Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Lights Keep Going On and Off

Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States, and we now know what it feels like to be in the Upside Down.

I'm referring to the alternate universe in the Netflix series Stranger Things into which the boy Will Byers is transported. Named to describe the underside of the board for the fantasy role-playing game Will and his friends play in his basement, the Upside Down is also a parallel dimension embedded within his own home and hometown of Hawkins, Indiana. After being abducted by an otherworldly creature set loose by the insidious experiments conducted by the scientists and bureaucrats who work at the Department of Energy compound in Hawkins, Will sends messages from the Upside Down to his mother through the electrical system of their tract house, through lights that flash on and off.

Why electricity? And why--of all possible government agencies on which to pin evil--the seemingly benign Department of Energy? My answer to these questions is that the neoliberal present we inhabit--whose own catastrophic end we may now be experiencing--began in many ways with the energy crisis of the 1970s, an era whose dimmed lights helped propel the political rise of Ronald Reagan and the economic rise of Donald Trump. 

The flashing lights in Stranger Things begin to make more sense once we consider them alongside two other recent works, both set during the 1977 New York City blackout (a historical event which is beginning to generate an entire syllabus of literary and cultural productions). Compared to the spareness and simplicity of Stranger ThingsGarth Risk Hallberg's 2015 novel City on Fire and Baz Luhrmann's 2016 series The Get Down (also on Netflix) are sprawling, over-ambitious mega-productions awash in fireworks and glitter.

The novel and the series might as well be mirror images of each other. The novel's version of the July 13-14 electricity blackout focuses on punk rock and describes the attraction of Upper East Side and Long Island white youth to clubs and squats in then-dingy neighborhoods like the East Village, Chelsea, and the Lower East Side. Luhrmann's series focuses instead on the emergence of hip-hop in a south Bronx neighborhood dominated by landlord-fueled apartment fires, piles of building rubble, and a population of African Americans and Puerto Ricans. 

These differences may matter less, however, than the two narratives' shared understanding of the symbolic role of the 25-hour blackout in the decade-long energy crisis that eventually catapulted the United States into the Reagan era and the regime of neoliberalism in whose extreme inequalities and harsh market logic we now find ourselves trapped. The early 1980s evoked with such nostalgia in Stranger Things was in many ways shaped by that preceding crisis, and all three of these creations look back to a pre-neoliberal age as if to try to understand how we got stuck in this soul-sucking other dimension and whether we can now possibly get out.

The Department of Energy was actually created in 1977, the same year as the blackout, by then-President Jimmy Carter with the goal of conserving energy at a time when the world's petroleum reserves, it was believed, would last only a few more years. As gas prices rose and lines at filling stations ran around the block, Carter had the thermostats in government buildings set at temperatures designed to save fuel. In my own childhood tract home, this federal effort translated into my parents' irritatingly persistent reminders to turn the lights off every single time I left a room. Perhaps most memorably, Carter insisted that all Christmas light decorations at the White House be turned off during the final two years of his term: a mandate which the skeins of flashing lights in the early Reagan-era Byers house seem pointedly to challenge.

Louis Menand astutely points out in his review of Hallberg's novel that it was on the ashes of New York's 1970s property fires that Donald Trump built his empire. Both City on Fire and The Get Down realize that the energy crisis fueled the kind of real estate development and investment that went on to enrich an elite handful and displace everyone else, poor minorities most of all. After all, who can afford to live in those once punk-infested Manhattan neighborhoods anymore?

Like the cruelly untouchable financier Amory Gould in City on Fire or the self-satisfied millionaire Herbert Gunns in The Get Down (a figure explicitly aligned with controversial city planner Robert Moses)--both of whom take advantage of the city's down-and-out youth culture for their own greedy ends--Trump combined the depressed property values that followed arson-fueled fires in the city with racially biased housing practices to build a whiter and wealthier New York. Thirty years later, this demogorgon has somehow ended up as president-elect of the United States, with a climate change-denying and coal-cheerleading vice president from Indiana--the very state in which the Duffer brothers locate a fictional Department of Energy complex that threatens to suck away the future of an entire generation of youth.

These productions seem to understand that we have to go back to the 1970s to figure out how we got where we are now and what it cost us to get here. They also ask whether some other kind of light went out when the fires stopped burning and the luxury hotels, health clubs, and gleaming towers went up. Did we swap one kind of energy source for another, lights without for a light within? His friends and family retrieve Will Byers, but the last time we see him he's spitting up tiny monster parts into the bathroom sink, secretly possessed of a demogorgon within. What form of energy got left behind on the dance floors, turntables, music clubs, and vogue ballrooms of the 1970s? It feels now as if the lights have gone off in America. There are now all kinds of ways in which we need to Get Down if we want to get ourselves out of the Upside Down.

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