June 6, 2010

Society as Spectacle

American Highway Roadmaps from the 60s are perhaps the single greatest cultural artifact from the modernist era.  The purpose of these maps were to encourage multi-day auto trips to discover the vast corners of the country.  They embrace the spirit of modernism by celebrating the triumph of man over nature: the progress of a nation through innovative use of technology.  Seen from the perspective of the ongoing BP oil spill, a technological blooper in the grandest sense, these postcards and maps present an image of society as spectacle: a no longer accurate view of technology as savior. 
This playful 1962 South Dakota highway map packs a punch.  Imagine the shocking surprise I received after opening up the map to read this text on the inside cover:
"The Missouri is being gentled. A whole generation of human intelligence, muscle and desire, armies of brute machines, and billions of wealth are transmuting the wild proud river into a vast chain of blue water lakes that stretch across South Dakota. Four gigantic dams - dams so big they beggar the imagination and confound the camera's ability to capture their hugeness - are harnessing the Missouri ... there is a sense of involvement in America, in knowing and understanding a strong free nation whose direction is west and which creates its own future."
The "World's Largest Interchange" in Ohio gives South Dakota a run for it's money.  A family somewhere between these two places must have had a difficult time deciding whether to head east or west.  
Concurrently, in 1963, we see an aerial view of the Iowa landscape: a lone highway slices through the agricultural heartland of the country.    

Unfortunately, not all attractions seem worthy of visiting to me, but for some reason still warranted a postcard.  Take, for instance, the "Sweeden House Smorgasbord" pictured above...

...or the Anderson Clock Exhibit: "An entire room is devoted to this display owned by Mr. H. E. Anderson. We like to refer to it as horology's finest hour. Some are more than 250 years old. All are in excellent condition."

It seems fitting here to conclude a post about artifacts from the American Roadside with Guy Debord, and his 1967 Society of the Spectacle: "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation."

*for more of this, see Postcards From the Future
**I've stolen the same link to Debord's text which was was included in a456's post just two days ago. I'm secretly proud of this, but somehow think that it is a new experimental contemporary/subversive form of plagiarism that should be brought to your attention.

1 comment:

Will said...

I have a great British book from the 1930s called "Triumphs of Engineering". It has a section called "Nature Made Obedient". Delicious hubris.