📖 Blog>Blog Post
2012-06-10

Joan Didion's 'The White Album'

"Citizen guerrillas splashed paint and scattered nails in the Diamond Lanes," a response to the Caltrans project that caused, she states, "Large numbers of Los Angeles County residents to behave, most uncharacteristically as an ignited and conscious proletariat."

Joan Didion's The White Album, although late discovered, represents for this writer an ideal distillate of California thinking and an example of an uncluttered conduit for this thinking.

Take, for instance, the essay "Bureaucrats," ostensibly about Caltrans' efforts in the late 60s and early 70s to improve freeway transit in Los Angeles by supposedly discouraging drivers from using them. Didion has an ear for irony and captures an absurdly low level of self-consciousness in a line from Eleanor Wood, an urban planner with the organization who proclaims, "Any time you try to rearrange people's daily habits, they're apt to react impetuously. All this project requires is a certain rearrangement of people's daily planning. That's all we really want."

In case the hubris in this statement is not immediately obvious, Didion begins the next paragraph with the comment,

It occurred to me that a certain rearrangement of people's daily planning might seem, in less rarefied air than is breathed at 120 South Spring [Operations Center for Caltrans], rather a great deal to want, but so impenetrable was the sense of higher social purpose there in the Operations Center that I did not express this reservation.

This type of thinking is the actual target of Didion's essay and the source of the title "Bureaucrats," a euphemism for the petty, invisible managers who work ineptly to improve the lives of the citizenry and who appear to suffer from the notion that their "improvements" are 1) relatively minor affairs to manage and 2) sure to produce immediately positive results.

santa monica freeway

Didion's essay arrives in the infancy of the carpool lane in LA, and from this 21st-century perspective it is almost as if she were criticizing the composition of the roads themselves. In other words, the carpool lane is now a thing that has always existed and it would not occur to most citizens to call this thing into question anymore than they would wonder whether there was a time when the freeways themselves did not exist.

According to Didion, however, there was no small measure of controversy at the outset of the project. She writes, "Citizen guerrillas splashed paint and scattered nails in the Diamond Lanes," a response to the Caltrans project that caused, she states, "Large numbers of Los Angeles County residents to behave, most uncharacteristically as an ignited and conscious proletariat."

In the latter thought hides the other main idea in the essay, one that stands in contrast to these "bureaucrats": the apolitical residents of Southern California take unusual circumstances to become awakened. Further, the cause of this political sluggishness could be the organization of the city itself, a result of its freeways and suburbs.

In many respects, Southern California is a test-case for Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" thesis, the idea that increased social isolation (measured through the decline of social clubs) has lead to a decline in political participation in the United States. Southern California is the apotheosis of the suburb, where many modern critics locate blame for increasing social isolation: the suburb, which its large tracts of land and wide streets, makes it easy to ignore one's neighbors.

Indeed, freeways are another expression of the isolation of Southern Californians, as millions of drivers isolate themselves in individual cars in the immediate vicinity of millions of other drivers. In fact, freeways are a result of the construction of the suburbs and taken together the whole organization and expansion of a place like Los Angeles appears as an ode to the individual, a place where people can live where they would like and by themselves as long as they are willing to compete for space on traffic routes. Didion then argues that while the Caltrans scheme to construct Carpool Lanes is meant to "encourage travel by car pool or bus," in actuality the lanes strive "to eradicate a central Southern California illusion, that of individual mobility, without anyone really noticing."

This "illusion of individual mobility" is the core mythos at the root of all car commercials, with their open roads and expansive vistas. By virtue of its status as the largest consumer of cars in the entire world, California is also the biggest consumer of this "illusion of individual mobility" in the world. We can probably go further and say that "the illusion of individual mobility" is the central tenet for all California culture.

Put another way, it is a rich irony that changes to the structure of the freeway, the absolute pinnacle and metaphor for human isolation, can lead to a political protest aimed at restoring the freeways. And it is a further irony that the managers of Caltrans, attentively monitoring freeway traffic every day, have no idea of the violence they're performing on a population that has grown complacent with the structure of these modes of travel.

Ultimately, Didion characterizes Caltrans' efforts as instances of a kind of circular thinking. In other words, the problem necessitates the solution, and the governmental organization perpetuates its own existence. She closes the essay by referring to another Caltrans project where large electronic message boards have been used to transmit traffic information and route suggestions to drivers. "This operation," Didion writes,

In that it involved telling drivers electronically what they already knew empirically, had the rather spectral circularity that seemed to mark a great many Caltrans schemes.

Eleanor Wood comments, "With the message boards we hoped to learn if motorists would modify their behavior according to what we told them on the boards." Upon asking if motorists had modified their behavior, Didion receives the reply,

'Actually no,' Mrs Wood said finally. 'They didn't react to the signs exactly as we'd hypothesized they would, no. But. If we'd known what the motorist would do... then we wouldn't have needed a pilot project in the first place, would we.' (author's emphasis)

"The circle seemed intact," Didion writes in response.

Now, the bureaucrats she targets here are out-of-touch, but more dangerously, they are constantly justifying their own existence and while she never levels a direct criticism at them, preferring instead to engage the ironies at play in the situation (which, in my view, is a very Californian way of responding), Didion finishes the essay by stating that the Diamond Lanes have been slated for extension to the tune of $42,500,000, a figure she ominously cites, as if by drawing funds for these projects, these bureaucrats act like a kind of public cancer, reproducing, metastasizing, and generally mucking things up.

There is a kind of shrug of the shoulders, though, throughout the piece as if being directly engaged in criticism could pollute the voice that criticizes. Only irony, then, allows one to stay clean and aloof from the situation. This perspective is folded in on itself in the essay following in the book, "Good Citizens," which is about the good political intentions of those in Hollywood, who seem absurdly unrealistic about the efficacy of their own good intentions. When one begins to talk about efficacy, however, one inevitably unleashes the criticism upon oneself, a kind of recursive loop the ironist is only going to be bitterly aware of.