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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 3 (October, 2007).


Special Issue: Remembering Baudrillard



Captain America, Baudrillard, and America’s Hyperreal President1

 

Sam Prestridge
(Flagpole.com website)

 

            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.

            The image 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.

            Jean 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.

In summing 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” itself goes.

            Shortly 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.

            Guthrie’s 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.

            In his 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.

            Shortly 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.

            If we 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

 


Endnote


1 This obituary originally appeared on the Flagpole.com website on April 18, 2007: http://flagpole.com/News/Comment/AmericasFirstHyperrealPresident/2007-04-18?PHPSESSID=2e6e6822436f965150e52573ac114221

 



© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)

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