29 Nov 2017

no.2// The Worlding of Twin Peaks and the Crisis of White America

This is one of my ten short essays about Twin Peaks Season 3. Click this link to read my introduction to the series.

Expelled from hell, Dale Cooper crashes to Earth.

Watching Cooper’s cartoonish attempts at navigating real-life Las Vegas, I was reminded of nothing less than a newly 3D Homer Simpson, clambering out of a West Hollywood dumpster after being torn from his animated world and dropped into real life, via the mathematical wormhole behind the bookshelf in ‘Treehouse of Horror VI’.

Although nominally the same world from which he disappeared 25 years prior, the world of Twin Peaks 3 is clearly more real than the soap opera/crime drama world he left behind. Thus, the series ironically invokes that most hackneyed of movie tropes in which a beloved fictional character, usually resident within a self-enclosed fantasy world, is forcibly transplanted into (urban) ‘everyday life’, with comedic consequences (recent examples include the Smurfs movie, the Chipmunks movie, the Goosebumps movie, even Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them). The jarring cheapness of this trope is further reproduced through the flattening of Cooper’s character into a few meaningless trademarks: slicked hair, coffee, cherry pie, thumbs up, etc.

As with so much of this season, the fate of Cooper is a reflection of the fate of the show itself. Twin Peaks 3 sees both Twin Peaks the town and Twin Peaks the TV franchise cast adrift in a wider, more complex world. Within the fabric of the series’s cinematic space-time, the iconic town itself has broken apart and dissolved. Its much-fetishised configuration of interiors and exteriors have lost all their pristine retro charm and faded into a generic American anyplace: a loosely determined clutch of mundane locations. The original ensemble cast of quirky characters are mixed in with a huge number of unfamiliar faces, and have lost all definition. The demonology that enveloped the original series has expanded to the scale of global history, while receding behind further layers of absurdist mysticism.

I would describe the abovementioned phenomenon as the ‘worlding’ of Twin Peaks. This is a term that I originally took from an AbdouMaliq Simone essay (‘On the Worlding of African Cities’) and continue to find very useful in all sorts of contexts. In this essay, Simone deploys the concept of ‘worlding’ to describe the condition of the post-colonial African city and the experiences of the inhabitants therein. He discusses the disorientation experienced by many urban Africans in the wake of policies of decentralisation, which have left ‘multiple figures of interlaced territories that make it difficult for many to determine exactly “where” they are and under whose jurisdiction’:
A seemingly arbitrary circulation of the unknown has penetrated these cities. What makes people rich or poor, what accounts for loss and gain, and "working assessments" of the identities of who is doing what to whom are viewed as more uncertain. As the "insides" of African cities are more differentially linked to proliferating networks of accumulation and circulation operating at also increasingly differentiated scales, this uncertainty is "materialized." […] Thus cities are overpopulated, not simply with people, but also with the forces of magic, spiritual invocation, sorcery, willfulness, and death. […] As a result, urban dwellers now find themselves forced to operate with a more totalizing sense of exteriority.
As a result of the deconstruction of familiar territorial frameworks, whether local or national, urban Africans are left exposed to the incomprehensible arbitrations of global economies, into which these cities are so peripherally integrated. The result is a ‘worlding’ of the terrain on which they see themselves operating, which Simone describes as ‘a state of being “cast out” into the world’. This is accompanied by a total loss of any sense of agency, in which ‘acting upon a circumscribed world of commonality’ becomes ‘nearly impossible’ and urban residents ‘appear increasingly uncertain as to how to spatialize an assessment of their life chances’.

Simone sees this ‘worlding’ as a process inherent to the post-colonial city, in that
it involves the production of orientations to, and sensibilities about, the urban that seemed to posit that the salient features of urban life and its accomplishments were always also taking place somewhere else besides the particular city occupied. […] As such, these cities exist in a universe of being rooted “everywhere and nowhere”.’
What he is describing is a particularly pronounced instance of what is an almost universal (although certainly unevenly distributed) experience, living within globalised late capitalism. Uncertainty and precarity; the inability to plan or save; the injunction to be flexible, adaptable and resilient; the sheer opacity of finance capitalism and global power in the age of multinational corporations and supranational organizations; the difficulty of political action in the face of such organizations: all these dimensions of 21st-century life have been extensively debated over the last few decades, even as they remain notoriously difficult to represent.

This is the socio-political context of the ‘postmodern sublime’ discussed in the previous blogpost: the lived experience of globalisation from a position of increasing alienation, isolation and impotence. Cooper, Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks and its audience all find themselves abruptly ‘cast out’ into a wider, colder, realer world. The disorientation of their present situation is heightened when contrasted with the idealised past represented by the original series. Not only did Twin Peaks thematise and parody American nostalgia on many levels—the town itself, the myth of Laura, the ’50s as golden era—but the show has certainly been misremembered in our broader cultural imaginary: its edges softened, its cracks filled, its critique of such nostalgic fantasies themselves transformed into a new ’80s-oriented nostalgia.

By instrumentalising the original show in this way, along with the cultural memories attached to it, Lynch and Frost are able to reflect the contemporary crisis of white America with striking urgency. Ever since Blue Velvet, Lynch has used his particular brand of ‘timeless’ white Americana as a closed system of mythic archetypes—a fantasy totality, outside of history—which can then be disrupted by the marauding phantoms of repressed fears and desires. Depending on the movie, this mythic configuration can stand in for any number of ‘closed’ ideological constructions: community, society, the bourgeois nuclear family, the sovereign subject/Ego, language, representation, patriarchy, etc. In each case, the traumatic irruption of the repressed Other or disavowed exterior, which inevitably disrupts the film’s logic and coherence, exposes each ‘perfect’ ideological totality as a product of violent repression, erasure and genocide.

Frank Guan, in his superb Vulture piece, ‘What Does David Lynch Have to Say About Race?’, reconstructs a specific socio-cultural context around this polysemously perverse system of archetypes, linking it to the exclusively white fantasy known as ‘the American Dream’. For Guan, Lynch’s work ‘makes whiteness speak and turn its gaze upon itself’:
He has converted, by force if necessary, white America’s simplistic, innocent vision of itself into a complex and incendiary demonology. There has always been a latent contradiction in the phrase “American Dream.” Dreams are the foundation of memories and the house of conscience, but more often than not the success (linked invariably to the possession of white skin) that defines the American Dream demands the forfeiture of memories and conscience. Lynch’s works live in that contradiction and enact its inevitable bad consequence. A society founded on amoral, amnesiac legends of success cannot help but be poisonous: If his art is not an antidote (art is not an antidote for social ills), it is the next best thing, a mirror in which the act of poisoning is faithfully reflected, a toxicology report.
Even though Guan’s analysis bears on the majority of Lynch’s back catalogue, this feels like a response particular to Twin Peaks 3. The new season has made such a politically grounded reading both more possible and more necessary. Lynch’s America has always been rendered metonymically, through disparate settings (towns, cities, regions), each suggesting its own floating interior on the edge of a sublime exterior. For Guan, Twin Peaks 3 ‘completes a knight’s tour…of the six zones’. This not only fixes the ‘interior’ of the season as continental America in its entirety (and thus, for Lynch, an infinite landmass, since there is nothing outside his America), but it also ‘joins the dots’ of his previous works, permitting us to revisit Lynchian ‘Los Angeles’, ‘Texas’ or ‘Iowa’ as locations within a sprawling and formless Lynchian ‘USA’. At the same time, Twin Peaks 3 is also the most contemporary text that Lynch has ever produced (and not in the obvious sense that it’s his most recent). While contemporary details might previously have seemed like anachronisms within an endless, boundless (post-war) golden age, in this season, it is Cooper and co who feel anachronistic in a world that’s almost provocatively up-to-date.

Unlike Lynch’s previous work then, we are aware of a ‘gap’ that unsettles the show from the very start, foreclosing any neat reconciliation with the promises of eternity that characterise the American mythology. Crucially, this gap is not an indicator of difference, but a rupture within sameness: a gap between Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks, between Agent Dale Cooper and Agent Dale Cooper. While the original Cooper, like Betty in Mulholland Drive and Jeffrey in Blue Velvet, existed blissfully within his narcoleptic ideology (at least until it all began to unravel), the ripping of time, space and the fourth wall that initiates Twin Peaks 3 prevents both the characters and the audience from ever feeling comfortable within their dreamworld. While the idealised totality of the American Dream isn’t entirely abandoned, it is displaced from a central role, in conditioning the setting, genre and narrative, to an expression of the viewer’s and Cooper’s desire for coherence. Even as we are ‘cast out’ into a fragmentary world, we cling to the possibility of the restoration of mythical order: of Cooper’s return to full consciousness, of the reappearance of our favourite characters and theme tunes, of Twin Peaks being Twin Peaks again. It is our obsessive investment in this mythical order that prevents us from seeing other possible logics or narratives.

In this way, Twin Peaks 3 shows us the American Dream stretched perilously thin. It’s not so much a reflection of contemporary globalisation as it is of a solipsistic white America that, even in its dissolution and decline, can only see itself and empty/sutured spaces between. (Guan is excellent on the relative marginality of people of colour in Lynch’s work: ‘Centrality for Lynch, an avid disciple of Kafka, is directly linked to guilt. Inclusion is generally desirable, but who wants to be included in another race’s nightmare?’) Thus, ‘late-period’ Lynch is also ‘late-period’ Americana: an Americana that will continue to force its self-identity, even as this identity makes no cogent sense and can produce only anxiety. It is Trump’s America then, but without the demagogue himself, or any master signifier to tie it all together and give it some overall coherence.

Having said all this, Lynch and Frost’s most explicit nod towards Trumpism is refreshingly ambivalent. In many ways, Dr Jacoby’s new ‘shock jock’ persona is a classic populist charlatan, spouting confused conspiracy theories before offering quick fix solutions, available for mail-order purchase. Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ is clearly referenced in Jacoby’s ‘dig yourself out of the shit’, just as his golden shovels glisten with all the spray-on glamour of Trump Towers. And yet, it is Nadine Hurley’s purchase of one of these shovels that catalyses the only unambiguously positive plot development in the entire season: Ed and Norma finally getting together. If, for the audience, for Cooper and for the other quasi-protagonists, coherence, moral clarity and agency are constantly deferred, Jacoby’s simplistic doctrine (which is ultimately more Jean-Paul Sartre than Alex Jones) gives Nadine the ability to act with moral certitude, and moreover, to take unprecedented delight in this newfound capacity.

As touching as this moment is, I can only really view Ed and Norma’s reunion as one of many examples of bitter sarcasm on the part of Lynch and Frost. Nadine arrives at her decision on the basis of Jacoby’s nonsensical moral crusade. In contrast, all those characters engaged in more substantial searches for meaning and purpose are met with only loose ends, red herrings, or worse. A few episodes later, when ‘the good Cooper’ attempts his own act of transcendental goodness, having been re-interpellated to the ideology of justice and moral duty that constructed him as both FBI agent and hero of a TV show, he fails so spectacularly that he effectively destroys the whole universe.

The American Dream has exhausted itself, it’s no longer fit for purpose, and yet white America has yet to find itself a new myth.