Our fantasies are fraying. In her book Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant enumerates them – “upward mobility, job security… meritocracy, the sense that liberal-capitalist society will reliably provide opportunities for individuals to carve out relations of reciprocity that seem fair.” Without these fantasies we’re like Wile E. Coyote after he runs off the cliff, treading on thin air, growing suspicious but remaining momentarily aloft. Whether we’ll land on our feet (and surely some of us will land better than others) remains to be seen. In the meantime, “there are no guarantees that the life one intends can or will be built.”
The privatization of public institutions, the deterioration of social welfare programs, the unpredictability of global markets and mass domestic pay-cuts and layoffs have reduced millions of Americans’ plans to uncertain daydreams. Berlant writes of “the increasing corrosion of security as a condition of life for workers across different concentrations of economic and political privilege,” which is to say that precarity is no longer reserved for the hyper-vulnerable poor. From the aspiring middle class to the hubristic nouveau riche, people along the socioeconomic spectrum are exposed to growing financial risk and diminishing protective structures. And no major city in America knows the consequences of this vicious combination better than Detroit.
The 2012 film Detropia, directed by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, meditates on this creeping precarity, echoing Berlant along the way. Whether or not it’s a good film is a question I’ll leave for a proper review; I’m more interested here in its genre and texture, and their relevance to the current economic and social situation. Detropia is not a stirring call to arms, nor is it a tragic exposure film. It doesn’t trade in shock or pity. It’s a slow, tentative, subdued, and non-prognostic study of a city hovering just above collapse. If we trust Berlant’s observations throughout Cruel Optimism, and I do, the film’s ambivalent affect typifies life in moments of protracted crisis.
Filmed in 2010 and 2011, Detropia finds Detroit at an impasse, a shadow of industrious Motor City and freewheeling Motown. It’s a portrait of some of the 700,000 Detroiters, less than half of the city’s peak mid-century population, who are staying put and getting by. The action of the film—footage of union rallies, town hall meetings, mayoral conferences and demolitions of foreclosed houses—is interposed with silent montages of people smoking alone outside bars and stray dogs wandering snowy streets. In its attention to spatial and temporal vacancy, the film engages the ghosts of past residents as much as those who remain.
These ghosts haunt not just the abandoned spaces of Detroit but also the American psyche, for Detroit is the birthplace of a particular fantasy known colloquially as “the good life.” The crystallization of the 20th century American dream—a dream of security and mobility and leisure—owes enormously to Detroit’s auto industry; indeed, the standard manufacturing and labor model of the century was conceived at the Ford plant in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn. Fordism held wages steady and drove prices down, such that Ford workers could expect to be able to purchase a Ford car as well as, eventually, a tract house, chrome appliances, family vacations, comfort, stability. Detroit didn’t just give us cars; it is the point of origin for an entire suburban psychogeography, a devotion to a way of life and a belief that it would henceforth be possible.
For Berlant, attachments to fantasies of “the good life” are part of the very machinery that dissolves their possibility. She writes, “A relation of cruel optimism exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” It’s “when the object that draws your attachment actively impedes the aim that brought you to it initially.” Detroit is case in point. For example, because of its early suburban housing experiments Detroit is largely responsible for the middle-class expectation of private home ownership, a concept that underpinned the proliferation of untenable mortgages and the predatory lending practices that encouraged them. Sub-prime mortgages in turn led to the foreclosure not only of houses but, as the news headline cliché reminds us, of the middle-class dream itself. As if to drive Berlant’s point home, nowhere saw or continues to see more foreclosures of this kind than Detroit. A similar dynamic is at play with the auto industry: Detroit taught the middle class to expect affordable cars, so buyers began to look to foreign competitors to ensure that they were available, and the American auto industry buckled.
The irony of Detroit’s legacy of bounty is lost on neither Detropia’s filmmakers nor the film’s mostly black working and middle-class subjects. One of these is George McGregor, president of a UAW Local 22. “There was a standard of living for the working guy,” he explains, shaking his head, “and it started right here in Detroit.” Driving past the plant where he was hired in 1968, he explains, “All this is empty. They built a new plant in Mexico and took all the work to Mexico.” The camera lingers on the words printed on the blue awning of the union office: We Built This City. Another interviewee is Tommy Stephens, proprietor of the once-thriving Raven Lounge, located a few blocks from a General Motors assembly plant. Tommy reminisces about the days of plenty, the days when Detroit set the bar for the entire nation. Upon hearing the news that the new Chevrolet Volt may end up being manufactured in China instead of Detroit, he asks his wife, “Should we lower our standard of living?” “We’re gonna have to in order to compete,” she replies. He frowns and says, “I don’t think the American people are gonna like that.” Downward mobility is, of course, enormously discordant with the nation’s self-image.
Detropia registers a mood of attenuated uncertainty, the precarious present understood not as a single melodramatic catastrophe but as “a thick moment of ongoingness,” laden with suspense but also tedium. It’s true, Berlant tells us, that in times of crisis some people find their lives irreparably transformed by traumatic events, but many others feel simply taken down a notch—ambivalent, apprehensive, detached and unsure. A basic routine must be sustained, the groceries bought and the bills paid, even amid the turmoil of not knowing. Berlant identifies this continuity, this soldiering-on, as a form of “lateral agency… a mode of coasting consciousness within the ordinary that helps people survive.”
Detropia’s recognition of this “coasting consciousness,” registered in quiet tableau shots of residents boarding city buses and working behind counters, sets it apart from a massive contemporary archive of sensationalist commentary on the city’s decline. Alarmist news media peddles the city’s statistics as omens of the apocalypse, while the creative industries often fetishize Detroit’s collapse as a majestic spectacle of distant dereliction. These characterizations flatten the experiences of people on the ground; the word “wasteland” seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, tending to either erase the city’s residents or cast them as zombies staggering around in a cloud of demolition dust.
The task of critical commentary is to draw parallels between Detroit’s woes and the nation’s at large without caricaturing residents’ lived experiences. In her review of the film, Detroit local Anna Clark sums up the opinion of many outspoken Detroiters when she writes, “I’m just tired of living in a metaphor.” Clark continues, “It is a relief that Detropia isn’t built with thundering disembodied narration about the city’s scramble to make up for [its] profoundly diminished manufacturing base. It is a relief that no voiceover is [prescribing] a neat solution, even a vague one about how ‘we all have to pull together.’” Detropia’s restraint and ambivalence forestall the possibility that the film will be interpreted as an inspirational case study or a declinist parable.
Apocalyptic allegory tends to revolve around an event, an immediate rupture or absolute turning point. What’s happening in Detroit—and in Detropia, to its credit—is by contrast what Berlant calls a situation, “a genre of living that one knows one’s in but that one has to find out about, a circumstance embedded in one’s life but not in one’s control.” In a New Yorker interview with Detropia’s filmmakers, writer Rollo Remig contrasts the temporality of Detroit’s decline with the state of New Orleans in the wake of Katrina: “Detroit wasn’t hit by any hurricane. It’s getting swept away in slow motion, block by block, house by house.” The event leaves you with whiplash, and making sense of it is mostly a matter of returning repeatedly to flickering memories and uneven archives, trying to piece together what happened. In Detroit there’s not any single disaster to bear witness to, just a slow attrition during which regular life, for lots of residents, continues even as it worsens.
No one can say what the future holds for Detroit. In one scene in Detropia a caller on a local radio show says, exasperated, “Everybody is just tired and fed up, and basically it’s gonna all blow up and explode.” Maybe, maybe not. On March 1st, 2013 Michigan governor Rick Snyder made a decision to appoint an emergency financial manager to the city government, a move alternately lauded as proactive and denounced as a state takeover and an egregious disenfranchisement of local citizens. A March 13th news story on Motor City Muckraker read:
One by one, Detroiters pledged to take to the streets once Gov. Rick Snyder appoints an emergency manager, which is expected Thursday or Friday. Others threatened to block the entrance of city hall.
“Save up and purchase food, canned goods and water because you are going to see a new civil rights movement,” pledged Marie Thornton, a former Detroit Public Schools Board member. “I won’t give up my right to vote. We are going to shut down freeways and we are going to disrupt the economic system.”
Added Valerie Glenn, a community activist: “Make sure you are prepared and you will survive.”
Detroit has indeed seen protests over the last few weeks, but they don’t resemble the “new civil rights movement” some activists had predicted and hoped for. Such an event has yet to transpire; instead, the social and financial situation persists. For the average person, a person without much political power or prescience, whether life will mend or unravel is a game of wait and see. It is this drawn-out uncertainty that Detropia underscores, what Clark in her review calls “the long watchful hush.”
Detropia falls roughly under the rubric of what Berlant terms a “situation tragedy.” Film and television have always traded in the indeterminacy that characterizes the situation, most notably in the form of the situation comedy. In the sitcom, the situation is pre-resolved; guesswork is played for laughs, the anxiety of the dilemma merely a prop for zaniness, because everyone knows, both onscreen and off, that life will soon return to normal, it has to. But what happens when guesswork becomes a basic form of engagement with the world? “Situation tragedy,” then, is a form of cinematic story telling (though Berlant’s are not documentaries) that echoes the sitcom’s investment in guesswork but abandons the reassuring assumption that luck and planning will reinforce each other on the way to a solution.
The situation tragedy finds people stuck in “survival time,” time that doesn’t move forward toward a resolution or destiny such as “the good life,” and indeed may not seem to move forward at all. People often describe feeling stuck, stalled out. The narrative thread (get an education, work a job, collect pension) frays, and people find themselves treading water—or, like Wile E. Coyote, thin air.
Such volatile existences require adaptive methods outside the orthodox framework of productivity. Sometimes this looks like singing along to a classic Motown song in Tommy Stephens’ Raven Lounge, booze and nostalgia momentarily loosening the bonds of time. Sometimes, as in one scene, it looks like Detroit native Crystal Starr sneaking into an abandoned high-rise with a view of the entire city. She finds her way to an old kitchen. “Can you imagine having breakfast right here? Look at your view in the morning, like ‘yeah I’m gonna go out and conquer the world because I can damn near see it from right here.’” She pauses and takes in the city skyline. In a tone that betrays both attachment and uncertainty, she says, “Can’t leave, man. Can’t fucking leave.”