Ecstatic Critique & The End of The World: Baudrillard’s America and The Climate Emergency

This talk was presented in September, 2018 at the Applied Baudrillard Conference at Oxford-Brookes University, Oxford, UK

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I.

In Baudrillard’s America, that place he calls “astral” or sidereal America, is marked by the open, infinite space of the desert, by the “empty, absolute freedom of the freeways.” Baudrillard travels in search of the  “America of desert speed, of motels and mineral surfaces.” He seeks and finds it in and within “the speed of screenplays, in the indifferent reflex of television [and] in the the film of days and nights projected across an empty space.” Following in the grand tradition of French observers of the United States (from DeToqueville to Sartre and Camus to BHL), and inflected as well with the specific writing styles of the late ’70’s and early 80’s of Hunter S Thompson perhaps, and even the benadryl-induced Jack Kerouac (lyrical high french theory meets the hard edge of Gonzo ecstasy),  Baudrillard anticipates the “finished form of the catastrophe”, in what he calls “the affectless succession of signs, images, faces, and ritual acts”, events which unfurl in a series of observations and thoughts as he makes his way from New York to Salt Lake City to Las Vegas and finally to Santa Barbara, “where the Western World ends on a shore devoid of all signification, like a journey that loses all meaning when it reaches its end.” In departing from his native Europe of “cottages” and the academy, and taking to the road to drive into what he calls , “a kind of invisibility, transparency, or transversality in things,” he is taking up “a sort of slow motion suicide” in that the movement, the speed of the open desert, of empty space, empties, in turn, the landscape of its own essential form. In this emptying, everything that is, seems to disappear into a liminal be-coming, or perhaps it is an un-be-coming, or a going ahead, or a not having come at all. Time seems, in the desert, if you have ever stood there on the edge of the Salton Sea, or pressed up against the fence at the White Sands Missile Testing ground in Alamogordo, New Mexico, to indeed have not come at all.

Time, for a Baudrillard on the edge of the emp-ti-full desert, or standing silently at the Trinity test site, becomes the mirror through which the geologic spaces of America are rendered traversable. As in Virillio’s “aesthetics of disappearance,” (which he references), time and space become hollowed out in their barren irreducibility. In the desert, time becomes infinite as do the geological expanses, and, in effect, ahistorical. In Europe, as in the Academy, time is always marked by history—meadows, mountains, fens, beaches—space and time itself—is always inflected with historical time. The stones of Stonehenge, the caves of Niaux, the remnants of cairns left behind by neolithic man, Black forests, Highland battle sights, a filled in trench (now overgrown) that marks the sites of Ypres or the Somme or Babi Yar or the pond even behind Birkenau which is still stained grey with the ashes of immolated human beings—everything is defined by a certain rigid kronos, an historical time marked always by its precedence, by what came before.

In contrast, the lands of North America, are, by the result of specific political decisions, been made an ahistorical, Disney-film strip in a hyper-historical construct. A five hundred year project of genocide—one which not only got rid of a people (even after naming said people as though they had never been named before by themselves)  through enslavement, impoverishment, the introduction of disease and addiction as well as wholesale slaughter and rape, but also their own cultural histories and landmarks, their narratives and stories, their physicality in space and time— this project rendered any cultural peoples who existed in the Americas prior to Columbus’s “discovery”— a pale, destroyed fragment of a culture, desiccated and withered and broken. History in the United States is marked by official signs, and not by remembered stones, not by stories told. Access to history is cleaned up, reified and re-presented through an official accounting. There is no record of what is not there, and what is there has been curated, denoted, claimed and named by a state historical marker, packaged into a scenic overlook or state park.

This is the landscape Baudrillard finds himself passing through, as the half-naive European ingenue, experiencing, as though for the first time, the vastness and openness of his America. This is a time, for Baudrillard, of crystalline purity, of that “astral quality” he never “found anywhere else.” The evental deep time which Baudrillard experiences on the edge of the desert is a boundary-less frontier, an opening into the vastness of empty space. Without history, time and space here are joined in a landscape that remains perpetually unsurpassed; infinite skies and desert, visions which are neither “dream nor reality”, a landscape of “the perfect simulacrum—that of immanence and material transcription of all values.” This experience is, it should be noted, available to the European, but not to the American. (We) Americans are too enmeshed in the simulation, too much a part of the projection to be self-critical; indeed, (we) Americans lack a language and words to describe it because we are always already the model. America, Baudrillard writes, “is a giant hologram”; in each place, and in each idea is reflected everything else. The very nature of the place (if we can say that there is a nature) stands out as on a beam of light. If that beam of light is interrupted, all its effects are dispersed, and reality alongside it. In America, Baudrillard writes, “the spectral does not refer to phantoms or to dancing ghosts, but to the spectrum into which light disperses.” In the radiant brightness of the desert’s edge, all becomes dispersed, fragmented, torn asunder. 

The only question then, for Baudrillard’s journey, “is how far can [he] go in the extermination of meaning, how far can [he] go in the non-referential desert form without cracking up and, of course, still keep alive the esoteric charm of disappearance?” Within Baudrillard’s brilliant dispersal, his descriptions of endless time and space, of openings and amnesiac endings, of “defibrillated bodies” and striations and traversals, vibrating signs without referent, this vanishing point of the American experience seems to him to be the “probability of the life that lies in store for us.” Even then though, in this futureless future of fractalized, interstitial spaces, of vapid openness and “somnambulistic distances”, another, more primordial force, the force of the geological, of the very real weight and mass of physicality seemed to threaten to undo the American experiment.

II.

In June of 1988, at roughly the same time that Chris Turner’s translation of Baudrillard’s Amerique was published by Verso in the United States, Dr. James Hansen, then a leading researcher and director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified in front of the United States congress that “the greenhouse effect is here.” For many, this was the first anyone had heard about climate change or global warming. The evidence had been there all along of course, dating back to at least the testimony of the Irish physicist John Tyndall who confirmed, in 1850, that carbon monoxide was a heat trapping gas. The Swedish chemist Svante Arenhuis  then calculated in 1896 that carbon monoxide, the result of burning coal, would eventually lead to what he called, perhaps for the first time, “a greenhouse effect.” And this led the American scientist Charles Keeling to erect, on Mauna Loa, in 1953, a device to measure that carbon as atmospheric Co2. The data from Keeling’s experiments continues to yield information today, and has recorded, as of September 1, 2018 a reading of 405.60 PPM of carbon in the atmosphere. This is up roughly thirty percent since the measurements began in the 1950’s. Put another way, concentrations of atmospheric carbon have not been higher than 400 PPM for the 800,000 years, though some put the date closer to the last 10 to 15 million years. Put yet another way, no human being, no human culture, no experience of time has ever existed during this period. We are, as Bill McKibben writes, living on an entirely new and different planet.

Whether the climate emergency begins as the Anthropocene with intensive farming techniques dating from 8,000 BP or the resulting exchange of flora and fauna that the collision between the “new” and “old” world created between 1492 and, roughly, 1800, or whether it begins closer in time to us with first nuclear bomb detonation at the Trinity site in New Mexico (which Baudrillard imagines while visiting Alamagordo as “the blinding artificial light of the bomb against the blinding light of the ground”) or whether it begins with what is now called the Great Acceleration of a globalized society (what better description of Virillio’s aesthetics of disappearance is there than this unending ramping up of speed into oblivion, this great acceleration into the future) seems almost unimportant. What matters now, as the Anthropocene heralds a new turning towards matter in thought, a new turning towards the earth (the climate literally emerges into our consciousness in the climate emergency), is that time begins to seem no longer so infinite, so deep, so endless.

III.

The climate emergency marks not just the end of time, but time itself as a futurity. For Karen Barad, “frozen clock faces” mark our time as emblems of nuclear destruction. Whether, as she writes, it is “Hiroshima—8:15…Trinity test site—5:30, Nagasaki—11:02 and Fukushima—2:46…reverberations of time being stopped, coming in waves.” Time stops in the future, and time has stopped now. The mark of the Anthropocene is the end of time  (at least for us). Time stops, either in a frozen, destroyed clock piece, or it stops in the limitless future of infinite space and time; the space that Baudrillard describes as being a “centrifugal, eccentric point that is reached where movement produces the vacuum that sucks you in.” It stops there (again, for us) and with it infinity becomes suddenly, suffocatingly finite.

Trinity and Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Fukushima leave us with time that is no longer infinite. The radical arrogance which marks our entry into the Anthropocene defines a border, a limit to the of time here and now, the limit to Kronos. There is no future tomorrow in the Anthropocene; there is only a gradual drift towards a definite end, towards an apocalypse, the apocalypse which names a limit.

In light of this, Baudrillard’s trip becomes a last, hollow gesture towards that infinite future, towards the open. Instead of a futureless future, an endless expanse, the climate emergency shuts down possibility (at least for us); it castrates possibility as in the possibility of a different tomorrow, of a tomorrow of open vistas, a tomorrow of possibility; indeed of differance itself. (Nothing is different anymore, marked by differance, nothing deferred or held at bay in the unrelenting sameness of a future now reduced to the homogenous present; there can be no difference in this future). If they are right (they being the scientists and the Cassandras, they being the whispers we hear; those which wake us in the middle of the night, which grip our heart in a certain nausea inducing coldness when we view our daughters), then all this threatens to come to a sudden closure. 

The infinite predictable becomes unpredictably finite.

Suddenly we find ourselves contemplating all there is (to us)—all this civilized talking and nodding and contemplating and writing for something which no one can truly contemplate and which seems, with Timothy Morton, to extend itself as either the hyper-object or perhaps, borrowing from Morton, the hyper-event. The Anthropocene becomes the event which extends in numerous (in/finite) directions in time and social/political spaces and which has no clear predictable end to it. But this is not infinity as we know it; its contours and traces are marked by its contain-ability; we can not know it as such, but we can know its limits. Infinity becomes through nd in, finitude. 

Within the climate emergency, infinite time becomes climate, emerges as finite time (again, at least for us, the few, the rare (calling on Heidegger from his Bereignis), beings who can perceive time, who can delineate a future, infinite or not,)—faltering, dangerous, unpredictable—time emerges from a withdrawn state (the endless vortex, the endless vacuum) and becomes suddenly, obviously, present for us. Like Heidegger’s broken hammer, world as climate, once broken, becomes present-at-hand for us; we come to know it;  we become aware of it, only too late, too. Our awareness that space and time are not limitless comes too late.

What emerges from the climate emergency? Our enforced turn towards the natural, towards the world as such—not a world created and and altered to suit our needs (as was the conceit of the enlightenment, of Locke and Rousseau), but one altered by the crime of overlooking the damages that could be done. That there is an ocean, a land, a field, and it has being, seperate from its use value to me.

Time occludes the emergence of climate (that there is a climate) but this happens again too late. We enter a field of nihilism, a resignation and a glancing around as the party ends, as the bar clears at the end of the night. And once again, we are alone. This is sudden but of course we knew it was coming.

Where does this leave us? I don’t know, I haven’t a clue. It is not my job to wrap things up in a neat package of ethics, to provide a pretty, tidy narrative. The most we can do is to observe, to not deny. We should “stay with the trouble” writes Donna Harraway, or, to use business-speak, we should lean in (instead of looking away). Phenomenologically, we should lean in to describe the apocalypse as it reveals itself, as it happens, to render its contours and shapes into expressions of the creative. Perhaps this is another chance for the radical subjectivity of phenomenology, a chance to do phenomenology again—to do for it what it calls for, to describe the complex divergent and subtle boundaries of the climate emergency.

IV.

Baudrillard writes, in “Astral America”,

that if the bomb drops, we shall neither have the time to die nor any awareness of dying. But already in our hyper-protected society, we no longer have any awareness of death, since we have subtly passed over into a sense where life is excessively easy.

This ease is precisely the aporia we find ourselves in, the lacunal eddy which refuses to let us go—the excessive ease of international travel, of online shopping, of Five Guys burgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken (and, as I’ve observed since landing in London a few days ago, the ubiquity of GFC, or Gluten Free Chicken, which advertises itself at Léon as the obvious healthy alternative to KFC, but ignores, anthropocenically, that the effect is the same—methane emissions, carbon release, enormous input, vast suffering of beings (chickens and slaughterhouse workers), obesity). The simulated ease of pornography which replaces the difficult and messy mechanics of real sex hides “any awareness of death” behind its simplicity and clarity; the difficult, awkward grappling of two bodies is streamlined into a narcissistic black mirror reflecting your anxious grimace, a menu of free streaming clips gripped in your palm, the parameters of which are all the same. Equally, the ease in which I move through globalized spaces of sameness and possibility, consuming a special coffee roast here (New from Sidamo, Ethiopia!), and sushi plucked from the Pacific and brought to the table via jet travel there, new movie release available on millions of screens at once (the occlusion of the aura the viral video infecting us all, suddenly, are pornographic in scope; I consume at (my) will, and deny the world through my appetite. The ease of this consumptive culture refuses to let us go, to free us, to make explicit the implicit, to make necessary the emergency.

About Santa Barbara, that mythical idyll on America’s West Coast where Baudrillard describes its stately, sculpted, homes as funeral parlors, he writes,

In the very heartland of wealth and liberation, you always hear the same question: ‘What are you doing after the orgy?’ What do you do when everything is available—sex, flowers, the stereotypes of life and death? This is America’s problem and, through America, it has become the whole world’s problem.”

We have become deceptively conditioned to the ease of life; life is, has been made, excessively easy (again, again, for us);  now, more than thirty years later, at the dawn of, or in the middle of, or the waning days of, the Anthropocene, the question remains the same, only more imperative, more loud, a desperate call now; what will you do after the orgy?