Thursday, April 15, 2004

Baudrillard's America


The first time I heard about Jean Baudrillard was in a series of Babak Ahmadi's lectures in Tehran in The Islamic Philosophy Society (Anjoman-e Hekmat va Falsafe-ye Eslaami). I don't think I understood that much about what Baudrillard was saying, and I didn't know why his ideas were so difficult to grasp till I came to the United States. It was after a year and a half living here that one day I accidentally saw one of his books in the public library. The book's name was America.
I picked it up just to browse through the book, to see if any thing is different for me now, or any thing makes sense now that I am here, in the real post-industrial world that is his departure point for whatever he says.

I couldn't put the book down till the next day. I was drown into it from the very first moment by reading the title of two of the chapters: "Utopia Achieved" and "Right lane must turn right." There I could understand why he didn't make that much sense to me back in Iran: I couldn't put him in the proper context. I couldn't understand many of the issues he refers to simply because they didn't exist in Iran, or they didn't exist the way they are here in a post-industrial society.

Later on I read some parts of the book again and I found myself less facinated by the book. But still there are many sections that make me thinking for hours, sections like this one about joggers jogging in Santa Monica beach:

"[D]ecidedly, joggers are the true Latter Day Saints and the protagonists of an easy-does-it Apocalypse. Nothing evokes the end of the world more than a man running straight ahead on a beach, swathed in the sounds of his walkman, cocooned in the solitary sacrifice of his energy, indifferent even to catastrophes since he expects destruction to come only as the fruit of his own efforts, from exhausting the energy of a body that has in his own eyes become useless. Primitives, when in despair, would commit suicide by swimming out to sea until they could swim no longer. The jogger commits suicide by running up and down the beach. His eyes are wild, saliva drips from his mouth. Do not stop him. He will either hit you or simply carry on dancing around in front of you like a man possessed.
   The only comparable distress is that of a man eating alone in the heart of the city. You see people doing that in New York, the human flotsam of conviviality, no longer even concealing themselves to eat leftovers in public. But this still belongs to the world of urban, industrial poverty. The thousands of lone men, each running on their own account, with no thought for others, with a stereophonic fluid in their heads that oozes through into their eyes, that is the world of Blade Runner, the post-catastrophe world. Not to be aware of the natural light of California, nor even of a mountain fire that has been driven ten miles out to sea by the hot wind, and is enveloping the offshore oil platforms in its smoke, to see nothing of all this and obstinately to carry on running by a sort of lymphatic flagellation till sacrificial exhaustion is reached, that is truly a sign from the beyond. It is like the obese person who keeps on getting fatter, the record rotating endlessly in the same groove, the cells of a tumour proliferating, like everything that has lost the formula for stopping itself. This entire society, including its active, productive part - everyone - is running straight ahead, because they have lost the formula for stopping..."

--From America, by Jean Baudrillard (1986). Pages 38-39
Translated in 1988 by Chris Turner from the original in French, Amerique