We might begin with the image of American history as a great tidal wave of progress. A wave launched with the appearance of the colonists; a wave rolling with greater and greater momentum westward across the continent. It brushed aside everything that resisted it. It used covered wagons and steamships, homesteads and railroads, guns and axes; it used laws and politics, noble speeches and the rhetoric of free enterprise; it used corporate charters and city charters and civic pride. It remade everything it touched.
This is a rather unreconstructed metaphor – we are, for example, bypassing the question of what this wave might look like to a Native American standing in its way – but it is at the same time a useful one. It captures something of the old notion of Manifest Destiny, and a bit of the American view of its own history as one of an inevitable, necessary advancement. It captures something of the feeling of propulsion that can seem at times to occupy the heart of the so-called American experiment. But it is also useful because of the questions it raises. If our history is to be seen, metaphorically, as a wave of progress sweeping across the continent, what happens when that wave collides with the western wall of the Pacific Ocean? That is, what happens when the wave runs out of land?
At least two possibilities suggest themselves. It might be the case, first, that the wave of progress (we might call it ‘progress’) cannot be stopped. We can imagine it reaching the boundary of the Pacific and simply continuing to accelerate, if not geographically, then into other realms. If we keep pushing on the image, we come to the image that the West Coast, and California in particular, often project: they are the furthest point of advancement, the tip of the still-moving spear, the prow of the boat. This seems to be the self-imagining of Silicon Valley, which would like to see itself as riding at the edge of an accelerating frontier, a force (or the force) for progress and goodness in the world. It is also the imagining forwarded by the rhetoric of Hollywood, with its proclaimed position as the country’s ‘dream factory’, the place that points the way towards what the rest of us can only imagine ourselves being. Under these readings, our westward progress is still continuing. We advance, restlessly and unceasingly, towards some better place.
But there is another possibility. It might also be the case that the progress cannot go on forever. It may be that we should understand American civilisation as becoming increasingly enervated and deracinated as it spreads across the continent, thinner and less substantial, like a wave moving up a beach. Under this view, as it advances, our culture loses strength and decency. Our downfall is inevitable, and you can see that if you look westwards; California is the land of fad and fantasy. There is little more out there than a construction of cultureless suburbs, plastic and unrefined, deadening. This is the old view of the New York stage industry towards Hollywood; it’s the contemporary view sometimes exhibited by the East Coast establishment towards Silicon Valley: they are frivolous, substanceless dreamers with no grasp on either reality or propriety. All flash, no substance. Under this imagining, American civilisation has become increasingly self-corrupted as it has pushed towards the Pacific; the West Coast is not a beacon but a symbol of dissolution. The motion is not towards intensified life, but towards senescence. In the indelible image of the poet James Wright, ‘At the bottom of the cliff / America is over and done with / America, / Plunged into the dark furrows / of the sea again.’
We might continue with a fact: California is running out of water. This is not a metaphor. The details are fairly straightforward. Precipitation has been extremely low for four years. We might also note an example of the difficulty the state has had in approaching this problem: in January of 2014, Governor Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency, and requested that citizens of the state reduce their water consumption. He set a goal of a 20% reduction in water usage. In July of that year, the governor was back with another announcement: the first summer water usage statistics had appeared, and despite the declared state of emergency, people were actually using more water than they had the previous year. Since then, despite rationing to farmland and rapidly-intensifying restrictions by municipalities, things have not improved. There is only so much slack in the system. People use water; they need water. And people need to eat. California produces 71% of spinach consumed in America, and 69% of carrots, 90% of the broccoli, 97% of the plums, 95% of the garlic. And more. It is the breadbasket of American agriculture.
We might offer an observation. It involves Starbucks, a west-coast company (it began in Seattle), and one that heralded the cultural boom of the boutique excellence of the everyday product with which we are now surrounded, from craft coffee and beer to farm-to-table food and excellent television shows. Last year, at Starbucks in California and across the country, coffee cups appeared bearing paper sleeves emblazoned with motivational sayings from Oprah Winfrey. The program, affiliated with the company Teavana (a subsidiary of Starbucks) was familiar in its outlines. It combined notions of corporate philanthropy – a portion of profits was donated to one of Oprah’s own charitable foundations – with self-help jargon; the underlying motive was, of course, to increase sales for Starbucks and fame and profit for Oprah. In terms of the dynamics we expect from our corporations, there was little unusual in this.
But if we pause for a moment, and step outside of our own familiarity, it’s possible to see how absolutely strange this is. We were drinking from cups of coffee bearing self-help slogans. What on earth for? What, if we step back from our position of familiarity, does this mean? One obvious place to start is by examining the intention of this campaign: what was the effect it wanted to create? How exactly did it intend to increase sales? We might first note that these slogans made us, or tried to make us, feel better about ourselves. As Slavoj Zizek is fond of pointing out, programs like this one allow us to consume without guilt. When we patronised Starbucks last year, those coffee sleeves assured us that we were no longer simply buying a product from a large, faceless corporate entity that did not much acknowledge our existence. Instead, we were buying a product that both gave to charity and reinforced our notion that, through the purchase, we were actually increasing the degree of our self-actualisation. The product was, in some sense, engaging with us on a level that was separate from its existence as a simple commodity.
But what, exactly, was the content of this engagement? One of the messages from Oprah on the cardboard sleeves read: ‘Be more splendid. Be more extraordinary. Use every moment to fill yourself up.’ Splendid is descended from the Latin splendidus, meaning bright, or shining, or gorgeous. Extraordinary is also from a Latin word, meaning outside of the common order. So what Oprah and Starbucks were urging is that we be bright, shining, glorious stars of our own, outside the realm of the ordinary, that last world here presumably meaning ‘everybody else’. So far, so good. This message, like the program itself, is so familiar to American culture as to serve as an entirely unremarkable background, or perhaps foundational element, of it. Each of us can shine. Each of us can be perfectly individuated from the mass.
The second half of Oprah’s exhortation showed us how: ‘Use every moment to fill yourself up.’ Here again we have the familiar element of ‘using every moment’. Life is precious; waste none of it. And how? By ‘filling yourself up.’ It’s this last phrase that contains the pure distillation of the message, as though each of the preceding ideas has suddenly and sharply come into focus. There is, of course, the not-so-subtle pushing of the product through the reference of ‘filling’ (as in another cup of coffee.) Beyond this, however, resides the deeper image: we will become splendid and extraordinary by filling ourselves. We are to take every moment and use it to draw the world into us, to consume it; this moving of everything into our being will be the feat that actualises us.
This logic was pushed to its final conclusion by another slogan on a sleeve. ‘You are not here to shrink down to less, but to blossom into more of who you really are.’ That is to say, the exhortations of the first message are not exhortations to change ourselves. Rather, they are indications of our real, if hitherto unknown, potential. They are about our true purpose. You are not here to change, you are here ‘to blossom into more of who you really are.’ You already contain the seeds of greatness. To be ‘more splendid’ and ‘more extraordinary’, you need to fill yourself up. But this will not alter you, or make you into someone else. It will, instead, release your true self. It will reveal your deepest actuality. Do not change, and do not let people tell you to change; instead, fill yourself up until your true inner perfection begins to emerge.
We might consider the Peoples Church of Fresno. This is an entirely ordinary evangelical church, of the kind that can be found across the nation; however, for our purposes it is worth remembering that the history of American evangelism is intimately connected, for worse and for better, with the history of American westward expansion and American exceptionalism. The eradication of the Native Americans had religious as well as social and economic roots – one has only to remember the famous Presbyterian minister Benjamin Palmer’s 1901 sermon, in which he argued that ‘when the Indians had, for countless centuries, neglected the soil, had no worship to offer the true God, with scarcely any serious occupation but murderous inter-tribal wars … the Indian [was] swept from the earth, and a great Christian nation, over seventy-five million strong, [rose] up.’ At the same time, however, much of the movement to abolish slavery in this country was religious, and evangelical, in nature: the seminaries in the (then frontier) Midwest were hotbeds for radical abolitionist thought, and John Brown was an evangelical Christian who started his career as a violent religious radical in Kansas. There has always been contradiction in our religious history; there have always been both anti-human and pro-human forces at work.
At the Peoples Church of Fresno last summer the lead pastor, Dale Oquist, taught a series of lessons on ‘Jesusology’. The title, like the title of Oprah’s project with Starbucks – ‘Steep Your Soul’ – was mostly a sales pitch, designed to stimulate intrigue while maintaining just enough referential force to indicate its content. So Jesusology was the study of the ‘life, significance, and ministry of Jesus.’ So far, so good. This is exactly what we might expect to be happening at a church of this sort. The online summary of the first sermon in the series listed three main points, and two of the three were unremarkable: ‘Jesus was in the business of reshaping people’s views of who God is,’ and ‘We are to make straight the paths of our lives for Yahweh to come to us.’ These indicated that the sermon, like many evangelical sermons, was both a discussion of what the life and teachings of Jesus reveal about the true nature of God, and a discussion of the Biblical injunction to work on reducing the obstacles in our lives that prevent our communion with God.
But the third main point of the sermon is worth pausing over. It bore italics in the summary, and read: ‘God is not mad at us!‘ It was explained in the following way: ‘People tend to believe God causes or allows things to go wrong because of something they did wrong. Today we learned Jesus was in the business of reshaping peoples’ views of God. We can know that God is not angry at us.‘ (Italics again in the original.) In a sense, this too is a common piece of Biblical teaching. The point is that our sins have been pre-forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus, and that (if we accept God into our hearts) the path of salvation is therefore open to us. We will not be punished if we repent of our sins.
But there is still something remarkable about that initial phrase: God is not mad at us! Thinking this over, it might occur to us to ask a question: Why, exactly, would we think that he is mad at us? Or, to put it differently: What was Pastor Oquist is seeing in his congregation that made him want to reassure them in this way? The answer is given in the explanation that follows: ‘People tend to believe God causes or allows things to go wrong because of something they did wrong.’ So Pastor Oquist seemed to feel that we are afraid things are going wrong in the world because of something we did, and his natural inclination was to comfort us. God is not angry at us; we should not live in fear, or sadness, or guilt. Our goal, as articulated in the other bullet points, is instead to open ourselves up to God so that we can know the truth about the world.
One begins to see the connection to the platitudes of Oprah Winfrey on the Starbucks cup. Both originate in assumptions about the unhappiness, or un-fulfillment, of their audience. Starbucks and Oprah assume that we feel un-actualised, so they try to reassure us that there is a path open to actualisation; Pastor Oquist believes we are afraid that God is mad at us, so he reassures us this isn’t the case. And beneath both of these vision lies the old notion of progress. Progress westward, progress towards a greater place, towards a promised destiny. Progress towards a world in which, through filling ourselves up as individuals – through our personal splendour, through our personal relationship with God – we will somehow find our way through to a world that is better for everyone.
There is a strange sleight of hand a work in all of this. It takes place in the assertion that through focusing on the ‘I’ we will improve the ‘we’. The path to community, that is, takes place through individualism. Consider a final example: the architecture, or built geography, of suburban California, and indeed, suburban America. It has often been claimed that there is a sort of anesthesia in this geography, composed as it is of interstates and strip malls, endless one and two-story responses to population growth, streets like inescapable mazes, identical houses strung one after another to the horizon. There is a truth to these observations: from the outside these suburbs can come to look like a physical manifestation of what Adorno and Horkheimer loathed in what they the termed ‘the culture industry’. The repetition and flatness of affect can appear ideological, designed to perpetuate a culture in which, ‘conformity has replaced consciousness.’
But from the inside – that is, actually driving among these neighbourhoods and interacting with their owners – that ‘conformity’ takes on a new aspect. We see that the birds-eye view of the horror of the place must be somehow integrated with an understanding of the experience of its residents. To many of the people who live in these suburbs, they are not a repository of conformist horror, but a confirmation of achievement. Each property is a small, inviolable personal kingdom. They are fenced. Kids splash in backyard pools. The lawns are manicured. The cars are cared for meticulously, and there are very few older models. As with the houses themselves, the point of the cars is not that everyone else may have exactly the same model, but that I too have one. That is to say, from the inside, these suburbs are not representations of conformity, but of success. It is the success of I too. It is purchased with sweat, and perseverance, and hard-won dollars. All of my neighbours may have one, sure, but I too have a small castle of my own.
Looking closely, we can see the way in which this is a physical synthesis of the Oprah/Starbucks exhortation to splendidness and Pastor Oquist’s reassurance that God is not angry, you simply have to open yourself up to him. It is a geography, physical as well as social, that assures you of the possibility of achievement. It is a geography that reinforces the notion that even if there are awful things going on out there in the world, here you can have stability and comfort and be among the like-minded. Here, God is not angry. All of this is possible; achieving it, deeply and truly, simply requires faith in the dream, along with a continued and constructive work on the self. For Oprah, this work is a filling up of the self; for Pastor Oquist, it is an acceptance of what was done for you, that is, an acceptance that it was on your behalf that Jesus died on the cross. In both cases, what is required is that belief in the validity of the self, the joy in the self, the acceptance of the self, the perfectibility of the self. And the ultimate reassurance is that it is through this focus on the self that the ‘we’ lurking behind all of the encomiums will be created. We will have our malls and our movie theatres, our clothing stores and our cars. It is through the ‘I’ that the ‘we’ will be triumphant.
We might return to the drama of the drought in California and the difficulty of taking measures to offset it. What becomes clear, if we look at the way people are living and what they are being told, is that to be asked to reduce, be it water or any other consumable, runs counter to nearly every mandate, belief, and historical self-understanding of our culture. California, and by extension America, is about having. It is not about not having. It is about doing, not about not doing. If the choice is between some relatively abstract notion of preservation on the one hand, and washing the car on the other, we will choose washing the car. We will choose to eat out-of-season vegetables to promote our health, and we will choose to take our regular showers to maintain our sense of hygiene. Why? Because when we are confronted with doubt, or difficulty, the accumulated weight of the system of beliefs in which we have operated for the entirety of our lives rests on the side of continuing to fill ourselves up. It rests on the side of displacing our fears that we might bear responsibility. It rests on our belief in our own destiny, and our movement towards it; it rests on our belief that through the consuming ‘I’ we will reach the promised ‘we’. These bad things are not happening because of anything we’ve done; God is not mad at me, he cannot be punishing us.
In these ways, the need to use less water is nearly impossible to negotiate, because it is a worldly annoyance running up against transcendent imperatives. It is competing with self-actualisation. And self-actualisation, we are told over and over again, is the entire goal of our lives. It is through self-actualisation that we will, in Donald Trump’s phrase, ‘Make America Great Again.’ We are meant, we have been told more times than we can count, to have our own small place in the sun; we have worked for that place, we have been promised it, and we’re sure as hell not giving it back.
It is here, I think, that the great sad force of the metaphor of American culture as a wave becomes finally and fully apparent. A wave is not a movement of water, it is a movement of force through water. And the force that moves through us is the very notion of progress itself. When it runs up against the reality of California, the reality of the drought, we see that it is boundless and unstoppable, and at the same time enervated, dissipating. It is a force at once ever-expanding and ever-thinning, an endless taking-in, an endless self-fulfilment, and the continual emptying-out of these things. It is the notion of California, land of the blossoming star, land of the internet billionaire, land where we can each have our personal kingdom; it is the notion of the new electronic frontier sweeping out away from us and across the world, promising a California for every human on earth, regardless of how devoid of meaning that promised land is.
It is this force, this idea of progress, with which we need to contend. When we see Oprah’s slogans on our coffee cups, we should howl with laughter at the idea that we will be made better by coffee. When we hear of Pastor Oquist’s sermons we should ache with sadness at his need to so reassure his congregation. We should long to tear down the sterility and separation of the suburbs, their imprisoning message of false achievement. We should agitate and organise and foment. We should proclaim that the natural world has an inherent value that is greater than the value of our personal or financial success; that transcendence comes not from a filling-up of ourselves but from a re-awakening of our connections to each other and to the non-human world; and that we must not pretend that we are something other responsible agents, fully capable of destroying ever single thing around us.
But we should do none of this in service of the idea of progress. We should do it because if we don’t we are not living, experiencing, cognisant beings. We are simply inanimate objects through which destructive force is transmitted.
Tyler Sage lives and teaches in California. His fiction and essays have appeared in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, The Common, Bright Lights Film Journal, The L.A. Review of Books, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can find him at tksage.com.