My previous post on Taylor Swift was long and meandering — a sign that I had something to say that I couldn’t get out in a single (succinct) argument. This is going to be long and meandering too, but in a way that I hope fills in the gaps between recent postings.
Essentially, what I want to do here is connection my Taylor Swift post to my The Last of Us Part 2 posts via Ed Berger’s recent Western posts… And of course it was Ed Berger who was able to clarify my Swiftian concerns better than I was able to at the time.
I must admit that, whilst I was unashamedly in love with Taylor Swift’s folklore at the time of writing that last post, writing it has also tempered my own feelings considerably. If it’s a post that comes across as torn, that’s probably why.
Discussing this with my girlfriend the next day she feigned surprise: “You mean thinking a little deeper about Taylor Swift’s life and output left a bitter taste in your mouth?” I suppose that’s part of the point I wanted to make, although I mistakenly made it in the midst of the process rather than after my thoughts had settled on it.
To summarise: Swift’s music is often beautiful but it is is also superficially seductive (but seductive nonetheless); beneath the supposedly innocuous pop surface is a load of ideological distastefulness. This isn’t a new realisation, of course. The overarching point is that having this realisation doesn’t solve anything — I still like her music — so dismissing Swift outright doesn’t achieve anything. What is interesting about trying to traverse to strange complexity of her output, as Jillian Mapes did for Pitchfork, is that accounting for her aesthetic prowess and ideological clumsiness simultaneously requires something of an diagonal critique that initially feels like catching her own cognitive dissonance and making it your own.
Point being: critiques of capitalism require the same kind of mental gymnastics. How can we productively account for the seductive qualities of that which we find distasteful on paper? Coming down hard on either side of the pop seduction / capitalistic distastefulness divide does nothing to help us account for the relation between the two that keeps us where we are. Talking about capitalism in this way is quite difficult, especially in brief. Talking about Taylor Swift is (supposedly) much easier.
But why is it so difficult? What is this strange space between seduction and critique? Is there a better way to talk about it? I think it might be useful to place Swift in a much broader, acutely American context.
Ed Berger’s comment on my Taylor Swift post was very helpful in this regard. He picked up on the fact I called Swift’s new music “Lynchian”, for instance — the Sunset Boulevard references were similarly made to emphasise this — “with its play of a surreal, normalized surface and hidden, decadent depths being the motif that links the tracks together.”
Ed also pointed to the fact that the third season of Twin Peaks played with this tension explicitly. The season’s frequent featuring of dream pop acts — not to mention the casting of Sky Ferreira — were certainly at the back of my mind in the last post too, but Ed really drives this point home. He writes the following of Swift’s latest album:
… from the Hollywood-in-decline vibes that crop up repeatedly to the broader (career-spanning) trend of artificialized Americana … some of the tracks … tap into the synthy dream-pop that brings to my mind Twin Peaks. I have no idea if this is intentional or not, or is born from a mutual interest in the genre on the part of both Lynch and Swift (the obvious mutual admiration of Lana del Rey by both parties also folds neatly as another point in this).
The third season of TP has been on my mind a lot lately, in particular the use of a variety of dream/synth pop tracks throughout the musical codas that ended each episode. I recall some critics saying that the modernization of Twin Peaks (both in terms of the reboot but also the literal modernization of the in-universe town) caused it to lose a bit of surrealist edge (surreal in this sense being the strange anachronistic time-character of the locale). But the use of dream pop, and the accompanying fashion sense used — and maybe even the color template of certain scenes — still seemed anachronistic to me. For a show released in 2017, it looked as if it was set in cultural climate of 2010 through roughly 2014 — which in my mind was really an extension of the cultural formations that you note as emerging within the context of the Recession years. Perhaps this is reading into something that is not there, but it seems very deliberate to me.
Across the whole span, my perception of popular ‘indie’ culture pivoted around the twin poles of the folk revival and the dream/synth pop moment. The question of Twin Peak’s third season aside, this is (as you point out) the basic template for Folklore. The name deliberately invokes ‘folk’, and the whole neo-Americana aesthetic harkens back to this constantly. At the same time, the music tilts between this form and the synthetic… I’m curious as to why. Is it a simply case of repetition in the face of similar, yet different, traumatic events? Or is it an indication of how narrow the distance between present-nostalgia and its vanished object has become? Or something deeper still?
I think Ed makes some really excellent points here and it chimes with a certain atmosphere that I find so seductive about the American northwest. His mention of the folk revival too is interesting. Swift’s album most explicitly brings to mind The National’s album Boxer — particularly its melancholic postwestern themes — but that, in turn, places it in a very diverse context in my mind.
This popular melancholy over the loss of the twentieth century post-9/11 was coupled by a new American weird. Whilst The National, Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver rose to the top in the mid- to late 2000s, something else came up from below that was much more psychedelic if nonetheless still captured by the same structures of feeling. (It’s worth noting that the National’s Aaron Dressner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon both appear on Taylor Swift’s folklore.)
Story time: I was at one of Bon Iver’s very first UK gigs at the Leadmill in Sheffield in 2008. The band was supporting Iron & Wine. It’s not often I’ve bought a ticket to gig for the supporting act rather than the headliner but it was a good decision in that case. That first Bon Iver album, before the Tumblr hype went some way towards neutering it, with all its questionable mythology, was similarly seductive to me. As a live act — then a new and somewhat awkward trio — they nonetheless torn the floor out from underneath Iron & Wine, whose set consisted of little more than awful dive bar alt-country noodling to my ears.
Bon Iver embodied a shift in the American folk pop sound at that time — a sound that seemed to embrace this new scattered aesthetic of an unravelling frontier mythology after the traumatic birth of the twenty-first century.
I often think about For Emma, Forever Ago, Bon Iver’s debut album, of which Justin Vernon once said that the titular “Emma” was not a person but “a place you get stuck in”. Intriguingly, Vernon later named many songs after places or states, but in such a disparate and inconsistent way as to provide listeners with a wholly dishevelled cartography. Sufjan Stevens’ abandoned 50 states project this was not; Vernon seemed to be keen, from then on, to only pass through these disparate locations. The resulting map was nostalgic, in one sense, but nonetheless hallucinated, in another.
Whilst Bon Iver might be the most pop embodiment as this upturned cartography, it was similarly explored by some of the weirder acts of the new American folk scene. The droning folk numbers of Animal Collective for instance, particularly under their Campfire Songs moniker, made for that fluid sense of movement across the American plains; a song like “Visiting Friends” from the album Sung Tongs similarly travels through a heat-fucked haze.
Looking back over all the critically-acclaimed albums that were released around this time, it was undeniably an incredibly productive period for a certain subcultures. A “folk revival” is right, but even the outliers of this moment, that crossed in front of that Pitchfork-driven trajectory of alt-folk, dealt with many of the same themes.
Scott Walker’s The Drift; Akron/Family’s self-titled; Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead; Sun Kil Moon’s Tiny Cities; Mount Eerie’s Dawn; Atlas Sound’s Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See but Cannot Feel — those are just some of the albums that went into this mid-00s tapestry, often reaching far beyond the US, that seemed to be attempting to fill an anachronistic gap between (but also beyond) Slint’s Spiderland and the long shadow of the Incredible String Band, conflating counterculture weirdness with a postmodern melancholy.
Around the same time, Grouper released Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill — an album on which we find the American subject truly at sea with itself.
The song “Living Room” — recorded around the same time as Dragging… but released a few years later on the album The Man Who Died With His Boat — captures this tension beautifully and even more explicitly. Here Liz Harris navigates that gap, as described by Ed, between a present-nostalgia and a vanished object. She sings:
I’m looking for the place the spirit meets the skin
Can’t figure out why that place feels so hard to be in
We’re all of us at this ill-fitting party
Busy pretending to relate
And it’s getting harder and harder to fake
Acting like everything’s in its place
If we might return to 2020, it is this sensation of a thin but nonetheless oblique veil between present-nostalgia and vanished object, keeping us apart from each other and the world around us, that may be making something of a comeback if Taylor-Swift-as-pop-vector is to be affirmed.
It is worth noting that Swift’s album being described as “alternative” is not quite the superficial marketing appendage it first appears to me. “Alternative” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here, but it always has done. To call something so unashamedly pop “alternative” probably says something about our postmodern moment in itself, but I think it is worth affirming for its nonsensical slippage between “pop”-as-pulp and pop-as-“popular” sounds. Swift is, in this sense — aesthetically at least — crossing a line that is connecting her sound to a whole new set of themes. Whereas she had previously done this with country music, she is now drawing on themes so far flung as to make for plenty of memes.
This is why the album cover for Swift’s folklore, particularly in its black metal meme version, is so excellent. The mess of associations brought to mind by that cover alone — of Swift standing in the woods in a long houndstooth coat — has led to many people laughing about it being “accidentally” black metal, but is it not instead the case that these environs epitomise the Northern frontier in the popular imagination? Is it not that this album’s whole aesthetic mess brings to mind associations that the “alternative” scenes of the mid-00s — from the folk revival to USBM to indie rock to electronica — similarly tried to contend with?
Less vaguely, I suppose this is to say that it’s not that woods are, by default, “metal” but rather that metal is often, despite how it sounds, very pop in its concerns. (Are you going to tell me that nature isn’t both pulp and popular? I’m a big fan of the Craghopper Goth aesthetic personally — if that’s not a thing yet, I am determined to make it one.) Of course, there are plenty of people who like to put forward particular visions of nature contrary to this, emphasising the extent to which nature is obscured in the modern imagination — I’m thinking of the embarrassing rightists on Twitter who love to talk about the onanism of social media before going out for a wank in the woods — but the truth is far less reactionary and dichotomous, and I think that Taylor Swift’s album, for better and worse, demonstrates how lacking in clarity these distinctions really are.
I’m reminded of that poem by W.H. Auden here:
The trees encountered on a country stroll
Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.
A culture is no better than its woods.
The issue, however, is that black metal — like Swift on folklore — often fails to see the wood for the trees. Unless you’re a true Scandi misanthrope, chances are your favourite metal band’s musings about nature are nonetheless passed through the frame of (post)modernity, even if the movement made in response is one of negation. A band like Wolves in the Throne Room are well-known for acknowledging this tension between nature / society productively, rather than just doing the default one-with-nature, society-can-go-to-hell black metal mode. Mount Eerie is another band that really excels at this.
Is it any coincidence they’re both from Twin Peaks country; from Olympia, WA.?
I’ve never been the Washington State (or British Columbia) but, having grown up (more or less) along the same longitudinal line, I find cultural depictions of that part of the world to be really affecting; they always resonate with me in a profound way. But the particular dynamics present in that part of the world also affirm a certain kind of psychogeographic relation that is lost here in the UK.
For instance, whilst most will reduce the regional disparities in this country to being issues of socioeconomic difference and inequality, an increased class consciousness of more recent years that attempts to affirm the more magickal associations that come with a maligned yr hen ogledd often lacks a more nuanced cultural understanding of why this is presently so seductive. I think this is because, in the UK, we don’t really know how to think about frontiers (in Jack D. Forbes’ sense of “an intergroup [or interethnic] contact situation .. where one culture identity front[s] another.”) The US gives form to, crosses over and attempts to close frontiers in this sense all the time, especially in its media, and they don’t all look like cowboys versus indians.
For a superficial but interestingly pop example, we might talk about the Twilight series which plays on the same associations attached to the Pacific northwest. Twin Peaks, however, is interesting because its frontierism is far more productively collaborative than other more explicit cultural examples. This is true throughout the series entire run, regardless of its twenty-first century updates. We might think about how, for instance, the US / Canada border in the show has long functioned as the dream meridian to the US / Mexico border’s blood meridian. (Yes, Twin Peaks is also an Acid Western, folks.)
I don’t think Twin Peaks invented this understanding of the Pacific northwest, but it certainly bottled it in a way that resonated far beyond its immediate locale. For an alternative example, I’d offer up Phil Elverum’s Mount Eerie project. Whilst explicitly inspired by Twin Peaks, Elverum has regularly extrapolated outwards to find the reality behind the Lynchian fantasy. Nowhere is this more more explicit than on the song “Through the Trees Pt. 2” (embedded above), which wrestles openly with the twenty-first century’s disarticulation of nature and society (or, more specifically, nature and the web). As Elverum sings:
The ‘natural world’
And whatever else it’s called
I drive in and out of town
Seeing no edge, breathing sky
And it’s hard to describe
Without seeming absurd
I know there’s no other world:
Mountains and websites.
Elverum acknowledges the reality that few reactionaries are prepared to: the inside is a folding of the outside. When we think about American frontierism, this statement becomes truer by the day.
The strange experience of being very online and then escaping out into nature should not be seen as some dysfunctional disarticulation between modes of existence but a new frontier to navigate, a new “contact situation.” This is to say that a life lived online and a life lived in the mountains can be as alienating as each other, but I think to live both simultaneously is oddly beautiful.
The philosophical challenges of accounting for this tension are, at present, very engaging and there is plenty for us to draw on to better articulate this alt-pop continuum that Taylor Swift has most recently wandered into.
For example, a few months ago, I read Greg Grandin’s book The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. It is a great book but one which tempts fate with its title, and one which I think oversimplifies the dynamic at play in the present. By focusing entirely on the political or historical evidence — it is undeniably an incredibly in-depth examination of how America’s political imagination could go from the actual frontier to JFK’s “New Frontier” to Trump suddenly wanting to build a wall — Grandin nonetheless ignores the cultural shifts that have presaged Trump’s wall bid, and so half the story is lost.
In this corner of the internet, it is Deleuze and Guattari who we have repeatedly turned to to explore this philosophically. Ed recently wrote about this DeleuzoGuattarian view of the Old West (and the New West) on his blog, discussing that now famous footnote (to Cave Twitter at least) in the rhizome chapter of A Thousand Plateaus that was hugely important for kickstarting the blogosphere’s 2018 patchwork posting. (My posting on this topic later became the “Unconsciousness Raising” chapter of my book Egress.)
Here, D&G point to the literary critic (whomst I love) Leslie Fielder and his book The Return of the Vanishing American. They describe how Fiedler diagrams the West’s strange tendency, despite being so named, to change direction. The West, they note, in the American imagination, has always “played the role of the line of flight combining travel, hallucination, madness, the Indians, perceptive and mental experimentation, the shifting of frontiers, the rhizome.” They also note that the West triggers a kind of reciprocal contradiction in this sense. The opening of the frontier establishes a new kind of Orientalism in the American mind — America puts its Orient (its East) in the West, they argue.
This dynamic is still at play today. Although the frontier has long been closed (politically at least; I’d argue not imaginatively) this tendency to reverse directions has continued. We should be clear that East becoming West, for Deleuze and Guattari, is certainly not some racialised rewording of the Turner thesis. What is evidenced by placing this footnote within the wider context of the book is that East / West enter a new process of permeation. This process did not stop when the frontier was closed. In fact, within American literature, this multi-dimensional folding has continued apace.
Deleuze observes this for himself in his essay “Bartleby; or, the Formula” from Essays Critical and Clinical. Herman Melville’s obstinate clerk, in saying “I would prefer not to”, cracks open a linguistic frontier — an intersubjective contact situation that abjures “yes” and “no”, allowing him to exist in “an ever expanding zone of indiscernability or indetermination”. (A kind of zone that I like to think the more psychedelic musicians within the folk revival summoned sonically, as on a song like Animal Collective’s “Visiting Friends”.) And yet, “I would prefer not to” is nonetheless an aggramatical construction; its own kind of communicative border wall — a Great Wall that figures both a narrowing of the territory and an endless expanse in its own right. And so, Deleuze continues, Bartleby’s formula “excludes all alternatives, and devours what it claims to converse no less than it distances itself from everything else.” A productive paradox emerges. This unruly phrase bars those who would implore Bartleby to act from being able to penetrate his interiority, and yet the cunning nature of his grammatical madness alludes to an interiority so vast as to be incomprehensible. This unseen vastness “proliferate[s] around him and contaminate[s] the others, sending [them] fleeing.” But it also sends “language itself into flight”, into “a zone of indetermination or indiscernability in which neither words not characters can be distinguished”.
This zone, this linguistic West, is what concerns Deleuze — and no surprises there: A Thousand Plateaus similarly ties its geophilosophy to linguistics. In this sense, it is always best observed as a relation — between planet and thought but also, at least within the literature of Herman Melville, between Bartleby and the attorney or, alternatively, between Ahab and his whale. Whilst this perspective suggests that we begin with a pristine dichotomy, this dichotomy soon finds itself obscured by communication and inter-action. This is even true in the first-person, never mind the third-person. For instance, in Moby Dick, Ishmael’s narration is so exquisitely detailed as to present us with this great interiority that is both irreverent and cultured, intimate and distancing. But Ishmael cannot seem to fully comprehend the nature of the relation beyond him. His rationality, in all its majesty, struggles to rationalise Ahab and his whale. It is in this sense that Moby Dick is a truly modern novel, presenting us with a subjective interiority that is mapped in magnificent detail but which struggles to provide an adequate cartography of the world outside. Many “Great American Novels” dramatise this tension, in their own way.
But just as Deleuze described how this tension “devours what it claims to converse”, the Great American Novel today has smoothed the way for the New West’s border wall. Take, for instance, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian — what I’d give to hear Deleuze’s thoughts on that one.
Many have written about how Blood Meridian subverts the drama of Moby Dick. Whereas the latter presents us with a protagonist whose interiority has a seemingly infinite depth, the former gives us a nameless character flat as an adobe wall. Here the vast indifference of the West is mirrored in the close subject of The Kid. Whilst the novel is arguably no less epic in scope, we see another America here. But McCarthy’s book is hardly a negation of Melville’s, it rather reflects another stage in the process. It traces the rebound of Melville’s transcendental prose. In this sense, McCarthy’s book present us with a vast outside that is not tamed by a charming interiority; interiority is as barren as the world outside itself.
But McCarthy himself does not signal an end. We might argue that pendulum is once against swinging back in the other direction. Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport, for instance, presents us with another vast interiority but one where the exterior is all the more obscured. It is an American epic that is nothing but monologue. It inverts the austerity of McCarthy’s American.
And so, it is clear that America is still constantly devouring that which it claims to converse. Even when you would assume the psyche has had its fill, it continues to devour the screen memories left in its place.
Ed has written on this tension recently as well, unpacking a passage from Deleuze and Guattari’s “How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs?”, in which the figure of a priest — a strange priest no doubt, perhaps not unlike Clint Eastwood’s Preacher in Pale Rider — attempts to navigate certain directions of the compass. They write:
The priest did not turn to the west. He knew that in the west lay a plane of consistency, but he thought that the way was blocked by the columns of Hercules, that it led nowhere and uninhabited by people. But that is where desire was lurking, west was the shortest route east, as well to the other directions, rediscovered or deterritorialized.
Discussing this strange reference to “the columbs of Hercules”, Ed writes:
The more immediate reference that Deleuze and Guattari are likely to be reaching for is the use of the columns of Hercules as a symbol used by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason. In the discussion on transcendental logic, Kant described the ‘pillars of Hercules’ inscribed with the words nihil ulterius, ‘nothing beyond’: it is beyond this point that critique is not to venture. The pillars themselves were “erected by nature in order that we pursue reason’s voyages only insofar as the steadily continuing coasts of experience extend”. The Atlantean promise, following a Renaissance legend of the pillars, is inverted by Kant through this stark warning. If beyond the pillars, in the west, lay the plane of consistency, then Kant has fulfilled the function of priest who turns his back to this direction.
Nick Land similarly wrote once that transcendental philosophy is, in this respect, a fear of the sea — but it is also, we might argue, a fear of the unconscious.
Clearly no one told Herman Melville this.
This has led me to wonder about what exactly Deleuze sees in Melville, and likewise in the West, and what has often been culturally betrayed in more recent decades (although, literarily, it obviously still persists). It seems that, for Deleuze, the West is a great folding. Not an unfolding, but a folding.
Deleuze’s sense of folding challenges our conception of the frontier as a great and seemingly infinite expanse. When Star Trek (and JFK) take up the same metaphor of the endless frontier, this understanding was made all too literal. By transposing the frontier to the literal infinitude of space, they flatten out the folds of the American West proper, privileging a void “out there” in the indifference of space to be navigated by institutionalised imperatives and a para-militaristic federation rather than attempting to wrestle with the void that permeates both nature and society right here with and without us.
This is to say that the infinitude of space is not just a final but an unending frontier, and impotently so. The West, by contrast, and quite strangely, has a coast line. It has an inside, even when it was understood to be an outside. But when we speak of the West and its various directions — the peculiar dynamics that flow out north, south, east and west — we nonetheless find a great recursion. The earth as a body without organ(isation) does not have an north, south, east and west — the map is truly globular; east and west eventually meet and dissolve into one another. The globe folds directionality. The cosmic expanse outwards is, in this sense, an illusion. What the West really epitomises is a vast interiority, as found in Melville’s writings — and the inside is a folding of the outside.
It is this strange folding that I have been trying to tease out of my recent playthrough of The Last of Us Part 2 (and what is to follow has been clipped from my draft of the third part of that series that I’ve called “The Rotten Western”.)
In part two of my “Rotten Western” series, I hoped to shine a light on the ways in which this tension has been explored through a uniquely American “corpse bride”, where living and dead, past and future, become fatally entwined into a newly putrescent “present-nostalgia” (as Ed put it). Not a haunting, as such, but something all too material. And yet, as the game pushes on, it is clear that the story hopes to break out of this loop absolutely — and it struggles to do so.
When I last wrote about this game, I mentioned Joel’s house, presented the player as a kind of Old West museum, but this atemporal paradox becomes even clearer in a dream that Ellie has later on in the game.
At the end of their first day searching Seattle, an exhausted Ellie and Dina hole up in a theatre. After Ellie makes sure the building is secure, she nods off in the front aisle of the main auditorium. The Freudian overtones are strong here — as she sleeps in the cinema, we play through one of her screen memories.
And of course the first flashback of The Last of Us Part 2 takes place in a museum… Museums are important in post-apocalyptic games, as I’ve discussed before — and somewhat strangely too, as if they are there to dramatise the industry’s own internal problems.
It is Ellie’s birthday and Joel has taken her to the ruins of the Wyoming Museum of Science and History. Joel’s strange relationship to American history is on full display here once again; it is quite endearing how all of his (woefully inaccurate) knowledge about dinosaurs comes from his memories of the first two Jurassic Park films, for instance. Indeed, after mistaking one species of dinosaur for a velociraptor, when Ellie eventually finds the (surprisingly tiny) skull of a real one, Joel makes a note to self: “Don’t trust the movies, I guess.”
Here we are, navigating literal screen memories within literal screen memories, and it is not long before history starts to eat itself. The wretched museum becomes a kind of Conan Doyle plateau — a lost world where humanity is confronted by memories of other extinctions, affirming its capacity for survival whilst also giving their visit an oddly spectral affair. What are survivors cut off from society and from history? Joel and Ellie feel like ghosts wandering through time old of joint.
Just as previously discussed, we once again find Joel’s memories of the past holding him back here. The museum becomes as an exaggerated version of his own home — a space given over to a more cosmic but nonetheless distorted perspective on the past. Perhaps this perspective is ultimately Joel’s undoing — history repeats, the past haunts, the killing of futures leads to his murder in his own. But Joel still continues to carry himself like he knows and has seen it all. When contrasted with Ellie’s curiosity and openness to the new, however, Joel’s bumbling knowledge of natural history is evidently not that natural at all.
This is no country for old men like Joel. He seems barely capable of bridging the gap between old and new. Somewhat hearteningly, Ellie is as fascinated by the lost world of the dinosaurs as she is by the lost world of late capitalism. She’s close to a true nomad, with little to hold onto but plenty to gain. Joel’s existence is the inverse of this. When she forgets this, it is nearly the death of her.
I think it is worth noting that the game’s championing of LGBTQ+ politics does seem to be making an interesting point here. Whilst many have been (excessively) angered by the extent to which the game emphasises contemporary political issues within the context of a zombie apocalypse — Ellie is gay, Dina is bisexual, Abby is straight but gender non-conforming, Lev is trans — the centring of these experiences does start to feel a little forced in the grand scheme of things. But it also makes perfect sense that these characters, who epitomise many of the talking points of contemporary identity politics, would find the space to do so in a “postwestern” like this. Stuart Hall once argued that the “post-” prefix is our way of articulating “a shift or transition conceptualised as the reconfiguration of the field“, and the “postwestern” has reconfigured aplenty. Westerns are, after all, all about the shifting of cultural boundaries (even, or especially, when they are at their most reactionary).
At its best, The Last of Us Part 2 might even suggest a new (pop) swing back in the direction of the Melvillian. Whereas McCarthy’s 2006 book The Road, for instance — notably published at the height of that New West alt-folk revival discussed earlier — continues to erase interiority in the direction of the “post-” (as an example of both post-western and post-apocalyptic literature), The Last of Us Part 2 attempts — emphasis on “attempts” — to ground its narrative in the interiority of its various characters. Unfortunately, the “zones of indiscernability” that result are repeatedly ruptured by the way the game forces you to betray its own categorical imperative. “I’d prefer you not to kill”, it declares, whilst forcing you to do it anyway. (Or, in other words, what Polygon said.)
If there is hope for what Neil Campbell has called a “postwestern politics”, this interjection of “alternative counterfictions to challenge any authoratitive distribution of the sensible with regard to the American West” must be allowed to play out, rather than being betrayed, as in The Last of Us Part 2, by a hall of mirrors; counterfictions countering counterfictions.
The Last of Us Part 2 is at its strongest right before it descends into this moment, and this excursion to the museum is a case in point.
Joel and Ellie’s wander through the museum soon pivots — quite abruptly — from dinosaurs to the space race, but not without first passing through the thin veil of extinction. They pass an overgrown wall, echoing the cordyceps’ global takeover, and then move through a dark tunnel and suddenly we have skipped over a few millions years of history to arrive at that technological arms race that used to define our sense of the future. The time jump is disorientating. Time spirals accelerate. The museum echoes the world as we know it now — that is, within the game. Dinosaur exhibits mirror abandoned mannequins and window displays in shopping malls, but Ellie is still capable of having fun in this odd facsimile of a lost future.
The tension is interesting. Whilst Joel wanders around a world he has lost, Ellie finds herself in a world that beckons her own interventions. That was then; this is now. I’m reminded here of a marvellous passage from Judith Butler on mourning which resonates with The Last of Us Part 2 completely. She writes:
Places are lost — destroyed, vacated, barred — but then there is some place new, and it is not the first, never can be the first. And so there is an impossibility housed at the site of this new place. What is new, newness itself, is founded upon the loss of original place, and so it is a newness that has within it a sense of belatedness, of coming after, and of being thus fundamentally determined by a past that continues to inform it. And so this past is not actually past in the sense of “over,” since it continues as an animating absence in the presence, one that makes itself known precisely in and through the survival of anachronism itself.
The excursion in the museum doesn’t quite end in this new space, however. Much like the rest of the game, it is a plot that attacks its own productive anachronism, contradicting itself in ways that are wholly unnecessary. The future is unfolding all around us at an alarming rate but the hand of god reaches down to pull useless triggers.
It’s strange, really, that The Last of Us Part 2 goes so hard on its abject nihilism. All you can do is kill, it tells you, and killing gets you nowhere. But this is a game that is also set in the Pacific northwest — specifically in Seattle? It has confused its dream meridian for a blood meridian. Perhaps we have too.
The sheer boundless horror of a McCarthy novel creates a tension with the region’s imagination, and perhaps this too contrasts with the current calm of our present pandemic. The Last of Us Part 2 is not a lockdown game in the way that Taylor Swift’s folklore is clearly a lockdown album, but as both Ed and I have vaguely pondered, perhaps this return to a mid-00s dream pop nostalgia is to be welcomed — if not from Swift herself, at least as a kind of pop vector that allows us to consider anew this strange world of mountains and websites. The tension is covered over as soon as capitalism restarts its engines. It may not be a new tension but it is at least an unresolved one, and we have been making good on unresolved tensions as of late. (Black Lives Matter remains a potent example.)
When Fiedler wrote of “the return of the vanishing American” he was writing about the native American specifically — a subject who disappeared in the figure of “the Indian” but returned anew as the native American to haunt the American psyche that had, for so long, othered it into a hauntological existence. Right now it feels like another kind of vanishing American is making a return — the late 2000s subject that looked upon the financial crash and struggled to imagine what new worlds were possible. Whilst it seemed like we were incapable of hallucinating the new at that time, at least in a countercultural mode that we were previously familiar with, it seems to me that our rampant melancholy can nonetheless give rise to strange visions. A post-apocalyptic or dream pop northwest share much in common.
I think this is worth noting when we talk about “acid” futures. When Jonathan Rosenbaum first coined the term “acid western” for the Chicago Reader, he was talking about Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man.
It is certainly halluncinatory but Rosenbaum tends to ignore the fact that it is also explicitly purgatorial. I think it is worth noting that the psychedelic has a strong association with death in this regard. We regularly talk of near-death experiences and visions and the surreality of continuing to live beyond that which has passed (away). This is the central premise of hauntology — as horrifying as it often is, it is a kind of goth psychedelia (something most Mark Fisher fans tend not to get). The acid western, the dead western, the rotten western are all cousins in this regard. They are all grounded upon varying degrees of melancholy. The melancholy doesn’t end but we might push it into a newly imaginative mode.
This is a point that I similarly find within Fielder’s The Return of the Vanishing American. That which is returning is returning from the edge of reason, the end of death. It is a subject that — again, to borrow some phrasing from Fiedler — has gotten bored of “waiting for the end”. THe vanishing American is that American given space to return once all the old white man have died. It is the second book in Fiedler’s trilogy — Waiting for the End — that takes these men in its sights.
Those old men who prophesied their own ends in the Sixties and Seventies are long dead, he notes, but their call for a people-to-come remains unanswered. Whilst Deleuze and Guattari are evasive in their labelling of the last men, Fielder is clear. An American tradition that was born with Walt Whitman died with Allen Ginsberg, and necessarily so. What comes next is less white and self-destructive. He writes:
It is, in any case, the dark side of Leaves of Grass that Ginsberg reflects or, more properly exposes, presenting himself as the apostle not of self-adulation but of self-pity, not of joy but of terror, not of sanity but of insanity. Whitman liked to boast that he drank nothing but pure water; Ginsberg tells us he smokes marijuana. Whitman saw himself as a kind of mystical healer; Ginsberg celebrates himself as an angel of death and derangement. He is a prophet not of the beginnings of man, but of his end; and if, like Whitman, he tries to write first poems, they are the first poems of the next evolutionary stage beyond us, anticipations of the verse of meta-humans.
In this sense, the post-Westerner is waiting for an end that will never come. As they bring about a cultural apocalypse of their own, they lay the ground for what is to come. The Beats perhaps failed to realise this. Much like those glamorous figures admired by Swift, they had a marvellous time ruining everything. In the end, they appeared pathetic in their impotence, but we have (and must continue to) move on anew.
This optimism is not present in the conclusion of Fiedler’s Waiting for the End. He senses trouble ahead.
Our writers will learn to bear the indignities of success, as they have born those of failure; and out of these, too, with luck and skill, they will make the stuff of art. What new apocalypse they will dream as they work, we cannot imagine; and if we know that, whatever its nature, it will fail them, like all the others, that is a truth we had best keep to ourselves. In any event, no one younger than we will listen; but it does not matter, for there is no end.
Thinking back to a time before lockdown, I feel Fielder’s mournful resolve. And yet, having overcome the unconvincing brutality of The Last of Us Part 2, having been seduced and then repulsed by folklore, and having been utterly inspired to gob off 7000 words, thanks to Ed Berger, as my girlfriend and I spend the evening talking about an increasingly likely plan to escape London for the North, Fiedler’s conclusion to The Return of the Vanishing American feels far more appropriate.
If a myth of America is to exist in the future, it is incumbent on our writers, no matter how square and scared they may be in their deepest hearts, to conduct with the mad just such a dialogue as their predecessors learned long ago to conduct with the aboriginal dwellers in the actual Western Wilderness. It is easy to forget, but essential to remember, that the shadowy creatures living scarcely imaginable lives in the forest of Virginia once seemed as threatening to all that good Europeans believed as the acid-head or the borderline schizophrenic on the Lower East Side now seems to all that good Americans have come to believe in its place.
To speak of schizophrenics is to speak of a vast multiplicity within and without. America knows this tension well but continues to fear both, whether at its borders or in its inner cities. The pendulum is clearly swinging back the other way, towards a vast interiority, where monolithic subjects face off against a monstrous border wall, but this is not an end; there is no end to the frontier. It is all just another fold in a map that has long been tearing along its creases. These tears need not be destruction for destruction’s sake. They are an opportunity for a new American cartography.
To acknowledge Swift as a part of that landscape might be uncomfortable for some — she’s a Mount Rushmore in an American wilderness — but she’s useful as a coordinate via which we can situate ourselves; The Last of Us Part 2 and Wolves in the Throne Room and Twin Peaks and Mount Eerie and whatever else are (perhaps “cooler”) others but they serve the same purpose. We should look for ways to pass between the lot of them.