Never a reporter, always a prescriber, the French theologian upended the notion of a "real" L.A., as if there ever was such a thing.
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People have famously written, “Jean Baudrillard famously wrote, ‘Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real.’” For the French sociologist, author of the 1980s postmodernist touchstones America and Simulacra and Simulation, Los Angeles was a fake place that needed to build its own blatantly faker places. Citizens required a theme park they could exit at the end of the day, a way to believe that a freeway like the 5 could credibly take them home. And L.A., it went without saying, was America’s model, its future. “In years to come cities will stretch out horizontally and will be non-urban (Los Angeles),” Baudrillard wrote, barely bothering with that breezy, ever-so-Continental parenthetical.
It’s a contagious way to think about Los Angeles. Like Gertrude Stein’s comment “There is no there there,” it has infested our view of the place. It is fun to repeat, an ideal icebreaker for out-of-town guests, ideally during a long drive to buy a toothbrush. (Stein’s line enters L.A. conversations all the time; it is, of course, actually about Oakland, and is not about urban sprawl, but rather the loss of a childhood home.) And a hyperreal L.A. is easy to contrast with baroque, riverbound New York.
But was the assessment remotely accurate? Does it matter anymore? Baudrillard, who died in 2007, knew that places are as they are discussed, and that a dictum can invent a city. It was kind of his point. “It is not enough for theory to describe and analyze,” he wrote in The Ecstasy of Communication (1988). “It must itself be an event in the universe it describes.” He was never a reporter, always a prescriber. Inevitably, that point wasn’t always digested, especially as his star rose outside academia. Baudrillard’s announcements—in 1991, he published The Gulf War Did Not Take Place—could sound more like tabloid bombshells than the critical equations they were, and he was doggedly misunderstood by those you would expect.
Perhaps time is now fighting back against Baudrillard’s claims about Los Angeles. A Disneyland in 2011 seems more sweetly shabby than fanciful. And the city’s landscape still refuses to be effaced. Baudrillard was obsessed with L.A. as a flat, affectless space, and while he never meant that literally, the city’s topography can shock when you’ve been schooled on his teachings. Casually close to bad cellphone reception, hillier than San Francisco when the mood strikes, L.A. maintains a rugged physical presence that—at least now that its silly infrastructure seems less sinister, less like the vanguard of a dystopian future—can’t help but undermine accusations of being hyperreal. Is the city—in Baudrillard’s words, “an immense scenario and a perpetual pan shot”—just one big movie screen? Maybe. And a great film to watch on a clear night in Griffith Park.
Portrait by Michael Gaughan\n