Captain America, Baudrillard, and America’s
I try not
to listen to the President because it’s disturbing on so many levels. I used to
mute the TV, but then I could see his facial expressions (condescension,
impatience, the façade of self-possession) and the props his staff placed
around him to bolster his image: the last several times, he’s been backed by
rows of books. But having listened as much as necessary, I’ve noticed a
tendency in his phrasings. He puts a buffer between himself and an issue, a
suggestion that he’s aware and working on it. For instance, he’ll commonly say
“I look forward to,” which is quite different from saying “I will,” or
outlining a plan of action.
that emerges is of a president whose handlers are almost desperate to have him
look presidential and with very little idea of what being presidential is like.
This is the “bubble” in which the President lives. I’ve often wondered how much
volition is involved, to what extent the President willingly insulates himself
from the responsibilities of his job: looking forward to working with Congress,
rather than actually doing it; looking forward to considering the
recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, rather than actually considering them.
He wants to seem involved, and this seeming lends itself to a level of fakery
and veneer that has made his presidency hyperreal, rather than, say, human.
This idea came to me slowly and involved, weirdly enough, Captain America and
the death of a French theorist.
Baudrillard died in early March. I’ve no real reason to mourn his passing but I
note it because reading his obituary in the New York Times became
terribly funny – not advertently, but terribly funny nonetheless – because of
an editorial juxtaposition that the deceased would have hugely appreciated.
Baudrillard’s contribution to contemporary thought, Patricia Cohen wrote:
One of his better known
theories postulates that we live in a world where simulated feelings and
experiences have replaced the real thing. This seductive ‘hyperreality,’ where
shopping malls, amusement parks and mass-produced images from the news,
television shows and films dominate, is drained of authenticity and meaning.
Since illusion reigns, he counseled people to give up the search for reality.
I thought about the
implications, as I understood them, and returned to the previous web page. Once
there, I saw that the same screen that announced Baudrillard’s death also
offered an article on the death of Captain America. I’ll freely admit that
Captain America’s death affected me much more than Baudrillard’s, and that the
fact rather seriously underscores how absolutely right the deceased
(Baudrillard, not the Captain) was about our discernment as far as “reality”
after reading these two obits, I began reading a very, very cool biography of Woody
Guthrie by Joe Klein. As I read, the idea of the hyperreal kept interposing
itself, especially as Klein maintained that the image of Guthrie as a
hard-scrabble, Dust Bowl refugee was in part, at least, a result of the success
of the movie version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Following
the film’s success, a concert, billed as “The Grapes of Wrath Evening,”
was held to benefit the John Steinbeck Committee for Agricultural Workers.
Guthrie was invited to play, and his performance was promoted by The Daily
Worker, a New York newspaper published by the American Communist Party. A
picture of Guthrie, playing the guitar, was captioned “‘Woody’ – that’s the
name, straight out of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.” By the time he
performed at the Grapes of Wrath benefit concert, it seemed that he had
sprung full-blown from an Oklahoma dust storm. But he was simply giving the
people what they expected, and their expectations, in turn, had been shaped by
Hollywood's interpretation of Steinbeck’s novel.
image verged on the hyperreal, a fabricated blend of biography and audience
expectation. He was a singer who wanted to be heard and be paid for being
heard. The image was part of the job. He was mostly what he appeared to be: he
was from Oklahoma, he had gone to California, he had toured the migrant worker
camps (sponsored by the Communist party), and he did write songs about many of
his direct experiences. However, his overall image was a crafted selection.
book Simulacra and Simulation, Baudrillard defines the key term
“simulacra” as a copy of a copy that has been so widely circulated, so vastly
accepted as a stead for the original that it is no longer considered a copy.
It’s an entity in its own right though it echoes the valuations attached to the
original. According to another theorist of the hyperreal, Umberto Eco, the
condition for “the amalgamation of fake and authentic” is catastrophe, an event
so culturally ground-shaking that it suspends disbelief. Which brings me to
9/11 and back to the presidency of George W. Bush.
before 9/11, Bush had pretty much done that which he’d campaigned to do. His
pledge to restore civility in government was a good talking point, but the
honeymoon was apparently over. In August, 2001, according to the Pew Research
Center for the People and the Press, Bush had a 50 per cent approval rating. By
mid-September, 2001, Bush’s approval rating had shot up to 86 per cent. The
difference in the ratings, for those who spent the time in a coma, is the President’s
flurried activities as a national cheerleader. His appearance at Ground Zero
(bullhorn in hand, arm around a firefighter) was a comfort – and we bought it.
We elevated this shambles of a man, this copy-of-a-copy to the rank of
Bulletproof Hero who Doesn’t Back Down, Doesn’t Negotiate With Terrorists
(including his political opponents), and values loyalty above all else.
As to the
last: recall that just before he accepted Rumsfeld’s resignation (i.e., before
the election in which the Republicans lost both houses of Congress), he
expressed unwavering support for his defense secretary’s strategies and
prosecution of the war. Recall Bush’s support for Harriet Miers, nominating a
thoroughly unqualified woman for the Supreme Court, asserting her qualifications,
withdrawing her nomination rather than face the humiliation of seeing her
nomination defeated, and eventually replacing her, again, after the Democrats
took over Congress. Recall, also, Scooter Libby’s defense attorney’s argument
that Libby was being made a scapegoat for “someone else” in the administration.
It becomes pretty clear that this “my-way-or-the-highway” president is willing
to heave overboard all that baggage that might forestall the sinking of the
ship… even, I’ll bet, Karl Rove if the stakes are right.
consider the window dressings of Bush’s public appearance, the notion of
hyperreality gets even more bothersome. Remember the “Mission Accomplished”
banner on the aircraft carrier, the presidential strutting swagger across the
flight deck, helmet in hand? The hyperbolic mixed-metaphoric selling of the war
itself? Remember the 16 words in the State of the Union Speech: “The British
government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant
quantities of uranium from Africa" that Bush knew, even at the time, were
not true? Remember the Jackson Square appearance after Hurricane Katrina in
which the President promised, “whatever it takes,” to rebuild New Orleans? In light of all that,
it’s not surprising to hear responsible commentators assert that no one really
listens to what Bush says any more. Our only real response is that of another
hyperrealistic icon, Johnny Rotten. His last public statement as front man for
the Sex Pistols was a sneering summation of the group’s career and the
audience’s expectations: "Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?"
© Sam Prestridge and flagpole.com