Suburbia is a Cyborg

Suburbia is a cyborg. It is a techno-industrial grid within which its human residents are trapped, conformed, dependent units in a vast, entropic feedback loop. It is also — as a whole — dependent on an inconceivably extravagant and uninterrupted inflow of materials from across the globe. Without that uninterrupted inflow, Suburbia will convulse and perish.

The process of consuming these materials creates the Suburban consequence of waste. Volcanically growing islands of landfill — so vast that there is now a global import-export industry for trash, for all that abandoned technomass; and we live in an ever more micro-toxified environment.

Cyborg: an organism that is a self-regulating integration of artificial and natural systems.

Suburbia is also a spiritual wasteland, a place where the wonder of nature is desecrated ubiquitously with corporate logos and all the artifacts of late technological society.

Middle class angst: The politics of lemmings, part 1
By Stan Goff

This is the sort of piece that, at first glance anyway, I tend not to like. The word ‘lemmings’ in the title is a red flag. Too often these critiques of suburbia are written by prosperous academics or journalists living in the gentrified inner-city and working out some Oedipal drama from their childhood. It’s easy to be angry writing away in your loft and planing another long weekend on Long Island. This is different.

First, it’s rooted in a persuasive historical argument that sees the suburbs as the White community’s social and political response to the Civil Rights Movement, starting in the 1950s and continuing on into the struggles over busing in th 1970s. I was raised in one of these suburbs– in the 1960s and 70s in Houston– and I have taught many students raised in these racial enclaves here in the Midwest and elsewhere. The descriptions ring true.

Obviously, this also resonants with my recent post on social networks, which seem to be duplicating the ‘lunchroom racism’ of the suburbs. It also helps to explain the profound ambivalence the U.S. public has towards the war. On the one hand, polls have shown again and again that Americans want the U.S. out of Iraq; on the other, there is no sign of a mass mobilization. One explanation is the suburban fear of falling out of the middle classes, due to their profound dependence on oil.

I am never quite sure that things are ever so easy to explain, but its a suggestive way to think about the material basis for the contradiction. You can add to that mix the problems caused by the collapse of the housing bubble, the erosion of real wages, and the xenophobia associated with the growth of a new minority. White flight is unlikely to be an adequate response to Hispanic immigration.

The suburbs are in a defensive posture; the War is in defense of the gated (White) community. The piece is long (part two is here) and it ends with what seems to me a futile appeal to Christianity, but it is worth reading. I don’t want to imply, by the way, that I disagree with Goff’s reading of “the ideals of the Jewish Palestinian anarchist our culture often claims to follow.” But I don’t think the Christians of the suburbs, with a few exceptions, would ever recognize him as the central figure of their creed.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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