“France is just a country. America is a concept.”

-Jean Baudrillard

Hegel wrote that tragedy occurs when two value-systems—both of which are valid in their own way yet at the same time fundamentally opposed—clash. Nothing could better describe the Nov. 20 interview between Deborah Solomon and the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in the New York Times Magazine. On the one hand, the paradigm of the “French” intellectual – witty and effusive, bursting with grandiose pronouncements on life, history, war, and philosophy, weaving brilliant on-the-spot observations with theoretical formulations, and at times skirting the shoals of nonsense. On the other hand, the paradigm of the urban journalist – incisive, discerning, alert, moral, pragmatic, and Jewish. Reading this interview, one can feel the tension, the quick responses, and rapid sallies of gesticulation they must have exchanged. It is truly one of the strangest interviews I have ever read. I doubt that either really understood a word the other said; in the words of Cool Hand Luke, what they had there was a “failure to communicate.”

At one point, Solomon asks Baudrillard, “So you don’t think that the U.S. invaded Iraq to spread freedom?” The question itself is already somewhat ridiculous – who among literate people seriously believes the U.S. invaded Iraq to “spread freedom”? But, then again, who could have possibly predicted so ridiculous an answer as Baudrillard gave,

“What we want is to put the rest of the world on the same level of masquerade and parody that we are on, to put the rest of the world into simulation, so all the world becomes total artifice and then we are all-powerful. It’s a game.”

What can you really say to that? Later, Baudrillard declares that, “France is a byproduct of American culture,” and recounts his falling-out with Susan Sontag. She was incensed, reports Baudrillard, and she blasted him “for having denied that reality exists.” Solomon, who has become noticeably exasperated, asks in evident frustration, “Isn’t that kind of simplistic reasoning why people get so tired of French intellectuals?” Baudrillard’s response has its own absurd logic and lapidary perfection: “There are no more French intellectuals.”

I find some of Jean Baudrillard’s ideas to be among the most fascinating and compelling I have ever encountered, and yet at the same time it’s hard to take an author seriously who uses words like “hyperreal” and “transistorize.” Baudrillard, currently a professor emeritus of sociology at the College du France and the European Graduate School, is a member of that eclectic generation of French intellectuals which includes Francois Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Derrida. Baudrillard writes with a kind of breathless electric lyricism, fast-paced and translucent, spangled with jargon and a technological idiom which gives his prose both a metaphorical suppleness and a character connotative of post-industrial modernity. Whether or not one chooses to sanction the larger theoretical import of his work as true or even meaningful, it can’t be denied that Baudrillard possesses an astonishing faculty for apercu – his poetic, impressionistic accounts of various facets of American and modern life are themselves sufficient warrant to justify his future reading. For instance, to pick just one jewel from a treasure-trove, he writes of New York,

“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.”

Of course, only a Frenchman could visit New York in the 1980’s and call it “rotten with puritanism.”

I first read the book Simulacra and Simulations (1981) in a few glorious hours while riding the Munich public tram system in an endless loop. There could be no elective affinity between the content of a book and the context of its reading more felicitous – the intricate choreography of intersecting trams, the feeling of transience which all motion imparts, the themes of the technological and the mechanical, the eminent repeatability of the experience, the theme of endless circulation, the abrogation of physical distance as lived experience – even the pall of strangeness and urge to decipher which are natural to the expatriate had parts to play. Emerson once wrote that from a carriage the world looks like a little play. From a tram it looks like stock footage for an unaired advertisement.

The basic thesis Baudrillard presents in Simulacra and Simulations is that the historical ratio between a thing and its representation has irrevocably elapsed and come undone. It is as if instead of the mirror being held up to nature, somehow the mirror had come to be held up to itself, bringing into being some entirely new nature in a space of infinite reflection. By way of comparison Baudrillard references a story of Borges in which there is a map of an empire so perfect as to be exactly coextensive with the territory itself. However, as the empire begins a new decadent phase, the maintenance of the map suffers, and slowly it peels away to reveal the underlying earth. Something similar is happening today, Baudrillard claims, but it is not the map but the territory itself which is disappearing.

A simulacrum is a symbol without a real referent. Our representations are simulacral, Baudrillard argues, because they are no longer representative of anything real. The map precedes the territory; the representation precedes the real which is instead generated and produced according to its pre-given representation. With respect to simulation, Baudrillard gives an example of a mental patient who in the process of simulating an illness exhibits all the symptoms of that illness. If an illness is constituted by a set of symptoms, and if some patient possesses those symptoms, then it becomes deeply problematic to distinguish between what is genuine and what is simulated, and indeed there is no operational difference. All action has become simulation, Baudrillard argues, because we no longer do anything which is not a mock-up of something else. We go to war pretending to go to war, prepossessed by some vague notion that this is how people go to war. Doctors give their best impression of being doctors. Yet the crucial movement for Baudrillard is not to malign this state of affairs as a fall from genuineness or authenticity, but rather to assert simulation as the definitive condition of the present period. If all doctors give their best impressions of being doctors, then this is all it could ever mean to be a doctor: to act like a doctor is supposed to act. The predominance of simulacra and simulation has resulted in what Baudrillard calls the hyperreal, the real which is too real to be real: e.g., the perfect “girl next door” who is a thousand times hotter than any girl you have ever lived next door to, or perhaps the paradigmatic nuclear family (2.3 children) which exists only as simulacral representation and simulated instantiation. Moreover, this notion of hyperreality is centered in America as its diffusive, spiritual center.

The book America (1988) answered the question, asked by no one really, what would it be like if De Tocqueville and Kerouac took a lot of benzedrine and read a lot of critical theory and drove around America writing an insane book about it. It would be a tremendous understatement to say that Baudrillard is enamored of America, which he calls “Astral America [l’Amerique siderale].” He loves its vast distances and unthinkable magnitudes, its vertiginous urban densities without center, its catalogue of utopias, its everytown, USA anonymity, and the “brutal” naïvete of its landscapes. He thinks that Disneyland is a microcosm of America. He calls America a “perfect simulacrum” and a “power museum.” Baudrillard frequently reaches an ecstatic pitch when describing America.

“Astral America. The lyrical nature of pure circulation. As against the melancholy of European analyses….The exhilaration of obscenity, the obscenity of obviousness, the obviousness of power, the power of simulation….Sideration. Star-blasted, horizontally by the car, altitudinally by the plane, electronically by television, geologically by deserts, stereolithically by the megalopoloi, transpolitically by the power game, the power museum that American has become for the whole world.”

Throughout his journey in America, Baudrillard is acutely conscious of his status as a European in America. Whereas he sees Europe as inescapably historical, ethnic, factitious, cloistered, and conditioned, he sees America as hyperreal, autochthonous, and as a glamorous totality of simulation. Almost since its very inception America has found herself the uneasy object of some European fantasy. America is simultaneously a land of barbarism and of the Enlightenment in the eyes of Europe, a land where flourish both The Nature Theater of Oklahoma and the culture-industry. Baudrillard writes,

“For me there is no truth of America. I ask of the Americans only that they be Americans. I do not ask them to be intelligent, sensible, original. I ask them only to populate a space incommensurate with my own, to be for me the highest astral point, the finest orbital space.”

The continual reaction I have when reading Baudrillard is one of appreciation tempered by reflexive moderation. He’s always on to something, but he always go too far, way too far. The question of reading Baudrillard comes down to whether one tropes this exaggerative propensity as a prolepsis of the future or just pointless hyperbole. While the notions of simulacrum and simulation are undoubtedly relevant and important and perhaps even specially relevant to America, Baudrillard’s fantastic vision of the latter as total simulacrum is itself a simulacrum inasmuch as it is a rhetorical image of an America that doesn’t exist. Baudrillard doesn’t see America for itself; he only sees it through the haze of some European feverdream. Much like Kafka’s portrait of America in his novel Amerika (1927), Baudrillard’s America is an eminently European one, “a space incommensurate with his own,” a land which does not so much appear in its own light as in the dark backlight of a Europe overburdened with history and time. The tragedy of Baudrillard – and in a sense the tragedy of a certain kind of European intellectual – is that America is ultimately like France; it is “just a country” and not the font of some wonderful hyperreality or green light or orgastic future. There is no diamond as big as the Ritz somewhere in the West. It’s an ice-palace world, and we’re all going to die in it. Unfortunately, the real is here to stay.

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