In a culture shifting from production to consumption, from place to cyberspace, from goods to services, the new ground is literal-minded religion. How else to explain Republicans’ war on abortion and rape?
Coming out of Columbus airport — how many times have I been to Columbus, Ohio now, over the years: six, seven, eight? How did my life get to the point where I know the bars and bookshops of a nowheresville like Columbus?
I see they’ve all but totally demolished the Concourse Inn. Now that was a place; an airport motel so close to arrivals you could literally walk there from baggage claim. One of those old seventies joints, the era of that unique accommodation option, the hotel-motel. Cream plaster, slate mansard roof, the sign in Gothic script.
A restaurant, long since closed when I stayed there. When I was through here a fortnight ago, they had just started knocking the place down. Pre-tilt-slab, these places take a lot of demolishing. This afternoon, it was all but gone, just the sign, part of the portico and reception, and the rest piled rubble.
Next to it is the joint that replaced it, a Hampton Inn, one of the dozens of chains replacing the old indy motels, a place that looks like it’s barely there. You take a franchise, they send you a manual six inches thick on how to run it. The rooms, the décor, the uniforms are the same, from Juneau to Puerto Rico.
The great thing about independent places is how different they were to each other. As you go around the country, you seek them out. The University Hotel in Cleveland, a monumental pile, with a hotel bar straight out of the ’40s, a gully trap of coach lamps and lonely conventioneers. The Millennium Harvest Hotel in Boulder, Colorado, rooms as a big as a tennis court, inlaid with polished quartz. The Oceanside Inn in Daytona Beach, with its own in-house DVD system, some sort of Heath Robinson piped-in affair, obsolete before it was even fully installed. Each a reflection of some owner, present or past, sane or otherwise, stamping their personality on a place. They’re holdouts from a vanishing era.
When the Concourse Hotel has gone, no memory of it will remain. What goes with it and much like it, is a whole period of American life, a selective massacre of history. The Victorian era, the Beaux Arts, Art Deco are pretty safe now. Every city has a historic quarter now, no matter how pathetic. What’s disappearing is the landscape of post-war America, the buildings, places, neighbourhoods of a certain character, a certain way of living. It’s the landscape of the last industrial boom in America, from the late ’40s into the ’80s, when the cities and states were being exuberantly rebuilt in the image of modernity, yet whose character was more tied to its past, than it had in common with the present.
What remains suggests a period when things still had a placefulness, a situatedness. That place was not like this place. This motel, that city, this state, were more binding, the world was more centred in such presences. They have started to yield everywhere, but in America they’ve been removed more fully than elsewhere. The cities were swept away, replaced with chains and malls, the make became the brand, the internet, and then the web, and then social media arose and became the place where individuality and quirkiness was best expressed.
The boom was revealed to be a bubble, and then the bubble burst, and what remains is a landscape of monopoly capital. The HD TVs appearing everywhere offer a real that’s more real than the real. Half the culture is devoted to a supercharged celebration of this state of being, an ever-more parsed epicurianism of the everyday, in which every product peels away to reveal ever more segmented and filigreed desires and their satisfactions.
There are currently half-a-dozen different ads that take a different angle on the selling of toilet-paper: an invitation to “enjoy the go”, to adopt a regime of wiping with paper and moist towelettes — and better still an invitation to name it (“some call it ‘southern hospitality’ and some call it ‘the freshy fresh’”, the ad intones) — and so on. Often as not they book-end political ads. They are a Freudian’s dream, and an anthropologist’s nightmare.
The old world centred on industry and production is not coming back; the new one, in which consumption is the central activity, cannot continue. The culture and politics that have resulted is one enormous morbid symptom. For every toilet paper ad advocating a quasi-yogic purity ritual there is an equal and opposite cultural moment, from Family Guy to gonzo porn, Mulholland Drive to zombie crawls, an outpipe of gross-out and excess that allows for a release from the impossible tension of ordered desire. Such an impasse also creates unlikely works of art.
The 40-Year Old Virgin is one, Steve Carell a Big Box Bartleby, who would simply rather not. The best example — a terrible film, but a great artefact of the future — is Hall Pass, by the Farrelly Brothers, who combine their gross-out humour with their conservative Catholicism. Two men are given a hall pass, a one-week free-ticket from marriage, after their wives get tired of their badly-concealed obsessive fantasising about other women.
They start their adventure gathering their friends to watch them pick up at an Appleby’s, a chain restaurant with a bar, the only place they can imagine. But they all get distracted by the cheap food, and end up eating themselves into a stupor, bloated beyond desire.
“The sheer frequency and ever more addled nature of these comments — which may cost both Akin and Mourdock hitherto safe Senate bets — suggests something else is going on besides a rightward push.”
“I’m going home, I have to take a dump,” says one of their wingmen. “Can’t you do that here?” “No this is the sort of dump I need to take a bath after,” he replies.
You won’t get a better snapshot of the paradox of American culture, the mixture of forgetting and pervasive nostalgia, of the pursuit of happiness interpreted as an everlasting expansion of quality and quantity, and of the inevitable spiritual exhaustion that provokes. Nor is it any coincidence (NIIAC hereafter, for ever) that so much of this confusion and paradox occurs around s-x, gender, and, in the case of the American Right, around women.
In a culture shifting from production to consumption, from place to cyberspace, from goods to services, where everything becomes unmoored, the search for a new ground begins in earnest.
That ground is literal-minded religion, and the ground of that ground is “life” — life, not as embodied in living persons, but as a divine substance, a flow, passed on at conception, undifferentiated by quality or type. And that is a long answer to the question that has become one of the most pertinent as we head into the final week of the election, why are these Republicans so batshit crazy about abortion and r-pe?
As the final week of the campaign grinds on, with a vanishingly small number of voters being assailed with the “freshy fresh” of endless election ads — and the small matter of a category one hurricane/megastorm heading towards New York City — the persistence of Republican female trouble suggests something else is going on, beyond control of those authoring it, quite aside from anything else.The latest bout was started by Richard Mourdock, Republican candidate for the Senate in Indiana, a Tea Party favourite who displaced the existing GOP senator Richard Lugar, another of the dwindling band of moderate Republicans. Mourdock said and then repeated, what is, after all, no more than the Republican position, that r-pe and inc-st should not be grounds for termination. But what he said — that even a child of r-pe was “a gift from God” — that upped the ante.
We had already had Missouri senate candidate Todd Akin claiming that women did not get pregnant from “legitimate rape”, which he followed up by calling his opponent, Senator Clare McAskill, “a dog”. There was the Wisconsin Republican state rep, who said “some women they rape so easy”, after which Illinois Republican Joe Walsh sad “there was never a threat to the mother’s life” from a pregnancy.
The sheer frequency and ever more addled nature of these comments — which may cost both Akin and Mourdock hitherto safe Senate bets — suggests something else is going on besides a rightward push. These guys literally cannot contain themselves. They feel they must attest to this monolithic vision at the base of their beliefs — they feel called out by a culture to say it.
Their politics is symbolic rather than real — if it was real, they would be laying down in front of abortion clinics and getting arrested as a mark of resistance to something they regarded as wrong — but it is also an inevitable product of the idea of undifferentiated ‘life’. The position is a sham one - no-one really believes that a fetus and a living person are the same types of being, or that greater rights do not attach to the latter.
Conservatives of the ‘no abortion except r-pe/inc-st/life-of-mother’ line share that differentiation with pro-choice people. But such conservatives either don’t realise it, or don’t acknowledge it, because to do so would admit that the issue is a human one, to be managed through a variety of different and contradictory categories. So, in the lower reaches of the ultra-conservative mind, the circle is squared — how to deny abortion for r-pe? R-pe never results in pregnancy? To save the life of the mother? There is no threat to the life of the mother. The centre of any culture always circles around the control of fertility, and thus around questions of status of women.
As the world changes decisively, as the sources of simple gender identity — physical work chief among them — female trouble comes to the fore. It’s what links abortion craziness in America, to the bag o’ cats craziness of the Alan Joneses of this world, to the obsessive gynophobia of radical Islamism, to the full court press on activists like P-ssy Riot (which to be fair, activists like P-ssy Riot play upon — but that’s a story for another time). It’s an ancient cultural trope, repurposed to new ends, feeding back into the contemporary world.
The very fact that the Right can’t stop talking about — or indeed, on the Left, that an activist like Lena Dunham, creator-star of the HBO series Girls would construct a pro-Obama ad as if voting for him was akin to losing your virginity to ‘the right guy’ — suggests that it is the real question behind a lot of more ephemeral ones. Strange days.
Strange days indeed. You lie on the bed in the German Village motel — another great one — watching the fan turn David Lynch-esquely among the fake wood and velure furniture. The objects stare back at you. What to make of a culture that will not allow you to say ‘goddamit’ on TV, but runs a Law and Order: SUV marathon that is a parade of 44-minute sexual atrocity? All interspersed with ads for Barack, Mitt and the “freshy fresh”. Lost in deepest Ohio, I am Guy Rundle and I approve this message.