Monday 1 July 2013

Devouring Books: America by Jean Baudrillard

"No one is indifferent to his own life and the least event still has something moving about it. I was here in my imagination long before I actually came here."

If you want a book that makes you sing a certain Simon and Garfunkel song EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. you look at it, or pick it up, or remember that you're reading it, then this is definitely the book you should read. I can't think of anyone who wouldn't want that, so I assume you've all gone to buy it right now. It's cool, I'll wait.
We've all come, to look for Ameriiiica...

Ok, so. I was excited to read this because the genre identifying thing on the back said 'Philosophy/Travel' and I was like 
But also I REALLY LIKE both of those things, and even though I sometimes... struggle with Philosophical works (translation: I don't think I've ever finished one. And HALF OF MY DEGREE is in Philosophy. That's good learning, kids!) I was like meh, I'll be fine. Because it's a book about America, did I not make that clear? I love America, AND I love thinking! What could possibly go wrong?

Well. When I started reading it, I was overly aware of two main things- I am so not used to reading academic texts anymore, and this guy seems to dislike America a bit. Which I pretty much wanted to yawn at, because a french intellectual who doesn't think America is the bees knees? Quelle Surprise! For the first, ooh, 40 pages or so, I was kind of skimming along the surface of it and trying to find a way in whilst simultaneously trying not to punch Baudrillard in the face for being mean about America (I mean, I think he was being mean, but it was kind of hard to tell. Philosophers, you know?)

BUT THEN- I got to this bit where Baudrillard makes an argument that I kind of understood and I felt the synapses and things start firing in my head and started kind of nodding in agreement and sort of getting it, and started feeling like maybe I wasn't doomed to be an idiot forever? Which is always a good feeling. But the thing that I understood was when he started saying that the culture of America (and, really, I think, the developed world) is an anorexic culture, in that because everything is so readily available to us, we reject it and deny ourselves it and in this we are kind of, you know, stupid. And I was all like YES and RIGHT ON and WOW MY BRAIN STILL WORKS and then I read this:
"The obsessive desire for survival (and not for life) is a symptom of this state of affairs and doubtless the most worrying sign of the degradation of the species"
And I was like, well, it's a bit heavy handed, but mostly YES, isn't that how we live now? Just... trying to do everything that's good for us and healthy so we can survive that little bit longer, but when do we really live? I mean, I don't necessarily agree that it's a sign of degradation because, like, what if it's just really evolved of us to want to have as much life as we possibly can, but STILL- even this disagreement is a good thing in my brain because I am thinking about shit and that's just awesome. 

And really, that's just the first in a long list of the things Baudrillard comes up with regarding America- some of which are undoubtedly bullshit, and some of which undoubtedly are just there to serve his wider philosophical vision (I wish I could tell you what that is, but I don't know. Something something post-modernism something simulacrum something?) as in, making the situation fit his pre-existing ideas rather than getting new idea because of the situation; but there was enough here to make me think about things and feel like I was learning something and just generally nerd out and get excited and sort of wish I could do a whole unit just on this book, each week taking one idea and slowly and gently pulling it apart.

But. Instead I just have this blog post so you get to hear about the anorexic culture and stuff instead. And also these few things:
  • "Santa Barbara is a Paradise; Disneyland is a paradise; the US is a paradise. Paradise is just paradise. Mournful, monotonous, and superficial though it may be, it is paradise." - I feel like this is a really french (dare I say European? Maybe...) idea that paradise isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be, and a realised paradise becomes less awesome the more you live there, because what else is left to do? Nothing. And so boredom ensues...
  • "Everything that has been dreamt on this side of the Atlantic [Europe] has a chance of being realised on the other. They build the real out of ideas. We transform the real into ideas, or into ideology. Here in America, only what is produced or manifested has meaning, for us in Europe only what can be thought or concealed has meaning." - On the one hand, he's basically saying, 'America doesn't appreciate thinkers!' but on the other, he says this with admiration- Americans get things done and that's why they're successful and rich and lots of other things (although as far as that success and wealth is a good thing is up for debate too)
  • And, this was written in the eighties, so the following is kiiiind of time specific, but also kind of specific to right now, too: "The very last traces of marginality excised as if by plastic surgery: new faces, new fingernails, glossy brain cells, the whole topped with a tousle of software. A generation nether fired by ambition nor fuelled by the energy of repression, but completely refocused upon themselves." I mean, right?!
So yeah. Basically I liked this book for making me think, even if there were large chunks of it I read that I didn't understand at all- I'm kind of used to that (have you read Kant? Of course you have not, because you are smart people), and what I did get out of it was enough to give me faith that my brain hasn't turned to mush because I haven't had any formal education for over three years (although I have, of course, learnt shitloads). I'm not saying it's going to be everyone's cup of tea because normal people aren't so much into the philosophical texts, but it's worth a try because understanding just a few ideas in it makes you feel all smart and good and stuff. It sure as hell doesn't make you eloquent though. 


  1. I have read Kant!!! Probably not as much as you (I did religious studies at A level, and one of the module things was the philosophy of religion and we had to read some Kant for it), but yeah. I can remember taking the thing that I had to read home, and then spending an hour or so trying to figure out what was going on, hehe.

    I'm definitely not as enamoured with America as you are, although I would like to go visit New York and some other places one day. So maybe I would enjoy the book more than you did! I can't see myself seeking it out though. But I enjoyed your post! :D

    Also, this isn't related to your post really, but you (and lots of other people!) talking about how good breaking bad is made me go back and try watching more of the first season... I watched the first three episodes of it, but then got distracted and wasn't into it enough to watch the rest, but when I went back, I realised that I stopped at a really stupid place, hehe. I'm on season 2 now! I'm trying to catch up before the last season airs, hehe. Yay!

    1. Dude, we've probably read EXACTLY the same amount of Kant. In that I haven't read much of him because he makes me want to stick something sharp in my eyes so I don't have to read it anymore. Your experience of him sounds a loooot like mine though :) or :( rather! DAMMIT KANT.

      I *did* like the book but with some of the criticisms I was just like YAWN, stop being all french about it, but mostly I was like 'hmm, you are interesting me. Do go on.' And what's that you say? You're not going to seek out philosophy on a country that doesn't interest you very much? Well that's just madness!

      OMGGGGGGGGGG I am so excited that you're watching Breaking Bad!!!! I will have to know how you get on with it. WE SHOULD EMAIL! (I love talking about tv shows in email form. It's basically all I email about.) It is my actual favourite tv show ever though. EVER.

    2. Grrr, Kant!!! *shakes fist*

      I am a crazy person :) I am regularly told, hehe.

      I AM COMPLETELY UP FOR EMAILING!!! Send me your e-mail in a message on twitter or something :D YAYYYYYYYYY!!!!


    Except where we do things like eliminate the important part of the Voting Rights Act and don't have gay marriage uniformly and KEEP TRYING TO FORGET ABOUT THE POOR, but as a whole, I think we're moving towards embetterment. Which is a word I just made up.

    I really do love America, but I haven't lived anywhere else for longer than a month, SO I can't really make a qualified statement on how awesome it really is.

    ALSO, Penguin sent me that copy in your sidebar of What Maisie Knew, and if you're good with waiting/haven't bought it already, I can send it to you when I'm done.

    1. I think the main problem with America is those states where all the stupid people live, and then letting those people vote? I am joking OF COURSE (sort of) but having some things decided by central government and then leaving other things up to each state is kind of INSANE but it is a pretty big country, so.

      I genuinely love America and it's nice to know that it's ALSO actually pretty much awesome if you live there as opposed to just going 'shit, I love New York' and also 'OMG the Grand Canyon' and stuff like that. As soon as you guys get an NHS-equivalent, I'll move over there in a flash!

      Also THAT IS SO NICE OF YOU but I do have a copy that I've even nearly finished, it just doesn't have Skarsgard on the cover and therefore is an inferior book. But I will survive! (Have you finished it? Do you like it? I think I *like* it but I don't like James's writing style? In that he uses all the words all the time. Hey, maybe I can just review books in the comments of other posts from now on!)

    2. I'm like 10 pages in. But I've read a bunch of other stuff of James's and I have THOUGHTS.

      I keep hearing from people in the southern states that they're NOT all idiots, but that does seem to be the prevailing consensus. It's like Designing Women accomplished NOTHING.

  3. It sounds like this book is definitely worth buying simply because it combines a number of things which are awesome. America, philosophy, travel and good music are all awesome. I do not believe that things such as a mass cultural movement against smoking, which is definitely not based on a desire for survival, is a sign of species wide degradation.

    PhD by Publication - Cindy Johnston