- The California Occult: Nathanael West, Theodor Adorno, and the Representation of Mass Cultural Desire
Dreaming in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
“When you wish upon a star / Makes no difference who you are.” So sang Jiminy Cricket to such popular acclaim that the song won an Academy Award in 1940 and became the theme song of the Disney Company shortly after. At the tail end of the Depression and the beginning of another global conflagration, Walt Disney saw no need to ration wishes; instead he transformed his Southern California studio into their most fanciful realization. By the very different lights of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s critique of the culture industry, however, Disney’s credo about the egalitarian possibilities of dreaming looked rather more baleful. Instead of each dream enabling the fulfillment of an individual self, the culture industry had invidiously cornered the market on wishes through cheap, mass production. That it should finally make no difference who you are neatly enjoins enlightenment with its own inverted end in domination, as Adorno and Horkheimer argue in their influential work co-written in Los Angeles in 1944, Dialectic of Enlightenment.
Such a coincidence of perspectives is hardly surprising given California’s well-rehearsed role in the national imagination as the place where dreams go either to be realized or to be forfeit. Whether one set out to praise or to debunk California’s seemingly endless capacity to serve as the site of this dream production, it somehow managed already to have accommodated that account, [End Page 303] to have room for the best and worst images of itself. In The Day of the Locust (1939), Nathanael West eloquently draws attention to this place where “no dream ever entirely disappears. Somewhere it troubles some unfortunate person and some day, when that person has been sufficiently troubled, it will be reproduced on the lot.”1 It matters little whether the restive dream returns to the Hollywood studio backlot or to the more modest lot of suburban realty that appealed to so many westering immigrants. Indeed, West’s description of the Hollywood Hills—with their appalling cascade of “Mexican ranch houses, Samoan huts, Mediterranean villas, Egyptian and Japanese temples, Swiss chalets, Tudor cottages, and every possible combination of these styles”—suggests that the distinction is moot (Miss Lonelyhearts, 61). Either way there is a discomfiting notion that wishing operates in California as a kind of structural principle.
That West’s observation signals something historically precise about mass consumerism and desire in the late 1930s has been admirably documented by works like Rita Barnard’s The Great Depression and the Culture of Abundance (1995) and Jonathan Veitch’s American Superrealism: Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation in the 1930s (1997). The regional character of this California dreaming, however, has been less thoroughly researched. West and many other writers who found themselves in California during the 1930s and early 40s were haunted by the lingering, spectral quality of these dreams that seemed suddenly so abundant and interchangeable. Adorno, like West, was troubled by the increasing standardization of these dreams as they materialized, whether in space or on the screen. Dreaming, it seemed, had become a matter of mechanical reproduction. Adorno and Horkheimer begin their famous culture industry essay by asserting that “culture today is infecting everything with sameness” only to proceed to move, as it were, right off the studio lot and down the surface streets of Los Angeles: “The older buildings around the concrete centers already look like slums, and the new bungalows on the outskirts, like the flimsy structures at international trade fairs, sing the praises of technical progress while inviting their users to throw them away after short use like tin cans.”2 The strangeness of this putative digression on the first page of their critique of the culture industry becomes clearer from a regional perspective: the process of consumption that had affected the audience of the culture industry had also marked the suburban sprawl of the city itself; in Southern California, reified wishes hardened into the spatial materialization of mass-produced desire, to be discarded in Adorno and Horkheimer’s formulation. For the modernist writers in residence...