I’ve been reading Postmodernist patriarch Jean Baudrillard’s book about the USA, called America (Verso 1988, new edition 2010). Although it’s occasionally mired in the kind of obscurantist, elliptical wittering that he’s rightly condemned for by some people– the gobbledygook blindly imitated to devastatingly stupid effect by many academics, critics and artists since the 1990s– it also has some incredibly sharp observations about a country and a populace that at heart he obviously enjoys a great deal. He often unfavourably compares his native France to the USA, although this is not as funny as his bullseye hits on US culture; these are not very far from what (postmodernist) native writers like Chuck Palahniuk and David Foster Wallace would be doing ten years or so later.
Writing in the mid 1980s, Baudrillard also makes some incredibly prescient and accurate observations about where Reaganism, Thatcherism and the whole greed-is-good yuppie privatisation era would lead politics, morality and society. You’ll need to read the book for those predictions, though, because they’re too long for a blog post.
Here’s some of his funnier, pithier aphorisms and observations about America instead:
Examples of the mania for asepsis
“The Getty museum where old paintings look new, bleached and gleaming, cleansed of all patina and craquelure, with an artificial lustre that echoes the fake Pompeian decor all around them.
In Philadelphia, a radical sect named ‘MOVE’, with a bizarre set of rules, including one forbidding both the practise of autopsy and the removal of rubbish, is cleared out by the police, who kill eleven people by fire and burn down thirty adjacent houses, including those (the irony of it!) of all the neighbours who had called for the sect to be removed.
… they certainly do smile at you here, though neither from courtesy, nor from an effort to charm. This smile signifies only the need to smile. It is a bit like the Cheshire Cat’s grin: it continues to float on faces long after all emotion has disappeared… It is part of the general cryogenization of emotions. It is, indeed, the smile the dead man will wear at his funeral home, as he clings to hope of making contact even in the next world. The smile of immunity, the smile of advertising: ‘This country is good. I am good. We are the best’… Smile if you have nothing to say. Most of all, do not hide the fact that you have nothing to say nor your total indifference to others. Let this emptiness, this profound indifference shine out spontaneously in your smile. Give your emptiness and indifference to others, light up your face with the zero degree of joy and pleasure, smile, smile, smile… Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth.”
“Nothing evokes the end of the world more than a man running straight ahead on a beach, swathed in the sounds of his Walkman, cocooned in the solitary sacrifice of his energy, indifferent even to catastrophes since he expects destruction to come only as the fruit of his own efforts, from exhausting the energy of a body that has in his own eyes become useless. Primitives, when in despair, would commit suicide by swimming out to sea until they could swim no longer. The jogger commits suicide by running up and down the beach. His eyes are wild, saliva drips from his mouth. Do not stop him. He will either hit you or simply carry on dancing in front of you like a man possessed.”
This reminds me of three things: 1) the small but steady drip of “healthy” people who have heart attacks or drop dead while jogging, running, taking part in marathons or otherwise “getting fit”. 2) the deathly grey, flabby sacks of office flesh who think they can stave off death and dilapidation by staggering around the City of London at lunchtime in their tiny shorts. 3) Werner Herzog’s wonderful description of yoga as “an abomination”, a total waste of a human being’s limited time and energy.
“All their activities here have a surreptitious end-of-the-world feel to them: these Californian scholars with monomaniacal passions for things French or Marxist, the various sects obsessively concerned with chastity or crime, these joggers sleepwalking in the mist like shadows escaped from Plato’s cave, the very real mental defectives or mongols let out of the psychiatric hospitals (this letting loose of the mad into the city seems a sure sign of the end of the world, the loosing of the seals of the Apocalypse), these obese individuals who have escaped from the hormone laboratories of their own bodies…”
I’m not wild about him calling them “mental defectives or mongols”, but this is precisely one of the things that shocked me when I visited the US, over twenty years after Baudrillard did. There seemed to be sick, homeless, disabled and mentally ill people just hanging around in the streets raving and untreated, in vast numbers… even, very memorably to me, right in the centre of reputedly liberal– by American standards anyway– San Francisco. Raving meth heads on the daylight shopping streets, crack dens two blocks away from gentrified areas. Of course there are homeless or disenfranchised people in Britain, in France and all across Europe, there are people who don’t get the healthcare and housing they need or deserve, and frequently the privileged are far less sympathetic towards the needy than they should be. There aren’t dozens of mentally ill people camping under every urban bridge, though. Elsewhere in the world– even in poor countries, especially in poor countries– I never witnessed such a backward, nation-wide consensus of callousness towards people who are poor, sick or unable to help themselves through no fault of their own. It did seem apocalyptic, in a quintessentially American and banal way. This is an incredibly wealthy, developed country where it seems at least fifty percent of the population is prepared to seriously argue that anybody who can’t afford to live should just be left to die.
I used to wonder why zombies were such a big thing in American pop culture, and apparently ever more so, until I went there. Then it all made sense. In the back alleys and ghettos of their cities there actually are the surviving-but-not-living, shambling wreckages of lives truncated by poverty and illness. Everyone else regards them as subhuman at worst, a nuisance that’s never going away at best. Their numbers grow all the time because nobody can imagine helping them. Lock your doors, bar your windows, defend your perimeter. Baudrillard also goes into this in more detail, later in the book:
“Money is fluid. Like grace, it is never yours. Coming to claim it is an offence against the divinity. Have you deserved this favour? Who are you and what are you going to do with it? You are suspected of wanting to put it to some use, and an evil one no doubt, whereas money is so beautiful in the fluid and intemporal state it is in at the bank, when it is being invested rather than spent. Shame on you and kiss the hand that gives it to you.”
“Laughter on American television has taken the place of the chorus in Greek tragedy. It is unrelenting; the news, the stock exchange reports, and the weather forecast are about the only things spared. But so obsessive is it that you go on hearing it even behind the voice of Reagan or the Marines disaster in Beirut. Even behind the adverts. It is the monster from Alien prowling around in all the corridors of the spaceship. In other countries, the business of laughing is left to the viewers. Here, their laughter is put on screen, integrated into the show. It is the screen that is laughing and having a good time. You are simply left alone with your consternation.”
As great as this little rant is, he’s either affecting ignorance for comic effect or he never watched television at all before he went to the USA because laugh tracks and (real or fake) live audience responses have been a part of broadcasting throughout Europe, in Britain, in Australia, in Japan and elsewhere for many decades before Baudrillard wrote this, and they still are. Prime time Japanese television, for example, is actually far worse for this “TV show is having a good time, doesn’t matter if you are” approach than American TV. Even if there’s an audience and a laugh/reaction track, they have little boxes in the corner of the screen where the hosts or studio guests have to be seen laughing, approving of everything, or otherwise expressing a simulacrum of the appropriate emotion.
He wrote this before YouTube even existed
The slightest vibration in a statistical model, the tiniest whim of a computer are enough to bathe some piece of abnormal behaviour, however banal, in a fleeting glow of fame.”