America: an Epilogue to Baudrillard’s Grand Tour

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.

Donate Button

Monarchy and the Fight for Freedom


by Guy Walker

Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are leading the fight for the banality of encore. And news broadcasters are already discussing with what seems to be a real interest in the bromidic agony of it all, sitting around their florescent roundtables, candidly sipping their coffee in between the great points they make on whether or not Hillary’s blue suit was an intenerate attempt of the spectacle to attract the male subconscious, or if it was just something she put on. “Is Hillary woman enough to attract the female majority?” they ask. “Now that this country has shown it was ready for a black president, do you think it’s going to tell the world it’s ready for a female president?”

Hillary walks up on a stage, clapping her hands in some sort of crude beat of lethargic excitement. She points to a nobody in the crowd, waves to them, and throws her head back with laughter as if to say to the rest of the crowd that she just shared an inside joke with somebody. She claps some more, smiling a frantic Prozac smile, and then turns to the podium. She opens her mouth, her thick compound cracking under the heat of the lights. “Are we ready or what!!” she booms. And the crowd cheers, the dipsomanian frenzy for her novel gallant prose. “Yeah!!” the masses scream. Hillary smiles again. “I think we aaaaaare!” The crowd goes nuts. A woman with a heaving muffin-top jumps up and down, her enormous tits waving up and down like amorphous wrecks of gravity.

Jeb Bush has already framed his campaign as “JEB 2016,” admitting a very hip disassociation with his last name because it includes his brother and father. By not including “Bush” he knows the name is tarnished, shit-ridden, the hell of failure and corruption. Jeb is rebranding the Bush as a new-age cool dad  .  .  .  he’ll let you and your friends drink beer when mom is not around, he’ll talk about girls with you as he grills long hot dogs, poking them occasionally with his tongs, his cheeks flushed with too much sun, beads of sweat pushing through the pores on his upper lip. He’ll jerk off to Japanese anime porn, and then call his mother to ask how dad is doing. Jeb isn’t like his brother  .  .  .  he’s Jeb. He’s different from everyone else running for President because he’s going to bring jobs, fix our economy, and fight terrorism. The only truly appropriate question to ask Jeb is, “What country are you going to invade first?”

Clinton and Bush are important not because they openly support the further corporatization and militarization of the United States and the world, not because they are brittle automatons of fervor and crusade, but rather because they are the figures of feudal tutelage, of monarch and storm. Clinton and Bush are the promise of the return to the hereditary monarchical system. They both come from insurmountable wealth, they are both obviously from families of a more opaquely vulgar past: Bill Clinton more than doubled the federal prison population, more than the previous twelve years of Republican rule combined, he introduced NAFTA and the World Trade Organization and therefore the decline of US manufacturing, he repealed the Glass-Steagall Act which led directly to the 2008 economic collapse, he carried out various war crimes such as sending a couple cruise missiles to what intelligence knew was a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, killing several tens of thousands of civilians, he acted beyond UN resolution, calling it “obsolete and anachronistic”, thus rejecting all international law, he bombed Somalia, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Albania, Croatia, Bosnia, Haiti, Yemen, Liberia, Zaire. Then he was impeached for lying about a blowjob. George H.W. Bush aided the Guatemalan military’s genocide of its Mayan populations, he invaded Panama partly in order to kidnap Manuel Antonio Noriega and charge him with warcrimes (most of which Noriega committed on the CIA payroll), he invaded Iraq, including Iraq’s infrastructure, which qualifies as criminal under the laws of war, he vetoed all Congressional attempts to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine—the FCC policy that required all tv and radio broadcast to devote some time to controversial issues of public importance as well as opposing views on those issues—he appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and he added more than a trillion dollars to the national debt. George W. Bush choked on a pretzel, among other fuck-ups. Prescott Bush, the late Senator and grandfather of George W, financially supported Hitler’s rise to power, his company’s assets eventually seized in 1942 under the Trading with the Enemy Act.

The point of all this is that when power becomes hereditary is when tyrants rise and nations fall. Monarchy, at its disgusting putrid heart, is a primitive and banal mechanism of rulership. It’s what the United States fought to free itself from during the American Revolution. One such dissident of hereditary monarchy—perhaps America’s only true revolutionary figure—Thomas Paine, describes the monarchical system as “a system of mental levelling. It indiscriminately admits every species of character to the same authority. Vice and virtue, ignorance and wisdom, in short, every quality, good, or bad, is put on the same level. Kings succeed each other, not as rationals, but as animals.” There is no weight to the moral and rational character of a woman or man who is escorted to the podium of authority because of his or her’s hereditary past. Runny-nosed children can become kings over the strong brooding judgement of some women or men. The idiots can and do rule. Without the rational and moral judgement of one’s character, the sycophantic cornfed fuckery of a population rules armies, conducts trade, fights terrorism. Paine continues on this: “Can we then be surprised at the abject state of the human mind in monarchical countries, when the government itself is formed on such an abject levelling system?” Erecting a man to power simply by means of hereditary succession is evident of the death of the imagination. It’s a primordial boorish symptom of the current condition of the human mind. Paine’s writing itself is signatory of where we are today: Common Sense sold as many as 500,000 copies in its first year, with a mere 2.4 million person population in the colonies at the time, many of whom were illiterate. An unprecedented bestseller. Paine consciously wrote with a base simplicity in order to attract the largest audience, and was accused of writing a vulgar form of language at the time, and yet his prose and eloquence is unmatched today. Today, we have wet rat-like figures such as Russell Brand, soaking the articulation of argument with his greasy hands. In his book, somehow titled Revolution, he articulates, “I mean in England we have a Queen for fuck’s sake. A Queen! … Like she’s all majestic, like an eagle or a mountain.” Brand, according to some carious despondent masses, is the voice of a generation, whose revolutionary approach to politics were first popularized by telling everyone not to vote. He is all spectacle, a feverish spasmed charisma of the pseudo-world of love and passivity and cool bracelets. Brand is, as Guy Debord calls it, “the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity.” He is the bright unnuanced personality that decorates our modern passivity with the pseudo-passionate. “The spectacle is the guardian of sleep,” Debord continues. It makes us excited to not do anything, for kids to badmouth the government as they sip IPA’s and wear fedoras. It is as much the fault of the spectacle as it is of the tyrannical that we admit powerlessness.

Before Paine, “democratic,” or “democratical,” as it was termed at the time, was always used as an insult, a reference to ochlocracy or mob rule, or mobile vulgus, which as everyone knows is Latin for “fickle crowd.” Paine instilled democratic independence as the only reasonable incontestable approach to freedom, to the specific and unadulterated innate freedom in all humans. Freedom is the landmark goal of democracy and its deathless fight against tyranny. Paine denied ever reading John Locke, but along with Thomas Jefferson, he almost certainly did. In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, Locke names our natural rights as the right to life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson, with Paine at his side, inverted this to name “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” as the innate necessities in all humans. Anything in opposition to this is the heaving vulgar tit of death. Monarchy is the tit of death. Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush are each a separate tit of death. Citizen’s United is the tit of death. The Koch Brothers are the tit of death, as are Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, and Marco Rubio, who are traveling to Southern California in early August to beg 450 of the wealthiest conservatives for campaign money. The Keystone XL Pipeline is the tit of death. Hydraulic fracking, the TPP, Shell, ExxonMobile, Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, JP Morgan, Tila Tequila, the war on drugs, privatized prisons, chihuahuas, the Church, Trump, plastic fruit, fake flowers, the militarization of the police, they are all bloated varicosed tits of death, throbbing at the edge of humanity. They hate freedom. More than anything else on the last remaining bits of green earth, the present oligarchy hates freedom. Because with freedom is power. Immanuel Kant writes that power is “the absolute spontaneity of freedom.” Because true freedom is unpredictable and dangerous  .  .  .  it is the song of the beautiful masses that makes kings tremble. Freedom is a beautiful woman I’ve seen, even touched in passing, but never been able to hold forever. It is the marvelous sky of humanity, a great body convulsing in orgasm on the shore. It is what all men want, but, by its own nature, will never have.

Paine knew the absolutism of freedom, and urged to include the abolition of slavery into the Constitution, to redeem us from our original sin, but was denied. Because slavery was essential to the order of the new Republic, as it of course still is. George Washington became one of the wealthiest men in America by speculating on Indian lands, by seizing enormous swaths of native land and then selling them. Today, student debt is critical to keeping the educated masses passive. By the time of Paine’s writing Rights of Man, in which he attacks organized religion and its absurdity of the facade of authority, he was consequently vilified by his countrymen in the first major media hunt of a public figure  .  .  .  he was called an atheist (he was a deist), he was called an enemy of the new Republic, a malodorous individual always soaked in gin. He died penniless in New York City, with six people attending his funeral—three of whom were black. The true revolutionary figure, by its very definition, cannot be popular. But he can be right.  In his Wages of Rebellion, Chris Hedges writes, “I do not fight fascists because I will win. I fight fascists because they are fascists.”

Here we are. The beautiful bodies of women imprisoned for being too beautiful. The last jazz musician imprisoned for his music. The sky for its colors. Until all that’s left is a few old kings, masturbating under the flickering neon light, still smiling, still stuttering their speeches under their breath, rocking back and forth. “I think we aaaaaare,” an old vaguely familiar woman whispers to herself, staring at a rat scurry by. She snorts to herself. “Jesus,” she murmurs softly, “Jesus Christ. Do any of you have a match?”