Fucking under Freeways: California at the End of History

by Hannah Proctor

No time is contemporary with itself. [1]

Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx

On May Day 1990, as Mikhail Gorbachev confronted jeering crowds from the top of Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow, Mike Davis visited the ruins of the socialist settlement of Llano del Rio in the high Mojave Desert to see if he would encounter the ghosts of utopia. Instead, he encountered life. He found the crumbling buildings inhabited by two young labourers from El Salvador. They likened LA to a volcano ‘spilling wreckage and desire in ever-widening circles.’ [2] The once red desert, Davis notes, had become ‘another abstraction of dirt and dollar signs’. [3] By 1990 it was criss-crossed by trails of commuters; filled with neat grids of houses and military bases.

 

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With the Cold War over, those training grounds and air force bases were presumably re-purposed. In August 1990, the Iraqi army invaded Kuwait. The United States launched Operation Desert Storm five months later. Another fifteen years on and the California deserts were filled with replica villages in which the call for prayer resonated over flimsy minarets as ‘authentic’ Iraqi spices wafted through the air, the sands littered by shipping containers from which it is possible to shoot someone in Waziristan in the morning and still drive out to Taco Bell for lunch.

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‘The Gulf War Did Not Take Place’, declared Jean Baudrillard in 1991. Displayed on television screens, the conflict was rendered as a spectral spectacle devoid of suffering. ‘Television’, he writes, ‘is the hysterical symptom of a war which has nothing to do with its critical mass.’ [4]

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In the late 1980s Baudrillard traversed the New World by car. He, the weary European burdened by the weight of the past, described a glimmering yet banal world of parking lots, strip malls and Burger Kings. Here even ancient artworks looked brand new. He took this place to epitomise the ‘hyperreality’ of the contemporary: a void, a desert, a dreamscape in which sleeping is no longer distinguishable from waking. America is the ‘tragedy of a utopian world made reality.’ [5] On freeways, in offices, in empty rooms, America is a place where the lights never go out.

Hyperreality is ravishing, Baudrillard declares. He is in thrall to its brittle and shining façades (and, of course, there are only façades). Here even suburban carpets have an ‘orgasmic elasticity’. [6] But though this hollow place is seductive, it is drained of all sensuality. The misogynistic undertone of this formulation resounds throughout: woman is image, is billboard, is lipstick, is in a car, is being fucked in the desert without feeling anything at all. Pleasure and desire are replaced by a ‘frantic concern’ for the body. [7] Bodies are augmented with plastic surgery or pummelled into shape in ‘stimulation and simulation studios’. [8] Gyms are the heirs of medieval torture instruments and industrial production lines. The frenzied obsession with fitness is profoundly asexual, attesting to the ‘blank solitude’ of existence and the deathliness of life: ‘the body which doubts its own existence is already half-dead… The care taken care of the body while it is alive prefigures the way it will be made up in the funeral home.’ [9]

 

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The desert is the landscape. The desert is timeless yet right now this instant. The desert is a ‘suspended eternity’. [10] Deserts denote ‘the radical nudity that is the background to every human institution’; [11] they stand for the emptiness, sterility and inhumanity of the flat terrain of signs. The desert is the city. The desert is the suburbs. The desert is the highway, and the advertisements and lights that line it.

 

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This terrain is not only a place but a time. The world of bodybuilding, walkmen, anorexia and word processors Baudrillard describes is certainly recognisable but it already feels strangely distant. Despite his constant insistence on the permanence of the present, on the timelessness of the desert, Baudrillard’s obsessions are already jarringly anachronistic.

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In Spring 1994, J.M. Bernstein gave a series of lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit at the University of California, Berkeley. Someone made a recording. In the third week of the lectures, the tape starts recording before the lesson begins. A voice is audible above the tape’s cracklings. Someone is excitedly telling her classmate about a friend who can ‘only get off under freeways.’ Her friend, she explains, goes to masturbate or fuck under freeways because her father had been a designer of roads – the only time he ceased beating his daughter was when they discussed ‘the beauty, the aesthetic beauty of freeways.’ She laughs insouciantly. ‘Isn’t that great?’ Bernstein begins discussing Self-Consciousness before her classmate has a chance to respond. [12]

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The previous lectures had focused on Hegel’s Early Theological Writings which see nature confronting humanity as a hostile force in the wake of the flood: ‘in her fury she spared nothing’, Hegel declares, ‘she made none of the distinctions which love might have made but poured savage devastation over everything’. [13] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were similarly preoccupied with humanity’s relation to nature. The perpetual sunshine of California, where they lived in exile in the 1940s, casts its noirish light over the pages of The Dialectic of Enlightenment in which they argue that the ‘corrosive rationality’ of Enlightenment splits concatenated nature into discrete specimens of matter: ‘Nature, stripped of qualities, becomes the chaotic stuff of mere classification’. [14] But the irrational cannot be exorcised. Indeed, proclaiming its disappearance paradoxically functions to increase its strength: ‘The curse of irresistible progress is irresistible regression.’ [15] Adorno and Horkheimer claim that increased power over nature is coupled with the increased subjugation of humanity. By eviscerating the particular, Enlightenment left the ‘uncomprehended whole’ free to rebound on the human subjects who had attempted to master it. [16]

 

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But theorists eventually tired of dialectical concerns. For Baudrillard everything is a surface. The city is continuous with the desert; there is nothing to be excavated from beneath the neon reflections on the concrete. In a world drained of libido there is nothing left to repress. For the classic film noir of the 1940s there is no sunshine without shadows but in the 1990s noir returns as pastiche. The sharp-tongued whiskey-soaked sleuth is replaced by a stoner in a bathrobe and jelly shoes whose only purpose in life is bowling and the occasional acid flashback. Protagonists in 90s Hollywood movies are often unsure who or where they really are or who or what is really real. They have alter-egos or visit parallel worlds. They are amnesiacs or people whose memories or entire selves are stored on electronic devices. They are anxious about Virtual Reality; they are anxious that reality is only virtual.

The tape starts recording before the lesson begins. History leaves traces in unexpected places. Circulating somewhere on the shelves of the internet, it is possible to find a scanned pdf version of The Dialectic of Enlightenment from UC Berkeley library with the words ‘2Pac 4 Life’ scrawled on the title page. Tupac Shakur died on September 13 1996. Neatly slicing time into discrete steps is always a bad idea. Thens and nows slip around, collide, pierce, rub and grab at each other endlessly.

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The time is out of joint (Derrida, like Marx, is into quoting Hamlet). [17] In 1993, just two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Jacques Derrida gave a series of lectures at the University of California, Riverside as part of the conference ‘Whither Marxism?’ Derrida, previously circumspect on the subject of Communism, offers a response to Francis Fukuyama’s famous assertion (itself an inversion Alexander Kojève’s influential readings of Hegel) that with the collapse of state socialism and global triumph of capitalism, history had come to an end. Time, Derrida insists, cannot keep pace with itself. Anachrony or the non-contemporaneity of the present is required to think the ghost:

time is disarticulated, dislocated, dislodged, time is run down, on the run and run down, deranged, both out of order and mad. Time is off its hinges, time is off course, beside itself, disadjusted. [18]

Derrida elegantly describes chaotic temporal interpenetrations, plunging back into the rich strangeness of Marx’s texts. But although every page of his book talks of ghosts and haunting, Specters of Marx is strangely disinterested in history. Or rather, the deranged return of the past is so abstract as to seem devoid of meaning. Derrida does suggest, contra Fukuyama, that the future might now be thought again. But what future is he speaking of exactly? He writes of

the absolute future of what is coming, that is to say, a necessarily indeterminate, abstract, desert-like experience that is confided, exposed, given up to its waiting for the other and for the event. [19]

He plunges us back into the desert. Dislocation emerges as just another form of eternal emptiness. Derrida’s spectres never lived.

 

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‘Hasn’t my whole store of feelings faded? Been depleted?’ – Christa Wolf’s City of Angels or, the Overcoat of Dr. Freud is set in the early ‘90s in LA, where the protagonist is on a research fellowship. She is from East Germany, a state that has very recently ceased to exist. She is constantly asked by wide-eyed interlocutors in pious tones what life was like ‘under the regime’. [20] Wolf says that eras have hinges, which pivot around dates. After certain events time changes, as if it were suddenly made of a different material. Her geographic dislocation forms the backdrop to her reckoning with an experience of historical dislocation. Her friends John and Judy are the only Americans she meets who claim to find ‘the capitalist economic system perverse’, but they tell her this was not an opinion they could voice openly: ‘In America, they said, Communism was a rotting corpse, deader than dead.’ [21] After the collapse of Communism it seemed as though ‘all this’ would be ‘valid for all eternity.’ [22] In LA, she realises later, all her notes were in the present tense. Sitting at her typewriter she tries to make sense of her past but wonders if her writing might be a process of paving over rather than ploughing up the ‘depths within’ herself. [23]

She seeks traces of German writers and artists who had lived in exile in LA during the Second World War – she thinks of Bertolt Brecht musing on the hellish empty happiness of Los Angeles, she reads the diaries of Thomas Mann. She also meets descendants of German Jews who fled the Holocaust, as well as those who had been ‘dissidents’ (although she loathes the term) in the former Eastern bloc. Among a group of Europeans all speaking English around an American dining table she says she feels as though she is in a play. One of her academic acquaintances remarks that America is the best place to study the Old World: ‘they want to preserve a copy of Europe in case it ever ceased to exist.’ [24] She wanders down the long gleaming aisles of a drugstore overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of products on its shelves ­– ‘perfumes, creams, soaps, deodorants, shower gels, leg and body lotions, shampoos, and hair dyes’ – and imagines slathering the contents of all these packets across the entire surface of the earth. ‘Maybe the especially numerous anti-aging products would smooth the deep wrinkles and furrows of our old planet.’ [25] In LA this smoothing process seems to have happened already, however. On Malibu beach she observes that the ocean has no smell, on Broadway that the palm trees cast no shadows. [26] Though, unlike Baudrillard, she perceives that the apparently smooth surfaces of early 90s America did actually conceal depths:

Every single one of our modern societies, based as they are on colonization, repression and exploitation, has to block out certain parts of its history and deny as much as possible of its present too, in order to keep the self-assurance it needs to live. [27]

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On December 3 1994, Chris Kraus and Sylvère Lotringer, went for dinner at a sushi restaurant in Pasadena with Dick, an academic new to Los Angeles. Lotringer, the founder of Semiotext(e) which introduced Baudrillard et al to an Anglophone audience, had already, like Frankenstein, disowned the monster he helped create, bemoaning the vacant trendiness of that beast that had come to be known simply as ‘theory’. ‘It must be the desert wind that went to our heads that night or maybe the desire to fictionalise life a little bit’ begins Sylvère’s first letter to Dick after the weather forces the couple to spend an intense evening at his house. [28]

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I Love Dick is a hyper confessional epistolary novel of deserted fax machines, unheard answerphone messages, bourgeois interiors, smoky kisses and conceptual fucking. Every experience is filtered through references to movies and the most recent trends in critical theory. Even the most intimate encounters and emotions have somehow happened already, are covered in a film of symbolic associations. Even intense sadness seems synthetic. Life is fictionalised in the text, but it is a life already experienced as such.

Dear Dick,

Last weekend I went up to Morro Bay and dropped acid for the first time in twenty years. The night before I’d dreamt about poverty. No matter what the rich may say, poverty is not just lack, it’s a gestalt, a psychological condition. [29]

A dream about unpaid tax receipts melts into the experience of an acid trip. Poverty is filtered through a haze of images, becoming a question of Kraus’s own psychic economy.

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In contrast to the merging of dream and life Kraus describes, the labourers Davis encountered in Llano del Rio were conscious of the huge disparity between California dream and reality. One of them explained that he had moved to Los Angeles with a clear image of the place only to discover his existence was incompatible with that fantasy:

LA already was everywhere. They had watched it every night in San Salvador… a city where everyone was young and rich drove new cars and saw themselves on television. After thousands of daydreams like this, he had deserted the Salavadorean Army and hitchhiked two thousand five hundred miles to Tijuana… No-one like him was rich or drove a new car… More importantly no-one like him was on television; they were all invisible. [30]

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Some intellectuals briefly gliding through the place might experience California as a strange mirage and this mirage as a perfect analogy for the mirage-like present. [31] The labourers had a different idea. Their metaphor was the volcano ‘spilling wreckage and desire in ever-widening circles.’ [32] This image, unlike a flat desert landscape, presupposes the existence of something hot beneath the surface that might erupt at any time. As Ursula K. Le Guin points out in ‘A Non-Euclidean View of California as a Cold Place to Be’ California is not a place with no history but one which was inhabited long before the arrival of white colonisers. This suppressed past informs and still threatens to disrupt the oppressive order of the present: ‘wild oats and poppies still come up pure gold in cracks in the cement.’ [33] Kraus described her acid trip as ‘mustard sunlight reflecting like a digital display over splashing waves’ [34] – everything is coated in a sparkling, ethereal veneer, but what of the water surging beneath?

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California is built on the San Andreas fault-line. In January 1994, the Northridge earthquake hit South Fernando Valley in Los Angeles killing 57 people. This natural disaster was preceded by a violent upheaval of human origin. Writing in 1993, a year after the Los Angeles Riots, Mike Davis returned to the volcano metaphor: ‘a volcano of Black rage and Latino alienation erupted in the streets of Los Angeles.’ Marine units fresh from the Gulf War were dispatched to ‘restore order to the bungalows of Compton and Watts.’ But media hysteria drowned out the ‘procession of inner-city leaders from Oakland to BedfordStuyvesant [who] warned that their neglected neighbourhoods too were tinderboxes awaiting a spark.’ [35] Wolf observed that the language used to describe the events in the media as ‘“turmoil”, “disturbances”, “riots”, and nothing like “revolt”, “rebellion”, “insurrection” or “uprising”, much less “revolution”’ reflected the interests of the those framing the moment in those terms: ‘It was said to be naked, unbridled violence that had terrified South Central Los Angeles in April – no political or social motives were to be attributed to the rioters, certainly no economic motives.’ [36]

 

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The jury who acquitted the police officers of the assault of Rodney King, the announcement of which provoked the rioting, were said to have been desensitised to the video images of police violence repeatedly shown in court. But just like the Gulf War, that violence did take place.

Davis discusses how spectral TV images of the riots decontextualised the events and dehumanised their participants:

There is, of course, an eerie indistinguishability in all the military interventions, ‘humanitarian’ or exterminist, of the Reagan-Bush era. The fuzzy video images of the Marines or 82nd Airborne in the streets of Panama City, Miami, Los Angeles, Grenada, or Mogadishu all look alike and the prone figures on the ground are always Black. [37]

For Davis, these flashy, flattened representations rendered racialised people indistinguishable and therefore extinguishable. Seductive shiny surfaces do not displace the hyper-violence of reality but participate in enabling it.

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Military contractor Stategic Operations Inc have now trademarked the term ‘hyper-realistic’, using it to describe their goal of bringing the ‘magic of Hollywood’ to the military training environments they build for the US Army. [38] War and policing are increasingly mediated by screens. Soldiers are trained using computer simulations and virtual reality programmes adapted from commercial Xbox games are used in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Drone operators shoot at targets whose faces are deliberately obscured to facilitate more efficient killing. The proliferation of liquid crystal is apparently conducive to a collective disavowal of the proliferation of human suffering.

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‘Every war is a cyborg orgy’, declared Donna Haraway in 1985. [39] She acknowledged the entanglement of emerging, increasingly hybrid technologies with super-masculine ‘Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defence’, but identified in the increasing convergence of human and machine ‘transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities which progressive people might explore as one part of needed political work’. [40] Unlike Derrida’s ghostly vision of Marx, her unorthodox historical materialism held on to political radicalism by advocating for a conscious forging of new mutant subjectivities to collectively challenge existing social, political and economic structures. [41]

Beneath the desert, the streets!

 

[1] I wrote a version of this text a few years ago over a Christmas break spent reading Baudrillard in bed for no reason. I wonder now why I didn’t reflect on my own distance from the place I was writing about, my own status as ‘weary European’ or my own experiences of briefly living on the West Coast. Today I’d probably do it some other way but I decided to preserve the original form and style (with some added content – although there are still plenty of things still left out). This essay is dedicated to Andrew Witt. I lived with him when I wrote it, associate it with walks we went on together that winter in London and imagine his thoughts on California in the 1970s probably seeped in here somehow.

Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans by Peggy Kamuf (New York, NY: Routledge, 1994, 2006), p. 139.

[2] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (London: Verso, 1990, 2006), p. 12.

[3] Davis, p. 14.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. by Paul Patton (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1995), p. 41.

[5] Baudrillard, America, trans. by Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1988, 1989), p. 30.

[6] Baudrillard, America, p. 31.

[7] Baudrillard, America, p. 35.

[8] Baudrillard, America, p. 35.

[9] Baudrillard, America, p. 35.

[10]Baudrillard, America, p. 121.

[11] Baudrillard, America, p. 63.

[12] http://www.bernsteintapes.com/

[13] G.W.F. Hegel, ‘The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate’ in Early Theological Writings trans by T.M. Knox (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1975), p. 182.

[14] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. by Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 4, p. 6.

[15] Adorno and Horkheimer, p. 28.

[16] Adorno and Horkheimer, p. 33.

[17] Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was released in 1996 although Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo and Juliet from the same year perhaps seems more obviously definitive of the era. In the 2000 movie Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to the hero on CCTV.

[18] Derrida, p. 20.

[19] Derrida, p. 112.

[20] Christa Wolf, City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr Freud, trans. by Damion Searls (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), p. 74.

[21] Wolf, p. 94.

[22] Wolf, p. 55. Although in East Germany, she remarks later, she had long since learned to ‘live without alternatives’, ‘hope crumbled, utopia fell apart and started to rot,’ p.195.

[23] Wolf, p. 26.

[24] Wolf, p. 8.

[25] Wolf, p. 83.

[26] Wolf, p. 213, p. 248.

[27] Wolf, p. 78. At the end of the novel she and some friends visit a Hopi reservation. She remarks upon her discomfort at her position as a spectator but nonetheless repeats familiar racist tropes, situating the Hopi outside of time – not at the end of history but somewhere before it began.

[28] Chris Kraus, I Love Dick (Los Angeles; CA: Semiotext(e), 1998, 2006), p. 26. In Torpor a novel published after I Love Dick but set slightly earlier, two characters called Jerome and Sylvie (seemingly versions of Lotringer and Kraus) visit Europe in summer 1991 on a search for a Romanian orphan to adopt. The narrator notes sardonically that after the fall of the Berlin Wall Jerome and his European intellectual friends ‘said it was the ending of an era… all his friends believed that history would soon be disappearing. (“History” for them was defined by them as the continuity they knew.)’, Kraus, Torpor (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2006, 2015), p. 49.

[29] Kraus, p. 219.

[30] Davis, p. 14. Wong Kar Wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express stars Faye Wong as a California-obsessed snack bar worker. At the end of the film she leaves for America but it’s unclear whether her dreams were fulfilled when she arrived there.

[31] Interviews with Angela Davis from this period provide a very different perspective both on California and on the collapse of the Soviet Union. As late as March 1989 Davis (who was then living in Oakland) claimed to still be optimistic about the fate of the Communist Party USA (which she would be expelled from in 1991). She also discusses her engagement in prison abolitionism and other contemporary political struggles indicating that the political torpor associated with the period by some of the authors cited here was by no means universal. See, for example, http://articles.latimes.com/1989-03-08/news/vw-316_1_angela-davis.

[32] Davis, p. 14.

[33] This lecture was first delivered in 1982. https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/ursula-k-le-guin-a-non-euclidean-view-of-california-as-a-cold-place-to-be (accessed July 28 2017). In June 2015 I presented some of this material, including a longer discussion of Le Guin’s essay, in a paper co-written with Amy Tobin. Tobin spoke about Judy Baca’s mural ‘The Great Wall of Los Angeles’ which represents a history of California from the perspective of its oppressed populations, stretching back to prehistoric times. She situated the mural (which was started in 1974 and completed over the course of four summers) in the context of Chicano rights struggles and wrote of how the historical narrative depicted on the mural challenged characterisations of LA (by authors like Reyner Banham or Fredric Jameson) as the epitome of ‘postmodernity’ (Conference paper: ‘History from Deep Below’, What is Radical History? Birkbeck, London, June 2015).

[34] Kraus, p. 220.

[35] Mike Davis, ‘Who Killed LA? A Political Autopsy’, New Left Review, Jan-Feb 1993, https://newleftreview.org/I/197/mike-davis-who-killed-los-angeles-a-political-autopsy (accessed July 227 2017).

[36] Wolf, pp. 146-147.

[37] Davis, ‘Who Killed LA?’

[38] http://www.strategic-operations.com/ (accessed July 27 2017)

[39] Donna J. Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 149-181, p. 150. First published as ‘Manifesto for cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s’, Socialist Review, 80 (1985): 65- 108

[40] Haraway, p. 154.

[41] Although, sadly, as Sophie Lewis has recently pointed out Haraway’s politics are no longer so radical: https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/05/08/cthulhu-plays-no-role-for-me/ (accessed Jul 28 2017).

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