French philosopher Jean Baudrillard nearly 40 years ago gave us the insights we need to understand today’s Trumpery. (See Peter Hulm’s companion article on Hillbilly Elegy)
If French philosopher Roland Barthes was the Charlie Chaplin of postmodernism, Baudrillard was its Buster Keaton. The “French theory” scholar Sylvère Lotringer reminds us that Baudrillard became famous in the United States – amongst certain circles – for his “deadpan, seemingly nihilistic views of consumer society”. And the essence of deadpan is that you don’t let on when you are making jokes.
Once member of a Maoist group, Baudrillard eventually came to believe that capitalism would “provoke its own demise”, says Lotringer. “It is still working on it.”
Whether Trump is the Terminator or not, we can find clues to 2016 in America, published in 1986 after Baudrillard travelled through the United States in an air-conditioned limousine making notes about American culture. He ended up in Santa Barbara, home of the rich and famous. What he found there — rather than in the American rustland — was “the tragedy of the utopian dream made reality,” he wrote. For him, this Californian city was the exemplar of the American dream as nightmare.
In this utopian landscape, “a very slight modification, a change of just a few degrees, would suffice to make it seem like hell,” he noted. A luxurious garden city perched on crumbling Pacific cliffs, Santa Barbara is threatened equally by coastal erosion, fire from its forested hills on one side and the (currently dormant) steel Kraken of giant oil platforms obtruding from the skywide ocean.
At the same it was “a paradise” — which for Baudrillard meant banality, monotony and grandeur, like Disneyland and the desert. “Long before I left, I could not get Santa Barbara out of my mind,” he said.
The Californian community seems to have had the same difficulty in getting Baudrillard out of its thoughts. One year after his death in 2007, the University of California in Santa Barbara brought together scholars from several parts of America, Europe and beyond (myself included) to discuss his legacy. The Chair of the English Department William Warner issued us a challenge: Why did Baudrillard consider this utopia so fragile? Where was the hell?
Living the fiction
So far as I remember, I was the only one to offer an answer. It went something like this:
In the 25 years since Baudrillard’s visit, Santa Barbara has become even more iconic. Million-dollar bungalows, $250-a-night breeze-block motels and celebrity mansions, university students wearing pajama bottoms at lunch-time as a fashion statement, teaching assistants who can only afford to live in houses 150 km away from campus, gorgeous views whose paths to the beach are blocked off by signs warning of the danger of earth slides — everything offers itself for incorporation into something more than a personal drama, more than social display, something more like a parable.
Strolling towards the souvenir shops and marine centre on the pier I found the epiphany that gave me an answer to the Californian professor. Looking over the railings, I saw a single file of blankets on the sand marching out to the edge of the sea, each loaded with a collection of objects — including a paper Eiffel Tower — and a message for anyone who cared to look down from the boardwalk five metres above and (the homeless clearly hoped) to benevolently toss down some change. Their owners were as absent as Ozymandias in the desert of Shelley’s poem. But one piece of cardboard asserted defiantly, as I remember it: “I am not a bum.”
This message declaring one human being’s rejection of the obvious reality gave me a shock of recognition. Here on the Santa Barbara beach one could see the shift of a few degrees in paradise, the price of this utopia. The sea did not represent the glassy promise of unending horizons, but the end of an illusion as in The Truman Story. Here, in the sand, the dream ran out, and what protruded from the underside of this carpet of affluence was the detritus on which the utopia floated. The Pacific represented not the opening to another world but the barrier to escape.
The cult of blindness
You could not say that the homelessness was the price of the affluence. It seemed rather the alternative to the paradise, presented to observers as equally valid, as if being destitute could assert itself as a life-style choice rather than as simply bad luck.
My observations sent me back to Baudrillard’s comments on Alexis de Tocqueville, another French outsider who took in America like a fast-food addict and produced so sharp a vision of its culture that commentators still turn to his generalizations of the U.S. in the 1830s to explain the nation today. (Also see “American Journey: Traveling With Tocqueville in Search of Democracy” in America by U.S. journalist and author Richard Reeves.)
“Tocqueville describes the beneficial effects of democracy and the American constitution with considerable enthusiasm,” Baudrillard recalls. “He then describes with equal lucidity the extermination of the Indians and the condition of the Negroes, without ever bringing these two realities together. As if good and evil had developed separately”.
At the same time, Baudrillard did not seek to repair Tocqueville’s splintered vision, and with good reason: “The same paradox faces us today: We shall never resolve the enigma of the relation between the negative foundations of greatness and the greatness itself. America is powerful and original; America is violent and abominable. We should not seek to deny either of these aspects, nor reconcile them”.
It should therefore be no surprise if in 2012 we had a U.S. President committed to government action to give all citizens health insurance (which he almost did), to reduce unemployment (which he did), to create jobs and scale back imperialist adventures (which he did), while at the same time a vocal and politically powerful group opposed and opposes all federal government spending, particularly ‘Obamacare’, promotes self-reliance, urges a fundamentalist Christian takeover of the state, and celebrates U.S. attempts to impose its will and ideas on the rest of the world. What Baudrillard, and Toqueville taught us, is that these are not incompatible in America.
What Baudrillard noted was “the absence and, moreover, the lack of need for metaphysics and the imaginary in American life”. He asserts: “The real is not connected with the impossible and no failure can throw it into question. What is thought in Europe becomes reality in America”. Europeans, Baudrillard insists, often get Americans wrong, since Europeans believe that “nothing exists which has not been conceptualized. Not only do they [Americans] care little for such a view, but their perspective is the very opposite: it is not conceptualizing reality, but realizing concepts and materializing ideas, that interests them”.
No need for metaphysics
No wonder the most vibrant American philosophy has been pragmatism. Even Transcendentalism was a practical form of thinking, and Baudrillard saw in cinematography a realization of the materialism that in Europe can only remain an idea. From the dream world of Santa Barbara to the grudge politics of the Tea Party — for whom resentment is the only real link with the original Bostonian dissidents — might seem more than a universe away. But through the wormhole of Baudrillard’s America the trip is no more than a Star Trek moment’s distance from now.
It is no secret that the Tea Party was funded by America’s extreme “Christian” business leaders as “a grassroots movement” and was overpromoted by Fox News. But this could hardly have surprised Baudrillard. He was thus moved to ask himself: “Why are the sects so powerful and dynamic?” His answer: “From the beginning, the sects played the major role in the move towards an achieved utopia, which is the equivalent of an ‘acting out'”.
As a result, the sects clash with traditional, European-inspired Christianity: “They it is who live on utopia (the Church considers it a virtual heresy) and who strive to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth, whereas the Church restricts itself to the hope of salvation and theological virtues”. You could substitute politics for religion in this sentence, since they are equivalent in the Tea Party scale of values. For Tea Party advocates the aim of politics is to bring about utopia on earth, while conventional politics is satisfied with the hope of salvation. And politics as compromise is despised across American society, whether by business, by the military or by media.
“It is as though America as a whole had espoused this sect-like destiny: the immediate concretization of all perspectives of salvation. The whole of America is preoccupied with the sect as a moral institution, with its immediate demand for beatification, its material efficacy, its compulsion for justification, and doubtless also with its madness and frenzy.
“This is a society that is endlessly concerned to vindicate itself, perpetually seeking to justify its own existence. Everything has to be made public. The society’s ‘look’ is a self-publicizing one. The American flag itself bears witness to this by its omnipresence. It is simply the label of the finest successful international enterprise, the U.S. This explains why the hyperrealists were able to paint it naively, without either irony or protest.”
No wonder the Trumpists suspect the United Nations of trying to ride roughshod over individual liberties, when this means doing what makes you feel good and, finally, special.
Baudrillard even anticipated the LGBTQ movement and the reaction against it in 2016 America. In the world of post-humanist gendering, the pop idols (Boy George, Michael Jackson and David Bowie) are “neither masculine, nor feminine, but not homosexual either” in their appearance. Those who feel threatened by this undecidability can have large families, he noted: “There at least you still have proof that two people are needed so difference still exists.”
But Santa Barbara is as much a threat to Tea Partyism as conventional politics: “Santa Barbara is simply a dream and it has in it all the processes of dreams: the wearisome fulfilment of all desires, condensation, displacement, facility of action”. America, he concluded, faces “the crisis of an achieved utopia, confronted with the problem of its duration and permanence”. The 30 years since he wrote have shown the problems of maintaining utopia.
By contrast, what Baudrillard wrote about Reagan seems to have become only more true of politics as the years have passed. He terms “paradoxical confidence” the “confidence we place in someone on the basis of their failure or their absence of qualities“. In this failure, “the group, instead of denying its leader and dispersing, closes ranks around him and creates religious, sectarian, or ecclesiastical institutions to preserve the faith.”
Reagan, Baudrillard suggested, “worked up his euphoric, cinematic, extraverted, advertising vision of the artificial paradises of the West to an all-American dimension. He has introduced a system where the easy life exerts a kind of blackmail, reviving the original American pact of an achieved utopia.” Sound familiar?
What happened – and where are we today?
What has changed in the past decade? To manual and service workers, and many of the middle class, as well as the hidden folk with their blankets on the Santa Barbara beach, it has today become obvious the post-industrial utopia excludes them in its present form. The dream of a self-governing citizenry has been shattered — and not just by the collapse of the housing bubble and the COVID-19 economy.
Baudrillard recognized that people feel alienated from a fully human life not just at work, as Marx maintained, but also at home in front of the television where you exercise your freedom by imagining you will buy things. It was Norman Mailer of all people who realized that Americans find psychological solutions to social problems through 30-second bursts of advertising. Buy a Big Mac and enjoy cultural diversity when you see MacDo’s ads on television. Get superpower by driving a new car. Just down the road, Starbucks will help save the Third World for you with the cents it adds to the price of your coffee.
Baudrillard saw that we don’t even need ‘stuff’ these days to get our satisfactions. Just the idea will do.
But dreams are not reality, and rarely provide utopia. Even America’s most pessimistic writers do not tackle the issue, except for Nathanael West. He knew the media industry of New York before he moved to the dream factories of Hollywood. In his last novel Day of the Locust (1939) he gave us a graphic picture of a riot by the resentful excluded from America’s mendacious fantasies (the original title was The Cheated). “All those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence,” he wrote.
Among Democrats, only Bernie Sanders types promised us a politics that is not dispensed from above. Across the board media doubted vocally and vociferously whether this was achievable. Even in Santa Barbara, people know that poverty in 2016 was not just a life-style choice.
Finally, how serious was the French thinker about his ideas? About as much as his onetime guru, Marshall McLuhan, I’d guess. McLuhan wouldn’t be caught being earnestly academic, either. He declared: “My purpose is to employ facts as tentative probes, as means of insight, of pattern recognition, rather than to use them in the traditional and sterile sense.”
Peter Hulm is deputy editor of Global Geneva.
Peter Hulm studied with Baudrillard at the European Graduate School in Saas Fee and has written fuller articles on his ideas for the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies and Semiophagy, the Journal of ‘Pataphysics and Existential Semiotics. Both are available here.
Daily Kos on Tea Party tactics
Jean Baudrillard. 1986. America. Trans. Chris Turner. Verso. ISBN: 978-1844676828. New Edition edition (September 20, 2010), but the 1989 edition is recommended for its colour photos.