Writers always write from a particular position. Discussion concerning “Utopia Achieved” often revolved around the author’s position as chronicler of a culture of which he is not a member. We have referred to this as writing from the position of the Outsider. Think back to student comments which involved a certain willingness to question the author’s motives, despite his seemingly authoritative tone and extensive research, because “he just doesn’t get it since he isn’t one of us.” We seemed, as a discourse community, divided as to whether Beaudrillard sees us more or less clearly than we see ourselves from his position apart from American culture.
While this may have appeared confusing at first, the concept of writing as Outsider is not at all uncommon in modern educational institutions. Think back to your reports for history class throughout school. When you were asked to report on life in colonial America or to present a pageant of the first Thanksgiving, these were examples of you chronicling your understanding from outside the culture being examined. It is impossible for us to chronicle distant American history from an inside perspective, as we are required to rely on historical documents and other chroniclers’ interpretations. From this terminology, we spend most of our life as outsiders, sometimes seeing things more clearly from the distance and sometimes missing vital pieces of information.
As we scroll through data to construct our best guess of the past in historical study, we also prepare for the future through informed speculation using the data we have on hand concerning our current culture (where you are the insider). This is expressed in film, on television, and in the written word.
I have presented you with two examples of an insider’s view of America. In this paper, you will take one (or both, if it works) of those companion examples and compare it to the ideas presented in “Utopia Achieved.” You may choose any entry point into the article that you feel comfortable; however, you must confine your paper to Beaudrillard’s observations and assessments of American society, now and in the future. The best papers will use his terminology to show the writer’s understanding of Beaudrillard and will refrain from telling the reader why he is right or wrong in their own minds.
Here are some entry points. You may use these or go out on your own.
1) Product placement: Beaudrillard says, “Advertising….canonizes the way of life through images, making the whole a genuinely integrated circuit. And if everything on television is, without exception, part of a low-calorie (or even no-calorie) diet, then what good is it complaining about the adverts? By their worthlessness, they at least help to make the programmes around them seem of a higher level.” In Idiocracy, we see that advertising, in Mike Judge’s view of our distant future, has truly become King. Merchandising has become fashion (logos on clothing, etc) and the chain store has become the center of people’s lives (Owen Wilson discovers his lawyer went to law school in Cost-Co because his father “put in a call to someone”). Can you reconcile Beaudrillard’s paternalistic assertion that this marketing of ourselves, alongside our products, is merely a part of Americans’ charm with Judge’s view that the advertising beast might well eat us whole to the point that we forget the necessity of water (because, unlike Brawn-do, it has no “electrolytes?”)
2) The prologue to Beaudrillard’s article tells the reader that “in an era of mass communication and mass consumption we have lost all contact with the ‘real,’ and we situate ourselves, rather, in relation to simulations, elaborately scripted representations of, for example, identity and community or people and places.” And that “when the real is what has always already been elaborately prepared and reproduced, then one lives in a state of ‘hyperreality,’ living through simulations of simulations.” Although Beaudrillard asserts that this places America in the foreground of mass culture, Mike Judge seems to contend that this will lead us to a point when viewing simulation is all we are capable of (notice the use of a chair/latrine in the lawyer’s living room. He literally sits in front of the television with a straw reaching from his futuristic version of the “big gulp” never getting up, even to use the bathroom).
3) Beaudrillard, as mentioned previously, seems to take an almost paternalistic tone towards Americans’ “certain banality, certain vulgarity.” In many places, he cites Americans’ lack of culture and history, given the unspoken assertion that Americans, in their single-minded desire to avoid the question of identity and culture, may be unaware of their vulgarity or banality. Le Guin, to the contrary, gives Americans the credit of self- awareness. In Omelas, the citizens know of the disparity between themselves and the child in the basement. They feel an amount of pity for those around them in alternate and lesser circumstances, yet they do nothing, simply because they CAN do nothing without harming themselves and the other members of their tribe. How does this reconcile with Beadrillard’s assertion that “ This conformity makes American society close to primitive societies, in which it would be absurd to distinguish oneself morally by disobeying the collective ritual” or that “it is this culture which, the world over, fascinates those very people who suffer most at its hands, and it does so through the deep, insane conviction that it has made all their dreams come true?”
4) While Beaudrillard places America firmly in the forefront of the evolution of man with its willingness to jump headfirst into the hyperreality he feels is the wave of the future, Judge seems to feel the same principle is cause for alarm (or risk of a very bleak future). Beaudrillard asserts “the American world tends both towards absolute insignificance (all things tending to become equal and therefore canceling each other out in their power) and towards absolute originality – today even more than 150 years ago, the effects having been multiplied by geographical extension.” How does Idiocracy or “The Ones Who Walk away from the Omelas” justify or conflict with that assertion?