The City of Absurdity Papers & Essayes
Revolting Yet Conserved: Family "Noir" in Blue Velvet


          That it 'keeps going on like this' *is* the
                         –Walter Benjamin13
          I'm in the middle of a mystery
                         –Jeffrey in "Blue Velvet"
[36]      So far, we have looked at the overdetermining yet
     mutually subverting interplay of formal means Lynch's "Blue
     Velvet" foregrounds as part and parcel of the project of
     bringing the urban spaces and %ur%-narrative of noir into
     the formerly secure domestic spaces of the small town and
     the family.  And we have also examined the narrative-
     dramatic operations through which "Terminator 2"
     simultaneously reconstructs the family even as it moves it
     out to the mean streets.  One film constructed for and
     consumed primarily by the culturally upscale, and therefore
     with a corresponding emphasis on meaning-through-style; the
     other for a mass audience and, accordingly, with its
     meanings and judgements carried largely on the back of its
     plot.  Yet the main burden of this conclusion of sorts must
     be to consider some of the social meanings, possibilities,
     and effects at play and implicit in the overall project we
     have seen both films take up in this particular post-
     generic, postmodernist moment, for all their different ways
     of working on it: a project we have been suggesting is *the
     domestication of noir*.
[37]      As a kind of side-door entrance into such
     considerations, though, it may first be worth taking note of
     a few aspects of our two films we have left unmentioned
     until now: specifically, those which draw on the *economic*
     and *racial* codes of mainstream white capitalist culture.
     The former is most obviously referenced in the very
     selection of a steel mill as the site of "T2"'s climactic
     ending, given the function of steel production in
     contemporary socio-economic discourse as the paradigmatic
     icon of the Fordist industrial world we have now, depending
     on whom you read, shipped off, frittered away, or even
     transcended, but in any case lost, in our national economy's
     shift toward a "post-Fordism" regime with service rather
     than manufacturing industries at its core.  Yet similar
     allusions to a vanished or vanishing industrial world can be
     found throughout "Blue Velvet" as well, from its frequent
     reminders to us of its small town's extractive-industrial
     base (e.g., in the deejay's patter, or the image of the
     millyard in which Jeffrey comes to the morning after being
     assaulted by Frank) to the ominous brick warehouses in which
     Frank seems both to live and conduct his dirty work, and
     arguably even down to the anachronistic "spider-mike"
     Dorothy employs in the implausibly located night-club where
     she works.
[38]      Though the uses to which such imagery is put in each of
     our two films are multiple and complex, in "Blue Velvet" the
     evocation of industrial culture is part and parcel of its
     overall construction of an environment where nature and
     culture lose their borders, and danger and pleasure
     coincide; whereas "Terminator 2"'s uncanny yet nostalgically
     recalled foundry adds an extra measure of weight and
     yearning to the triumphant restoration and victory of the
     old male dominant nuclear family and "breadwinner ethic"
     that went along with the socioeconomic era just past.  More
     generally still, though, and in keeping with many another
     contemporary polygeneric film from "Lethal Weapon" to
     "Batman", the iconic spaces and imagery of Fordist
     production and industrial culture in both our films function
     as a late-twentieth century equivalent to the feudal mansion
     in the chronotope of the eighteenth-century Gothic novel:
     i.e., as a *ruin* (albeit a capitalist one) in which to
     place the monstrous dangers of the present and/or stage a
     regressive deliverance from out of the sex/gender system of
     the past.
[39]      But I will have more to say elsewhere on the subject of
     these new capitalist ruins and their deployment as
     privileged sites of "ruinous" pleasure and recuperation for
     white straight masculinity.14  So for now let us move
     along instead, and turn our attention to the inflections and
     incitements of racial marking in these films, a practice
     whose operations paradoxically take on all the more
     significance insofar as racial discourse and positioning may
     at first sight appear to play such a small part in our two
     films' overall schemes, practices and effects.  From a
     normatively "white" point of view, after all, racial marking
     would seem to be an issue only at those rare moments when
     someone "non-white" shows up on-screen, and then only as a
     question of how that "non-whiteness" is defined.  What such
     a normative perspective thus typically, indeed
     systematically, fails to notice or acknowledge is the
     essentially relational operation of all racial discourse and
     representation, or in other words the way every construction
     of a/the racial Other generates by contrast an implicit
     definition of what it means to be "the same"–i.e., in the
     present instance, "white" and by no means just the
     "whiteness" up on the screen.
[40]      Let us take a quick look back at our two films from
     this relational perspective, then, to see what implications
     we find in their nominally innocuous-to-honorific depictions
     of "non-white."  In "Blue Velvet", there are the two store-
     uniformed and aproned "black" clerks who work at Jeffrey's
     father's hardware store, peripheral even as secondary
     characters, and seemingly memorable only because of the
     whimsically transparent little %shtick% they play out in the
     scant few seconds in which they appear, in which the sighted
     one uses touch signals to cue the blind one as to price or
     number of objects, and the blind one pretends he has with
     magical prescience come up with the number himself.
     "Terminator 2", on the other hand, while "randomizing" race
     among those cops and hospital attendants destined to be
     casually crippled or killed, places non-whites in secondary
     roles of clearly greater significance: Dyson the corporate
     scientist and his family as African-Americans; Enrique,
     Sarah's former soldier-of-fortune comrade-in-arms, and his
     family as Hispanics.
[41]      In "T2", in fact, the self-approvingly "non-racist"
     liberalism we seem to be meant to read off from these last
     two sets of non-white characters and groups is more or less
     spelled out within the film.  There, Sarah's musings, quoted
     above, on how well Arnold the T-800 fills the paternal bill
     are immediately followed by a softly sunstruck montage of
     her old Hispanic running buddy's Mommy-Daddy-Baby unit
     caught unaware in the midst of their unselfconscious
     domestic bliss, the sight of which is then immediately
     linked to a recurrence of that dream of nuclear holocaust
     that separates Sarah from her own apron-frocked domestic
     self.  Likewise, a short while later, Dyson's more upscale
     family life is depicted in similarly idyllic and
     conventional terms, Mom taking care of Baby, Dad smiling
     over from where he is hard at work, in the final moment
     before Sarah's assault.  The liberal progressivism of such
     representations thus announces itself in the contrast
     between the settled, happy domesticity of the non-white
     families up above (Dyson's) or down below (Enrique's) the
     social level of the aberrant and provisional white one we
     are traveling with.  But we could put the same point less
     generously but no less accurately by saying that such
     progressivism is itself little more than a stalking horse
     for the conservative project that rides in on it, i.e., the
     (re)constitution of the regulative ideal of the old male-
     dominant oedipal-nuclear family for *whites*, coming at
     them, as it were, from both sides.
[42]      Moreover, though "Terminator 2" neither represents nor
     endorses any non-familial social ideal, it still seems
     significant that both our non-white %paterfamilia% are
     associated from the start with contemporary visions of
     social disorder and mass violence.  For many if not most
     white viewers at least, Sarah's rapid allusion to Enrique's
     past as a %contra%, combined with his guntoting first
     appearance and his family's desert location, will call up a
     melange of unsorted and uneasy impressions from "Treasure of
     the Sierra Madre" to the mainstream media's spotty yet
     hysterical coverage of a decade of messy and unpleasant
     struggle "down there" somewhere, plus attendant anxieties
     over "their" illegal entry and peripheral existences "up
     here" now; whereas the Afro-American Dyson is
     straightforwardly depicted as the author of the
     technological breakthrough that will eventually give us
     SkyNet, the fully autonomous, computerized war technology
     that will soon trigger nuclear holocaust as the first move
     in its war against humanity itself.  One wonders, in fact,
     how many white viewers recoiled from Sarah's verbal assault
     on a *black man* as the incarnation of value-free and death-
     bound masculinist-corporate technorationality, and on what
     level of consciousness they did so, and to what effect: how,
     detached from its unlikely target, is her didactic
     essentialist feminism taken in?  I have no idea, and would
     not presume to guess.  At any rate, though, following this
     bizarre moment, the film's treatment of Dyson runs once
     again in familiar ways, towards familiar ends: it rolls out
     the Moebius-strip time-travel causality of that '80s
     blockbuster "Back to the Future" in its suggestion that
     Dyson the black man doesn't really invent anything15
     (the breakthrough he comes up with turns out to be merely an
     extrapolation from those remnants of the first Terminator,
     from the first "Terminator" film, that his corporate
     employer managed to scoop up); and, as in many another film
     featuring a once-wayward non-white sidekick, it
     rehabilitates him "Gunga-Din" style, by including him into
     the assault on the power with which he has formerly been
     associated, an assault whose victory is, not accidentally,
     coincident with his self-sacrifice and death.
[43]      These regulative procedures by which whiteness learns
     from and is defined by its Other(s) even as those Others are
     re-subordinated, stigmatized, and/or punished, are not to be
     found in "Blue Velvet", however–or not quite.  There
     another, culturally hipper version of the game of reference
     and relegation is going on, in which, to put it briefly,
     racial difference is placed within quotation-marks, and,
     thus textualized, is both evoked and winked away.  So the
     blackness of the store clerks sits next to the blindness of
     the one clerk and to the pseudo-magical trick they both like
     to play, as just so much more semic doodling along the
     margins of this endlessly decentered text in which each
     element of the normal and conventional is estranged, while
     each strangeness or Otherness is subjected to a metonymic
     slippage that renders it both equivalent to every *other*
     otherness and empty in itself: blackness=blindness=stupid
     trick.  In the universe constructed by Lynch's postmodern
     aesthetics, there is no need either to make liberal gestures
     towards the inclusion of the racial Other, or to discipline
     and punish that Otherness when it appears.  Rather, as the
     whiff of Amos 'n Andy we can smell around the figures of our
     two clerks in "Blue Velvet" suggests, and the overtly racist
     stereotypes (blacks and creoles as figures for a demonically
     sexualized and violent underworld) in Lynch's more recent
     film "Wild at Heart" make abundantly clear, even the most
     offensive tropes may be called back for a culturally upscale
     and predominantly white audience to enjoy under the new PoMo
     dispensation that such hoary ideologemes are really only to
     be delected like everything else in the film, including the
     tropes of Back Home themselves, as simply so many
     hyperrealized/evacuated bits of virtually free-floating
[44]      Our examination of both our films' means of
     (re)producing the locations and distinctive pleasures of
     whiteness and their regressive deployments of the new ruins
     of Fordist industrial space thus bring us back to the
     central vortex or stuck place by which we may know
     contemporary "family noir" when we find it: in the
     apparent dissolution of the rigid identity/Otherness
     categories of the Symbolic in general, and those of the
     sex/gender system in particular, into a semic flow or play
     of boundaries from which, paradoxically, those same
     categories re-emerge with renewed half-life; and in the
     astonishingly mobile and contradictory circuitry of desire
     and anxiety, pleasure and fear, that this process both
     releases and recontains.  "Terminator 2", as we have seen,
     plays around with border crossings between male and female,
     human and machine, the Fordist past and the post-Fordist
     present, and, for that matter, bio-social predestination
     ("It's in your nature to destroy yourselves") versus
     existential possibility ("No fate but what we make"), only
     to redraw the lines of the old nuclear family system as
     precisely the last best line of defense against the fluid
     yet inexorably programmed assaults of the terribly New.  Yet
     this restoration is itself a tenuous and contradictory one,
     given its figuration through the asexual (or should it be
     "safe-sexual"?) coalition of a cyborg Dad and a warrior-
     woman Mom, half-assisted and half-constructed through the
     educative and team-building efforts of a child who is thus
     both effectively as well as literally Father to himself
     (Pfeil 227 and ff.).  And "Blue Velvet" pulls off what is
     finally the same denaturalizing/restoring act on a more
     formal level, by presenting us with a pre-eminently oedipal
     narrative whose recuperations of patriarchal order are
     riddled with artifice and suspicion, and eroded by a mode of
     skewed hyper-observation that simultaneously fills and
     estranges, exceeds and evacuates the conventional terms in
     which such narratives used to be couched.
[45]      Within contemporary political culture, we know what to
     call this meltdown and restoration of the categories by
     which women and non-whites are put back in their place (even
     "Blue Velvet"'s Dorothy, like "T2"'s Sarah, is firmly,
     albeit hyperbolically, placed back in the mother role in
     that film's closing shots) and white men in theirs, at the
     same time as the devices of the political rhetoric that does
     so are brazenly bared, and the very notion of location is
     smirked away.  Its name is Reaganism (or Bushitis now, if
     you like).  And certainly, brushed with the grain as it
     were, the process by which "Blue Velvet"'s Jeffrey gets to
     answer girlfriend Sandy's doubt as to whether he's "a
     detective or a pervert" by being both, and a good kid
     besides, is the same as that by which the old actor got to
     be simultaneously the world's leading authority figure and
     its largest, most spectacularized airhead.  Likewise, our
     intense enjoyment in "Terminator 2" of the spectacular
     semiotic mutability of our protean villain–practically Mr.
     Gynesis in himself–together with the stabilizing
     satisfactions provided by the return of the classically
     distinct, embodied (if no less synthetically produced)
     masculinity of our Arnold as Good Old Dependable
     Dad,17 rhymes with the joys of the swings themselves
     over the past four years, from Willie Horton to "Pineapple
     Head" Noriega to, in Bush's delivery, "Sodom" Hussein,
     together with the pleasures available in the manifestly
     constructed image of Bush as, like the T-800, another
     kinder, gentler, ass-kicking guy.
[46]      Within cultural theory, too, as well as practice,
     feminist critics such as Suzanne Moore and Tania Modleski
     have been swift to notice and condemn this same process by
     which %gynesis%, the dissolution of the forms and categories
     of the patriarchal-oedipal-bourgeois Symbolic, can be taken
     over by white male theorists and cultural producers, the
     aptly-named "pimps of postmodernism," to co-opt the
     pleasures of release and reconstruct new and more mobile
     means of domination.  Yet without disagreeing in any way
     with these critiques, it remains for us to step beyond or
     outside them, in accordance with the old Benjaminian dictum
     that it is preeminently the task of the historical
     materialist to "brush History"–even, and perhaps
     especially, that History which is our own present moment–
     "*against* the grain" as well (257).  In other words, we
     must attempt to read the particular complex of social-
     psychological needs and desires that gets ventilated and
     redirected in these films not only as raw material for a new
     social contract with the same old Powers That Be, but as a
     set of contradictory energies which, under the sign of
     utopia, might be shaped and channeled in progressive
     directions as well.
[47]      It may be, then, that the way to respond to the
     irresolute resolutions and rebellious conservatism of our
     films without reproducing their equivalents in theory is to
     recognize the truth and legitimacy of the needs and desires
     that underlie the dynamics of the films' operations while
     refusing their opposed yet commingled terms.  Such a utopian
     reading would then pass through the recognition that even
     these admittedly corrupt and pernicious cultural productions
     have to both rest on and run off a widely-held consensus
     that the old nuclear, oedipal, male-dominant, breadwinner-
     ethic-based family is neither a natural nor a desirable set-
     up, and an equally widely-held and equally justifiable
     anxiety as to the brutal chaos that ensues when the rules of
     that old system are tattered or in abeyance without any
     other emerging to take its place: to pass through that
     recognition and then to take the combination of desire and
     anxiety it has found *as a resource* for a progressive
     politics, a need for a better sex/gender system that for its
     fulfillment must be turned into a set of socially
     transformative demands.
[48]      In 1983, as the conclusion of her survey of white male
     revolts against what she dubbed the "breadwinner ethic" and
     the oedipal-nuclear families it produced, Barbara Ehrenreich
     proposed that "male [white male, that is] culture seems to
     have abandoned the breadwinner role without overcoming the
     sexist attitudes that role has perpetuated" (182).  But she
     went on to suggest that the only way to begin to move beyond
     this impasse is to struggle for an expanded, democratized,
     feminist expansion of the welfare state in which women and
     men alike earn a "family wage," and in which women are also
     provided with the "variety of social supports" they must
     have "before they are able to enter the labor market on an
     equal footing with men or when they are unable to do so"–
     including, and especially, "reliable, high-quality child
     care" (176-77).  Her argument is not that such goals, when
     achieved, would automatically bring an end to the deflection
     of male revolts against patriarchy into new forms of sexist
     oppression, or issue in a feminist utopia; it is simply that
     without such gains, little new ground for the construction
     of less oppressive gender roles and relations was–and is–
     at all likely to open up.
[49]      In 1991, of course, after eight more years of
     repression, rollback and decay, such a program may seem,
     like Alec Nove's model of a "feasible socialism," all the
     more a combination of the hopelessly insufficient and the
     wildly utopian.  Yet such a hybrid failing, if failing it
     be, nonetheless seems to me practically unique, and uniquely
     exemplary, within recent American cultural theory, in its
     insistence on a given set of programmatic political goals to
     organize and struggle for; just as that insistence in turn
     seems infinitely more adequate to the need in the present
     moment to recover the terrain of political agency and
     possibility than any rehash of the essentialist vs. post-
     structuralist debate.  The same proposals, and others
     instead or as well, might be generated out of another, more
     fully utopian reading of the films we have looked at, and of
     family noir in general: generated, that is, as so many
     specific instances of a sense of "canceled yet preserved" we
     must renew and nourish now within and across our various
     movements and without any false sense of guarantees.  But
     the main point here is nonetheless that for all the
     bleakness of the present moment, and indeed precisely
     because of it, we must nonetheless learn or relearn to
     propose *something* more real and more properly political as
     the outcome of our analyses than the indulgent rages and
     self-strokings of Identity and/or the jouissance of
     post-structuralist free-fall.  The only alternative to such
     a "canceled-yet-preserved" renewal of politics itself is the
     dubious enjoyment of being permanently stuck, like "Blue
     Velvet"'s Jeffrey, "in the middle of a mystery" whose
     pleasures most of the people we speak for and with can only
     afford to take in every now and then, when thanks to the
     magic of motion pictures and political campaigns aimed
     variously both high and low, at the hip and the masses, the
     catastrophe "That it goes on like this" is at no small
     expense made into a little fun.

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