In the last weeks, time seemed multiplied by a feeling of no longer being there and of living Santa Barbara each day, with its fatal charm and its blandness, as the predestined site of an eternal return. –Jean Baudrillard*
In Santa Barbara (where I have, over the past month or so, been holed up in one final push to finish my dissertation) my days are a numbered bunch. They’re not usually very kind to me either. The water along the coast is still just cold enough to make the first leap in a quick and numbing experience, though indeed refreshing. The 7-year-long trajectory of my life in and out of the city is inscribed in it and as I near the end, those markers seem unusually plump with nastiness. Cloying, unpleasant moments live on corners when I might rather see them rotting, buried in the trash heap of forgotten history. And of course, there is the morning marine layer which makes it hard to wake at an early hour. Paradise, they say. But those who say that never really lived here. Paradise is always just for the tourists.
Many of what will likely be my last stretches of time here are spent laboring in the awkward, existentially obliterating task of begging and pleading with whatever dying muse might be left to tend to the poor, the jobless, the potentially obsolete humanities graduate student.
These sorts of things do not put one, shall we say, in the mood to celebrate a merry send-off.
But nostalgia is a real jerk. He sets traps. He lets you suffer in the present only to turn that suffering with just a little bit of time into longing and melancholy, albeit longing and melancholy tinged with a certain, desperate and (usually) false sort of pleasure. And cities, places of all sorts, are ripe sites for his dangerous play. I can see him circling now, even before the departure has taken place. He’s going to make me miss it.
Do not let any of this grimly insist that Santa Barbara is some kind of awful wasteland and that I’ll be a fool when I remember it fondly (though it can be, and I will be). I do so love the beaches, the mountains that push the city toward the water. The community of scholars with whom I’ve shared the city are a kind and glorious group. It’s just not a place to which I have ever wanted to belong.
In these last days I’m doing what I can to push away both the impending nostalgia as well as the less kind and generous voices in my head and just enjoy, in the present, the slices of Santa Barbara which still buoy a resident up and make the place inhabitable: Reading on the beach. The best restaurant in the whole of the central coast, Julienne. Handlebar Coffee. Citrus trees everywhere. And a quietness, a slowness that makes the banal tasks of life just a little bit easier.
Leaving a city is always a strange and complicated act. Like leaving a lover. Even when you know the whole thing should be over, has been over for a long time, you still ache in the send-off. Maybe because you know, in the end, despite everything, you’re going miss her.
*America. Trans. Chris Turner. (New York: Verso, 1988) 72.
I am currently trying to eek out the last, resistant concluding paragraphs of my dissertation at a bar called ‘The Faculty‘ in East Hollywood (this particular section of which is apparently referred to by locals as Hel Mel because of the small collection of businesses at the intersection of Heliotrope and Melrose).
It is not lost on me that cities, as much because of the way they name their neighborhoods, their streets, their addresses, offer a kind of poetic license to the wanderer. We make our own fictions just by choosing our route through their strange and glorious linguistic ecologies. So I, jobless would-be professor, work at ‘The Faculty’ though I lack, alas, work as faculty.
Readers! I have neglected you for far too long. For my absence, I offer my regrets and apologies. These long months of internet silence can someday be counted as archeological evidence that blogs (like humans, languages and machines) cannot so easily deliver on their promises: Noise is always already in the signal, diverting, disrupting, generally destabilizing. Here we are once more though, with feeling (and a snazzy new look). So let’s put the past behind us, shall we?, and remark instead upon the present.
As a means by which to resuscitate the blog and my neglected relationship to its small pool of beloved readers (i.e. you), I give you a brief summary of my thinking on loving and wandering a city you’ve long known:
I have lived in Los Angeles for the vast bulk of my adult life and, of late, have been spending a good deal of time in neighborhoods, on corners, in buildings that I avoided, ignored or had simply forgotten for some years. Happenstance has had it, however, that some of these dormant domains in my cognitive map of the city have beckoned me back.* The eternal return of the same, I suppose, but such a return offers a nice, if sometimes uncanny, avenue of access to memory and to the ways in which it is so concretely spatial and materially present in the city.**
Spaces make the folks who wander through them aware, in exactly the haptic ‘now’, of a history to which their access is both immediate and distinctly mediated, and to the fictions (some personal, some social) on which we all ground our experience of place. At any moment a wanderer roams a space they confront in the present whatever weird and weighty remembered moments they shared with it, whatever weird and weighty stories they told themselves or were told about it. Place might well be described as the present experience of the environment thick in its presence with the past.
Here’s an exemplary gloss: I’ve had the good luck in the last few weeks to find myself on the rooftop of a building across the street from an apartment in which I used to live. From this rooftop I can see my old apartment, can map from that vantage point a spatial relationship between the place I’m standing, the apartment I lived in visible below, the other spaces of the city I have inhabited or with which I have engaged in some manner, and so on… And my mapping in turn becomes the milieu in which I make my knowledge of me, on that rooftop, looking at the Los Angeles I know and the Los Angeles I am coming to know and the Los Angeles I knew and lost.
If this sounds like philosophical jargon, it might be. But much in the muddy memories I’ve made in Los Angeles*** is linked to the ways I grew here to think about memory itself, about history, and about cities. The urban landscape, maybe all space, won’t hold memory so much as offer it as an immediate and ephemeral marking of the experience of wandering precisely where and when we wander. And all wandering (all experience) is always and only in and of the moment, or better, the millisecond, or better still the now.****
*Yes, I am aware of the ridiculous amount of alliteration in this sentence. I make no apologies.
**I did it again. See if I care! You’ll see that I don’t.
***”What? She wrote another alliterative sentence?” That’s what you’re thinking. Yeah, dude. She straight did.
****Blame the obscure poetics of this post in its entirety on Itinerant Me’s recent and intense work on the closing chapter of her dissertation. You may either forgive her (me) or despise her (me) according to your disposition and constitution. And, of course, according also to where you are, right now.
Much has been written on the atomising nature of car culture in Los Angeles. All of us (who can afford it) ferrying ourselves to and fro on the wide network of freeways that cover the sprawl–isolated in our capsular space, shuttling forward at high speeds (or, given the traffic, at virtually no speed)–are said to be without a public space any longer, without even a notion of our neighbors. Our fellow Angelenos, so close yet still so far away from us, are themselves isolated inside, captured, really, by their cocoons of metal and steel and rubber.
I agree, for the most part. The automobile, and more-so, the automobile industry has made this city a network, has collapsed the center and spilled what remained of its guts in all directions, morphing LA into a labyrinth of commerce devoted to the isolated spender with a big trunk. Car culture has bulldozed and forgotten what was once a functional trolley system. It has, too, brought with it a near-constant cloud of cancerous pollution which weighs heavy in the air on hot days and seems always to specifically target the poor and the marginalized, the communities built up against the complex of freeways for whom car ownership is less and less possible. As ubiquitous as it is, it denies access still to exactly those who pay the largest price for its excesses.
But one hates to ignore, at least I hate to ignore, something compelling, something common in our not-so-new, ever-mobile cybernetic selves. Even when we can in the same breath critique the automobile (certainly LA’s most emblematic, if not its most common cybernetic appendage) and its impact on the production of the city, might we too find something of value in it? That human thing, as I see it, might just be the total release such strangely fashioned, such costly privacy affords us drivers in a city that belongs not to drivers but to cars.
Every once in a while I like to test this theory of mine out. Usually simply by singing, loudly, along with the music playing on my car’s quickly failing radio. But sometimes, to maximize effect and highlight in the extreme the kind of solitude a car can provide, I scream.
I roll down all of the windows and scream as loudly and for as long as my lungs allow. It’s a habit I picked up in college when I was first learning the freeways. It felt at the time like a way of marking space in a city that is under constant self-erasure. Now that I know Los Angeles well, or at least well enough that even in its continuous transformation and re-fashioning it feels like a city to which I belong, the screaming just feels good. Or if not good, it at least always feels.
That, in the end, is sublime. And it is also the stuff of connective tissues between us, post-human and machinic though we may be. Maybe no-one hears me literally screaming past at 70 miles per hour. But they don’t have to. Because once in a while I bet some other driver, in their very own strange shell, is probably screaming too.
“Traffic is Junkspace,” writes Rem Koolhaas, “from airspace to the subway; the entire highway system is Junkspace, a vast potential utopia clogged by its users, as you notice when they’ve finally disappeared on vacation …”* I think maybe the utopic on the highway is indeed clarified by a kind of absence. But even on packed highway, utopia as the someday Los Angeles comes as all no-places (which are perpetually absent, after all), all would-be places that are not yet but still might impossibly be, come. It comes as hope in the form of some kind of speech, some sign-making. Perhaps particularly in the animal universal of one long, loud, zooming primal scream.
*Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace,” October Vol. 100 ‘Obsolescence’ (Spring 2002) pg. 180.
This little number is very likely my new culinary sound track. It is also the play of the day.
I am a foodie (this is true) and am deeply appreciative of the so-called ‘finer-things’ in the epicurean wonderland we call Los Angeles (and, indeed, the global culinary landscape). I am also, however, ever-more appreciative in these troubled times of deliciousness on the cheap. Hence my adoration of all things “flamin’ hot.”
Think of it this way: Flamin’ Hot Cheetos Brand Cheese Puffs* are a highly efficient food: very high fat and calorie content paired with potent, technologically advanced flavor chemicals. And so very inexpensive. Economy got you down? Spice up your life with the neon red-orange, space-age goodness of some flamin’ puffs!
*Look: I’ve gotten into this argument time and time again. Crunchy doesn’t do for you what puffy does. The puffs can be slowly dissolved in the mouth, searing their spicy brand into your already battered and weary taste buds. The crunchy version are a quick-bite solution to a slow and complex hunger-meets-capitalism-meets-culture problem. Puffs say “America: Oh yeahhhhh!” in an inviting, universally hopeful kind of way. Crunchy Cheetos just scream and point, convincing no one and alienating all but those who have already uncritically bowed to their apparent dominance.
Record summer heat hit Los Angeles this week. So did a handful of small earthquakes.
I felt the first, shortly after 11 at night. I was sitting on my porch, lap-top open before me. The blue-grey glow of its screen fell on my face and flickered when the earth shook.
Such moments in LA are not so much common as part of the small cadre of miraculous phenomenon that pepper a life here. I love this about the city. That the earthquake or the record heat can become something of a skin on you. It belongs, is yours, but sometimes you catch it in a particular light and it still manages to be strange, other.
Such ecologically and geographically grounded markers of what it means to be living in Los Angeles, at this particular moment in time, emerge from the smooth surface of the quotidian and ask that you take note. And we do.
The nights in the middle of the heat waves here are spectacular. Arms and legs exposed to the breath of the city, all signs of the pacific snuggling against its border crushed by barometric pressure, we gather. We meet on porches and in parks, in backyards. We are slower as we walk. Our speech loses its affect. We have trouble performing ourselves with the weight of the heat pressing upon us and so are less able to guard against the world, against others.
I was once walking in the Marigny in New Orleans in deep August. It was very late at night and so muggy hot that the music spilling from open windows seemed, literally, to hang in the air. This week, nights in Los Angeles have felt like that–thick, sticky.
I love a good heat wave in the right city. I love when the weather, or the shaking earth beneath, changes us, sharpens a moment, shifts the spaces we inhabit just enough to make them new.
I am teaching a course this summer on junk. I consider the term broadly. So does Thierry Bardini, whose exceptional Junkware was the inspiration for my syllabus, in a round about sort of way.
Yesterday my students and I discussed Julio Cortázar’s “Letter to a Young Lady in Paris.” And, may I say, this story is absolutely wonderful.
Cortázar is deceptively inviting to teach. His bizarre, perfectly wrought short stories beckon because you know, for the most part, that students will adore him and the dark and complex, surreal worlds he produces. But his work, because of his nearly unparalleled erudition and critical, formal radicality, can sometimes produce classroom conversations that are difficult to direct.
It’s always, though, worth the effort.
And besides, when the main character in the text you’re teaching has the peculiar problem of vomiting up baby bunnies,* you’re guaranteed to engage your students. You’re also guaranteed to take great pleasure in re-reading the work–again and again and again.
*If this isn’t an exceptional metaphor for all kinds of things, I don’t know what is. Why it hasn’t made its way into popular lexicon is beyond me. Think about what it could offer to our thirsty ears: “Oh man, Alli sure is vomiting up the proverbial bunny.”