living the post-American dream

Baudrillard’s America was one of the first books of “theory” I encountered as a student. It’s a weirdly poetic, aphoristic book. I honestly can’t tell you what to make of it, but here are few bits.

Deep down, the US, with is space, its technological refinement, its simulation is the only remaining primitive society. The fascinating this is to travel through it as though it were the primitive society of the future, a society of complexity, hybridity, and the greatest intermingling, of a ritualism that is ferocious but whose superficial diversity lends it beauty, a society inhabited by a total metasocial fact with unforeseeable consequences, whose immanence is breathtaking, yet lacking a past through which to reflect on this, and therefore fundamentally primitive… Its primitivism has passed into the hyperbolic, inhuman character of a universe that is beyond us, that far outstrips its own moral, social, or ecological rationale.

The only question in this journey is: how fare can we go in the extermination of meaning, how far can we go in the non-referential desert form without cracking up and, of course, still keep alive the esoteric charm of disappearance?

Utopia has been achieved here and anti-utopia is being achieved: the anti-utopia of unreason, of deterritorialization, of the indeterminacy of language and the subject, of the neutralization of all values, of the death of culture. America is turning all this into reality and it is going about it in an uncontrolled, empirical way. All we do is dream and, occasionally, try and act out our dreams. America, by contrast, draws the logical, pragmatic consequences from everything that can possibly be thought. In this sense, it is naive and primitive; it knows nothing of the irony of concepts, nor the irony of seduction.

What is Baudrillard’s America? It’s the evangelical huckster driving a van filled with noxious, ersatz cure-alls down the highway at 100 mph with a loaded shotgun in his lap, drinking beer from some hat-straw contraption and slamming the whole thing into a 50-car pile-up, the cure-alls spilling out into some toxic event. It’s DeLillo’s White Noise to the nth degree. Baudrillard was writing about 80’s Reagan America but, absurd as the book often is, I think that in many respects it’s more accurate today than ever.

One could look at Trump’s America as the beginning of the end, but it strikes me to say that it is more reasonable to see it as the end of the end. To take Baudrillard seriously would be to consider that the beginning was at Plymouth Rock.  However I think it’s easier to imagine a beginning in the post-industrial era, in the rise of other world economies (Germany, Japan, and now China), in the after-effects of “winning” the Cold War: so somewhere in the 70s or 80s. It’s the beginning of the end of a version of the American dream that led to the country as some egalitarian, cosmopolitan global leader.  From Baudrillard’s perspective we were never meant to be that.

Of course all endings are also beginnings of a sort, a post-America to come. What would Baudrillard imagine it to be? Perhaps like The Matrix inspired by his work: an illusion covering brutal, systematic exploitation, a fantasy of messiahs and revolutions that never really emerge. What else? A brutal, incoherent theocracy. An inhuman corporate machine. Unrestrained scientific-capitalist, techno-entrepeneurial adventurism. Military-entertainment complex. Each one, in a series, geographically linked. I imagine you can see your state in one of these. To be sure, none of these are interested in justice, rights, or ethics–at least not in a sense that the other American dream would have imagined. Perhaps you still want to fight for that America. I don’t blame you. And that’s partly what led to the rejection of Baudrillard in cultural studies: his work is antithetical to such political projects. For Baudrillard, our primitivism is to be celebrated.

  • stevendkrause

    It’s interesting that you are pointing to Baudrillard here, Alex. I’ve been thinking about him a bit more lately too– or rather, I’ve been thinking about how I thought about him in my dissertation 20 years ago. The two books I referenced the most were Simulations and, even more, The Gulf Ward Did Not Take Place. I don’t know what it says that the likes of Baudrillard are as (if not more) relevant today, if it means that things have always been kinda bad or if things are about to get a lot worse. But it does make me think about re-reading.