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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 1 (January 2007)

BHL and JB in America: Review and Virtual Dialogue

Bernard-Henri Lévy. American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. New York: Random House, 2006 (Translated  by Charlotte Mandell).

Jean Baudrillard. America. New York: Verso, 1988 (Translated by Chris Turner).

Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada).

I. Introduction

America is powerful and original; America is violent and abominable.  We should not seek to deny either of these aspects, nor reconcile them.1


Another sign: obesity. Not the obesity of bodies… another brand of obesity…a social obesity. An economic, financial and political obesity. Obesity of cities. Obesity of malls, as in Minneapolis. Obesity of churches, as in Willow Creek. …Obesity of SUV’s. Obesity of airports… Obesity of election campaign budgets… Obesity of Hollywood box-office sales …Obesity of memorials …Obesity finally of public deficits, whose exponential program is becoming a warning flag thrown at the whole society. The bigger it is, the better it is, says America today.2


            I opened Bernard-Henri Lévy’s American Vertigo with the same hope and expectation with which he began his travels in America. I left his book as he left America – only somewhat disappointed, with many new observations at hand, but for the most part, with my view of America unchanged. As someone who thoroughly enjoys Baudrillard’s America I was immediately drawn to Lévy’s title. I am also a Canadian who has lived most of his life within 75 kilometers of the American border (that line extending from Atlantic to Pacific of which most Canadians are grateful to live to the north). More than anything though, it was Lévy’s own publicity machine that sold his book to me during the appearance of this entertaining, deeply self absorbed, and enormously sincere philosopher on Charlie Rose’s television show.

            As I read American Vertigo and prepared to write this review, I was often reminded by how Lévy and Baudrillard speak across twenty years to each other on their shared subject. It seemed that something more than a traditional book review was in order. Before long, a virtual dialogue began to take place between Lévy and Baudrillard. Following a discussion of Lévy’s American Vertigo is a record of this dialogue between two men who, as it turns out, have much to say to each other on that most enigmatic subject: America.

II. BHL: An Atheist In A Land Of Believers?

            Lévy went to America to investigate important issues of our time that are about much more than America. These include anti-Americanism, the role reserved for Europe in contemporary America, the idea of the West in America, and the condition of contemporary American democracy. The book is a record of dozens of conversations with Americans from multiple walks of life (prisoners, the poor, academics, intellectuals, workers in diverse fields, and a failed Presidential candidate). I seldom had the impression that Lévy felt he was learning very much from these conversations, although, every so often, they lend nuances to his conclusions (such as his conversation with a miner’s daughter about American healthcare). Each interview confirms in some way, the perspective on America he brought with him when he arrived in America: 1) that America (and Americans) are much better than their detractors think (all of whom Lévy, like the current President, lumps into a category called “anti-Americans”), and 2) that America is a great opportunity, a good deal of which is being missed at present. Long before he set out for America, or so it seems to me, Lévy planned to write an honest assessment of the pros and cons of America ultimately ending in an apology. Maybe this is why I often had the feeling that he was bored during his travels in America while exercising the tact not to say so. Aren’t we always excited to enter America but never sad upon leaving?

            So, like Baudrillard and like Kerouac, Lévy (who does not drive), took to the American road. If you want to know a key difference between Italy (it is said that an Italian would rather use his horn than his breaks), and Germany (where, on an empty autobahn, a driver moves to the left lane as each on-ramp approaches, whether or not there are any cars merging), you must drive. We are told about his driver (Tim), but less than we are told of Gustave de Beaumont,  Tocqueville’s traveling companion. We can only feel sorry for Lévy who experienced the misery (but he does not complain) of being driven 15,000 miles in America, but not one mile of joys and frustrations of sitting behind a steering wheel in what is simultaneously the world’s most disappointing and promising country. Although he doesn’t link the two, that exasperating habit Americans display of driving the same speed in both lanes of the freeway that he notices, captures so well the wealth and potential of an America which is, when faced by a crisis, unable to employ its resources to help the people of New Orleans. Perhaps Lévy does not drive because he likes to be simultaneously up close, yet distant. While it is difficult to put into words, this is my main objection to his book – he takes us in close but often leaves quickly as though there is something in his idea of America (which is generally sound) which he does not wish to overexpose even to his own criticisms.

            In his writing Lévy is behind the wheel and in control and we are chauffeured down the highways and byways of America as was he – and all the while we are given a philosophy lecture (one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is the ongoing philosophical commentary which sets America deep within Western and European history and thought). Overall the book is a very good read so long one is able to ignore the incredible ferocity of the humanist framework under which its author labours.

            There may be secrets in this book and I wonder when he writes of Cooperstown and Baseball if Lévy is not secretly taking delight in writing as badly about America’s national pass-time as Americans write about football (soccer). There are places where Lévy makes us laugh without intending to, as when he finds in the actor Warren Beatty his “anti-Schwarzenegger” – Lévy’s nominee to lead an enlightened, anti-totalitarian, modern left in America.3 Lévy is deeply dissatisfied with the American left in a way I think that makes him appreciate the American right which is, one must admit, much more clearly focused and determined (however well funded). Perhaps undergriding Lévy’s dissatisfaction with the American left is the difficulty of really distinguishing them from the right – especially in terms of their obsession with money and fundraising. Lévy is rarely naïve although one may conclude otherwise after reading his discussion of media ethics (although his conclusion that Americans are experiencing a media driven “degradation of public life” is quite apt.4) What is odd is that someone from Europe could find this surprising in America or anywhere else. I also think his welcome rant about American hyper security could have been better framed than it was around his decision to fly to Paris for a two hour visit before returning on the same plane. Perhaps it wasn’t merely “security” that so interested the personnel at the airport about this plan which surely strikes most anyone as odd.

            Lévy dislikes ideology and appreciates seduction. He comes to America to judge “middle class” America from the point of view of the French intellectual bourgeoisie. Baudrillard saw America through the eyes of the peasant he remains despite his mastery of language. All in all Lévy writes a book I recommend – a book in which he turns to America with a hopeful, often loving eye – he will not give up on America which he finds more free than France (he is especially fond of Seattle, Savannah, and Boston). The book will stand as a good example and record of an early 21st century bourgeois atheist’s travels among the true believers of America (whom he finds, are rather more forced than spontaneous in their patriotism).

            Lévy’s book is very interesting in places such as the discussion of the architect of Mount Rushmore and his KKK sympathies, his conversation with Francis Fukuyama, or his time with Norman Mailer. Lévy is deeply interested but ultimately dissatisfied with American intellectuals (he manages to avoid Chomsky – or vice versa), and this is something he shares with Baudrillard – you get the impression from both books that neither author finds much to learn from America’s intellectuals – and Lévy did sincerely try. In between the interesting passages (which comprise the majority of the pages of the book) are tiresome passages where Lévy ventures off in a new direction only to return to his purpose in writing the book, to honestly essay, often condemn, but ultimately write an apology for America. His always critical but often apologetic tone becomes repetitive after a time as he strives earnestly to make his case.

            For the most part Lévy has America quite right in my view as his book presents to us a collection of likeable individual Americans who, collectively, do some pretty awful things in the world. Lévy finds what we all find in America, much of it tiresome, distressing or both: the “epidemic of flags”, old (unloved) cities in ruin, a President who makes one wonder how low politics has sunk that this little man can win the greatest political race in all the world, automobile democracy (both lanes of the freeway moving at the same speed), the tiresome and petty desire for purity over privacy (the Clinton – Lewinsky affair), privatized prisons as sites of exclusion, fake streets of fake cities everywhere (epitomized by “illegible Los Angeles” – a city without a history), “the wretchedness of Eros in the land of the puritans” (Lévy’s time with a lap dancer and with a hooker are amusing), creationism, fundamentalism, and an average person who is much more polite and nicer to meet on the street or in an airport than his counterpart in France. We get the politicians we deserve and Lévy is very reluctant to consider this possibility.  

            Lévy sets out to travel America in the footsteps of Tocqueville (the sub-title of the book) and like Tocqueville to visit its prisons on route. The visitor to these institutions finds many moments when he thinks of Foucault, as one must, almost everywhere in America. Lévy also introduces some thoughtful theses but spends too little time elaborating them (or does he spend too much?) – I have great difficulty deciding if the book is 100 pages too short, or 125 pages too long [certainly the countless times he writes “I loved” lengthen the book considerably]. Among these theses: the possibility that the recent upsurge in right wing neo-conservatism is not a harbinger of a sinister future for America, but rather, the last stand of a very old American conservatism. We are also left wondering if America would have swung toward Bush if Clinton’s body guards had the discretion of those of JFK.5 Lévy shows us his street smarts one moment (his bold move to gain access to Kerry on the campaign plane) – and the next moment leaves us puzzling about his judgment (flying out of Dulles at 11 pm to Paris with the intent of spending two hours with his daughter and newborn grandchild before taking the same plane back to Washington for a meeting the next evening). One wonders if his daughter was deeply touched by this gesture or simply laughed. I tend to think his newborn grandchild would have been as happy with a telephone call. This trip reveals something of the “BHL” character to us – the man is always in command – the world, in this case America, at his disposal – BHL is clearly BHL’s favourite intellectual. I gained the impression from his analysis of the many interviews he conducted that this writer is not the best listener (or perhaps he needed his driver to take better notes).

            Still, there are insights to be gained. I for one was tempted to think, from his discussion of Camp X-Ray, about how those captured and held in Guantanamo Bay do so much to undermine America in the world. One imagines an actual terrorist or would-be terrorist in Guantanamo secretly knowing that his very act of being there is an act of terrorism against America – and one the Americans were helping him to perpetrate. Lévy is an atheist in a land of believers but one thing is not shaken by his time in America: Lévy’s belief that, for good and for ill, America is not the monster some people make it out to be and, while it has deeply rooted faults, it is no worse than anywhere else. I will leave it to you to decide if this was reason enough to publish a 300+ page book on the subject. I recommend however that you read it and if you read it alongside of Baudrillard’s America, all the better.

III. JB and BHL In Virtual Dialogue on America

            Reading BHL’s American Vertigo sent me back to one of my favourite books – Jean Baudrillard’s America. I am struck by two things comparing these books: 1) how often Lévy and Baudrillard’s writing on America intersects and, 2) how much more poetic and beautiful is Baudrillard’s writing on their shared subject. This later point may be due to the fact that I suspect America was a much more real place for Lévy to visit than for Baudrillard. Both men however offer crucial insights on that most enigmatic of countries – neither dream nor reality, but a hyperreality6 – America.

Misaligned Values

Lévy: “A blindness of Tocqueville’s part? Philadelphia, Eastern State Penitentiary. …Had Tocqueville read Jeremy Bentham’s opus…? Did he realize when he marveled at this system, in which, he wrote: they ‘translated the intelligence of discipline into stone’, that he was in the first detention center in the world that applied the panopticon schema that the nineteenth century would use not just for prisons but as the principle of the organization for its schools, hospitals, barracks, and factories? …He had no fundamental objection to this Quaker vision of redemption… Was that a shortcoming of Tocqueville’s, or of his context? Was it the blindness of the time…?”7 

Baudrillard: “Tocqueville describes the beneficial aspects of democracy and the American constitution with considerable enthusiasm, praising the inherent freedom of the way of life, the regularity of mores (rather than the equality of status), the supremacy of moral (rather than political) organization of society. He then describes with equal lucidity the extermination of the Indians and the condition of the Negroes, without ever bringing these two realities together. As if good and evil had developed separately. Is it possible that one can, while keenly feeling both these aspects, pass over the relation between them? Certainly it is, and the same paradox faces us today: we shall never solve the enigma of the relation between the negative foundations of greatness and that greatness itself”.8

Primitive Ultra-Moderns

Lévy: “America is skyscrapers, but it is also wide open spaces and deserts; it is scenes of a future life but also landscapes of the dawn of the world that are certainly not ‘our’ European dawn but… are a kind of reminiscence of it, or a reminder. …Perhaps its one of those rare experiences capable of offering, in one single bundle of sensations, a whiff of the ultramodern and another of the extremely archaic. …the possibility is offered to a human being to see concentrated the materialization of these two dreams, pre- and post-historical… the American journey, then, or the endless passage from Eden to Gehenna, the permanent short-circuit of the Bible and science fiction…”9

Baudrillard: “Deep down, the US... is the only remaining primitive society. The fascinating thing is to travel through it as though it were the primitive society of the future, a society of complexity, hybridity, and the greatest intermingling, of a ritualism that is ferocious but whose superficial diversity lends it beauty, a society inhabited by a total metasocial fact with unforeseeable consequences, whose immanence is breathtaking, yet lacking a past through which to reflect on this, and therefore fundamentally primitive. ...Its primitivism has passed into the hyperbolic, inhuman character of a universe that is beyond us, that far outstrips its own moral, social, or ecological rationale”.10

Lévy:  “…this town devastated twelve years ago by Hurricane Andrew, and hit by most of the ensuing hurricanes. What takes you by surprise in Homestead [Florida] is the vulnerability of the houses. What bewilders and stuns you is that everything has been rebuilt just as it was before, with the same prefab kits and the same kinds of trailers, which look as if they have been set down ready-made, patched together, somewhat rickety. You wonder what will keep them from flying apart in exactly the same way when the next Lily, Isidore, or Allison comes along. Yet America has the means to protect Homestead. The America that hasn’t ceased to dream of the Star Wars space-defense shield has the most effective warning and prevention systems in the world. Yet, strangely enough, it doesn’t use even a tenth of its capacity to put the inhabitants of Homestead out of danger. Just as I’ve never seen a European airport as profoundly paralyzed as the major American airports can be by a snowstorm, for instance, so I can’t imagine the principle of precaution so poorly applied in my country as it is here in homestead. Why?”11 

Baudrillard: “Joy in the collapse of metaphor, which here in Europe we merely grieve over. The exhilaration of obscenity, the obscenity of obviousness, the obviousness of power, the power of simulation. As against our disappointed virginity, our chasms of affectation. Sideration. Star-blasted, horizontally by the car, altitudinally by the plane, electronically by the television, geographically by the deserts, sterolithically by the megalopolis, transpolitically by the power game, the power museum that America has become for the whole planet”.12

The Land of “just as it is”

Lévy: “Neoconservatives… The first point that strikes you… you take the trouble of reading them, or as I have done, meeting them is that they practice, or claim to practice, a politics of ideas. …It’s the first time in a long while that this supposedly materialistic, pragmatic country has the politics of its thought and the thought of its politics”.13 

Baudrillard: “America is certainly suffering less than Europe from the phase of convalescence that grand ideas are going through or from the decline in historical passions, for these are not the motor of its development”.14

Lévy: “…creationism, whose importance to the new American conservative thought, regardless of political party, is one of the strangest, most extravagant things ever offered for a foreign traveler to observe”.15

Baudrillard: “Americans are people of conviction, convinced of everything and seeking to convince. One of the aspects of their good faith is this stubborn determination to reconstitute everything of a past and a history which were not their own and which they have largely destroyed or spirited away. Renaissance castles, fossilized elephants, Indians on reservations, sequoias as holograms, etc.”16

Lévy: “…no large modern nation today is as uncertain as this one, less sure of what it is becoming, less confident of the very values, that is to say, the myths, that founded it; it’s a certain disorder; a disease; a wavering of points of reference and certainties; a vertigo once again that seizes the observer…”17

Baudrillard: “If you approach this society with the nuances of moral, aesthetic, or critical judgment, you will miss its originality, which comes precisely from its defying judgment and pulling off a prodigious confusion of effects. To side-step that confusion and excess is simply to evade the challenge it throws down to you. The violence of its contrasts, the absence of discrimination between positive and negative effects, the telescoping of races, technologies, and models, the waltz of simulacra and images here is such that, as with dream elements, you must accept the way they follow one another, even if it seems unintelligible; you must come to see this whirl of things and events as an irresistible, fundamental datum”.18

Lévy: “Here it’s… a mirror that, to use a well-known title, lends us the image not of our past history but of scenes of future life as American anticipation allows us to imagine them. ‘This is what you will be’, it tells us; ‘this is where you’re going and what kind of world you will give birth to’. …of a future that… threatens us or is promised us – a machine not to mount but to descend the chutes of time”.19

Baudrillard: “America is the original version of modernity. We are the dubbed or subtitled version. America ducks the question of origins; it cultivates no origin or mythical authenticity; it has no past and no founding truth. Having known no primitive accumulation of time, it lives in a perpetual present. ...In the future, power will belong to those peoples with no origins and no authenticity, who know how to exploit that situation to the full. Look at Japan, which to a certain extent has pulled off this trick better than the US itself, managing, in what seems to us an unintelligible paradox, to transform the power of territoriality and feudalism into that of deterritoriality and weightlessness. Japan is already a satellite of the planet Earth. But America was already in its day a satellite of the planet Europe. Whether we like it or not, the future has shifted towards artificial satellites”.20

Lévy: “…we are even further from the French suburbs where they shit on the flag and hiss at the national anthem, and where hatred for the country that has taken them in is equaled only by the anti-Semitism eager to shift into action. Fine American lesson. Admirable image of democracy at work – that is, of integration and compromise”.21 

Baudrillard: “In America the violent mixing of multiple European nationalities, then of exogenous races, produced an original situation. This multiracialism transformed the country and gave it its characteristic complexity. In France there was neither an initial mix, nor a real resolution, nor was there any real challenge between ethnic groups. All that happened was a transferring of the colonial situation back to the metropolis, out of its original context. ...when you return to France, the dominant impression is a clammy sense of petty racism, of everyone being in an awkward, shameful position”.22

Lévy: “These people who say ‘values matter more’; these activists for whom the struggle against Darwin is a sacred cause that should be argued in the schools; this blue-collar man from Buffalo who, when I explain that the promise of the current president to reduce federal taxes will have the automatic effect of impoverishing his native city, replies that he couldn’t care less because what matters to him is the problem posed by inflation in a quasi-Soviet state; these are men and women who are ready to let the questions that affect them most directly take second place to matters of principle that – in the case, for instance, of the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts – do not have, and never will have, any effect on their concrete existence”.23

Baudrillard: “For me there is no truth to America. I ask of the Americans only that they be Americans, I do not ask them to be intelligent, sensible, original... This is the only country which gives you the opportunity to be brutally naive: things, faces, skies, and deserts are expected to be simply what they are. This is the land of ‘just as it is’”.24

Lévy: “When you uphold one goal of a given policy, do you have to uphold all its goals? Because you are in agreement about Iraq, do you have to force yourself to agree with the death penalty, creationism, the Moral Majority and its pestilential practices? …On the contrary, isn’t it the privilege of what we call an intellectual – isn’t it his honour and, at core, his authentic strength as well as his duty – to continue to defend his own colours, even and especially when he lends his support to the government on a specific point? Bill Kristol is listening to me, but I’m not convincing him. And I feel that here I grasp, at least for now, the essence of what separates us”.25

Baudrillard: “We are a desperately long way behind the stupidity and the mutational character, the naive extravagance and the social, racial, moral, morphological, and architectural eccentricity of their society.  No one is capable of analyzing it, least of all the American intellectuals shut away on their campuses, dramatically cut off from the fabulous concrete mythology developing all around them. It is a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism, and aimless violence, and yet I cannot help but feel it has about it something of the dawning of the universe”.26


Lévy:  “…I find it hard to justify the usual clichés about the impatience, feverishness, agitation, even brutality of American crowds. Quite the contrary – there’s calm, discipline, a mixture of docility and courtesy, gregarious submission and civilization. The opposite of the French type of whining, line cutting crowd… “Enjoy your trip” – friendly commonplaces, outward signs of warmth, especially smiles, yes, those smiles that mean nothing, those affectless, emotionless smiles, those smiles that seem to be there only to signify the pure will to smile and, by doing so, diffuse any conflict that threatens. All that, once again, so quintessentially American.27

Baudrillard: “The distinctions that are made elsewhere have little meaning here. It would be misguided to focus on aspects of an American civility that is often in fact far superior to our own (in our land of ‘high culture’) and then to point out that in other respects the Americans are barbarians.28

Lévy: “A conversation with Richard Perle. …We talk about Tocqueville, and he points out, annoyed, that we shouldn’t exaggerate; my compatriot certainly didn’t foresee everything that has happened to the United States in the past century, and he overlooked America’s belief in its exceptional status, its quasi-religious belief in a mission – which, according to Perle, the Founding Fathers clearly evinced”.29

Baudrillard: “If America were to lose this moral perspective on itself, it would collapse. This is perhaps not evident to Europeans, for whom America is a cynical power and its morality a hypocritical ideology. We remain unconvinced by the moral vision Americans have of themselves, but in this we are wrong. When they ask with such seriousness why other people’s detest them, we would be wrong to smile, for it is this same self-examination which makes possible both the various ‘Watergates’ and the unrelenting exposure of corruption and their own societies faults in the cinema and the media, a freedom we might envy them, we who are the truly hypocritical societies, keeping our individual and public affairs concealed beneath the bourgeois affectations of secrecy and respectability”.30

Lévy: “Then there is the question of Europe. Not the question of the image of America in Europe, or even of Europe in America, but the question of the role reserved for Europe, for its culture and its values, in contemporary America”.31

Baudrillard: “Admittedly, they envy us our past and our culture and admire them, but deep down to them we are a sort of elegant Third World”.32

Lévy: “We know how determined the Founding Fathers were to detach themselves from Europe. …But we also know that since then, America has never stopped wavering between two poles, to aims, and, at core, two identities”.33

Baudrillard: “Whatever happens, and whatever one thinks of the arrogance of the dollar or the multinationals, it is this culture which, the world over, fascinates those very people who suffer the most at its hands, and it does so through the deep insane conviction that it has made all their dreams come true”.34 

Simulacral America

Lévy : “Los Angeles… these streets make me think either of all the fake streets of all the fake cities that, from Pella to Kalona and from Des Moines to Rapid City, I keep visiting…”35 

Baudrillard: “America is neither a dream nor reality. It is a hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved”.36

Lévy: “Los Angeles has no border. …it is the limitless, indeterminate city par excellence. …the burgeoning city that goes on indefinitely, interminably stammering, a huge slow animal, lazy but slightly out of control”.37

Baudrillard: “Los Angeles... the freeways do not de-nature the city or the landscape; they simply pass through it an unravel it without altering the desert character of this particular metropolis. And they are ideally suited to the only truly profound pleasure, that of keeping on the move”.38

Lévy : “Carbondale… another fake town, shapeless and borderless, where the houses look like barns and the barns look like houses… the prototype of an unplanned town, where everyone lives in the same hideous buildings mounted on metal frameworks that the first storm that comes along… I stop for a few minutes at Garcia’s… Mexican specialties all day long, the worst kind of junk food”.39

Baudrillard: “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. ...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”.40

Lévy : “They want the new to simulate the old. The whole idea is not to preserve but to reconstitute a false truth and celebrate it as such. Defeat of the archive. Triumph of kitsch”.41 

Baudrillard: “You have the same difficulty today distinguishing between a process and a simulation, for example between a flight and a flight simulation. America too, has entered this era of undecidability: is it still really powerful or merely simulating power”?42

Soft World Order

Lévy: “…their land army, the forces that should be the spearhead for the imperial wars of today and tomorrow, the troops that are meant to serve in the pacification of conquered territories and, right now, of Iraq, are mediocre, unprofessional, under-equipped, and poorly trained. …the fact that the banks, the state governments, the Treasury Department, the businesses, and hence the pension and retirement funds of a country that, in principle, is a dominant country are all dependent on a colossal foreign deficit that is itself financed by the economies the empire theoretically dominates – on Indian, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese assets especially”.43

Baudrillard: “The US, like everyone else, now has to face up to a soft world order, a soft situation. Power has become impotent. But if America is now no longer the monopolistic centre of world power, this is not because it has lost power, but simply because there is no centre anymore”.44

Lévy: “The destruction of New Orleans… there is a shock here, an authentic shock, and this shock is likely to modify, if not the way we contemplate America, then at least the way America contemplates its own image, its status, its destiny. …the unbearable off-handedness of those executive chiefs hesitating, during four days, to cut short their precious vacations in order to come to the aid of the disaster victims …more disturbing yet, the same American president who had for years received extremely detailed reports that the New Orleans levees would inevitably break some day had the nerve to state that ‘no one could have foreseen’ what had just taken place. ...I am thinking of the metapolitical lessons of this event”.45

Baudrillard: “Governing today means giving acceptable signs of credibility”.46

Lévy: “… I was so often reminded of it throughout my travels: the expansion, everywhere, of the gray zone, the social and civic no-man’s land, which is the realm of extreme poverty. …the thirty-seven million American poor… they live in a universe where the ideas of owning a home or one day finding work is the stuff of mirages… these human beings who are all but excluded from reality. …And above all, there remain, from Riker’s Island to the women’s penitentiary in Nevada, those terrible American prisons. …America is, just after Russia, the world champion of imprisonment…47

Baudrillard: “But this easy life has no pity. Its logic is a pitiless one. If utopia has already been achieved, the unhappiness does not exist, the poor are no longer credible. If America is resuscitated, then the massacre of the Indians did not happen, Vietnam did not happen. While frequenting the rich ranchers or manufacturers of the West, Reagan never had the faintest inkling of the poor or their existence, nor the slightest contact with them”.48

Lévy: “…I saw as well… the extraordinary denial of that somber lining in this positively-driven country…I saw – I heard – the manner in which the American nation persists in viewing itself as an immense middle class devoted to the American Way of Life – the very real existence of the 37 million outcasts, the victims of social exclusion. …Isn’t there a threshold of distress beyond which you’d like to see the authorities recall that it is also their duty to protect their citizens”?49

Baudrillard: “The policies of governments themselves are now becoming negative. They are no longer designed to socialize, to integrate, or create new rights. Behind the appearance of participation and socialization they are desocializing, disenfranchising, and ejecting. The social order is contracting to include only economic exchange, technology, the sophisticated and innovative; as it intensifies these sectors, entire zones are ‘disintensified’, become  reservations, and sometimes not even that: dumping grounds, wastelands, new deserts for the new poor, like the deserts you see forming around nuclear power stations or motorways”.50


Lévy:  “…the masquerade can begin. When I say masquerade I am not thinking of the dance itself which is very beautiful, very moving, with its hundred or so women covered in jewelry, its warriors with painted faces and blissful looks, its medicine men wearing large angel wings on their backs, its elders at the head of the procession  rhythmically striking the ground with their spears… No I’m thinking of the Daschle family leading the dance… Linda, the senator’s wife, sweater tied over her shoulders as if she were going to Newport for the weekend, dancing to the wrong beat. I’m thinking of his awkward son, his mind elsewhere, softly tapping his foot without bothering to follow the rhythm. I’m thinking of his daughter, all smiles, gracefully waving her hand behind two Indian women in a trance. And I’m thinking of Daschle himself, angling his way for the photo op, between the lead dancers. …How can we not recognize that these are the same ghost dances that a century ago aroused such keen terror in Daschle’s ancestors that they forbade them under penalty of death.”51

Baudrillard: “The extermination of the Indians put an end to the natural cosmological rhythms of these landscapes, to which their magical existence was bound for millennia. With arrival of pioneer civilization an extremely slow process gave way to a much quicker one. But this process itself was overtaken fifty years later by the tracking shots of the cinema which speeded up the process even more and, in a sense, put an end to the disappearance of the Indians by reviving them as extras”.52

Lévy: “Guilded apartheid for the old. Sun City, Arizona… this falsely urban space.  With this tribe of the old, the very last stage of a process of social segregation…Poor people in general, a huge population left out of this suburban dream. …because they couldn’t (as was done in Phoenix) poison restaurant trash bins to keep tramps from stocking up, they resolved to make the best of things and move the rich. All this implies a profound break with the very tradition of civic-mindedness and civility – I won’t even say of compassion – that was responsible and continues to be responsible for this country’s greatness. And this experiment in privatizing a public space at the expense of a community cannot fail to create a terrible precedent… Sun City seems like a little satellite freed from the laws of social and national gravity”.53 

Baudrillard: “...can a nation strike a pact of greatness on the basis of each individual’s banal interest alone”?54


Lévy: “Does the idea of the West still have any meaning”?55

Baudrillard: “If you believe that the whole of the Western world is hypostatized in America, the whole of America in California in MGM and Disneyland, then this is the microcosm of the West”.56

Lévy: “…if we agree to take an interest not in the structure but in the phenomenology of this neo-empire, if we admit that from Marx to Negri the characteristic of an empire remains whatever its principles may be, to unify and, so to speak, globalize the world by producing subjects with increasingly similar desires, and if we mean to take an interest in the very particular type of human produced by this imperiality and characterized, let us say, by subservience to Commodity, Technology and Entertainment, then we will need to admit that this type of humanity triumphs with particular vividness in a number of scenes of American life…”57

Baudrillard: “The US is utopia achieved. We should not judge their crisis as we would judge our own, the crisis of the old European countries. Ours is a crisis of historical ideals facing up to the impossibility of their realization. Theirs is the crisis of an achieved utopia, confronted with the problem of its duration and permanence. … 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”.58

Lévy: “…this sinister and ancient French and largely European passion known as anti-Americanism and that was, when I undertook this journey, in the process of sweeping through European public opinion as never before”.59

Baudrillard: “I shall never forgive anyone who passes a condescending or contemptuous judgment on America”.60

The Journey

Lévy: “The road… which Jack Kerouac has shown is not the worst method for capturing the reality of the country: provided you travel it as he did, well to the right of the driver…”61

Baudrillard: “… the point is to drive. ...All you need to know about American society can be gleaned from an anthropology of its driving behaviour. ...Drive ten thousand miles across America and you will know more about the country than all the institutes of sociology and political science put together”.62

Lévy: “While flying in an airplane abolishes time and distance, while it puts you in immediate touch with a point of arrival that is really never foreshadowed, while the train itself is, in Proust’s words, a ‘magical’ vehicle that transports you as though by enchantment, with almost no effort or gradation, from Paris to Florence and elsewhere, this journey, this long, enduring journey by car, this ground-level journey that spares you nothing of the tectonics of space and hence of time, allows the traveler to experience a mode of the finite that alone can allow him to come to terms with the finitude of landscapes and faces”.63

Baudrillard: “Driving is a spectacular form of amnesia. Everything is to be discovered, everything is to be obliterated. Admittedly, there is the primal shock of the deserts and the dazzle of California, but when this is gone the secondary brilliance of the journey begins, that of the excessive, pitiless distance, the infinity of anonymous faces and distances, or of certain miraculous geological formations, which ultimately testify to no human will, while keeping intact an image of upheaval. …This sort of travel creates its own peculiar type of event and innervation, so it also has its own special form of fatigue. … The defibrillation of the body overloaded with empty signs, functional gestures, the blinding brilliance of the sky, and somnambulistic distances, is a very slow process. Things suddenly become lighter, as culture, our culture, becomes more rarified. The only question in this journey is: how far can we go in the extermination of meaning? …This moment of vertigo is also the moment of potential collapse. Not so much from the tiredness generated by the distance and the heat, as from the irreversible advance into the desert of time”.64

Lévy: “It’s the possibility of day dreaming. It’s an exercise in pace and patience. It’s a way of entering into that trancelike state, that alert and vigilant lethargy that lovers of high speed know, that makes one all the more receptive to the sudden experience of the unexpected”.65

Baudrillard: “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”.66

Gerry Coulter is Professor of Sociology at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada. His interests include micro-narratives and the art of the fragment against totalizing discourse. He is the founder and editor of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies.



1 Jean Baudrillard. America. New York: Verso, 1988:88.

2 Bernard-Henri Lévy. American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville. New York: Random House, 2006:241.

3 Ibid.:207.

4 Ibid.: 207-210.

5 Ibid.:202.

6 Baudrillard, America, 28.

7 Lévy, American Vertigo, 217.

8 Baudrillard, America, 88.

9 Ibid.:215-216.

10 Baudrillard, America, 7.

11 Lévy, American Vertigo:175.

12 Baudrillard, America, 27.

13 Lévy, American Vertigo, 284.

14 Baudrillard, America, 115.

15 Lévy, American Vertigo, 115.

16 Baudrillard, America, 41.

17 Lévy, American Vertigo, 238.

18 Baudrillard, America, 67.

19 Lévy, American Vertigo, 215.

20 Baudrillard, America, 76.

21 Lévy, American Vertigo, 37.

22 Baudrillard, America, 83.

23 Lévy, American Vertigo, 73.

24 Baudrillard, America, 27-28.

25 Lévy, American Vertigo, 191, 193.

26 Baudrillard, America, 23.

27 Lévy, American Vertigo, 212.

28 Baudrillard, America, 67.

29 Lévy, American Vertigo, 188.

30 Baudrillard, America, 91.

31 Lévy, American Vertigo, 9.

32 Baudrillard, America, 81.

33 Lévy, American Vertigo,  5-6.

34 Baudrillard, America, 77.

35 Lévy, American Vertigo, 94.

36 Baudrillard, America, 28.

37 Lévy, American Vertigo, 93.

38 Baudrillard, America, 53.

39 Lévy, American Vertigo, 124.

40 Baudrillard, America, 104.

41 Lévy, American Vertigo, 29.

42 Baudrillard, America, 115.

43 Lévy, American Vertigo, 293.

44 Baudrillard, America, 107.

45 Lévy, American Vertigo, 299-300.

46 Baudrillard, America, 109.

47 Lévy, American Vertigo, 245.

48 Baudrillard, America, 111.

49 Lévy, American Vertigo, 302, 305.

50 Baudrillard, America, 113.

51 Lévy, American Vertigo, 62.

52 Baudrillard, America, 70.

53 Lévy, American Vertigo, 128-129.

54 Baudrillard, America, 89.

55 Lévy, American Vertigo, 10.

56 Baudrillard, America, 55.

57 Lévy, American Vertigo, 297.

58 Baudrillard, America, 77, 98.

59 Lévy, American Vertigo, 8.

60 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories (1980-1985). New York: Verso, 1990:209 (Translated by Chris Turner).

61 Lévy, American Vertigo, 14.

62 Baudrillard, America, 54.

63 Lévy, American Vertigo, 16.

64 Baudrillard. America, 9-10.

65 Lévy, American Vertigo, 15-16.

66 Baudrillard. America, 24.


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)

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