"The U.S. is utopia achieved" / America by Jean Baudrillard {reading notes}

Originally published in 1986 and reissued by Verso last year, America by the late French social critic and philosopher Jean Baudrillard is a must read. The books traces the author's thoughts as he crosses the American landscape à la Tocqueville. Baudrillard critiques and meditates on the nature of American cities including New York but especially Los Angeles, unpacking the city's "superficial" reputation. In a chapter entitled Astral America he writes:

There is nothing to match flying over Los Angeles by night. A sort of luminous, geometric, incandescent immensity, stretching as far as the eye can see, bursting out from the cracks in the clouds...The muted fluorescence of all the diagonals: Wilshire, Lincoln, Sunset, Santa Monica. Already flying over San Fernando Valley, you come upon the horizontal infinite in every direction. But once you are beyond the mountain, a city ten times larger hits you. You will never have encountered anything that stretches as far as this before. Even the sea cannot match it, since it is not divided up geometrically.

Far from fawning over the city, Baudrillard points out how the construction and layout of Los Angeles symbolizes America's infatuation with the abundant and the never-ending. In comparing Europe to America he writes:

[Europe] should not judge [America's] crisis as we would judge our own, the crisis of the old European countries. Ours is a crisis of historical ideals facing up to the of their realization. [America's] is the crisis of an achieved utopia, confronted with the problem of its duration and permanence. The Americans are not wrong in their idyllic conviction that they are the center of the world, the supreme power, the absolute model for everyone. And this conviction is not so much founded on natural resources, technologies, and arms as on the miraculous premise of a utopia made reality, of a society which, with a directness we might judge unbearable, is built on the idea that it is the realization of everything the others have dreamt of -- justice, plenty, rule of law, wealth, freedom: it knows this, it believes in it, and in the end, the others have come to believe in it too.

He also looks at the nature of television and it's place in American society, the nature of America's deserts and open spaces, Reagan-era politics and much more. By the end of the book you will understand Baudrillard's conviction that California may be the logical (if not tragic) result of everything the West has ever believed in ... dope read!

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Originally Posted 7/22/2011 & 5/6/2013

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