Dystopia Report: The I-710 Corridor Aesthetic Master Plan

Fredric Jameson begins his essay “Utopia as Replication” (Valances of the Dialectic. New York, Verso, 2010) with the example of Los Angeles’ freeways, a kind of new order superimposed on an older kind of city. In the new Freeway city cars hover and over preexisting, denser, centralized spaces. In the collision of these two urbanities a new kind of city emerges, one that we’re all familiar with. The freeway builder’s utopian promise of speed and liberty delivers, instead, exurban sprawl, congestion and waves of urban decay and gentrification. That utopian vision of Freeway building is personified in mid-century figures like Robert Moses and the city fathers of early 20th century Los Angeles.

But Jameson goes on to question, “does anyone believe in progress any longer?  . . . are the architects and urbanists still passionately at work on Utopian cities?” An answer to Jameson’s question came this week in an astonishing and horrifying set of PowerPoint slides for the I-710 Corridor Aesthetic Master Plan released to the world via StreetsblogLA’s Twitter. The 710 freeway embodies the global, neoliberal economic order. It’s the main trucking route for all the crap from China that flows into the Port here and towards the massive distribution warehouses of Amazon and Wallmart. One of the many casualties of the global economy are the poorest residents of LA County who live in the pollution plume of the 710.

These PowerPoint slides prove that, yes, the engineers (architects?) are still designing stuff but they don’t believe in it anymore. It’s just a job. I suspect that at least some of them know that their work only makes things worse. At the end of the day these engineers and consultants get on the very same congested freeways they don’t believe in to commute to their exurban homes with the better schools. Gone is Moses’ utopian bluster, replaced with the most banal office PowerPoint slide pixel pushing, probably outsourced to some bored consultant.

This particular slide may be the best ever proof of the thesis of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs book, that perhaps half of all people in Western countries are engaged in useless, soul-sucking office work. I mean, spend a moment appreciating the visual chaos that is this image. Ask yourself if it has any purpose whatsoever other than fulfilling some checkbox on a list of meaningless public engagement metrics. What possible purpose does this slide fulfill?

Then appreciate this bleak slide depicting a vista we’re all too familiar with.

Of this slide StreetsblogLA says in Twitter, “And, hey, @metrolosangeles @CaltransDist7 what’s this beige-clad blond businessman doing walking across the 710 Freeway in Southeast Los Angeles? Why not depict Latino families who depend on these bridges to get to school?” Indeed, that beige-clad business man has never seen the outside of his Tesla when out and about. Meanwhile the car-less in this city, largely Latino and African-American,  have faced a striking increase in pedestrian and bike fatalities in the past year.

The French have an expression for this one, “a bandage on a wooden leg.” Here in the U.S. we might say, “the cherry on the shit sundae.” Create a bleak, hostile landscape and put up some kind of bland mural that serves only to accumulate diesel particulate.

Jameson acknowledges something that the writer and philosopher Mark Fisher later built on, how stuck we are in the way things are, unable to imagine a different way of doing things. But that’s precisely what we have to do: imagine and tell stories about a better world. Jameson concludes the essay,

Utopology revives long dormant parts of the mind, unused organs of political and historical and social imagination which have virtually atrophied for lack of use, muscles of praxis we have long since ceased exercising, revolutionary gestures we have lost the habit of perform- ing, even subliminally. Such a revival of futurity and of the positing of alternate futures is not itself a political program nor even a political practice: but it is hard to see how any durable or effective political action could come into being without it.

We lost Mark Fisher in 2017 to suicide. After his death his students painted a quote from his book Capitalist Realism. “Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.” Freeways may seem inevitable and necessary but they’ve been torn down in many cities now. We can do the same here in Los Angeles. Let’s stop composing Powerpoint slides and break out the dynamite.

Wake Up and Fight

Woodie Guthrie’s New Years Resolutions, 1942.

I had a dream the other night that an acquaintance of mine who used to have a blog did a negative review of my innocuous New Years post. In the dream he went on about how putting up that picture of a pupusa just wasn’t “serious.”

This is, of course, a silly anxiety dream. There’s no way this person would ever have complained about any of my posts let alone that one. But this dream crystalized two writing fears of mine: offending people and going off-topic. These fears lead to writer’s block and timid writing. They can also cause you to lose contact with the muses entirely.

To regain some of that muse contact I lost over the pandemic I feel like I need to let go of these fears even if I lose a few readers in the process. Which is itself a ridiculous fear since, if I were chasing clicks, I would have given up long ago.

Almost all of the “urban homesteading” blogs like this one disappeared years ago. That’s the result of many factors. One is the rise of social media, as capital found a way to monetize posting and shift the fruits of that monetization away from creators and towards large companies like Meta (gag) and all the others: Twitter, TikTok, YouTube etc. I’m sorry to say that I bought into the optimism about the internet in the 90s, that we’d all have blogs and disrupt Big Media. That turned out to be a dystopian joke. Now all we have are uncle Bob’s Qanon rants.

Another change happened during the last few years. Concern over “fake news” caused Google to tweak their algorithm such that results from large institutional sources such as The Washington Post, The New York Times etc. are favored over humble blogs like this one. In the golden age of blogging I could expect traffic from posts on niche topics. Now that search traffic has dried up.

And, yet, I still find this blog worthwhile even if traffic has greatly diminished. Root Simple functions both as a diary of sorts and as a way to explore new concepts and ideas. I hope that un-censoring myself will help me get back in touch with the muses. I think that the letting go of the fear of going off topic will actually be the biggest step. Wish me luck and I thank you all for sticking with us over the years.

Protein Synthesis: an Epic on the Cellular Level!

A Nobel prize winning biochemist explains protein synthesis via a dance and music psychedelic freak out session? Yes, that really happened in the 1971 educational cult film classic Protein Synthesis: an Epic on the Cellular Level!

The film is introduced by Paul Berg, who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1980 for his work in recombinant DNA. A staff member with a sense of humor alerted me to this movie while I was a grad student at UCSD. I even got to meet one of Berg’s students who said that he was an amazing teacher always looking for creative ways to visualize science. The director and band leader, Robert Alan Weiss, later married Initiator Factor Two. You can read more background on the film here. And a special thanks goes out to the UCSD library for posting a high quality copy.

Obviously it’s well past time for a Covid-19 and/or vaccine remix of this film since both the virus and the mRNA vaccines work by hijacking the very same protein synthesis mechanism depicted by Berg, Weiss and company.

Thomas Pynchon on Pizza

Still from the movie Inherent Vice based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon.

Blog reader BLDinMT left a kind comment responding to my silly post on cooking out of the Café Gratitude cookbook which triggered a memory of a passage in Thomas Pynchon’s novel Vineland. I don’t remember much about the novel but I do remember Pynchon’s spot-on description of 1970s era California health food cooking,

Prairie worked at the Bodhi Dharma Pizza Temple, which a little smugly offered the most wholesome, not to mention the slowest, fast food in the region, a classic example of the California pizza concept at its most misguided. Zoyd was both a certified pizzamaniac and a cheapskate, but not once had he ever hustled Prairie for one nepotistic slice of the Bodhi Dharma product. Its sauce was all but crunchy with fistfuls of herbs only marginally Italian and more appropriate in a cough remedy, the rennetless cheese reminded customers variously of bottled hollandaise or joint compound, and the options were all vegetables rigorously organic, whose high water content saturated, long before it baked through, a stone-ground twelve-grain crust with the lightness and digestibility of a manhole cover.

Pynchon being Pynchon, pizza appears frequently in his novels as a multi-valiant symbol. In Vineland it’s a symbol of the Dharma wheel and the eight-fold path of Buddhism (pizza is usually cut into eight pieces).

News From Nowhere

We did some traveling last week for the first time in two years and I flew for the first time since 2013. On our trip to the in-law’s reunion I was struck by how much of this country is made up of liminal spaces, as if the whole landscape were one long, dead mall corridor leading nowhere.

It’s common to see these vistas as a kind of moral/aesthetic failure rather than the landscape of a capitalist system that has to always be in motion or it will end up in crisis. It’s no coincidence that most of our land is devoted to constant churn, movement and commerce. As David Harvey points out, the first thing that president G.W. Bush suggested we all do before the dust even settled on the World Trade Center was not to stop, contemplate, pray or meditate but to, “Go shopping!” That is, to drive to the mall and spend some money. Capitalism’s need for constant motion results in a landscape that operates like a long, circular airport corridor with no end. The point is the churn not the destination.

It’s shouldn’t be a surprise that in a system based on motion and individualism that the automobile would dominate. For years I fought for better bike infrastructure here in Los Angeles. The enemy was “car-centric planning” or so I thought. But we live not in car-centric cities but capitalist cities. Cars are just one more way to build capital. They are, after all, packaged debt that just happens to have an inefficient mode of transit attached to it. We’re all forced into cars because that’s the best way to wring profit out of the transportation sector. For this reason we should never shame people for driving a car because we live in a system that forces us to.

Our airport hotel even had an upscale weed shop in the parking lot.

Denver, where I was visiting the in-laws has many beautiful streets, parks, the stunning Rocky Mountains in the distance (obscured by the fires burning in California) and one hell of a lot of weed shops. To be clear I fully support legalized pot but I can’t help but think that so many people are self medicating to relieve the misery of meaningless low paid work, the anxiety of the pandemic and life in this meaningless corridor leading to nowhere.

It would be a mistake to just go along and accept this world as it is, to think that it’s just a matter of morality or that we can somehow go back to a previous “golden age” way of doing things. As Angela Davis said in a lecture in 2014, “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” Let’s work on exiting this endless corridor.