America Deserta

Richard Poirier

  • 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.

These codes govern what Baudrillard calls ‘simulation’ and the production of ‘hyperrealism’. That is, just as commodities ceased to refer directly to value, so signs have ceased to refer to things. They have come to refer only to other signs in endless proliferation. ‘The signs no longer designate anything at all,’ Baudrillard says in The Mirror of Production: ‘only other signs.’ Because signs refer to nothing of substance, nothing you can put your hand on, they create desires and demands that are insatiable, a situation for which Baudrillard reserves the word ‘obscenity’. And because the perpetuation of the process depends on the creation of needs that cannot be satisfied, the production of signs must be continuously accelerated in order to produce new realities, none of which can be verified outside the process itself. This is what he calls ‘hyperreality’.

While all this has become prophetic gospel to its adherents, it is only an hypothesis, like any other. The degree of assent you give it may depend on how little or how much the process is complicated by bringing into it the possibilities of human resistance and discrimination with respect to signs. Or it may depend on the degree to which the process is or is not considered unique to this century. Is reality any more dependent now on electronic media than it was in the past on, say, parades, insignia of rank, architecture, the superstitions that attend certain natural occurrences?

These are only some of the factors that ought to produce scepticisms, and therefore a more moderate tone in which to discuss the electronic proliferation of signs. Instead the tone is nearly always hyperbolic and apocalyptic. When, as is often the case, this rhetoric is directed at America, as it has been in recent decades by Marcuse, Mailer, Pynchon and others, it tends to make workaday accounts sound hopelessly complacent. So that, put in conjunction with Baudrillard, the ever-watchful Alistair Cooke, no stranger to television himself, seems irrelevant, even though most of the dispatches, which date as far back as 1946, easily recuperate themselves on rereading and are full of sharp intuitions.

The problem with the crisis rhetoric that accompanies theories of simulation and hyperreality like Baudrillard’s is not merely that it flouts what he himself calls the ‘general code of abstract rationality’. More importantly, it fails to take account of the, to me, obvious fact that ‘reproduction’ has always and for ever been the only way in which human beings have been able to acknowledge reality and to talk about it. For much longer than electronic forms of reproduction have existed, language itself has been a form of reproduction. And not just in embossed Bibles: reproduction is part of the very inflections of daily speech. The so-called ‘shock’ of modernity is a vastly overstated one, and since Benjamin coined the phrase it has come to rest almost entirely on scowling and jowling about the frightful consequences of television or, for that matter, of photography. Televisual images, so it is alleged, have made human beings themselves into simulacra, into hyperreal and encoded figments, models of simulation to a point where they can no longer know what simulation is. ‘The Americans for their part,’ says Baudrillard, ‘have no sense of simulation. They are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it.’

Why is it, then, that any moderately bright American undergraduate can tell you the same thing – about other undergraduates, of course? Thus the hyperventilations about the televisual in Baudrillard’s America are finally little different, to digress into politics for a moment, from most analyses of the recent Presidential election bandied about by television anchormen. They and their colleagues in the press ascribe the election results, in good part at least, to the brutal Republican media blitz in August and September, in which Governor Dukakis was ridiculed as a mushy liberal opposed to the pledge of allegiance, held responsible for garbage found floating in Boston harbour, and made complicit with a conspicuously black figure named Willie Horton, a convicted murderer let out of jail by the Governor on weekend passes, the better, presumably, to do his thing. This sort of hype was supposed to have duped the public.

It is just as likely that most viewers were quite aware of what the footage was designed to do to them, and were able to assess it with a by now well-trained and wary eye for the techniques of advertising. In all probability, Bush lost as many votes as he gained by the negative commercials. If they were effective, it was not because people believed them but because, as the Bush staff had hoped, Dukakis did not give them anything else to believe in. They simply wanted to see if he could handle it. Wasting precious weeks early in the campaign on squirish visits to town meetings in western Massachusetts, none of them worth national coverage, he failed to define himself or the issues in such a way as to make the charges against him merely trivial. His obtuse silence offended even his supporters, of which I was one. It was as if he assumed that

My services which I have done the Signory
Shall out-tongue his complaint.

It was he who wanted the campaign to turn on the issue of competence, and his conduct of the media war was a fair test of competence, especially since as President he would need to face the potentially devastating coverage meted out almost daily to Presidents Nixon and Carter, and to the beloved great communicator himself. He had all the money he needed, media people easily as tough as Bush’s, and the advice of another liberal Governor, Cuomo of New York, who had managed to brush off similar mud-slinging. But through some combination of insularity, rigidity, and an immigrant’s son’s desire to appear well-bred (Bush had only to appear less so), he flunked.

My point is that the image made by a candidate on television is one of the perfectly valid and telling ‘reproductions’ that voters can go on. It is as good and perhaps more reliable than ‘reproductions’ of the kind that existed before the advent of television. Thus, in response to a horrendous first question in the second debate asking 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. He didn’t even manage to say that the killing of his wife would of course make him feel murderous, as indeed the question should have, but that besides being a husband he was a public servant charged with enforcing the law dispassionately, and would do his best to meet these different and conflicting obligations. The media told some unattractive truths about Dukakis while giving a none too flattering image of Bush, who took a small majority of the only 50.4 per cent of eligible voters who went to the polls, the smallest percentage since 1924. He won because he appeared – quite accurately, I think – as marginally the better of two weak candidates.

Many Americans, but not in Baudrillarcd’s book, are quite capable of using the media and of not being used by them. They make complicated and sensible decisions on the basis of images, a fact that intellectualists, blind to the fact that their language is also media, are always loath to concede. To do so would be to put at risk those platitudes of the anti-technologists that are as old as literature itself, and manifest in, say, Henry Miller’s view of America as an air-conditioned nightmare, in Mailer’s attacks on plastic, in the brilliant fictional exploration by Don DeLillo of how television images get confused with life, and now in Baudrillard’s hopped-up vision of America as the place where one can witness, in the form of apocalyptic orgy, ‘the disappearance of history and the real in the televisual’.

The kinds of power over the viewer of which electronic media are capable need to be better understood, no less than does the power exercised in and by literature. Baudrillard’s self-promoting rhetoric only frustrates such efforts, as in his use of words like ‘real’ and ‘history’. Are we to assume that in some better world than ours ‘history’ and some concept of the ‘real’ existed in a pure state, uncontaminated by mediation? Behind literary intellectual histrionics about the unprecedented dangers of modern technology there almost always lurks a soft idealisation, as in Marcuse, of a prior literary culture and of earlier times. Literature itself, often more toughminded than interpretations of it, treats these idealisations for what they are – pastoral mythologising. The Faerie Queene was indicating as much four hundred years ago. What then can it mean when Baudrillard says that ‘ “the marketing immunity” of governments is similar to that of the major brands of washing powder’ when, without the hip references, an identical observation could be made of almost any government since the beginning of time?

Though anti-technological pastoralists are too politically devious to admit it, the vital difference for them between our own and earlier centuries is simply, and I think very insidiously, this: that the ‘immunity’ of which Baudrillard speaks need no longer be purchased by governments from educated courtiers, like himself, but can be gotten from the masses. The virulence of the attacks on electronic media can be understood, that is, as expressing the fear that the media empower people in the mass as never before, while dispelling any aura that still attaches to the literary culture from which they feel excluded. This is a possibility worth considering, because it would bring attention to issues that cannot fail to discomfit die-hard populists no less than anti-technological pastoralists. The issues include the world-wide resurgence over the last twenty years of religious fundamentalism, for example, a phenomenon that shows the extent to which people in the mass are stubbornly and perhaps for ever possessed of ancient superstitions whose strength and political utility have nothing significantly to do with the use of electronic media. Indeed it might have been expected, especially in videoland America, that some unappeasable desires of the kind supposedly created by Baudrillard’s proliferating images would have emerged long since to put such superstiions out of mind once and for all. It seems instead that their terrifying persistence depends on cultural, racial, religious and attendant sexual dogmas that are transmitted, generation to generation, through circuits and images that are stronger, more complicated and insidious, than those created technologically.

Was authority, including political authority, any more beneficent in the 16th century, when some of these same dogmas were particularly strong, or was government then any less clever at marketing itself, especially when it wanted support for foreign military adventure? Only the blindness of a literary-cultural conservatism not importantly different from Allan Bloom’s in The Closing of the American Mind – a book as ignorant as Baudrillard’s of American history and American writing – can explain the heedless complaint that thanks to the land of hyperreality ‘no one keeps count of the mistakes made by the world’s political leaders any more, mistakes which, in days gone by, would have brought about their downfall ... The people no longer take pride in their leaders and the leaders no longer pride themselves on their decisions.’

For someone who likes to couple the words ‘real’ and ‘history’, the inferable version of a European past in this passage, and throughout the book, is a fabrication born of the need to say something more fabricated still about the televisual future of Europe as represented now in America. All the while it is this same America, be it remembered, that has the media to thank for bringing the Watergate revelations into the open, while President Giscard used French law and tradition to block media reports about his own and his government’s dealings with Jean Bedel Bokassa, the French Army stooge who became the cannibal emperor of the Central African Republic.

Baudrillard’s book is an example of the extraordinary extent to which Western writers lack compunction about treating America, one of their own, nearly as shamefully, for ideological purposes, as, in Edward Said’s brilliant dissections, they have treated the Orient. ‘America’ is their inevitable metaphor for ‘modernity’ in opposition to a metaphoric past called ‘Europe’, and just about anything at all can be said about it. This is apparent enough even in the unnecessary little gathering, with its wholly haphazard annotation, of Albert Camus’s American Journals, two-thirds of which are given to his trip to South America in 1949. The comments on a trip to the United States in 1946 deserve the consideration duly accorded a postcard from someone who feels compelled to send it. We are told that ‘no one ever has change in this country,’ and that ‘everyone looks like they’ve stepped out of a B-film.’ Camus wasn’t any luckier in his conversations, as in an attribution to someone identified simply as Tucci (probably Nicolo): ‘human relationships are very easy here because there are no human relationships.’ In that case get out on the town immediately, I would think. A half-century later Baudrillard is also bothered by evidence that ‘relationships’ are one of the few scarcities in the New World. He complains several times over that people do not look at him or at one another not only in New York City but in California, the cruisiest of all the States. I suspect he is not reporting what happened to him in either place, but remembering what happened to Baudelaire in the streets of Paris: only unreturned glances, according to Benjamin’s Illuminations. ‘The expectation roused by the human eye,’ Benjamin writes, ‘is not fulfilled.’ That sometimes happens.

Any book is in some way an act of self-promotion, and if the self is sufficiently imposing this may work greatly to the book’s formal and stylistic advantage. The style of the later James, omnivorously determined that nothing be lost, is a case in point; another the show-off technical brilliance of Joyce’s Ulysses, where the author exults in being a master of the novelistic forms he intends to put out of commission. Baudrillard would like similar benefits to accrue to the efforts by which he expropriates America in the service of his theories. This expectation explains why, as compared to the tamer ambitions of Camus and Cooke, there is so much tempestuous energy in the writing of America. Baudrillard wants it inferred from his style that he has escaped academic inertia, new world or old, ‘these Californian scholars with monomaniacal passions for things French or Marxist’. He confesses at one point that he wants ‘to excentre myself, to become eccentric’, and to do so ‘in a place that is the centre of the world’. Late in the book, he even shows some uneasiness about his own heated perceptions: ‘perhaps Americans are quite simply vulgar, and the meta-vulgarity is merely something I have dreamt up.’

There are hints, in other words, of his being as watchful of his own as of America’s performance, conscious of the effort of language by which he hopes to register his momentary transformations from European savant to new American mutant and back again. His style therefore tries, far too energetically, to catch the tempo of ‘this spectral form of civilisation which these Americans have invented’, and which he finds appalling and amazing by turns. The writing is filled with sudden disjunctions of tone – ‘a form realising itself in its pure operation and in pure circulation (hello Karl!)’; it is given to obtuse assertions (‘the jogger commits suicide by running up and down the beach’) which are supposed to redeem themselves as metaphor; it is full of heavy terminological breathing (‘the general cryogenisation of emotions’) that in the same paragraph expires in banalities only possibly comic in a book where comedy is in very short supply (‘Americans have no identity but they have wonderful teeth’). Sometimes in Wistful Vista (‘where are the days when girls used to wear bracelets on their ankles?’), he at other times sounds like an irate parent at meetings of the local school board (‘just look at the child sitting in front of his computer at school: do you think he has been made interactive, opened up to the world?’). This is more the spectre of Thornton Wilder than the ‘spectral America where everything depends on the existence of the ray of light bearing the objects’.

And so it goes, replete with patent absurdities (‘there are no cops in New York’). The result is a more than average demand on the reader’s leniency, as if surely the author must mean much more than he is saying. Readers have become accustomed by Modernist texts to persevere in spite of rebuffs of this kind so long as there are to be eventual awards. Ideally, these consist, not of meanings withheld, but of a glimpse into those risky and often embarrassing moments when a writer gets most urgently involved in the difficult task of finding out for himself meanings that are only possibly to be discovered in his way of handling the subject. Baudrillard, alas, pushes his luck.

His appreciation of authors who successfully manage to pull off this sort of thing is evident in his ‘Oublier Foucault’, a monograph translated into English as ‘Forgetting Foucault’ (Humanities and Society, Winter 1980). Foucault’s discourse, he says, duplicates the operations of power which it also proposes to trace. In illustration he describes how ‘the smallest qualifiers find their way into the slightest interstices of meaning; clauses and chapters wind into spirals; a magistral art of decentring allows the opening of new spaces (spaces of power and of discourse) which are immediately covered up by the meticulous outpouring of Foucault’s writing.’ By means of such analyses he hopes to show that ‘Foucault’s is not therefore a discourse of truth but a mythic discourse’ – a distinction that must allow for the fact that mythic discourse can itself produce truths, or why would anyone care about it? The real targets of his distinction are those academics who end up taking from Foucault ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’.

Baudrillard would like to create a mythic discourse for himself, and America is a failed effort to do so. For him America is the place and now is the moment at which the signs of the future are being produced in an irresistible flow of heat and light. His style is correspondingly hot, an effort to mimic the cinematic, televisual, kinetic processes by which media, like the acceleration of heat in the desert, bring about ‘a barely perceptible evaporation of meaning’. Equivalent to Foucault’s myth of power would be his own myth of desire, produced by the acceleration of signs. Desire is more ubiquitous than power, more immediately visible, full of more obvious blandishments. Naively, he intends to use language in a manner approximate to the grotesque mixtures of effect, the abrupt distortions, of electronic media, all in the service of that frantic self-referentiality which produces, as he says of video-stereo culture, ‘a surface intensity and deeper meaninglessness’.