Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

On the trail of Jean Baudrillard and Slavoj Žižek in the American Desert

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OBJECTS IN THIS MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR

Those of us who have gotten past knee-jerk and xenophobic reactions to his work, understand Baudrillard to be a unique thinker – perhaps one of the half-dozen greatest thinkers of the twentieth century. For us Baudrillard’s America is an important and misunderstood book – a milestone work of social commentary about the USA by a French author, in the same tradition as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Baudrillard continues Tocqueville’s inquiry, asking many of the same essential questions one hundred and fifty years later about democracy, equality, the tyranny of the majority, and the future possibilities for freedom. The answers he finds only serve to increase his ambivalence concerning America.

The Parallax ViewSlavoj Žižek, born 21 March 1949

America is a system of circulation that “precedes the real.” Here Baudrillard composes a great deal of beautifully written phenomenological poetic prose to establish the structural support or evidence underlying this level of his case. The two primary spheres of circulation (for Marx in Das Kapital, it was commodity-capital and money-capital) are mobility (cars, etc.) and the screen (TV, etc.) – speed and virtuality – the kinetic and the cinematic. Automobiles, not humans, are the true first-class citizens of the hypermodern megalopolis (McLuhan) as are computer networks and media technology. The television that is on everywhere and at all times.

Me and my friend Laura Mitchell, born July 5, 1959.

Realized utopia is an idealized, operational, and highly mediated utopia, an artificial paradise replicated to technical perfection by a thousand points of blinding spectacular light. It is the mapped topographic image reconstructed from the diffracted projection of models and formulas constituting the society of simulation, simulacra, hyperreality, and mainstream techno-scientific virtuality. Another dimension of realized utopia is the omnipresence in America of self-congratulatory sect-like evangelical and political-ideological discourses.

In Baudrillard’s America, the secret heart of reversibility is captured in the imaginary of the desert. The desert is The Other America, the quintessential strange attractor, the counterpoint to the system. There is the geological, arid, desert of the hot sun; the so-called “natural” desert, and there is the desert of semiological codes and signs, the so-called “cultural” desert, which is not at all the same as the “cultural wasteland” of Kulturpessimismus or standard critical theory. America is the land of media-consumer culture and semiology. The desert is a form of culture. The desert is America’s secret truth, its destiny. “The desert is no longer a landscape,” writes Baudrillard. “It is a pure form produced by the abstraction of all others.” Inhabiting the desert of the semiotic hyperreal without possessing sufficient sensitivity to its properties of form, Americans instead worship at the altar of consumerism, work, and money. These preoccupations are not to be rejected – while retaining many of their existing qualities, they can all be transfigured into something better.

Žižek’s beloved Marxism is really THE GOD THAT FAILED, if you want to be honest about it and know something about history. I am a Marxist too, but of a different kind. I am an UNORTHODOX MARXIST (see Michael Albert’s book of this title). Žižek is an ORTHODOX MARXIST. But Žižek is right on this point: we should not give up. All forms of Marxism until now have failed rather spectacularly. But there is still one way in THE ROAD AHEAD for Marxism to succeed: a band of real NEW WORKING CLASS (Gorz, Mallet) proletarians with class consciousness (Lukács) and an organic revolutionary culture (Gramsci) have to invent the powerful technology of Computer Science 2.0 enabling them to make a lot of money, and then radically transform work into creativity and play, and then change the world FOR THE BETTER in a cultural revolution (in alliance with the OLD WORKING CLASS in revolt in places like Detroit). In short, working with the most advanced new media and new technologies, MARXISM HAS TO TAKE OVER THE LEADERSHIP OF CAPITAL.

“It seems that in this ‘capitalist’ society,” Baudrillard writes in America, “capital can never actually be grasped in its present reality. It is not that our Marxist critics have not tried to run after it, but that it always stays a length ahead of them. By the time one phase has been unmasked, capital has already passed on to another.”

Capital enjoys an “absolute initiative” as historical event, asserts Baudrillard brilliantly and realistically. It is only by anticipating the future in a science fictional mode, only by riding the crest of the most forceful wave of the most innovative product-service-workflow-technological developments and leading edge of capital itself that one can be truly radical. Only in this way, can one come from behind and win the horse race. Only by becoming part of the history of capital, of American (and European and world) business history, can the creative, critical, and liberatory values espoused by leftist traditions be carried on and upgraded. The rebirth of radical contestation as an anarchist-Marxist-capitalist enterprise belongs to the movement of capital itself.

Bernard Tuchman (3 July 2011) comments:

I enjoyed this piece, and the one on Julian, California. Your pictures are a very important part of your work. They place you behind the lens, and therefore implicitly in the picture (and, with your and Laura’s shadows, explicitly). What you see and show prefigures your state of mind, contextualizing and thereby channeling your message.

I liked your linking an important motif of American consciousness with the landscape, both natural and manipulated: “Another dimension of realized utopia is the omnipresence in America of self-congratulatory sect-like evangelical and political-ideological discourses.”

It is hard for those who know they have been blessed (given a great gift) not to explain that boon as being justified by their own state of grace.

And the reason for that exceptional standing of entitlement is their keeping of the faith.

The enemy (i.e., us) is guilty of the greatest of sins: the subversion of appearances. We scheme to cloud their dazzling vision by offering alternative explanations of what it’s all about.

By questioning the authority of their knowledge, we introduce doubt, and make outcomes uncertain. Without unity of mind, momentum is lost, robbing them of belief in the ability of spirits to fly. It is the fall of angels.

This is where capital comes in. The eternal power of capital (which is the nerve-center directing action-dreams) is that it suspends disbelief and reimagines in us the ability to fly. It reawakens innocent hope: Redemption. Salvation. It is profit rearmed with new business plans.

I believe that this effervescent and ineffable Creator is the aspect of capitalism that Baudrillard was identifying: ”It seems that in this `capitalist’ society,” Baudrillard writes in America, “capital can never actually be grasped in its present reality. It is not that our Marxist critics have not tried to run after it, but that it always stays a length ahead of them. By the time one phase has been unmasked, capital has already passed on to another.”

But Real Existing Capital (another aspect of the Godshead), is also the accretion of compelling power. It is a vengeful and merciless god, demanding to be fed with fresh sacrifice from living being.

So, for me, the larger question you pose is: Can that sense of capital, which is the imagination unchaining constraints, escape from the gravitational field of contractual obligation — existing bonds — past words of promise-to-pay for previous dreams — our debt-servitude — our investment in the past?

Alan N. Shapiro (3 July 2011) comments:

These are great comments, Bernie. Thanks!

It does remind me of a Star Trek joke:

HE’S DEAD JIM — You grab his tricorder, I’ll get his wallet.

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