TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT September 1984

ASTRAL AMERICA

I TRAVEL THROUGH THE U.S. as a soldier through a battlefield not his own, and over which clouds fly in the opposite direction. One conference a genuflexion, two, three conferences an uphill climb, a fleeting reflection in a New England mirror, I am the aeronautic missionary of silent majorities and fatal strategies, leaping catlike from one airport to the next, now the kindled woods of New Hampshire, yesterday the vertical sweetness of skyscrapers, tomorrow mellifluous Minneapolis, with its spidery suite of vowels half Greek and half Sioux evoking an auroral geometry at the edge of ice floes, at the horizon of the inhabited world.

Wanting to preserve his vision of America, he had forbidden himself to thoroughly understand English, linguistic strangeness (the irony, the softness, the cruelty of any foreign tongue) being part of his imaginary realm. . . . One day, he had had enough: he learned this language, and at once had no further reason to come to America. He could just stay in France and talk to himself in English, which today he commands wonderfully well.

Minneapolis! Minneapolis! Where are those ten thousand lakes, that utopia of a hellenistic city at the far edge of the Rockies? After the patrician elegance, the feminine intelligence, and the softness of a Wisconsin Indian summer, this city is but a rural conglomerate without light, awaiting only winter and the cold it is so proud of, in the midst of its silos and hunting grounds. Yet in the depths of this deepest America, in St. Paul, there is the bar at the Commodore, with the best Art Deco in the world, where they say Fitzgerald came to drink every evening. I drink there too.

All the powers of the world at some point built their monumental avenues, offering a summary perspective of the infinity of empire. But the Indians at Teotihuacán or the Egyptians in the Valley of the Kings or even Louis XIV at Versailles constructed their syntheses with an architecture proper to their time and place. Here, in Washington, the immense axis cutting from the Washington Monument to Capitol Hill is made up of museums that segue in and out of one another and summarize our entire universe, from the Paleolithic to the Space Age. This gives the entirety a look of science fiction, as though someone had wanted to assemble in one place all signs of terrestrial adventure and culture, for the benefit of an extraterrestrial. The White House itself, situated just to one side of this axis and discreetly keeping vigil over the whole, seems a museum, the museum of global power, decked out in aloofness and a prophylactic whiteness.

Kennedy to his citizens: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Then, to all people of the world: “Ask not what America can do for you, ask what you can do for . . . ” America? (Logical symmetry, one waits for it, one hopes for it. . . . but no, the speech ends with a clever and hypocritical substitution: what you can do for all people of mankind! Freedom?)

Hypocrisy of the American squirrel. They say that all goes well, that America is good about animals, about itself, and about the rest of the world, and that in the heart of everyone is a slumbering squirrel. Walt Disney’s entire philosophy eats out of your hand, along with those pretty, sentimental, little gray-furred beasts. I believe, to the contrary, that behind each of their tender eyes lurks a fierce and frozen being whose fear lies in wait for you. . . . On the very same lawn where the squirrels run, stuck into the ground, there is a placard from I do not know which society of Jesus: Vietnam Cambodia Lebanon Grenada—We are a violent society in a violent world!

Halloween: there is nothing funny about this sarcastic holiday. Rather, this mix of presents and grimacing masks reflects a hellish and unreasonable claim to revenge by children against the adult world. The menace of the hurtful power of childhood hovers over this universe, in relation to its devotion to children themselves. There is nothing unhealthier than this childish witchery, behind disguises and pumpkin foolery—people put out their lights and hide, for fear of being tormented. And it is hardly a surprise that a few of them have stuck needles or razor blades in the apples or the cookies they’ve handed out.

Laughter on American television has replaced the chorus of Greek tragedy. The laughs are inexorable,and barely spare the news, the stock market reports, and the weather. They are audible, by dint of their sheer obsessiveness, behind Reagan’s voice or the disaster of the Marines in Beirut, and visible through advertising. It’s the sarcastic exhilaration of a puritan culture. Elsewhere the task of laughter, and of pleasure, is left to the spectator. Here, one’s own laugh is carried over to the screen, where it is part of the spectacle, where it can’t be ambiguous; it’s the screen that laughs, the screen that is entertained. All that is left to you is consternation.

The Vietnam War on television (a pleonasm, since it was already a TV war). The Americans fought with two essential weapons: aviation and information. In other words the physical bombardment of the enemy, and the electronic bombardment of the rest of the world. Neither weapon is territorial, whereas all the arms, all the strategies of the Vietnamese were derived from race and from the land. This is why the war was won on both sides: by the Vietnamese over actual terrain, by the Americans in the electronic, mental terrain of information. And if one side carried an ideological and political victory, the other got Apocalypse Now! out of it, a film that has toured the world.

However thick the boredom, the prison of daily routine in the U.S.A. as elsewhere, American banality will always be a thousand times more interesting than the European version, especially the French. Perhaps it is because in America banality was born of the extreme vastness, of the monotony of extended cultures, and of a radical lack of culture. It is indigenous there, as are its extreme inverses, that of speed, of verticality, of an immoderation bordering on casualness, and of an indifference that borders on the surreal. While French banality is an offshoot of bourgeois everydayness, it was born from the tail end of an aristocratic culture that was sloughed off with petit bourgeois mannerisms, it was born of that stinking, good-for-nothing, hexagonal bourgeoisie that like a skin of sorrow constricted the 19th century. It’s all there: it’s the cadaver of the bourgeoisie that sets us apart, it’s that cadaver that carries the chromosome of banality for us—whereas the Americans knew how to keep their humor about the material signs of conspicuousness and wealth.

Europeans experience everything that pertains to statistics as though those numbers were an unfortunate destiny, they immediately read into them their individual defeats and take refuge in a clenched defiance of all that is quantitative. Americans on the contrary experience statistics as an optimistic stimulant, as a dimension of their good fortune, of the happy arrival of their coming of age.

Dawn in Los Angeles, over the Hollywood hills. Unexpected, as I never witness it elsewhere. One senses distinctly that the sun only barely stroked Europe on its way to fully rising here, over this planar geometry where its light remains its own, brand-new, at the edge of the desert.

Stalklike palm trees vibrating in front of an electric billboard, the only vertical signs on this flat geometry.

At six in the morning a man is already dialing from a public phone booth in front of the Beverley Terrace Hotel. The nocturnal dispatches fade away, the daytime ones come to light. Everywhere the light reveals and illuminates the absence of architecture. It is what makes this city beautiful, and warm and intimate, whatever else anyone says of it: it is in love with its own unlimited horizontality, as New York might be with its verticality.

NEW YORK

The successor to Athens, Alexandria, and Persepolis rolled into one is New York.

The number of sirens builds, day and night. The cars are faster, the dispatches more violent. Prostitution is total, as are the electric lights. And the game, all the games intensify. It is always thus as one approaches the center of the world. But the people smile, never to each other, always to themselves.

The frightening diversity of faces, their singularity, all strained toward some inconceivable expression. Youths of 20, of 12, have expressions like the death masks of archaic cultures. Like the city itself. New York, in fifty years, has arrived at the kind of beauty that other cities have evolved over centuries.

Smokestacks, like bathers wringing out their hair. Afro hairstyles, or Pre-Raphaelite ones. Banal, multiracial. Pharaonic city, all in obelisks or spikes. The buildings around Central Park are like flying buttresses—because of them the immense park takes on the allure of a floating garden.

The clouds aren’t dappled, brains are. The clouds float over the city like cerebral hemispheres, chased by the wind. As for the people, they have cirrus clouds in their heads, clouds that come out through their eyes, like the spongy vapors that come out of cracked soil in a warm rain. Sexual solitude of the clouds in the sky, linguistic solitude of men on earth.

The number of people here who think alone, who sing alone, who eat and speak alone in the streets is unbelievable. Yet there is no aggregate. On the contrary, they deduct themselves from one another, and their inter-resemblances are uncertain.

But there is a certain kind of solitude that resembles no other. It is that of a man preparing his meal in public alone, on a wall, on the hood of a car, along a railing. One sees this everywhere here, and it’s the saddest scene in the world, sadder than outright misery; sadder than the sight of a man begging is the sight of a man eating alone in public. There is nothing more contradictory to human or animal laws, as animals go through the honors of sharing or of fighting over food. He who eats alone is dead (but not he who drinks alone; why?).

Why do people live in New York? There is no rapport among them. But an internal electricity that comes out of pure promiscuity. A magical sensation of contiguousness, and of an attraction to an artificial center. This turns it into a universe of auto-attraction, from which there is no reason to leave. There is no human reason to remain there, but the lone ecstasy of promiscuity.

Beauty of the Blacks, of the Puerto Ricans in New York. Outside of the sexual excitement provided by racial promiscuity, one has to say that blackness, the pigmentation of the dark races, is like a natural flare that self-ignites to produce a beauty which is desperately lacking in pale faces. Whiteness appears as an exhaustion of physical rigging, a neutrality that perhaps for this very reason obtains a dexterity with Words, but to which the esoteric and ritual powers of artifice will always be wanting.

In New York exists a double marvel: each great building rules or once ruled the city—each ethnic group rules or once ruled the city, in its fashion. In Montreal all the elements are there—ethnic groups, buildings, North American space—but without the vibrance and the violence of U.S. cities.

Clouds spoil the skies of Europe for us. Compared to the immense skies of North America, with their cloud-flocks, our little dappled skies, our little dappled clouds are the image of our little dappled thoughts, never thoughts of space. . . . In Paris the sky never takes off, it doesn’t hover, it is stuck in the decor of sickly buildings, each of which provides a bit of shade for the next, just like a little private property—rather than being each other’s vertiginous mirrored facades, like those of the great capital of New York. . . . The skies make this clear: Europe was never a continent. From the minute you set foot in North America, you sense the presence of an entire continent—there, space is thought itself.

Compared to American downtowns and skyscraper ensembles, la Défense loses the architectural advantage of verticality and enormity by having squeezed its buildings into an italianate scene, into a closed theater circumscribed by a peripheral boulevard. A French-style garden in a way: a bouquet of buildings tied with a ribbon. This counteracts any possibility that these monsters might engender others on toward infinity, each defying the other, in a space given drama by this competition (New York Chicago Houston Seattle Toronto). Those cities give rise to the pure architectural object, the kind that eludes architects, that fundamentally and categorically denies the city and its function, that denies the common good and the individual good, that persists in its delirium and whose only equivalent was the vainglory of Renaissance cities.

No, one must not humanize architecture. Anti-architecture—the real kind, not Arcosanti in Arizona, for which all the soft technologies were gathered in the heart of the desert—no, the savage kind, the inhuman kind, the kind that exceeds man, got itself together all by itself in New York, and without taking into account such notions as the nest, well-being, or ideal ecology. This kind took its chances with tough technologies, it exaggerated all dimensions, it made its wager against the sky and against hell. . . . Eco-architecture, like the eco-society, is the soft-pedal hell of low empires.

The wonders of modern demolition. It is the reverse spectacle of rocket launches. A 20-story building slides as a vertical whole toward the center of the earth. It crumbles straight like a mannequin, without losing its vertical countenance, as though it were falling through a trapdoor, and with all debris sucked into its surface on the ground. Here is a miraculous art of the modern age, which equals the fireworks displays of our childhood.

They say: in Europe the streets are lively, in America they are dead. This is wrong. There is nothing more intense, more electrifying, more vital, and more combustive than the streets of New York. Crowds, traffic, advertising fill them sometimes violently, sometimes casually. Millions of people fill them, wanderers, non-chalants, violent ones, as though they had nothing else to do, and very likely they don’t really have anything to do other than to produce the permanent scenario of the city. Music is everywhere, the traffic is intense, relatively vehement and quiet (not like the nervous and theatrical traffic of Italy). The streets, the avenues, never empty out, but the clear aerial geometry of the city sets this arterial promiscuity apart from the small congested streets of Europe.

In Europe, the street only lives by access, in historical moments, revolutions, barricades. Otherwise people pass through quickly, no one really loiters in the street (people barely stroll around anymore). It’s the same as European cars: they’re not big enough to live in. So it is with the cities, there isn’t enough room to let oneself go—or perhaps it is rather that these supposedly public places are marked and labeled so insistently as such, that there is no question of crossing them or haunting them the way one might a desert or indifferent space.

The American street might not know historic moments, but it is always bustling, vital, kinetic and cinematic, like the country itself, where historic and political arenas count for little, but where the virulence of change, whether fueled by technology, racial differences, or the media, is huge: it’s the very violence of the way we live.

In New York urban turbulence is so strong, the centrifugal force is such that it is superhuman to consider living as two, to share someone else’s life. Only tribes, gangs, mafia families, perverse or initiate societies, a few complicitous groups can survive, but not couples. It’s the anti-Ark: where once the animals were loaded on board two by two to save their species from the flood, here, in this Ark-fantastic, everyone goes on board alone—it’s up to the individual to find, night after night, the last survivors for the last party.

In New York the mad have been liberated. Loose in the city, they are sometimes hard to tell apart from the other punks, junkies, alcoholics, or generally wretched who haunt it. It is hard to see why so crazy a city would keep its insane in the shadows, why it would remove from circulation specimens of a kind of folly that has, in multiple forms, taken hold of the whole town.

The gymnastics of breaking are a kind of acrobatic prowess; one only notices at the end of a routine that one has witnessed a dance, when it has set into a position of indifference (elbow on the ground, head nonchalantly leaning into the palm of a hand, just like on an Etruscan tomb). This sudden immobility reminds one of Chinese opera. But the Chinese warrior freezes still into a heroic gesture at the peak of action, while the breaker stops at the slack phase of a movement with a mocking gesture. It seems as though by coiling and spiraling thus upon themselves on sidewalks the dancers are drilling their own holes inside their bodies, from the depths of which they assume the ironic and idle pose of death.

I would never have believed that the New York Marathon could bring tears to your eyes. It’s an end-of-the-world spectacle. Can one speak of voluntary suffering as voluntary servitude? Under driving rain, under helicopters, under applause, wearing aluminum hoods and squinting over their chronometers, or else naked from the waist up with convulsing eyes, they all seek death, the death by exhaustion that belonged to the marathon men of two thousand years ago who, let us not forget, carried news of victory back to Athens. These competitors no doubt also dream of relaying some victorious message, but their numbers are too many, and their message no longer has meaning: it is only that of their arrival, of an end to their effort—a crepuscular message about a superhuman and useless effort. Collectively it is more as though they carry a message of disaster for the human species, for one sees it degrading itself hour by hour at the finish line, from the first ones still strapping and competitive, to the wrecks literally carried through to the end by their friends, or to the handicapped who run the race in wheelchairs. They are 17,000 strong, and one thinks with some nostalgia about the real battle of Marathon, where there weren’t even 17,000 Greek combatants. They are 17,000 strong, and each one runs alone, without even the spirit of victory, but only to feel as though they exist. “We’ve won!” whispered the Greek who came from Marathon as he expired. “I did it!” gasps the exhausted marathon man as he collapses on the grass of Central Park.

I DID IT!

The slogan for a new kind of formal activity, publicity-minded, the autistic performance, the pure and empty form of self-defiance, which has replaced the promethean ecstasy of competition, of effort and success.

The New York marathon has become a kind of international symbol of this fetishistic performance, of this delirium of empty victory, of an exaltation in a prowess without consequence.

I ran to the finish in the New York Marathon: I did it!

I climbed to the top of Annapurna: I did it!

The moonlanding is of the same order: We did it! That was in the end an event not so much surprising as programmed in advance within the trajectory of progress and of science. We had to do it. We did it. But rather than revive the millenarian dream of space, that event in a way exhausted it. This same affect of uselessness exists in everything executed according to a program, just as in anything that we accomplish in order to prove to ourselves that we are capable of accomplishing it: a child, a mountain climb, a sexual exploit, a suicide.

The marathon is a demonstrative form of suicide, a publicity-minded suicide: it means running to show that we are capable of pushing our own limits, running to make a mark, to prove something . . . to prove what? That one is able to finish. Graffiti writers also say nothing more than: My name is so and so and I exist! They are giving free publicity to existence!

Is it continually necessary to prove one’s own life? Strange sign of weakness, front-running sign of a new fanaticism, that of evidence without end.

MYSTIC TRANSPORTATION INCORPORATED

A sea-green truck with sparkling fenders heads down Seventh Avenue, in the early morning sun, just after a snowfall. On its sides in metallic gold letters are the words: Mystic Transportation.

They describe all New York and its mystical point of view about decadence: here are all special effects, from the vertical sublime to the rotting ground. All the special effects of races and empires, these are the fourth dimension of the city.

Eventually cities will be extensive and nonurban (Los Angeles), still later they will shroud themselves and will no longer even have names. All will become infrastructure cradled by light and artificial energy. The brilliant superstructure, the mad verticality will have disappeared. New York is the final excess of this baroque verticality, of this centrifugal eccentricity, before a horizontal dismantling, followed by subterranean implosion.

By a wonderful complicity shared by all its population, New York affords itself the comedy of its own catastrophe. This is not an effect of decadence, it is an effect of its power, a power that nothing elsewhere can threaten—because nothing threatens it. Its density, its superficial electricity, stave off the idea of war. The resumption of daily life every morning is a sort of miracle, given the expenditure of energy the day before. Its voltage protects it, like a voltaic dome, from all exterior destruction, if not from internal accidents like the blackout of ’77—but the very scope of these accidents turns them into world events, thus contributing further to its glory. This centrality and eccentricity cannot but give it a sense of delirium about its own end, a delirium that the New York “scene” transcribes esthetically in its follies, in its violent expressionism, but which the entire city collectively cultivates in the technical frenzy of verticality, in the acceleration of banality, in the joyful or wretched vivacity of the faces, in the rude sacrifice of humanity to pure circulation.

Here urban-ness has reached such a degree that it is no longer necessary to express it or give it a political character. Furthermore New York is no longer a political city, and demonstrations by this or that ideological group are rare. (Ethnic groups express themselves through festivals and parades which make their racial presences evident.) Violence has to do not so much with social relations, but with all relations, and it is exponential. Sexuality itself has in some way been exceeded (people say it’s in the process of disappearing)—even if it’s everywhere on billboards, it no longer has time to materialize in human and romantic relationships; it becomes volatile in the promiscuity of every instant, in multiple, ephemeral contacts. In New York one can find a feeling of glory, in the sense that you can feel haloed by the total energy—it’s not like the lugubrious spectacle of change in Europe; it’s the esthetic form of a mutation.

In Europe we have the art of thinking things through, of analyzing them, of pondering them. No one can contest this historical subtlety and this conceptual imagination; even the spirits on the far side of the Atlantic envy us this. But the glaring truths, the actual prodigious effects are located at the edge of the Pacific or in the sphere of Manhattan. New York, Los Angeles are at the center of the world—one has to say this—even if something about it simultaneously thrills and troubles us. We are desperately lagging behind stupidity and the mutational character, behind naive excess and the social, racial, moral, morphological, architectural eccentricity of this society. No one is in a position to analyze it, certainly not those American intellectuals locked into their campuses, dramatically foreign to this concrete, fabulous mythology which unfolds all around them.

This American universe thoroughly rotten with wealth, with power, with senility, with indifference, with puritanism and mental hygiene, with misery and waste, with technological vanity and useless violence—I cannot stop myself from seeing in it the morning of the world. Maybe it’s because the whole world continues to dream about it even as it dominates and exploits.

At 10,000 meters and 1,000 kilometers per hour, I have beneath me the ice floes of Greenland, I have Jean Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes galantes in my headphones, Catherine Deneuve on the screen, and an old man sleeping on my lap. “Yes I sense in love all the violence. . . ” croons, sublime, one time zone to the other. In the airplane people sleep, speed does not heed the violence of love. From one night to another, the night one has left, the night one will land in, the day will only have lasted four hours. But that sublime voice, that voice of insomnia travels still quicker, it sails over the glacial transatlantic atmosphere, skips over the actress’ long lashes, over to the violet horizon of the rising sun, into the warm coffin of the jet, and finally fades out somewhere off the coast of Iceland.

There, the voyage is over.

Jean Baudrillard is the author of many books, including Les Stratégies fatales (Paris: editions Grasset. 1983). He is a contributing editor of Artforum.

Translated from the French by Lisa Liebmann.