For seventy years after its revolution, since French writers viewed America with hope and English ones with disgruntlement, some of the best observations on America were made by the French and most of the worst by the English. Eighteenth-century French visitors to America saw a self-emancipated people united in the world’s first sizable republic: the forerunner of their own revolution. They noted the humiliation of Albion perfide, their own ancient enemy. What America was, in the eyes of Condorcet, Crèvecoeur, and Volney, France might become: the natural home of democracy, if not of Hesiodic simplicity. France embraced Jefferson, Franklin, and Washington as ideals of Republican Man long before the demolition of the Bastille, and with Chateaubriand’s Voyage en Amérique (1827) the passion for seeking the meanings of democracy on the stage of the New World, within its epic spaces, moved into high rhetorical gear. The climax of French scrutiny was provoked after 1830 by the prospect of another French republic, and became by far the most perceptive book a foreigner ever wrote on American society and politics: Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835).
Englishmen, by contrast, either averted their eyes from America or looked at it only to complain about the barbarity of their former colony, its people’s lack of manners and art, their materialism. The ur-work of malice was Captain Basil Hall’s compilation of Tory rant, Travels in North America, 1827–1828. It was followed by Frances Trollope’s bitchy Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832. Ten years later Charles Dickens’s American Notes for General Circulation was also a best seller, being cut from the same cloth of condescension and snobbery. Both the latter, at least, were full of sharp vignettes, but neither showed much grasp of how America actually worked. They served to persuade the reader that America, though lost, had not really been worth keeping.
A century and a half later, what does one find? The reverse: that the French have contributed little to the popular literature of American observation since Tocqueville, and even less since the end of World War II. The Americans themselves, together with some English writers, have done it all. Thus nothing in French about America in the Twenties or Thirties approaches D.H. Lawrence on New Mexico, and there is no French equivalent to the acute, modest-toned, undeceived reportage of Alistair Cooke. No recent French writer has made an effort to get out into the American landscape, deliver its look and feel, meet people, discover how they talk and what they think about, evoke their histories: that is left to English writers like Jonathan Raban taking his skiff down the Mississippi in Old Glory or to V.S. Naipaul among the Good Ol’ Boys in A Turn in the South.
In the Fifties, French intellectuals, taking their cues from Sartre, simply lost interest in getting America right. Their imagination was seized by an altogether more lurid and “interesting” America than the real one: the pow-zap-splat America of the bandes dessinées, the alienated and sinister America of film noir, the vengeful and paranoid America that let McCarthy ride and killed the Rosenbergs, the booming paradisical America of tailfins and rock ‘n’ roll, the megadeath America of the White Sands proving ground.
The stereotypes of this America had global reach; they could be sampled and theorized about without leaving France. Their sheer power canceled any obligation to experience the place itself, in all its size, complexity, and impurity, before writing about it. The real America was less fascinating, which may be why the American notes of the few stars of the postwar French intellectual firmament who bothered to go there—Simone de Beauvoir, for instance—seem so flat and incurious.
As the Fifties wore on it became increasingly apparent that America was merely a stage set for French left-wing bigotry about L’Amerique. America was no longer an intriguing idea. It had withdrawn its original offer of revolutionary transformation. Russia now gave that; and then, when the horrors of the Soviet utopia became too evident for even Stalinists to ignore, Cuba was supposed to be the model. A dozen years later the reluctance to look had become general. America, as all good soixantehuitards knew, was a bellicose caricature, an imperialist Hulk, a crass société de consommation nourishing itself on the flesh of the third world. Its physical image had dwindled to two vertical features (the skyscrapers of Manhattan and the buttes of Monument Valley) and a horizontal one (the grid of super-highways). It was populated by oppressed blacks, the ghosts of slaughtered Indians, rednecks in pickup trucks, hippies, and Pentagon generals. Its culture was directed by mass media, and the only worthwhile things that came out of it were new rock and old movies.
Once the revolutionary illusions of 1968 had gone down the pipe, French radicals—as Diana Pinto pointed out in Le Debat in 1982—continued to comfort themselves with imagery drawn from the American counterculture, so that “in each case, the ‘interesting’ America remained the one defined by its opposition to the Establishment.” Even after intellectual fashions changed with Solzhenitsyn’s visit to Paris in 1974 and the rise of the nouveaux philosophes, the image of America in French eyes did not become much more concrete. It remained a continent of abstractions whose main reality, eminently suited to France’s own burgeoning consumer society, was the lightning-fast reassembly of American styles of promotion, marketing, and TV entertainment techniques in Paris. No verification, no empirical reporting, was needed.
It is only against this background that Jean Baudrillard’s new book, America, can be savored in all its remarkable silliness. Baudrillard, who taught sociology at Nanterre from 1966 to 1987, is regarded, as the jacket copy puts it, as “France’s leading philosopher of post-modernism.” As such, he has the badge of a distinctive jargon. Jargon, native or imported, is always with us; and in America, both academe and the art world prefer the French kind, an impenetrable prophylactic against understanding. We are now surfeited with mini-Lacans and mock-Foucaults. To write straightforward prose, lucid and open to comprehension, using common language, is to lose face. You do not make your mark unless you add something to the lake of jargon whose waters (bottled for export to the States) well up between Nanterre and the Sorbonne and to whose marshy verge the bleating flocks of poststructuralists go each night to drink. Language does not clarify; it intimidates. It subjects the reader to a rite of passage, and extorts assent as the price of entry. For the savant’s thought is so radically original that ordinary words will not do. Its newness requires neologism; it seeks rupture, overgeneralization, oracular pronouncements, and a pervasive tone of apocalyptic hype. The result is to clear writing what the flowery blandishments of the valets to Gorgibus’s daughters in Molière’s Les Précieuses ridicules were to the sincere expression of feeling: a parodical mask, a compound of snobbery and extravagant rhetoric.
And Jean Baudrillard is not only the most précieux of all current ridicules, but also the one who is quoted the most solemnly in Paris and New York, particularly among art dealers, collectors, and critics. He has come up with a set of vogue-words that are taken to evoke the state of Western culture in our fin de siècle: “simulacrum,” “hyperrealism,” “closure,” “facsimile,” “transgression,” “circulation,” and the rest, along with “alienation,” which may be defined as the state of metaconsciousness entered by the incautious reader who sets out to wade through Baudrillard’s reflections. America makes much of this lingo, since it is mostly a rehash of ideas from his earlier essays, such as “The Precession of Simulacra,” published in 1983.
Their argument, in essence, runs as follows. Thanks to the proliferation of mass communications we now have more signs than referents—more images than meanings that can be attached to them. The machinery of “communication” communicates little except itself. Baudrillard is something of a McLuhanite; not only is the medium the message, but the sheer amount of traffic has usurped meaning. “Culture”—he is fond of those snooty quotation marks—is consigned to the endless production of imagery that has no reference to the real world. There is no real world. Whether we go to Disneyland, or watch the Watergate hearings on television, or follow highway signs while driving in the desert, or walk through Harlem, we are enclosed in a world of signs. The signs just refer to one another, combining in “simulacra”—Baudrillard’s word for images—of reality to produce a permanent tension, an insatiable wanting, in the audience. This overload of desire in a disembodied, media-invented world is like pornography, abstract. Baudrillard calls it “obscenity.”
Capitalism, the villain of the situation, must multiply desire by multiplying signs ad infinitum. This, Baudrillard thinks, has led to “the disappearance of power” and “the collapse of the political,” while everyone scurries about creating nostalgic effigies of power and politics. “Power is no longer present except to conceal that there is none.” In time, he imagines, this will somehow undo capitalism itself: “Undoubtedly this will even end up in socialism…. It is through the death of the social that socialism will emerge—as it is through the death of God that religions emerge.” But which religions? Which death of which god? “The death of the social”—what do such phrases mean? What would these vaporings about the “disappearance” of power add up to in the White House, the Kremlin, or the Elysée Palace? You can hardly read a page of Baudrillard without getting queasy from his pseudo paradoxes, rhetorical exaggerations, and begged questions.
Typical of these are his ideas about simulation versus reality. Like the famous map imagined by Luis Borges, so large and detailed that it would neatly cover the real territory it purports to describe, the grid of signs has become a complete “simulacrum” made up of smaller simulacra, all “media-determined.” The simulacrum is all we have and there is nothing below it. “Simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum.” Baudrillard is no friend of Ockham’s razor: he wants to multiply simulacra forever in order to push reality out of sight. It is like a sci-fi fantasy: we have been taken over. You may look, walk, and talk like Captain Kirk, but I, unlike everyone else on the ship, know that you are an alien, a simulacrum. Baudrillard’s American fans revel in this, perhaps because his apocalyptic view of mass media excites a deep vein of snobbery in them while his oracular tone stirs memories of heroes of the Sixties, like Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller.
This replacement of real things and actual relationships by their simulacra is what Baudrillard calls “hyperrealization.” It lets him take a wonderfully lofty view of the relations between fact and illusion, for it denies the possibility of experiencing anything except illusion. In doing so it drifts away from sense, reminding one that Baudrillard’s scheme is only a hypothesis and, despite the sweeping confidence with which he unfurls it, not a very convincing one at that. For instance, nobody would deny that Americans are immensely influenced by television. But it is by no means clear just how this influence works, whether it acts on everyone to the same degree or in the same way, whether the Box “substitutes” for reality when it is on, how far it meditates consciousness: in short, how passive the public is. Baudrillard seems to imagine it is completely so—no ifs, ands, or buts.