[iDC] Re: baudrillard's terror

keith at thememorybank.co.uk keith at thememorybank.co.uk
Tue Mar 13 09:47:13 EDT 2007

Around 1990, Anna Grimshaw and I were preparing for publication a
manuscript written by C.L.R. James in New York in 1950. It was published as
American Civilization (Blackwell, 1993). James, although raised in
Trinidad, thought of himself as a European intellectual. The years he spent
in the United States (1938-1953) transformed his vision of world history
and of America’s place in it. In his book he made much reference to Alexis
de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Jean Baudrillard’s America (1989)
appeared while were editing the manuscript and it occurred to us to make a
triadic comparison between James, Tocqueville and Baudrillard, as the
latest European intellectual offering his reflections on America. In what
follows, I omit most of what we had to say about James and de Tocqueville,
leaving just those passages where we addressed Baudrillard’s book.

The interest of America for de Tocqueville and James originally stemmed
from political questions posed within the context of Europe. The
relationship of America to Europe, the continuities and the contrasts,
forms a pervasive theme of their work.  Although separated by more than a
hundred years, both writers departed for the New World at a time of ferment
in European history, after the political landscape had been transformed by
a major event.  In de Tocqueville’s case this was the French Revolution;
for James it was the Russian Revolution.  Each man was convinced that
democracy is the moving force in modern history and that America is playing
the leading role in that movement. They reached similar conclusions,
placing their faith not in laws and formal institutions, but in the common
people, in their pragmatic political sense.  They saw the customs and
attitudes to life of ordinary Americans as the safeguard of democracy’s
future. The structure of both Democracy in America and American
Civilization reflects these conclusions.  Each book is divided into two
parts, the first dealing with the ideas underpinning the outward appearance
of America's public institutions, the second with the inner life and social
practices of the American people themselves.  Each book contains within its
own development a movement from form to content which mirrors the
historical contrast between the civilization of Europe and its American

There is little of this grand vision in the more recent writings of
European intellectuals. Nor is there the same sense of the American people
as the vanguard of world civilization. Baudrillard's America offers a
typical example of the distaste felt by European elites for the American
version of democratic society. While appearing to be seduced by the surface
gloss of America, Baudrillard in reality gives vent to the deep hostility
he feels towards the common people. They simply do not exist in his book.
Their passive lot is to be imprinted by the myriad signs of advertising and
propaganda whose meaning is vouchsafed only to the traveling intellectual,
the author himself.

Baudrillard, a Cartesian subject if ever there was one, thinks alone in a
universe unmediated by the presence of others. Hence his preference for the
desert as an image of American society, reflecting the emptiness of the
world he inhabits, as he watches it flashing by his car window.
Traditionally, the European writer has conceived of his audience as a
narrowly-based cultural elite, successor to the courts of the absolutist
monarchs. He resents bitterly the democratization of the means of
communication, especially television, since it threatens to bypass the
monopoly of knowledge and information which was once stored in books.  Even
worse, democracy might transfer power from the intellectuals and their
masters into the hands of the people themselves.	     

It follows from this that the intellectual denies the ability of the masses
to make appropriate use of the information coming their way.  One means of
doing so is to represent America, the place where people power and mass
communications are most developed, as a bewildering maze of signs detached
from any sensible forms of social life and made meaningful only by the
arcane manipulations of a master semiotician. In this way, Baudrillard and
others like him transform the idea of America as the future into a
grotesque cacotopia which it would be perverse to emulate.  It is safe to
celebrate the old Hollywood movies, as long as television, advertising and
fast food are held at bay.  America may even offer tourists the chance to
relive cinematic images in the Western desert today, before they return to
the safety of the old way of life.

The contrast between Baudrillard and James could not be greater. James too
made a mind-expanding journey shortly after arriving in America from
Europe.  But he stayed for more than a decade.  He made it his business to
penetrate “the actual and intimate lives” of the American people; and he
used the opportunity to overthrow the burdens of his own European
intellectual legacy.  He saw that the development of mass communications in
the twentieth century had opened up a huge audience for information and
entertainment.  James recognized that the volatile tastes of this mass
audience gave expression to social forces which had their roots in personal
experience, in an individuality multiplied by millions. The purveyors of
popular art forms, in his view, had to pay close attention to the revealed
wants of their customers. Moreover, these forms reflected the essence of
modern social life, its movement. The new audiences for the mass media have
elevated the scale of perceived community far beyond the old limits imposed
by work and residence, moving beyond the nation-state to embrace the
emergent idea of one world society.  James never underestimated the
sophistication of ordinary people, certainly not their ability to make
independent judgments about what they were fed by the media.

James, accepting the intrinsic movement of American society, felt compelled
to address its history. Americans may not have a strong historical sense,
but they make world history—whether in the eighteenth century with their
revolution, in the nineteenth with the Civil War or in the twentieth with
their military interventions abroad.  James saw his task as the need to
situate the growing power of the American people in a social history which
was at once local and global.  Baudrillard knows nothing of American
history. History for him is what intellectuals pass on to the educated
classes in books.  Americans have no place in that version of history; they
do not exist.  Let them be reduced to the images of Hollywood movies or to
fleeting encounters in desert motels.

Baudrillard is not indifferent to his great French predecessor. Like James
he refers back to de Tocqueville, only to conclude that the famous unity of
private interest and public spirit has gone.  He insists that there is no
collective principle left in America to modify the fragmentation of
individual existence.  If James reached the opposite conclusion, then his
method was an extension of de Tocqueville’s.  For him the meaning of
popular culture was to be found in its resonance with the lives of ordinary
Americans whom he studied over a period of many years.  Not for him the
jottings of a few weeks’  holiday spent trying to match what can be seen
through a car window with youthful memories of the cinema. 

As a representative example of much writing in recent years, Baudrillard’s
America is an indictment of that whole intellectual class whose postwar
prosperity has insulated them from the movement of modern history, so that
they can only see in America a mirror reflecting their own alienation.  The
intelligentsia has truly become a class without a social purpose.  It is
hardly surprising that, faced with the rise of popular forces on a world
scale, they retreat into the old forms of intellectual life associated with
Europe’s bourgeois civilization—and thereby constitute a ready-made market
for Baudrillard’s excesses. James’s manuscript, American Civilization, is
an even more pressing antidote to such thinking today than when it was
originally written.

Keith Hart

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