During the fall semester of 1992, when I was supposed to be studying the structural symbolic interaction of Sheldon Stryker and learning how to do discriminant function analysis , I made the mistake of reading Jean Baudrillard’s For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. For the longest time Baudrillard’s logic made absolutely no sense to me. Then one day in a hotel room in Chattanooga, Tennessee, after reading the chapter Requiem for the Media for about the twentieth time, it clicked. Did it ever. I was completely dumfounded, but in a strangely pleasant sort of way. I was totally clear about why it was I was baffled and, additionally, quite comfortable with my confusion. An acceptable level of paradigmatic psychosis for a Generation X sociologist.
At that moment I realized that I would never be able to return to the sociology I was trained to do because Baudrillard was right, the social had indeed vanished and culture had gone into a ballistic state of hyper-communication. As a result traditional sociology had become quite besides the point. This is precisely the type of realization that a Ph.D. student in a staggeringly conservative graduate program needs to avoid at all costs. It’s much safer to ignore the type of questions Baudrillard raises in favor of blind acceptance of the quantiod party line. It’s possible that the high rates of alcohol abuse among grad students is a function of this exact situation.
Needless to say the tone of my work changed considerably as a result of this experience. For example, I was required to write a paper for my structural symbolic interactionism class at the end of the semester in question. The main tenet of this particular brand of interactionism is that what is referred to as the self is actually an empirically measurable object called “identity”. In other words, a person’s conception of who he or she is is both stable and amenable to quantification. Given the realizations I had recently had, I found this position not a little problematic. As a result, instead of following the rules of the game (a decision based, it should be pointed out, on Arthur Kroker’s statement that “rules exist only as a seductive challenge to transgress them”) and writing a nice, safe paper on structural symbolic interactionism, I wrote a rambling, semi-coherent, and hostile paper titled “Americans Have No Identity, But They Do Have Wonderful Teeth”, the title of which was lifted from Baudrillard’s America. The professor to whom the paper was presented accepted it in a gracious and tolerant manner, although it was clearly not what he had in mind for the seminar’s final project. It is unlikely that Sheldon Stryker and his supporters have any interest whatsoever in Jean Baudrillard.
In early 1993, in a precocious graduate student move, I decided to submit “Americans Have No Identity” for possible presentation at the 1993 American Sociological Association meetings in Miami (which is itself a postmodern nightmare). Much to my surprise the paper was accepted for a scholar to scholar poster presentation and I began to consider how exactly to present my ideas about Baudrillard in a poster session.
The more I thought about it, the more ridiculous a traditional poster presentation on Baudrillard began to sound. It seemed almost laughable to print out my paper and staple the pages to a poster board. This kind of maneuver just didn’t seem like it would capture the essence of the Baudrillardian argument about simulation, communication and images. Baudrillard, for me, is about the rapid and unstoppable and everchanging display of images across the electronic reality of the late twentieth century cyber-scape in which, as Baudrillard has pointed out, “the mass and the media become a single process.” Posterboards don’t seem able to display this type of argument.
The obvious solution to my dilemma was to create a Baudrillard hologram just like the one of the space princess in Star Wars. Of course the monologue would have to change. Instead of saying “help us Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re our only hope” it would say things like “speed is the triumph of effect over cause,” “fascination is the extreme intensity of the neutral” and “illusion is no longer possible because the real is no longer possible.” It was a great idea.
Unfortunately, my PC can’t handle holograms. It can, however, knock out some pretty serious graphics. Since it is fairly apparent to me that Baudrillardian sociology privileges the visual, hence all his talk of images, holograms and screens, and that a reasonable Baudrillard poster presentation had to be both visual and electronic, I set out to learn how to put together a computer graphic slideshow.
The final result was a huge presentation, complete with animation files, that took over seven minutes, and could not be transferred from my computer to floppy disk because of its size and complexity. In fact, according to the technical support people at CorelDRAW in Ottawa, it couldn’t actually be done at all, never mind that I had done it. Being in academia, I found this unacceptable. The point, after all, is to share our ideas with others. For that reason I decided to create an “abridged” version of “Americans Have No Identity” that could be transferred to floppy disk. It is the abridged version that is presented here.