The Ultimate Commodity: Los Angeles

In 1947, the first mass produced housing plan, Levittown, was introduced. It was the environment that fostered the idea of what the post war nuclear family should be. A family, preferably caucasian, with two happy parents, a son who plays baseball, a daughter who bakes apple pie with Mom, and a dog, named Pal or Buddy. Levittowns were the boomtowns of the modern world. Their highly structured roads and identical houses emerged out of the ground overnight. They were like onions who were planted when times were rough and flowered when the world seemed a little bit brighter. Or, as Oedipa Maas mentioned in Thomas Pynchon’s novel, The Crying of Lot 49, the suburban Levittowns were like the mass produced circuit boards of the 1960’s found in the WW2-relics-turned-to-consumer-products, like transistor radios.

Well, actually, I should be more precise. Oedipa wasn’t specifically speaking about the Levittowns of New York and the midwest, but was instead addressing the immemorable characteristic vastness of a city called San Narciso, a name that speaks for itself.

It was at first glance invisible. Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts.

San Narciso is the simulacrum of Los Angeles. It is the representation of the commodification of Southern California and the prefabricated city. Los Angeles is a name that is not only recognizable worldwide, due to the high consumption of film media, and now social media, but it is also one of the most desired. San Narciso is a sprawl of streets and identical houses with palm trees sprouting from the ground everywhere you look. The lawns are nicely trimmed by the neighborhood gardener, or made out of plastic- to conserve water of course. The houses are beige and the interiors are decorated with the same MICKE desk from Ikea or the lamp from Pier 1 Imports, aka “The Thrift Store.”

The cities are created through arbitrary boundaries, the divide of one suburban circle from another. Each suburban circle is given a name and with that name, the suburb is able to give itself a culture, a meaning. The city is a concept created from the suburb, and from that comes its importance as an escape from the layers of chaos and paranoia experienced by Oedipa Maas herself and those around her. To Oedipa the world seems to be created by either some unexplainable, inaccessible force or that she herself is creating the world she constantly experiences; that she is creating her physical landscape.

White family pretending to be happy (1950's)

The responsibility of being at the center of chaotic space is overwhelming, which is why invisible places like San Narciso and Levittowns were created and are now the desired social structure. The isolation and duplication of the Levittown was a response to the heaviness and realness of WW2. The overwhelming amount of guilt and involuntary awareness of the terror of war that each individual faced to be able to to survive and exist was a task that many found difficult to accept. Retreating into a prefabricated city, one that resembled the commodified circuit board was an easier task. Returning to the isolation of sameness, of arbitrary boundaries, of uniform houses was to escape the paranoia of the 1950s-1960s. The invisibility of individuality observed by Oedipa is solace to many.

But this invisibility of San Narciso does not stop with the physical landscape, but continues through the behavior of its inhabitants, the ones who drive their Chevy Impalas in The Crying of Lot 49. Los Angeles gained popularity due to its regular sunshine and its dominant film industry. Los Angeles is the place where Stars come to live and to play. It is where they come to perform and where ordinary people come to repeat whatever performance came before them. There are hundreds of murals around LA, but why do thousands go to Angel Wings? Why do we all want an ice coffee from that coffee shop with the cute pink straw? Do we even really like kale or care about solar panels? Replication has become part of the suburban, mainstream culture. It is how we, as social creatures, avoid the paranoia of forming our own world. By letting our fake lawns and Instagram take over we can coast through the perhaps terrifying concepts of the world around us.

Los Angeles, like San Narciso, is obsessed with its own image. The streets are uniform. The houses are uniform. The cars are uniform- an overwhelming amount of Priuses. The dreams of all who live in the monotonous perpetuation of constant entertainment and performance are uniform. Oedipa, like the many who live in this simulacrum, is trying to find the underlying meaning of the world of sunshine and circuit board streets. But ultimately, she seems to find that the people, the performers, are not only similar, but they have all found themselves in the same place of ignorance that was driven by their landscape. Ignorance to the greater world beyond the streets and beyond the image. There is comfort in numbers, so why should they stop performing their suburban culture’s desired image?

BORDANDO EL MANTO TERRESTRE, by Remedios Varo (1961)