Jean Baudrillard and The Desert of the Real1
The Masticator Website
“Americans may have no
identity, but they do have wonderful teeth.” Baudrillard said more profound
things, but I like that quote. He died this week at the age of 77. He was known
lately as an inspiration for the Wachowski brothers' movie The Matrix,
which Baudrillard said misread his ideas. Before The Matrix, he was
notorious for his essay “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” (1993), in which he
argued that the first Iraq war was so mechanized and computerized that it was
unlike any war before.
The London Times summed up his legacy in the sub-head of the
obituary: "Postmodernist provocateur and cultural theorist who blamed
consumerism for destroying reality." Baudrillard was fascinated with
America, and fancied himself a sort of postmodern Tocqueville. In an essay
called "Utopia Achieved" (1986), he wrote:
Here in the U.S., 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.
I think that to Baudrillard,
America was an experimental culture so obsessed with its identity – or the lack
of one – that it made one up.
Every culture has its folklore and creation myths; what makes
America different? For one, we have very self-conscious witnesses to America's
birth cataloging it. For another, what other culture is so pre-occupied with
recreating itself through pageantry? We have the Disney World/Land miniature
idealizations, Civil War re-enactors, Colonial Williamsburg, and reality TV.
On that note, Baudrillard's most interesting ideas came from his 1981 essay
collection Simulacra and Simulation. In the first essay, "The
Precession of Simulacra," Baudrillard invokes Jorge Luis Borges' story in
which map makers create a map so detailed that it duplicates its subject
exactly. This, Baudrillard wrote, is "the most beautiful allegory of
simulation." He continues:
Today abstraction is no longer that of
the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that
of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by
models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no
longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map
that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – that engenders the
territory, and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose
shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map. It is the real, and not the
map, whose vestiges persist here and there in the deserts that are no longer
those of the Empire, but ours. The desert of the real itself.