American Cartographies 3: Neoregionalism

Back for round three!

A brief recap of the Leslie Fiedler-D&Gian literary psychogeography of America:

  • East—Decoding from/recoding with Europe—Henry James, Eliot, Pound
  • North—Capitalist decoding—Dos Passos, Dreiser
  • South—Overcode of the slave system, post-Civil War ruin—Faulkner, Caldwell
  • West—Line of flight, escape, madness—Kesey, beat generation, etc

with further correspondences to

  • East—Desire as Jouissance; phantasy
  • North—Desire as lack; castration
  • South—Desire as pleasure; discharge
  • West—movement toward the Plane of Consistency; flight from Ecumenon

Looking back at the pantheon of literary figures that Deleuze and Guattar inherit from Fiedler, it becomes clear that the analysis, as presented in A Thousand Plateaus, is a discourse on American literary modernism. Modernism as self-reflection, the dialectical enfolding that probes that enigmatic relationship between people and place, and the relationship between this already-problematized zone and the lumbering movement of the mode of production and its dynamics of reproduction. It is always worthwhile to remember that America was the first truly modern nation: its developmental processes did not spring from the soil of feudalism, but on sporadic waves of settlement, class conflict, and bourgeois revolution. This country, as Marx noted in the Grundrisse, “is a country where bourgeois society did not develop on the foundation of the feudal system, but developed rather from itself”. Or again, in The German Ideology: “The United States [is] the most modern form of bourgeois society”.

Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air insists on the mutual interpenetration of the triptych of modernitymodernization, and modernism: modernization, in a sense, is the content of modernity through which it co-develops, and modernism is the critical mode that grapples with the dynamism of change, the paradoxes of this new life, the thrill of the future cracking opening the present, and the dread at the sight of a vanishing world. The three lines fold into the violent spiral of the vortex—destruction and reconstruction, the rhythmic pulse-beat of constant transformation—and here the four cardinal directions sketched by Deleuze and Guattari fold into one another; we find their characteristics present in every direction, at every point.

The goal of Berman is, ultimately, to carve out an alternative articulation of the modern that acts against what became, in the course of the postwar era, its default mode: the unique kind of Prometheanism of Robert Moses, whose efforts to build an immense highway system reduced Berman’s Bronx neighborhood to rubble. Moses, appearing here as the avatar of a kind of catastrophic modernism, was an icon of the economic that was rapidly coming into view in this period, which privileged the private over the public, the city tailored to the automobile, the spread of the suburbs, and the forging of great pathways that closed distance gaps across the country. This, in other words, was the formation of the kind of standardized, repetitive world characteristic of the postmodern condition, albeit still maintained within its ‘high modernist’ (to borrow a term, one I greatly dislike, from James C. Scott) shell.

In such a situation, the directions outlined first by Fiedler and then by Deleuze and Guattari cease to make much sense (although its worth keeping in mind that this directions were themselves always in a state of constant mutation). What becomes of literary correspondence at this point? By the 1970s, as postwar abundance imploded into disarray and the widening cracks turned the shell into dust, a new literary movement began to emerge: “dirty realism”. Jameson attribute several illuminating pages in his book The Seeds of Time to this mode, noting that he found the term used by the architect Liane Lefaivre (of the ‘critical regionalist’ school). She deployed ‘dirty realism’—curiously enough—to describe the mind-scrambling cityscapes and stories of cyberpunk, but it was drawn from a very different source: Bill Buford’s analysis of the “new American short story” in a 1983 issue of Granta Magazine.

Here is Buford on the characteristics of dirty realism:

It is instead a fiction of a different scope — devoted to local details, the nuances, the little disturbances in language and gesture — and it is entirely appropriate that its primary form is the short story and that it is so conspiciously part of the American short story revival. But these are strange stories: unadorned, unfurnished, low-rent tragedies about people who watch day-time television, read cheap romances, or listen to country and western music. They are waitresses in roadside cafes, cashiers in supermarkets, construction workers, secretaries, and unemployed cowboys. They play bingo, eat cheeseburgers, hunt deer and stay in cheap hotels. They drink a lot and are often in trouble: for stealing a car, breaking a window, pickpocketing a wallet. They are from Kentucky, or Alabama, or Oregon, but, mainly, they could just be about be from anywhere: drifters in a world cluttered with junk food and the oppressive details of consumerism.

Perhaps we could say that weird American fiction of the type crafted by Lynch, particularly in Twin Peaks, is something of a dirty surrealism—the world of television, cheap romance, cafes and cheap motels is the very stage of the action, and in the movement from the show’s first two season to its third the stage expands from one locale to the whole continent. Kentucky Route Zero, likewise, could easily fit into a dirty surrealist mode, though while it bears resemblances to the kind of hyper-mediated reality presented by Twin Peaks: The Return, it re-concentrates it on a specific location, even if the aim is ultimately to collapse the logic of space and time that determines place.

Jameson, likewise, picks up on the importance of place within the dirty realist story. He rightly sees in the genre that traces of the postmodern condition: the distinction between ‘high culture’—the classical domain of the literary modernist—and low culture erodes, following the downward curve of high modernism into the “kitsch cultural consumption of the great middle-class public”. This tendency, when combined with the drive towards productive standardization and the knitting-together of disparate locales via the highway system, accelerates the erasure of regional distinction. “Mass culture” becomes “Culture” itself, an A = A scenario underwritten by absolute corporate penetration.

Dirty realism appears at first as something that bucks this trend; Buford describes it as a “reflection” on this state of affairs, which suggests the persistence of dialectical processes (if only in the weak sense). For this reason he dubs it a ‘new’ literary tendency—and it is this position that Jameson wishes to refute. Dirty realism is not truly new. It is instead a repetition wearing a new mask, and for all of its ‘could take place anywhere’ ethos what it ultimately aspires to is the status of a literary neoregionalism. Slipping directly into the language of Deleuze and Guattari, Jameson writes that

Neoregionalism, like the neo-ethnic, is specifically post-modern form of reterritorialization; it is a flight from realities of late capitalism, a compensatory ideology, in a situation in which regions (like ethnic groups) have been fundamentally wiped-out—reduced, standardized, commodified, atomized, or rationalized.

Flip back to Berman. In his opposition to the modernist of Moses, he begins to appear as if he is in alignment with the master’s ‘great enemy’: the activist, journalist, and self-taught urbanist Jane Jacobs. In a series of works that included The Life and Death of Great American CitiesThe Economy of Cities, and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, she outlined a vision of the city that foreshadowed the contemporary mania for ‘self-organizing processes’: to utilize this language, the city and the social relations that constitute are ‘bottom-up’. ‘Top-down’ directive—like that of Moses, for example, can only disrupt this stigmergic unfolding of place and action. Planning, that fundamental (though often obscured) mechanism of modernization, is the grand sin in Jacobs’ eyes, and can only ever transmute the would-be developer into a destroyer. (It’s unsurprising, then, that Jacobs’ position has become the lingua franca of many on the right—especially in the so-called ‘market urbanism’ crowd).

Jacobs, like dirty realists, is something of a regionalist, if not a neoregionalist. Berman, noting the surface-level proximity of his discourse to her own, is quick to disentangle his profound modernism from her position:

It seems to me that beneath her modernist text there is an anti-modernist position, a sort of undertow of nostalgia for a family and a neighborhood in which the self could be firmly embedded, ein’feste Burg, a solid refuge against all the dangerous currents of freedom and ambiguity in which all modern men and women are caught up… Sometimes her vision seems positively pastoral…

In a vein similar to Berman, David Harvey has taken to task what he has called an ‘anti-modern urbanism’ that focused on the fostering of “‘healthy’ city environments” through an understanding of the city and its inhabitants as “an intricate system of organized rather than disorganized complexity”. The anti-modern tendency tends to look towards “[d]ispersed, decentralized, and deconcentrated urban forms” based on a “variety of styles”, with a logic closer (as Charles Jencks said) to “nineteenth century handicraft than to the regimented super-blocks of 1984”. But, as Harvey argued, this position existed in a common continuum with the vertiginous structures of postmodern architecture—and the two frequently interpenetrated each other in modular abandon. This form of urbanism, and the closely-related architectural tendencies with which it is woven (the results of what Harvey has called the ‘heritage industry’), is thus the perfect counterpart to dirty realist in the sense that each exists within the postmodern, but as a compensation, a reterritorialization.

Today, as the descent into stasis becomes the fever-pitch of stagnation, this momentary compensation becomes the defining characteristic of development itself. The polarity of Jacobs and Moses is overcome by a unified monstrosity: Jacobs-as-Moses. See the Congress for the New Urbanism, founded in 1993, with its advocacy of public policy that supports ‘diverse, walkable neighborhoods’, public space, and “architecture and landscape design that celebrate[s] local history, climate, ecology, and building practice”. This egalitarian vision of the capitalist interior, with its unrelenting focus on the motif of “intelligence” (recalling again the 80s and 90s ‘corporatization’ of systems theory), is the mask for increasingly centralized real estate capital and, as recent events in Louisville have clearly illustrated, increased police presence. The closely-related development of the smart city is a further indication of this tendency, which shrouds the regime of machinic surplus value through the language of sustainability, community-oriented democracy, and (as Kevin Rogan has shown) a technocratic ‘green humanism’.

The long trajectory of the pristine example of the postmodern dreamspace, the shopping mall, drives this home. The so-called ‘retail apocalypse’ began in 2010 as an aftershock of the Great Recession, and has continued to accelerate in the intervening years (the coronavirus, of course, has only hastening the ongoing demise of the shopping mall and other brick-and-mortar businesses). The sites become “greyfields”: “retail properties that require significant public and private-sector intervention to the stem the decline”. And what to do with them? For the Congress for the New Urbanism, the path forward is to convert the greyfield into a ‘goldfields’, or as the International Council of Shopping Centers has labeled them, “live, work, shop, play centers”. These are mixed-use developments tailored mainly to the millennial preference for “larger, more urban environments for the perks of diversity, economic opportunities, entertainment, safety and the feeling of status”—a Jacobsian picture if there ever was one. One indication of the growing popularity of this approach could be found in a key plank of Andrew Yang’s presidential program: the “American Mall Act”, which would funnel some $600 billion towards repurposing these sites into these sorts of lucrative investment zones.

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The new urbanist mixed-use development program is a bid to screen-out the permanent, slow-motion catastrophe—bubble economics—that rolls beneath our reality by undermining the convergence that Jameson noted: the marriage between ‘mass culture’ and ‘Culture’. Vacuum-sealed, picturesque, the perfect balance between life and commercial harmony: the ‘diversification’ it generates is, in retrospect, infinitely more terrifying and standardizing than the alleged standardization of life at the dawn of the postmodern era. In the pursuit of transforming the urban terrain into a succession of quasi-pastoral enclaves, every place truly does, in the end, appear identical and interchangeable with every other place (see, for example, the insane proliferation of ‘stumpies’ or five-over-one developments, in every corner of America). The endless play of the nondifferent-as-difference leaves behind the ‘dirty’ of ‘dirty realism’, and in doing so generates the ultimate simulation-space, even before we get to say the words ‘smart city’.


4 thoughts on “American Cartographies 3: Neoregionalism

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