I’ve been re-reading Joan Didion’s collection of essays from the 1970s, The White Album. What strikes me about her essays is how much they anticipate the current moment. Her take on the excesses of the 1960s suggests that the chaotic power that gives birth to political and social realignments is always marbled through with technology. The technology she mentions – television, electric musical instruments, and medical tech (at least in the White Album essay) – all are all precursors to the tech that we use daily. I like the centrality she gives to the phone.
But, I’m hesitant to see the last 50 years as a disruptive set of historical changes. More so it seems like it is part of a continuous set of transformations driven by our psychological attachment to technology. Obviously, this desire for efficiency, play, and power that tech provides has been exploited by business and industry.
For the 1960s, television generated change as much as it reflected or reprocessed the chaos of that time. Social media does that for us more than TV now (although binge watching streaming services sets up a different set of problems). The cliched/iconic knowledge of the sixties, derived to a great extent from TV, that has come to rest in the popular consciousness of our time falls away when reading Didion.
Her writing evokes white liberalism at its prime, but a liberalism, for her at least, that is marbled through with a California noir sensibility. Manson, drought, wildfires, celebrity, Ronald Reagan, Huey Newton, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek, the battle between right and left in CA politics, all of these are things that she touches on in her essays. And they all are written about with a melancholic hard edged subjectivity that marks the best, and most insightful, versions of noir whether in print – Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald – or in film – Billy Wilder or Ida Lupino.
The spiraling chaos that always seemed to be just out of frame during the 1960s – entering full frame during the evening twilight of network news broadcasts of the the Vietnam war (symbolic and actual chaos) – which eventually resolved into the terrible clarity of My Lai, Manson, and Chicago 1968 seems to echo over the past fifty years ending up as the voice of social media and the internet. The interfaces of social media have driven consciousness into obvious cul-de-sacs and certainly gives power and texture to our current anti-intellectual moment. Many people can see what is going wrong with the configurations building around our smart phones and apps, but the spiraling chaos has a structural logic that seems to transcend most people’s ability to resist.
Section 10 of the White Album essay captures this logic – what cultural critic Raymond Williams called “structures of feeling.”
“On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. The early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined and bad trips were blamed. I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and I wish I did not: I remembered that no one was surprised.”
If frothed up with the amplified technological frenzy of Twitter and Facebook, and the smart phone substituting for the ancient landlines that she portrays, she has written an excellent description of what now seems to be the normal as opposed to the exceptional. How many “Helter Skelters” have there already been since the new year?