by Guy Walker
“Deep down, the US, with its space, its technological refinement, its bluff good conscience, even in those spaces which it opens up for simulation, is the only remaining primitive society. The fascinating thing is to travel through it as though it were the primitive society of the future, a society of complexity, hybridity, and the greatest intermingling, a ritualism that is ferocious but whose superficial diversity lends it beauty, a society inhabited by a total metasocial fact with unforeseeable consequences, whose immanence is breathtaking, yet lacking a past through which to reflect on this, and therefore fundamentally primitive…” —Baudrillard, America
“Why only in America? Why is this American exceptionalism so awful?” When Sky News correspondent Mark Stone asked Ted Cruz this question, in relation to the recent massacre of schoolchildren, the senator sneered with his beady eyes, and stormed away. His salt and pepper beard now trying to cover his usual greasy cartoonish villain face with an attempt to look scholarly, like an Oxford professor who reads books. But his usual bottomless contempt for people looks more like the hooting of an altered beast. Who can blame him? This is his America.
But Cruz did retort with something that at least used to be true. He asked the reporter why people from around the world come to America. It begs a moment of consideration. I have friends from much more prosperous, safe, resplendent countries, who move here to work and begin families and raise their children. They spend years to obtain a green card. And when more children die in classrooms than police die in the line of duty, it behooves me as to why you would want to raise children here. A hundred and ten thousand people died from overdose last year. The homeless walk through the streets like zombies, covered in filth, screaming at the setting sun. There’s no affordable healthcare. California will be in complete ashes, and New York will sink.
When Baudrillard published America in 1986, it stood out as a reflective portrayal of the country’s sprawling banality juxtaposed against its vicious idiomatic splendor. He wrote about an amalgamation of culture whipped up in a chaotic, self-immolating flurry: the national anthem by Jimi Hendrix, permanent trailer parks like high-class ghettos, “giant hamburgers on the sixteen-foot-long billboard.” The extravagance of banality that, to the French philosopher, is a “luminous, geometric, incandescent immensity.” Culture as the main export, from a country of cannibalizing filth. Its “human flotsam of conviviality” as our collective consciousness, like the tremors of a school of fish or flock of birds that make it function as a single being. Our obvious loneliness marching en masse, the stereophonic hammering of a people without footing. This is what he took away from touring through the United States. He wrote of the Texan hills and the sierras of New Mexico, the sublime eternity of driving through our deserts without any finish to the frontier. His chapter on New York, although strangely childish and naive in its observations about the sound of sirens and the range of weird hairdos, remains persistently objective. “Why do people live in New York? There is no relationship between them.” It’s a childish question, but in its noblest form. Why do we live here? Or, why do we persist the conditions in which we live?
Baudrillard’s America was published three years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, something that prompted the political scientist Francis Fukuyama to write his famously inept book, The End of History and the Last Man, a treatise on the universalization of Western liberal democracy, that we had progressed to the final and complete stage of political evolution, and eventually all others would follow. It seems absurd now for a self-assured intellectual to ever have thought that, let alone written four hundred pages trying to prove it, dominating the conversation of our cultural victory. Baurdrillard too wrote that “the US is utopia achieved,” that we are correct in our conviction of being the center of the world. To read America today is not all that different from watching the nostalgic reels from home videos, where there’s an innate glamorized innocence to the way we trotted around the backyard in our underwear, chasing dandelions dancing in the breeze. It’s lacking the embolism of violence that percolates through the dominant culture.
I live in Los Angeles, and we are dominated by the hegemony of homelessness. It used to be that you had to occasionally step over a homeless man sprawled out on the sidewalk, his barefoot and open porcine belly blackened with the soot of unwashed years, as you calmly ignored any consideration of if he was sleeping in the blazing summer sun, or just dead. But now, the unhampered ubiquity is inescapable, what we calmly refer to as homeless encampments, as if fifteen blocks of rancid despair were just some of the diehards leftover from a musical festival. The writer Michael Shellenberger says we should follow the Dutch’s example, and call them “open drug scenes,” because rape and arson and hard drug use are the standard issue norm, and we should not treat them all like victims of the system. I don’t entirely agree with his thesis, but it’s true that the appetizing benevolence of what we call these surrounding storms of catastrophe is propagandistically naive.
School shootings weren’t yet in vogue at the time of Baudrillard’s America. Mass shootings have taken over the arena of horror where serial killers once dominated, and mass shootings at schools have a particular volcanic tragedy. America is the only place where the routine sacrifice of children is deemed a sad but acceptable price to pay for the rightto use the weapons that do so.
In 2003, the Bush administration banned all news coverage of coffins returning from Iraq. It was a depraved propagandistic tool to prevent any anti-militarism sentiment, a boorishly inhumane lever to not recognize the young men and women who died for nothing, who’s bodies erupted like fireworks over a landmine or when pummeled with bullets that were designed to explode when entering a body. And we weren’t even allowed to see the coffins, much less the bodies. The bullets of an AR-15 explode when they enter a body. The parents of the children who died at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde had to provide DNA samples because many of their bodies were too unrecognizable. I used to think that if Ted Cruz and Greg Abbott had to see the exploded bodies of eight year olds, they might shift their positions on gun control, but I don’t think they would. I think ideology is too strong, like some irrefutable Aristotelian epistêmê, where the freedom to own machines of massacre is obviously tantamount to the massacre of children.
Baudrillard said that America is the origin of modernity. Because colonization is the ultimate coup de théåtre, replacing all subtraction of values with heightened cosmetics, we lack all mythical authenticity that typically gives a place its cultural identity. We have lawless militarism. Our extraordinary military budget serves the police, giving much of its excess equipment to even some of the smallest departments. Some of our biggest blockbuster cinema works in conjunction with the military, known as the military-entertainment complex, contractually supervised by the Department of Defense’s Entertainment Media Unit. Navy recruitment skyrocketed 500% after the original Top Gun. Zero Dark Thirty was largely funded by the CIA, with the rather oafish “Queen of Torture,” Alfreda Scheuer, played by the red-haired temptress of Jessica Chastain. Torture is sexier with a low cut top and aviators. In Dialectic Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer’s social critique of the failure of the Enlightenment, their chapter, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” argues this point specifically, that popular culture is as manipulative of mass-scale apathy as factory-line consumer goods are. I don’t agree that it’s quite that monolithic, but movies like American Sniper are obvious cruel fetishisms of death, slaughter gaffed as glorious. Movie stars love making their proclamations in support of gun control, or how the NRA is merely an ATM for corrupting politicians, but don’t seem to bat an eye at their military-sponsored spectacles of death. The moderate abstraction of our death drive is enough for most the rest of us to swallow it gleefully.
American exceptionalism is akin to its glorification of death. Baudrillard said “America is the original version of modernity.” But he also said it “is the only remaining primitive society.” This isn’t a contradiction. It’s because we don’t have a past, no real origin story of hammering at the edifice of a slow evolution, that we are both modern and primitive. Our buildings are a crumbling chimera of rubble and stucco finish, its ideologically-fixed banality a permanence on splintered asphalt roads, as the homeless stagger like zombies between the scintillating pornography of sports cars zig-zagging between them like they were traffic cones. We are the entrails of glamour dying in a deserted paradise, the leftover ruminations of broken dreams. There’s a Lamborghini dealership down the street from me, and a half-mile long stretch of people smoking meth in their tents down the embankment from it.
American exceptionalism is the adolescent shame of your own awkward inability to do anything about anything. We can pop our beating pimples with the help of the bright lights of an expensive vanity, but we’ll still be ugly. Share a meme to your Instagram stories that your friend shared earlier (but only to your stories and not a real post, because that’s permanent and you know the memory of this school shooting will eventually fade away like all the others, and you don’t want to mess up the fine curation of your profile layout). Do MDMA with other liberals in matching wide-brimmed straw hats. Repeat impenetrable statistics about gun violence. Drink your morning matcha in your underwear on your backyard patio as the farts escape without a sound.
In America, Baudrillard wrote that “the important point is that the whole of America is preoccupied with the sect as a moral institution,”with our collective madness for a shimmering oasis of abstract and cherrypicked freedoms, where every military intervention is at least intended for good, where the accruement of material dominion and proprietorship is the real religion. To be the star-spangled whores of moral attention. And, Baudrillard continues, if we were to lose this moral perspective of ourselves, we would collapse. I think for the most part we have lost the moral perspective. Maybe there’s a few diehard aberrant patriot types who still deeply believe we are the moral vanguard of the world, but the self-examined cynicism is winning for obvious reasons. It’s always there, but the two recent mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo are routine reminders of our primitiveness, that our barbarism is now modern, that we can do what we’ve always done but this time with more efficacy. And then we can protest it behind small screens, as a Netflix show rolls into the next episode.
As Baudrillard notes, America is both utopia achieved, and a sprawling desert of deformity. We are the juxtaposition of paradise and hell wrapped into the same firework careening through the sky. But there’s no end; there’s no spectacle of a grand finale. If he wrote it today, I would like to think Baudrillard would have more to say, but this time with more evidence to our misery. But maybe he wouldn’t even write the book. Maybe the opportunity for a readable critique about America without coming across as obvious and cliché has already passed, and the fluttering examples he makes of Disneyland being paradise and Santa Barbara being paradise seem only like quaint nostalgia. Because the moral milieu of those places have also deteriorated. If we were a book, or a novel—judged by recent trajectory—we’d be pulp, collecting dust in the smoldering sun. So maybe Ted Cruz sneered at the question about our American exceptionalism being so awful because he knew it will only get worse.