Volume 9, Number 3 (October 2012)
Author: Dr. Peter Hulm
Jean Baudrillard died before the rise of the Tea Party could have swum into his ken and elicited one of his blistering epigrams on life in the U.S. But like Alexis de Tocqueville 180 years before him, Baudrillard’s notes on democracy in America glitter with the clarity of an outsider and seem just as apt for the contemporary scene. And the key to his experience was a paradisiacal city on the sea.
Santa Barbara in the 1980s struck Jean Baudrillard as the exemplar of the American dream as nightmare. This luxurious garden city on the crumbling coast of California – threatened equally by fire from its forested hills on one side and the (currently dormant) steel Kraken of giant oil platforms obtruding from the skywide Pacific on the other – represented “the tragedy of a utopian dream made reality,” as he wrote in America (1988:30). “Everything here testifies to death having found its ideal home” (ibid.:31).
At the same time, it remained “a paradise,” just as Disneyland and the US landscape itself were other glimpses of paradise for Baudrillard in their banality, monotony and grandeur (ibid.:98). “Long before I left, I could not get Santa Barbara out of my mind” (ibid.:72).
The Californian community seems to have had the same difficulty in getting Baudrillard out of its mind. One year after his death, the University brought together scholars from several parts of America, Europe and beyond (myself included) in April 2008 to discuss his legacy. The Chair of the English Department William Warner issued us a challenge: Why did Baudrillard consider this utopia so fragile? Why did he say “a very slight modification, a change of just a few degrees, would suffice to make it seem like hell”? (ibid.:46).
So far as I remember, I was the only one of the group to try to offer an answer. It went something like this: In the 25 years (Baudrillard, 1998:80) since Baudrillard drew up in his air-conditioned limousine, Santa Barbara has become even more iconic. Million-dollar bungalows, $250-a-night breeze-block motels and celebrity mansions, university students wearing pajama bottoms at lunch-time as a fashion statement, teaching assistants who can only afford to live in houses 150 km away from campus, gorgeous views whose paths to the beach are blocked off by signs warning of the danger of earth slides – everything offers itself for incorporation into something more than a personal drama, more than social display, something more like a parable, scenes perhaps from an obliviously happy version of Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust.
Even the destitute men patrolling the narrow strip of pavement between the tall-trunked trees and the endless beach seemed to embrace their role on this stage: self-consciously original ‘characters’ such as the wiry baby boomer on a bike with paper wings, and the short-trousered hobo with a full-scale piano keyboard also made of paper. After a while, one grew impatient of any experience that did not offer an immediately readable message: an ordinary restaurant meal, an uneventful drive down the road, a walk on the pier.
Three years later I am no longer sure exactly what happened in Santa Barbara and what I have simply imagined, but the fiction – if that is what it is – seems as trustworthy as my memory of the sunshine, the unexpected wind, the greenery and sand (as overwhelming and absurdist as Meursault’s in Camus’ The Stranger)
Strolling towards the souvenir shops and marine center on the pier I found the epiphany that gave me an answer to William Warner. Looking over the railings, I saw a single file of blankets on the sand marching out to the edge of the sea, each loaded with a collection of objects – including a paper Eiffel Tower – and a message for anyone who cared to look down from the boardwalk five meters above and benevolently toss down some change. Their owners were as absent as Ozymandias in the desert of Shelley’s poem. But one piece of cardboard asserted defiantly, as I remember it: “I am not a bum”.
This message asserting one human being’s defiance of the obvious gave me my epiphany. Here on Santa Barbara beach one could see the shift of a few degrees in paradise, the price of this utopia. The sea did not represent the glassy promise of unending horizons, but the end of an illusion as in The Truman Story. Here, in the sand, the dream ran out, and what protruded from the underside of this carpet of affluence was the detritus on which the utopia floated. The Pacific represented not the opening to another world but the barrier to escape. A friend told me his only memory of Santa Barbara was that the surf ripped his wife’s swimming costume off her body.
II. The cult of blindness
You could not say that the homelessness was the price of the affluence. It seemed rather the alternative to the paradise, presented to observers as equally valid, as if being destitute could assert itself as a life-style choice rather than as simply bad luck.
My observations sent me back to Baudrillard’s comments on Alexis de Tocqueville, another French outsider who took in America like a fast-food addict and produced so sharp a vision of its culture that commentators still turn to his generalizations of the U.S. in the 1830s to explain the nation today.
“Tocqueville describes the beneficial effects of democracy and the American constitution with considerable enthusiasm,” Baudrillard recalls. “He then describes with equal lucidity the extermination of the Indians and the condition of the Negroes, without ever bringing these two realities together. As if good and evil had developed separately” (Baudrillard, 1988:88).
At the same time, Baudrillard did not seek to repair Tocqueville’s splintered vision, and with good reason: “The same paradox faces us today: We shall never resolve the enigma of the relation between the negative foundations of greatness and the greatness itself. America is powerful and original; America is violent and abominable. We should not seek to deny either of these aspects, nor reconcile them” (ibid).
It should therefore be no surprise if in 2012 we have a U.S. President committed to government action to give all citizens health insurance, reduce unemployment, create jobs and scale back imperialist adventures while a vocal and politically powerful group opposes all federal government spending, particularly ‘Obamacare’, promotes self-reliance, urges a fundamentalist Christian takeover of the state, and celebrates U.S. attempts to impose its will and ideas on the rest of the world. What Baudrillard, and Toqueville taught us, is that these are not incompatible in America.
III. No need for metaphysics
What Baudrillard noted was “the absence and, moreover, the lack of need for metaphysics and the imaginary in American life” (ibid.:84). “The real is not connected with the impossible and no failure can throw it into question. What is thought in Europe becomes reality in America” (Ibid).
Europeans, Baudrillard insists, often get Americans wrong, since Europeans believe that “nothing exists which has not been conceptualized” (ibid). “Not only do they [Americans] care little for such a view, but their perspective is the very opposite: it is not conceptualizing reality, but realizing concepts and materializing ideas, that interests them” (ibid). No wonder the most vibrant American philosophy has been pragmatism. Even Transcendentalism was a practical form of thinking, and Baudrillard saw in cinematography a realization of the materialism that in Europe can only remain an idea (ibid.: 84-5).
IV. Through the wormhole
From the dream world of Santa Barbara to the grudge politics of the Tea Party – for whom resentment is the only real link with the original Bostonian dissidents – might seem more than a universe away. But through the wormhole of Baudrillard’s America the trip is no more than a Star-Trek moment away.
It is no secret that the Tea Party is funded by America’s extreme Christian business leaders as “a grassroots movement” and is over-promoted by Fox News. But this could hardly have surprised Baudrillard. “Politics has become part of everyday life – as pragmatic machine, as game, as interaction, as spectacle – which means that it can no longer be judged from a specifically political point of view,” he wrote (ibid.:92).
He concluded: “There is no ideological or philosophical principle of government anymore.” This is in part the Tea Party’s argument, but only philosophy understood in an American way. Obama represents Socialism of the European kind, and Europe, he has noted, just vanishes in the face of American realities.
Baudrillard was thus moved to ask himself: “Why are the sects so powerful and dynamic?” His answer: “From the beginning, the sects played the major role in the move towards an achieved utopia, which is the equivalent of an ‘acting out'” (ibid.:90).
As a result, the sects clash with traditional, European-inspired Christianity: “They it is who live on utopia (the Church considers it a virtual heresy) and who strive to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth, whereas the Church restricts / itself to the hope of salvation and theological virtues” (ibid.:90-1). One could substitute politics for religion in this sentence, since they are equivalent in the Tea Party scale of values. For Tea Party advocates the aim of politics is to bring about utopia on earth, while conventional politics is satisfied with the hope of salvation. And politics as compromise is despised across American society, whether by business, by the military or by media.
V. America’s sect-like destiny
“It is as though America as a whole had espoused this sect-like destiny: the immediate concretization of all perspectives of salvation. …The whole of America is preoccupied with the sect as a moral institution, with its immediate demand for beatification, its material efficacy, its compulsion for justification, and doubtless also with its madness and frenzy…” (ibid.:91). It is not hard to see a source, here, of the Tea Party’s impatience with politics as consensus and compromise.
From advertising to the American flag, Baudrillard noted a lack of irony and social playfulness in American life. “The charm to be found in social graces and in the theater of social relations is all transferred outwards into the advertising of life and lifestyles,” he commented (ibid.:95). “This is a society that is endlessly concerned to vindicate itself, perpetually / seeking to justify its own existence. Everything has to be made public. …The society’s ‘look’ is a self-publicizing one. The American flag itself bears witness to this by its omnipresence. …It is simply the label of the finest successful international enterprise, the U.S. This explains why the hyperrealists were able to paint it naively, without either irony or protest” (ibid.:95-6).
VI. The answer to the puzzle
For Baudrillard, things that looked European on the surface proved weirdly different on closer inspection. In the end he famously discovered the answer to the puzzle of America in the desert. In its banal intensity and indifference to the human it provided “an ecstatic critique of culture, an ecstatic form of disappearance” (ibid.:5). “The inhumanity of our ulterior, asocial, superficial world immediately finds its aesthetic form here” (ibid).
But first he had to confront “the marvelously affectless succession of signs, images, faces, and ritual acts on the road …a universe which is virtually our own, right down to the European cottages” (ibid.:5-6). He found in the “desert-like banality of the metropolis” (ibid.:9), “the primitive society of the future” (ibid.:7) in its complexity, hybridity, intermingling and “ferocious” ritualism (ibid).
Against this disturbing prospect of reality – empty and rapacious – the Tea Party can take refuge in a sect-like assertion of an easy utopianism that requires only the abandonment of all government in favor of religion or business or “small-town virtues”1
In the aftermath of what Baudrillard termed “the orgy” (ibid.:46), he wrote that “liberation has left everyone in an undefined state (it is always the same when you are liberated, you are forced to ask who you are” (ibid). In this world of post-humanist gendering, the pop idols (Boy George, Michael Jackson and David Bowie) are “neither masculine, nor feminine, but not homosexual either” in their appearance (ibid.:47). Those who feel threatened by this undecidability can have large families: “there at least you still have proof that two people are needed so difference still exists” (ibid).
Tea Party fundamentalism answers to this emptiness and to the disturbing annihilation of difference in all aspects of modern life. But Santa Barbara is as much a threat to Tea Partyism as conventional politics: “Santa Barbara is simply a dream and it has in it all the processes of dreams: the wearisome fulfillment of all desires, condensation, displacement, facility of action” (ibid.:72). America, he decided, faces “the crisis of an achieved utopia, confronted with the problem of its duration and permanence” (ibid.:77).
VII. A utopia of anger
Against weariness Tea Partyism offers the prospect of a new utopia created with fervor, anger and resentment. It took a turn-of-the century Jewish gay in New York, as portrayed by Tony Kushner, to spell out how that looks to Americans who have not bought into the dream: “The Republican Party – I mean, I hate the Democrats too – but the Republicans: half religious zealots wanting to control every breath every citizen takes and half ego-anarchists, libertarian cowboys shrilling for no government” (Ironson, 2003).
VIII. Misunderstanding America
Baudrillard’s critique of America has not done well at the hands of critics, “It is not that Amérique is merely psychologically, sociologically or ideologically shallow,” writes Gary Genosko in Baudrillard and Signs: Signification Ablaze. “Most of the ‘critical’ responses to Baudrillard’s Amérique have pointed out in some way or another the many ways in which he has simply misunderstood America” (Genosko, 1994:131).
At the very least, however, he provides a corrective to assertions of the kind trumpeted by Mark Lilla in The New York Review of Books on 12 January 2012: “Modern democracy depends on distinctions among factions, principles, and programs, the clearer the better. […] “The current public dissatisfaction with our parties is not just about partisanship. It also reflects a sense that the labels we use to distinguish factions, principles, and programs have lost their value.”
By contrast, what Baudrillard wrote about Reagan, seems to have become only more true of politics as the years have passed. He terms “paradoxical confidence” the “confidence we place in someone on the basis of their failure or their absence of qualities” (the Mitt Romney formula for success?). In this failure, “the group, instead of denying its leader and dispersing, closes ranks around him and creates religious, sectarian, or ecclesiastical institutions to preserve the faith” (Baudrillard, 1988:114).
Reagan, Baudrillard suggested, “worked up his euphoric, cinematic, extraverted, advertising vision of the artificial paradises of the West to an all-American dimension. He has introduced a system where the easy life exerts a kind of blackmail, reviving the original American pact of an achieved utopia” (ibid.:108).
This “triumphal illusionism”, he pointed out, “is entirely Californian, for in reality it is not always sunny in California. You often get fog with the sun, or smog in Los Angeles. And yet you retain a sun-filled memory of the place” (ibid).
IX. Sun-filled memories
No wonder Tea Partyism is suffused with sun-filled memories of Reaganism, despite his record of overspending and lack of popularity with voters2 , and illegal activities by subordinates. Baudrillard had an explanation for this, too. “With [his] smile Reagan obtains a much wider consensus than any that could be achieved by a Kennedy with mere reason or political intelligence” (Baudrillard, 1988:34).
At the same time, “the amazing aura” around Reagan “makes one think that the American prophecy, the grand prospect of utopia on earth combined with world power, has suffered a setback […] and that Reagan is the product of the failure of that prophecy” (ibid.:114). Thus the show of self-confidence can only be so strong at a time of crisis. In fact, though he denied seeking a cultural or social America in his travels (ibid.:5), Baudrillard’s comments offer a template of how the New American Right has built its 2012 platform:
1) “Reagan’s credibility is exactly equal to his transparency and the nullity of his smile”(ibid.:34), a prescription that Republican candidates have ignored at their peril. The front runner Mitt Romney, we note, is always smiling.
2) “No mistake or political reversal damages his standing and […], paradoxically, his failures even improve it,” Baudrillard wrote (ibid.:113)). All the Republican candidates are hoping to make this true of themselves.
3) “When your driver’s license goes, so does your identity” (ibid.:112) – Rick Santorum has picked up on this aspect of citizenship.
4) American conformism “represents a particular kind of freedom: the absence of prejudice and pretentiousness” (ibid.:93). The trick here is to accuse your opponent of prejudice and pretention, as Rick Santorum did to Barack Obama over education. In utopian thinking, the accuracy of such taunts is immaterial.
X. Phoenix policies
The media have a hard time understanding the Tea Party. In “Republicans for Revolution” Mark Lilla described its tax-limiting proposal as “a collective suicide note.” He commented: “That’s how the apocalyptic mind works, though. It convinces people that if they bring everything down around them, a phoenix will inevitably be born” (The New York Review of Books January 12, 2012).
It is not so clear that any of the Tea Partygoers recognize that they are demanding a pyrrhic victory.
Jonathan Raban in 2010 insisted that “most of us – though by no means all – of us had qualified for membership of AARP [the retired people’s association] a good while ago” and “99.5 percent of us were white”, and the costume of choice at a rally he attended as a member was leisurewear. Television, meanwhile, gave its attention to “a handful of exhibitionists in powdered white pigtail wigs and tricorn hats,” he complained (At the Tea Party,” The New York Review of Books, March 25, 2010).
Raban himself signed up with the Tea Party because of concerns over big government, mass surveillance and warrantless wiretapping. It took an Occupy Wall Street organizer, Patrick Bruner, to find similarities between the Tea Party and OWS in a New School and The Nation event organized with DemocracyNow! (an interesting example of Baudrillard’s conviction of America’s love of facticity). “The Tea Party comes from the same mindset as we do,” he declared, without any attempt to coopt support for OWS from Tea Partygoers – “people who had legitimate grievances against this system that they had tried to work for their entire lives, and then it ended up screwing them”
XI. Occupy everyone
The difference is that fundamentalists, as Baudrillard’s observations of utopian thinking indicated, already have the answer. Tea Party utopianism would occupy everyone, not just Wall Street.
The question remains: why have the Tea Party favorites all crashed and burned in their efforts to secure front-stage as well as behind-the-scenes influence on Republicanism and Congress? In America, Baudrillard pointed to the emptiness of American utopianism, and the frustrations of a utopianism that could not be immediately achieved, a utopianism that required thought. Twenty-five years later, the contradictions have manifested themselves in the political arena. Mark Lilla notes that the Republican candidates have been competing to demonstrate how much of government they would cut, but they “don’t feel compelled to explain how even a reduced government should meet the challenges of the new global economy, how our educational system should respond to them, what the geopolitical implications might be, or anything of the sort.”
But sunny Santa Barbara doesn’t have answers to those questions, either.
About the Author
Peter Hulm, a development journalist and communications consultant for international organizations, studied with Jean Baudrillard during two semesters at the European Graduate School, where he obtained his Ph.D. in commuication and media in 2004. An Advisor on Innovative Journalism to EGS, he has also published “Baudrillard’s Bastards” in Semiophagy, Vol III, Winter 2010.
Jean Baudrillard (1988). America. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (1998). Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit. New York: Verso.
Gary Genosko (1994). Baudrillard and Signs: Signification Ablaze. New York: Routledge.
Louis Ironson (2003). “Beyond Nelly,” Angels in America (HBO) by Tony Kushner.
Michael Schudson and Eliot King (1995). The Power of News. Harvard University Press.
1 – Some Tea Party members have asserted that the TEA stands for “taxed enough already”( http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/1673405/Tea-Party-movement). The Pew Center in February 2011 published a review of Tea Party positions on economic and social issues (http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1903/tea-party-movement-religion-social-issues-conservative-christian). “They draw disproportionate support from the ranks of white evangelical Protestants,” the Pew Center reported.
2 – At no time in Reagan’s first years was the general public as charmed by Ronald Reagan as were the news media (see Michael Schudson and Elliot King, 1995: ‘The Illusion of Ronald Reagan’s Popularity’).