Volume 3, Number 2 (July 2006)
Author: Jean Baudrillard
Translated by: Chris Turner
Note: This excerpt is taken from Jean Baudrillard. America. New York: Verso, 1988:97-105. Translated by Chris Turner. See: http://www.Versobooks.com/index.shtml
I shall never forgive anyone who passes a condescending or contemptuous judgment on America.1
Everything that has been heroically played out and destroyed in Europe in the name of Revolution and Terror has been realized in its simplest, most empirical form on the other side of the Atlantic (the utopia of wealth, rights, freedom, the social contract, and representation). Similarly, everything we have dreamed in the radical name of anti-culture, the subversion of meaning, the destruction of reason and the end of representation, that whole anti-utopia which unleashed so many theoretical and political, aesthetic and social convulsions in Europe, without ever actually becoming a reality (May ‘68 is one of the last examples) has all been achieved here in America in the simplest, most radical way. Utopia has been achieved here and anti-utopia is being achieved: the anti-utopia of unreason, of deterritorialization, of the indeterminacy of language and the subject, of the neutralization of all values, of the death of culture. America is turning all this into reality and it is going about it in an uncontrolled, empirical way. All we do is dream and, occasionally, try and act out our dreams. America, by contrast, draws the logical, pragmatic consequences from everything that can possibly be thought. In this sense, it is naive and primitive; it knows nothing of the irony of concepts, nor the irony of seduction. It does not ironize upon the future or destiny: it gets on with turning things into material realities. To our utopian radicalism it counterposes its empirical radicalism, to which it alone gives dramatically concrete form. We philosophize on the end of lots of things, but it is here that they actually come to an end. It is here, for example, that territory has ceased to exist (though there is indeed a vast amount of space), here that the real and the imaginary have come to an end (opening all spaces up to simulation). It is here, therefore, that we should look for the ideal type of the end of our culture. It is the American way of life, which we think naive or culturally worthless, which will provide us with a complete graphic representation of the end of our values – which has vainly been prophesied in our own countries – on the grand scale that the geographical and mental dimensions of utopia can give to it.
But is this really what an achieved utopia looks like? Is this a successful revolution? Yes indeed! What do you expect a “successful” revolution to look like? It is paradise. Santa Barbara is a paradise; Disneyland is a paradise; the US is a paradise. Paradise is just paradise. Mournful, monotonous, and superficial though it may be, it is paradise. There is no other. 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. That same enthusiasm which Americans themselves show for their own success, their own barbarism, their own power. If not, you have no understanding of the situation, and you will not be able to understand your own history – or the end of your history – either, because Europe can no longer be understood by starting out from Europe itself. The US is more mysterious: the mystery of American reality exceeds our fictions and our interpretations. The mystery of a society which seeks to give itself neither meaning nor an identity, which indulges neither in transcendence nor in aesthetics and which, for precisely that reason, invents the only great modern verticality in its buildings, which are the most grandiose manifestations within the vertical order and yet do not obey the rules of transcendence, which are the most prodigious pieces of architecture and yet do not obey the laws of aesthetics, which are ultra-modern and ultra-functional, but also have about them something non-speculative, primitive, and savage – a culture (or unculture) like this remains a mystery to us.
We are at home with introversion and reflexion and with different effects of meaning coexisting under the umbrella of a concept. But the object freed from its concept, free to deploy itself in extraverted form, in the equivalence of all its effects. To us this is a total enigma. 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 (hello Karl!).
In this sense, for us 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. They have not destroyed space; they have simply rendered it infinite by the destruction of its centre (hence these infinitely extendable cities). In so doing, they have opened up a true fictional space. In the “savage mind”, too, there is no natural universe, no transcendence of either man or nature, or of history. Culture is everything, or nothing, depending on how you look at it. You find this same absence of distinction between the two in modern simulation. There is no natural universe there either, and you cannot differentiate between a desert and a metropolis. It is not that the Indians were infinitely close to nature, nor that the Americans are infinitely distant from it: both belong to the ideality of nature, as they do to the ideality of culture, and both are also equally alien to nature and culture.
There is no culture here, no cultural discourse. No ministries, no commissions, no subsidies, no promotion. There is none of the sickly cultural pathos which the whole of France indulges in, that fetishism of the cultural heritage, nor of our sentimental – and today also statist and protectionist – invocation of culture. The Beaubourg would be impossible here, just as it would in Italy (for other reasons). Not only does centralization not exist, but the idea of a cultivated culture does not exist either, no more than that of a theological, sacred religion. No culture of culture, no religion of religion. One should speak rather of an “anthropological” culture, which consists in the invention of mores and a way of life. That is the only interesting culture here, just as it is New York’s streets and not its museums or galleries that are interesting. Even in dance, cinema, the novel, fiction, and architecture, there is something wild in everything specifically American, something that has not known the glossy, high-flown rhetoric and theatricality of our bourgeois cultures, that has not been kitted out in the gaudy finery of cultural distinction.
Here in the US, culture is not that delicious panacea which we Europeans consume in a sacramental mental space and which has its own special columns in the newspapers – and in people’s minds. Culture is space, speed, cinema, technology. This culture is authentic, if anything can be said to be authentic. This is not cinema or speed or technology as optional extra (everywhere in Europe you get a sense of modernity as something tacked on, heterogeneous, anachronistic). In America cinema is true because it is the whole of space, the whole way of life that are cinematic. The break between the two, the abstraction which we deplore, does not exist: life is cinema.
That is why searching for works of art or sophisticated entertainment here has always seemed tiresome and out of place to me. A mark of cultural ethnocentrism. If it is the lack of culture that is original, then it is the lack of culture one should embrace. If the term taste has any meaning, then it commands us not to export our aesthetic demands to places where they do not belong. When the Americans transfer Roman cloisters to the New York Cloysters, we find this unforgivably absurd. Let us not make the same mistake by transferring our cultural values to America. We have no right to such confusion. In a sense, they do because they have space, and their space is the refraction of all others. When Paul Getty gathers Rembrandts, Impressionists, and Greek statues together in a Pompeian villa on the Pacific coast, he is following American logic, the pure baroque logic of Disneyland. He is being original; it is a magnificent stroke of cynicism, naivety, kitsch, and unintended humour – something astonishing in its nonsensicality. Now the disappearance of aesthetics and higher values in kitsch and hyperreality is fascinating, as is the disappearance of history and the real in the televisual. It is in this unfettered pragmatics of values that we should find some pleasure. If you simply remain fixated on the familiar canon of high culture, you miss the essential point (which is, precisely, the inessential).
The advertisements which cut into the films on TV are admittedly an outrage, but they aptly emphasize that most television productions never even reach the “aesthetic” level and are, basically, of the same order as advertisements. Most films – including many of the better ones – are made up from the same everyday romance: cars, telephones, psychology, make-up. They are purely and simply illustrations of the way of life. Advertising does just the same: it canonizes the way of life through images, making the whole a genuinely integrated circuit. And if everything on television is, without exception, part of a low-calorie (or even no-calorie) diet, then what good is it complaining about the adverts? By their worthlessness, they at least help to make the programmes around them seem of a higher level.
Banality, lack of culture, and vulgarity do not have the same meaning here as they have in Europe. Or perhaps this is merely the crazy notion of a European, a fascination with an unreal America. Perhaps Americans are quite simply vulgar, and this meta-vulgarity is merely something I have dreamt up. Who knows? But I am inclined to suggest, in time-honoured fashion, that you have nothing to lose if I am wrong and everything to gain if I am right. The fact is that a certain banality, a certain vulgarity which seem unacceptable to us in Europe seem more than acceptable – even fascinating – to us here. The fact is that 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.
Why is a passage like the following (by G. Faye) both true and, at the same time, absolutely false?
California shines out as the total myth of our times. …Multiracialism, hegemonic technology, shrink-culture narcissism, urban criminality and audiovisual saturation: as super-America, California stands out as the absolute antithesis of authentic Europe …from Hollywood to disco-pap, from ET to Star Wars, from the pseudo-rebellious itchings on the campuses to the ravings of Carl Sagan, from the neo-gnostics of Silicon Valley to the wind-surfing mystics, from the neo-Indian gurus to aerobics, from jogging to psychoanalysis as a form of democracy, from criminality as a form of psychoanalysis to television as an instrument of despotism, California has set itself up as the world centre of the simulacrum and the inauthentic, as the absolute synthesis of “cool” Stalinism. An hysterical land; focus and meeting-place for the rootless, California is the land of non-history, of the non-event, but at the same time the site of the constant swirl, the uninterrupted rhythm of fashion, that is to say, the site of tremors going nowhere, those tremors which so obsess it, constantly threatened as it is by earthquakes.
California has invented nothing: it has taken everything from Europe and served it up again in a disfigured, meaningless form, with an added Disneyland glitter. World centre of sweet madness, mirror of our dejecta and our decadence. Californitis, that hot variant of Americanism, is unleashing itself on the young of today and emerging as a mental form of AIDS. …To the revolutionary angst of the Europeans, California counterposes its long procession of fakes: the parody of science on the rite-less campus, the parody of cities and urbanism in the sprawl of Los Angeles, the parody of technology in Silicon Valley, the parody of oenology in its insipid Sacramento wines, the parody of religion in its gurus and sects, the parody of eroticism in its beach boys, the parody of drugs in its acids [?], the parody of sociability in its ‘communities’. …Even nature in California is a Hollywood parody of ancient Mediterranean landscapes: a sea that is too blue [!?], mountains that are too rugged, a climate that is too gentle or too arid, an uninhabited disenchanted nature, deserted by the gods: a sinister land beneath a sun that is too bright. The expressionless face of our death, since Europe will surely die sunburnt and smiling, with its skin lightly baking under a holiday sun.
All this is true (if you like), since the text itself resembles the hysterical stereotype it confers upon California. And it is surely easy to detect in Faye’s writing a degree of fascination with his subject. But if we could use precisely the same terms to say exactly the opposite of what he says, then this only emphasizes the point that, for his part, G. Faye was not able to effect this same reversal. He has not grasped how, at the edges of this meaningless world, this “sweet madness” of meaninglessness, this soft, air-conditioned hell he describes, things turn into their opposites. He has not grasped the challenge of this “marginal transcendence” in which precisely a whole universe is brought up against its margins, its “hysterical’ simulation – and why not? Why should Los Angeles not be a parody of cities? Why should Silicon Valley not parody technology? Why should there not be a parody of sociability, eroticism, and drugs, or even indeed a parody of the (too blue!) sea and the (too bright!) sun. Not to mention museums and culture. Of course all this is parody! If none of these values can bear to be parodied, it must mean they no longer have any importance. Yes, California (and America with it) is the mirror of our decadence, but it is not decadent at all. It is hyperreal in its vitality, it has all the energy of the simulacrum. “It is the world centre of the inauthentic”. Certainly it is: that is what gives it its originality and power. The irresistible rise of the simulacrum is something you can simply feel here without the slightest effort. But has he ever been here? If he had, he would know that the key to Europe is not to be found in its past history, but in this crazy, parodic anticipation that is the New World. He cannot see that even though every detail of America may be abject or insignificant, it is the whole which passes our imagining – by the same token, every detail in his description may be accurate, but it is the whole which goes beyond the bounds of stupidity.
What is new in America is the clash of the first level (primitive and wild) and the “third kind” (the absolute simulacrum). There is no second level. This is a situation we find hard to grasp, since this is the one we have always privileged: the self-reflexive, self-mirroring level, the level of unhappy consciousness. But no vision of America makes sense without this reversal of our values: it is Disneyland that is authentic here! The cinema and TV are America’s reality! The freeways, the Safeways, the skylines, speed, and deserts – these are America, not the galleries, churches, and culture… Let us grant this country the admiration it deserves and open our eyes to the absurdity of some of our own customs. This is one of the advantages, one of the pleasures of travel.
To see and feel America, you have to have had for at least one moment in some downtown jungle, in the Painted Desert, or on some bend in a freeway, the feeling that Europe had disappeared. You have to have wondered, at least for a brief moment, “How can anyone be European?”
About the Author
Jean Baudrillard’s America first appeared in French twenty years ago (Paris: Editions Bernard Grasset, 1986) [Translated by Chris Turner, Verso, New York, 1988, see endnote 1]. The book exhibits, as well as any, Baudrillard’s approach to the world and the sheer joy he takes in writing. In America he reports on the deserts, cities, the cultural chasm of modernity separating America from Europe, death having found its ideal home, Reagan’s smile, the country’s amazing capacity to absorb violence, the obscenity of American food, the mania for asepsis, and the mindless luxury of a rich civilization in the “land of just as it is”. The experience of America, the last primitive society, leaves Baudrillard wondering if a nation can strike a pact with greatness on the basis of each individual’s banal interest alone? America brings to mind for Baudrillard Mandeville’s Fable of the Bees (in which the splendor of a society is said to be derived from its vices, excesses and shortcomings).
1 – Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories (1980-1985). New York: Verso, 1990:209.