sense of humour. Many academics today claim that Baudrillard is a “theorist for the young” which means that his writing is contemporary, needlessly obscure, someone who sounds clever but actually is not.10 His style of writing is one of the main reasons why many, particularly those in the sciences, denounce Baudrillard. They believe that he, along with Derrida, Foucault, Rorty, and others, are part of a movement that has raised relativism up as the only form of knowledge. Critics believe the work is bogus, importing science metaphors, such as the fractal, without any real knowledge. Indeed, a part of my dissertation severely criticized Baudrillard, not for his relativism, but for his tendency to move towards fatalism, as if resistance to evil is futile. Of course, to call anything evil is to lend it a certain significance and power as Baudrillard was most aware.11
It is also important to reflect on Baudrillard’s original status as a Marxist. While some of his work appears to have a Hegelian transcendental notion of history, his work can be read as a systematic attack on activism. For Baudrillard a desire to find meaning is “madness” and an absolute misunderstanding of the world as play and ceremony.12 Despite the recondite nature of much of his work, his concern with the spectacle and predestination is not antithetical to many commonly held beliefs, hence his popularity. In a mystical manner he denigrates all activity.13
So why pride oneself on difference, when indifference is sure to prevail? Why avail oneself to meaning when silence is sure to win? The power of the object lies in its irony. Difference is always serious, but indifference is ironic. The real irony is that Baudrillard then writes that it is only through difference that the secret that envelops all is known. Only the other knows. Baudrillard claims that fatalism is the natural state of the world. I argue that fatalism is unnatural and manufactured. Reason, for Baudrillard, destroys destiny because connections exist already, so all consideration of anything is madness itself.14 There is a link between Nietzsche’s and Baudrillard’s thought on predestination and this equates to the American notion of manifest destiny. This form of thinking became prevalent with the reversal of the Augustinian allegorical interpretation of John’s Revelation in the late sixteenth century, when America was “founded” as the antidote to the anti-Christ of Papism and the “Old World” evil.15
So coming back to my angry American, if he had read his Baudrillard he would have seen that there was much in common between orthodox American notions of manifest destiny and Baudrillard’s philosophy. Perhaps, after all this, he was right. Was Baudrillard not the radical maverick messiah of postmodernism the media had made him out to be? We can see that, with the idea of the survival of the fittest, there is the idea that the Native Americans will naturally die off, so Baudrillard was not really to blame, but rather the very foundations of American society. Baudrillard had a point though. He could only speak from his own perspective. However much he loved travelling around America taking photographs, gaining cool memories, he was still the foreigner abroad. The American student from the Essex conference now too lives abroad – in my country.
Whatever else he did, Baudrillard changed the intellectual landscape, showing that, as in Ecclesiastes: “The simulacrum is never what hides the truth – it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The simulacrum is true”.16 In an age where many are turning back to their version of absolute truth, to justify acts for and against horrendous violence, perhaps we need to listen to Baudrillard more, not less. This Frenchman did make blindingly sane observations about America.
About the Author
C. J. P. Lee is from St. Martin’s College, Lancaster, UK
1 – I did not however, use his work until I was doing my Ph.D. You can read an article, informed by Baudrillard, and based on the penultimate chapter of my MA thesis on-line. See “Life after death, or death as life? Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, postmodernism and ontology,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory. Vol. 3 No. 2, April 2002: 97-126. See: http://www.jcrt.org/archives/03.2/lee.shtml
2 – Since childhood I have been fascinated by the early history of America. On my seventh birthday a friend bought me a children’s version of Last of the Mohicans. Little did I know then I would be writing my thesis on the subject of the representation of indigenous people, including an examination of the various film versions of the book. My deep interest in the stories of the Native Americans and Aztecs, Mayans and Incas eventually led to my decision to work in Comparative American Studies. My dissertation (abbreviated here as MMA), was published as The Metaphysics of Mass Art Volume II (New York: Mellen, 1999. Last of the Mohicans is the most adapted book in history.
3 – Psychotherapists are, by and large, caught up in contemporary culture and are forced to be a part of it. Commercial industrialism promised Western man paradise on earth, described in great detail by the Hollywood myth, that replaced the paradise of heaven of the Christian myth. And now psychology must replace them both with the myth of paradise through self knowledge. See: Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death. Translated by Iain Hamilton. London: Sage, 1993: 175.
4 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1994:13.
5 – See Jean Baudrillard in Gary Genosko (Editor). The Uncollected Baudrillard. London: SAGE, 2001:74.
6 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1994:73.
7 – Ibid.
8 – Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil. Essays on Extreme Phenomena. Translated by James Benedict. London: Verso, 1993: 58.
9 – Ibid.
10 – Many have said the same about Derrida, and even Foucault, who for my money doesn’t even sound clever, except perhaps when he said the twentieth century will be known as the Deleuzian.
11 – I found this out more directly in my book Pervasive Perversions: Child Sexual Abuse in Media/Culture, London: Free Association Books, 2005.
12 – Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies, trans. Philip Beitchman and W.G.J. Niesluchowski, ed. Jim Fleming. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990: 177.
13 – For a complete analysis of this see C.J.P. Lee, The Metaphysics of Mass Art- Cultural Ontology, Volume II, New York: Mellen, 1999.
14 – Significantly this could be read as a perversion of Eastern mysticism, especially Tao. See Fritjof Capra, The Tao of Physics: An exploration of the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism. London: Flamingo, 1983: 125.
15 – E.L. Tuveson, Redeemer Nation. The Idea of America’s Millennial Role. University of Chicago Press, 1968: viii.
16 – Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation, Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1994: 1. Editor’s note: This passage from Ecclesiastes was fabricated by Baudrillard in jest.