Review by Dannielle C. Hall
Imagine the following scene -- several college students kick back at a local coffeehouse drinking double espressos and cafe lattes. The general topics of conversation include philosophy and literature but today the discussion drifts into a favorite theme: the decline and corruption of the American civilization. Heatedly, the students discuss why America is so lethargic, apathetic, mediocre, and (dare they mention it?) obese. It seems to these students that Americans act as a herd of sheep -- blissfully unaware that they do not possess culture, class, or intelligence. Everywhere the students look they see Americans scrambling for recognition and material gain like "savages". They sigh and dream of a more culturally pure land where the writings of Jean Baudrillard and Max Heidegger are more prized than Little League or shopping malls.
This conversation between college students would hardly be worth mentioning if it did not rely on what James Ceaser, author of Reconstructing America, defines as the symbolic America -- a country which represents all that is "grotesque, obscene, monstrous, stultifying, stunted, leveling, deadening, deracinating, deforming, rootless, uncultured, and 'free' ". The injection of this symbolic America into public sphere was enough to propel Ceaser to "raise a call to arms in defense of [his] country." In this fascinating book, he traces the formation of the symbolic America -- a symbol constructed not by Americans but by two centuries of foreign philosophers whose detrimental writings created an America that is at odds with the realities of the country itself --the place "where we live, work, struggle, and pray, and where we have forged a system of government that has helped to shape the destiny of the modern world."
Ceaser devotes the bulk of his book to the analysis of the most virulent images of America. These various images describe America as a land of overarching physical and intellectual degeneracy (Cornelius de Pauw and Count de Buffon); the breeding ground for a now mongrelized but once "superior" Aryan race (Arthur de Gobineau); the country where the tyrannical force of technology creates a mediocre population (Heidegger); the destination for the final cycles in the corruption and destruction of all modern civilization (Alexandre Kojeve); and the land where the desire for the imaginary (i.e. the world of Disney) destroys the need for real historical substance and experience (Jean Baudrillard). Ceaser unpacks these images to pinpoint the false and disturbing symbols which pervade American universities, literature, popular culture, and most importantly, public policy.
For example, look at a hot button political issue in France -- the introduction of a EuroDisney World outside of Paris. To many French people, EuroDisney acted as a "cultural Chernobyl"; a slice of tasteless America that could permeate the pure French soil. It created such an uproar that government officials felt compelled to comment how Disney would "bombard France with uprooted creations that are to culture what fast food is to gastronomy" and that the "Trojan Mouse" would, "infiltrate the citadel of European civilization and was threatening to destroy it." Ceaser uses this French political issue to open discussion of America as a post-modern symbol.
The main perpetrator of the idea of America as a post-modern symbol was Jean Baudrillard, author of the intellectual travel guide titled, America. For him, America was "history's final stop, the 'utopia achieved' ". However, he soon discovered the American utopia was not to be taken at face value. Rather, he saw America as an anti-utopia: that of "unreason, of indeterminacy of subject and language, of the neutralization of all values and the death of culture." Ceaser humorously describes Baudrillard's intellectual breaking point during his stay in California --a ride down the Los Angeles freeway in a convertible. While driving, Baudrillard apparently realized that he could not fight the "inspired banality" of American culture any longer. As a post-modern thinker, all that was left to do was "play with the pieces" of this anti-utopia and revel in its savage nature. Thus, he loudly encouraged his fellow drivers to embrace his philosophical thoughts by shouting, "Forget Heidegger! Forget Foucault!"
The postmodern analysis of Baudrillard is significant for Ceaser because it completes the construction of the symbolic America. America is no longer viewed as a land with a revolutionary form of liberal democracy but a place of "fiction...a vast literary playground for sophisticated thinkers". Baudrillard is a far cry from thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville who viewed America's modernity as an ideal environment for the development of new political thinking for a "new world". Ceaser explains that post-modern thought allows the political world to be based on literary theories and ideas from philosophy instead of relying on trained political actors and political science. No longer a place of discovery and new political thinking, America is seen as an "anemic cultural icon"; a dangerous position for the world's only superpower.
Ceaser concludes his analysis of postmodern thought by recognizing the reasons why this position for America is in fact so dangerous. When viewed as a playground for probing intellectuals, America loses all of the "political overtones" which are essential to its liberal democratic founding. Ceaser shows that this "transformation" or removal of American liberal democracy "is and always has been" the mission of derogatory American discourse. He describes the most radical of this discourse as philosophy that calls for no less than "destruction of America and the West". This radical discourse grounds itself in the premise "what is good for the intellectual life must somehow be good for political life as well." Thus, the result follows that "philosophical or literary logic transfers directly into politics." For Ceaser, this is the worst direction that America could take. He takes the reader back to the founding of America to separate what is true from what is symbolic. For the founding fathers, the most important questions were those asked by political science, not literary theory or philosophy. To take a different course today would destroy the principles upon which this nation was built. The example of America as a postmodern symbol shows the underlying danger present beneath all false symbols - the desire to remove Americans away from its true and founding principles.
If there is one lesson in Reconstructing America to be understood and taken to heart it is this: in political matters and in the formation of public policy, we should not allow the symbolic America constructed by foreign philosophers and literary critics to control our actions. Instead, we should follow the example of thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and extract truth from criticism as a means to furthur develop values and political principles already embedded in our culture.. However, as James Ceaser argues, do not accept criticisms of this country without realizing that underneath all of the constructed symbols and images there lies what he calls, the "real" America - the place "where we live, work, struggle, and pray, and where we have forged a system of government that has helped shape the destiny of the modern world."
Reconstructing America-the Symbol of America in Modern Thought by James Ceaser. Yale University Press, 1997.