Arguably the most provocative postmodern theorist – one, indeed, who suggested that prisons exist merely to ‘conceal’ the fact that society is itself carceral – Jean Baudrillard swapped his study for the freeways of 1980s America. What followed was America, a highly ambivalent insight into the nation’s cultural landscape, a Tocquevillian account for the Reagan-era:
It is a world completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence, and yet I cannot help but feel it has about it something of the dawning of the universe.
Baudrillard was captivated by what he perceived as America’s chutzpah – its commitment to achieving Utopia – , and his remains (remarkably for a French Marxist) a largely uncondescending depiction of the nation. So while Los Angeles emerges as a neon-lit, palimpsest-like space reminiscent of “Hieronymus Bosch’s hell,” and Manhattan is a bewildering city in which “the mad have been set free,” Baudrillard is just as likely to celebrate the “magic of the freeways and the distance and the ice-cold alcohol in the desert and the speed”; even the nation’s kitsch ephemerality is indulged at times (51; 19; 1).
America is presented as the apotheosis of postmodern culture, a “marvellously affectless succession of signs, images, faces, and ritual acts,” beguiling Baudrillard’s Old World sensibility (5). The country as it is depicted here perfectly embodies a depthlessness which, according to Frederic Jameson, characterized the late twentieth-century western world: it is a surface culture, in which the screen has become the privileged site of human interaction. Society has become marked by a profusion of simulacra in the absence of genuine origins, blurring previously held distinctions between reality and fiction, subject and object. Baudrillard defines this state as hyperreality, and uses the example of Disneyland as a fitting parallel.
America abounds with such esoteric language and confusing analogies, and it is wilfully abstruse on occasions: Las Vegas, for example, is derided as “that great whore on the other side of the desert” (3). Baudrillard’s tongue is held firmly in cheek at such moments, however, and a liberal dose of humour underpins his intellectual road-trip.
If, at times, Baudrillard’s prose appears guilty of the same sense of excess that he identifies within America, noting “the orgy of goods and services” that facilitates an increasingly cybernetic society, America contains enough flashes of perceptive observation to sustain the reader: in this state of simulacra, for instance, Baudrillard wonders “whether the world itself isn’t just here to serve as advertising copy in some other world” (96; 32). Baudrillard’s writing is, moreover, beautifully poetic at times. He discusses Minneapolis, “with its sweet-sounding name, its gossamer string of vowels, half-Greek, half-Cheyenne,” for instance, and the text celebrates the diverse quality of America’s landscape, which combines “the earth’s undamaged geological grandeur with a sophisticated, nuclear, orbital, computer technology” (13; 4). Such lyricism is perhaps only appropriate, an aesthetic response to a profoundly artificial age.Following the likes of de Tocqueville, Paine, Dickens and Nabakov, Baudrillard continues a transatlantic analytic tradition, capturting the essence of the nation that native intellectuals, “shut away on their campuses, dramatically cut off from the fabulous concrete mythology developing all around them,” simply cannot (23). After all, ‘America’ as a concept is arguably as compelling to a Frenchman, Russian or Brit as it is to a Californian; the only prerequisite for Baudrillard is that, in order to do so, one must disregard presuppositions and “enter the fiction of America”, a country that remains, as the recent presidential inaugeration attests, reliably aspirational (29).
“Simulacra and Simulations,” Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988
America. Trans. Chris Turner, New York: Verso, 1989