twin peaks the return

My first glimpse that something was deep wrong in America came while driving across it. It wasn’t the bullet holes in the door or blood covered sink in Kalamazoo. It wasn’t even the incredible parched surface of the drought stricken Midwest, where heavy machines ploughed useless dead wheat back into the dirt, and earth born again as an alien plant inhospitable to human life. Those things were real. And American reality has always been haunted, violent, and terrible. The problem was in the fantasy. In the fantastic America.

I’d always pictured driving across America in a certain way. Nothing so glamourous or exiting as a Beatnik road adventure but still a fantasy. I thought the food would be good. After all, America was built for the road. Without even trying to imagine it, I’d always believed there’d be an assortment of burger joints, hot dog stands, rib-spots, and strong coffee served at truck-stops. You can probably imagine the sort of places I pictured. Quirky little feats of architecture. Diners where the waitress calls you “hon.” Independent operators. Good grub. Big servings.

Those places do exist. Rarer every day but they are out there. I’ve been to them. But along the I-80? No. Along the I-80 it’s the same thing again and again and again. Fast food. Chain motel and meth-head parking lot. Corporate gas station. The same service center again. Again. Repeated on a loop from Michigan to California. Again and again. A constant return to the same place. Every time, more tired, more frayed and sketchy. More worn out from the same hamburgers. More tired from the same motels. More on edge from the same energy drinks. And here we are again. In the same place. Again and again. The skin wears off.

The American road fantasy was as parched as those wheat fields. Dead. Gone. Still there.

I hadn’t thought about this for a while. But thanks to the charity of a friend, I’ve been able to catch up on some TV. I’ve finally been able to see Twin Peaks, The Return.

It might be the best TV show I’ve ever seen. Even before I’d finished the series, I’d watched Episode 8 three times. If it were up to me, there would be whole channels of television that were like that episode. Just ambient dream channels. That would be most of TV.

I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds of why I liked the show so much or all the things I think it did so well. And, I should be clear, I’m not even a huge David Lynch fan. I like some of his stuff a great deal and other things I’ve just never been able to really get into. I love the original Twin Peaks, I like Blue Velvet, and The Elephant Man is pretty damn good too. That thing were he talks to the monkey on Netflix makes me laugh. I do think he has a really special set of skills. When it works for me, it works so well. There’s nothing like it.

The thing I want to talk a little bit about is the show’s sense of the American suburb. It’s not my favorite thing about the show (not sure I have one) or even what I think the show did best, but it’s one that resonates with me. That might be because it’s a sense of it that I tried to capture in some of the books I wrote while in California. You’ll never read these books. They’ll never be published. That might be for the best. I mean, my agent read them and then he fired me so, well, that’s the sort of thing that gives a person some pause. God knows, it sent me into a hot shed to drink a cold beer, listen to Johnny Cash, and think.

The sense is –and I’m not totally sure how he accomplishes this– is that the suburb feels both abandoned and fortified. It’s like a set. Unreal. Then sudden explosions of incredible violence. A neighbor you never see. Their house suddenly raided by police. A shootout. A weird Thomas Kinkade energy to the whole thing. Houses without humans. Stand outside on a hot Sacramento day and it’s bright and clear and hot and no one is there. Just the loud hum of air conditioners. It all feels inhuman. And it’s gone sinister.

I’d never lived in a suburb before California. I was raised in the country, then in a village, then at 18 I moved to the city. To me, the suburbs felt what I imagine living in Soviet bloc housing must have felt like a decade after the fall of communism. Like living in an abandoned monument to a dead dream. I’d heard that many of the houses made money by allowing porn shoots. Others were just called ‘ho-houses’ and others ‘dope houses.’ You can imagine what happened in there and in there was about every third house. Every time I raked my lawn, I’d find empty plastic drug bags. Never really saw where they came from. Come home, there might be a single high heel shoe and purse in my driveway. For some reason. It just remained a mystery.

Suburbs are often thought of as affluent places. Now, one I lived in wasn’t like that. It was blue collar. A sort of base level for the American Dream. Hollowed out by 2008. But I knew people who lived in more moneyed suburbs. And while their neighborhoods felt less like occupied territories and more like fortified management zones, they were under lockdown due to GUNMAN ON THE LOOSE just as often as we were. Maybe more.

There’s a sort of longstanding narrative trope about the suburbs They’re places where there’s a sort of oppressive conformity on the surface and a deep yet materialistic perversion below the appearance. Ballard did a lot of stuff like that, I think, but the trope is pretty widespread and, I think, predates him by quite a ways. It’s a lot of noir, Stepford Wives, Desperate Housewives, and just a bunch of fiction. It’s all sort of Peyton Place.

But The Return seems to get that the appearance is gone. Or different. That the neighborhoods themselves no longer look desirable. They look unhuman and unoccupied. There’s no keeping up appearances because there’s no one even looking. It’s a psychotic and paranoid zone where everyone had retreated deep inside. A place where people can only communicate with each other through violence. It’s all borders and isolation.

To be sure, Twin Peaks has its fantastic and surreal elements. But The Return is solidly grounded in truth. It’s not dealing with obsolete narrative tropes. It’s grounded. It’s the actual psychic terrain. And that’s the sort of science fiction or, Satan help me, “art” that I like. I can’t pretend to do it near as well as Lynch but it’s what I try to do. I don’t give a shit about predicting how things will be in the future, I only want to capture some of how things feel in the present. Speculative elements are often required. A more talented writer could probably do without them. I can’t. Nor can I sell any of it. But, I’m fucking thrilled someone can.

And it’s awesome to see it on TV. To see TV that expands the possible.

It’s unusual to see anything like The Return on television. I think a lot of that is because to get something on TV, even to get something published, you have to be able to pitch it like “this is like _____ meets ____.” But so much of ____ is just so fucking obsolete.

And fiction is stuck using obsolete methods to communicate with dead tropes. It just keeps bringing us back to the same fucking place. Again and again. And again.

Pattys and Punks: Couple of Market Docs

This is a pretty great short documentary about the Canadian government’s bizarre fight with Jamacian Pattys in one of my old neighborhoods. I moved there at age 18 in the mid-nineties, at the end of the heroin wave, which hit the place hard, and was able to get a room in a hostel for Chinese students with a shared kitchen, shared bathroom, and shared showers for $260 a month — $40 below the $320 housing allowance offered by welfare. That was cheap even then. Just another Market Rat, I lived in that building for 3 years — until we were forced out by the new owners. They turned the building into a spot for European backpackers. I think it’s still that.

That’s a whole other story — involving harassment by thug janitors hired out of the homeless mission, fights in the hallway, and the sudden formation of a tenant’s association. At the time I was sort of sick of The Market and its drama –there was always some– and I wanted to move anyway. So I made the new owners pay me off. They gave me a bunch of money, few months free rent, and I took that money and fucked off to Costa Rica.

Although this doc has a nice light touch, I think it’s important to mention a couple of backdrops to this whole thing. Canada of that era had a lot of anti-black, anti-Caribbean, and, specifically, anti-Jamaican racism. It likely still does. I don’t know if things have improved or changed but, back then, that shit was pretty dire.

In the Market itself, there was also a thing going on. A sort of longstanding attempt to gentrify the place through regulation and ticketing. Back then, Kensington Market was a low-rent open air market. It was immigrants, working class, punks, hippies, anarchists, artists, all brought together in a small, tight-knit but undeniably urban community. There was no where else like it in Toronto. But aside from being so totally culturally different from the rest of the city, it was also on some prime real estate. Everyone was always fighting to keep the condos out, keep the creeping boutiques in check, and let the market retain its character.

We didn’t even have a word for gentrification then. Way we all thought about it was, no one wanted to see it go like Yorkville –a former hippie stronghold full of draft dodgers, which became a playground for the rich. The war to keep The Market went on for ages. It was lost slowly then very quickly. Some of The Market still remains, I’m sure but . . . Well, shit changed a lot. And probably not for the better.

I don’t want to get too nostalgic about it. The Market had its problems. It could be unbelievably petty and snobbish. A lot of people were stuck at age 17 forever. There was a crabs in a barrel feel and the feel of crabs in a lot of other places. And, of course, drugs and drink chewed a lot of people up. There was a reason I wanted to leave. But The Market was the first place I ever moved, and there was a reason for that too. A punk could survive in The Market. You could scavenge. If you didn’t mind a little rot, you could feed yourself pretty well off the waste from the fruit markets. We were called Market Rats for a reason. That place really formed me in some important ways. Whether I loved or hated it, it was a sort of family.

And the other thing I want to say about this doc, is the whole scenario was just so fucking typical. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in socialism. But all this happened when Canada and Toronto was probably about as socialist as it ever was and it was a typical thing to happen. There’s a sort of stupidity you can get under socialism and it looks a lot like this.

Like, I’d vote NDP (though usually just voted Full Communist or for Steve Goof) but that doesn’t mean I liked the NDP. I mean, they were better than the alternatives but Jesus . . .

Living in Canada often felt like an endless struggle against this sort of thing –small and large– and the racism of food inspection is a real fucking thing. But it’s almost impossible to describe to, let’s say, Americans, without sounding like a nut or making the place out to be some terrible dystopia. For a long time, if you heard a Canadian describe themselves as “libertarian” it largely meant that they were against this sort of bullshit, not that they were against universal healthcare. Some things just don’t translate well.

I mean, I once tried to explain that bag of shit Jian Ghomeshi and his crap band Moxy Fruvos to some yanks and well . . . You sound crazy. It’s like, due to Canadian content laws and the national broadcast system, the government shoved this shit band down our throats for a long time –a sort a peppy twee garbage band for university WASP socialists with a future in politics and no interest in real change– until their nostalgia got him a radio show on the government station, then BAM, turns out he’s scum. Like, none of that makes any sense to an American. The government made a band popular? It just sounds paranoid. And it all sounds worse than it is.

So yeah, this doc is pretty good because the tone is sort of light but it still gets across the seriousness and ridiculousness of the whole thing.

And here’s another one about the same era in the same place but more the punk thing.

Sprawling Police Zones

Just a couple of links and thoughts here that may be of some interest to the psychogeographically inclined reader. They may not. I really have no idea what is of interest to anyone. Frankly, that subject is of little interest to me.

But these links came up because of a recent conversation about how atomizing and centerless effect of car based sprawl in American cities are underestimated obstacles to worker organization and action. America has created a physical and psychological inhospitable terrain that is fundamentally inhospitable to mass action.

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The first link comes to us by way of The Anarchist Library.

In the Distance: Suburbia against the barricades.

“Alienation is built into the city and into the suburbs, in its concrete and asphalt. Take the example of Los Angeles, the city built to accommodate cars but not walking human beings. In LA many people think nothing of driving 45 minutes just to go a bar to have a drink. Instead of having neighborhoods where one finds a whole street of bars or cafes, places to socialize are spread out over the city. North American cities lack any pre-capitalist history; they were built from the beginning by the dictates of capital, with government help. The result: urban blights that are more adapted to the automobile than the human being.”

I can find little fault with that. I would add that, on the level of action, American consumerist infrastructure is easily transformed into military/police staging grounds or carceral fortresses. Walmart easily turns into a detention center, parking lots can be used as command centers. We see these re-purposed zones appear in response to every protest. There always seems to be cops taking over a CVS parking lot and snipers on rooftops. Now, we even see these detention facilities and command centers appearing aggressively – as offensive moves against populations guided by policy. The abandoned sites of capital find a second life as prisons and enforcement centers. The consumerist stage lends itself to changes that favor militarized power and its supply lines. A martial state is physically embedded. Militarism is latent. Whether it was designed that way or not, it’s there. And it certainly seems that the architectural profession is currently complicit in coaxing it out.

Why are architecture’s major professional organizations silent on the immigrant detention debate?

Most notoriously, a 200,000-square-foot former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas came under scrutiny in recent weeks as a detention center with a unique claim to fame—the largest detention center for migrant and refugee children. Operated by the privately-run Southwest Key Programs organization, the big-box detention center was converted from a retail store to its current use in 2016 as a result of corporate downsizing and currently holds roughly 1,500 separated children. The conversion likely required building permits, construction drawings, and the like—services that often require architects. It is safe to assume that local jurisdictions would require basic planning approval and permitting for these projects, so it seems natural that architects would somehow be involved in the propagation of these facilities.

Fucking collaborators. What can you do?

On the level of mass action, there is no equivalent space for the public. This problem is added to by the private ownership of these spaces.

WHY IT’S SCARY THAT THE MALL OF AMERICA CAN CRUSH DISSENT

Mall of America’s ability to so zealously suppress the December 23 protest there highlights how, in a nation where more and more public life takes place in privatized spaces, the ability to exercise First Amendment rights has become increasingly contingent. From Zuccotti Park to Twitter, some of the last decade’s most iconic venues for dissent have been privately run. In cities like New York, privately owned public spaces have been proliferating for several decades, racing ahead of the case law that will ultimately decide their relationship to Constitutional rights. And legal experts expect social media to be a primary subject of First Amendment battles for decades to come.

The few places where protest is physically possible are only affordable to those least likely to protest. Downtown New York can facilliate a protest. But most American cities are not built like that. Most are built like Phoenix Arizonia.

The architecture of dissent

Phoenix did not see the large protests of other cities because it is not built for humans; it’s built for private vehicles. People just happen to live there. This character of the city closes off opportunities for civic action by isolating — and disempowering — people, leaving them with little or no opportunity for gathering in solidarity. Many people, especially those in marginalized communities, live in neighborhoods and towns that are effectively restricted from accessing large parts of the city. And the flows of activity in Phoenix are such that the downtown becomes a ghost town after 5:00 p.m. and on weekends, when people hop on the highway and retreat to their homes. So even if protesters managed to gather and march, they would be chanting at empty streets and closed buildings.

To create an interference with commerce involves blocking highways and, there, it puts human bodies against machinery — an unequal and difficult position. There is also no way to have a prolonged occupation, since the supplies needed for such an action cannot be delivered and can be easily blockaded. The action also needs to be traveled to, rather than joined. This, in itself, disrupts the spontaneity a protest requires to organically grow. You can’t have a Tahrir Square without a square and the network of tiny streets leading to it, which protesters were able to fill – creating a human tide that was easy to join and difficult to police. Basically, America is built to favor cops, capital and snitches.

On the level of social, the major social spaces in American cities are varieties of malls, reached in private cars, where people are shoppers, not citizens, and this state of mind is basically incompatible with social action. In that zone, a protest or strike is most likely to be seen as an inconvenience rather than a liberation. Adding the cyber-mall to it, the picket line becomes theoretical and people are not going to hold to a theoretical line. Even a real line is hard to hold. Conscience is not adequate. Barricades are required.

We also see this atomization on the job, in irregular hours, workmates being forbidden from speaking to each other, so on and so forth. Management understands that the foundation of strikes is social. They disrupt and control that. America, most of it anyway, is deeply anti-social. It’s anti-social right from the ground up.

None of this, of course, represents a fait accompli. Nor does it show that protest is impossible or obsolete. It simply shows some obstacles to protest that must be understood and addressed in order to be surmounted. And the mere fact that these obstacles were built argues for the power of mass action. One does not build barriers to protect themselves from things that do not frighten them. The managing class are scared of mass action and organized workers. They have good reason to be.