One of the great browsers of all time, Jean Baudrillard, died in France last week. Here in America, his legacy is already cooling into embers. He’s the philosopher who was namechecked in The Matrix, the French kook who said the Gulf War did not take place, and the man who wrote this about the World Trade Center: “The horror for the 4,000 victims of dying in those towers was inseparable from the horror of living in them—the horror of living and working in sarcophagi of concrete and steel.”
That sentence about 9/11 demonstrates Baudrillard’s grotesque allure—his willingness to go to an inhuman extreme to make a surgical strike on your consciousness. It also reveals the basic problem with JB: To quote him is to misquote him. His writings are cumulative, a long spiraling arc of interpretation. For the record, he thought The Matrix misconstrued his ideas, and he did indeed believe the Gulf War took place. His point was that most of us experienced it as a CNN-televised event. I never followed Baudrillard’s writings through their post-structuralist thickets, but I cherish an early, accessible book of his titled America and published in translation in 1988. It’s Baudrillard 101, in which the man who proclaimed the death of the real has a surreal fling with the Reagan-era reality of New York, Los Angeles, and the desert Southwest.
In the introduction to Robert Frank’s The Americans, Jack Kerouac wrote that the photographer had “sucked a sad, sweet poem out of America.” In America, Baudrillard got America drunk on red wine and tried out all his best lines on her. Here’s his take on Salt Lake City:
Pompous Mormon symmetry. Everywhere marble: flawless, funereal (the Capitol, the organ in the Visitor Center). Yet a Los-Angelic modernity, too—all the requisite gadgetry for a minimalist, extraterrestrial comfort. The Christ-topped dome (all the Christs here are copied from Thorwaldesn’s and look like Bjorn Borg) straight of out of Close Encounters: religion as special effects. In fact the whole city has the transparency and supernatural, otherworldly cleanness of a thing from outer space.
Baudrillard has a fixation on Mormons, whom he calls “rich-living, puritanical Conquistadors.” They represent a distinctly American religion—untroubled by its origins and unburdened by the weight of history and tradition prevalent in Europe. The most famous line from America is Baudrillard’s contention that the United States is the “only remaining primitive society.” He perceived Americans as locked in a blithe embrace of the present—narcissistic, superficial, unaware. “I ask of the Americans only that they be Americans,” he wrote.
And I ask of Baudrillard that he be only Baudrillard. I like to leaf through America, reading sentences at random:
Why do people live in New York? … There is no human reason to be here, except for the sheer ecstasy of being crowded together. “Breakdancing” is a feat of acrobatic gymnastics. Only at the end do you realize it was actually dancing, when the dancer freezes into a lazy, languid pose (elbow on the ground, head nonchalantly resting in the palm of the hand, the pose you see on Etruscan tombs).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.
Similar to the Walkman, Baudrillard saw the solipsistic circle between man and computer in the word-processor era:
Hence, the academic grappling with his computer, ceaselessly correcting, reworking, and complexifying, turning the exercise into a kind of interminable psychoanalysis, memorizing everything in an effort to escape the final outcome, to delay the day of reckoning with death, and that other—fatal—moment of reckoning that is writing, by forming an endless feed-back loop with machine.
Throw in a few coffee breaks/e-mail checks and that’s an apt description of my writing process in 2007. Baudrillard was wary of computers and what he called the “ecstasy of communication” that the Internet makes more apparent each day. Perhaps this future-pessimism is why he never became a huge cult figure on the Web. But even JB has not escaped the grasp of YouTube. This filmed 2004 lecture Baudrillard gave at the European Graduate School shows that he was a master of the oracular French intellectual delivery. And, a machinima called “Grand Theft Simulacra” consists of a strange voice reading Baudrillard passages over Grand Theft Auto scenes. It’s an appropriate mash-up, as JB wrote often about Las Vegas, Los Angeles, advertising, consumerism, and mindless violence.
Baudrillard followed up America with several other journal-like, aphoristic volumes. Some criticized him for his seeming abandonment of formal argument and analysis. But the casual Baudrillard is my favorite Baudrillard, a wellspring of ideas that turn you sideways. So, before Baudrillard becomes required reading (he was a big despiser of academe), let your mind bounce off this book. You’ll get a sense of what the grad-student fuss is about, why he is a “password into the next universe,” an heir to Tocqueville, and an irreplaceable original.