Taming the Land

July 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

When the settlers on the Mayflower first approached the American continent nature was unexpectedly hostile to their civilizing efforts. The land was strange and the dangers were legion. Bill Bryson has remarked that the first pilgrims to arrive at the East Coast were unfit and badly equipped for the new circumstances on the continent.

They packed as if they had misunderstood the purpose of the trip. They found room for sundials and candle snuffers, a drum, a trumpet, and a complete history of Turkey. (…) They were, in short, dangerously unprepared for the rigours ahead, and they demonstrated their manifest incompetence in the most dramatic possible way: by dying in droves (Made in America, 5-6).

Unlike the politically hostile climate in Europe, the new continent was an even more existential enigma, a challenge to established customs and norms because it was so very barren, so devoid of any sign of European style habitations. And still today, the European traveler marvels at the disorienting maze of freeways, highways and thru-ways, which seem to go on for miles and miles before a ramp branches off into a neighborhood that was around the corner from the point of departure. THRU TRAFFIC MERGE LEFT. RIGHT LANE MUST TURN RIGHT. Safe guidance in an uncertain environment.

Likewise, Americans are disoriented in European towns of medieval layouts, where no apparent pattern guides the explorer from A to B. Layer upon layer of historical upheavals and consolidations has been cast in brick and mortar to form an agglomeration of buildings and passages which only time spent wandering can render transparent. The experience of space differs distinctly in both environments and that might be a good reason for the mutual attraction of Europeans to the vast expanse of the North American continent and of Americans to the whimsical mazes of European capitals.

Fortunately enough, the traveler today no longer faces the hardships of past times because the land has been tamed. In its experiential quality, the space of America depends on the reliable functioning of its automobile  and communications infrastructure. While it is an often encountered snobism of Europeans to mock the American reliance on cars – and indulge in praise of the virtues of sustainable public transportation – the car and the land it has created still mark an exceptionally interesting feature of American society. And just as tame and predictable as the highway rolls across the land, ubiquitous information online allows for a tame and predictable experience of this very same land. The American habitat is exceptional in its expanse and yet even more iconic of the two taming trends of modernity – individualized transportation and communication.

American Habitat

In his essay “Babel in Europe” (1957) Lewis Mumford bemoaned that European architects and landscape planners were constantly imitating American models. Architects planted skyscrapers in French towns as a sign of modernity (e.g. the incredibly misplaced Tour de Bretagne in Nantes). Urban planners laid out grids of centers and suburbs connected by highways modeled on the American metropolis (and Le Corbusier’s special visions of the future). Mumford especially criticized the destruction of urban centers, in America and Europe alike, for enhanced auto-mobility.

We still habitually sacrifice all the special values of the city to the function of motor transportation, as during the nineteenth century they were sacrificed to the railroad and the factory. In many of our expressways and viaducts and cloverleaf intersections, our highway engineers, in defiance of the lessons the past should have taught them, are butchering good urban land as recklessly as the railroad builders did in laying out their terminals and marshalling yards. (reprinted in The Highway and the City, 18).

This is a familiar lament. One of the recurrent features in descriptions of America is to juxtapose the agricultural farmland of the Mid-West with the density of the big coastal sprawls. But especially in the many dwellings between these two extreme types we find a typical structure of residential developments interspersed with freeways and shopping centers. Whereas public transportation works more or less in urban centers, a city like Los Angeles is already too widespread to offer any useful service of that kind. Although the disastrous effects of individual auto-mobility are becoming more and more apparent, starting from Mumford’s ‘butchering’ of cities to climate change and dependence on fossil fuels, a defining feature of the American landscape remains its automobile infrastructure.

Despite the vast heterogeneity of local identities and the broad spectrum of climates across the land, all these forms are equally available through individual transportation and a repetitive infrastructure of consumption. The land may change but the freeway and the brands posted by the roadside assure the traveler of a stable and predictable environment.

The American habitat is built around mobility which bridges the discrepancy between individual aspiration and collective cohesion. Empowered by the steering wheel, individuals can dash out any minute to drive wherever they please. But as soon as they enter the road, others will block the way. In a spatial and cultural perspective, this infrastructure of mobility is reassuring. Wherever you go, there will be Chevron and Esso, Baskin Robbins and Wendy’s, Subway and Taco Bell, Wells Fargo and Chase, Rite Aid, Lowe’s and Home Depot, Bed, Bath and Beyond.

The land is experienced through the man-made divisions of geometrical state borders, interstate junctions and food courts. The brands of civilization obliterate the vast expanse of space, which is unnameable and untamable. The warning signs near the desserts “last gas for 150 miles” are the definite limit of tame land.

American Mobility

“CARE4EM” [petlovers], “N2OPERA” [opera fans] or “RVR_BUMS” [fans of Mitsubishi’s RecreationVehicleRunner?]. Individualizing license plates is to communicate, and to communicate in turn is to reduce insecurity. When there are no more plots to organize life, a life told in bumper stickers is at least a temporary structure. Transportation and communication are those two areas of modern life where America has left its indelible mark on the world. Communication reduces insecurity but increases complexity. Around the corner unknown chances are waiting – a better life, a better bargain – existential parts of the American Dream.

UHAUL URSELF N2 A BETTER LIFE.

In America, you don’t own a car, you drive a car. The aim here is not to possess, but to acquire the right to partake in mobility. Buying cars on a lease plan is similar to a subscription service for mobile phones. The phone may be an object of possession but its function is crucially to allow access to the network of other users. Cars and mobile phones open access to networks and both embody the vision of an individual subject empowered by technology beyond the limits of collectivity. Arguably, the prominence of individual spatial mobility as a crucial component of the American Dream obscures the diminishing chances of social mobility because it places responsibility of success in individual hands. YOU CAN MAKE THAT CALL.

In a recent article and interview for The European, Winfried Fluck argued that the notion of American Exceptionalism was still a form of “national glue” which accommodated many conflicting ideals and ideas of America. Even in a time of crisis (financial, economic, political), American Exceptionalism was still the dominant national idiom which could instill a sense of superiority and national unity. And even in times of crisis, this idiom remains strangely immune to criticism from outside.

But such international comparisons are still rare in American discourse, because nobody wants to be the messenger who brings the bad news. Things will therefore drag on for the time being in the same way in which they do right now: on the one hand, constant discussions about whether American society is still Number One, on the other, bitter disagreements about what makes it Number One, or what could make it Number One again. Only when the idea of American exceptionalism should lose its imaginary power, will it be time again to ask the question what it actually is that holds American society together. (Winfried Fluck in his Article “American Exceptionalism as National Glue“)

One such glue is the almost dialectic relation of individual mobility and communication which at once tames and exploits the land’s vast expanse for personal improvement. Despite diminishing chances of social mobility, both of these components of the American Dream still have a real and empowering effect. It may be more common in cultural criticism to follow the Adorno line of arguments and dismiss this very reality of experience of the land. But the tame land has an incredible attractiveness across the globe – from Konstanz to Kobe, from Beijing to Brasilia. With communication technology at their hands, the pilgrims today would be arranging accommodation beforehand, pack clothes appropriately and visit only those famous landmarks that the guide book recommended. It’s no longer an adventure but instead of “dying in droves” they would be dining in the groves of tame land.

All photos by the author. Please use the comments section to request hi-res copies.

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The Promise of an Island

March 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Photo by Sean O'Flaherty aka Seano1 atwal singh, published on Wikimedia Commons.

It is easy to dismiss Michael Bay’s dystopian action thriller come road movie sci-fi romance “The Island” (2005) as a failed “Matrix” runner-up. In fact, most critics seem to agree on the point that the film wants to include too many classic action movie elements into a challenging story line on human cloning – and fails to satisfy expectations within the short time frame of 130 minutes (See www.rottentomatoes.com/m/island/). And yet, for all its polished aesthetics, including the protagonists’ unisex surfaces called Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson), the film also asks a fundamental question about individuality and its value in a consumerist society.

At first sight, all the elements of a classic action/sci-fi thriller appear in place: a dubious multi-billion dollar corporation cloning human organs and babies, run by an evil scientist with a god complex, who has created a minimal-stimulus, isolated, subterranean lifeworld to house his “products”. All of the inhabitants of this clinical environment lead identical lives, go to the same workplaces, wear the same clothes, live in identical cubicles, and are closely monitored by managing and security staff. Technologically overwhelmed and constantly under surveillance, all inhabitants accept their fate without doubt, dreaming of winning the daily lottery for a place on “the Island”, the last inhabitable spot on earth – as they are told.

But of course, the quarantine of this place is not perfect. Borders are permeable. And Lincoln begins to question “where all these tubes go” that he and his colleagues are filling with nutrients, day in, day out. His acquaintance with a maintenance guy from behind the scenes, James McCord (Steve Buscemi), makes him question the myth of the contaminated outside world. Now, surprisingly, the flight from the netherworld is not the climax of the film but appears with almost mathematical precision in the middle. What follows is another plot line, that focuses on Lincoln and Jordan seeking to “raise awareness” among the real humans, that they are getting their organs and babies from other human bodies, who are killed for the purpose. Although McCord cautions that “Just because people eat the burger doesn’t mean they wanna meet the cow” Lincoln and Jordan seek out their genetic doubles to confront them. The endeavor spins another sequence of car chases and explosives going off, which seems to start a new film altogether. Most reviewers focused on the human cloning aspect of the movie and its overbearing emphasis on the action sequences in that second part. And admittedly, here the films fails.

“It’s the New American Dream”

But going back to the beginning, the opening sequence gives the film an altogether different mood. In a dream sequence, Jordan sits atop a futuristic boat, surfing across the ocean. Lincoln approaches her from behind, and as they make contact, he is brutally gripped by two men and pulled into the water. Awaking from this sequence in his concrete, white-grey room, a computer diagnoses an “erratic REM sleep cycle”. The theme that continues through the sequences of the first part is individual aberration from the prescribed and accepted norms of the environment. The controlled environment for all clones homogenizes all elements, from clothes to drinks to work and social conduct, in order to allow only minimal sociality.

In the words of its chief engineer, the cloning of organs alone did not create the desired results. Bodies needed the feeling of being alive, even in such a reduced, sensual environment. As Dr. Merrick explains,

“After several years of trial and error we discovered that without a consciousness, without human experience, emotion, without life the organs failed.”

In order to achieve sociality (devoid of risk) and stability (devoid of alternatives), the engineers project a variety of life stories to their clone bodies at infant stage. While each body contains variants of a memory from a fake past, all of them together are bound together with a common threat, a threat that rationalizes acceptance of their condition.

“We control them with the memory of a shared event. A Global contamination. It keeps them fearful of going outside. The Island is the one thing that gives them hope. Gives them purpose. Everything we expose them to, their programs, their cartoons, books, the games they play, are designed to manage aggression and reinforce simple social skills. To avoid obvious complications they aren’t imprinted with an awareness of sex. We find it simpler to eliminate the drive altogether. In a very real sense, they’re like children, educated to the level of a 15-year old.”

Now, this entire plot immediately triggers a cultural-pessimistic perspective, a criticism of homogenization vs. individuality, control vs. freedom, Levittown suburb structures vs. historical bricolage chaos. The centralized facilities of the netherworld are the most efficient control mechanisms in which the human drives are contained in a post-histoire vacuum. Against the neon-lit caves, halls and laboratories, Jordan and Lincoln are bathed in sunlight once they have escaped. The whole film thrives on these opposition pairs in almost all of its sequences, and, admittedly, this is a fairly simplistic dramaturgy.

But on the other side, this film is not so banal as it seems. Human cloning as a way to extend life is firmly anchored in a consumerist setting which privileges those able to pay horrendous sums for “owning” a genetic duplicate of themselves while keeping those copies in a monotonous environment of self-sameness. All the clothes are white, all the Nike- shoes that Lincoln finds in his drawer are equally white, all the drinks are optimized for their levels of vitamin and nutrients. In this aesthetic monotony the missing differentiation of products only covers up the apparent self-sameness of product categories in real life. So, if the de-individualized array of products in the film plays out a powerful (yet predictable) metaphor of homogenization, it leaves the seeming differentiation of Nike shoes alive. It even affirms the schema of identical mass produced fare as a rational basis for individual choice. The film (along with its corporate sponsors) thus offers a vision of a near future, in which homogenization serves as the (visual) mechanism to leave the belief in product differentiation, freedom of choice and individuality based on consumer experience intact. The “new American Dream” of owning genetic copies of oneself is then the old American dream of “making it,” of extending life through wealth, fame and possession.

In his book Archaeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson argued that the task of science fiction was not to deliver a plausible, detailed vision of the future but to “demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future” (288-89). Because a detailed account of future live forms would soon appear banal in face of the present, science fiction can “serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.” Representations of the future were a function to create an awareness of the present, which is “untotalizable and hence unimaginable” (See further my article on “Images of the Cybernetic Body, or, The Banality of the Future“). In “The Island” the regulation of drives reflects the sedating power of consumption, which privileges the immediately available over the unrealistically utopian. The island in the film is an animated vision of a common hope, a constantly actualized common reference point for all entrapped in the netherworld of daily doses of moderate consumption. In keeping with the dream structure of a joint vision the film delves into a fantasy of escape that can only function within the narrow limits of the action genre. Jamesons’s perceptive analysis of the temporality of science fiction, raises the point as to how such a vision of an escape can relieve the stress of accepting that in real life such an escape is less than probable.

From the beginning sequence, “The Island” plays out the dream-like dimensions of a common fate sustained by individual ambitions. The shocking grip of the assailants who submerge Lincoln under water is at the same time a shock to prepare the viewer for the de-individualized netherworld, an environment that is aesthetically and functionally homogenized. But only through this demarcation can the film question the homogeneity of consumption that thrives on menial differentiation. The promise of an island becomes then less of an empowering vision but stands in for the unchanging (and inescapable) structure of regulation.

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