Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009)
Author: Alan N. Shapiro
If you are prepared to accept the consequences of your dreams – not just the political and sentimental ones, but the theoretical and cultural ones as well – then you must still regard America today with the same naive enthusiasm as the generations that discovered the New World (Baudrillard, 1988:88).
To put it mildly, Baudrillard’s America has generally not been well received. An angered reception by a plethora of commentators has contributed significantly to the negative side of Baudrillard’s controversial double-reputation as both major philosopher and alleged trivial purveyor of rhetorical nothingness. Long after its translation into English, commentators on mainstream websites are still criticizing the book. Brian Almquist wrote on Amazon.com (2000): “Surprisingly unoriginal… there is very little of actual substance to chew on here”. Denis Dutton, an American who teaches philosophy in New Zealand, called America frivolous, naive, clichéd, predictable, ignorant, and bombastic. It is, of course, none of these.
To the contrary, those of us who have gotten past knee-jerk and xenophobic reactions to his work, understand Baudrillard to be a unique thinker – perhaps one of the half-dozen greatest thinkers of the twentieth century. For us Baudrillard’s America is an important and misunderstood book – a milestone work of social commentary about the USA by a French author, in the same tradition as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Baudrillard continues Tocqueville’s inquiry, asking many of the same essential questions one hundred and fifty years later about democracy, equality, the tyranny of the majority, and the future possibilities for freedom. The answers he finds only serve to increase his ambivalence concerning America.
America is no mere impressionistic travelogue, but rather a witty and serious interpretation of American democracy and capitalism today, based on a synthesis of political ideas drawn from many different currents of contemporary thought, notably including left-wing neo-Marxism and right-wing entrepreneurial libertarianism. It is also an activist social analysis with no separation between theory and praxis, not to mention poetry.
II. The Argument of America
I contend that the argumentation of Baudrillard’s book is architecturally structured like a six story building – elegantly constructed one on top of the other.
First floor: Baudrillard’s analysis as it relates to what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America (discussed in Section III). Baudrillard’s thesis is that America is a realized utopia (Section IV). Young America inherited from Old Europe the pragmatic-utopian historical project of creating an ideal society – continuing to make progress in the advancement of material well-being, democracy, and individual freedom. But America lacks awareness, knowledge and experience of the West’s real history of suffering and struggle, which so many people in Europe (and elsewhere) have lived through so intensely.
Realized utopia is an idealized, operational, and highly mediated utopia, an artificial paradise replicated to technical perfection by a thousand points of blinding spectacular light. It is the mapped topographic image reconstructed from the diffracted projection of models and formulas constituting the society of simulation, simulacra, hyperreality, and mainstream techno-scientific virtuality. Another dimension of realized utopia is the omnipresence in America of self-congratulatory sect-like evangelical and political-ideological discourses (discussed in Section V).
Second floor: America is a system of circulation that “precedes the real.” Here Baudrillard composes a great deal of beautifully written phenomenological poetic prose to establish the structural support or evidence underlying this level of his case. The two primary spheres of circulation (for Marx in Das Kapital, it was commodity-capital and money-capital) are mobility (cars, etc.) and the screen (TV, etc.) – speed and virtuality – the kinetic and the cinematic. Automobiles, not humans, are the true first-class citizens of the hypermodern megalopolis (McLuhan) as are computer networks and media technology. The television that is on everywhere and at all times. The real America is what Baudrillard calls astral or sidereal America, that which proceeds from the stars. Sidereal time: time as “measured by the apparent diurnal motion of the vernal equinox, which is very close to, but not identical to, the motion of the stars”. The America of pure geometry and line vectors. The verticality of New York’s skyscrapers and the horizontality of Los Angeles’ freeways and sprawling geography (1988:50, 125). In terms of the social psychological situation of the individual, Baudrillard emphasizes that the relationship of the American to the system of circulation – that operates in lieu of the social – is that of being plugged in or connected.
Third floor: At the heart of simulation is the secret of seduction or symbolic exchange. At the heart of speed, circulation, virtuality, and technology are their secret pure forms, which, when their fascination and seductive potentialities become appreciated and get elucidated, will lead to the reversal and transformation of their hyperreal dominant mainstream versions. Heidegger already thought this about the coming Umkehrung or Wandlung of technology (1977). The unpacking of the pure forms of circulation will radically challenge or contest America (contester L’Amérique), first in the allurement that their elaboration has for Baudrillard (the master extractor), then in the blossoming of poesy (Greek: poiēsis, literally, creation) as a form of action (critical theorists like Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas claimed that theory was a form of praxis, but this is more true for poesy).
In Baudrillard’s America, the secret heart of reversibility is captured in the imaginary of the desert (discussed in Section VI). The desert is The Other America, the quintessential strange attractor, the counterpoint to the system. In his writing about the desert, Baudrillard – in a manner similar to the great twentieth century scientist-philosopher Gregory Bateson – profoundly places into question the division of academic knowledge into the natural sciences and the social-human sciences (Bateson, 2000; Coulter 2007; 2008). He makes the radical move of understanding a natural phenomenon – the geology and “savage mind” (Lévi-Strauss) of the desert – with the sensibility of his literary and sociological imagination (1966). We can hear a soundtrack playing in the background during this part of his voyage through America:
On the first part of the journey, I was looking at all the life. There were plants and birds and rocks and things, there was sand and hills and rings. The first thing I met was a fly with a buzz, and the sky with no clouds. The heat was hot and the ground was dry, but the air was full of sound. I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name, it felt good to be out of the rain. In the desert, you can remember your name, ’cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain (America [popular rock and roll band], 1972).
There is the geological, arid, desert of the hot sun; the so-called “natural” desert, and there is the desert of semiological codes and signs, the so-called “cultural” desert, which is not at all the same as the “cultural wasteland” of Kulturpessimismus or standard critical theory. America is the land of media-consumer culture and semiology. The desert is a form of culture. The desert is America’s secret truth, its destiny. “The desert is no longer a landscape,” writes Baudrillard. “It is a pure form produced by the abstraction of all others” (1988:127). Inhabiting the desert of the semiotic hyperreal without possessing sufficient sensitivity to its properties of form, Americans instead worship at the altar of consumerism, work, and money. These preoccupations are not to be rejected – while retaining many of their existing qualities, they can all be transfigured into something better. In Symbolic Exchange and Death, Baudrillard wrote incisively about graffiti in the subways and on the walls of New York City as the insurrection of signs against the ruling order of messages and meanings (Baudrillard, 1993). The soundtrack has now changed:
And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made. And the sign flashed out its warning, in the words that it was forming. And the sign said, the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls. And whispered in the sounds of silence (Simon and Garfunkel, 1965).
Fourth floor: The cultural twin of the desert, as emblematized in Death Valley, is Las Vegas, Nevada – the oasis of glitter in the midst of the Mojave Desert. Las Vegas is a globally renowned resort city famous for entertainment, shopping, and gambling. Let us understand the fundamental social psychological relationship of the American to the network of networks that is the main object of inquiry of Baudrillardian sociology – the relation of brancher, being connected, plugged in, jacked in, being “into” – through the chief example of casino gambling in America (discussed in Section VI). Gambling is also a (non-exact) metaphor for the new theory, practice, and poesy which one can envision by standing on the shoulders of a giant named Jean Baudrillard.
Fifth floor: A crucial aspect of Baudrillard’s existential-intellectual biography was his first-hand experience of the “liberation” movements of the 1960s and the student-worker near-revolution of May-June 1968 in France. But these movements were defeated around 1970. After this setback for practical radicality, as he explains in interviews with close friends and collaborators like Lotringer and L’Yvonnet, he made it the goal of his work to go as far and as deeply as possible into theoretical radicality (Baudrillard, 1987; 2004; and 2005). In effect, his intellectual research became that of seeking out the roots, principles, concepts, sources, and origination of the next historical round of socio-cultural challenge to the dominant establishment – which ironically turns out to be the practice of revolution within the capitalist mainstream.
“It seems that in this ‘capitalist’ society,” he writes in America, “capital can never actually be grasped in its present reality. It is not that our Marxist critics have not tried to run after it, but that it always stays a length ahead of them. By the time one phase has been unmasked, capital has already passed on to another” (1988:80). Capital enjoys an “absolute initiative” as historical event, and it is only by anticipating the future in a science fictional mode, only by riding the crest of the most forceful wave of the most innovative product-service-workflow-technological developments and leading edge of capital itself that one can be truly radical. Only in this way, can one come from behind and win the horse race. Only by becoming part of the history of capital, of American (and European) business history, can the creative, critical, and liberatory values espoused by leftist traditions be carried on and upgraded. The rebirth of radical contestation as a libertarian capitalist enterprise belongs to the movement of capital itself. To continue Baudrillard’s work, our task must be to identify the basic principles of out-riding theoretical radicality that he discovered in several decades of research, and to translate them into poesy and praxis. Baudrillard read his way through the hyperreal systems of circulation of America consumer society: casinos; Disneyland; the car; TV and film; supermarkets, department stores, and shopping malls; fast food and organic food; computer technology, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality simulations; space travel and weather satellites; biomass, biofuel, and clean system energy technologies. For Baudrillard these things are truly ludic. [In future writings I plan to develop an analysis of how Baudrillard, while perhaps not intending to, might point the way to something more positive, truly utopian, for America].
Sixth floor: McLuhan made a pioneering entrepreneurial attempt in the 1960s to make money in the business world on the basis of his profound knowledge of the history and future of design, physical environments, architecture, urban planning, transportation, fashion, media, advertising, communication, technology, and culture that he possessed in the context of being a Professor of the Humanities and Literature (Benedetti and DeHart, 1997). In his chapter on the automobile in Understanding Media), McLuhan presents (in skeletal form) the core ideas of what will be The Car of the Future ( 1994). Transform the car into something else, and thereby make the city more habitable. Give to vehicles more of their already nascent Artificial Life awareness.
When Baudrillard comes to see America he drives. But for him the point is “not to write a sociology or psychology of the car, the point is to drive. Drive 10,000 miles across America and you learn more about this country than all the institutes of sociology or political science put together“ (1988:54). I revisit Baudrillard and the car in the final section.
III. Democracy in America
Baudrillard is interested in something de Tocqueville’s took as his prime concern in Democracy in America – the tyranny of the majority. The majority “lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause” and “displays the tastes and the propensities of a despot” (1955:188-19). As opposed to circumstances in aristocratic societies, the “general leveling” effect of the equality of social conditions in America brings about a situation of relentless pressure to conformity. Every American has to think and live and aspire to the same things as all other Americans, or risk ostracism and rejection by the “society of his fellows.” For Tocqueville, those political scientists and commentators who believe that equality automatically gives rise to freedom are mistaken. Democracy in its current stage is not yet liberty. Tocqueville’s judgment of America on this point is harsh but accurate: “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America,” he writes. “It seems, at first sight, as if all the minds of the Americans were formed upon one model, so accurately do they follow the same route.” “Freedom of opinion does not exist in America” (Ibid.:116). The culture of America tends to be one of sameness and oneness – supplemented in contemporary times by a vast array of sophisticated culture industries whose commodifying function is the generation of simulated differences – and a good many Americans take pride in that regularity.
Cultural conformism denies to the individual the human right to be Other. The tyrannical majority threatens the punishment against he who would be Other that his economic survival is not going to be allowed. Formidable barriers are established around what one may say in public discourse, and which vocations one may pursue in safety. The tyrannical majority restrains individuals from acting in bold, creative, and existentially original ways. In the real democracy of the future, otherness would be actively encouraged and supported. When the person who would be Other is not allowed freedom, then there really is no freedom for anyone in the society. The line in the sand which everyman dare not cross has been symbolically drawn in the act of persecuting the non-conformist individual. One thinks of the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s or the chastising of Susan Sontag after September 11, 2001 (Sontag, 2001). Accuse a poet of being a Communist, an enemy of America, and no one can truly be a poet. Deny to an artist his freedom of expression or ability to make a living, and no one can be an artist.
“The power of the majority surpasses all the powers with which we are acquainted in Europe,” declares Tocqueville (1955:116). Although he sometimes appears to be saying that the state is the oppressive force, what Tocqueville much more often insinuates as being the new tyranny against individual freedom is the culture of conformity. Writing of “government” and “the power of government,” his complaint is really about mentality, and is consistent with the concept of “governmentality” developed by Foucault towards the end of his life. For Foucault, governmentality encompasses a wide range of organized power-knowledge social practices of discipline and control through which the citizenry is instrumentally and tactically governed (Burchell et. al., 1991). Tocqueville observed a variety of techniques and procedures for the control of human thought, including the newspapers. From de Tocqueville to Baudrillard – democracy in America is more apparent than real. Is this what explains the “dizzying absence of emotion and character in faces and bodies“ (Baudrillard, 1988:125).
IV. Realized Utopia
Tocqueville has a hopeful vision that both social equality and freedom can blossom in a higher stage democracy of the future. But he is very pessimistic about America being the society where this better future will take place. Tocqueville was an elitist European snob who saw in America only a low culture of mass uniformity and self-righteous super-patriots who believe “we are the best.” Baudrillard does not arrive as an elitist snob and he liked America. He sees something that he likes in almost every aspect of America! In the section of America called “Realized Utopia,” Baudrillard makes a reply to Tocqueville. There is something special in American banality, everyday life, practical customs, social exchanges, wildness, fictiveness, and spontaneity that is the possible prelude to the advent of the Other America where true democratic freedom, expressiveness, playfulness, manifoldness, and otherness would ring. In the most famous passages in the book, Baudrillard calls America “the only remaining primitive society” and “the primitive society of the future” (1988:7).
These remarks have not been well understood. They are made in the context of distinguishing between Europe’s deep history and America’s achieved utopia, which Baudrillard does in a way similar to the anthropological contrast that Claude Lefort draws between “societies without history and historicity” (1978). Lefort cites the studies of Balinese culture made by Gregory Bateson (sometimes together with Margaret Mead – in Balinese Character: A Photographic Analysis and the film “Trance and Dance in Bali,” for example) (Bateson, 2000; Bateson and Mead, 1939, 1942). In the essay “Bali: The Value System of a Steady State,” Bateson (in Lefort’s words) “insists on the originality of a system of culture which seems to him to be distinguished from all others that he has studied” (1978:41). The singularity of the Balinese consists in their constitution of space, time, and the status of others. Their society appears to be static and even schizoid, but it in fact embodies a special ethos of corporeal-spiritual balance achieved through movement and concentrated spatial orientation. Bali for Bateson is quite like what America was for Baudrillard – entirely original.
In many ways, Tocqueville’s diagnosis of mass conformity is at the basis of modern social analysis, especially that which flourished in the 1950s in works such as David Riesman’s (1950) critique of suburban middle-class value formation, William H. Whyte’s (1956) analysis of corporate bureaucratization and drone-like existence, and Vance Packard’s (1957), evaluation of advertising manipulation. [Editor’s note: Riesman appears in Baudrillard’s The System of Objects (1968:142, 152, 156 and 170); The Consumer Society (1970:45, 70, 78, 88, 92-3, 103, 156, 170-2, and 181); For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972: 36); Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976: 22-23); and The Illusion of the End (1992:105). Packard appears in The System of Objects (1968:83, 145, 165, 174 and 185); and The Consumer Society (1970:71)]. The radical left and conservative-nostalgic critiques of social institutions continue unabated today to represent the comforting stances of the “unhappy consciousness” in which alienated intellectuals take refuge and feel their self-proclaimed superiority to ordinary people. Tocqueville is a major forerunner of this kind of negative sociology. Richard D. Heffner wrote in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Democracy in America, “modern, frontier less, industrial America – with its factory-made, standardized food, clothing, housing, communications and even amusements – has surely placed a premium upon sameness, undermined individualism and created to perfection what contemporary sociologists bemoan as pre-eminently an ‘age of conformity'” (Heffner, 1955:21).
Mass production systems, mass communications systems, mass consumer systems – the pastime of criticizing social systems from the standpoint of introverted reflection has supplied thinkers with the staple food of their identity diet since forever. As Baudrillard writes: “All our analyses in terms of alienation, conformism, standardization, and dehumanization collapse of themselves: when we look at America it is the analyses which seem vulgar” (1988:102). Baudrillard sees a kind of inverse potential in the banality of everyday life in America. “Extraversion is a mystery to us in exactly the same way as the commodity was to Marx: the commodity, hieroglyph of the modern world mysterious precisely because it is extraverted, a form realizing itself in its pure operation and in pure circulation” (1988:99). For Lukács (1971), the commodity was the key obstacle to class consciousness. For the French Situationist Guy Debord, the commodity was a spectacle that mystified social relations (1995). Baudrillard extends all of these analyses by viewing the commodity as the secret door opening to the re-enchantment of the world. This is among the reasons he is not an anti-American as he understands: “The stupidity of all commercial or cultural anti-Americanism, as if Americanism did not run through every society, every nation, and every individual today, like modernity itself” (1998:71).
The study of the American way of life leads Baudrillard to the conclusion that he formulates at the end of the chapter “Utopia Achieved”: “What is new in America is the clash of the first level (primitive and wild) and the ‘third kind’ (the absolute simulacrum)” (1988:104). The powerful concepts of simulation, simulacra, and hyperreality enable Baudrillard to first of all explain the difference between Europe and America: “[America] has no past and no founding truth. Having known no primitive accumulation of time, it lives in a perpetual present. Having seen no slow, centuries-long accumulation of a principle of truth, it lives in perpetual simulation, in a perpetual present of signs. It has no ancestral territory” (Ibid.:76). To insist that one is in Utopia without having actually endured the hard process of getting there results in the society of the science fictional “satellization of the earth” where the precession of models and networks has us orbiting about increasingly disappearing references. It is the artificial paradise of bad futurism.
Tocqueville recognized the spirit of America as being manifest in its moral revolution of practical legitimacy, salvation via competencies and free association with others rather than through God or the State. In America, the flexibility of concrete social exchanges takes precedence over the fixity of the abstract rule of law. “Law is not consensual,” writes Baudrillard. “You are supposed to know it and obey it. But there may be honour in disobeying it too, and history is made of the simultaneous extolling of the law and of those who have broken it” (Baudrillard, 1988:92). Baudrillard breaks every law of critical theory and still gives us an original (and in its own way ‘critical’ – in more than one sense of the term) reading of America. While he compares it favourably with old Europe and his own France, America is for Baudrillard the “utopia of achieved banality” (Ibid.:87). It is then, also an “anti-utopia” enduring several simultaneous crises – “of unreason, deterritorialization, indeterminacy of language and subject, the neutralization of all values and the death of culture” (Ibid.:97). Europe’s crisis, by contrast, is the impossibility of living up to its historical ideals, America’s is the crisis of the problem of the duration and permanence of an achieved utopia (Ibid.:77).
V. America’s Sect-Like Political Discourse: “We Are the Best!”
Visiting Salt Lake City, Utah, Baudrillard is impressed by its ambient architectural merger of solemn purity and Los Angeles-like hyper-modernity: it is equipped with “all the requisite gadgetry for a minimalist, extraterrestrial comfort” (Ibid.:2). Featuring “religion as special effects” and evangelical marketing, “the whole city has the transparency and supernatural, otherworldly cleanness of a thing from outer space” (Ibid.) Spectacular simulation of Puritanism, the Mormon city is equal and opposite to Las Vegas, “that great whore on the other side of the desert” (Ibid.:3).
“The world genealogical archives, presided over in the depths of the desert caves by those rich-living, puritanical conquistadors, the Mormons, and, alongside, the Bonneville track on the immaculate surface of the Great Salt Lake Desert, where prototype cars achieve the highest speeds in the world” (Ibid.:4). The current paradigm of existing computer science is based on seventeenth century reductionist-mechanistic philosophy and Calvinistic-Presbyterian theology. The post-paradigm shift paradigm of new computer science is based on twentieth century holistic-semiotic-grammatological-gaming philosophy (Derrida and Wittgenstein, above all) and Buddhist-Hindu theology.
It is not by chance that it is the Mormons who run the world’s biggest computerization project: the recording of twenty generations of living souls throughout the world, a process which is seen as a rebaptizing of those souls, bringing them a new promise of salvation. Evangelization has become a mission of mutants, of extraterrestrials, and if it has progressed (?) in that direction, it is thanks to the latest memory-storage techniques. And these have been made possible by the deep Puritanism of computer science, an intensely Calvinistic, Presbyterian discipline, which has inherited the universal and scientific rigidity of the techniques for achieving salvation by good works. (Ibid.:42).
In his comments about American evangelism, Baudrillard makes a crucial distinction between churches and sects. In the sociology of religion, a sect is generally a small religious or political group that has broken off from a larger group. Sects are self-righteous and arrogant. Baudrillard asks “Why are the sects so powerful and dynamic [in America]?” His answer is that “it is their micro-model which has been extended to the whole of America. From the beginning, the sects played the major role in the move towards an achieved utopia, which is the equivalent of an ‘acting out.’ They it is who live on [an artificially realized] 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. It is as though America as a whole has espoused this sect-like destiny… the whole of America is preoccupied with the sect as a moral institution” (Ibid.:90-91).
It is the sect-like attitude, not a genuine Church attitude, that leads to and corresponds to the arrogant attitude of superiority and jingoism of dominant American political discourse, what Baudrillard calls “the self-satisfaction of the entire American nation – which is on the way to becoming the sole principle of government… This country is good. I am good. We are the best” (Ibid.:34).
VI. I’ve Been Through the Desert on a Horse With No Name
Baudrillard: “I went in search of astral [sidereal] 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” (Ibid.:5). This is not sociology as we know it but a new existential and literary sociology. One writes of one’s own loves and passions for cultural artefacts, and the theory emerges slowly and organically from the experience.
America is a system of circulation that “precedes the real” – the real meaning that classical sociological reality in which classical sociologists believe. Classical sociologists, who base their “scientific sociology” on a nineteenth-century paradigm (that of Auguste Comte) which assumes a world of docile objects waiting to be “objectively” investigated, a classical worldview that assumes the existence of a social world rationally ordered by the sovereign thinking subject of social science who is in control. Baudrillardian sociology is also scientific – it is based on the twentieth-century sciences of quantum physics, relativity, and chaos/complexity theory. It considers much stranger and wily objects in an unmasterable social field governed by relations of radical uncertainty and paradox. The World thinks me; the Inhuman thinks me. Everything is relativistic, enigmatic, and aleatory (Baudrillard, 2001).
In America, mobility and the screen take precedence over traditional social reality. Baudrillard writes: “The city was here before the freeway system, no doubt, but it now looks as though the metropolis has actually been built around this arterial network. It is the same with American reality. It was there before the screen was invented, but everything about the way it is today suggests it was invented with the screen in mind, that it is the refraction of a giant screen” (Ibid.:55).54 Yet circulation has a pure form that contests America. “In the indifferent reflex of television,” writes Baudrillard, “in the film of days and nights projected across an empty space… images, faces, and ritual acts on the road” (Ibid.:5). “Astral America. The lyrical nature of pure circulation” (Ibid.:27) – Sidereal America.
America’s “Horse with No Name” was originally entitled “Desert Song”. The cover shows the band members (Gerry Beckley, Dewey Bunnell, and Dan Peek) sitting in front of the image of three Native American Indians.
After two days in the desert sun, my skin began to turn red. After three days in the desert fun, I was looking at a river bed. And the story it told of a river that flowed made me sad to think it was dead. You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name, it felt good to be out of the rain. In the desert, you can remember your name, ’cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain (America, 1972).
Baudrillard, writing about the desert and the genocide of Native Americans and their spirit, says in America: I sought the finished form of the future catastrophe of the social in geology, in that upturning of depth that can be seen in the striated spaces, the reliefs of salt and stone, the canyons where the fossil river flows down, the immemorial abyss of slowness that shows itself in erosion and geology (Ibid.:5).
The whole of America is a desert. Culture exists there in a wild state: it sacrifices all intellect, all aesthetics in a process of literal transcription into the real. Doubtless the original decentring into virgin territory gave it this wildness, though it certainly acquired it without the agreement of the Indians whom it destroyed. The dead Indian remains the mysterious guarantor of these primitive mechanisms, even into the modern age of images and technologies. Perhaps the Americans, who believed they had destroyed these Indians, merely disseminated their virulence. They have opened up the deserts, threaded and criss-crossed them with their freeways, but by some mysterious interaction their towns and cities have taken on the structure and colour of the desert (Ibid.:99).
America is a “dazzling denial of culture” for Baudrillard, both in the desert heart of its cities (which he says “have become the places of the extermination of man and his subtle ends, just as America’s deserts were once the scene of the extermination of the Indians“ (1993b:162).
Visiting the Navajo country of Monument Valley, Green River, Dead Horse Point, and the Grand Canyon, Baudrillard writes of the geological – therefore metaphysical – monumentality of “upturned relief patterns, sculpted out by wind, water, and ice… Among this gigantic heap of signs – purely geological in essence – man will have had no significance” Ibid.:3). Man is nothing. To go beyond the era of Man and humanism, a very radical move is necessary, the move towards the “metamorphic forms” of geology as embodied metaphor of a different social terrain in transformation. “The petrified, mineralized forest. The salt desert, whiter than snow, flatter than the sea. The effect of monumentality, geometry, and architecture where nothing has been designed or planned. Canyons land, Split Mountain. Or the opposite: the amorphous relief less relief of Mud Hills, the voluptuous, fossilized, monotonously undulating lunar relief of ancient lake beds” (Ibid.:8).
Despite appearances, the desert is a form of culture. It is material for the human sciences. “For the desert only appears uncultivated” (Ibid:3). This whole country is “alive with a magical presence, which has nothing to do with nature… These reliefs, because they are no longer natural, which give the best idea of what a culture is” (Ibid.:3-4).
The desert form is America’s truth. Our social world is a catastrophe, but what we need to do is to find its ecstatic or radical aesthetic form, as in Paul Virilio’s The Aesthetics of Disappearance (Virilio, 1991). The mental desert form is the purified form of the social desert. “Here in the transversality of the desert and the irony of geology, the transpolitical finds its generic, mental space” (Ibid.:5). Baudrillard is in search of something more radical than anthropology, an anteriority and posteriority to the culture of semiotic signs that can radically challenge that culture. “With the extermination of the desert Indians, an even earlier stage than that of anthropology became visible: a mineralogy, a geology, a sidereality, an inhuman facticity” (Ibid.:6). The desert and speed: “The Great Salt Lake Desert, where they had to invent the speed of prototype cars to cope with the absolute horizontality” (Ibid:2). The desert and pure geometry: The prestige in America of pure horizontality and pure verticality. Flatlands in the desert. Skyscrapers in the metropolis. “The superficiality and reversibility of a pure object in the pure geometry of the desert” (Ibid.:7). The desert of the city: “There is nothing to match flying over Los Angeles by night. A sort of luminous, geometric, incandescent immensity, stretching as far as the eye can see, bursting out from the cracks in the clouds… [Los Angeles] is in love with its limitless horizontality, as New York may be with its verticality” (Ibid.:52). The desert of asphalt: “Gigantic, spontaneous spectacle of automobile traffic… By virtue of the sheer size of the layout and the kind of complicity that binds this network of thoroughfares together, traffic rises here to the level of a dramatic attraction, acquires the status of symbolic organization. The machines themselves, with their fluidity and their automatic transmission, have created a milieu in their own image, a milieu into which you insert yourself gently, which you switch over to as you might switch over to a TV channel” (Ibid.:52-53). The desert And gambling: “The secret affinity between gambling and the desert: the intensity of gambling reinforced by the presence of the desert all around the town [Las Vegas]. The air-conditioned freshness of the gaming rooms, as against the radiant heat outside. The challenge of all the artificial lights to the violence of the sun’s rays. Night of gambling sunlit on all sides; the glittering darkness of these rooms in the middle of the desert. Gambling itself is a desert form, inhuman, uncultured, initiatory, a challenge to the natural economy of value, a crazed activity on the fringes of exchange” (Ibid.:34). Later he says: “Gambling itself is a desert form, inhuman, uncultured, initiatory, a challenge to the natural economy of value, a crazed activity on the fringes of exchange. But it too has a strict limit and stops abruptly; its boundaries are exact, its passion knows no confusion. Neither the desert nor gambling are open areas; their spaces are finite and concentric, increasing in intensity toward the interior, toward a central point, be it the spirit of gambling or the heart of the desert – a privileged, immemorial space, where things lose their shadow, where money loses its value, and where the extreme rarity of traces of what signals to us there leads men to seek the instantaneity of wealth” (Ibid.:128).
VII. Blurring into Baudreality: Disneyland; The Car; Film and TV
No vision of America makes sense without this reversal of our [high-culture European] values: it is Disneyland that is authentic here! The cinema and the TV are America’s reality! The freeways, the Safeways [supermarket chain], the skylines, speed, and deserts – these are America, not the galleries, churches, and culture (2001:104).
“Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia,” writes Baudrillard in America. In the chapter “Motorcar: The Mechanical Bride” of Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan already presents the core ideas of what will be The Car of the Future. Based on McLuhan’s concepts and analysis “There is a growing uneasiness about the degree to which cars have become the real population of our cities, with a resulting loss of human scale” (McLuhan, 1994:218). In America, Baudrillard engages in the literary sociology of driving in order to learn about The Car of the Future.
“Going-to and coming-from work are almost certain to lose all of their present character,” writes McLuhan. “The car as vehicle, in that sense, will go the way of the horse… [The car’s] future does not belong in the area of transportation… It is the framework itself that changes with new technology, and not just the picture within the frame… ‘Is the car here to stay?’ The answer, of course, is ‘No.’… At the heart of the car industry there are men who know that the car is passing” (Ibid.:218-20). But the “end of the car” does not of course mean the end of the car. The “end of the car” means figuring out what kind of car will come after the car – and after the human.
Driving is one part of a hybrid technology, of a hybrid-cyborg multimedia experience. “Gliding down the freeway,” writes Baudrillard at the very beginning of America, “smash hits on the Chrysler stereo, heat wave” (1988:1). Driving is hybrid with music. Driving is hybrid with the heat wave. Driving is being on a roll, like a gambler blowing on the dice during a winning streak at craps. Driving is sailing, taking a break from the responsibilities of dry land. The car of the future is a transformer (movie toys and action figures; device that transfers electrical energy between circuits) that changes its shape. The car of the future is no longer a tank – there is much less of a binary opposition between inside and outside. Like the Body without Organs conceptualized by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, The Car of the Future is a self-dismantling body that disappears from social, biological, and technological codes of surveillance, scanning, simulation, and identification. It is the opposite of the “armoured body” or “organic organization of the organs” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987; Shapiro, 2004:324-25). Other than the totalizing unity of subject or organism that allows society to exercise control, this specific kind of third-wave cyborg cultivates deterritorialized organs in the arrangement of an anti-body that appears on no map. A subversive project within the capitalist-business mainstream that might sell like hot cakes, The car of the future will be an elusively distributed “connection of desires, conjunction of flows, continuum of intensities (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987:161; Smith, 2001:71), or a resequencing and re-splicing “bodily unity that transcends consumption” (Critical Art Ensemble, 1994:77). The Body without Organs is an experimental site for inventing new aesthetic and ethical sensibilities.
The car of the future will have a Knight Rider-like Spoken Dialogue Technology advanced Artificial Intelligence Human-Machine Interface between the driver and the software that controls many of the car’s secondary (and later primary) functions (Knight Rider is a TV series starring David Hasselhoff as high tech crime fighter Michael Knight that ran from 1982 to 1986). Like the autonomic car KITT (voice of William Daniels), The Car of the Future will have enhanced Artificial Life properties that will give more explicitly to the semi-living entities known as automobiles the awareness and otherness that they already implicitly possess as important citizens of our society.
Like Tocqueville’s “general levelling” effect that is a function of the relative equality of social conditions in America and brings about a culture of conformity, Marshall McLuhan saw The car of the past and the present as having contributed mightily to the uniformity of America. In the cities, in the suburbs, and in rural areas, everything in America looks more and more the same – the same shopping malls, fast-food chains, filling stations, and corporate plazas. “For forty years,” writes McLuhan in Understanding Media, the car has been “the great leveler of physical space and of social distance as well” (McLuhan, 1994). The car has done its social levelling via its sheer horsepower. Its speed has conquered geographical expanse. Cross the street against the traffic light as a pedestrian, and the car-driver might feel legally legitimated and enjoy his power in killing you. The car of the past and the present, continues McLuhan, has created highways and resorts “very much alike in all parts of the land,” spreading everywhere “the automobile version of civilization” (Ibid.). The current instantiation of the car still belongs to the Mechanical Age. It is a hot medium. The car of the future – with its lightness, flexibility, and easy-riding freedom – will be the electronic and cool medium successor to the instance of the car as we know it.
American everyday life, in the midst of its hyperreality, displays all the characteristics of fiction. “It is this fictional character which is so exciting,” writes Baudrillard in America. “Now, fiction is not imagination. It is what anticipates imagination by giving it the form of reality… The American way of life is spontaneously fictional, since it is a transcending of the imaginary in reality” (Ibid.)
Enter into America’s fiction. “What is there to criticize which has not been criticized a thousand times before?” asks Baudrillard rhetorically while making his move from critical to fatal theory. “What you have to do is enter the fiction of America, enter America as fiction. It is, indeed, on this fictive basis that it dominates the world” (1988:29). To reverse our love for America into love for a culture that is still a winner yet does not rely on imperialism, technical superiority, or brute force capitalism to torture others, we need to make contact with “the spirit of fiction” (Ibid.:118).
In Simulacra and Simulations, Baudrillard wrote about the science fictional novels of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick (long before Hollywood discovered Ballard and Dick). The “SF of theory” (Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.) values science fiction as fiction over the neutralization and commodification of SF routinely practiced by the Hollywood movie and TV industries via their recombinant formulas and codes. Inventive forms – such as music emerging from subcultural scenes or radical technological creativity – are assimilated by the dominant culture as a matter of course. But they can be appreciated by cultural theory as well for autonomously contributing the inspired charisma from the margins that antecedes and fosters the formation of the model. An original expression first becomes a combinatory model. The model precedes its incessant instantiation – or the making of concrete instances from an abstract recipe – into a series. The series is then permanently trapped in its perpetual reference to the self-identity of the model.
“In America cinema is true because it is the whole of space, the whole way of life that are cinematic,” writes Jean Baudrillard in the text that is the main focus of the present study. “The break between the two,” he continues, “the abstraction which we deplore, does not exist: life is cinema” (Ibid.:101). In his important essay “Seventies Reloaded: à quoi pense le cinéma lorsqu’il rêve de Baudrillard?” (“what does cinema think of when it dreams of Baudrillard?”), Jean-Baptiste Thoret (co-editor-in- chief of the film journals Simulacres from 1999 to 2003, and Panic since 2005) poses the question whether many important Hollywood films since the 1970s can in fact be considered as extensions of Baudrillard’s oeuvre – given the vast reflection on American cinema in which Baudrillard engaged throughout his work starting in 1981. “Baudrillardian ‘thought’ haunts American cinema” (Thoret, 2004:83). Although the case of the Matrix trilogy (1998-2003) is ambivalent and controversial, Thoret claims the following films as being thoroughly Baudrillardian: Westworld (1973), The Parallax View (1974), Capricorn One (1978), The China Syndrome (1979), Apocalyps
e Now (1979), The Dead Zone (1983), Videodrome (1983), They Live (1988), Total Recall (1990), Wild Palms (1993 – TV mini-series), Crash (1996), Dark City (1998), The Truman Show (1998), Fight Club (1999), Being John Malkovich (1999), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Minority Report (2002). The list could go on and on. “What is a film thinking of?” asks Thoret. “With whom does it converse? For what purpose?” (Ibid.:84). Here is one instance of his answer: “Performative power of the cinema, also theoretical power, which thinks in and of the world that surrounds it. Consequently, one must recognize the right that the users of Baudrillard have to appropriate his writings, his models, his intuitions – to become, to employ a term dear to Borges, his ‘co-authors'” Ibid.)
Emphasizing a reading of the texts America, Simulacra and Simulations, Fatal Strategies, and Consumer Society, Thoret discovers an amazing affinity between “the predominance of space and topography which are structuring for American cinema and for the naturally spatial thought of Baudrillard” (Ibid.:85). He argues that American cinema “found in Baudrillard’s thought that which can think the nature of the System, anticipate its mutations, and envisage the type of action that one could oppose to it, utilizing in this way his writings as theoretical and dissident weapons” (Ibid.:97). The desert and film: “The unfolding of the desert is infinitely close to the timelessness of film” (Baudrillard, 1988:1).
The Western film as genre. “It is not the least of America’s charms that even outside the movie theatres the whole country is cinematic. The desert you pass through is like the set of a Western, the city a screen of signs and formulas” (Ibid.:56). Jean-Baptiste Thoret calls the Western the “king genre of American cinema” (2004:92).
Where is the cinema? “It is all around you outside, all over the city, that marvellous, continuous performance of films and scenarios… The American city seems to have stepped right out of the movies. To grasp its secret, you should not, then, begin with the city and move inwards to the screen; you should begin with the screen and move outwards to the city. It is there that cinema does not assume an exceptional form, but simply invests the streets and the entire town with a mythical atmosphere. This is where it is truly gripping” (Baudrillard, 1988:56).
Every great empire rises and falls. It is the result of what Baudrillard calls reversibility. Ballard draws one scene of post-America – America after America and after America:
Wayne joined the party of armed sailors who explored the area around New York. Led by Steiner, they rode ten miles out into the desert, a sun-baked wilderness that stretched as far as the Catskills and almost certainly well beyond them… This sight of the failed continent only served to spur Steiner on – his long dormant resources for surviving in this arid world were now emerging. Yet all of them were strongly affected by the sight of this once powerful nation lying derelict in the dusty sunlight. They rode through the silent suburbs of uptown New York, across the precarious hulk of the Brooklyn Bridge to Long Island, and over the bleached ghost of the Hudson to the Jersey shore. The endless succession of roofless houses, deserted shopping malls and sand-covered parking lots was unsettling enough. Resting from the noon glare, Wayne and the sailors wandered through the abandoned supermarkets, whose shelves were still loaded with the canned goods no one had been able to cook. They climbed to the top floors of lavishly furnished apartment houses that had become freezing tenements in the North American winter. Everywhere the desert had moved in, cacti thrived in the shaded forecourts of fortified filling stations, creosote bushes had taken over the suburban gardens. At Kennedy Airport hundreds of abandoned airliners sat on flattened tyres, mesquite and prickly pear grew through the wings of parked Concordes and 747s (Ballard, 1981:40-41).
Baudrillard, the master of disappearance, took his leave before things reached such a low point:
At 30,000 feet and 600 miles per hour, I have beneath me the ice-flows of Greenland, the Indes Galantes in my earphones, Catherine Deneuve on the screen, and an old man – a Jew or an Armenian – asleep on my lap. ‘Yes, I feel all the violence of love…’ sings the sublime voice, from one time zone to the next. The people in the plane are asleep. Speed knows nothing of the violence of love. Between one night and the next, the one we came from and the one we shall land in, there will have been only four hours of daylight. But the sublime voice, the voice of insomnia travels even more quickly. It moves through the freezing, trans-oceanic atmosphere, runs along the long lashes of the actress, along the horizon, violet where the sun is rising, as we fly along in our warm coffin of a jet, and finally fades away somewhere off the coast of Iceland. The journey is over (Baudrillard, 1988:24).
About the Author
Alan N. Shapiro is a writer (in the areas of media theory and technology research), a translator, and a software developer. His book Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance (AVINUS Verlag, 2004) has been called one of the most original works of “science fiction theory” by the journal Science Fiction Studies and the first work to successfully realize a Baudrillardian media sociology by the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. His translation from Italian of Technological Herbarium by Gianna Maria Gatti will be published by AVINUS Verlag in 2009.
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