- America by Jean Baudrillard, translated by Chris Turner
Verso, 129 pp, £12.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 86091 220 5
- America Observed: The Newspaper Years of Alistair Cooke by Ronald Wells
Reinhardt, 233 pp, £12.95, November 1988, ISBN 1 871061 09 1
- American Journals by Albert Camus, translated by Hugh Levick
Hamish Hamilton, 155 pp, £11.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 241 12621 5
‘I think, therefore I am’ was not supposed by Descartes to apply only to those for whom thinking is a line of work. That would appear to be the operating assumption, however, of the celebrated French sociologist-philosopher Jean Baudrillard in America, the latest of his works translated into English. At first the reader might wonder why a prose as dense as his should be made more so by having it stretched across pages of a width and gloss more appropriate to an otherwise agreeably produced and illustrated coffee-table book. But if not actually initiated by the author, the design must have been done to please him, intent as he is on the primacy of the visual image. The design is meant to be a comeuppance, I suspect, for any credulous intellectualists, American or Parisian, who might harbour a sentimental preference (actually the in petto preference of the author himself) for the cultural supremacy of the printed word. At several points these intellectualists are objects of the author’s scorn for not having yet achieved his own fascinated horror and elation in response to America, ‘the great hologram’ where ‘cinema is true because it is the whole of space, the whole way of life that are cinematic.’ In this ‘tactile, fragile, mobile, superficial culture’ he wants to discover the destiny that lies in wait for Europe.
His America is a country without persons – not one is introduced – and for that matter without people, these having been absorbed into his theories of hyperreality and simulation. Seventeen thousand runners in the New York Marathon move him to tears because, ‘collectively, they might seem to be bringing the message of catastrophe for the human race.’ Since the European discovery of the continent, Americans have gotten used to being treated in this way, as mere shadows on a blankness asking to be inscribed with arriviste ideas about the ‘future’, especially catastrophic ones. Making America over into his image, Baudrillard joins the grand tradition of European imperialism, though intellectual imperialism is not a problem that seems ever to have occurred to him.
His most lyrical descriptions are of the deserts, evidence that the country as a whole consists in its very landscape only of space waiting to be filled with thinking of his own. Using a terminology I will explain in a moment, he says that the deserts denote ‘the emptiness, the radical nudity that is the background of every human institution. At the same time they designated human institutions as a metaphor of that emptiness and the work of man as the continuity of the desert, culture as a mirage and as the perpetuity of the simulacrum.’ Or, later, ‘the whole of America is a desert. Culture exists there in a wild state; it sacrifices all intellect, all aesthetics in a process of literal transcription into the real.’
D.H. Lawrence, with Tocqueville perhaps the most intuitive of all foreign writers about America, was able in a work like St Mawr to see, as Baudrillard can’t, the actual pathos of American figurations of ‘desert’ and ‘space’, the pathos of desire that wants to free itself from submission to the objects, or signs, conventionally provided for it. This is a preoccupation found everywhere in American writing, from Cooper to Emerson, from Twain to Whitman, and Henry James, from Dreiser to Willa Cather and on to Mailer. Lawrence’s two Englishwomen, Lou Witt and her acerbic mother, are to be found at the end of the story in the deserts of New Mexico, where the younger woman, like the New England woman who occupied the ranch before her, expects to find ‘another world’ in a space where ‘man does not exist’, and has hopes of ‘living through the eyes into the distance’. The story is a tough allegorisation of an American-Romantic transposition of desire into spaces wiped clear of complicating human presences, and here, as in his Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence shows, as have American writers of the past, the heroic impossibility of the venture. Baudrillard, who refers vaguely to the Puritans, in fact knows nothing whatever of American history or American literature, and can therefore have no difficulty in declaring that it has none. ‘America is the only remaining primitive society’ (his italics) because it is ‘lacking a past through which to reflect’ on itself.
This attempt to make America into the ‘future’ of Europe simply by erasing any evidences of its own cultural past is only preliminary, however, to the larger and more personal ambitions of the book. And these are to show that the ‘future’ cannot be understood or even perceived by anyone who remains stuck in the kinds of thinking to which, as a European. Baudrillard admits to being indebted, the thinking particularly of the Frankfurt School and of Walter Benjamin. America, both the place and the book as he has conceived them, is invented to demonstrate that any theories that have not evolved as Baudrillard’s have done are now, no less than persons and people, an incumbrance.
In several previous works, a number of which have been translated into English, Baudrillard places himself at the revisionary end of a line that begins with Marx and his commodity law of value and that was later variously transformed by Benjamin, as in his most famous essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, by Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man, a major text for the Sixties, and by the writings of Marshall McLuhan on the semiology of an electronic environment in which ‘the medium is the message.’ Together and in different ways, such writers have gradually dislodged Marx’s commodity law of value, a development Benjamin had predicted, and have replaced it with codes of signification, the ceaseless permutations of which make value itself increasingly elusive and indeterminate.
Vol. 11 No. 7 · 30 March 1989
Richard Poirier’s review of Jean Baudrillard’s America (LRB, 16 February) employs the usual stance of conservative American academics in dealing with French Post-Structuralism – the stance of the reasonable pragmatist with a long historical perspective. It is the stance of Johnson refuting Berkeley. Poirier argues that Baudrillard’s critique of media manipulation in America is ‘apocalyptic’ and ‘hyperbolic’, because anyone with good sense can correctly interpret what he or she sees on television. But good sense is easier to talk about than to exemplify, as Poirier shows by offering a seemingly commonsensical interpretation of his own – one that inadvertently raises the crucial issue not directly faced in his review.
Poirier’s example comes from last fall’s televised Presidential debate, in which Michael Dukakis answered the question of how he would feel about capital punishment if his own wife were raped and murdered: ‘Dukakis gave an answer worthy of a mechanical mouse. He was rightly judged on this occasion as someone who in a crisis probably could not bring to his decisions a trustworthy range of human feelings … [George Bush] won because he appeared – quite accurately, I think – as marginally the better of two weak candidates.’ Now the argument of the critics of media manipulation (Post-Structuralists and others) is not simply that what one perceives on television is a kind of optical illusion (as in the Doonesbury figure of Ron Headrest, a brilliant caricature of the notion of a ‘pseudo-event’): the argument, more importantly, is that television may be used to restrict the terms of political debate to what can be managed and represented on a video screen. The media specialists who now conduct American political campaigns have made this restriction explicit. For example, the adman who ran Bush’s successful Congressional campaign in 1966 maintained in a report that ‘issues would not have to be involved in the campaign. There was no issue when it came to selling Ford automobiles; there were only the product, the competition and the advertising. He saw no reason why politics should be any different’ (the paraphrase is by Joe McGinniss in The Selling of the President). Media specialists attempt to replace argument with ‘impressions’, which excite instinctive responses in the viewer. The most important of these responses is the pair ‘warm/cool’.
How would you convince the majority of the American electorate that a right-wing plutocrat and former director of the CIA represents their own interests, and not just the interests of the tiny, wealthy minority who would benefit from his stated economic policies? You would present him in a series of controlled appearances as part of an issueless campaign, and convince people that they could make informed judgments on this basis. With luck, you would find a Democratic opponent who played into your hands by insisting that the ‘issue’ was competence. But how do you ‘see’ competence? In his interpretation of Dukakis, the Poirieran viewer (by which I mean the unspecified collective agent of such passive verbs as ‘was judged’) unwittingly acts out the agenda of the media handlers. He silently reinterprets ‘competence‘ to mean ‘competence in front of a camera’; then he forms an impression – in this case, the impression ‘cool – unlikeable’ – which he converts into several assumptions: that Dukakis’s response at that moment means that he is a cold man; that coldness disqualifies him from handling grave national security situations, and so forth – the false logic that converts the subrational impression ‘warm/cool’ into the dominant criterion of political choice. The beauty of the example is that the Poirieran viewer responds as Bush’s handlers would have him respond, not in this case to one of their own photo effects but to their opponent. In the view of Baudrillard, the present commodity system appears as a system of endlessly proliferating signs that refer not to realities but to other signs (that is to say, they ‘make sense’ only in comparison with other signs like them). One might bring together the language of Madison Avenue and the language of the Left Bank this way: what the Poirieran viewer ‘saw’ was not Dukakis but the sign ‘cold’, and which contrasts with the sign ‘warm’ attached to Bush. Baudrillard’s language may indeed strike English readers as hyperbolic and extravagant – I myself prefer John Berger’s earlier account: but both are infinitely preferable to the common-sense world of Poirier’s viewer, who believes he can see all he needs to see on the television screen. What’s left out in Poirier’s example is the fact that opposition to capital punishment is, after all, a political position that divides the two candidates, and that this position is profoundly related to hotly-contested attitudes and beliefs about race, class, the control of crime, the obligations of government, the place of violence in a civilised community.
What’s left out, in a word – this is still more true in America than in Great Britain – is anything that used to count as an important political issue. Class conflict in particular does not represent well on the screen; and that, obviously, is the reason why media management is not simply an ideologically-neutral stupefaction of the democratic body public. It favours the Right, because the Right cannot advertise its essential function as the representative of a privileged minority. The handlers then tend to be anti-intellectual: voters (and consumers) are thought to be irrational by nature, they are bored by politics. What reasonable person could be gulled by this flimflam? If Poirier’s analysis of what is really there on the television screen is typical of American political consciousness, then the handlers may already have achieved more than we thought.
Vol. 11 No. 11 · 1 June 1989
Richard Poirier would not recognise either his books or his editorial career under Paul Sawyer’s perjorative labels of ‘a conservative academic’ and ‘a reasonable pragmatist with a long historical perspective’ (Letters, 30 March). But any knowledgable and empirically-minded reader ought to recognise the accuracy of Poirier’s criticism of Baudrillard’s mythologising America. The Parisian journalist Diana Pinto, reviewing it in La Revue Tocqueville, offered it as the best example of L’Amérique dans les têtes, proof of ‘the extent to which America is a figment of the French imagination light years away from any concrete national reality. Americans reading the book can only wonder what society he is describing.’
My colleague Sawyer makes far too much of Poirier’s single brief reference to George Bush’s campaign and implausibly assumes that we need French Post-Structuralism in order to criticise the media’s reduction of political argument to ‘impressions’ – a point Sawyer himself derives from Joe McGinnis’s The Selling of the President. The Frenchman’s exaggeration of the media’s influence makes it impossible to understand why some 46 per cent of the voters chose the ‘cool’ candidate rather than the ‘warm’ one supposedly favoured by the media. Whatever Sawyer’s abstraction ‘the American political consciousness’ means, it must take account as well of the complaint so many of the winners made about the low level of their candidate’s campaign. The important, unhappy and neglected fact, moreover, is that nearly half the electorate (in spite of the media’s wooing) did not vote at all because both candidates seemed weak, as Poirier recognised. Many of us who voted with reservations for Dukakis think he bungled his early lead, not least because for most of the campaign he shunned ‘liberalism’ as if it were a malignity. His philosophical bedfellows on this score, ironically enough, are the rigorously anti-liberal French Post-Structuralists to whom Sawyer misguidedly urges us to turn for political enlightenment.