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.

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