The Case of California by Aaron Beebe

by Aaron Beebe


The Case of The Case of California

A cult classic that explores the concept of “California”-now back in print!
—University of Minnesota Press

cover art

The Case of California

Laurence Rickels

(University of Minnesota Press)

Rickels’ depth of scholarship enables him to assemble a diverse collection of references and private discussions, many of them as yet untranslated from the German. California presents an intriguing “back door” history of psychoanalysis and the twentieth century.
—Edward Parkinson, The Semiotic Review of Books

I love cultural studies. I love the idea that there is such a thing as “culture” and that its worth studying. And I especially love when scholars tear themselves away from their own sense of dignity and decide to really dive into it. Sometimes you can smell the unchained enthusiasm, like the dense smog off a rutting animal. There are authors for whom pop culture is an environment. They breathe it. It moves through gill-like structures on the sides of their necks. The best of those are people like Slavoj Zízek, and even Roland Barthes, who slide just as eloquently through a wet landscape of theory.

Laurence Rickels lives in California. Certainly, this gives him the opportunity and the insight to write a critical review of Californian culture. There is no reason to think that he is unqualified to take up the task. With a background in Literature and Psychology, he’s learned his theory incredibly well. What is unfortunately lacking in California is the conversational ease that is necessary to make such concepts feel like more than exercises. I find myself pining for Zizek. Rickels seems an outsider to the fluid environment that I want him to inhabit.

Where Zizek is concise, building his arguments in ever tightening loops of dense theoretical material, Rickels is scattered. California is a collection of difficult sound bytes that carry enormous systems of information in them which they are unable to divulge. It seems clear: Rickels is a brilliant man. But who cares? There is an attempt at ease in California that is forced and, well… uneasy.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s not Rickels’s choice of content, his impressive array of theoretical weaponry or his “diverse collection of references” that loses me. It is, pure and simple, his writing. In writing California he made a decision to move rapidly from one significant case to another with no narrative or hypothesis to elide them. He seems interested in presenting me with the many ways in which he can draw disparate historical arguments together. A fine ambition. He wants me to know that he sees the way that the Frankfurt school predicted and, to a certain extent, ennobled the quirks of American consumerism. Also a neat thing to know. But somehow I only come away with a sense that it is Rickels own ideas that are at stake here and they seem unfocused and diffuse.

In a chapter entitled “Toxic Shock” for example, he says, “According to Benjamin, the culture industry processed or developed shock through the work of mourning into inoculative doses against it which Disney films also administered. Via shock inoculation everyone’s assimilation to the technomedia and the masses proceeds by controlled release - and not by fastforward into mass psychosis.” This is followed up 6 pages later with a quick reference to Jonestown and “the inward turn” of sadism.

It’s simply not clear enough. The brilliant examples that he offers of American excess and its effect on popular and academic culture are not conversational metaphors but case-studies with no background; pop-culture name-dropping without a justification. How Jonestown and Mickey Mouse are related via Benjamin and his notion of Mitsein and Dasein is worth knowing. But Rickels will not share the connections, only their connectedness.

This is a sad state of affairs. As a fan of such connectivity, I desperately want it to work. I want to care about the links that are being made. In fact, the book is filled to capacity with wonderful characters. He takes us through th e lives of a host of fascinating people: Goethe, Thomas Mann, Heidi Fleiss, Walt Disney. He walks us through the Winchester Mansion, Jonestown and Hitler’s Brain. We are accompanied all the way through by Freud, Jung and Lacan. But California is a book made up of fractals. Each chapter, taken on its own, is as incomplete as the book itself.

Finally, I suppose my real objection comes from a lack of follow-through. Can’t we linger on Mickey and Walter without being distracted by new and exciting speculations on Thomas Mann’s secret homosexual fantasies? Give me the juicy details of one or the other, not the tantalizing, but ultimately unfulfilling, promise of both.

It’s been 10 years since The Case of California was introduced to an eager and hungry PoMo culture. Perhaps I mistreat it by removing it from the context of Cultural Studies in 1991. Although we are participants in a young field, we’ve come a long way since those heady days. It’s important that theory has managed to form its uneasy alliance with pop culture and Rickels has done significant labor in the slow breakdown of the walls between High and Low culture. But in the end, in 2001, it is not the novelty of those connections that make the endeavor succeed or fail, it is the ability to speak to a reader through masterful writing. Conversation is an artform that takes more than novelty to work well. It involves letting go of ones pretensions and giving the impression of ease. The best practitioners drink the connections like Kool-Aid, but it seems to be an environment in which Dr. Rickels cannot breathe.

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