Kazi Khaleed Ashraf


Looking for America

March, 1999

The text is adapted from the paper, “Main Street is Almost Alright: Post-Modernism in American Art and Architecture,” read at the Regional American Studies Conference organized by the Bangladesh Association of American Studies and the United States Information Service, in Dhaka, March, 1999.


Myths, fables and fairy tales are the stock of every culture. They are, what the mythologist Joseph Campbell terms, the engines of society. Whether they are true or not, factual or sensible, is irrelevant; what is important is that they provide the mystical impetus for collective life, and keep the societal machine going. (It is in this sense the term “myth” has a double meaning, considered a falsehood, on the one hand, and a cultural engine, on the other hand). 


Few things keep the American machinery moving as rapidly and gustily as the car. You might ask where is it going, but that’s another thing. Mobility is the most powerful American fable, expressed in the euphoria of the automobile, in the dream of the road to be taken. Cars are everything, as evident from ubiquitous and relentless advertisements. One announced recently, “Life is a journey… in the Main Street of America,” Main Street being the mythic place of happenings in American life. The mythology is expressed in popular culture, as in the lines of a blues song: “I don’t have a place to go, I sleep in my car.”


America finds rootedness in mobility. From this paradoxical longing for stability and mobility, anchoring and speeding, America invented new dwelling types: the trailer home and the suburb. The trailer is the reinvention of the home on wheel. Although its genealogy is in the frontier and the cabin – the rolling wagon becoming the little house on the prairie – it has spawned a whole new way of living: the trailer communities (although, arguably, it is also the home of society’s poorest). It is present in the lifestyle of the romanticized motor-cycle gangs, who re-enact nothing less than the spirit of ancient nomads and their world of boundless mobility. It also generates that obsessive theme that has flavoured so many films and fictional work: searching for America, that mysterious longing for taking to the roads (I am thinking especially of the 1969 film Easy Rider).


The suburb is a modern condition of dwelling, realizing its fullest potential in the USA by dint of the car. The car makes everything accessible, and consequently living in an isolated location poses no problem for the motorized mortal. In fact, the premodern site of dwelling – the city – is now deemed unfit for a civilized living. In areas ringing New York City and Washington DC, and all the small cities in New Jersey, there are these liminal zones, hard to give a category to, those miles and miles of land pockmarked with apartment buildings, whose inhabitants form a sort of “bedroom community”. People drive in and out from these places to go to work in the big cities. Locationality is easily abandoned. One can, and many do, just pack and leave, wholesale, for another town. This immense practice of mobility has totally redefined rootedness and the sense of place in the USA.


Jean Baudrillard, the noted French philosopher, sees the American continent as a desert milieu (as Bangladesh might be seen as a hydraulic one). And when you combine the “desert” milieu with the phenomenon of speeding, you get what Paul Virillio, another French man of ideas, describes as the “aesthetics of disappearance,” that incandescent act of disappearing depicted in the last scene of the 1991 film Thelma and Louise.


In describing the psychology of the desert milieu, Baudrillard thinks pure speed can be attained in the geography of the desert, and it is in the barrenness of speed that “disaffection” finds its pure form. In that space “…the transpolitical finds its generic, mental space” and “the inhumanity of our ulterior, asocial superficial world immediately finds its aesthetic and ecstatic form.” It does not matter where you are, whether in the actual desert of Arizona and California, or the swamps of Florida, or the pine forests of New England, America is in essence a desert matrix where one can discover that ecstatic form.


The desert milieu is also an ecstatic critique of culture, as defined in two thousand years of European history with its sense of proximity, collectivity, and sociality. The desert invites solitary existence, a sort of ascetic indulgence and a-sociality. A-sociality is still part of human reality; it finds its truest expression and greatest glorification in that special American milieu.


This incandescent act of speeding and disappearing is in some way related to the other pervasive American theme – a resistance to authority. The distrust of authority has historical, political, and mythical roots—the struggle with Europe, the rejection of European Classicism, and the lure of the frontier inhabitation, that is, the urge to be oneself, to be one’s own arbiter in a sort of elemental democracy.


All of America’s finest icons emerge from this myth: from John Wayne to Clint Eastwood via Elvis Presley in the area of the most powerful icon-making machinery, the movies. There is Henry David Thoreau and Ernest Hemingway in literature. And, of course, the grandest of them all is the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who built a legend around his flamboyant rejection of authority, and creating and living his own in the “hermitage” he built in Arizona desert.

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