Death and Democracy: Snakefarm’s Songs from My Funeral and the
New World Gothic
Snakefarm. Songs from My Funeral. Kneeling Elephant, 1998.
The Twilight Years
The early 1980s saw some of the most exciting and
outlandish independent musical production, much of which came from
Europe, particularly from
the city of Brussels. The Continental music scene was self-consciously “arty,” eclectic,
and commercially aloof.1 The musicians who gathered in the Belgian capital
were multi-national. They included groups like San Francisco’s
Tuxedomoon, Liverpool’s Pale Fountains, and Minimal Compact from
Israel. The late Billy Mackenzie of The Associates, Cabaret Voltaire,
The Durutti Column, and Paul Haig were also on location, as were a not
yet famous Michael Nyman and the Belgian minimalist Wim Mertens (who,
like Nyman, composed the soundtrack for a Peter Greenaway film, the lavish
1987 The Belly of an Architect). Many of these musicians were signed
by Les Disques du Crepuscule, a mysteriously chic label whose brand of
art-house pop music, meticulously packaged, is to this day a reminder
of unusual and interesting times in alternative music. Toward the 1990s,
independent labels suffered increasing commercial and artistic difficulties,
and the Brussels scene sadly went into a slow decline.2
An American ex-patriot in Brussels, Anna Domino recorded her first mini-LP
East and West for Les Disques du Crepuscule in 1984. In 1986, the LP Anna Domino
was released. These were followed by This Time, Colouring in the Edge and the
Outline, and Mysteries of America. As the thriving Brussels music scene began
to flag, Domino moved to America with her musical partner Michel Delory. In
America came out the collection Favorite Songs from the Twilight Years: 1984-1990.
Finally, relocated to the Arizona desert and with their new record label Kneeling
Elephant, Domino and Delory transformed themselves into Snakefarm and released
a distinctively American album: Songs from My Funeral.
While Domino’s solo albums were known to the relatively few who were
interested in the weird and wonderful continental music scene, Songs from My
Funeral has been reaching a wider audience.3 Although Snakefarm is not likely
to become a huge commercial success, Songs from My Funeral captured a special
mood of fin de siècle America, a mood that still prevails after the
dawn of the new millennium. I call this cultural temperament “gothic” in
the widest sense of the word. Fearful and contagious, the gothic is a sensibility
that is attuned to the dark side of existence and concerned with the themes
of death and undoing.4 In this essay, I place Snakefarm’s album within
a range of themes and of texts, from American road narratives to American cinema
noir, all of which share an interest in, even an obsession with, America as
the space of abjection on the boundary between the fascinating and the foul.
Songs from My Funeral is a collection of traditional
ballads whose themes are those of love, death, and travel. These 19th
century ballads have
been reworked and repackaged using a combination of computer-generated
and acoustic samples and sounds. All are confidently compiled into a
comprehensive journey to the darker reaches of the American heartland.
The ballads include those classic tales of ill-fated love like “Frankie
and Johnny,” “Banks of the Ohio,” and “St. James.” The
most famous of these is, perhaps, “Rising Sun” (better known
as “House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals). The song is
a first-person tale of a prostitute’s life of hardship in a New
Orleans brothel. Two songs on the album invoke the idea of America’s
spatial magnitude: “This Train that I Ride” laments the loss
of home in the sublime vastness of the American scene, while “John
Henry” recounts the epic-like birth and death of the legendary
African-American railroad worker who refused to lay down his hammer after
machines were introduced in place of manual labor. Several tracks belong
to the sub-genre of the “murder ballad,” which has been enjoying
a revival in recent years.5 As well as the aforementioned “Banks
of the Ohio” and “Frankie and Johnny,” the album features
the historically based “Tom Dooley,” a man executed for the
alleged stabbing of one Laura Foster in 1866. Another ballad is “Black
Girl” (also known as “In the Pines” or “Where
Did You Sleep Last Night”), famously recorded by the legendary
folk and blues singer Leadbelly in 1944 and later performed by Nirvana
in their 1993 unplugged session. This is a gory tale of death and distress
that probably originated in the Southern Appalachian Mountains in the
1860s.6 The supernatural aspect of folk ballads dominates “Laredo,” which
features a ghostly encounter with a mysterious cowboy. The album draws
to a close with the chilling lullaby “Pretty Horses.”
As with fairytales and folktales, ballads reveal something about the
archetypal darkness of the national soul. Songs from My Funeral unflinchingly
a cast of cheating lovers, conmen, cowboys, strongmen, slaves, whores, drifters,
and killers. An array of cruel and kind crooksters, these common but larger
than life heroes and heroines recall the democratic catalogues in Whitman’s
Leaves of Grass. Indeed, Songs from My Funeral forms an on-the-move American
collage, recasting grim and gruesome folk-tales in the plusher guise of contemporary
electronica. Surprisingly perhaps, the ballads are well served by their new
digital dress, which enhances rather than obscures the natural hallucinatory
quality of the songs. The result is, therefore, effortlessly evocative and
may be branded “electrofolk,” trip-hop, or alternative country.
But whatever the generic hybrid, Songs from My Funeral illustrates the happy
marriage between cutting-edge music technology and more traditional material.
The use of ballads is of special interest here. What constitutes the lasting
appeal of ballads, with their tales of love and loss? Moreover, what is unique
to the ballad form, its particular economy? Ballads are musical miniatures,
condensed and episodic. One feature common to ballads is their refraining from
offering any great psychological insight into their subjects’ inner worlds.
Ballads lack the dimension of interiority which creates fictional “characters.” What
one encounters in ballads are not “persons,” but “agents” or “catalysts,” the
symbolic pawns in the formation of a collective psyche. Ballads concentrate
almost exclusively on actions and their consequences and are therefore characterized
by a particularly tight economy. The world that unfolds through these ballads
is, then, a world devoid of psychological introspection, and one that reflects
the tragi-comical drama of universal passions. Domino’s singing is typically
understated, and the deadpan delivery of these tales of woe and horror is in
keeping with the emotional thriftiness of the ballad form itself.7 As a result,
ballads represent the world mythologically. Their subjects are not simply people
who love, suffer, and die, but the entire landscape in which they move: Laredo,
New Orleans, the stretch of railway pressing Westward. America is not only
at its most mythological in these songs, it is also at its most cinematic.8
The mythological dimension of ballads largely depends on their continued cultural
resonance. An essential feature of the ballad form is, therefore, its historical
versatility. Ballads are subject to an oral tradition which both preserves
and alters them as they travel through time. Though recorded as well as sung,
these ballads have received numerous interpretations over the years. Songs
from My Funeral is another chapter in this historical-cultural process and
in this sense is strictly “traditional.”
Snakefarm’s version relocates these essentially rural songs in a contemporary
technocultural setting. This apparent contradiction is potentially fascinating.
Indeed, in recent years, musical hybrids (mainly through the use of samplers)
have been merging country, blues, jazz, gospel, and folk with electronic sounds
and extending the frontiers of electronic music. Musicians such as Moby have
brought such combinations into the mainstream.9 Technology need not be cut
off from earlier musical traditions and can be used as a way of re-inscribing
older material in new ways. It so happens that ballads have always been subject
to such periodic reinterpretations. Songs from My Funeral maintains a balance
between the two seemingly contrasting sensibilities of the rustic and the urban.
Traditional material is not used as a cheap ploy, and there is sufficient use
of acoustic instruments to retain the folkish stamp. On the other hand, as
with much non-commercial electronica, technology delivers a sound as broody
and dystopian as the original songs.
Ballads, then, are not just collective and mythological; they are continuously
reinterpreted. That is to say, with each repetition traditional songs assert
their relevance in slightly different ways. Yet if ballads can be said to maintain
their historical value against the backdrop of shifting cultural climates,
what is the cultural context in which the old-new ballads on Songs from My
Funeral signify to audiences today? I understand this context to be the richly
pervasive American culture of gothic.
I would like to suggest that Songs from My Funeral is a kind of musical road
trip through America’s sordid underbelly, invoking the constant tension
within American culture between America’s wholesome exterior and its
darker hidden depths. The album falls into place alongside other works of popular
Americana, such as the collaborative body of work of director David Lynch and
composer Angelo Badalamenti, who have been meticulously composing the American
narrative as one in which dream and nightmare collide and merge. Snakefarm’s
cool resuscitation of traditional material similarly plays in the murky half-light
of American gothic, a culture that, in spite of the events of September 11,
shows no signs of subsiding.10
In Songs from My Funeral Domino contemplates the idea of “America” as
a dangerous dreamscape. The album ultimately recognizes the pivotal place that “America” now
occupies in the modern or so-called postmodern mind. To those with a particular
interest in American Studies, the ballads of Songs from My Funeral join an
array of homegrown travelogues, from Emerson and Whitman’s voyaging egos
to Jack Kerouac’s existential meanderings in On the Road or the American
trips of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In a different
sense, recalling Domino’s Mysteries of America album and making the voyage
from Belgium to the United States, this project retains the outsider’s
perspective and the fascination of the transatlantic visitor. What Songs from
My Funeral finally asserts is that “America” is as universal as
it is local, a paramount phenomenon.11
If earlier I described Songs from My Funeral as a kind of musical travelogue,
this is partly because images of railroads and trains are scattered throughout
the album. “Rising Sun” begins with “One foot is on the platform
/ And one foot is on the train.” In “John Henry,” the legendary
hero dies building America’s railroads. And “This Train that I
Ride” addresses the American predicament of open spaces, of which the
railroad was, until its defeat by the car, the supreme embodiment. America’s
large surface area has come to signal much more than the country’s sheer
geographical size. It symbolizes opportunity and openness toward the future,
which are at the heart of America’s democratic vision. This vision has
given rise to that quintessentially American genre: the road movie. American
identity, in tireless transit, is largely a matter of mileage. But “This
Train that I Ride” does not merely lament the expansive distances there
are to cross, but also the essential homelessness of the traveler: “This
train that I ride, a hundred coaches long / Hear the whistle blow a hundred
miles / I’m one lord I’m two, three lord I’m four / Five
hundred miles from my home.” The American identification with and commitment
to speed and motion is as painful as it is promising. Ongoing free movement
and the consequent semblance of home are features of what the critic Philip
Fisher has called American “democratic social space.”12
One extreme symbol of American mobility is the desert. The desert appears on
the cover of Snakefarm’s album, as well as in the extraordinary cover
photograph of Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern travelogue America. In both
cases, the desert is a place of mythical abstraction: its blank iconography
is at once deadly and sublime, futuristic and primitive, creative and annihilating.
The desert (to which the late country-rock musician Gram Parsons requested
his body should be committed) is a symbol of pure space, something to master
or be mastered by. Such an intense yet empty vastness is an important feature
of American culture and a potentially boundless resource of representation.
It therefore recurs in many American road narratives, from Thompson’s
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas or Lynch’s
Baudrillard brilliantly writes: “The point is not to write a sociology
or psychology of the car, the point is to drive” (54). The idea of “America,” then,
is an idea which is rather a form of practice, a performance.13 More so than
in any other case, it seems, American “identity” is essentially
bound up with action and movement. This movement, Baudrillard suggests, need
not (and cannot) be theorized, for it mechanically constitutes its own justification.
To “be” American is, then, to act as one. If this mobile identity
seems to categorically elude the substantive, this is because it never bothers
to stop for it.14 Rather than fix an identity, Americans are continually eradicating
theirs (“who will I be tomorrow?”). American identity is thought
of (and marketed) as the feat of constant recreation. If American identity
can be defined as this peculiar restlessness, it is neither grounded nor sustainable.
To be an American is, then, to stay on the move, to renew oneself as one goes,
and to forget who one was before—an amnesiac sort of existence.
America may be said to envisage itself spatially rather than temporally. In
place of the Old World’s elevation of History as a means for uncovering
(or cementing) a national identity, America takes the conquest of space (“manifest
destiny” and the opening up of new frontiers) as its principle of self-realization.
America does not so much lack a history (a bizarre European cliché)
as refuse to make use of the past for its self-understanding. And yet, an ever-expanding
American horizon does indeed convey a particular attitude towards time. America
boasts a Whitmanian confidence in the future and the possibilities it holds.
From Alexis de Tocqueville and Whitman to Francis Fukuyama, “America” has
been thought as the “end of history,” as its positive culmination.
But, as Jacques Derrida has pointed out, the future can also be thought of
as supreme risk, and intimations of the future may also harbor fears of regression
Songs from My Funeral belongs to a rich repertoire of popular American narratives
that bring into play these two contrasting yet ever-related tendencies: the
American promise of the large fulfillment ahead and its twin tendency of the
threat of downfall and annihilation. The ballads walk this tightrope by referring
to an America in which the American dream has turned into a nightmare. Take,
for example, the ballad “Black Girl,” in which a mysterious girl
is haunted by a man’s violent death. The language is emphatically gory
disclosing a grisly decapitation: “My husband was a railroad man / And
he died half a mile from town / His head was found in the driver’s wheel
/ But his body never was found.” “St. James” is a lover’s
necrophiliac elegy to a dead beloved as she lies “stretched out on a
long white table” at St. James infirmary, “so pale, so cold, so
fair.” The lover goes on to speak of his own inevitable death: “When
I die I want you to bury me / In a wide-brimmed Stetson hat / Put a five dollar
gold piece on my watch chain / Let’em know I was standing pat.” The
album ends poignantly with the lullaby “Pretty Horses,” in which
a mother sings a child to sleep with the promise of “all the pretty little
horses.” But the song soon tells of another, less fortunate baby, not
far away: “Way down yonder in the meadow / There’s a poor little
lamby / The birds and flies peckin’ out his eyes / As the poor little
thing cries mammy.” “Pretty Horses” is the lullaby a black
slave sings to a white child. The slave tells this child of another child,
her own, left motherless in the meadow, for whom the day to come holds no promise,
for whom there is no repose in sleep. The recurring “Hush little baby
don’t you cry / You know your momma was born to die” is vengeful,
reminding the careless dreaming child of his own mother’s death, since
death, they say, is truly egalitarian. Or perhaps the singer mourns her own
child whom she had left behind. A clandestine allegory of race relations, this
gothic lullaby works to poison the dreams of innocent sleepers. In the new
dream/nightmare that the song conjures, nature appears once in the elegant
form of beautiful horses and a second time as the violent transformer of babies
into putrefying and vermin-eaten carcasses.
New World Gothic
In Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and the Culture
of Gothic, Mark Edmundson argues that America in the 1990s was characterized
by two seemingly opposed yet closely linked cultural trends. The first
is a (broadly defined) culture of gothic; the second is that of “facile
transcendence” (xv). The gothic streak in American culture in
the late 20th and early 21st century is not merely apparent in the
proliferation of horror, disaster, or apocalyptic narratives. Gothic
reigns supreme in the “real life” dramas on Oprah or “reality
TV,” such as courtroom broadcasts (the O. J. Simpson trial).
America, claims Edmundson, is increasingly thinking of itself in gothic
terms. It entertains gothic fears in multiple forms, from the serial
killer to the meteoric holocaust, the post-nuclear mutant monster,
or the post-Apocalyptic talk of the new Christian Right.
Such gothic rhetoric finds its counterpart in the rhetoric of “facile
transcendence,” the language of easy, even instant redemption. Contrary
to the gothic, facile transcendence sees individual existence as always alterable
and insists on the possibility of personal transformation. Edmundson’s
chief example of the kind of world depicted by the culture of facile transcendence
is Robert Zemeckis’s 1994 hit Forrest Gump in which American “niceness,” even
while bordering on the idiotic, is amply rewarded. Then there are the American
obsessions with angels, the culture of advertising, and the self-help movement
(93).15 All of these propose to counteract gothic pessimism. Yet Edmundson
then moves to deconstruct the alleged opposition between the culture of gothic
and that of facile transcendence and shows that the two are inevitably interlinked:
they enhance rather than negate one another.16
Edmundson’s cultural analysis of the tension in pre-Millennial America
between a life-affirming American optimism and gothic pessimism brings to mind
another cultural study of America written exactly ninety years earlier. In
The American Scene, Henry James shrewdly observes that the façade of
the typical American town tellingly
sounds . . . the note of the “virtue”—so little, in
general, can any picture of American town-appearance hang together without
it. It amounts, everywhere, to something intenser than the implied absence
of “vice”; it amounts to a sort of registered absence of
the conception or the imagination of it. (230, emphasis added)
Lynch’s entire oeuvre turns on precisely this American failure
to conceive the vicious, a failure that simultaneously acts as an open
invitation to do just so. James is clearly fascinated by this cultural
aporia, and he continues with a warning: “[A]ll the while, as one
goes and comes, one feels that no community can really be as purged of
peccant humours as the typical American has for the most part found itself
foredoomed to look” (230). James’s commentary identifies
the American aspiration to, and insistence on, the pure, the healthy,
and the wholesome. But as James well understands, and Edmundson later
echoes, the powerful expulsion of those “peccant humours” paradoxically
makes “vice” implicit in the very appearance of the virtuous.
This condition of an exterior from which any traces of what James elsewhere
in the book calls the “sordid” have been expelled is contrasted
with the conspicuous sordidness of Europe: “The ‘European’ scene,
at a thousand points, looks all its sophistications straight out at us—or
looks, in other words, at least as perverse as it practically is” (230).
For James, “sophistication” lies precisely in European willingness
(ethical as well as aesthetic) to interweave “virtue” and “vice.” James
repeatedly uses this in his “international theme,” in which
American simplicity meets European degeneracy. This decadent principle
by which the sordid leaves its traces on the wholesome has indeed become
a commonplace way of imagining and representing Old World sensibilities.
Unlike Europe, James sees America as having publicly exorcised the sordid,
the morally shabby, or the decadent, in favor of a new, simplified civilization.
He insists, however, that America has done so at its peril, and, like
a true gothic impresario, James prepares us for the return of the repressed.
One can perhaps distinguish between two gothic sensibilities that develop
in America and Europe respectively, based on the difference in assumptions
dreams) of the New versus the Old World. The difference lies in the location
and source of gothic energy. In America, the gothic sounds from the deep, gradually
overtaking the good-natured and serene exterior with its demonic energy. This
stealing movement of contamination is exemplified in Angelo Badalamenti’s
creeping synthesizers and in Lynch’s preference for overripe melodies
(e.g. Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet”). In England and the Continent,
the gothic is more often subsumed in the surface fabric of things: Jack the
Ripper roams the streets of London, which are subterranean without being underground,
narrow and labyrinthine, ostensibly impoverished and unhealthy.
As in James’s cautionary remark concerning the implication of vice and
virtue, Edmundson too argues that America’s facile answer to gothic fears
does not dispel those dark gothic shadows. On the contrary, it restlessly and
energetically intensifies them. The tales of abuse, violence, and murder featured
on many television talk shows end happily, and the protagonists of the most
gothic life-episodes are finally transformed and redeemed. The underlying message
of facile transcendence is, then, that past traumas can be successfully overcome
by sheer force of will (or by a miracle-working guardian angel17 ). But these
two seemingly antithetical discourses, the battle between Life and Death, between
the will to live and the forces of “internal ruin”18 inevitably
signal a distinctly American dialectic: the dialectic of the transcendent and
debased, of Emerson versus Poe, and most importantly, perhaps, the dialectic
of dreams versus nightmares. And it is precisely the fallacy of separation
between these two antagonistic but intrinsically linked visions which is explored
in the most powerful works of contemporary gothic Americana.19
In the opening sequences of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, for instance, the camera
moves vertically from the vivid façade of an impossibly pristine suburb
to battling insects in the undergrowth. In the next sequence, a human ear is
found dumped in the grass. A common misunderstanding of Lynch’s work
is the separation between his pieces of “innocence” (e.g. The Straight
Story) and those of “experience” (e.g. Blue Velvet, Lost Highway).
The two sides of Lynch’s filmography are inextricably linked—a
fact epitomized and brought to completion in what may well be Lynch’s
best film to date, Mulholland Dr.
Another exploration of the relationship between America’s gothic preoccupations
and their facile denial is Todd Haynes’s Safe, in which a well off Los
Angeles housewife (painstakingly portrayed by Julianne Moore) becomes mysteriously
allergic to her environment. To escape “environmental illness,” Carol
White finally retreats into a “safe-house,” a small igloo isolating
her from an otherwise uncontrollable reality. Haynes’s film is a brilliant
allegory of American solipsism that cleverly manipulates the conventions of
gothic to achieve its effect.20 Safe, in fact, works as a kind of counter-gothic
narrative by reversing the traditional aesthetic of gothic: the film’s
accentuated slick interiors and clinical designer spaces turn claustrophobic
and catastrophic. They therefore assume the very gothic feel that the film
and its heroine ostensibly flee. New World gothic, then, consists of the elaborate
attempts to deny, or escape from, the dark side. As James points out in The
American Scene, this foredoomed activity is a specifically American enterprise.
Songs from My Funeral revisits America’s dark side with imagination and
panache. Snakefarm does not signal a complete break with the rest of Domino’s
discography, and thus brings Domino the somewhat belated recognition her work
deserves. One hopes that earlier, hard-to-get albums like East and West may
now be reissued. By retrieving traditional American material through the use
of computer technology, Songs from My Funeral demonstrates the revisions that
the idea of “America” consistently inspires. These traditional
ballads are as much at home in the 21st century as they are the products of
their own historical moment. That they were not merely revisited, but, as I
have suggested, effectively re-conceived in the form of contemporary American
gothic, testifies to the dynamic nature of cultural revision. Songs from My
Funeral is a compelling piece of Americana that simultaneously weaves and unravels
the American Dream.
1 The influential band Wire’s front-man Colin
Newman, for example, released a solo album on his own Brussels label
Crammed, poignantly titled
2 For details of the life and times of Les Disques du Crepuscule, see
Frank Brinkhuis’s excellent and comprehensive survey at: <http://home.wxs.nl/~frankbri/crestroy.html>.
3 One song from the album has oddly made it to the soundtrack of the highly
successful Sex and the City.
4 In this paper I use “gothic” as a general sensibility. I am therefore
less interested in the strictly generic proponents of American gothic, such
as Stephen King or Anne Rice. This is also why I refrain from using the capitalized “Gothic.”
5 The murder ballad is the musical exponent of gothic. Some musical genres
(like the genres of metal and death metal) utilize gothic imagery, but there
is also a brand of music that may be called “pop noir.” Musicians
like Nick Cave and P. J. Harvey have been particularly influential in trailing
the darkest recesses of rock. See, most notably, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 1996
album Murder Ballads (which includes a guest performance by P. J. Harvey),
and M. J. Harris and Martyn Baytes’s Murder Ballads: The Complete Collection.
6 The history of “In the Pines” is a rich one. It has around 160
versions in genres as diverse as folk, country, bluegrass, jazz, grunge, and
now electronic music. For background on the evolution of this song, see Eric
Weisbard’s “A Simple Song that Lives Beyond Time.”
7 Domino’s early album East and West includes a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Land
of Dreams.” But rather than attempting to emulate the master, Domino
gives the song a brand new “feel” by withholding the soulful warmth
of the original. The result is as far from Franklin’s R&B genius
as can be imagined and all the more successful for it. Domino serves up emotions
at very low temperatures, as if the singer/lover’s broken heart had frozen.
8 On America’s cinematic essence, see Gilbert Adair’s “On
9 Snakefarm’s project seems closer to Matt Johnson’s (otherwise
known as The The) Hanky Panky, a collection of Hank Williams covers. In recent
years, then, and with the help of music technology, boundaries between different
musical genres have been breaking down.
10 What are the cultural repercussions of the nigh-apocalyptic media images
of September 11? Those Hollywood studios that predicted a slump in action films
were grossly mistaken. On the unfaltering popularity of war and action cinema
in the “post-Taliban” era, see Jim Kitses’s “One Man
11 The singer Gram Parsons referred to his brand of country music as “Cosmic
American.” The sense of America as at once local and universal informs
America’s self-image as the supreme embodiment of the spirit of modernity.
Even while reproaching the degraded state of American society in “Democratic
Vistas,” Walt Whitman posited “America” temporally at the
end of history. What’s more, for his “authentic” democracy,
Whitman demands a particular appreciation of death. On the one hand, American
culture today is permeated by death (capital punishment, the abortion wars,
the fear of terrorism), while on the other, it is engaged in a powerful denial
of death (from the “just do it” philosophy to gym culture and “death
management”). America’s negotiation of death is central to its
ideology: must not death be ultimately defeated, or in the least managed, if
the dignity and autonomy of the individual is to triumph?
12 See Philip Fisher’s “Democratic Social Space: Whitman, Melville,
and the Promise of American Transparency.” Fisher regards American space
as abstracted and identical at every point for easy mobility. This identity
across space makes everywhere seem “like home.” This virtual homelessness
is a regular theme of American road narratives.
13 Baudrillard’s point about the car recalls Jean Francois Lyotard’s
proposition in The Postmodern Condition that “legitimation” in
the postmodern society is achieved not through speculative metaphysics or through
humanistic politics, but is a matter of pure performativity, of mechanical
legitimation: the validation of what works best. This point converges with
Henry James’s discussion of what he calls the “eloquence” of
the “American machine” (79-81). James and Baudrillard similarly
recognize America’s “lyrical nature of pure circulation” (Baudrillard
27), and they are both hypnotized by it.
14 The notion of American identity has invited a host of post-foundationalist
readings from various literary and cultural theorists, since it offers a case
of continual “becoming” as opposed to substantive “being.” See,
for example, Ross Posnock’s “Affirming the Alien: The Pragmatist
Pluralism of The American Scene” and The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James,
William James, and the Challenge of Modernity. Gilles Deleuze, too, was fascinated
by the “flight” of American identity. See in particular Deleuze’s
radical vision of (an idealized) American community in his essays on Melville’s “Bartleby
the Scrivener” and Whitman in Essays Critical and Clinical.
15 On the angelic preoccupation of Americans see Harold Bloom’s Omens
of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection and The American
Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation.
16 Michael Moore’s excellent documentary Bowling for Columbine ponders
the fatal consequences of the association between an elaborate culture of fear
and the gun trade in the United States.
17 CBS’s series Touched by an Angel, about a team of angels whose mission
is to guide humans in trouble, is a good example. All seems well with this
angelic A-Team until such ideologically dubious episodes as when the angels
attend a death-row prisoner, persuading her to make her peace with her past
and march to the death chamber with a heart full of love. This is a far cry
from Lars von Trier’s profound ethical study of Christian sacrifice in
the Home of the Brave, Dancer in the Dark. On a closer look, then, there is
little which is recognizably Christian in Touched by an Angel; it belongs more
readily to what Harold Bloom has called “the American Religion.”
18 On death as an active force in the Western cultural imagination see Jonathan
Dollimore’s “Death’s Incessant Motion.”
19 See, for example, Edmundson’s reading of Tobe Hooper’s 1974
classic slasher film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (103-105). John Waters’s
Serial Mom parodies this naive separation of spheres by conflating a devout,
all-American housewife with an equally conscientious serial killer.
20 See Roddey Reid’s “UnSafe at Any Distance: Todd Haynes’ Visual
Culture of Health and Risk.” Reid explains how Haynes’s film teases
audiences by way of a horror that never materializes. From the opening traveling
shot of a car making its way along the dim streets, “we’re in the
land of serial killers, alien body snatchers, and zombies out to disrupt the
stifling routines of upper-middle-class domesticity,” yet the film again
and again deflates these anticipatory moments. “Is this yet another blank
time before the eruption of horror? Is something hiding in there? No, nothing,
nothing at all” (35). See also my article “No Callous Shell: The
Fate of Selfhood from Walt Whitman to Todd Haynes.”
Adair, Gilbert. Surfing the Zeitgeist. London: Faber, 1997.
Baudrillard, Jean. America. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1988.
Bloom, Harold. The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian
Nation. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.
— . Omens of a Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection.
London: Fourth Estate, 1996.
Deleuze, Gilles. Essays Critical and Clinical. Trans. Daniel W. Smith
and Michael A. Greco. London: Verso, 1998.
Dollimore, Jonathan. “Death’s Incessant Motion.” The
Limits of Death. Ed. Joanna Morra, et al. Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 2000. 79-105.
Edmundson, Mark. Nightmare on Main Street: Angels, Sadomasochism, and
the Culture of Gothic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Fisher, Philip. “Democratic Social Space: Whitman, Melville, and
the Promise of American Transparency.” The New American Studies.
Ed. Fisher. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. 70-111.
Haynes, Todd, dir. Safe. Perf. Julianne Moore. American Playhouse, 1995.
James, Henry. The American Scene. New York: Penguin, 1994.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. London: Penguin, 2000.
Kitses, Jim. “One Man From Now.” Sight and Sound Apr. 2002:
Lynch, David, dir. Blue Velvet. Perf. Kyle Maclachlan and Isabella Rossellini.
MGM/United Artist, 1986.
— . Lost Highway. Perf. Bill Pullman, Patricia Arquette, and Balthazar
Getty. Asymmetrical Productions, 1997.
— . Mulholland Dr. Perf. Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring, and Justin Theroux.
Studio Canal, 2001.
— . The Straight Story. Perf. Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, and Harry
Dean Stanton. Asymmetrical Productions, 1999.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.
Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Moore, Michael, dir. Bowling for Columbine. Alliance Atlantis, 2002.
Pick, Anat. “No Callous Shell: The Fate of Selfhood from Walt Whitman
to Todd Haynes.” Film and Philosophy 7 (2003): 1-21.
Posnock, Ross. “Affirming the Alien: The Pragmatist Pluralism of
The American Scene.” The Cambridge Companion to Henry James. Ed.
Jonathan Freedman. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 224-246.
— . The Trial of Curiosity: Henry James, William James, and the Challenge
of Modernity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Reid, Roddey. “UnSafe at Any Distance: Todd Haynes’ Visual
Culture of Health and Risk.” Film Quarterly 51.3 (1998): 32-44.
Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey
to the Heart of the American Dream. London: Flamingo, 1993.
von Trier, Lars. Dancer in the Dark. Perf. Björk. Zentropa Entertainment,
Waters, John, dir. Serial Mom. Perf. Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston,
and Ricki Lake. HBO, 1994.
Weisbard, Eric. “A Simple Song that Lives Beyond Time.” New
York Times 13 Nov. 1994: Sec. 2, 36.
Wenders, Wim, dir. Paris, Texas. Perf. Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassja
Kinski, and Sam Shepard. 20th Century Fox, 1984.
Whitman, Walt. “Democratic Vistas.” The Portable Walt Whitman.
Ed. Mark Van Doren. New York: Penguin, 1977. 317-382.
Zemeckis, Robert, dir. Forrest Gump. Perf. Tom Hanks. Paramount, 1994.
Anat Pick received a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford in 2001. She
specializes in 19th and 20th century American literature and culture,
and her work has appeared in The Henry James Review and Film and Philosophy.
She teaches Film Studies at Brunel University and English Literature
at the University of Oxford. She is currently writing a book on the relationship
between self and environment in American literature and the visual arts.
Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 2 (Fall 2002)
Copyright © 2002 by the University of Iowa