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.”