What Was California?
The Catalina Country Club Golf Course, 1926
by Justin E. H. Smith
In 1879 Josiah Royce wrote a letter from Berkeley, to William James at Harvard, describing the intellectual condition of his home state: “There is no philosophy in California. From Siskiyou to Ft. Yuma, and from the Golden Gate to the summit of the Sierras there could not be found brains enough to accomplish the formation of a single respectable idea that was not manifest plagiarism.” From any other author, these words could only be received as complaint, but Royce himself understands them as a neutral description of fact, perhaps even as subtle praise for a land he deems ill-disposed to the convection of metaphysical hot air.
Faced with such a dilemma, between philosophy and California, Royce chose California. He stuck around the newly founded department of philosophy at Berkeley, but the longer he stayed away from Harvard, the more his own thoughts turned to the singular facts and contingent truths —generally held to be beneath the radar of philosophy, a discipline of the mind dedicated to general principles and necessary truths— of California history.
In 1886 he published a peculiar book entitled California: A Study of American Character. From the Conquest in 1846 to the Second Vigilance Committee in San Francisco. There would be a great deal to say about the title alone. How many people today know, for example, that early San Francisco’s lawless “Barbary Coast”, long dominated by Australian gangs, could only be pacified by popular militias? But perhaps the most striking part comes in the second of the two subtitles — California is unfit for philosophy, but it is also a place that offers up a clear picture of the “American character”. Ergo, the American character is unfit for philosophy. Even if it is easier to pretend otherwise in the comparably old institutions of the original thirteen colonies, when that character reaches its furthest evolution, its extremest expression, its remotest destination in America’s own America on the West Coast, its unfitness becomes too plain to deny.
John Muir, too, chose California over philosophy. Ralph Waldo Emerson had briefly met the old naturalist during a visit to the West, and was so impressed that he determined then and there to invite him to come and teach at Harvard. Muir would later write to his friend Robert Underwood Johnson: “I never for a moment thought of leaving God’s big show for a mere profship!”
Royce was born in Grass Valley in 1855, today better known as the birthplace of Joanna Newsom, whose broader clan includes the state’s current governor. His parents were 49ers. Muir was born in Scotland in 1836, and absorbed enough European romanticism by the time he arrived in California to allow him to experience its mountain sunsets as glimpses of the transcendent, rather than supposing, as Royce did, that something about the climate and topology and vegetation of the place precluded any such experience and limited any true Californian’s apprehension of reality to the plane of immanence.
The opposition between these two foundational articulations of what we might call “the Californian condition” explains, I believe, quite a bit about more or less everything that has happened there since.
But who is a true Californian? In his consistently remarkable 2015 novel, The Sellout, Paul Beatty imagines a Black American protagonist from South Central LA, whose range of interests and activities (equestrianism, surfing, owning a slave) lie far, to say the least, from the stereotypes white Californians hold about what is often euphemised as “the inner city”. In one memorable passage our hero hitches a ride back into LA after a day at the beach: “Bouncing up and down Ocean Avenue in the back of a shit box pickup truck with some shaggy, aboriginal, blond-haired white boys, damn near as dark as you, with their sun-baked faces peeling like the old ‘Local Motion’ bumper stickers affixed to the tailgate, sometimes you feel more like a surfer than you do when you’re bellied atop your board staring into the misty horizon waiting for the next set.”
There would again be a great deal to say, but what has stuck most in mind since I read this novel a few years ago is the identification of this tribe of white Californians as “aboriginal”. It sticks in my mind because this is my tribe, and it took an African-American author to properly identify and classify it (by “properly” I mean, of course, not “scientifically” but “poetically”). I never surfed, but my people were the people of variable, seasonally determined coloration, for whom melanoma was a part of every family’s lore, whose yellow hair turned green from chlorine in the summer, and for whom “No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service” signs had to be put up in convenience store windows as a deterrent, as otherwise nothing could have seemed more natural than to enter, in search of a crushed-ice fountain drink, on nothing but bare calloused feet.
For me to say it rather than Paul Beatty is of course to channel the pure ideology of what the kids online love to call “settler-colonialism”. But this is precisely my point — only after many years living in Europe in spiritual exile did it finally become clear to me that to be a white Californian is something very much like being a Boer at the southern cape of Africa. This is all relative, of course, but the genocides and cleansings that led to the Europeanisation of, say, New England, are by contrast far enough in the past, and the geography and climate of the place similar enough to England’s, as to make the experience of a Massachusetts WASP, say, something different entirely than that of a Bakersfield grandchild of Baptist dustbowl migrants from Arkansas, the people whom John Steinbeck revealingly called California’s “harvest gypsies”.
In California, as in the Transvaal, there is this peculiar experience of feeling indigenous down to the soles of one’s feet. But this is a feeling that, however strong, however poetically true, can only be maintained through sheer ahistorical ignorance, or, if this ignorance should regrettably be lost, can only be made explicit and defended through specious ideology. Whether a descendent of the Voortrekkers or of the Donner Party, it is at once both manifestly obvious and completely implausible that one belongs —cosmically, politically, physiologically— where one lives.
And in California those gypsies who arrived long after the Donner Party, and have no noble lineage reaching back to the founders, feel it too — subjective indigenisation only takes a generation or so. But instead of a dignified nod to the ancestors of the sort Joan Didion has perfected, the later arrivals, more uncertain of their status, are accordingly more often motivated to make explicit their claim to the territory in the incoherent words of white nationalism. Nor are they the only ones responsible for this. It is a process that shapes them from the outside at the same time as they seek desperately to find some pride in their small lives in the terms it makes available.
Steinbeck himself helps this process along with his language. “Gypsy” in the narrowest sense is a slur for a member of the Roma ethnicity, which like any other ethnicity has its distinct cultural, linguistic, and genotypic markers. More broadly, the term has long been used in Europe for any number of local groups —the Travellers in the UK, the gens de voyage in France, the Yenish in Germany and Switzerland— who by inclination or necessity maintain a non-sedentary form of life, and therefore escape the efforts of the administrative state to anchor them in official documents to a fixed address. By further extension still, the “gypsies” of California are, historically, the white people who participate in migrant agricultural labor alongside and in competition with Mexican farmworkers, who do not have the economic resources to be settlers in a literal sense; and more recently they are the white people who got suckered into taking out subprime mortgages on tract houses in Irvine and similar places, the people Didion coldly refers to as “the false ownership class”.
These are the white Californians I know best. They are very different from the tribes of the Royces and the Didions, and they are certainly different from the people who arrived in California from the East Coast five years ago to work at Stanford or Google. If you show me a white person in California, I am confident I can correctly tell you the mode of conveyance that brought that person or their ancestors westward: stagecoach, sputtering Model T, or airplane. The middle group of people, the “gypsies”, become much more numerous as you move out from the Bay Area and the richer portions of Los Angeles. They occupy trailers in Inyo and Kern Counties; in Plumas and Lassen they make carvings in pine and cedar in resemblance of their President Trump; they aspire to a life of recreational boating on Lake Berryessa. The recent par-avion arrivals in Silicon Valley appear to believe sincerely in the imminent discovery of an elixir of eternal youth. In Barstow by contrast, where my father died in a veterans’ home in 2016, there is no question about the finiteness of human life. It is a brute fact.
To be a member of a racialised group is necessarily to get hung up on the endless narcissisms of small differences. I am still stunned when I think back on the astounding literacy I developed in my first year at Rio Linda High School, in 1986, not literacy in reading texts, but in interpreting the complex semiotics of gang signs, garments, and footwear. One colour of shoelaces is for the boys who aspire to establishing a white ethnostate, another is for the ones who are “proud to be white” but nonetheless permit themselves to enter into friendships with Mexicans. One variety of “Old English” lettering is for Black kids, another for white ones. The Peckerwoods wear the same flannel shirts as the Vatos, but also wear flight jackets like the Skins. And so on. There seems to be an unusually rich proliferation of such subtle symbols in poor California, no doubt radiating out from the prisons, where numbers can stand for letters that abbreviate the names of particular gangs, where even a signature gait or a patterning of facial hair can reveal some tribal affinity or other.
I was too young to drive so I sometimes got rides home from a nice girl in shop class, in the bed of her pickup truck with “Skol” and “Bocephus” stickers in the back window. Her older brother was said to be a full-fledged member of the Klan (he was in retrospect more likely some sort of pee-wee affiliate), and sometimes he rode along too. My own affiliation to the white kids was already beginning from such small things as this: that I was too tired and lazy to walk home through the fields and empty lots, past the barking dogs, under the beating California sun, and anyhow I liked the way the young Klansman’s little sister smiled. Once we stopped off at some older guy’s apartment, though I don’t recall what the purpose of the visit was. He had an American flag nailed to the wall, and there was a hammer hanging next to it. “That there’s my n***** beater,” he said when he caught me looking at it, using a slur I heard countless times in my early life, and which today I have trouble even hinting at obliquely with the use of asterisks. To my great fortune I dropped out of high school in the middle of my second year, and spent the next few years at home reading, not gang signs but now actual texts, and thus broke the cycle of cultural reproduction.
Today, when I hear that fraudsters such as Robin DiAngelo are seeking to coerce employees of large corporations into joining “racial affinity groups”, my only thought is this: No thanks, lady. I’ve seen that trick before.
Magnolia Avenue, Riverside, c. 1906
If you absolutely need a news hook, you will probably know by now that since the early summer of 2020 over four million acres of California have been burned by wildfire. Even where there is not a direct danger from the flames, the skies are often bright orange, the sun appears as a small red disc, and ash collects on front porches overnight. It is hard, after several gruelling months of this, not to begin speaking of California in the past tense, as a place whose historical arc terminates this very year, even if we still have loved ones who live there, even if some part of us still hopes to return there someday.
California is often said to be “young”. Californians like to come to Europe and fake-marvel at how “old” everything is. But of course in truth the historical arc in that place is as long as it is anywhere else.
California’s early ascension to US statehood, in 1849, just three years after its annexation from Mexico, came long before the territories between it and the original thirteen colonies had been subdued to the political will of the Americans. Thomas Jefferson, in his eagerness to send Lewis and Clark west in 1803, seems already to have understood that the United States’ best hope for rising to the ranks of the global powers lay in gaining a foothold on both of the world’s great oceans. And so the priority was to Americanise the Pacific coast first, and only then to worry about Americanising all that lay between.
Didion has said that California induces in its settlers a desperate sense that they better make of their lives what they can right there, since “there is nowhere further to go”. But that is not quite right: by the late nineteenth century the Americanisation process jumped off the continent altogether and extended on to Hawai’i, Samoa, the Philippines. When my own father wished to see a bit more of the world and become more sophisticated than his parents, the natural motion for him was not toward Europe but toward Micronesia, settling for a few years as a journalist in the nominally American territory of Guam.
A similar, eastward motion was happening in parallel in the Russian empire’s push to Kamchatka, though somehow Muscovy has been much more successful at hiding its empire, concealing the colonial character of its vast North Asian possessions: this in spite of the efforts of some ethnic-Russian Siberians in the nineteenth century to follow the American model and to declare their independence from the European homeland. Thus in 1882 the Omsk-born Siberian nationalist Nikolaï Yadrintsev published a tract entitled Siberia as a Colony, in which he explicitly compared the Turkic Siberians to Native Americans, and the Russian inhabitants of Omsk and similar cities to the homesteaders of the American West.
I’ll hope to write about Yadrintsev properly on some other occasion. What I want to stress here are the limits of the analogy, and thus the singularity of the American story. A continuous ring of volcanoes extends from Mt. Lassen up through the Aleutian islands, down into the Kamchatka Peninsula, and from there to Japan. The same ring also means that both sides are similarly prone to destructive earthquakes. All through the summer of 2020 my iPhone weather report (for the handful of cities I have in my pre-sets) indicated constant hazardous air quality and thick smoke for both Sacramento and Yakutsk. Siberia and California give different proper names to their various fire “complexes”, but in an important sense they have both been fighting the same generic fire.
Notwithstanding the enantiamorphisms of nature on both sides of the Pacific, the Russians have not been nearly as successful at mobilising romance in the aim of Russifying the Far East. Like early Australia, the principal mechanism for populating Siberia was the penal colony, which is to say forced migration. California by contrast was built on a dream — however false, however mendacious and disappointing, it pulled people towards it as in a sort of teleology, rather than pushing them there by what the Scholastic philosophers would call an “efficient cause”.
Part of the trick was to borrow preexisting fantasies from other parts of the world and to make them iconically Californian — just one dimension of the “plagiarism” Royce describes. The most convenient source of tropes was the Middle East, or “Araby”, as it was often represented in the earliest years of Hollywood: the “Sheik of Araby” genre made most famous by Rudolph Valentino was not just any sort of exoticism; it was part of a systematic effort to model the newly acquired land after the ancient biblical land. Even the palm trees that are now such a powerful symbol of California had to be imported as a self-conscious arabesque, and the name “California” itself, though the etymology is disputed, may well come from “caliph”. The Barbary Coast outlaws in San Francisco had their own sort of criminal caliphate, and more than a century later Didion would write of how she was required to memorise by rote, in her Sacramento elementary school, formulae to the effect that the Central Valley’s harvests of dates and olives had now surpassed those of the Holy Land.
The importation of one sort of foreignness helped occlude from sight the one that was already there, or rather the several that were already there. A linguistic map of pre-contact North America will show tremendous uniformity to the North and East of the continent, with just a few rather massive families of languages dominating vast territories. Native California looks much more like the northern edge of Aboriginal Australia, the part closest to Melanesia that experienced the most successive waves of migration. The cultural diversity of the state prior to its incorporation into the Spanish empire, and then the Anglo-American empire, was unrivalled elsewhere in the Americas, except perhaps in Central America and in the Amazon. I will not of course speculate on pre-Columbian trans-Pacific contacts, but will only invite the reader to imagine (as my former colleague, the conservation biologist Eric W. Sanderson has done) a counterfactual history in which North America was colonised from the West, not the East (the terminus of Eric’s thought-experiment is different from mine: in his version Manhattan Island comes out as a nature reserve on the sparsely inhabited edge of a United States-in-reverse). What would no doubt strike any imperialist moving in the imagined direction is that Native California is where all “the action” is, while the Northeast is very much a backwater.
In significant portions of the Mountain and Desert West, it is impossible not to be aware of the Native history, and the enduring Native reality, of the place. In California, the imaginary conquest — by which I mean the conquest in part by violence, but also in part by the power of imagination — has been much more complete. In school we were told that Ishi —who died in Berkeley in 1916, having caught tuberculosis from the anthropologists— was “the last Indian”. He had been found, freezing and starving, alone, in a barn near Oroville a few years before. When we were little my sister and I used to find obsidian arrowheads along the shores of Lake Almanor, an hour or so north of Oroville, where our grandparents had a mountain cabin.
The lake had been created when a dam was built on the Feather River in 1914, and is now owned and maintained by Pacific Gas & Electric. Only recently did I learn that the reason why Ishi was “the last Indian” is that his family had been massacred years before, in 1865, in a meadow at Mill Creek, just miles from the spot where we delighted in recreational boating. I can clearly recall being eight years old or so, finding an arrowhead, delighting in that, too, but also thinking (though not in these words): this comes from a different reality, from the other side of an absolute temporal boundary; it is something to delight in, but it has nothing at all to do with our present world. The arrowhead could have been a dinosaur fossil, I mean, for all it managed to pierce my conscience and to make me understand the human tragedy of California.
Among the more remarkable paintings in the Met Museum’s American Wing is Jules Tavernier’s Dance in a Subterranean Round House at Clear Lake, California of 1878. The French traveller who captured the scene is certainly more attuned to the Native reality of the state than I was as a child. But he is also attuned to something very deep in the “settler-colonial” mentality, in its relationship to the cultures it overruns and destroys. Too obscure to see well in any reproductions of the painting, among the spectators at the dance there is a handful of European visitors. Their faces express a condition that in other contexts might seem an oxymoron: the condition of vapid curiosity. This is a condition that accompanies genocides. It delights in dances, but does not take much of an interest in what happens after they are over.
But the real triumph of Tavernier’s work is the light: the scene takes place underground, and yet the spot of sunshine that filters in is unmistakably Californian, and the dry brown weeds that hang down from the hole in the ceiling appear ready to catch fire at the slightest contact with a spark.
It is this general condition of vapid curiosity that also likely explains why Californians are such suckers for promises of spiritual elevation. In The Elementary Particles Michel Houellebecq describes vividly the split legacy of the 1960s, which by early in the following decade had come to be represented metonymically through two geographical poles: Maoist China, where responsibility to the collective and effacement of the individual self had been pushed to the extreme; and California, where the reverse was the case, where the political demand for justice and equality that animated hippie culture circa 1968 gave way to a single-minded quest for individual liberation, generally by means unanchored, to say the least, in sound empirical science. Therapies of all species thrived, involving crystals and primal screams, and the guiding presumption throughout all these experiments was a sort of etiolation of the previous decade’s more properly political demands for liberation — if only society had not been so oppressive, the zeitgeist had it, we as individuals would be thinking and feeling more authentically, more in keeping with our true nature as spiritual beings, on a higher plane.
But single-minded pursuit of individual self-interest can quickly give way again in turn to a longing for absorption back into the mass, often, the second time around, under the charismatic leadership of an opportunistic guru. Some of my earliest memories are of the ambient chatter surrounding Jim Jones’s People’s Temple movement, which before it absconded to Guyana had its base in San Francisco. The California state assemblyman known fondly as “Downtown” Willie Brown, a towering political personality in Sacramento who some time later would become Kamala Harris’s mentor and lover, had been deeply implicated in the People’s Temple. In 1977 Brown declared of Jones that he represented the culmination of the legacies of MLK, Angela Davis, Albert Einstein, and indeed Chairman Mao too. Even at the moment of the movement’s mass murder-suicide, Jones was mingling neo-pagan individualism and the rhetoric of a Christian millenarian death cult with confused signalling of political affiliation to the socialist bloc countries — until the very end he was hoping to gain asylum in the USSR. Cultic weirdness, I mean, and delirious derivative syncretism of religious and political legacies, had been woven into the very fabric of Californian society.
Nor did this come out of nowhere, but seems rather to be prophesied in the work of Royce and Muir: the vapidity diagnosed by the former; the ecstasy experienced by the latter. Well before the 1960s, the list of Californians claiming to be prophets, or more, was already growing long. In 1948 in Simi Valley, a man by the name of Francis Pencovic, but better known as Krishna Venta, declared: “I may as well say it, I am Christ.” He was killed by a suicide bomber in LA ten years later. On a lecture tour of the US in the 1890s, the Swami Vivekananda impressed William James and others in the Northeast with his oratorical skills, but it was near San José that his people determined to set-up a distinctly interdenominational, free and flexible ashram, dedicated broadly to the pursuit of “peace”.
It was the tabula rasa character of post-annexation California —ethnically cleansed and restyled for the Anglo-American imagination as a place with no history, and therefore as a place where anything is possible— that made Hollywood such a perfect spot for the Latvian immigrant Eugenie Peterson, better known as Indra Devi, to set up shop in the 1940s as a new sort of minstrel yogini, the kind who advertises “no judgments” but only offers a path to self-betterment. Yet as Royce seems already to have understood, where there are “no judgments”, there is also no judgment, no lucid scrutiny of one’s condition, no possibility for the cultivation of taste. In the end Indra Devi’s Hollywood-style yoga was made possible by the same historical conditions that produced the Getty Museum: a contextless microcosm of European fine arts, a fake Tuscan villa where Californians could go for an “experience” of high culture, bankrolled by an oil baron who helped to “settle” the frontier, and to give its Westernmost edge the appearance of a terra nullius.
Riverside, Surrounded by Orange Groves, c. 1906
The most remarkable transformations of Californian vapidity would only emerge, though, in the era of Silicon Valley’s rise to something pretty close to global domination. That new role has everything to do, of course, with economics, and yet, true to its California identity, the culture of the place imagines that its prestige and influence have rather to do with its production of “thought leaders”.
Already by the 1970s there was a clear convergence between the corporate and the New Age mentalities in California, with movements like Werner Erhard’s EST touting the liberation of human potentials and the experience of higher planes of consciousness, while articulating the benefits of such achievements mostly in terms that would be familiar to any HR department. But it took the rise of Apple, with its genealogy extending back to proto-internet experiments such as The Whole Earth Catalog (which had replaced National Geographic by the 1970s as the first source of naked-breast photos for many American children, now not those of “savages” but of hippies), to realise the synthesis of twentieth-century neopagan ebullience with twenty-first century institution-building, and from there to distil some of this ebullience into something that might pass for “thought”.
In the end, though, in Silicon Valley and its satellites, instead of thought one finds only plagiarism, or, worse still, cynical adaptation of the world’s intellectual traditions to the ends of antidemocratic capital. In the East Bay self-styled “Bayesian” autodidacts expound their derivative rationalist epistemology and neo-Stoic moral philosophy through the vehicle of Harry Potter fan-fiction. Gnostic millenarians without even knowing it, they pass their time writing blog posts in which they sincerely worry about possible offences they are committing in the present against a future all-powerful AI overlord. In the environs of Stanford, acolytes of the illiberal billionaire Peter Thiel are promoting the work of the fascinating and subtle French theorist René Girard, in the aim of buttressing their view that the world easily divides into an elite class of “leaders” on the one hand and a bunch of imitative “late-adopters” on the other. Within the headquarters of the big tech companies, an official philosophy of “mindfulness” is being pushed, which, as John Tresh argues, seems to be traceable to the influence of a handful of American practitioners of Buddhist meditation who reject arduous monastic practices in favour of an understanding of meditation as a sort of “brain hack”, which “draws upon its ‘religious’ precursors, but subverts and ironizes their convictions into quotation, consumer choice, and high-tech bricolage.”
These people, like the Swami Vivekenanda before them, see in California a perfect place to offer up a de-dogmatised and flexible version of a distinguished religious tradition to a new and eager customer base. But in its Silicon Valley iteration, Buddhist mindfulness is denatured beyond recognition, for as a spiritual practice it is necessarily something that is pursued independently of specific practical goals, while as a business practice it is necessarily subordinated to the interest of accumulating capital. The state is on fire, and the CEOs are pushing mindfulness on their employees while presumably both buying their own bullshit and also preserving enough old-fashioned practical rationality to keep their “minds on their money” as well, and on the escape pods they’ve constructed to evacuate them to New Zealand, should that become necessary.
This should all be obvious, of course, yet it needs to be said again and again: the “thoughts” that come out of Silicon Valley are not really thoughts, but ad hoc rationalisations of power. What is interesting about Facebook mindfulness, or Berkeley Bayesianism, or Stanford Girardianism, is not the content of the claims, but the illustration these provide of the longue durée dynamics of California history: a history of vapid curiosity, always skimming just over the surface of a process of immeasurable destruction.
View Over Riverside from the Summit of Mt. Rubidoux, c. 1920
I love California, I ache with longing for it every day I am away, and if Google offered me a fat stack of cash to be their resident philosopher, I would abandon the Old World and its crumbling late-scholastic academies in a second. (Europe, too, after all, was only able to yield up its own “thought leaders”, for a time, as an epiphenomenon of a few centuries of wealth extraction from the rest of the world.) I would drive on the interstates and I would blast my air conditioner. The fires would all have been put out by then, and a vaccine would have been found for our current plague.
Like Josiah Royce, I would then disappoint my colleagues even more than I already have by abandoning philosophy altogether, and writing folksy dispatches about gold prospectors of yore, frog-jumping contests, and so on. I would return to looking for arrowheads, and delighting in them rather than being psychically pierced by them. My hair would turn back to its aboriginal chlorine green.
None of this is going to happen, of course. But I would not be a Californian if I did not have such misplaced dreams.
Moonlight on San Francisco Bay, c. 1901
About the Author
Justin E. H. Smith is an author and professor of philosophy in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Paris. The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, will appear in 2021 from Princeton University Press.
The Catalina Country Club Golf Course, 1926 is from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
The Beach and Bath Houses from Pier (Where Every Day Is Summer), Santa Cruz, 1906 is from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Magnolia Avenue, Riverside, c. 1906 is from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Riverside, Surrounded by Orange Groves, c. 1906 is from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
View Over Riverside from the Summit of Mt. Rubidoux, c. 1920 by Orange Groves, c. 1906 is from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
Moonlight on San Francisco Bay, c. 1901 is from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
The frontpage image is San Jose, c.1906 and is also from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.