America as fiction

Mon, 24/06/2013 - 00:41 -- damien
Jean Baudrillard interviewed by Jacques Henric and Guy Scarpetta

JACQUES HENIUC AND GUY SCARPETTA

Jean Baudrillard, you're a very difficult person to categorize within the present French intelligentsia. On the one hand, you appear very interested in innovations, in the day-to-day reality ignored by other thinkers; but on the other hand, you are one of the few thinkers who still fulfill the traditional role of the intellectual: the critical role, although at the same time your way of filling this role has nothing in common with the typical Sartrean commitment which consisted of endlessly differentiating between good and evil. In your opinion, what is the function of the philosopher today?

JEAN BAUDRILLARD

I don't really think of myself as a philosopher. My particular critical impulse comes from a radical temperament which has more in common with poetry than philosophy. It is neither a question of some sort of dialectical critique of reality; rather, it would seem to be the search within my object for a sense of disappearance, the disappearance both of the object and of its subject. In a way, America is hell; I vomit it out, but I am also susceptible to its demonic seduction. In other words, I don't criticize, I'm throwing things up at the same time that I'm greedily devouring them. There does not seem to be much room here for the critical subject, does there? Dynamic integration? That's scarcely me! A return to philosophy, and the search for a new conceptual platform...? That doesn't interest me either. Nor can I envisage any kind of compromise position. The only game that amuses me is that of following some new situation to its very limits. I hope that our own decomposition will eventually offer sufficient singularity to hold my attention. America, of course, is already quite well advanced in this respect...

JACQUES HENIUC AND GUY SCARPETTA

At one point in your book, Amerique, you posit both that Europe has disappeared in California, and that we should continuously ask ourselves how we can be European... How do you come to terms with this?

JEAN BAUDRILLARD

For me, California is a strange place where I find myself freed from all culture. Europe, or at least European culture, evaporates there. The primitive background for my book is the desert, but this desert is neither a place of refuge nor a drug; on the contrary, it's a kind of sidereal location. In such a place one lets oneself drift freely while still retaining- even at the most extreme limits - a sense of simulation. Out there, problems of nature and of culture cease to exist; one passes beyond reality, whereas here one is painfully aware of its presence. Everything there seems removed from the reality principle.

JACQUES HENIUC AND GUY SCARPETTA

Isn't it the case, however, that there are certain sections of reality in America which still refer to something of Europe? Can't one detect obvious transplants in the American artworld, for example?

JEAN BAUDRILLARD

In New York, undoubtedly. But are these really transplants? Everything there seems so extravagant to me. I don't really feel that I'm within Academia, the way I do here. There are museums, of course, but when Americans get to work on things they always treat them like some sort of fiction. There is culture too, obviously, but it is not innocent; on the contrary, it is trapped within a kind of cruelty. The last thing I want to suggest is that America is some sort of paradise. It is precisely its rawness which interests me and its primeval character, although one shouldn't confuse it with some sort of primitive society, even if my book claims as much the attempt to conceptualize it within a global cultural perspective. We should try to pass beyond the horizons of indifference, "inculture", silence and the desert...

JACQUES HENIUC AND GUY SCARPETTA

Would art, in the traditional sense of the word, still have a function within the kind of universe to which you refer?

JEAN BAUDRILLARD

Art, a function? For me, no. But has it ever had a function?

JACQUES HENIUC AND GUY SCARPETTA

Well, it once had one, as art: whereas today...

JEAN BAUDRILLARD

Yes, it once had one. Today, perhaps, it operates more or less exclusively in a state of flux, in various networks. Unfortunately, its function has become purely promotional. And yet this enigmatic process known as writing still goes on: I wrote this book. The word art bothers me a bit. Let me specify that Amerique should not be read as a realist text. Its subject matter being a fiction itself, I've exaggerated this quality, without actually entering into science fiction. It's no longer possible to write about Europe in this way. I've no wish to conceal the element of defiance and artificiality within my sort of fictionizing.

JACQUES HENIUC AND GUY SCARPETTA

Certain key terms recur insistently in your books: "catastrophe", "the end of history", "decadence". Are you a nihilist?

JEAN BAUDRILLARD

Yes, I'm aware of it, people tell me: you're a pessimist, with you, it's the end of everything. Let me repeat that I'm not interested in realism. I am not speaking of the real extermination of things, of the physical, biological disappearance of living beings. My books are scenarios. I play out the end of things, I offer a complete parody of it. Even the signs of catastrophe contain irony. Think of that recent incident with the space capsule. It was extraordinary: a sort of symbolic victory that only the Americans could afford! That fantastic burial in the sky! They've revived our appetite for space. Offering themselves the luxury of such disasters. What a way to go! Simple endings are without interest; they're flat and linear. The really exciting thing is to discover orbital space where these other forces play. We need to invent new rules. I'm always thinking of the next horizon to be crossed...

To look ahead in this way requires a somewhat metaphysical and a somewhat transcendental curiosity. People have spoken so often about the end of things that I'd like to be able to see what goes on the other side of the end, in a sort of hyperspace and transfinity. And even if things are not really at their end, well! Let’s act as if they were. It's a game, a provocation. Not in order to put a full stop to everything, but on the contrary, to make everything begin again. So you see, I'm far from being a pessimist.    

JACQUES HENIUC AND GUY SCARPETTA

There's also another word which, unlike the terms just mentioned, occurs very infrequently in your earlier essays but which appears a great deal in Amerique; the word "modernity". Considered with regard to its application in this book, what exactly do you understand by this term?

JEAN BAUDRILLARD

It's a fluctuating, ambiguous term. I don't attribute any particular meaning to it. Nor do I situate its meaning with reference to any so-called post-modernity. If there is such a thing as European modernity, then it may be defined more accurately in legal terms. It is a concept which comes down to us from the French Revolution, and which has a political, ideological meaning. The transplantation of the term to America seems to me to be mutational rather than dialectical. Here in Europe, we contrast modernity and tradition; we can envisage the dialectic between conservation and revolution. Over there, the term bursts out in the middle of nowhere; it represents a zero point from which a kind of mobile space is expanding. Having said that, it's also the case that the word modernity rings a little false. Is there an alternative? Be this as it may, in order to evoke this transpolitical, transhistorical reality, I ended up using this overworked term once again. Perhaps the word hypermodernity, expressing an infinite potentiality, would have been more accurate. It would give a better idea of that state of escalation in which things exist over there.

JACQUES HENIUC AND GUY SCARPETTA

In your book, you insist upon a point that seems particularly important: the puritanical religious foundation of the American people. It's curious, because what we see there is a religion, Protestantism, which has always had difficulties with modes of display (one thinks of its responses to the Counter-Reformation, to the Baroque, to religious ceremony), and yet you suggest that American society is the society that pushes the sense of simulation to its· most extreme limits...

JEAN BAUDRILLARD

This is not so much a case of ritual or of ceremony. American society is not a society of appearances; it has no counterpart to the games of seduction with which we're familiar over here. The simulacrum is another game: its signs don't refer to any sense, they flow continuously without reference to any sense. Aesthetic effects become rarified in this kind of universe. I must admit that I still find the puritan centre of such a world rather difficult to explain. What kind of metabolism can there be between the omnipresent puritan energy and the fantastic immorality of this society? It seems as if the puritan impulse swept away much of the symbolic ritual, the baroque apotheosis, of Catholicism. What one confronts, then, is the pure play of forces, where signs rearrange themselves according to a different logic which we find difficult to understand.

JACQUES HENIUC AND GUY SCARPETTA

You also suggest that in the United States, cinema becomes true...

JEAN BAUDRILLARD

That's a European perception, but Americans also consider it a fact of life. They experience reality like a tracking shot; that's why they succeed so well with certain media, particularly television. By contrast, we have never left the perspectival, scenical theatrical tradition. We find it difficult to de-subjectivise ourselves, to de-concentrate ourselves completely. They do this very well, Cinema exists as a screen, not a stage; it calls for a different kind of acting. You're surrounded by a perpetual montage of sound and vision.

JACQUES HENIUC AND GUY SCARPETTA

What are your most vivid impressions of California?

JEAN BAUDRILLARD

First of all, it is the sense of having rediscovered a realm of fantasy and of disruptive energy which I find it difficult to come to terms with here, where I find myself up to my neck in culture. The seemingly flat, extensive, immanent world of California delighted me, despite its lack of seduction, in the theatrical sense of the word. It's not a question of letting go and completely vanishing in this kind of universe; but simply to drift in a world without anchor and without destination. Here in Europe, we can constantly locate ourselves between our past and our destiny. California is more like the masses, which cannot speak, have no meaning, neither rhyme nor reason, but radiate an intense, inverse, fictional energy.

JACQUES HENIUC AND GUY SCARPETTA

You remark that America does not suffer from any sort of identity crisis. But these days one has the impression that in the States a certain discourse continually emphasizes the American identity...

JEAN BAUDRILLARD

There is, in America, as everywhere, an explicit and another mode of discourse. You certainly find this frantic search for identity, but its "reality", if I may use the term within quotation marks, is rather promiscuity, re-mixing and all modes of interchange, that is to say, the great game of de-identification. Naturally there is a certain resistance to this, but I find that discourse of identity secondary and derivative, and a kind of neurotic reaction, when compared to the basic situation. Is there really a sense of American nationality? All the signs are there, but in my opinion they derive from the publicity effect.

America is a trademark, and they insist upon its superlative quality. What one witnesses here is the pathos of national publicity: the stars and stripes, we are the best, etc. This sense of national identity is no longer a matter of heredity or territory... Anyway, it seems better that the whole space should become a publicity board, or even a movie screen. American chauvinism and nationalism, yes indeed, but it lacks the territorial pathos of its European counterparts. Even racial questions, those unresolved questions which perhaps will never be resolved, have been transubstantiated into ethnic interface.

It's something living, it's not sclerotic like racism and antiracism here. The chessboard is constantly animated, and everyone can play their game. This savage- rather than primary-level of reality interests me considerably. All of the themes that I first examined in my previous books suddenly appeared, in America, stretching before me in concrete form. In a way, then, I finally left theory behind me and at the same time rediscovered all the questions and the enigmas that I had first posited conceptually. Everything, there, seemed significant to me, but at the same time everything also testified to the disappearance of all meaning.

One might perhaps conclude that America as a whole is a matter of abjection, but such criticisms are inconsequential: at every instant this object is transfigured. It is the miracle of realized utopia.

notes: 

Reprinted from Art Press (Paris) No. 103, May 1986, pp. 41-42 with kind permission of Art Press and Jean Baudrillard.

Translation by Nicholas Zurbrugg with assistance from Jean Baudrillard and Colin Crisp.