This is the second in a series of columns on political life by James Duesterberg; read the first here.
After weeks of rain and unseasonable cold, the first Sunday in May promised spring in New York. Daily deaths in the city were down to twice their normal rate. It was 75 degrees, and the condensate venting from the refrigerated trucks outside Mt. Sinai hospital looked a little like a promise of summer. “People will come outside, and that’s great,” Cuomo said. “Go for a walk. But just respect the social distance and wear a mask.” We biked to Central Park, fiddling with our masks, remembering what it’s like to look around and be looked at. We met a friend and sat on the grass and talked. The park was full, but not crowded; the air felt clean and refreshing. I thought of the outing in the park in Billy Wilder’s sunny early film People on Sunday, a portrait of Weimar Berlin; it was a nice scene, an image of leisure in a livable city.
But I left with a bad feeling. It had been simply one more day, like the ones before it; the ones to come after would be like that, too. We have been urged to see quarantine as an opportunity, something akin to a vacation on both a personal and a political level. Break out of bad habits, “reboot” your routine, reevaluate what really matters. If everyone did this, then society itself might be renewed, made more human or ecological or future-proof. Some kind of renewal did happen, it seems, after the Great Depression and Second World War. But as the U.S. and Europe contemplate loosening emergency measures, one gets the sense that this return will be different. In the park I watched a woman orbit a blooming tulip, following her phone as she tried to bring it into focus. She wanted to capture something beautiful, but she wasn’t looking. Her mind was elsewhere, syncing with the cloud, and I knew how she felt. These signs of life, the springtime promises of growth cycling on forever, are not for us.
Call this feeling Lynchian. It is a mood, an atmosphere: everything looks fine, and yet something is wrong, off, uncanny. People and animals, houses and trees, strike us as so many pasteboard masks and mechanical dolls. It is hard to describe it, but it radiates out of the screen when you watch David Lynch. His films, and especially his television show Twin Peaks, seem fabricated whole cloth out of Americana clichés: all small-town diners, comfy clubhouses, white picket fences and endless highways; teenagers, motorcycles and cigarettes. The conversation is canned, and the sun always glints a little too bright off the surface of things.
Not too long ago, in the hipster 2000s, “Lynchian” became, something like “Kafka-esque,” a kind of cliché. It was broad and yet esoteric enough to signal ironic sophistication, and it took its place alongside vinyl records and PBR (which fad can probably be traced to Blue Velvet, where Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth, another of Lynch’s seductively unhinged villains, berates a young, yuppie-leaning Kyle MacLachlan as he leads him into a nightclub: “Heineken? Fuck that shit! PABST BLUE RIBBON!”)
But it is more than a cliché; the Lynchian aesthetic haunts these past twenty years. The very long 1990s were a perpetual morning in America, where growth kept growing, and the world kept melting into a worldwide American dream, an age of endless apple pie and Apple products, where all the bits that didn’t fit were hidden away until the end of history—an end that was, like government debt or a tech CEO’s death, forever postponed.
Lynch’s films are a part of that world, but they show it at a different angle, and it is this that constitutes their attraction. Behind the postmodern play of endless surfaces, there is almost always some traumatic, demonic force. In Twin Peaks, Lynch’s TV show from the early 1990s, there is the hypnotic Americana of the town’s daily life, and then there is the Black Lodge: an otherdimensional space where evil lives. There is no path that leads from one to the other, no chain of logic that connects the world of appearances with what churns below. There is prom queen Laura Palmer with her pink diary and her secret boyfriend, and then there is a demon named BOB who rapes and kills her in the woods. They are both simply there, unavoidable. You find yourself in the Black Lodge, and things go bad; you fall off into the darkness, like when a dream suddenly turns. In between, you wait: the atmosphere is electric, a static charge. You are held in the still instant between pleasure and death, and it is almost like a promise: there, it seems, you might stay. This in-between space was the world of Twin Peaks, and there was a pleasure to it, for a while. But now we have entered the Black Lodge.
If the Lynchian aesthetics of the hipster era have been a way of keeping a distance from the strangeness of history by turning our alienation into style, in the Black Lodge that distance has collapsed. This is not the long-awaited death of irony; it is an entrance to its ghostly core. Quarantine days have an eerie quiet; the dream-world beckons. Retreating inside, our representatives—politicians and celebrities alike—have lost their mythic proportions, but it turns out that relatability is far from reassuring. A new malice leaks out of the churn of TikTok routines; Instagram filters of the rich and famous have taken on a sickly hue. Imagine all the people: trapped in their mansions, beamed onto your phone, you no longer have to try. They’re just like us: weak, distracted, a little desperate.
The prospect of a presidential election at this moment seems a farce, and a nightmare: the game is up, but the rules are still in effect, severe as ever. Broadcasting from his rec room, Joe Biden is like a senescent version of Twin Peaks’s hero FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper: a shell of a man, malfunctioning from afar. He reaches us as if faxed from the Black Lodge, passing through a thick sludge of metaphysical static, slurring his slogans and bungling lessons to children, his benevolent smile trapped in amber, a yellowing Xerox of white male authority. Trump is there too: a deranged superego, wrecking the castle, telling his subjects to mainline bleach and tasking his team of experts to “[bring] the light inside the body … through the skin, or in some other way.”
In here, the worse things get, the higher the markets go. Smoking is healthy, work is sex and sex is porn. Your boss terminates you via group Zoom, a voice on an empty screen, chopped up and dopplered. Power—gone fully virtual at last—hits in waves, arriving from somewhere at once intimately close and unimaginably distant. The mood is conspiracy minus the theory, like the pointless and terrifying plot in Mulholland Drive where men in curtained rooms telephone each other, agreeing to “shut… everything… down.”
Far from a reboot, what the shutdown promises looks eerily familiar: the concentration of wealth, the collapse of meaningful work, the migration of value to virtual networks. This is the economic and social process of disintermediation—“disruption,” in Silicon Valley terms, or “cutting out the middleman,” in old-fashioned-scammer terms. The French novelist Michel Houellebecq warns that “We will not wake up, after our confinement ends, into a new world. It will be the same, but a bit worse.”
But sometimes a little bit makes a big difference. Trapped at home, wandering in the cloud, we can see better what endless “disruption” means: it is as if the air has been sucked out, the common atmosphere of everyday life gone. The cities are not abandoned; their residents are ghosts. A month ago I walked around Wall Street: it was quiet, clogged with parked police cars and populated by the homeless. The buildings were empty, but they were still working: I could see the numbers moving on my phone. Or go to a Whole Foods: on a weekday afternoon you’ll see gloomy Instacart shoppers walk past dazed yuppies, dressed hesitantly. These are familiar spaces, and everyone knows their role. But the players are somewhere else. The virtual world is the world, now—where our lives are lived amidst a hovering network of news and directions and data and affect; where we make contact with things and with each other. It was true before, but now there’s no escaping it.
Agent Cooper, Twin Peaks’s hero, was a man for his time. Able to use yoga to further law enforcement, to work for the man while listening to his demons, he hovered between two worlds. But at the end of the show’s second season in 1991, trying to solve the mystery of the evil haunting the town, Cooper gets trapped in the Black Lodge. He wanders the endless corridors filled with statues and doppelgangers, having become a talisman himself.
In 2017, the series returned to television and, 25 years later, Cooper is still trying to get out of the Black Lodge, to make it back to Twin Peaks, to solve the case, to make the rules work again. But the show is not really about this quest. It’s about the town, and there things have changed. The bloom has gone off: the gang is still there, but all those beautiful people from the Nineties look wary now, damaged by history. They have a kind of depth; Twin Peaks now seems like a real town, and this feels as tragic and strangely seductive as the perpetual innocence of the original. No one is waiting for a special agent to save them. By the time Cooper finally makes it back, he’s become redundant.