American Glimpses (1 and 2)

Jean Baudrillard

from America

(1986)

003Astral America. The lyrical nature of pure circulation. As against the melancholy of European analyses. The direct star-blast from vectors and signals, from the vertical and the spatial. As against the fevered distance of the cultural gaze.

Joy in the collapse of metaphor, which here in Europe we merely grieve over. The exhilaration of obscenity of obviousness, the obviousness of power, the power of simulation. As against our disappointed virginity, our chasms of affectation. Sideration. Star-blasted, horizontally by the car, altitudinally by the plane, electronically by television, geologically by deserts, stereolythically by the megalopoloi, transpolitically by the power game, the power museum that America has become for the whole word.

For me there is no truth of America. I ask of the Americans only that they be Americans. I do not ask them to intelligent, sensible, original. I ask them only to populate a space incommensurate with my own, to be for me the highest astral point, the finest orbital space. Why should I go and decentralize myself in France, in the ethnic and the local, which are merely the shreds and vestiges of centrality? I want to excentre myself, to become eccentric, but I want to do so in a place that is the centre of the world. And, in this sense, the latest fast-food outlet, the most banal suburb, the blandest of giant American cars or the most insignificant cartoon-strip majorette is more at the centre of the world than any of the cultural manifestations of old Europe. This is the only country which gives you the opportunity to be so brutally naïve: things, faces, skies, and deserts are expected to be simply what they are. This is the land of “just as it is.”

America always gives me a feeling of real asceticism. Culture, politics -and sexuality too – are seen exclusively in terms of the desert, which here assumes the status of a primal scene. Everything disappears before that desert vision. Even the body, by an ensuing effect of undernourishment, takes on a transparent form, a lightness near to complete disappearance. Everything around me suffers this same desertification. But this radical experimentation is the only thing that enables me to get through and produces that astral quality I have not found anywhere else.

America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved. Everything here is real and pragmatic, yet it is the stuff of dreams too. It may be the truth of America can only be seen by a European, since he alone will discover here the perfect simulacrum – that of the immanence and material transcription of all values. The Americans, for their part, have no sense of simulation. They are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it, since they themselves are the model. As a result, they are the ideal material for an analysis of all the possible variants of the modern world. No more and no less in fact than were the primitive societies of their day. The same mythical and analytical excitement that made us look towards those earlier societies today impels us to look in the direction of America. With the same passion and the same prejudices.

In reality, you do not, as I had hoped, get any distance from Europe here. You do not acquire a fresh angle on it. When you turn around, it has quite simply disappeared. The point is that there is really no need to adopt a critical stance on Europe from here. That is something you can do in Europe. And what is there to criticize which has not been criticized a thousand times before? What you have to do is enter the fiction of America, enter American as fiction. It is, indeed, on this fictive basis that it dominates the world. Even if every detail were insignificant, America is something that is beyond us all.1

Steven “Jesse” Bernstein

Main Street U.S.A.

(1987)

001

We are in America. The pain is bad. We use anesthetics.

In Disneyland there is a place called “Main Street U.S.A.” Old time pinball machines that cost one cent, player pianos, singing shoeshine boys, friendly cops – a turn-of-the-century America that never was. I visited this place and was overcome by nausea. The unreality is dizzying. I sat on a bench in front of the barber shop. A marching band played in the distance.

This is the stuff they pound into you when you’re little: “No matter what you think you see this is America. Teevee, hand-over-your-heart, Wednesday crawling under the desks when the air raid sirens wail – driven by more duty than fear – tea-cher makes sure we have our little fingers locked together behind our heads, knees tucked up to our chins, then she crawls under her own desk. Hand over your heart or I’ll blow up the world. All clear and its back to work, cafeteria smells coming from the vents like nerve gas. Ours is the best country: there’s no barb wire except around the cattle and the criminals and the army and the towing lot and the airplane factory and the movie star’s houses… there’s no barbed wire in America. There’s a lot of concrete. America is encased in concrete molded in the shape of an enormous false history. This history has a face – Americans see this face when they close their eyes in prayer or death. In God we trust. That god is the false face of America: a gory history wearing a noble expression. Look at the Christians: cheap suits, late model family cars, neutral haircuts, completely deodorized. They are made in the image of their god. The churches are suburban wet dreams and stink of air freshener. The sort of temple in which the American god would feel at home. Twenty-two million people sunk in its body suffocating, inert, the flesh hardening quick. Think America! Buy America! Dream America!

002

The parade came into view, the band marching out front, filling the heart of Main Street U.S.A with the bright music of an imagined America. Brass instruments twinkled in the daylight… purple uniforms, flushed pink faces, white gloves. I watched them pass. After the band there was a long line of giant appliances – telephones, steam irons, radios – tooting, hissing, ringing as they marched. A parade of American inventions. Bringing up the rear were the Disney characters – Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, all of them. Watching all that big, noisy junk go by: where was the giant sub-machine gun spitting spent cartridges, napalm with charred screaming victims, the atom bomb… This was the America rammed down my throat, shoved up my ass, stuffed in my ears, held glaring against the raw eyeballs of my childhood. The America I was raised to believe in. Daffy Duck and power-mowers. Yahaaa-zuuuh! Yowwwwzzuhhhh! Pop-pop-pop goes the shine rag. A banjo played somewhere down the street. I went into a store and bought a derby. Then I went to a bar and got a cream soda. A nuclear war could not touch this place. Main Street U.S.A: the Safe Zone. Great palace of Fantasy Land glowing pink and blue in the distance. At night there would be fireworks. Davy Crockett would stroll in from Frontier Land and give a talk on fire safety. I went back to the bench with my cream soda and my derby and smoked a cigar. I was getting into the spirit of the thing, now. It was coming back to me. The flag, the virgin princess, Thomas Jefferson, all the glorious wars. I’m an American: everyone in the whole world loves me. Anyone who doesn’t love me deserves to be killed. There is barbed wire around Main Street… to keep the cattle from wandering. The air is solid yellow-grey concrete.

In this setting it is easy to see what Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Shlafly, Nancy and Ron, et al, are thinking. These people never shed the crushing weight of early training. Cub Scout hat and fluffy party dress fused with the soft pink skin, can only be removed surgically. Very risky operation. Good luck. Through their eyes, here on Main Street, it makes good sense: disappear the poor, reduce all ideological discourse to monotonous voice manipulated by soft invisible fingers, obedience enforced by blue steel tarantulas, styrofoam pioneer furniture, guns and plaster jesus. Whisper from a drawer in the Doc’s old roll-top: cops come and pull the thing our, smash it to pieces, burn everything. The owner is dragged outside, thrown into a deep hole and buried alive.

On other continents: Pueblo churchbells shot down by artillery, shaman’s tongues sliced out by nine-year-olds in U.S. Army fatigues; Europe trampled again, turned to dark red mud covered in deep tread marks, boot marks, tire marks; all hopeless ruins of the earth a dry dead pulp – vital juices have been drained into big tanks on the edge of Mainstreet U.S.A. Bones and wreckage make a 10,000 mile obstacle of death impassable by black rubber enemies. All ungodless dead.

Finally, only the twinkling of stars and the idle twirling of parasols. A young man runs out of the saloon and screams: “I want to be a girl!” He is shot down in the street by a purselipped clergyman. Standing in the door of the soda shop, the mayor waves: “Good job, reverend. Got no use for those types on Main Street. Scream of the seltzer bottle.

It is all monotonous: the murder, the giant mice, the marching bands. It’s a set-up. Setup 004meaning everything is prearranged: the festive atmosphere, the killing, even the stars, everything that’s said and felt here is rehearsed. Also, the clockwork life on Main Street is a set-up for annihilation. Life on Main Street is the prototype for life all over America. Everything fits nice like a jigsaw puzzle – when the picture is done, it will be a picture of a sour empty planet. America has been the setup for suicide/global destruction from the start. Slaphappy clowns, lovable cops, politicians like take-charge dads from tee-vee. We all fit into the picture puzzle somewhere. Guns to the temple, unbearable grinning – we’ll get the signal I got up off the bench. The barbershop was closing. It was getting cold. I strolled off down Main Street U.S.A, following the inventions. 2

1Jean Baudrillard America Verso, 2010 (reprint), pgs. 27-29

2S.J. Bernstein “Main Street U.S.A.” Semiotext(e) USA, Semiotext(e), 1987, pgs. 252-253

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8 Responses to American Glimpses (1 and 2)

  1. noir-realism says:

    I’m liking this… impromptu montage… a kaleidoscope of distributed motifs, a mythology without myth. Between the spirit of Jazz and the Blues one dips into the American Adamic center, somewhere between Emerson and Henry Miller the Old Grey Bearded poet, Walt Whitman still stands on the shores waving to Europe: “Hey, leave the dead to bury the dead!”

    • edmundberger says:

      Yeah, America itself, as something processual and unfolding instead of a fixed subject is something I’ve been pondering; I’ve spent so much time trying to tease out the environment of Empire, reflecting lines of flight and the black holes that catch them, that I’ve began to want to inventory, so to speak, the subjective experiences of being and becoming within America. Being so thoroughly encapsulated within America, I find that European theorists have been able to eek out a certain tension. Like most other areas of this blog, I look at things by establishing a bridge between those who cannot be reconciled: Baudrillard, and Deleuze and Guattari. Deleuze and Guattari see that creative America, the rhizomatic America of experimentation, the one that sustained Walt Whitman and birthed Henry Miller. Baudrillard (and the American poet I quote here), on the other, sees the desert America, a frozen catastrophe where creativity is dead and only the spectacle and the silent majorities persist in its passing.

      In my most bitterly pessimistic of moments, I fear the America of Baudrillard has come to fruition. But at other moments, I can find the vitality of creation, the surging possibilities for progression and newness, and I know that beneath the territory of America are things than can never be reduced to the signifier of the nation, cannot be captured by it. I remind myself that it is in the desert that the nomads roam.

  2. S.C. Hickman says:

    Rereading this and having read his book again I always get the same feeling from both French and other EU or Continental philosophers, anti-philosophers, etc. who try to use American as some kind of blank slate upon which they can inscribe their pet theories: it all falls flat into a sinkhole. After rereading his book it’s like a tourist’s view of a fantasy American that exists only in the mind of the fantasist himself. His theories don’t describe anything about my America, but the do tell me a great deal about how “others” such as Baudrillard inscribe America and codify it, decode it, and retranscribe it within discourse. It’s as if America is more of a theory-machine, a hobbled together system of writing, art, cartoon theory, musical culture, historical artifacts, snap shots from some Twilight Zone “On the Road with Baudrillard in Kansas…” Or, how I met Walt Disney in an alternate reality, a hyperreality of my theoretical imaginings…

    Don’t get me wrong I love reading him, and he has much to say about his own world in Continental thought and its circumlocutions in the interior of France. But take him out of water and he’s a naif, a child in the garden of catastrophe… In some ways J.G. Ballard’s America is much more apt a vision of our world … a sort of bloated water world born of capitals ultimate dream-machine.

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