Volume 6, Number 1 (January, 2009)
The Residue of Ambivalence: Baudrillard’s Writing On America
Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada)
I shall never forgive anyone who passes a condescending
or contemptuous judgment on America (Baudrillard, 1990a:209).
Twenty years have passed since Baudrillard’s perceptive, witty (and deadly serious) little book about the biggest myth in the world appeared. America continues to sell well enough in English translation to remain in print and appears on course syllabi long after most other books of 1988 have passed into history. In this short essay I would like to reflect on Baudrillard’s America keeping in mind the most important lesson that it may contain for us today – that the America Baudrillard discovered two decades ago is an even more powerful fiction today than it was then – and now, more than ever, it seems to hold the future of our collective catastrophe.
II. A Powerful Fiction
We cannot read Baudrillard’s America (1988) as a realist text because, as he tells us, America itself is a fiction (1993b:132). This is, for me, the great lesson we take from all of Baudrillard’s writing on the United States – America is a very powerful fiction. It is a fiction that inhabits the minds of most Americans as well as foreign critics and commentators. Baudrillard is ambivalent about this place and looking back it now appears that his writing about America is the residue of ambivalence. Baudrillard’s America, like the one we visit when we go there still, is a horrible, yet seductive place.
Among the most seductive parts of America are its natural deserts. For Baudrillard, the desert assumes the status of a primal scene in America and remains so even in the big cities (1988:28, 63). The American way of life is summed up by Baudrillard as a “dazzling denial of culture” in the desert heart of its cities which 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).
Baudrillard found America to be an absolute singularity (Ibid.) where architecture was disappearing into banal signals of buildings [today it is box stores in Baudrillard’s time it was strip malls]. Aesthetics, he said, were also disappearing into the values of kitsch and the hyperreal (1988:101, 125). As far as the hyperrealization of America is concerned it seems that “reality TV” and American’s determination to believe in it were the coup de grace. Reality TV and Hollywood films remain the places of the disappearance of history and traditional understandings of the real as America spirals faster and faster out into the televisual (Ibid.:101).
The America Baudrillard traverses is still there, only moreso, still “brutally naïve” – the land of “just as it is” (1988:28). In America Baudrillard discovered metaphors for the entire country in two of its most artifical places: Biosphere and Disneyworld. Biosphere 2 (near Tucson, Arizona) is an experiment (made into an attraction), [it is a huge glassed in, protected environment, for a few people who sign on, and desert species]. Biosphere is a kind of “prophylactic utopia” says Baudrillard – to replace our lost metaphysical ones (1994a:88). Perhaps like Disneyland, which “exists to hide that all of ‘real’ America is Disneyland (1994b:12), Biosphere 2 functions to hide the fact that all of America is now a mode of protection (1993b:187). This condition has only deepened since 9/11.
III. The Horizon of Europe’s Disappearance
If America appears banal to the European s/he is cautioned to remember that it is a banality born of extreme geographical distances and a “radical absence of culture” which the European does not know (Ibid.:86). There is a special American genius in dealing with these things and it is linked to the American “irrepressible development of equality, banality, and indifference” (1988:89). Baudrillard also reminds the European that American banality will “always be a thousand times more interesting than the European and French varieties” (Ibid.:86). Such stunning banalities as Beaubourg [Paris’s Pompidou Centre] are not possible in America (Ibid.:100). He finds, as do many French writers on America (among them Levy, 2006) that the Americans possess a “civility superior to European”. At the same time he acknowledges that in other important respects Americans are barbarians (1988:67). People around the world have experienced this – most notably in Afghanistan when the American war planes dropped bombs one day and relief supplies the next. Soon they would bomb the apartment buildings of the people they were “liberating” in Iraq (a rumour had Saddam hiding inside). America, primitive America, is thus separated from Europe by “the whole chasm of modernity” (Ibid.:73). In America there is no critical distance from Europe – Europe simply vanishes (Ibid.:29). For my part I do not think I have ever agreed with Baudrillard more than when he wrote: “to see and feel America, you have to have had for at least a moment the feeling that Europe has disappeared” (Ibid.:105). It isn’t much different in Canada today where Conservative Prime Minister Steven Harper preys upon Canadians ignorance of things European (and elsewhere) pointing us towards the only other country we really know – America. America’s mistakes take place in Canada twenty years late.
Like most things Baudrillard is ambivalent about America: “it’s a country I’ve never felt nostalgic for, but in all the time I was traveling around in it I never felt homesick for Europe” (1998:83). This is what is behind the full depth of Baudrillard’s often misunderstood notion that America is, “deep down … the last remaining primitive society” (1988:7). America then “represents to the European both exile of European culture and zero degree of that same culture (Ibid.:75). And so the Americans are not as morose as the French because they suffer less from the kind of decline in historical passion that Europe has suffered – historical passions are not the motor of American development (Ibid.:115). And so Baudrillard points to a very interesting series of differences between Europe and America which hinge on his understanding that “Europe’s crisis is the impossibility of living up to its historical ideals, whereas America’s is the crisis of the problem of the duration and permanence of an achieved utopia” (Ibid.:77). America is the horizon of Europe’s disappearance.
IV. Suckers For The Real
America’s deeply cinematic character (“the whole space and way of life is cinematic” (Ibid.:101)), is part of what makes it the land of appearances. American’s, he says, “believe in facts and favour pragmatic evidence” and this is “accompanied by a contempt for what may be called appearances or the play of appearances” (Ibid.:85). This leads Baudrillard to understand something that puzzles most other analysts – American patriotism from all quarters and classes. He finds here that American’s have an underdeveloped sense of the irony of community (Ibid.:85) and “ignorance of the evil genius of things, all other societies contain a kind of suspicion of reality (Ibid.). Americans tend to believe in their country, their films and their propaganda because it is a land of believers with nothing else to believe in. American films, writes Baudrillard, “including many of the better ones, are simply illustrations of American life” (Ibid.:101). This makes Americans, (it is a strength and weakness simultaneously), easy prey to the real, and the appearances which it hides behind, while living lives immersed in simulacra. On American students (he taught in California in the early 1970s), he writes: “they were extraordinarily willing, but they didn’t understand much about the discourse of the simulacrum – in a way they embodied it, but they didn’t analyze it (1998:80).
Can a nation strike a pact with greatness on the basis of each individual’s banal interest alone? (Ibid.:89).
The American economy is at the core of an ever mutating global capitalism (which Baudrillard calls the spectacle of “transeconomics” (1998:84). As I write this essay (September 2008) the United States Congress (which now governs the most bankrupt country on earth), is deciding on how to implement a multi-billion dollar welfare bailout of Wall Street investment firms which have brought the real American economy into the near orbit of the virtual one. Baudrillard was fascinated by the American debt and the electronic display of it in New York: “a massive advertising exercise” (2002b:133). He found America’s virtual bankruptcy to be a good thing for them because they are in breach of their obligations “without a Judgment Day” … “for to enter the exponential or virtual mode is to be released from all responsibility” (Ibid.). As nine-tenths of the economy is now virtual, orbiting the globe via satellite, America’s debt has become orbital as has that of the Third World (Ibid.:134). This of course is true because if the banks of the world were to suddenly call in either American debt or Third World debt the global financial system would collapse. This is one more (central) way in which American everyday life is informed by hyperreality (1988:95). And today, if Wall Street makes too many bad investments we will simply print a few more billion dollars to bail them out – what, after all can the banks do? We are a long way from a real economy now.
It is within such contexts that Baudrillard writes another of his more misunderstood passages on the country: “I ask of the Americans only that they be Americans, I do not ask them to be intelligent, sensible, original. I ask them only to populate a space commensurate with my own, to be for me the highest sidereal point, the finest orbital space” (Ibid.:28; 1998:88).
VI. The Land of the Free And the Home of the Naïve
And so America is a vast space of ambivalence for Baudrillard and this is perhaps why, despite his disparagingly critical tone by times, he feels a kind of freedom and civility there that is impossible in claustrophobic Europe. America is both the “mindless luxury of a rich civilization, and yet one as afraid to see the lights go out as was the hunter in his primitive night” (1988:51). The refusal to accept the arrival of night-time (which Baudrillard felt most profoundly in Manhattan among its towers which remain lit all night long), is a testament to the quest in America for “man’s artifical power”. It is a country where “natural cycles” have come to be “replaced by a functional continuum” (Ibid.:50). America for Baudrillard is a country where we find the “absolute empty freedom of the freeways and desert speed” and, at the same time the “dizzying absence of emotion and character in faces and bodies” (Ibid.:125).
Freedom in America freedom has “no static or negative definition, it is spatial and mobile” he says (Ibid.:94). It is a country founded on the “radicalization of a utopian demand which was that of its religious sects” which sought the “immediate realization of utopia in work, custom and way of life” (Ibid.:75). This has produced a country in which the food is obscene (1990b:29) and where everything “testifies to death having found its ideal home” (1988:31).
If Baudrillard is ambivalent about America perhaps it is because the country is one of paradoxical grandeur – a country of the “good”, powerful, original – yet equally violent and abominable (1988:88). It has a form of multiculturalism which has transformed it and given it its characteristic complexity which Baudrillard finds far superior to the “petty racism” of France (1988:82-3).
America shares with its arch nemesis Iran, the quality of being an achieved society (1990a:75). A world power who’s “primitive” media understand little if anything about “the irony of concepts” (1988:97). America is not a dream and it has no sense of simulation in terms of having a language to describe it, yet is immersed in it. America is a space of absolute fascination yet it is mournful, monotonous, and superficial (1988:28, 124, 98). Americans are a people of conviction who wish to police the consensual New World Order and may just do it through the global reach of their media (1995:54). For Baudrillard America was truly another world – a primal scene (1998:79) – and a place where an obsession with morality unfolds into an astral indifference for the other (1988:8). It is a country which seems to have been invented with the screen in mind (Ibid.:55).
And so this America which Baudrillard is so ambivalent about is also ambivalent about itself. It seems that, for Americans, an important part of inhabiting the virtual is a combination of uncertainty and ambivalence mixed with belief. Baudrillard finds that the “image of Americans becomes imaginary for Americans themselves” and that their “spontaneous confidence is transformed into paradoxical confidence (the kind Reagan inspired), as an “achieved utopia passes into an imaginary hyperbole” (Ibid.:114). Americans, he says, know how to “exploit their failures by means of a tromp l’oeil candor” (1995:46). This is all behind Baudrillard’s remark that America “is a giant hologram” (Ibid:29) and has become a “fiction” (1993b:131). And so at one point he writes: America “is hell, I vomited it out” while admitting that he is “also susceptible to its demonic seduction” (Ibid.).
Life without style, the extermination of all others (1996:60), all of holographic America found in the “luminous insignificance of a Sunday morning” (1988:66). Its mania for asepsis (Ibid.:33), is not surprising to Baudrillard given that he finds America to be the most conformist and moral society there is (Ibid.:9). The most open and free and simultaneously most narrow and closed of societies – this is Baudrillard’s America. He finds the country to be then, nothing short of a miracle with an ability to collapse fiction and reality into each other on a life sized scale (1997:92). America possesses, he finds, the moral and pragmatic assertiveness which constitutes, now as ever, the pathos of the New World (1988:76). It is the original version of modernity – life in a perpetual present of simulation (Ibid.). So, on the one hand if America were to lose its moral perspective on itself, it would collapse (Ibid.:91) while on the other, if we, approaching it, were to do so with the nuances of a “moral, aesthetic or critical judgment” would “miss its originality, which comes from defying judgment and pulling off a prodigious confusion of effects (Ibid.:67). Thus Baudrillard finds that the “mystery of American reality exceeds our fictions and our interpretations” (Ibid.:98).
VII. Nothing Personal, Really…
Americans, says Baudrillard, “have much to learn about symbolic exchange” (1995:55), and this puts them in an extremely disadvantageous position following the symbolic attacks of September 11, 2001. In every symbolic sense America itself (beyond whatever state sponsored terrorism it becomes involved in), is itself a form of terror. This terror is realized in its simplest and most empirical form in American commercialism and its self representation during a time of fast-paced globalization (1988:97). Against Islamic terrorism America (which takes the attacks in a deeply personal manner) plays the role, for Baudrillard, of any hegemonic country. America believes its own propaganda and “eyes itself (following the attacks) with the wildest compassion” (2002a:62). But for Baudrillard if an Islamic country were hegemonic in the world then terrorism would rise up against it, “for it is the world which resists globalization” (2002a:12). The current conflict is simply an old story being played out with new names – the resistance to hegemonic power (which seeks command over integral reality) by an integral rejection of that power (2005a:129). Ironically, this should suit the American approach to war which, says Baudrillard, is taken to be “nothing personal”. And this is he says the “rule of American life: nothing personal: they make war in this same manner, pragmatically and symbolically” (1995:39). But after September 11, the “axis of Evil” has taken “hold of America’s unconscious” (2002a:62)
His assessment of America and 9/11 is a very important part of Baudrillard’s latter writings on America wherein he raises some very important questions concerning American power and its mythological nature. Baudrillard understands the two centuries of the unfolding of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny in America, given its status as an already achieved utopia from the beginning. He sees Americans as a kind of “missionary people bearing electro shocks [written prior to the release of photographs from Abu Ghraib] which will shepherd everyone towards democracy… it is pointless to question the political aims of Gulf War, the only transpolitical aim is to align everybody with the global lowest common denominator, the democratic denominator” (1995:84). The Americans are a kind of missionary convert to their own way of life which they triumphantly project onto the world (Ibid.:37). What American’s make war on is not “the other” which is to them unimaginable, but rather, the “alterity of the other, to reduce it, convert it, or failing that, to annihilate it if it proves irreducible (the Indians) (Ibid.)
VIII. Between Utopia and a Hard Other
But during the first Gulf War it became apparent that the Americans, fighting their virtual war, had become “Ubu’s of their own power” (1994c:58). As we move into the current occupation of Iraq we find that American power is more virtual than real. Predictions of a rapid passage through the desert to be greeted with open arms by the citizens of Baghdad proved wrong, and America, despite having proclaimed victory, is bogged down again as it was in Vietnam. It could only become worse for a virtual power when the images of prisoner abuse by U.S. military personnel began to leak out of Saddam Hussein’s former prison Abu Ghraib. Here, the country which lives by the image, found itself dying by the image (2005b:208). And so, at least since September 11, 2001, America has been “merely the allegory or universal figure of any power incapable of bearing the spectre of opposition” (2002a:63). And now the missionary people ponder the question: “how can the Other want to be different, irremediably different, without even a desire to sign up to our universal gospel?” (Ibid.). All of this takes us to the centre of the question of America’s true power over all of us today.
IX. America’s Real Virtual Power
America finds itself today in a very uncomfortable place, forced by its own history and utopian ideology, to occupy a centre which is constantly shifting places with the former margins. And so, says Baudrillard, America which wants to “mark the place of power” finds that there is no longer anything but “a marked political powerlessness, such is the New World Order (1995:83). In a state of flux where power is now impotent America becomes an imaginary power – and for Baudrillard this has far more of a grip on the world than does military superiority – and “displays its power as a special effect” (1988:107). This is the secret of true American power – a mythical power, and an imaginary one, which is throughout the entire world based on the advertising image (Ibid.:116). So, while America may be all powerful in military terms, and feeble in terms of its understanding of the other (especially the Islamic and Arab worlds) (1993b:207), America still holds power over the global imagination. This is why is was no insult for Baudrillard to describe Americans as the last primitive people because such a status is actually a luxury and one that allows the Americans the enjoyment of an immoral power while remaining able to see themselves as innocent (1998:84).
In our virtual era, Baudrillard finds America’s true power residing in the virtual. “Everywhere now”, Baudrillard the world traveller wrote, “by media injection, in all latitudes and countries, you run into America only in the form of a global drip feed (Ibid.:86). Virtual America has a tremendous ability to absorb violence (1990a:176). In America Baudrillard found, for good and for evil, “our collective future (1988:7). And he turns this around (while not wanting to suggest that America is any kind of paradise, 1993c:132), on us by pointing out the often envious nature of Anti-Americanism: “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 (1997:71). Baudrillard is of course onto something here as we can well understand in Canada: “American culture, the world over, fascinates those very people who suffer most at its hands, and it does so through the deep, insane conviction that it has made all their dreams come true” (1988:77). In America Baudrillard found the “finished form of the world’s future catastrophe” (Ibid.:5).
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