Monday, May 12, 2008

The Shapes I Remember from Maps

I was reading my daily dose of web comics, one of which will soon cease to be We The Robots, and I got a little bit disgusted. I love this comic's cut-out, textured art and the jaunty hand-lettering (or the digital approximations of these things). I love the little deedle-bop antennas on top of the robots' heads. I love the flashing pixels when you mouse over the comic's name at the top of the page.

But really? Do I need to be hit over the head again and again by simplistic depictions of suburbia that shows robots oppressed by having to mow the lawn and work in cubicles, unable to escape the cyclops eye of the television and the song of consumer culture though they are fully aware of the hollowness of these things? Snooz. Mock the plastic bag all you want, at least American Beauty, another unhappy exposition of suburbia, suggested that art could uplift us supposedly caged, unhappy modern creatures (and had a pretty good soundtrack, as far as I can remember). In We the Robots today the main character falls asleep at his laptop while writing a memoir for a creative writing class he's taking to try to shine some light on his miserable existence (of course, his wife is supporting him only because she doesn't want to hear him complain).

Why am I going on about this? Right now I'm rereading a wonderful, wonderful book by Marshall Berman called All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. (You should read it if you are feeling kind of confused about what modernism is or why people are so interested in Marx; it's very, very accessible.) We the Robots and so many other things like it are what Berman would call pop nihilism. All it has to say is "an endless, excruciating series of variations on the Weberian themes of the iron cage and the human nullities whose souls are shaped to fit the bars" (Berman is writing about Foucault here). Why bother?

I'm not a huge fan of the suburbs myself. I love the subway, and though I get passive aggressive and grumpy sometimes, I like being out on on foot in the city with all the other city people. Yeah, cubicles suck. And I have not been happy to watch (from afar) the gradual conversion of my California hometown from country orchards and fields into housing developments and strip malls. Still.

One of my very favorite pop songs addresses this question of city/suburbs playfully, ambivalently, and in a way that uh, adds more to the discourse. Well, at least until he starts singing baby noises. "The Big Country" by the Talking Heads--you can listen here and read the lyrics here and get your David Byrne fix here. Our hero is flying over the US of A in an airplane, looking down on all those states in between California and New York (so I imagine), and feeling contempt for "those people down there." But hey, it's healthy, they have fun with their neighbors and friends, and eat good food. No, no, no, "I wouldn't live there if you paid me to!"

"I'm tired of looking out the window of the airplane. I'm tired of travelling; I want to be somewhere. It's not even worth talking about those people down there. Goo! Goo! Ga, ga, ga!"

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