If you want to know what America is really, really like, go to Phoenix, Arizona.
It is simultaneously the strangest, most alienating city in the world, and also the most mundane, most maddeningly boring and unremarkable settlement in all of human history.
History, actually, doesn’t exist in Phoenix. You touchdown at Sky Harbor and you are instantly severed from the general sense-continuum narrative of human civilization. You are simply ‘somewhere else’ that is really a nonplace, a mathematical inevitability as well as a senseless, purposeless psychosis. Really. Phoenix is the apex. You’ll see what I mean.
The city itself was modeled after military bases; the whole pile is a very conscious, very calculated project; the four-lane streets are wide-open, flat, and straight as an arrow. You glide in your go-go mobile with a frictionless, smooth ferocity, accompanied by the 3 chord harmonies of the latest pop, sailing through a dream inside hell. The motion of the city is so frictionless but the asphalt is so hot. It defies nature, it’s a perversity in itself. You feel as if you are on Mars as you go about your daily business, which is work. If it’s the weekend, then you are buying supplies.
Yes- 99% of Phoenix was built after World War 2; after the implementation of the highway system and the militarization of the Wild Wild West. Chevrolet and Ford are the city planners, Eisenhower and the Cold War both the sponsors and the contractors. The demography of Phoenix is split between working-class and precariat Mexicans and PoC, a troubled white middle-class, and an uber-rich, blonde and fit bourgeoisie that never leaves Scottsdale. Everyone is bored. Everyone hates everyone. The general lifestyle is the same; regardless if you’re in the barrio, the trailerpark, the ranch-style sprawl, or the McMansion Jumbo Suburbs. The only difference is the make and model of your car, the quality of your prescriptions, and whether the toil you undertake breaks your body, or your mind.
The city is quite literally laid out in a perfect grid. The order is amazing and efficient and unparalleled and fucking deathly horrifying. The perfect grid is actually a new kind of maze- with no twists, no turns, just transparent crosses and intersections, but all of them identical, interchangeable, prescribed according to formula, the embodiment of an ideological set of possibilities. The street names are interchangeable, nondescript, filler. ‘Thomas Road.’ ‘Cactus Street.’ ‘Hayden Road.’ ‘Saguaro Street.’ The roadside huts are overdetermined manifestations of late consumer capitalism; exactly so- here in Phoenix, it’s not the material reality from which we draw an abstraction, like ‘capitalism,’ it’s quite the other way around. The idea was first- the lines drawn and bricks laid only to express the concept. Just so. Try to remember for-what you exist as you cruise into the formulations and endless combinations of either: A CVS pharmacy OR a Walgreen’s pharmacy. A Mcdonald’s-Arby’s OR a Sonic-Taco Bell. Gas Station and Car Dealership. Ranch-style houses- good God. Ranch-style houses. There are entire townships and suburbs of thousands, fanning out of the void-center of a Walmart in a floral pattern, reminiscent of coral crystallization or hives of social insects.
It’s like some programmer in Luke Airforce Base was sitting at his desktop, clattering a line of code; laying the parameters of the consumerist-embodiment; copy-paste. copy-paste. copy-paste. Formula. Precision. The Law of Large Numbers. Bell Curve.
Every mile or so is a thrift store with conspicuous, mysterious treasures from the desert, OR a pawn shop, full of AK 47’s, Televisions, and guitars. You can have a Pizza Hut, OR, if you live in downtown, an edgier Domino’s (as duly noted by Tao Lin).
The rules are strict. You might glimpse the flashing half-life of some small business or Mexican café; they are not mirages, but they will be gone tomorrow.
Most of my memories take place in 3 AM Denny’s.
The Consumerist Maze lays like the smear of melted McDonald’s plastic over the Sonoran Desert. Drive for miles and miles in perfect comfort, perfect luxury, but go nowhere. From nowhere to less, drive for miles into the desert- but you can’t leave the dream. You can’t pierce the fabric of the Dream with any scream or any violence. You are an enumeration of the formula- you live in a set of possibilities, purely accidental and purely statistical. There’s no reason you are here or why any of this is here. Do you have money? Money is your lifeline. You’re fucked without it- you will disappear.
You will lose your home and everything you know and possess and your connection with your family and human society will be severed if you slip on your payments. You will be kicked out on the street by a Bankster’s sunglass’ed thugs. Onto the sweltering pavement, the sliver of public space, inhospitable as a coffin on Mars. You will be gone, taken by Summer. Once I bought some Subway for a homeless man I had seen around my neighborhood. ‘No, no, please, no no! no! no! please!’ He looked at me with the desolation I can only recognize in the survivor of some aboriginal tribe, the sole heir of a symbolic order that has been cracked, split apart, and the senseless objectivity of the Real Void swallowing his psyche. Quite like Truganini:
He told me to please leave him be. To please save myself. To please not worry about him- I went my way…
The horror of living in Phoenix is really a specific sensation. It’s like a second-order alienation, it’s far beyond anomie. I can only describe it as the Horror of Waking Inside Someone Else’s Dream.
Sometimes you will be strolling in the aisles of your local Fry’s grocery when the lyrics of the intercom’s melancholic muzak will start to frizzle and crack apart into the sad mimetic, false tears of computer-program angels. You will look around you at the labels on the cans and the words on the section-signs and the lines and order and the blankness of cashiers and the lights in other’s eyes as they avoid your’s, Then you will wake up- you will wake up in the dream, you will have the sensation that you are walking quite like a rat in a maze, following the signs laid for you, taking the turns provided, existing in an plastic ecosystem absolutely designed and consciously molded to traffic, control, contain you. The city was absolutely designed to shape, grow, and direct you- it anticipates you, you grew into it and from it, and you have your life in the 4 corner matrix of your ranch-style suburban house, your work place, your grocery store, and your strip mall.
What do you see, what do you know of the potential outside those boundaries? Nothing, you don’t need to know- it could only be, and it is, a replication, a reconstruction of the same Big Idea. It’s a dream, someone else’s fantasy of life, and you are just a character, a player, withholding, maintaining, participating in the fantasy, erecting it unconsciously. It’s the fucking Matrix. It’s the fucking Rat Race. It’s the fucking Other’s dream- the fabric of this reality is just the maintenance of the image; there is precisely nothing under or behind the image, there is no dust-deity or narrative arc that connects any of this to reality; the very atoms of the grocery store are just the gossamer veil of an illusion; a fucking fun-house for your confusions and coiling, black anxiety to grow inside. Your every thought and feeling has been an expression of the City’s parameters and walls.
And you wake up and you scream, you might fall to your knees… Once you wake up, there’s no hope for you. You’re just holding on, tightening your white knuckle grip on the fraying strands of a toxic nightmare, maybe a few prescriptions or a lot of weed to help your Meaning adhere. That’s the problem here- it’s like the city’s narrative just doesn’t adhere to the desert; the city will never belong, will never be right.
Phoenix and Tempe were known for their ‘lively’ screamo and hardcore scenes, about a decade ago. You can easily imagine at least one garage out of every 500, filled with thrashing teenagers screaming into the melting unreality.
I am deathly afraid to ever return to my hometown- I miss and worry about my friends and family but the noxious fumes of the American Dream keep me an ocean away. People often romanticize madness as some sort of radical potentiality, some creative force, but that’s utterly bourgeois, French bullshit. Madness is fucking scary. Fuck that. Fuck that forever.
It’s unclear to me where Phoenix would be without Prozac and air conditioning. It’s really a marvel of civilian technology- all those engines and petrol stations, pool pumps and sprinkler systems, camera surveillance and wireless communication, powerlines and man made lakes, a veritable Oasis. A trap. A lure.
Arizona is a conservative state- big on guns, down on big government. Public violence and mass shootings are very common. I was pathologically paranoid about being caught in an ‘active shooter scenario.’ I couldn’t go to movie theaters with friends, never drove alone. There’s a local band called ‘Freeway 101 Shooters,’ I don’t know how long they lasted. The name is just a headline that recurred every so often in 2015-2016. A man was shooting people on the freeway- breaking the sealed glass of the go-go mobile, sending flying hot metal across the boiling asphalt, trying to crack the fabric of the dream- a man insane, cracked and melted by the dream, trying to crack the fabric of the dream- a man insane, swallowed, dying, insane, killing, insane man, in the dream, dream man.
I can’t even. Fucking Phoenix. I’m so sorry. The Sonoran desert is remarkably unique. It has a strange effect on the mind. I have many stories of this place which I’ll write somehow.