an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
In the popular imagination, Austin exists somehow separate from large scale geopolitical conflicts and historical trends. Despite our understandings of this increasingly linked world, things happening on the other side of the globe seem to have only the faintest hint of a connection to the ongoings of Texas’s capital. I think it’s a city that easily imagines itself as inhabiting a permanent state of exception, somehow removed from the larger processes shaping and breaking American social life. For some, it’s never in decline, it’s always on the up-and-up, never mind claims that rapid expansion and development are displacing longtime residents and eroding a sense of place many hold dear. For others, it’s an almost sacred space, one residents must protect from the profane world of history that threatens to push it into decline. Outside Texas, the imagined Austin seems to occupy a similar place: it’s a blue island in a red sea; it’s in Texas but not of Texas; it’s booming and the place to be. These are, of course, bullshit obfuscations, ideological pronouncements rather than historical accounts of Austin, but much of the conversation about the city seems to traffic in such reductionist clichés and stereotypes, especially those that purport to be working in its best interest.
After weeks of political posturing and militaristic nuclear boasting by the Supreme Leader of North Korea, a picture of Kim Jong-un’s war room circulated in late March featuring Austin as one of its many military targets in the United States. Evidently the city (or at least the surrounding area) will be a crucial battleground in Pyongyang’s long-promised war against the United States. Within hours of the image’s first appearance, the internet erupted in uproarious laughter as the twitterverse, Texan and otherwise, collectively mocked the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea through the hashtag #WhyAustin. There are, of course, countless reasons the idea of North Korea bombing Austin as part of its “U.S. mainland strike plan” strikes many as completely absurd and in need of ridicule, but I think the above-described image of the city factors into the ways Austinites mocked it, maybe to a degree that hasn’t been acknowledged. Even if that’s not the case, it provides an opportunity for me to speculate on the ideological dimensions of the ways Austinites conceive of their city’s end, an intellectual terrain I think the newly formed relationship between Kim Jong-un and #WhyAustin opens up.
Many of the tweets featuring the hashtag ironically juxtaposed all the things that shore up Austin’s reputation with the specter of nuclear annihilation raised by Kim Jong-un, however ineptly he and his regime may have done so, ultimately implying that the dictator was jealous of the city’s “great success,” however one chose to define that “success.” In short, the hashtag provided an opportunity to boast about the city. Some took the Forbes Magazine approach, celebrating the city’s reputation as an economic powerhouse, the bastion of the creative class:
Others opted to note Austin’s supposed “weirdness,” emphasizing the unique character of the city via trademark locations, well-known events, or local quirks:
These tweets celebrate different things about the city, but such celebrations emerge from specific positions, particular perspectives on the city and its future that are thoroughly entwined with one another. Austin’s economic success and stability, that which continues to attract more and more people, are precisely the reasons barbecue places run out of brisket before most people’s Saturday morning hangovers dissipate. Too many successful start-ups through South by Southwest are part of the reason it’s hard to find housing near Torchy’s Tacos, or Mi Madre’s or Curra’s or Julio’s or whatever your preferred taco joint is (or was, depending on when you read this). These tweets explore the nature and impact of “success” in Austin, a concept always linked to some notion of historical development, of forward movement. They define and critique different notions of “progress.”
It’s not too hard to imagine a debate between people with differing views of the city arguing about the reasons Kim Jong-un wants to take it off the map:
I <3 Richard Florida: “He’s jealous of what makes this place special, our economic success.”
I Play Synth in a Band: “No, that’s ruining what makes this place special. That’s why he wants to nuke us.”
I Miss Liberty Lunch: “We’re going to get nuked because you people are idiots.”
All of this is to say that #WhyAustin wasn’t expressing anything particularly new, but channeling longstanding ideas about the city’s supposed ongoing ascent or its decline. It seems that the ways individuals chose to explain Kim Jong-un’s newly public anti-Austin sentiments fell in line with established conversations about the city, conversations thoroughly covered and discussed in The End of Austin’s previous volume. The hashtag itself wasn’t even new. It has existed for several years (at least since January 1, 2009; Twitter wouldn’t let me search any further back).
Interestingly enough, tweets featuring #WhyAustin before Kim Jong-un raised the possibility of irradiated hipsters and app developers (and regular folks too) weren’t all that different than those after. They made the same points and assumed the same boastful positions:
What was new about the hashtag, however, was the humor, which depended upon a juxtaposition of what people love most about this city and the possibility of nuclear hellfire raining down upon both The W Hotel and the Bouldin Creek Coffeehouse.
Many writers have argued that jokes are means by which individuals and groups acknowledge, but ultimately disavow, that which society refuses to admit to itself. Sigmund Freud wrote that jokes gave expression to the unconscious, often violent, desires that society struggles to repress. More recently, humor scholar John Limon has argued that comedy lets us disavow the abject, those troubling aspects of ourselves and our world that we cannot rid ourselves of, no matter how hard we try. Something similar is at work here. Kim Jong-un inadvertently foregrounded the very possibility of Austin’s end, removing the city from the realm of ideology and into history, reasserting the city into a world where cliché narratives of ascension or declension hold no weight, as they’re unable to withstand the cataclysmic forces that rip society to pieces only to reassemble it such that it is completely unrecognizable, a process that confounds the modes of judgment most use to discuss Austin’s future. Jokes hashtagged WhyAustin repress the fact that Austin is not a city on the eternal up-and-up or a sacred oasis under threat, a set of ideas previous uses of the hashtag implicitly endorsed. It is not a stereotype or an image, but a city experiencing massive pressures from large institutions, ideas, and processes, a city like Dallas, Houston, Raleigh, Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans, or any of the cities Pyongyang thinks they could bomb, cities “booming” or “collapsing” or a little bit of both.
I think that if we don’t repress that which Kim Jong-un’s geopolitical posturing conjures we might productively rethink the ways we understand Austin’s future. Like I said earlier, #WhyAustin has always been about the idea of “success,” about what constitutes “progress.” Both are dangerous words. As the famous critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote, the idea of “progress” is a storm that leaves piles and piles of wreckage in its wake, a heap of rubble we need to redeem, one we can redeem if only we weren’t caught up in historical inertia.
He saw this desire to reassemble and redeem such wreckage figured in a painting by German-Swiss modernist Paul Klee called “Angelus Novelus,” what Benjamin described as the Angel of History:
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress (257-258).
As I see it, Benjamin is talking about more than the rhetorical use of the concept of “progress.” That is, the way people, often for political reasons, claim we’re “moving forward” to describe specific events, practices, and changes. He’s after something more fundamental. He’s talking about the way we look at history and view ourselves in history, the way we too often think of historical processes as ongoing narratives that advance through empty time in a linear fashion. This applies to the idea that we might be “moving backward” too: declension is just another narrative, the inverse of progress. As Benjamin writes, “Overcoming the concept of ‘progress’ and overcoming the concept of ‘period of decline’ are two sides of one and the same thing” (460). Our adherence to such notions makes it impossible to linger amidst the wreckage that history creates, and thus impossible to have unique experiences with the past, experiences that flare up and present themselves in what Benjamin described as “moments of danger” that run counter and disrupt the ways the past is often imagined. He understood such encounters as the precondition for any substantive attempt to change the future, to save it from the ever present threat of the actual dangers that leave wreckage behind them. Maybe if we let our minds linger in the moment of danger Kim Jong-un conjured, we might encounter a new image of Austin, one that avoids what I introduced as bullshit obfuscations. This image of Austin would refuse to be situated within standard narratives of progress or decline, two opposing views premised on a shared assumption. It would exist in the world jokes hashtagged WhyAustin repressed.
Here, I’m not talking about the end of Austin. I am talking about the end of “Austin,” the end of the city as a particular kind of idea and ideal. Maybe this is what this publication is after. Maybe we ought to look for our own Angel of history. It might look like the picture juxtaposed with Benjamin’s above: a distorted face, staring wide-eyed and almost smiling toward the past. Fittingly, I found that painted on the back of a dumpster downtown.
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland & Kevin McLaughlin. Harvard University Press, 2002. Print.
———. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. New York: Schocken Books, 1968. 253–264. Print.
Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. The Standard Edition. Ed. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990. Print.
Limon, John. Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. Print.
Sean Cashbaugh is a member of The End of Austin Editorial Board and a PhD Candidate in the Department of American Studies at UT Austin, where he researches cultures of American radicalism, political art, and underground culture. His dissertation examines the rise of “the Underground” as a distinct political and aesthetic imaginary in the American 1950s and 1960s.