America review: Baudrillard’s roadtrip through banality

The French provocateur is a maestro of poetic sentences that don’t mean anything

America (1986)
Jean Baudrillard
Translated by Chris Turner

Everybody knows that the best philosophers write like novelists and the best novelists write like philosophers. Jean Baudrillard wrote at the event horizon where postmodern theory and science-fiction become indistinguishable. Fittingly, the Wachowskis even asked him to appear in a sequel to The Matrix. Baudrillard declined, claiming that The Matrix was exactly the kind of film the Matrix would make about the Matrix.

According to Baudrillard, the real has vanished into images of itself: we are now in the age of the simulation. There is an unapologetic nihilism in his post-Marxist evocations of a “cool” world wherein all values have been flattened out, a universe without depth where glinting surfaces reflect each other and every human gesture is a stylised simulacra.

America is the French provocateur's road trip across a New World whose banality and strangeness fascinate him. In the freeways, malls, deserts, and cities of the USA, he discerns an ecstatic vacuity, an apotheosis of the hyperreal. For Baudrillard, the desert is the ultimate metaphor for America – empty, vast, radiant, indifferent, sublime. And like everything else, the desert has been absorbed into cinema: we cannot gaze at its horizon without seeing through the lens of John Ford, perceiving strata of astral mythology.

Baudrillard is a maestro of that peculiarly French kind of sentence which doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but drips with poetic suggestion. America consists largely of observations such as this: “Here in the transversality of the desert and the irony of geology, the transpolitical finds its generic, mental space.” The cumulative effect is mesmeric, and the insights are often haunting: “There is nothing more mysterious than a TV set left on in an empty room… It is as if another planet is communicating with you.” To Baudrillard, the ubiquitous American smile “signifies only the need to smile. It is a bit like the Cheshire Cat’s grin: it continues to float on faces long after all emotion has disappeared.”

Today, the America we thought we knew has vanished. Baudrillard suggests it was never really there.

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