During the day, California’s capital was an exercise, like California itself, in ersatz eclecticism. There was something unreal, but not entirely unpleasant, the way Abyssinian domes, Ionic Greek facades , Chauteauesque mansards and Franco-Italian Gotho-Renaissance Revival spires peeked out from behind an assortment of palm trees, oaks and firs all intermingled with middling vernacular renditions of Deco, International, Post Modern and Deco Revival constructs. Everything — like California itself — tried to be something. It was entertaining if not inspiring and, the near perfect balmy weather made up for whatever the failures in human endeavor.
But at night the place turned dark, forlorn and foreboding -- a dimly lit urban abandonment frequented only by the shadow of the homeless, the deranged, the drugged and prostituted.
To be sure, under and across the freeway, “Old Town” was hoppin. But “Old Town” is an ersatz conjerie of curio shops, pseudo saloons, and corporate eateries in old buildings gussied up as a Gold Rush main street without the mud and horseshit. It could just as easily been done up as an Alpine Village and people would have flocked there for the “atmosphere.”
The truth is, the United States has no civilisation — if by civilization one means the kind of heart beat that takes place at the centre of a social organism. In large cities, like Paris or Buenos Aires, the whole is made up of arrondissements each with its own centre, functioning as cities within a city. In the U.S. such sub urbs are called “neighborhoods” and these exist in the more successful U.S. cities like San Francisco and New York. But even in these latter cases, civic coherence is swamped and lost within a vast sprawl of repetitive exurban nothingness.
As we flew into Portland, we were impressed and appalled at what Americans had done to the majestic banks of the Columbia River. Instead of promenades, inns, eateries and docks, the river was lined with blacktop parking lots and one commodity box after the other distinguished only by their bright corporate logos: ROSS, TJMAX, HOME DEPOT, WALMART, PENNYS, TARGET, K-MART, Starbucks, Domino’s Pizza, TacoBell, Wendy’s Jiffy Lube, BIG FIVE, MACY’s, Olive Garden..... What a wasteland.
And the wasteland connected Sacramento’s desolate non-centre with the non centers of Redding, Eugene, Salem, Portland, Olympia, Tacoma-Seattle. Within this thousand mile stretch there were pockets of rural beauty — mostly in Southern Oregon. But even here, behind the lush and lovely trees one spotted little more than trailers and trash. Even these fleeting “pastoral interludes” quickly gave way to gas stations, fast food stops, car lots and malls. Every now and then, the monotony was interrupted by the bright and blinding 100,000 watt billboard of an Indian Nation Gambling Casino.
One would think that in such a motorized society, the highways would at least be serviceable but they were not. The lanes were far too narrow for the type of traffic they are bearing, sixty percent of which is comprised of 57 foot commodity trailers, cannonading down the road at 15 miles over speed limit. The lanes were dimly marked — at times no more than a grey smudge — and more often than not there was no shoulder to the road.
(Painting the lane lines white was an incredibly stupid idea, given that they become invisible during day-time rain when light reflects off watery surfaces.)
Just as “invisible” are the so-called road-side services which invariably are nowhere near the road side, leaving one to get lost in a jumble of unfamiliar intersections this or that side of the freeway.
Last but not least, the roadway surface might as well be cobblestoned. The impression I took away from Seattle was thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka-KACHUNKA CLUNK- thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka-thanka- BRRRRRRRRRRUMPA BRRRRRRRRUMPA -thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka-thunka KACHUNKA CLUNK thunka thunka thunk..... One might think that a “world class city” could afford a world class road.
This is not to say that the United States is the only place where such desolation has taken hold. The U.S. may have been the place where the end began, but it has taken hold — and continues to take hold — everywhere.
What kind of human being does such an environment produce? A “motorized unit” is only the half of it. The isolated monadism of the auto-mobile is only a metaphor for the artificial wrap-around on human consciousness. Just as one’s physical horizon is literally a jumble of corporate lights, so too the horizons of the mind are infused and banded with commodified thoughts and ideas.
The whole expanse was Plato’s cave in the open air and, in place of ill-formed and shadowy opinions, bright and blinking idea-slogans passing for thought.
Marx said more than he knew when he described the appearance of capitalism as a vast warehouse of commodities. The warehouse is in fact a commodity-system in which consumption is just as regularized and produced as production. It is not simply that “capitalists” control the means of production but rather that capitalism also controls the demands of consumption (i.e. “us”) and the whole systole and diastole is its own self-sustaining, self-perpetuating system in which everything is commodified.
The Erlkonig has devoured all.