This semester I’m teaching a class about violence in the deserts of the American West. This means a hundred things and nothing in particular.
I’m teaching the following books, films, and television:
This is a stack of most of those books, plus some other desert books from my Post WW2 Deserts of the American West field exam list, from which I’ll likely pull a few essay excerpts. Especially John Beck’s Dirty Wars, which I am obsessed with.
I had a few goals with this reading list, one of which was to balance male and female writers. I’ve got three female authored texts, two male authored texts, one female directed film, one male directed film, and selected episodes from Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. I tried my best to avoid teaching Blood Meridian because I’m not a huge fan of blatant monotone overtly masculine writing/texts. What does that even mean? I don’t know. But McCarthy is the epitome of it in my opinion. But after reading Beck, I realized how foundational it is to what I’m trying to address in this class.
After I finished re-reading Blood Meridian a few days ago, I realized the following: The desert is about secrets. It’s about hiding and obfuscation. It’s about things standing in for other things, violence standing in for non-violence, physical violence standing in for cultural violence political violence environmental violence. This is the first things I want my kids to explore. Violence in all its facets. Linguistic. Narrative. Metaphorical. Physical. When I was 19, I was working on my undergrad honors thesis with Jake. It wasn’t too long after Murder Ballads had come out. He was my advisor and I was writing about violence in Fight Club and American Psycho. I remember this moment standing in the Copper Nickel office right outside Jake’s office, and I remember pacing around frustrated because I couldn’t think through my argument in a way that seemed significant. And I remember Jake saying, sometimes violence isn’t about violence at all. And he told me to think about murder ballads and what they mean and what they’re really doing. I wish more than anything I could talk to him about this course. But I’m grateful that he set me on this path seven years ago, and I love walking into a classroom with his words and his encouragement in my heart.
Before we start with violence, Day 1, we’re starting with desert. What is a desert? Where is the desert? Who lives in the desert? Why? We’re going to read the poem by Stephen Crane that provides the epigraph for Claire Vaye Watkins’ short story collection, Battleborn.
We’re going to talk about what happens in deserts, who has visited the desert, why, what they saw, how they felt. And then we’re going to shift to violence. Their first paper will require them to use Blood Meridian to define violence.
When we shift to Bombay Beach and Battleborn, we’re going to talk about land use and the history of cities and housing developments in the desert. Watkins’ characters are devastating and devastated. They are simultaneously imprisoned and free. And Bombay Beach is a dreamlike journey into the lives of those who went out to the desert to survive and to find what the rest of the world wouldn’t give them.
Eventually I want the narrative arc of the class to lead to a discussion of how desert spaces are used by the American government to erase, hide, obscure, and disguise those things that keep the country running: militarism, atomic and nuclear power, the theft of land from indigenous populations, the war on drugs, Japanese internment, all of which either helped build this nation or help maintain its power by perpetuating a state of emergency, distracting the population from the bestial heart at the center of this perceived void that is desert space.
It helps that I’m also doing a field exam list about this subject. Keeps me full of ideas in case we get bored or frustrated. I’m always mapping and diagraming.
And I’m not going to go the whole semester without mentioning my favorite art that exists in the desert as a counterpoint to the rest of our conversations. I’d love to try and take my class somewhere. I’m going to break them up into three groups for weekly assignments, and each group is going to have the name of a desert county. Imperial, Clark, & Bernalillo.
I have an idea of an arc, but in some ways, I have no idea where this class is going to go. Which is the most exciting part.