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Nonfiction in Brief

AMERICA by Jean Baudrillard; translated by Chris Turner (Verso: $24.95)

January 15, 1989|ALEX RAKSIN

As America has become increasingly self-absorbed during the Reagan years, European artists and intellectuals have become increasingly absorbed in America. Film makers such as Percy Adlon and Bertrand Tavernier have visited such peculiarly American places as Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, for instance, in the hope of finding some clue about the culture they believe is eclipsing their own. The most lyric and visionary of these European visitors is Jean Baudrillard, well described in a recent New York Times interview as "a lapsed sociologist who has become a sharp-shooting Lone Ranger of the post-modernist Left."

Baudrillard, calling our country "the last remaining primitive society," is sure to rile American readers just as he has already offended a host of American publishers who turned down this book. And yet, while Baudrillard is no doubt as grandiloquent and condescending as the next European savant, he uses the word "primitive" with sincere admiration.

Baudrillard sees Americans as a generally sanguine, though unreflective bunch, accepting life at surface level ("Things, faces, skies, and deserts are expected to be simply what they are. This is the land of 'just as it is.' ") rather than becoming preoccupied by the paralyzing, dispiriting "navel-gazing" of many Europeans. Viewing freedom and equality as givens rather than as goals to strive toward, Americans don't stop to question their present course, Baudrillard contends, thus freeing themselves to move forward at breakneck speed.

This motion, symbolized by the "empty, absolute freedom of the freeways," isn't entirely liberating, however, for it blurs our surroundings, disaffecting us from our environment. Baudrillard sees evidence of our detachment in television, which encourages audiences to have the same reaction to almost everything: laughter. Baudrillard contends that canned laughter on television, which "has taken the place of the chorus in Greek tragedy," is so pervasive "that you can go on hearing it behind the voice of Reagan, or the Marines disaster in Beirut."

And yet, in a future where change is likely to be the only constant, America's fast-paced, slow-thinking Gestalt is a definite asset, Baudrillard insists. Thus he concludes that "America is the primitive society of the future, a society of complexity, hybridity, and the greatest intermingling, of a ritualism that is ferocious but whose superficial diversity lends it beauty."

It is not difficult to take issue with Baudrillard's main points. If change were only something that happens to us, then it would make sense to celebrate the cheerful and unreflective. But ideally, change is something we bring about, and so we might do well to resist Baudrillard's cynically postmodernist conclusion that in the next inevitable stage in human "evolution," life will be lived in a kind of satyric playground. In Baudrillard's Santa Barbara "you always hear the same question: 'What are you doing after the orgy?' " Always? Baudrillard, in such moments, is too hilariously the French intellectual dreaming of his own escape.

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