Friday, August 31, 2012

One-eyed monsters in the desert

Morongo Hotel and Spa, Cabazon, CA (actually in the desert)

This is not an advertisement advocating the benefits of the desert casino and spa. On the contrary, on our drive from Tallahassee, FL to Stanford, CA, this building was the most monstrous sight we encountered. In terms of the landscape as text--the thread of this and the previous blog--this hideous spectacle might be read as an attempt to conquer the desert that is ultimately testimony to the human's capacity to spoil. It's much more complicated than this, though, since the Morongo band of Native Americans, whose land this is, are the owners of this casino resort. In addition, the construction company claims the resort was 'inspired by the forces of nature and is intended to bring a piece of paradise to the desert' ( Still, reminiscent of ancient monsters, many of whose characteristics reappear through the imagination of Russell T. Davies in Dr Who and other sci-fi series, from the I-10 road, this hotel bestrides its desert setting like a concrete cyclops, or better still, medieval Blemmyae.

Blemmyae from British Library manuscripts (see

Blemmyae, acephalous monsters with their faces on their chests, were strange and frightening, living with other alien creatures in distant lands. In the Old English Wonders of the East in London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A. xv (the Beowulf-manuscript), these chest-faced beings are said to be eight feet tall and eight feet wide and living on an island with dragons that are 150 feet long. These overlarge monsters, dominating their landscape, are the stuff of fantasy--until one comes across the Morongo reality on the I-10, near Palm Springs.

One can hardly talk about medieval monsters without reference to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's 'Monster Culture (Seven Theses)', published in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (University of Minnesota Press, 1996), 3-25. He comments that 'The habitations of the monsters (Africa, Scandinavia, America, Venus, the Delta Quadrant--whatever land is sufficiently distant to be exoticized) are more than dark regions of uncertain danger: they are also realms of happy fantasy, horizons of liberation'. In the case of Morongo, it seems that a place of uncertainty--the desert--is transformed into a locus amoenus, a pleasant place, by the construction of the monstrous: a huge watch-tower with its glass eye guarding over the landscape, attempting, perhaps, to suppress, tame it, change its inhospitable nature. I find the one-eyed building sinister and ineffably ugly, but it brings money to the Reservation, allowing the Morongo band of Native Americans to make viable economic use of the parcel of land they were left with.

And yet.

Yet, in a larger sense, Casino Morongo fails to dominate. It's certainly startling as it rears up on the side of the I-10 (rightly winning the I-10 journey prize of 'most hideous'); but, as the photograph taken by Roy Randall on Flickr so ably demonstrates, this concrete carbuncle is nothing in comparison to the landscape it seeks to cultivate:

Casino Morongo from the mountains (

From a distance, the Casino becomes a speck, just another trace of passers-through. From this distance, the Casino Hotel is little more obvious, indeed, than the petroglyphs, carved millennia ago, in the Coyote Hole rocks near Joshua Tree, earlier marks left by those for whom this wilderness was home.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Landscape as Text

As a family (husband, two children, two dogs, one cat), we very recently drove across America, so that I could take up my new post as Professor of English at Stanford University, south of San Francisco. Our 2,600 mile journey along the I-10 and up the I-5 from Tallahassee, Florida to Stanford took five days, my husband and I each driving a car. I drove the thirteen-year old Honda CRV, adding considerably to its 111,000 mileage and I had the pleasure of my son's company, together with that of the two dogs.

As we made our way cross-country, taking in West Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California along the way, I became deeply conscious of the ways in which we can read the landscape, both through its natural splendour and through the ways in which it has been colonised by modern American society. I'm sure it's very last century to think of everything as potentially interpretable--that is, potential text--but still, as I say, I was struck by what I could read about this vast country, simply by passing through it. So, this blog and the next few will focus on the things we saw and how these might signify something or other. I'll do this through a sequence of selected superlatives, beginning with the weirdest sight (of many weird sights).

Weirdest of Weird Sights

Driving through Eastern Arizona from New Mexico to Tuscon was a sequence of unpredictabilities: skirting desert thunderstorms, but nevertheless being rained upon; high-ish mountain transforming into bouldered panoramas; and soldier cacti standing in battalions on hillsides. Together, these created a visual smorsgabord. It quickly became our favourite few hours in the cars and there'll be more on these sights later. Leaving Tucson, though, we saw the oddest thing; so strange was it that it demanded a rapid set of double-takes, and shrieks of 'Get a photo! Get a photo!' On our right on the westbound I-10, a few miles outside Tucson, was a six-foot (?) cardboard baby sitting in the desert with a cardboard tractor. Like some kind of bizarre mirage, this strange vision of a child at play was utterly incongruous, totally out of context, a doodle literally marginal to the road that demanded to be interpreted, but provided no clues about its purpose.

Unfortunately, the photograph we took really can't capture the weirdness of this prelapsarian baby scene:

There is no explicatory sign, no interpretative board. It suggested vulnerability: a warning, perhaps, that in the desert, the helpless will die? Or was it a billboard for some advertiser, where the text had falled into disrepair? We wondered for some time what this could possibly intimate. When I mentioned it to my husband, who had been driving right in front of us, he confessed he had not seen it at all (eyes on the road, rather than gazing around: good driving). Yet, of course, the board baby is easily found through a Google search using the terms 'giant baby I-10 Tucson'. On this site (, I discovered the baby is not six-feet tall; rather, it is TWENTY feet tall. The lack of any proportion or perspective is such a great trick enhanced by the desert setting. Moreover, it is not some strange, dilapidated act of a tractor company; it is the work of the mural artist, John Cerney, completed in 1998 (see I might add that in the image on Cerney's website, you can clearly see a now-missing farmer running away from the baby. The work was originally intended to act as a marker for an educational farm situated just off the interstate. The farm was closed in 2004, so now the marker has nothing to mark; the referent has no reference; signifier without signified. Half a sign. Instead of indicating anything, then, the big baby just sits there, surprising interstate motorists and begging observant passers-by to try and describe what on earth they think they've just seen.