Why live in America?
Crumps’ latest scene report contains a section in which I argue about America with another attendee of the Mars Review of Books launch party. I was trying, and perhaps failing, to persuade my interlocutor that there are ways to think about America that fall neither under the umbrella of self-hatred nor of self-exaltation.
I’m reading Baudrillard’s book on America—from Verso, in this weird wide format, riddled with typos (“Tupunga Canyon [sic]”). Some of the pages of the book are falling out as I read it. There are a lot of striking observations of the kind only Frenchmen seem to be able to make about America. I like his observations about Southern California.
On the Getty museum (the one with the tram, not the villa, which is perhaps the sole outpost of high culture in the greater LA area): “where old paintings look new, bleached and gleaming, cleansed of all patina and craquelure.”
On Santa Barbara: “Nothing converges on a central point.” There is something odd about the lack of central public squares in America. Even Manhattan is a kind of plateau. Times Square is not so much a gathering point as an alley in which to be bombarded with sensation.
On flying over LA at night: “Only Hieronymus Bosch’s hell can match this inferno effect.” Baudrillard clearly ahead of the curve on the cliché that LA is “shitty heaven” and New York is “fun hell.”
And on New York City: “Why do people live in New York? There is no relationship between them.” Baudrillard seems mainly appalled by people eating their leftovers for lunch alone in public. We often think they’re perverts, but sometimes I think the French are very conventional. Even Bataille’s Story of the Eye—I think I am the first person to make this claim—seems to me a fundamentally prudish text.
But the passage I think about the most, and which serves as an explanation of the purpose of the text, is one that answers a question raised in a debate I had with some friends a while back: Why live in America?
One friend of mine was visiting from Berlin and was raised in South America. We were talking about where it was better to live, America or Europe? She was talking to me about how unpleasant America is.
And it often is! Southern California is the most pleasant part of America, at least to me, but there’s still something ascetic about it. It’s either in Kevin Starr’s books or in one of Carey McWilliams’ that starts by claiming California has almost the best climate in the world, but that it’s worse than the Mediterranean because the ocean is too cold to swim in. It’s fit chiefly for surfers, who are a kind of modern monk (and are often Christian and possessed of a low-key conservative politics).
In New York and in the northeast corridor, the harshness of America is much more frankly on display. The cost of living is one thing. In Western Europe and especially in still-cheap Berlin, people may make less in salaries, but with a generous welfare state and a lower cost for drinks, dinners and rent, the money seems to go further. In America, not only is the good life terribly expensive, but even the mediocre life is expensive. This is what bums me out the most about New York: it’s fine for a nice dinner to cost you dearly, but even a bad dinner will still cost you pretty dearly. That’s why dollar slice pizza feels like such a lifeline.
But broadly speaking, that’s the reason people here really feel the need to make more money, it’s because that’s the way for it all to seem worthwhile. Except dedication to the task of making money submits you to the being-towards-money American mindset, to which (as Aristotle warns us) there is no end and which prevents anyone embroiled in it from ever truly enjoying themselves again. Once you’re there, not even Europe can save you, as Henry James’ The American is testimony.
The Matt Yglesiases of the world who are determined to tabulate enough spreadsheets to be able to show that because Americans have clothes dryers they live “better” lives than Europeans will never achieve the sense of taste required to understand that what Europeans enjoy is pleasantness. Not pleasures, which can be garish, momentary and degrading; but pleasantness, which is a nice spritz on the square, a nice dinner with friends, a nice walk around town.
So, all right. Why not live in Europe? I wasn’t putting up much of a fight in this debate about whether it was better to live in America or Europe because I was conceding all these points about America being unpleasant. But that’s where we return to Baudrillard:
The latest fast-food outlet, the most banal suburb, the blandest of giant American cars or the most insignificant cartoon-strip majorette is more at the center of the world than any of the cultural manifestations of old Europe.
It seems from our perspective that even the war in Ukraine or the rise of China hasn’t changed this as much as you’d think. To live in Europe is to be subject, in a delayed fashion, to the cultural dictates produced by the spasms and contortions of the American machine. The way you still hear indie rock from 2011 playing in French cafes like so many little pieces of the Obama era trapped in amber.
We in Europe possess the art of thinking, of analysing things and reflecting on them. No one disputes our historical subtlety and conceptual imagination. Even the great minds across the Atlantic envy us in this regard. But the resounding truths, the realities of genuinely great moment today are to be found along the Pacific seaboard or in Manhattan. It has to be said that New York and Los Angeles are at the centre of the world, even if we find the idea somehow both exciting and disenchanting. We are a desperately long way behind the stupidity and the mutational character, the naïve extravagance and the social, racial, moral, morphological, and architectural excentricity [sic] of their society. No one is capable of analysing it, least of all the American intellectuals shut away on their campuses, dramatically cut off from the fabulous concrete mythology developing all around them.
Even the pointless endless squabbling of the American culture war—which I have called an engine of unfreedom—is also a machine that originates new doctrines quickly copied from Brazil to Bessarabia, that generates entirely new lifestyles, physical-medical-cultural modes of life hitherto unknown.
To be present at the creation is why one lives in America and in New York specifically, why one bears the thousand tiny indignities of life here, why one consents to being broiled in summer and frozen in winter, ripped off for everything in all seasons, why one submits to the terrible restlessness and the deleterious effect on the body of the climate, the cuisine, the lifestyle—why it’s necessary to endure the vulgarity that pervades the city at every level, up to the highest levels of supposed refinement and intellectualism.
Why? Because submitting to these demands is the only way not to have oneself submitted to the dictates of last year’s New York a year from now—take it from Baudrillard, not me.
This is not the boosterism of Silicon Valley, not the naïve view that whatever new thing is being invented in America, whatever new app or venture-funded intervention will make life “better” for people—that is most frequently self-serving folly. This is something more terrified, more chastened and fearful of the effects of American novelty.
There’s too much distance between the dread factories of the world being born and the European intellectuals so famed for their powers of reflection. But on campus, academics experience the phenomenon of American novelty at a remove.1 In a recent essay in American Affairs I trace the hermetic quality of the university, its non-public-facing character, to its medieval origins as an institution created on the model of the monastery.
Baudrillard is more savage:
There is a science-fiction story in which a number of very rich people wake up one morning in their luxury villas in the mountains to find that they are encircled by a transparent and insuperable obstacle, a wall of glass that has appeared in the night. From the depths of their vitrified luxury, they can still just discern the outside world, the real universe from which they are cut off, which has suddenly become the ideal world. But it is too late. These rich people will die slowly in their aquarium like goldfish. Some of the university campuses here remind me of this.
I worry that the result of the retreat of the American intellectuals into such enclaves is not so much the owl of Minerva flying at dusk but rather surrender of the terrain of culture to the forces of a broader philistinism—corporate, homogenized—to the effects of whose triumph academics too are not immune. Intellectuals act upon reality by employing their reason to comprehend, to analyze and to criticize, and it seems important that the raw material be close at hand.
We have to perform these American experiments on ourselves.
A postscript: I recently published a piece for the New Statesman gathering some observations on the political-cultural landscape in New York City. Just a fun little piece for the Brits, something to give them a very rough sense of developments here, because they love that sort of thing. I figured it would probably get lukewarm pick-up this side of the Atlantic because I didn’t come out swinging against any of the people I mentioned.
Wrong! People outside New York City were irritated by what they perceived as an exaggeration on my part of the influence of a handful of figures in New York City, none of whom are household names. And after another essay was published earlier in the week, people in New York City were fed up with articles about cultural developments in lower Manhattan.
Christian Lorentzen, on his Substack, finds my distinction between transgressive Manhattanites and progressive Brooklynites to be a “specious schematic” intended to generate fake controversy, and traces the outlook of the magazines I mention to the little magazines of the 2000s, rather than contemporary politics. Christian was not the only one to find my heuristic reductive.
For my part, I don’t believe that the presence of interplay between these groups flattens the difference between them. As a clever person recently told me, everyone in New York City plays away games. I find that most observers here agree that something broadly like the distinction I discuss exists, if they find that the aesthetic-political positioning is more subtle than I make it out to be—not everyone in downtown Manhattan is “right-wing,” e.g.
In general it occurs to me that the only totally honest way to write about the avant-garde is to do what Bolaño did, which was wait thirty years until everyone had given up and settled down.
The American campus itself is a factory of moral-political attitudes with wide-ranging effects on society, but within its walls, it’s difficult to discern the contours of those effects.