Trip Like I Do—E. Washington Roadscapes

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“I went in search of astral America, not social and cultural America, but the America of the empty, absolute freedom of the freeways, not the deep America of mores and mentalities, but the America of desert speed, of motels and mineral surfaces. I looked for it in the speed of the screenplay, in the indifferent reflex of television, in the film of days and nights projected across an empty space, in the marvelously affectless succession of signs, images, faces, and ritual acts on the road; looked for what was nearest to the nuclear and enucleated universe, a universe which is virtually our own, right down to its European cottages … I knew all about this nuclear form, this future catastrophe when I was still in Paris of course. But to understand it, you have to take to the road, to that travelling which achieves what Virilio calls the aesthetics of disappearance.

For the mental desert form expands before your very eyes, and this is the purified form of social desertification. Disaffection finds its pure form in the barrenness of speed. All that is cold and dead in desertification or social enucleation rediscovers its contemplative form here in the heat of the desert. Here in the transversality of the desert and the irony of geology, the transpolitical finds its generic, mental space. The inhumanity of our ulterior, asocial, superficial world immediately finds its aesthetic form here, its ecstatic form. For the desert is simply that: an ecstatic critique of culture, an ecstatic form of disappearance.”

(Jean Baudrillard, Amerique)

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Much of our contemporary affect is mediated through online interactions & impressions of each other filtered through avatars of our fragmented selves; here, we present our contemplative side; there, we are belligerents.

Regardless of the content of our characters, we absorb each other like tabloid readers: with a steady media diet of crime and neglectful parents and all sorts of brain rot, they end up like Watchmen’s Rorschach. What’s the coastal elite equivalent? What does consuming doom and snark and constant embattlement produce?

These questions came to me some weeks ago after thinking about just how shockingly nice the world can be outside our hyper-mediated bubbles—& yes much of that niceness is in “middle America.” I’m remembering it again as I read about “Astral America.”

It’s the little things, like getting charged for one scoop of ice cream that is far from ISO compliant, or a tire technician who doesn’t charge anything at all for changing a lug nut, because she feels bad about writing down the wrong number & keeping our car for too long. Or a roadside motel that upgrades us to a 4-room suite & kitchen for free because someone extended their stay.

My reflex for sharing stories like these has atrophied, which is too bad. Because my surprise & appreciation at seeing common decency has not waned.

All these thoughts remind me of an old Readers’ Digest joke: kids gathered around a campfire, saying “wow, these graphics are awesome.” It’s a spin on Baudrillard’s claim that “America is a hologram”—& it really can be. But that impression has more to do with our ethics of seeing (our lens, our angle, our focal point and composition) than anything “really out there.”

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