Salt Lake City

In a nod to our friends at A Motley Vision, and in advance of this weekend’s Conference, I offer the following, as is, with no commentary, except to say it’s often refreshing to see the familiar through strange eyes.

Salt Lake City

Pompous Mormon symmetry. Everywhere marble: flawless, funereal (the Capitol, the organ in the Visitor Centre). Yet a Los-Angelic modernity, too — all the requisite gadgetry for a minimalist, extraterrestrial comfort. The Christ-topped dome (all the Christs here are copied from Thorwaldsen’s and look like Bjorn Borg) straight out of Close Encounters: religion as special effects. In fact the whole city has the transparency and supernatural, otherworldly cleanness of a thing from outer space. A symmetrical, luminous, overpowering abstraction. At every intersection in the Tabernacle area — all marble and roses, and evangelical marketing — an electronic cuckoo-clock sings out: such Puritan obsessiveness is astonishing in this heat, in the heart of the desert, alongside this leaden lake, its waters also hyperreal from sheer density of salt. And, beyond the lake, the Great Salt Lake Desert, where they had to invent the speed of prototype cars to cope with the absolute horizontality. . . . But the city itself is like a jewel, with its purity of air and its plunging urban vistas more breathtaking than even those of Los Angeles. What stunning brilliance, what modern veracity these Mormons show, these rich bankers, musicians, international genealogists, polygamists (the Empire State in New York has something of this same funereal Puritanism raised to the nth power). It is the capitalist, transsexual pride of a people of mutants that gives the city its magic, equal and opposite to that of Las Vegas, that great whore on the other side of the desert. [French sociologist Jean Baudrillard, from America (trans. Chris Turner; New York: Verso, 1988), orig. pub. Amérique (Paris: B. Grasset, 1986)]

17 Comments

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17 responses to “Salt Lake City

  1. Good stuff, jc.

    It’s always fascinating when theory-oriented, non-American artists/academics write about Utah. I find Baudrillard’s thoughts to me be more interesting than Terry Eagleton’s weak efforts.

    And in a completely different vein — I’m still trying to figure out what John Gardner means by “Zeboamites” in _On Moral Fiction_.

    Here’s the passage in question:

    “the Romantic age produced more Southeys than Keatses, as the American version produced more Lucretia Maria Davidsons than Poes. It has always been easier to define one’s character in terms of those things one is not than to say what one is, and easier still if the things one is not are all straw men, like the Zeboamites invented by the Mormons.” (page 189).

    Also: I think FPR should offer t-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Pompous Mormon Symmetry.”

  2. Ardis Parshall

    Sheesh. Somebody else who spends ten minutes in Utah and thinks he has us pegged. “The Tabernacle area” with the “electronic cuckoo-clocks” is all of downtown, and could as accurately have been referred to as “the Symphony Hall area” or “the O.C. Tanner area.” And the “cuckoo” alternates with the “chirp” — no “overpowering abstraction” or “evangelical marketing” or “Puritan obsessiveness” about it. Rather, a simple and effective way of letting the blind know whether the the light is green for east/west crossing or north/south crossing.

    But I shouldn’t show disrespect for the opinions of visiting Frenchmen. It.Is.So.Difficult…

  3. jupiterschild

    WM, thanks for the link and for the comment. Your t-shirt idea is much better than mine (Las Vegas: Trans-Desert Whore).

    Ardis, do you think the current pedestrian signals are the cuckoo-clocks he’s referring to? I don’t remember SLC in 1986 (or before). And I don’t think he would say he “has us pegged.” I think it’s just a take, an impression taken mostly from the architecture.

  4. Randy B.

    Memory is not always reliable, but I’m 99% certain there were no audible pedestrian signals in Utah 20 years ago.

  5. You know, “rich bankers” isn’t the first (or even the second) thing that leaps to mind when I think of Salt Lake. Is there any significant banking in Utah (of the investment, not the retail, type)?

  6. You guys want veracity? What’s wrong with you people?
    ;-)

  7. Ardis Parshall

    jupiterschild, I don’t know what else he could refer to. The sounds in one direction *are* the sounds made by cuckoo clocks, and he did mention intersections. The only other downtown clocks I can think of from that period were the nonfunctioning and silent one on the City and County Building tower, and the silent one that was in front of ZCMI on the Main Street side (the digital clocks at the TRAX stations weren’t there then). The pedestrian crossing signals have been around since before 1986, although they were a novelty for a long time and he easily could have missed their significance.

  8. jupiterschild

    Ardis, I’ll defer to your knowledge. But, I think WM makes a good point, too (“You guys want veracity?”) Was he really talking about “marble” and not granite? He probably knew the difference, but granite doesn’t bring with it the same associations. He’s not going for accuracy or functionalism. Especially when he credits it for “purity of air”!

  9. It is the capitalist, transsexual pride of a people of mutants that gives the city its magic, equal and opposite to that of Las Vegas, that great whore on the other side of the desert.

    This is a parody, right?

  10. Theory is never parody, Justin. It thinks everything else is parody, but it in and of itself is never parody. Even when (often especially when) it tries to pretend to be.

  11. TrevorM

    so…. what exactly is he trying to say? Salt Lake is beautiful yet terrible, blooming yet barren, stately yet sterile?

  12. Justin

    Understood. Baudrillard’s conception of Salt Lake City is third-order simulacrum.

  13. Mixing marble and granite — some strange artifacts of translation, perhaps. Do you have the French text?

  14. I should not neglect Bernard-Henri Lévy’s account of his visit to Salt Lake City.

  15. jupiterschild

    Jim, good thought about translation. I wish I had access to the French, but alas. Anyone?

    Justin, thanks for that stimulating link. Good stuff!

  16. Pingback: Baudrillard on Salt Lake City : Mormon Metaphysics

  17. Love, love, love this. Still all true, except for the purity of air, alas – LA’s smog has arrived. What a brilliant little gem, thanks for sharing it.