Thursday, March 15, 2007

England, England

Jean Baudrillard died last week. Or did he? Baudrillard was (in)famous for his theory of “hyper-reality” - that we live in a world where simulated feelings and experiences have replaced the real thing, so that our reality now is our simulation of it. As we only experience his death via mass media, did he really die?
And he became widely known in the US, the hyper-real society par excellence, when he wrote that the Gulf War was entirely a media construct in his book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991).
Baudrillard was the last of the French thinkers whose ideas ignited a cultural war on university campuses in the ‘80s and ‘90s, as Robert Fulford notes in his Baudrillard obit/post-mortem scolding:
Strange as it seems, in the 1970s much of the Western world was ready to embrace him. He and Jacques Derrida were among the most prominent members of the platoon of French imperialist intellectuals who landed on the shores of North America and conquered a whole continent.
They set up base camps on elite college campuses and soon began enlisting local recruits for their army of postmodernists, post-structuralists, post-Marxists and full-time professional obscurantists. They became an all-consuming vogue. Soon it was impossible to get through Yale without encountering them, and by the early 1990s their thoughts had penetrated Western Canada, where you could hear professors talking the ugly and mostly incomprehensible language of critical theory while students struggled pathetically to keep up. In some circles, those who didn't imitate the French stars were considered eccentric.
Not sure why Toronto Bob includes the dig at “Western Canada” as new ideas are welcomed in the west, even dubious ones. And Baudrillard, for laymen like me at least, was the easiest to understand and probably shouldn't be burdened with the many sins of the post-structuralist crowd. But, yes, he is quite correct about the insanity of the academy in those years. But now, years on, the acrimonious arguments that filled the airless world of academia have ebbed. What’s left are some of the interesting ideas brought forward by the French gang, including Baudrillard. Or that's what I like to think now that most of my pals have left the ivory tower.

The battle between the “real” and the faux, or Baudrillard’s “simulacrum” was fictionalized in one of Julian Barnes’ most enjoyable novels, England, England. In the dystopian future, Sir Jack Pitman, a cynical venture capitalist, exploits the only thing England has of value, its past, by creating a theme park on the Isle of Wight called England, England that replicates ye olde merrie England a la Disney. Soon enough, the faux England, England has displaced the tired old real England. A funny and interesting book with much relevance to our boom economy. West Edmonton Mall is expanding again - will it be long until it replaces the "real" Edmonton? Edmonton, Edmonton anyone?
Baudrillard would have enjoyed The Mall That Ate Edmonton. He was fascinated with America, calling it "the original version of modernity", whereas France was just "a copy with subtitles". Of course, Disney was a subject of much interest:
"Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the "real" country, all of "real" America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation."
Baudrillard toured the US in the '80s, like another Frenchman, Alexis DeTocqueville, 150 years earlier. Baudrillard dispensed his bon mots in America (1989), DeTocqueville in Democracy in America (1831). But French intellectuals touring Vegas and such is as common as Americans renovating homes in Provence. Just this past year we had French journalist and philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy wander the US and write about it in American Vertigo: Travelling America in the Footsteps of DeTocqueville (2006).

Too bad Baudrillard never made it to Alberta. I wonder what he would have thought of Fort Mac?

Baudrillard obits: Guardian, Times UK. No Globe & Mail obit? Anyone seen one?

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Art Spiegelman was in town yesterday, speaking at the U of A as part of the Student Union’s Revolutionary Speakers Series. The “revolutionary” hype fits as his graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, established the concept of the “graphic novel”. Or introduced the idea into the public sphere, thereby launching a thousand “comic books aren’t just for kids anymore” articles. I heard someone on CBC the other day use a variant of that phrase entirely un-ironically!
Maus was actually one of a number of classic works from the mid-eighties that established the genre. Spiegelman considers himself part of the comics tradition that stretches back before World War Two. But Maus winning a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992 was a signal moment for the genre, when respectability finally arrived. I remember a university pal forcing Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) on me as I rolled my eyes (“Batman comics? Surely you jest.”). I also mocked him for listening to country music. That pal is now an English prof at an Ontario university who uses graphic novels in his teaching. And I enjoy country music.
Other groundbreakers include Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1987) and V for Vendetta (published serially from 1982 on, with a complete book in 1995). Maus remains apart, as it is a memoir rather than fiction, focused on Spiegelman’s father and his life as a Holocaust concentration camp survivor. All the graphic novel memoirists and journalists that followed are in Spiegelman’s debt. I’m thinking of critically acclaimed works like: