Tocqueville, Reisman, and Baudrillard on American culture

In 1831, French lawyer Alexis de Tocqueville received permission to visit the United States and study its penal system for three months.  Using this official trip to study the young nation, Tocqueville also pursued his own research of the American democratic system.  In his later study, Tocqueville posits that America represents democracy at its purist form because, unlike the European states, no governmental system existed in the New World prior to the American form of democracy.  In his study of the United States, Tocqueville sought to better understand and report on American government and society as he believed that democracy would eventually come to Europe.  The resultant work, Democracy in America, describes the democratic features of American society and is both praising and critical of the American governing system; moreover, as he wrote this study in anticipation of democracy reaching Europe, Tocqueville compares the European and the American governing systems, attempting to explain the transition from aristocracy to democracy.  Since its publication in 1835, Tocqueville’s study remains highly influential and every U.S. president since 1954 has quoted his words.  Moreover, as the first sociological study of the United States, any scholar seeking to explain American society must address the observations made by Tocqueville.

This was no different for David Riesman when he wrote his seminal work, The Lonely Crowd, and he explicitly states that his study is “devoted to discussing the differences” between Tocqueville’s America and late 20th century American. (19) For Riesman, Tocqueville’s Americans rely on their own talent to define themselves and are mainly concerned with their narrow circle of family and self, having little energy for public life.  Riesman defines this type of social character as “inner-directed” and characterizes them as individuals who live like they were taught as children – they conform to the values of religion or family which guide them throughout their lives.  However, Riesman observes that Tocqueville’s inner-directed social type is being overtaken by a new social character, one he defines as “other-directed.”  In contrast to the inner-directed, the other directed types receive their direction from reference communities – friends, peer groups, actors, and acquaintances – and they are constantly in the process of observing signals from others on how to behave, dress, and act.  For Riesman, it is these other-directed individuals that are becoming the dominant type of individual in America, and it is this other-directed individual that he juxtaposes with Tocqueville’s 19th century inner-directed American.  In comparing the inner- and other-directed character types, Riesman often quotes Tocqueville’s descriptions of the inner-directed which he follows with an analysis of the transformation from inner- to other-directed.  At the beginning of Chapter VII, Riesman quotes Tocqueville: “Life would have no relish for them [Americans], and they show more attachment to their cares than aristocratic nations due their pleasures.” (141) In this quote, Tocqueville is stating that 19th century American’s are constantly preoccupied with the next project because their cares are important to survival and increasing their personal wealth, making seriousness a national trait.  Yet Riesman states that for Americans today the “sphere of pleasures has become the sphere of cares.” (141) Thus for Riesman, Americans are still attached to their cares but today their cares are pleasures – rather than caring about survival or personal wealth Americans now care about pleasures.

Using food as an example, Riesman explains the transition from inner- to other-directed.  During the inner-directed era, food choice was rather standard and thus when laying out a meal for guests the inner-directed presented choice cuts of meat, an elegant table, and good cooking, which displayed ones status, respectability, and knowledge of hygiene.  Moreover, setting an attractive table with the proper number of forks and glasses displayed proper etiquette, a code of social behavior that one learned from their family.  However, with the variety of food available today, other-directed social types feel they must be connoisseurs of food and display their knowledge and tastes when laying out a meal for guests.  Rather than displaying a proper table with the choicest cuts, their tables are set for variety and uniqueness in order to show that they pay attention to the latest trends.  This not only allows the other-directed type to replace etiquette with social tastes but also enables them to discuss different foods and receive feedback from their peer group about their food and beverage selection.  Thus when hosting a meal, the other-directed cares about the pleasures of food and discussing the varieties of taste, whereas the inner directed cares about displaying a properly set table and eating the meal with proper etiquette.

While Riesman compares the American social character type found in Tocqueville with the one he observes in the 20th century, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard visited America in the 1980s and wrote about what he witnessed in his book America, a study in direct contrast to Tocqueville.  Where Tocqueville delves deeply into the behavior and traits of Americans, Baudrillard searches for “astral” America; he is not seeking the social and cultural uniqueness of America but the America of “desert speed.”  And the desert is where Baudrillard finds America.  For him, the desert represents late 20th century America because it is a large, empty, meaningless place – its past, present, and future are the fulfillment of superficial desires.  Furthermore, he describes America as a fiction, a series of never-ending simulacrum which makes it impossible to locate a real America.  By describing America as a fiction, Baudrillard is criticizing Tocqueville who saw much to admire during the mid-19th century including the jury system, free press, civil associations, and the freedom of religion.

Finally, Baudrillard acknowledges that Tocqueville was right, that democratic ideas spread to Europe, but not its pure form.  Instead, Europeans “are the dubbed or subtitled version” of America, and can never be America because freedom and equality “only exist where they are present from the outset.” (103)  In this analysis, Baudrillard argues that America was always modern because the nation was born democratic.  Here, Tocqueville and Baudrillard again agree that because America was formed democratic, without the precedent of monarchical or authoritarian government, it bears distinct characteristics that are not found in Europe.  However, Baudrillard also asserts that Americans “are still closer to the models of thought of the eighteenth century, which is utopian and pragmatic.” (98)  Here, Baudrillard asserts that the American mind is little changed from the days of Tocqueville and remains devoted to American’s utopian and pragmatic ideas of government, a feature observable in the American civilization mission.  Since its founding, the Americans have spread their ideals and attempted to convert the nations of the world to their utopian democracy, to make simulacra of America.

With this understanding, it is noted that Riesman observes a shift in American society from the inner-directed to the other-directed individual while Baudrillard posits that because America was born modern, it has changed little from Tocqueville’s era.  When describing the inner- or other-directed individual character types, Riesman does not judge them and recognizes a positive balance between the two types.  He calls this balance the autonomous character type which incorporates the traits of both the inner- and other- directed.  Like the inner-directed, the autonomous type has clear internalized goals, but unlike the inner-directed the autonomous individual rationally chooses his/her own goals and strives to attain them.  Moreover, he/she can work with and cooperate with other-directed types, but maintains the right to make private judgments – the autonomous can choose whether to conform or not.  Thus while American society is changing to a much different entity than it was during Tocqueville’s era, Riesman recognizes that individuals are able to negotiate between the two social character types.

On the other hand, Baudrillard, from his astral plain, describes America as a hyperreality – the inability of human consciousness to differentiate between simulation and reality.  This is particularly present in American consumer society.  Rather than purchasing goods in a detached objective manner, individuals buy brands because they represent a meaning, such as wealth or popularity, making them feel happy.  Yet the purchasing of brands creates an endless reproduction of newer goods to maintain ones status in society.  Baudrillard’s hyperreal consumer society is similar to Riesman’s other-directed individuals who purchase goods based popular trends and the opinions of their peers, thus looking for consumer items that project a certain image to others.  Baudrillard’s hyperreal American and Riesman’s other-directed are making purchasing choices based on image projection rather than utility and practicality, resulting in fictitious America of copies.

Although Riesman’s other-directed American and Baudrillard characterization of Americans are similar, they strongly disagree about whether one can break free of this fictitious America.  Riesman’s autonomous character type presents the opportunity for individuals to break free from hyperreal and the opinions of their peer groups by choosing when to conform.  Baudrillard, on the other hand, leaves no way out.  For Baudrillard, the unchanging, utopian, and pragmatic mind of America has abolished differentiation – every American is a copy.  This understanding leaves individuals with no way to become unique, or autonomous; one is stuck in the endless simulacra of American society.  Yet Baudrillard does not see this as a negative, and he in fact argues that America’s equality, banality, and indifference is where America’s power is located.  America’s banal consumer society holds the global imagination even over those who are anti-American are forced to adopt some form of American culture because Americanism “runs through every society, every nation, and ever individual.”  Thus the power of America is soft power not its military power, but its ability to affect the planet through its banal culture.

Destroying the Aura of Mt Everest

People like to say I ran a marathon.  I completed a triathlon.  I swam 90 miles.  I did it.  While many individuals find a sense of accomplishment in completing these events, Jean Baudrillard instead asks why “[d]o we continually have to prove ourselves that we exist?”  For Baudrillard, people who participate in events just to prove to themselves that they can will find themselves unfulfilled.  The act of completing a triathlon or running a marathon is empty – there is no greater consequence.  Unlike Pheidippides who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the Athenian’s defeat of Persia, the modern marathon runner participates for selfish reasons – just to say “I did it!”  According to Baudrillard, this feeling is ephemeral and will lead individuals to find another event to feel satisfied, which lead to another and so on.  Thus individuals continually participate in events to prove to themselves they exist.

In naming examples for the “I did it” discussion, Baudrillard specifically addresses mountain climbing which quickly brought to mind the commercialization of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain.  Throughout the early 20th century, newspapers closely followed the successful and unsuccessful attempts of westerner mountaineers to climb the world’s tallest peaks.  The goal to summit Mt. Everest was taken up by British mountaineers who spent decades climbing and discovering routes to the mountain’s peak.  The initial expedition, led by George Mallory in 1921, located many of the routes that aided future climbers, but the expedition was not equipped or prepared to summit the mountain.  Over the next thirty years numerous climbers attempted to follow the routes established by Mallory, however, no climber ever reached the summit.  Expeditions either turned around due to weather or perished in their attempts.  Finally, in 1953, an expedition led by John Hunt reached the summit.  The climbers who accomplished the feat being Edmund Hillary and a Tibetan Sherpa named Tenzing Norgay.  Although their successful attempt could be interpreted as just another “I did it,” Hillary and Norgay’s climbing of Everest was the first successful attempt recorded by man, making it an exceptional accomplishment and not another ephemeral event.

However, since Hillary and Tenzing summited Mt. Everest, individuals have continued to strive to summit Everest’s peak, and throughout the years, this objective has developed into a commercial enterprise.  It is no longer a unique action; it is now an “I did it” event.  For example, between 1953 and 1980 only 112 individuals reached the summit, but since 1980, 5,544 people climbed Mt. Everest.  This explosion in numbers is due to the fact that individuals no longer train or practice climbing, rather enterprising individuals have created an entire industry out of getting as many people to the summit as they can.  Not only are these “I did it” climbers paying upwards of $30,000 dollars but they are also not doing much of the actual work involved in climbing.  The companies they pay follow set climbing routes and Tibetan Sherpas continue to haul the gear and set the routes for these intrepid climbers.  In fact, Sherpas remain one of the most marginalized employees in the service industry as they are frequently maimed, injured, and killed but receive no health benefits or death benefits from the companies they work. 

The “I did it” climbers have effectively destroyed the aura of Mt. Everest in their need to prove to themselves that they do indeed exist, but this short ephemeral burst of life is short lived and ultimately lead to other feats of money or strength to prove once again that they are alive.  As the son of Norgay recently stated to The Guardian “the spirit of adventure is not there anymore. It is lost. There are people going up there who have no idea how to put on crampons. They are climbing because they have paid someone $65,000. It is very selfish.”