The American Utopia and the Meaninglessness of the Election

”America” by Jean Baudrillard

Informations Forlag, 2004 [1986], 186 pp.

 America had been standing on my bookshelf for a few years before I got around to reading it. I bought the Danish translation (published by Informations Forlag) expecting to use the book for a paper. That plan never materialized but the book was still on my to-read list. Since the coming US presidential election has been omnipresent in news and conversation the last couple of weeks, I thought now might be the perfect time to get a new perspective on the country – and who better to present that perspective than French philosopher Jean Baudrillard.41cwtpwmbll

The book is an autobiography over Baudrillard’s travels in the US. Yet the book does not go into great detail describing what the author sees and does on his travels. Instead Baudrillard paints a picture of the idea that is “America” in a more abstract sense. This is what makes the book interesting but it is also what makes it frustrating and at times makes its arguments appear unfounded. In short, this is anything but a positivist study. Rather it is a piece of philosophical art or poetry pondering the idea of America.

Simulacrum over reality

One of the central ideas of America is that the US is more than any other country obsessed with how things appear more than how they actually are. Baudrillard calls this phenomenon “simulacrums” and though the concept runs as a current through America it is never really defined in the book. Fortunately, the Danish edition I read came with a handy foreword by Michael Helm. Helm refers to an essay by Baudrillard about the 1991 Gulf War wherein Baudrillard argued that the common American perception of the war had nothing to do with reality and everything to do with the TV-images feed to the people. The actual events became insignificant compared to the simulacrums. It is this discrepancy between the object and the image of that object which Baudrillard argues characterized the American society as a whole.

The United States of America are a “hyper reality”, a “utopia”, a “complete simulacrum”, a “gigantic hologram” (p. 50-52). To understand America, you must ignore the country as it “really” is and instead engage the fictional America. The idea of what America is and what it stands for. It is this fiction Americans inhabit and it is this fiction that remains the world’s leading superpower.

So what it this fiction then? It is the fiction of freedom, of democracy and of the self-made man. It is all these ideas and concepts which Americans believe to have completely realized in their society making it a liberal utopia. According to (my reading of) Baudrillard, Americans are unconcerned with the distance between these societal ideals and society as it actually is. In other words, the hyper reality of America remains in spite of the way mass surveillance threatens freedom, the wealth of the few threatens democracy, and inequality threatens social mobility. While these problems do exist, they are not AMERICA, the idea, which remains more important to Americans – and indeed, the rest of the world –  than societal figures.

The old and the new world

Baudrillard repeatedly describes the US by comparing it to Europe. The Old World is both defined and limited by its history and culture. It has a strong philosophical tradition which makes for a critical and melancholic mentality. In short, we Europeans think and have long ago given up on utopian dreams and revolutions in favor of a critical reflection. When faced with visions and dreams we tend to point out their shortcomings.

In contrast, America is a country without culture nor history. Americans are preoccupied with the present and the future. Lacking the European ability (and willingness) to reflect critically about everything, Americans take action. Instead of analyzing the shortcomings of their society they behave as if it was the eternally actualized utopia. In the US, culture is not something separated from everyday life (as in Europe where formalized culture gets its own segment in the newspaper). Instead American culture is the everyday life of Americans: the grocery shopping, the highways and the crowded streets of New York City.

Sounds confusing? Unfortunately, Baudrillard’s analysis rarely becomes concrete and I did read a handful of reviews of America who called the book both dumb and racist (mostly by Americans who were not too happy being labelled uncultured and primitive). Nonetheless, some of Baudrillard’s ideas do have merit. In my view, the ability to dream and to reach out for utopia is much stronger in the US than in Europe where the approach to society is definitely more critical and less action-oriented. Even so, it is easy to see why some readers are frustrated with Baudrillard’s broad generalizations with little empirical foundation.

The decline of the American dream

One of the central ideas of America’s final chapter has some additional merit. Baudrillard argues that the US is in decline, not in a military or economic sense, but in an ideational sense. Though originally published in 1986, before the fall of the Soviet Union, America states that the US has won the ideological battle over all its adversaries and has been left unopposed. This position of ideological hegemony, so to speak, is however leading to the ruination of the American dream. When faced with opposition, Americans rally to their values and this energizes the utopia. But with no clear opponent and facing no resistance, the American society is simply drifting onward due to inertia; movement caused by a long lost infusion of energy. This means that we do not know if the American dream is actually already dead and simply continuing to drift because there is nothing there to stop it.

It may in this regard be tempting to point out that the US military and economy remains the world’s largest and that the US in this regards remains the world’s sole superpower. However, there is a valid argument to be made, that the US has lost much of its ideological power and ability to inspire the world. While some Americans may still consider the US a utopia, this image has taken some serious blows domestically and abroad.

Baudrillard’s point is quite similar to one made by Zaki Laïdi in A World Without Meaning (1994). Writing after the end of the Cold War, Laïdi argues that international politics have lost their overall framework of meaning and that politicians are left without any direction for their foreign policy. As he notes, “power is nothing when it has lost its meaning” (p. 16) and this may be the same argument as Baudrillard was making. However, unlike Baudrillard, Zaïdi argues that the decline of an overarching narrative for international relations (such as the Cold War) results in the rise of nationalism and the pursuit of short-sighted national interests.

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Voting time: Inertia versus nationalism

Though not a perfect comparison, the interpretation of the ideological crisis of Baudrillard and Laïdi can be likened to the two presidential candidates of the 2016 election. Hillary R. Clinton is the incarnation of Baudrillard’s concept of inertia. She represents the system as we know it and she argues that the US is great and will remain so. She campaigns under the well-known simulacrum of all the values of the American utopia. It’s business as usual. It’s keeping up the facade.

Donald Trump on the other hand reflects the predictions of Zaki Laïdi. Devoid of a grand ideological narrative, Trump represents the rise of nationalism and an America-first attitude. Trump actually denies the utopian paradigm of the US in favor of a conservative one. “Make America great again”. At the same time, Trump appeals to the large masses which already Baudrillard characterized as the disenfranchised; the ones left behind by the utopian discourse. Hence the American utopia is being undermined both from below by vast unsatisfied masses and from above by an elite who now navigates in a world with no grander narrative than their own interest. And this is all wrapped in the massive showbiz simulacrum that is Donald Trump – the master of social medias.

As a whole America is somewhat hard to understand and to apply. Even so it does provide a new vocabulary to discuss some of the elements of American culture and way of thinking which continue to puzzle Europeans.

Reviewed by Nikolaj K. Andersen

 

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