Photo: s.yume/ CC.
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My Suburban Shame

Immigrant parents, a deleted history, and the fading chip on my shoulder

 

Once upon a time a place existed, so lacking in personality it could have been anywhere, its only distinction was as a generic patch of bland somewhere on the open map of North America. This being the landscape of my petulant adolescence, inevitably my memories are tainted by my rejection of it. Possibly there were people living out meaningful and cultured lives on the northern perimeters of Toronto, Ontario. My own, however, was one of spectacular blankness and boredom.

The name, Willowdale, was a nod to the willow trees that once grew across a wild and raw land, dotted with tiny houses. Between the 1950s and 70s, the trees were mowed down along with most of the homes to make room for commercial development. The willows were never replanted. Entire blocks of houses were replaced by stretches of repetitive “monster” homes, houses lacking the ostentatiousness of McMansions but sharing size as their main distinction. More mass-produced housing soon followed, along with mid sized-office towers, commercial shopping centres, large parking lots, all the basic bells and whistles of suburbia far from the urban core. If somewhere beyond the mall, the high school, and the manicured lawns, an echo of the raw young country still reverberated by the time my family moved to Willowdale I was immune to it.

The population: one part white and protestant, one part Jewish, one part the rest of us, a mish-mash of immigrants from far-flung countries. In my case, both my own parents had survived vastly different parts of the world, and were still reeling from the war-torn lives they had escaped.

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There is a great myth of a type of immigrant family, usually off-white to dark skinned, arriving on the shores of the New World. Usually portrayed as percolating with spicy foods, wise sayings, and a poultice for your pains, they nestle into our multicultural quilt and, it is assumed, raise children who straddle two identities. There is another narrative, though, one not of immersion but of erasure, of traumatized immigrants who turn their backs on their scorched past, and dial their hopes towards a fresh land. These parents offer their offspring a blank page unmarked by their own histories, and so they speak little of the past, and through their silence they erase it. As immigrants they are unable to fully offer up and explain the adopted present. The suburban landscape proposes no lessons beyond consumerism and pop culture. The children are left adrift, in a great past-less, ritual-less, meaningless blahville.

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What I’ve described comes very close to Marc Augé’s definition of non-place. In Non-Places, An introduction to Supermodernity he describes such spaces as functional, with specific ends in mind such as subways, airports, shopping malls, hotels etc.. These are the transitional zones one passes through on the way to some place else. Non-places are devoid of history or culture, and offer a “juxtapositions of solitudes” instead of meaningful interactions. A quick taste can be conjured up with the following mental trick. Imagine yourself strolling through a shopping mall during the off-hours. Life sized plastic figures are posed around you, and the mind-numbing effect of the wide hallways and florescent lighting slows down thought, until space becomes timeless. You are like a gambler in Las Vegas with nothing to gamble, or a languid fish stuck in an aquarium. You are marooned in non-place.

So, can suburbia be considered a non-place? Technically, not exactly because human dwellings are normally effervescent spaces percolating with relationships, rituals and culture. However, one specific detail draws a parallel between the two. In suburbia one is always heading someplace. If one lives there, one rarely works there, and so you consume the long commuter stretches. Within the burb itself, the roads frequently fork and re-fork, yet none of those circling detours lead to spots where one can stop and mingle. No chance for solitudes to mingle for a moment at the corner store, in the square, at the café, or bakery; instead, you keep it moving. Suburbia is landscape in motion. It is ahistorical, or, any past inscribed on its soil is wafer thin. Imagine now, the family unit unable to provide an oral backstory, offering up the barest of rituals and meaningful relationships. The combination leaves you somewhere very similar to non-place, stuck living your days out in Nowheresville.

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Space works upon our senses, and so there are consequences to erasing history and culture from a place, as well as from a life. The mind’s expectations, experiences and assumptions have only the shallow prism of the present — popular culture and consumerism — with which to interpret the world. The question then becomes: in the inexhaustible present can one ever attach meaning to space and make it into a real place? In other words, can a nowhere ever be made into a somewhere?

If we’re counting on pop culture as a guide towards meaning, and consider it a banality, it certainly seems impossible. However, pop culture is a spot where the market place meets the public’s imagination, and is a place of struggle between the two. Inevitably, within that struggle there’s room for some zest and vigour, to shoulder through.

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In August, 2010, inspired by brothers Win and Will Butlers’ upbringing in The Woodlands, a suburb of Houston Texas, Arcade Fire released their third album, The Suburbs. Four months later, Spike Jonze released his video for the title track composed of excerpts from his film Scenes from the Suburbs. I was not prepared for the effect, of how that music with those images would join forces to lure me like a siren’s plea back towards my past. I find it difficult to express with adequate force, the flash and shiver of recognition I felt for the first two minutes of film, essentially one long carefree sun-shot of boys on bikes curving through suburban space. How deftly they swerve, as if on their own magic carpet ride, past the dormant monster houses bordering their swish and swoosh. Are kids ever more graceful then when gliding down the street on a bike? Rising high on the pedals, then sinking back as the speed wears itself out. I was immediately hooked on those shaggy slangy boys, with their lean shoulder statures and smirking poses. They sat next to me in high school, and I can still see the looseness of their walk, with the slight drag to their feet. Now here was a camera’s tender and empathic eye charming them back into beauty with a palate of green-grey-blue, colours like paint shades left out in the sun.

After-binge watching the video for one week, those early scenes were as familiar and vivid as a memory, as if somehow I’d zipped back in time and altered my own past. I know this because when I checked how I felt about Willowdale, for the first time the feeling was happy. So how exactly had my past been reinvented?

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Dana Seitler, in her reading of Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement, says when we experience an aesthetic pleasure that has been agreed upon — when together we declare something is cool, or beautiful, or moving — we experience a spontaneous communion with others. Such a connection goes beyond having your taste reaffirmed, because in a state of artistic bliss you have the sense of being connected to other states of being (in the case of the aforementioned video: carefree, happily connected to other people, worry free, young). An aesthetic experience that allows us to imagine our bodies moving, also connects us to other bodies moving, and to all bodies moving. So, if your artistic bliss includes watching someone riding a bike, you experience a sense of communion with other beings, with other states of being, and also with all bike-riding bodies.

As Carla Freccero notes, in Queer/Early/ Modern the past is not fixed, but active, a “fantasmatic historiography” that is continually recombining history and fantasy, past and present, event and affect. In other words, your past exits in a kind of suspended state waiting actively to move the present.

In this way, books heal. Music mends. Films fortify. Across the borders of space and time, person to person, body to body, what we create connects us and brings meaning and healing.