Cultural Tropes of the Contemporary American West

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This study explores the abiding fascination and provocation of the American frontier West in the contemporary period, in contexts which both ground it historically and extrapolate from it, refracting it through contemporary film, literature, science fiction and the rhetoric of information technology. A historical, geopolitical specificity in granted by chapters on D.H. Lawrence in New Mexico, contemporary Montana literature, and two popular movies set there and in Oregon respectively. The American West is more generally considered strategically in its connections to Europe, as in Wim Wenders’s classic Paris, Texas, the Beach Boys’ work in the Netherlands and the consideration of the European vision of the internet as a new frontier. Comparable connections to East Asia are granted in a chapter on the presentation of Japan in seminal works by Richard Brautigan. Close textual analysis of abiding works is given, against a background of seminal, related critical works not only in historical and cultural studies, but also in film analysis and information technology. Such extrapolations in turn reflect on the self-conception of the region, and therefore yield a pertinent and timely contribution of that reassessment of the nation as it enters the new millennium.


“This is a wide-ranging book whose tenets are central to the contemporary American imagination and whose pertinence extends to an equal breadth of illustrative material … is a study of extraordinary range, and this openness mirrors, anticipates, and reflects the motivational dream of the wide-open imaginary West that is the subject of Turner’s study. While presenting a structure of reference from seminal American texts, both fictional and critical, Turner demonstrates that the “American dream” is also very much a European dream also. He does this by tracing the interconnected celebrations and accusations of continental writers and thinkers such as D. H. Lawrence, Wim Wenders, Richard Brautigan’s German reception and translator Günter Ohnemus, the application of digital technology to the new Europe, among other scenarios. He discusses in particular the demonizations implicit in the Germanic formulation of the fantasy inscribed in “Amerika.” He appreciates especially that this West is a node in the net of all human imaginings, which he demonstrates by finding it as a motif in film, literature, song, and even in the transmogrified boosterism of the internet Infobahn. Turner moves easily from the writings of Richard Brautigan and Sam Shepard to the songs of the Beach Boys and the Grateful Dead to films such as The Postman and Star Trek: First Contact and television shows such as Sliders. Figured through such contexts, the “final frontier” is traced not only in such imaginary projections of outer space but also in the cyberspace as acclaimed by MIT architecture professor William Mitchell. In this way, the specifics of the West as geographical region (well-covered in other critical studies) are here innovatively projected into the contemporary debates surrounding cyber-culture … This book constantly invites us to return to the frontier, the meeting-point between lived experience and imagination, and thus it is a fresh approach to an old story: the journey into unknown territory … While based on that which, critically and experientially, has gone before, Turner’s study, and the human utterance to which it repeatedly returns us, are laden with mature realizations that, necessarily, must begin in the green light of such Gatsby-like wonder.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) Dr. John Whalen-Bridge, Associate Professor of English, National University of Singapore, and author of Political Fiction and the American Self (University of Illinois Press, 1998) and many articles in contemporary American literature and cultural politics

“Barnard Turner’s fascinating new study of the American West departs from, while it supplements, a variety of studies that have examined the significance of the American West as a historical fact, geological place, and semiotic marker. What sets his study apart is the perspective he brings as an American- and European-trained scholar based in Asia, and the dizzying range of his expertise and knowledge. The book ranges through contemporary cultural/literary theory, traditional philosophy, and pop culture, and is as at home in Holland and Japan as it is on the Montana range … This study is an inspiring and often beautiful study of what the “West” means to us, how it continues to constitute our romantic search for the beyond, how it embodies and inhabits our imaginative world, how it signifies not just in the American but in the European and Asian imagination. From the nostalgia of The Beach Boys, the geographical and fictional explorations of D. H. Lawrence and Richard Brautigan, the landscape of a Star Trek film, or the technological frontier of the internet, Barnard Turner goes farther than anyone I am aware of—and with more theoretical tools, literary allusions, mastery of both literary and popular culture, and a healthy dose of wit—into that undying signifier, America’s West.” – Dr Jeffrey F.L. Partridge, University of Connecticut, Storrs, and Central Connecticut State University, New Britain

“The American West and the notion of Frontier, as a place, as an idea, and as a trope, have long inspired the imaginations of peoples around the world. Unlike so many of the numerous studies of this regional phenomenon, Barnard Edward Turner's new book does not focus reductively on either "the West" or "the frontier." Instead, Turner, a professor of English Language and Literature at the National University of Singapore, says this geographical, political, and cultural region fosters polyvalent and contested discourses yielding a patchwork of interpretation … Turner uses what he calls "oxymoronically labeled 'classic contemporary texts'," movies, and music, as well as illustrative materials to facilitate a looking out, as well as inward textualist perspective to examine the West as it appears to the outside, whether abroad (Germany or Japan, for example) or the eastern United States and to rework the past significance of the "otherness" of the American West into other contexts (social, economic, cultural, and technological) that are both geographical and rhetorical … Under Turner's examination, the American West and the frontier become more than geography or geology. It is now a meeting point between lived and imagined experience capable of providing arche-tropes that can guide us through unknown territory.” – John F. Barber, PhD, Assistant Director of Rhetoric, University of Texas at Dallas

Table of Contents

Preface, Acknowledgements
1. An Exemplary Traveler: D. H. Lawrence invents America for himself in Kangaroo and “The Woman Who Rode Away”
2. A Western writer in Germany and Japan: Richard Brautigan
3. California Redux in [the Beach Boys’] Holland
4. A Landscape and no Character: Wim Wenders’s Western America and Sam Shepard’s Western Narratives
5. Panta rhei: Temporality and Self-consciousness in Descriptions of Montana
6. Costner’s Postman: The West as pastiche
7. Strategies of Projection and Assimilation in Star Trek: First Contact
8. Walls and Wires: William Mitchell’s “Infobahn” and European “e-topia”

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