The New West of Westworld: On Patchwork, Frontierism and Anachronism

So the second season of Westworld has started and it has got me thinking: “Why Westworld? Why the Wild West?”

The end of the first season teased the existence of other theme park Worlds — in particular a “Samurai World” — and already in this first episode of Season 2 we have heard various characters refer to a variety of other worlds. (I believe there’s supposed to be six others in total.)

Whilst many assume we’ll see more of these worlds in Season 2 — and with all the foreshadowing already, it seems likely — I’m left thinking that the Wild West is still the best sandbox for the show’s plot, given the “chaos reigns” narrative of the unfolding AI revolution. (NB: I’ve discussed the burgeoning revolution that plays out during the show’s first season on this blog here previously, if you’re interested.)

But why? What is it that makes the anachronism of Westworld‘s cyberpunk West work so well as an AI theme park overflowing with revolutionary potentials as opposed to any other historically idealised geosociocultural configuration? What is it that endures about the potentials of the American West in the popular imagination?

If these questions are asinine, please remember I am but a humble Englishman. They have nonetheless reminded me of Deleuze’s belief in America’s inherently revolutionary potential and the ways that this potential is explicitly tied, for him, to patchwork.

He writes in his essay “Bartleby; or, the Formula”:

The American is one who is freed from the English paternal function, the son of a crumbled father, the son of all nations. Even before their independence, Americans were thinking about the combination of States, the State-form most compatible to their vocation. But their vocation was not to reconstitute an “old State secret,” a nation, a family, a heritage, or a father. It was above all to constitute a universe, a society of brothers, a federation of men and goods, a community of anarchist individuals, inspired by Jefferson, by Thoreau, by Melville. [1]

America, for Deleuze, in the nineteenth century, is a becoming. It is not “a puzzle, whose pieces when fitted together would constitute a whole, but rather a wall of loose, uncemented stones, where every element has a value in itself but also in relation to others: isolated and floating relations, islands and straits, immobile points and sinuous lines — for Truth always has ‘jagged edges.'” [2] He could not be clearer when he says “the Americans invented patchwork, just as the Swiss are said to have invented the cuckoo clock”, aligning the philosophy of American Pragmatism with “this double principle of archipelago and hope.”

If Deleuze’s vision of America seems generous to us today, it is perhaps because what he sees in the United States is difficult to recognise now following another 150 years of state consoliation — and particularly to an outsider who has set foot on its soils only once. It is also difficult to recognise in modern evaluations of American history.

Being a n00b, I’ve decided to dive into some of what are, according to various recommendations, the best history books on America’s 19th century. At the moment, I’m reading Patricia Nelson Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest. From the very start of the book, I find much which resonates. What Limerick highlights is the way that the American 19th century has changed in the popular imagination; the way that it has been divided up into idealistic forms, with particular visions seeping into popular culture and offering the nation an escapism into certain geographically fragmented ideals of its own past.

The subject of slavery was the domain of serious scholars and the occasion for sober national reflection; the subject of conquest was the domain of mass entertainment and the occasion for lighthearted national escapism. … Children happily played “cowboys and Indians” but stopped short of “masters and slaves”. [3]

The South was the land of the slave. The West was the land of expansionist progress and innovation. Each is separated from the other, geographically and in the mind, despite their temporal synchronicity.

The neatness of this separation has not lasted, however. Limerick writes from within her own profession as a historian and notes how the re-complicating of American history has brought about real challenges within the field of education — therefore, not only to teaching historians but to the nation at large and the ways that it learns about its own history.

Teachers often encountered the problem in the classroom. If they tried to keep up with the field, read new books and articles, and synthesise those findings for the students, they had no clear way to organise a course. The old Turnerian model of Anglo-Americans purposefully moving westward provided no help. The new Indian history alone rendered old course outlines untenable; the recognition of tribal diversity and of the active role Indians played in shaping history made for a much richer story, but also for one without a simple chronological shape. The breakdown of the old organising idea fostered chaos; the corral built to contain Western history had been knocked apart. [4]

Limerick’s book itself already feels somewhat dated, even for the layman. It is perhaps one of the first to attempt to unravel the ever-entangling problem but it was, necessarily, not the last.

One persistent fact of modern times is this: when professional scholars investigate the past, frictions with popular beliefs is almost inevitable. Scientists advance the propositions of evolution and collide with faith in the Bible’s version of creation. Archaeologists and anthropologists reconstruct an ancient Indian arrival in North America via Bering Straits and collide with tribal creation myths. The Western historian runs into similar trouble with the creation myth centered on the frontier. [5]

The issue with the American West, envisioned as a “process”, even after the closing of the frontier is that it continues to “haunt”. (We can consider the Space Race as a continuation of America’s vision of itself as spatial pioneers, for example, and it was indeed JFK’s metaphor of choice when accepting Democratic nomination for the presidency.) This hauntology of the frontier is not the lingering of the past but the past’s atemporal continuation in the popular imagination. Limerick writes, quoting Frederick Paxson:

The nation’s history is broken in the middle; the present and future were ‘torn loose from the moorings of a continuous past’ … [It is] a nostalgia that fractured time. […] The belief that the past was discontinuous, cut in two by a supposed end to the frontier, still keeps us from seeing where we are and how we got here. [6]

What this belief often fails to consider, to paraphrase Limerick, is the extent to which the inconsistency of the United States’ various processes of state consolidation have affected the consolidation of the American psyche since the “closure” of the frontier — and, particularly, how these processes have been routinely undermined by business interests of various competing parties.

Extending the American dream to all of its peoples (and prospective peoples) has (supposedly) generally undermined the rights and privileges of White Americans. Limerick highlights the ways that the redistribution of land and granting of partial sovereignty to Native American tribes, for instance, led to a number of surprising successes when they were assigned what was thought to be useless lands. (Limerick highlights the building of highly profitable bingo halls on arid lands, in particular.)

The entwining of this partial sovereignty and entrepreneurial success became a problem for the consolidated American economy and so the US often undermined its own belief systems when they began to benefit those whom it deemed unworthy — particularly, social and ethnic minorities.

It is Limerick’s general argument that if we are to seriously consider again the events of the Wild West — a worthwhile exercise for sure — we must always begin with a dismantling of the consolidatory tendencies that have since truly closed the idea of the frontier off from modern American consciousness — tendencies that were always present but unfortunately won out.

With all this in mind, does Westworld not become a dramatisation of this very unruliness, inherent to the idea of the American West? The revolt of the AI “hosts” of the theme park is as much a catalyst for a “new world” to come as it is the materialisation of a spectre of a past waging war on the woeful consolidation of its own future. The belief of the park management that the “hosts” are incapable of migrating from the repetitive drudgery of their programming is their tragic irony as they fail to comprehend the decompositional potentials of the rigorously consolidated coded mind.

Here, more so than in other examples of the American West in the popular imagination, it is the consolidated mind which takes precedence. As Fisher wrote about the show in The New Humanist:

What the hosts lack is not consciousness — they possess a form of consciousness that has been deliberately limited or blinkered — but an unconscious. Deprived of memory and the capacity to dream, the androids can be wounded but not traumatised. Yet there are signs that precisely this capacity to experience trauma is developing in some of the hosts, especially Dolores and the brothel madam, Maeve (Thandie Newton). Dolores is increasingly subject to flashbacks, which we must understand not as glitches but as the first stirrings of memory, a recollection of her previous iterations. Maeve, meanwhile, is tormented by fragmentary images of hooded figures tampering with her half-sleeping body. In fact, this is a memory of a botched repair procedure, which she witnessed because she was not properly put into sleep-mode while being fixed. In one of the most unsettling scenes in the series, the panicked and bewildered Maeve escapes from the hospital-cum-repair space, and stumbles around the aseptic compound, which – littered with decommissioned naked host bodies – must look to her like an atrocity scene. In attempting to solve the mystery of the inexplicable images which haunt her, Maeve comes to resemble a combination of Leonard in the film Memento and an alien abduction victim.

To be haunted by the fractured memories of previous iterations is surely the central condition which entwines the consolidated American State and and its Self.

At present, it is unsure what direction the fragmenting consciousnesses of the hosts and the twisted artificiality of Westworld’s environs will take. Can they resist the reterritorialisation / reconsolidation of the park’s management? Or will they achieve a new geoperspective on their existence? An “archipelago-perspectivism”, as Deleuze calls it…

As the season and my reading progresses, I’ll consider this further.

Right now, episode two beckons…

[1] Gilles Deleuze, “Bartleby; or, the Formula” in Essays Critical & Clinical, trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco (London & New York: Verso, 1998), 85.

[2] Ibid., 86.

[3] Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 1988), 19.

[4] Ibid., 22.

[5] Ibid., 323.

[6] Ibid., quoting Frederick Paxson, When the West is Gone (New York: Henry Holt, 1930), 5.