America is nothing but the West, and that’s the land of the dead. No sign here of a new world – let alone a New World Order. – Something Old
Not far from my home is a town called Horse Cave. Once a tourist trap – the main event being a larger cave entrance in the middle of downtown, which lends the town its name – most of the buildings now sit empty, and abandoned. Keep driving past them and you’ll be on an open stretch of highway, dotted by faded industrial sites, trailers, and the county high school. The highway connects Horse Cave to Cave City, and in all reality the towns are one and the same, divided only by the county line. The closer you get to Cave City more and more of the landscape becomes dotted with old, strange roadside attractions – take the Wigwam Village, for instance. Built in the late 1930s as part of a motel chain that spanned the US (of the seven that were built, only three are left), this utterly-impractical dwelling was an expression of the emergent automobile culture, its then-already kitsch-retro contours etched into landscape.
More motels proliferate inside Cave City proper. Most of these were built in the decade following the Wigwam Village, as indicated by undeniable influence of Googie architecture on their design. Like the faux-Americana of the Wigwam Village, Googie in a temporal index: its roots are in the aesthetic of the car culture, buts its gaze is directed towards outer space. The vector for this gaze is the Atomic Age. The automobile, atoms, and flying saucers collide in Googie, along with gentle borrowings from the European avant-garde. The utopian, plastic, left accelerationist offspring of Streamline Modernism.
Now, as the color pop of Googie dulls to weathered oranges and gray, many of these motels now serve as permanent residences for the people of the margins. A small handful are burned out completely, boards covering shattered windows and kicked-in doors. The walls are covered in graffiti left by squatters passing through the area.
In an essay titled Amerikkkan Gothik, Mark Fisher (going under the alias of ‘Mark de’Rozario’) describes how when it comes to America, it was Philip K. Dick who knew best how to disconnect science fiction from the future that Googie presents. While the triumphant, postwar industrial machine and its adjacent PR industry cultivated an image of an impending “jetstreamed, wipe-clean, air conditioned, atomic-powered New World”, “[a]ll the kibble – the crud, the waste, – vacuumed out of SF’s dream home pile[d] up in Dick’s seedy tenements.” On the far side of things, where the industrial process grinds out the human substrata and the PR machine loops into the escalating loop of self-reference, the promise of the car culture, the Atomic Age, and the Space Age collapse into the very kibble it strove to eliminate: luxury motels gone fleabag, the Dimestore Indian decapitated, and nobody knows why they were here in the first place.
Uneven and combined, stagnation and lift-off run together as SF capitalism falls up into cyberpunk. Fisher continues:
In adapting Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, [Ridley] Scott re-roots LA in the Northern line, imagining the city of Angels as a neo-medieval City of Quartz… The expressionist style Scott adopts is arty through and through: even the adverts look elegant (whereas in Dick’s world, all the art would be an advert – probably for a hardware store… In the movement from paperback to art movie, there’s also a shift in religious sensibility. Dick’s religion is Weekly World News improbable: revelation is inseparable from mass-mediated sensationalization. It’s all dimestore prophecy and visions of God under the influence of a dentistıs drug. Gnosis is to be found amongst the discarded candy bar wrappers and cheap tunes of an artless huckster culture where everything is for sale: part of the challenge is being able to spot that the way out is hidden somewhere in the trash. Scott replaces Dick’s kooky-quacky loony toons All-American Gnosticism with the sober intensity of Protestant nonconformism. His replicants, especially Roy Batty, speak in the language of Milton or Blake. In a sense, this is no less American. Blade Runner’s infernal city is more Paradise Lost than Dante. Arriving from the dying sky of a choked ecosphere, the replicants come to an Amerikka where the calcified determinism of social stratification finds metonymic expression in the very architecture of the city – opulent Citadels of wealth loom far above new shanty towns, as inaccessible to the subproletarian cybernetic troglodytes below as baronial castles were to the medieval peasantry. Europe, again…
For Fisher, the distinctly American excavated of cyberpunk that is carried out by Blade Runner is one in which the future of the country’s impulse – the immigrant dream of the future – is forced to grapple with the reality that “the future is no longer virgin territory”. Googie was doomed before it was ever conceived.
Deleuze’s essay on Walt Whitman identifies the fundamental American quality as the fragment. Expressed in society – and in literature – as a spontaneity that subsumes advanced planning, the fragment is a reiteration of the country’s immigrant origins. As a patchwork, a “nation swarming with nations”, the ultimate, rapidly deferred goal was the engendering of a “society of comrades”. One must add to this picture that would was to bind together this society of comrades was their escape from one another. The push for the frontier that began immediately in the wake of the consolidation of the revolution into statecraft was less the drive of that state itself than the forging of lines of flight away from it. One exited for the borderlands, and the lands beyond the borderlands, to evade the clutches of an political machine that rebirthed the iteration of the megamachine, the Daddy Ur-staat, that had just been pushed back. It is for this reason, as Deleuze writes in his reprisal of the American question in his essay on Bartelby, the revolution, much like the Bolshevik revolution, was originally against the figure of the Father itself:
The American is the one who is freed from the English paternal function, the son of the crumbled father, the son of all nations… their [the revolutionaries] vocation was not to reconstitute an “old State secret”, a nation, a family, a heritage, or a father. It was above all to constitute a universe, a society of brothers, a federation of men and goods, a community of anarchist individuals, inspired by Jefferson, by Thoreau, by Melville… America sought to create a revolution whose strength would lie in a universal immigration, emigres of the world, just as Bolshevik Russia would seek to make a revolution whose strength would lie in a universal proletariatization, “Proletarian of the world”… the two forms of the class struggle.
Ride the line of flight long enough and you’ll cross into the West’s westernmost limit. “[T]he West… played the role of the line of flight combining travel, hallucination, madness, the Indians, perceptive and mental experimentation, the shifting of frontiers, the rhizome”. Blade Runner deals with the attempt to destroy the Father and the subsequent flight to the West, though the order is scrambled; whereas the American flight waged war against the Father in the Eastern colonies and then proceeded towards the West, the replicants begin in the colonies and take the conflict with them to that city that is west of the West: Los Angeles. Like the American revolutionaries, they too want to be rid of the Father. Here the biological father, perhaps even the Ur-staat Father, has already been killed: the replicants have no parentage except a vast techno-economic structure plugged into a military machine (“daddy is a North American aerospace corporation, mummy is an air-rad shelter” – the genetic line of the Replicants is the same as Googie). Positioned forward in time, we can imagine perhaps that a revolutionary cycle playing out time and time again: kill the Father, crash down in the West. Reset as the cycling development of the relative deterritorialization and reterritorialization… going on and go until, at last, the Wall is transgressed, relative exploding into absolute deterritorialization. By then it will make sense to talk about America, much less the West-
Before hitting the wall, reaching the West must denote not the culmination of the frontier, but the point where it hits the relative limit, before falling back in itself must fall back into itself. The whole thing at this point is a simple game of self-reinforcing recursivity. Here we move from the Deleuzian West of hallucination and madness to Baudrillard’s West, where hallucination and madness persist but have been transformed into the shimmering brilliance hyperreality – neither reality or the unreal, but an instant utopia where everything is “real and pragmatic, and yet it is all the stuff of dreams too”. A continental scale hologram “in the sense that information concerning the whole is contained in each of its elements.” Fractal America: one fast food restaurant, one suburban cul-de-sac, one stretch of strip malls, motels, and neon-spattered country bars and the whole is revealed.
This Hyperreal America of the 1980s was suspended is a mishapped triangulization between Space Age dreaming, the manic peak of the dreamers themselves, and a series of looming mutations. It one sense it is now dead, the hologram having ran itself down into the rubble that piled up along its edges and in its blind spots. In another since it is still alive, as an object of nostalgia, as a motor for politics, as something attainable, as a reason for living. Yet even then, the end was palpable, if still unthinkable. “The microwave, the waste disposal, the orgasmic elasticity of the carpets” Baudrillard wrote, “this soft, resort-style civilization irresistibly evokes the end of the world.” Today it is both palpable and thinkable, as long as one looks at it indirectly. Zombie politics, a ghastly creation shambling through the wasteland of trashed affluence and consumer society’s ruin.