Monday, March 7, 2011

Star Wars and Postmodernism

Boys and their toys, Then, and Now

Like most boys, I spent a lot of time playing war. But unlike American boys of the 50s and 60s, who grew up imagining themselves as patriotic GI Joes, my friends and I didn't play with army men. We were born into the rain shadow that followed the Vietnam War, during which, Hasbro stopped making soldier toys. We still played war, but instead of American soldiers,  played with Star Wars. Unlike boys just a few years older than us, we were no longer fantasizing about being grunts of the Greatest Generation defending American freedom from Fascism; our imaginary enemies wielded weapon of mass destruction and were fascists with a lowercase "f' (I spell out the difference I see between Fascism and fascism HERE). The story we were all reenacting was an upside-down fantasy of North Vietnamese-like space guerrillas battling American Modernism in Nazi drag. We were replacing the story of one kind of authority, with a new, very different story of authority. It looked like a childish fad, but, in the context of that particular moment, it was subversive. 

Even when hand-me-down GI Joes were available, my friends and I didn't use them to tell the story they were built to tell. We were steeped in references to Vietnam not WWII (I'm still not sure what the battle of the Bulge was, but I've known about the My Lai Massacre as long as I can remember). Deer Hunter was shown on broadcast TV - not all of us had been allowed to see it, but enough of us had. I can remember Russian roulette being discussed on the playground in grade school (picture a whispering group of boys the age of the two shown above). The wars, that Gi Joe was built for us to pretend to fight, were something that we knew drove men insane. Moreover, we knew those wars was made by mad men in the first place.
Deer Hunter (1978); Star Wars (1977)

Enough of us had seen Dr Strangelove that when a 9 year old arms would twist and spasm in the struggle against involuntarily Heiling Hitler we all knew what we were laughing at - we were laughing at the twisted architects of the Cold War. Unlike the Vietnam War, the Cold War was on going; we were living through it. I was never instructed to duck and cover. Children of my generation knew that if there was a nuclear war we would all die. The War that GI Joe was created for us to fantasize about waging had grown to be something that, by then, threatened to burn the whole world - it was more insane than Russian Roulette; call it Reagan Roulette.

Star Wars was a product of the same cultural embargo that drove GI Joe from toy store shelves. George Lucas couldn't get funding for the Vietnam War movie he wanted to make with John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola. After John Wayne's Green Berets bombed, Hollywood didn't risk making any sort of film about the Vietnam war for almost a decade. So Lucas reworked his ideas for a war film into a Flash Gordon-like space movie. Star Wars was an end run around the embargo, just as the embargo was breaking down. It was Apocalypse Now intended for kids (Apocalypse Now is not a film I remember discussed on the playground). Thanks to George Lucas' ploy, an entire generation of American boys would identify with the underdogs of asymmetrical warfare. Within the belly of an aggressive nuclear super power, we were innocently rooting against our own team. We were all fighting for the Rebellion. 
General "Buck" Turgidson, Dr. Strangelove (1964); Grand Moff Tarkin Star Wars (1977)

In the introduction to his book, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father's Village, the beat generation poet, Gary Snyder, writes:
We know an oral literature helps shape a culture, is, thus, "conditioning" - it closes around a child, makes her a "Haida" - it narrows her theoretically infinite choices of what to be. And we know this to be inevitable. But already something else is at work. The oral traditions of the world (and our civilized literatures in their debt) carry within them the seeds of self o'er-leaping. The stories we hear as children do put us in place and give us models and possibilities to dream after; before long we are Amish or Hopi or Jew or Atheist Radical White Kid. 
The fictional stories of rebellion my friends and I were telling each other were the seeds of o-er-leaping the very true stories closing around us. Part of what made playing at rebellion so fun, was that even little boys had some inkling the country we were growing up in was a mad, violent, and racist. I remember my father explaining to me with shame and remorse that when he was a boy the nursery rhyme "Eeny meeny miny moe, catch a tiger by the toe..." had been "...catch a nigger by the toe." Exactly the same way my mother remembers Brazil nuts being called "nigger toes."
Gary Snyder at his desk (1951), George Lucas (197?)

Neither of my parents were racists or came from racist families. The America that my parents grew up in, however, was casually racist. It was a pervasive evil so ingrained it was all but invisible to those who lived within it. My father (who in addition to being a psychologist is a priest) took his life in his hands to march with Martin Luther King in Selma Alabama after a seminary student had been killed there. My mother was "massively pregnant" with my older sister at the time, but they both felt that ending America's casual racism was worth the risk.

In his book, Human Smoke, Nicholson Baker documents the casual antisemitism of American life in the years leading up to WWII - a sin even Eleanor Roosevelt was guilty of. Antisemitism is still alive and well, but it is no longer a casual default - something taken for granted in both public and private speech. It is hard to imagine Eleanor Roosevelt complaining about how many Jews might be at a party, because, while a woman like Eleanor Roosevelt might harbor those sorts of feelings, she would never voice them. Casual antisemitism broke like a fever in the 1940s, and while there is plenty of poetry after the Holocaust, in the American public sphere, overt antisemitism now comes with a heavy penalty.

Casual racism came to a head almost 30 years after antisemitism did. While antisemitism required the shock an massive industrialized holocaust, overt casual racism required a civil war and more than a century of struggle to expel from American public life. It was during that century long struggle that Modernism emerged. The last twenty years of that struggle took place in the shadow of WWII and in the hot fires of Modernism's triumph. American cities were remade by Modernist planners and architects during the 50s and 60s; the landscape scraped back to bedrock and built into super highways and skyscrapers, but the vision of a rationalized world was tainted by the violence and racism that the Modernist towers were built to house as well as the territory they were built within.
State sponsored racist geography, US Dept. of the Interior Geological Survey Map (1963); Robert Powers (far right) with fellow clergy in Selma drawing the line (1965).

In his amazing (but seldom name-checked) book, Nigger, Randall Kennedy chronicles "the strange career of troublesome word":
In the 1960s and the decades thereafter, campaigns against racial racial indecency gained unprecedented support in mounting countless challenges to racist cultural artifacts. Scores of landmarks on official maps, for example once bore such names as Nigger Lake, Niggerhead Hill, and Old Nigger Creek. Nigger we have seen, can have many meanings. But in the context of naming landmarks - an endeavor monopolized until recently by white men - it is clear that the nigger memorialized on maps was not the nigger of irony or affection but the nigger of insult and contempt. 
Kennedy gives a grim history of the official use of the word nigger (as insult and contempt) in American courts and politics. Like antisemitism, "No serious politician, not even David Duke, could casually use and unapologetically refer to "niggers" and hope to be elected. Nigger has been belatedly but effectively stigmatized - an important, and positive development in American culture."
Chicago's John Hancock Center under construction; black sanitation workers in Memphis at about the same time.

Reading Kennedy's book was shocking the way my parents stories of nigger toes were shocking. Vocal racism had disappeared from public life along with hateful place names by the time I had begun to be aware of the world around me. But disappeared, doesn't mean gone. My parents had to explain the racism of the old world, not because it was gone, but because it was invisible. They knew that even if the names on the map had been changed the actual territory remained the largely unaltered. To be sure my friends and I, the first generation raised in the wake of the Civil Rights era, didn't stumble onto one of the landmarks they had grown up with and mistake them for legitimate elements within the landscape, my parents armed me against the very real pitfalls that still litter the landscape of American cultural life. I'm sure other parents were less sincere in warning their children away from racism, but NOBODY sang about nigger toes on the playground.

The America I grew up in was far more racist than today, but far less racist than the America my parents grew up in. By the time I went to school all my classes were integrated and the word nigger was no longer a word used in classrooms, on buses, or in public places (much less in courts and on maps). It was something my friends and I didn't grow up hearing much less saying (the way nigger is used in slang now as a term of "irony or affection" is something that emerged more recently, in my adult years, and still grates on my ear). But my friends and I did grow up very aware that our nation was actively building an arsenal that could burn the world many times over. It was an outspoken madness that was an everyday fact of life. No matter that every adult I knew said it was madness, it was an inevitable buildup that had to be taken for granted. A casual evil as sinister as offer a child a nigger toe.
Gaggle of Reaganites; Gaggle of Sith

The shadows of fading American racial apartheid and looming nuclear Armageddon were inseparable aspects of the still-Modernist world I was born into, but one of my favorite buildings growing up was also the John Hancock Center tower. I grew up a short walk from the Hancock tower, and had friends who lived there. Like my father's building it was a place were kids ran riot through its hallways and rode its elevators in wild games of vertical tag and hide and go seek. (There was, for a time, a group of older kids who had figured out how to get on the Hancock's roof and were selling tickets, but I found out about it after they got busted, so I didn't get to go up.) Before I moved in with my father, my sisters and I would visit on weekend, camping out on a sofa sleeper in his living room. We would go to sleep looking out at the Hancock tower. It was (and is) massive, unitary, searingly black, and crowned with a row of bright white Kubric-esque lights. Glorious.
John Hancock Tower (1970), Death Star (1977)

I once watched a man dressed as Spiderman climb the glass and steel curtain wall of the tower from the window of my father's apartment. We lived blocks away, but on the twenty-fifth floor, so we had a clear view of the building, but not the action. As I remember it the tiny red and blue figure was just visible to the naked eye, which gave the monolith a peculiar human scale. 
I imagine it was early on during the standoff with the authorities that my father and I started watching simultaneously from our living room window, and on TV. I remember watching 
Chicago cops and firefighters on TV -  after repeatedly failing to reach "Spider Dan" by removing massive window panes, and grabbing at the poor bastard with their pikes - tried to knock the climber off the building with fire hoses

Spider Dan was just over a third of the way up the 100 story tower at the time, and so the efforts to wash the stunt climber off the tower amounted to attempted murder. I can remember my father howling that the cops had "lost their God damn minds!" The fury of the authorities was finally squashed by cooler head of Mayor Jane Bryne (I always liked Jane) who ordered the cops and firefighters to stand down and let Dan climb. I watched the rest of the climb from the window. In my memory I can still see the sudden movements of tiny figures reaching over the lip of the building and grabbing him as he reached the top. I was blocks away, and they were little more than dark specks, but as I remember it, I could easily see in their movements how mad they were. That moment - the effort to intentionally kill a man in order to prevent him from accidentally killing himself - summed up the homicidal nature of American authority at the time. "Better dead than red" the Armageddonists crowed.
Chicago police riot (1968); Spider Dan (1981)

I was repelled by the fury of the cops and firefighters - but it was all of a piece with what I knew of American authority. Police riots were still a very living memory for Chicagoans when I was growing up. As a boy, I was taught, implicitly and explicitly, to be weary of cops. "What do you call a dumb angry cop?" my father asked my pre-adolescent self. "Sir" was the correct answer. All of what I was told and observed fit within the greater madness of Reagan Roulette - the genocidal nuclear standoff with the Soviets. The reason Americans lined up around blocks the summer of 1977 to watch the Hancock-like Death Star destroyed over and over, never questioning the logic of transforming the decidedly non-Fascist Bauhaus into a planet destroying machine for mass destruction, was that Modernism had become inseparable from the berserker rage of the authorities it housed. 

Still, I was raised by liberal pacifists who were stylishly contemporary in their tastes in design and architecture. And I harbored a less-than-secret love for the Chicago Bauhaus style of the Death Star. Like Gary Snyder, I wanted to be a Radical Atheist White Kid, but I was raised to love Modernism, and I did. Even as I, along with every other would-be Atheist Radical Kid (black or white) I knew, struggled to overleap Modernism's embrace, I knew I wasn't looking to destroy the Death Star. I wanted to occupy it the way I had seen Spider Dan occupy the John Hancock tower. I wanted to sell tickets to its roof; press all the buttons on its elevators. I wanted to occupy it in a way the authorities would never understand; to give it a meaning its architects could have never predicted or understood. I wanted to misappropriate it and make it unrecognizable to the authorities that guarded it so jealously. I had a very childish and intensely modern desire to misbehave.
John Hancock Center strut; Death Star trench.

When I moved to the Northwest in 1989, the Seattle skyline was pretty well built up. There was the googie Space Needle (not my thing) left over from a 60s world fair, but otherwise the city looked like it had boomed during the Go Go 80s - with lots of nods to the Memphis-Milano brand of postmodernism. Like everyone else, I love the postmodernism on view in Bladerunner. I loved it long before I knew what Postmodern was. The visual congestion and confusion of Ridley Scott's film was however a movie set, not a city, much less a building. The Postmodern environment that actually got built to house the American psychos of the 1980s was nothing like Scott's sets. The Postmodernism that actually reigned, was Philip Johnson's AT&T building and the appliqué heraldry of Venturi Scott-Brown, was as diffused and orderly as the Modernism it pretended to replace. And worse still, it housed the exact same brand of Masters of the Universe I wanted to see evicted.

Of all the new buildings on Seattle's skyline, the immediate standout for me was a tall black fluted tower. I asked a friend what it was, and he asked if I liked it. I did, a lot. I was informed that it was the Bank of America Building, and that everyone in Seattle hated it, that it was "too Chicago"- which is to say, all Deathstar. Not very Rebel Alliance of me, my friend's comment seemed to say. Curious cracks were begin to show in my personal aesthetic that cleaved me away from those with the progressive Leftist sensibilities I felt most akin to. I had no idea what those cracks meant.
Philip Johnson, AT&T building (1984); Ridley Scott, Bladerunner (1982)

Had I moved to Seattle I might have believed that I was still in America, but I didn't. I moved two hours west of Seattle to the end of a dirt road with no running water. I moved to a place less defined by an architectural style and better understood by the limits of a watershed. Thats where I learned about Gary Snyder. I first learned the term Ecotopia from a book I bought in Chicago called The Nine Nations of North America - as someone who had hitched hiked around I remember that the book had made sense, that the America I had experienced was not one country but culturally balkanized.  But I only learned what a good fit Ecotopia was to the Pacific Northwest after I moved there in '89. 

Unlike a lot of people my age who moved to the Northwest around that time, I wasn't attracted by Grunge (I found out about Sub Pop after I got there). I was oblivious to the fact that there was a revolution in computers taking place there as well. In fact I am certain that I could not have pointed Seattle out on a map, much less told you what a Microsoft was or what a Sound Garden was. I went there to learn to cast bronze; a technology that was old when Jesus Christ was young. I had left behind the America I grew up in, a Modernist America laid out on a grid adorned by two of worlds tallest buildings, and I discovered a world in which the absolute rejection of Modernism was a given. 
Alderaan menaced by the Death Star; The Nine Nations of North America

If Ecotopia has a poet laureate it is Gary Snyder.  (I realize how cheesy a term Ecotopia is, allow that I am using it as a term of "irony or affection.") I met Snyder once at a reading he gave in Seattle. I asked him about the future. I asked if he believed that the life he lived, of rustic simplicity (similar to the life I was living at the time), was a model for a world with a population that was estimated to top out at around 9 billion.  He didn't say no, but he told me how sad it made him was that most of humanity would live their lives in towers made of "riverbed aggregate." Synder's attitudes about the modern world are as good a sample as any from that place during those years:
A curse on monocultural industrial civilization and its almost deified economic and political systems that compete, exploit, and then give vast wealth and power to tiny few while draining and scattering the cultural and natural wealth of our planet.
In my love of Modernist towers I was on my own in the Northwest. For a time I set it aside. There was plenty of common ground, I concentrated on that. The people I admired most, like Snyder, readily acknowledged the cruelty and hardship of premodern life, but it was still the folk world of the prehistoric world that dominated the imaginations of my friends there. ("Indigenous" was a word with almost mystical significance.) I admired the ways my friends were opting out of a system they found damaging and septic, but I knew from my life in Chicago, that life inside machine was not all racism and violence. As much as I loved the world of cedar shake and log cabins I found myself in, I couldn't imagine a future for 9 billion people living the way we were lucky enough to be living. There were already too many of us for hand-made Guatemalan textiles and rough cut Doug-fir planks to replace the skyscrapers of cement, glass, and steel I had grown up within. More pressing personally, I didn't want the modern world to be replaced by neo-pagans.
Ecotopian Gary Snyder; Ewok Village
There was lots of talk about alternatives in the 1990s. Alternative music and life styles, but also power. Not alternative sources of energy (although that was also at the center of a lot of discussion), alternatives to power; alternatives to authority. All things indigenous were popular, but matriarchy was a great favorite. In one of my favorite essays of all time, Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power, the art historian Anna Chave wrote:
A persuasive case can be made, after all, that the patriarchal overvaluation of power and control—at the expense of mutuality, toleration, or nurturance—can be held to account for almost all that is politically reprehensible and morally lamentable in the world. The case can be made as well that what is most badly needed are, at least for a start, visions of something different, something else.” 
I agree that overvaluing power is a mistake, but rejecting any and all projection of authority in a bid for an alternative, "something different, something else.” anything else, was a mistake as well. I saw valuable ground being ceded to the Cold Warriors and their gruesome progeny the Neo-Cons. I hate the violence and fascism associated with Modernism, but not the transparent and utilitarian ways it projects authority and power. I wanted the progressive Left to once again manifest itself as authoritative, powerful, and progressive
Venturi Scott-Brown's Postmodern palace, Guild House (1978); George Lucas' pseudo-premodern palace (Episode I?)

Postmodern theory didn't provide the answer I was looking for. I admire many Postmodern critiques. I loved the way Modernism was chiseled away by feminists, post-colonialists - the power grabs of identity politics that riled the left and the right - I loved all that. Max Kozloff and others who have written about the ways Modernist art was used by Cold Warriors is some of my favorite writing on abstract art. And I loved that the stillness and silence of Modernist presumption of authority was answered with rushes of words and clusters of images - willful misinterpretation. Denise Scott-Brown's and Robert Venturi's Learning from Las Vagas takes apart and exposes the false utilitarianism of Modernist architecture, but their rebuttal - a return to the authoritative visual conventions of the past bums me the fuck out. 

Similarly, I have struggled to understand the false faith of heat death and the cult of entropy in the writings of Smithson, Borges, Ballard and other postmodernist darlings. These are all writers I admire (Smithson is damn near my God), but the futility and pessimism valorized byPostmodernists leaves me cold. (I suspect the reason Bladerunner got so much attention from Postmodernists and Star Wars didn't was the bleakness of Scott's ending, vs the weird can-do homage to Triumph of the Will at the end of Lucas' film.) Perhaps it is "something different, something else,” but it feels like the evil twin of the Modernist's silence and stillness. It replaces the stern wordless glare of the cold warriors with a mute shrug. What most upsets about postmodernism is the term itself, it is a misnomer, it communicates a falsehood and reinforces the pessimism of entropy.  The falsehood is that modernity is over. To most people there is no difference between Modernism, a historically bounded movement/style, and modernity, a sea change in the human condition. We are deeply embedded within a modern moment.
Bladerunner (1981) Robert Stern's Times Square (1992)
According to Venturi Scott-Brown, the way the Modernists chose to project power, with signifiers of utility and industry instead of historical references, is no different from the way premodern palaces project power, simply a matter of chosen signifiers. I don't buy this. I believe the Modernists were using utilitarian aesthetics symbolically. That is a righteous insight (and alone makes reading Learning from Las Vagas worth reading), but I don't believe it is equivalent to the symbolic language of historical inheritance the premodernists were using. I agree with Karl Marx, that "The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living."

In his intellectual history of the twentieth-century, The First Moderns, William Everdell writes that he believes Modernism is characterized by “discontinuities.” It is an intriguing idea – Modernism is usually characterized in terms universals and purity. Everdell doesn't hold much truck with Marx; doesn't feel that he was much of a modern.  That's fine, whatever - Everdell isn't looking for universals, he's looking for discontinuities (which sounds classically postmodern to me, but why niggle). He finds them in mathematics, philosophy, literature, art, all over the whole spectrum of cultural production. 
Death Star II, Return of the Jedi (1983); OMA, CCTV HQ (2009)

What is great about Everdell’s perspective on the modern and Modernism, is that because the paradoxes and discontinuities of twentieth–century mathematics forefronts his arguments, he able to sow together this unlikely intellectual patchwork within a relatively consistent and convincing logic. The exception to this rule, for Everdell is an interesting one: 
Except in Architecture, Modernists got started precisely by rejecting that heroic materialism of the nineteenth-century and much more, including positivism, scientific determinism, the idea of progress, and the moral faith that went with it. From an aesthetic (as opposed to a historical) point of view, modern architecture may have just begun.
I like Everdell's book, and the rhetorical hand grenade he lobs at Modernist architecture made me laugh, but the Modernists were in fact very modern, if not perfectly modern. The skyscraper is a singular modern achievement second only to the grid plan that made them possible. in his BEST book,  Delirious New York, the starchitect Rem Koolhaas writes about the importance of the city street grid to the development of the skyscraper, and those early moments of modern architecture. I am pretty certain Koolhaas is a Star Wars fan. His Office for Metropolitan Architecture produces WAY too much Star Wars-esque imagery. 

China and Dubai stain contemporary architecture with new brands of political darkness, but I am glad OMA is pushing the skyscraper into strange new shapes. I never wanted to replace the Death Star with a palace-in-a-parking lot. I wanted to see it hot-rodded - the way the Millennium Falcon hot-rodded the flying saucer. I wanted to see it to occupied it with the sort of flux and cocky informality Han Solo brought to his pirate ship. I wanted to o'er-leap violent stillness of the Modernist Death Star, but I wanted to overleap the pessimism and heat death of Postmodernism as well. OMA and other contemporary architects give me optimism. Their buildings may be occupied by villains and built over landscapes freighted by nightmares, but I have faith that they will someday look out on the hilarity of hyperspace.
Spider Dan summiting John Hancock Tower (1981?), Millennium Falcon (1977)

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