Westworld and the Frontier Imaginary

Lina and Mike have been obsessed with Westworld over the last two months, and in this essay, they share their reflections on the first season of the series as it came to an end last Sunday. There are mild spoilers ahead, but the two authors keep the discussion focused on the major themes of the TV show as understood through a Borderlands history perspective. We hope you enjoy it. -ed

Westworld, set in the American West in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, tells the story of a futuristic amusement park where many of the “cast members” (to borrow a term of Disneyworld parlance) are not human, but rather humanoid robots.  In the narrative, there are frontier towns, Mexican outposts, renegade Confederate soldiers, violent indigenous tribes, and endless lines of gunslingers and prostitutes. They serve the wealthy clients who pay large sums to visit the park and indulge in the bacchanalia and bloodshed on offer. Undergirding this scifi-western fantasy, dozens of levels beneath the surface, is the infrastructure of the park, built by its director, Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), and run with the help of his chief deputies, Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and Theresa Cullen (Sidsi Babbet Knudsen), whose departments also vie for power, while references are made to impatient, faraway investors.

Some of us on the Borderlands History blog have been quite taken by this sci-fi thriller and believe we can learn something about the contemporary understanding and continued obsession with the frontier through HBO’s newest hit.  Moreover, we see that the show not only uses the borderlands region as a material space where sexual and violent fantasies are played out by park visitors and workers alike, but a metaphor for other historical and modern borderlands.

Like Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous address before the American Historical Association, Westworld is also deeply concerned with the frontier. Whereas Turner’s frontier was geographic, this drama’s is scientific. Both use some concept of the frontier to understand how culture and society are shaped. Violence becomes the catalyst for westward expansion in Turner’s imagination, and helps push major turning points for the narratives constructed in the park for its patrons.

For historians of the border, Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” attempted to end a linear history of discovery. However, borderlands historians have critiqued Turner’s vision because it denies the process of continental conquest that underscores the “project” of the United States as one not of democracy and republicanism, but rather empire and capital exploitation. American expansion continued unmoored from its territorial origins, to intervene in Cuba, and other Caribbean and Central American nations, as well as skip across the Pacific, consuming Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines as America became a two-ocean maritime power.

For viewers of Westworld, the frontier is depicted as a loop, where the consciousness of the robotic hosts is reset after every day, but nevertheless, hovers within grasp of sentience if given the right conditions. Three decades of scientific conquest in Westworld’s labs have blurred the borderlines between subject and object as the humanoids seem to express fears and hopes beyond the scope of a mere automaton.  Violence enables the boundlessness of these geographic and scientific frontiers.

The TV show’s creators, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, draw implicit connections to Disney parks and in many ways Disneyland was borne out of that same sense of unbounded American exceptionalism that justified westward expansion under the guise of Manifest Destiny.  Westworld is a space where dreams can be lived out; but which are only achievable through assiduous corporate management. Employees and supervisors go about their business in multiple levels of studios that craft new hosts, their clothes, weapons, and memories. It is scripted magic.

This parallel with Disney, however, can be pushed further. In the 1950s, America was the model nation for the West in a postwar world and Walt Disney became one of its chief emissaries. The park’s creator wanted to imagine a realm of dreams and fantasy. It was the public face of what would become a multibillion dollar corporation and culture-making machine. In the 1970s, the creation of Disneyworld went even further; the decision to open it part of Walt Disney’s desire for full control over his creation (something he lacked in the crowded space of Anaheim). Over time, the multiple parks in the Disney empire, perhaps not dissimilar to the worlds that Delos made in the TV show, aged with new layers building on top of the older ones like sediment in a geology of consumerism.

In Westworld, as in the founding myth of western expansionism, certain preconceptions pervade. The foundation, and point of reference of Westworld is the frontier town. To be a part of it, you must dress and act accordingly. Certainly, guests occasionally run amok killing hosts with abandon, but this violence and the construction of masculinity that goes with it, do not violate the unwritten rules of that space.

Beyond the frontier town, however, indigenous groups remain largely nebulous and silent. The dreaded “Ghost Nation” tribe is depicted in the drama as an over-the-top caricature of the “violent savage.” Moreover, playing on this ungovernable stereotype, in one episode, the humanoid machines that comprise this group ignore the voice commands of a park officer who had gone out in search of a missing colleague. The TV show paints a two-dimensional picture of the people outside the primary frontier town of the park.

Although the show’s creators hired a racially diverse cast, in terms of culture, each of the main characters are examples of the neo-Europeans that invaded this space and “made” the frontier over centuries. The true protagonists and antagonists are the Anglo and Europeanized characters, whether they be hosts playing the role of settlers and cowboys, or the scientists and product designers laboring patiently underfoot. From a narrative standpoint, they are the only ones the viewers spend time with. Everything else is mere window dressing to set the world of the drama.

Westworld’s anachronistic frontier becomes a space of emotional and psychological rebirth for wealthy patrons and park staff, but equally allows for the creation of consciousness among its humanoid robots. Likewise, the ever-expanding American nation drives past its geographical edges to create new frontiers and new spaces to exude its power.  As new storylines are developed and new boundaries made, domination and control reign supreme in both worlds. As other writers have noted in recent days, Westworld is a microcosm of American (and arguably global) culture, today; where identity is disconnected from place, and where facts do not standalone, but rather are created, and then erased when they become inconvenient.

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Job Alert: Latina/o Studies, UMKC

Dear readers, the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Missouri-Kansas City is looking to fill an opening in its Latina/Latino Studies (LLS) program at the rank of assistant professor, associate professor or professor, depending on the experience of the successful candidate. The call is open to all fields and research backgrounds. From the announcement:

…the successful candidate will possess excellent pedagogical skills teaching a variety of university courses, as well as a record of scholarship and/or service in the field of Latina/o Studies, Afro-Latino Studies, Latin American Studies, or related fields.

This faculty person will teach core LLS courses in our undergraduate minor, including the introductory course, as well as LLS-related courses from their respective discipline. All LLS courses are open to students in all disciplines and some courses can be explicitly cross-listed in other disciplines and can accept graduate students.

The faculty hired is expected to contribute to the program’s efforts of enhancing interdisciplinary teaching, research, and service. This faculty is expected to contribute to both strengthen and diversify the current minor and explore opportunities to expand the Latina/Latino Studies with a graduate certificate, a major, and, eventually, a master program.

To receive full consideration, submit your application by January 15, 2017. For more information, or to apply, follow the link.

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Job Alert: Assistant Professor (TT) in Latin American History at Loyola

Dear readers, the Department of History at Loyola University Chicago is looking to fill a tenure-track position in Latin American history (open to all periods and regions). Preference is given for specialists who have experience in public and urban history. The successful candidate will work with the school’s Latina/o Studies program, as well. deadline to apply is November 30th. From the announcement:

The successful candidate will teach graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses in Latin American History, including the introduction to Latin American History survey that is part of the university core curriculum. The successful candidate will also be a member of the Latin American Studies Program and will be able to participate in expanding the academic planning and intellectual life of the Program. Candidates for the position must clearly demonstrate the potential for excellence in research and teaching and have a record of (or clear potential for) distinguished scholarship, teaching, and student mentorship.

For more information, or to apply, follow the link.

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A Conversation with George T. Diaz, author of “Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling Across the Rio Grande.”

In Border Contraband: A History of Smuggling Across the Rio Grande (University of Texas Press, 2015) Professor George T. Diaz examines a subject that has received scant attention by historians, but one that is at the heart of contemporary debates over U.S.-Mexico immigration and border enforcement. Focusing on trans-border communities, like Laredo/Nuevo Laredo, Diaz details the interplay between state efforts to regulate cross-border trade and the border people that subverted state and federal laws through acts of petty smuggling and trafficking. Using folk songs (corridos), memoirs, court documents, and newspapers, Diaz uncovers the social history of a transnational contrabandista community that responded to the hardening of the U.S.-Mexico border and the enforcement of trade regulations through the formation of a moral economy. Holding nuanced views of newly erected legal and physical barriers to the mobility of people and consumer goods across the border, contrabandistas established a cultural world of smuggling that regulated trade on its own terms and frustrated state efforts to define and police notions of legality/illegality.

Foreshadowing our contemporary moment in which the Rio Grande Valley is associated with criminality, violence, and drug trafficking, Diaz argues, (1) that it was the creation and enforcement of national borders by the U.S. and Mexican states that led to smuggling by establishing a market for contraband goods; and (2) that border people were proactive agents in negotiating and obstructing state efforts to regulate and criminalize activities that were common practice and essential to life along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Listen to this conversation in its entirety on the New Books in Latino Studies podcast.

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Book Review: Lovewell’s Fight: War, Death, and Memory in Borderland New England

Dear readers, we have a new guest post from Matthew M. Montelione, received his M.A. in History from Stony Brook University in December 2014. His ongoing research centers on Suffolk County in the American Revolution, specifically the local experiences of Loyalists on eastern Long Island. -Mike

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In a sweeping and engaging narrative, Robert E. Cray has contributed the next great slice of northeastern North American borderlands scholarship. In Lovewell’s Fight: War, death, and memory in Borderland New England (2014), Cray strikes a poignant and often understudied chord in early American history. Lovewell’s Fight focuses on inconspicuous white-Indian boundaries in New England (mainly Massachusetts—or what is now New Hampshire) in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Cray deserves high praise for combing through scarce archival evidence, and for producing a concise history that highlights war and its legacy in the minds of borderlands peoples who experienced it, or were affected by it thereafter. He is especially concerned with backcountry militia Captain John Lovewell’s fatal expedition into Abenaki territory in 1725, and the “fragmentation after battle” that has rarely been examined using a borderlands lens. Cray’s work “belongs to that rare category of military encounters in which defeat transcends an opponent’s victory to don the mantle of legend.”[i]

Like Richard White in The Middle Ground: Indians, empires, and republics in the Great Lakes region, 1650-1815 (1991), and Alan Taylor in The Divided Ground: Indians, settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (2007), Cray uses diverse human actors as justification for a borderlands region. Like a detective, Cray rediscovers long forgotten memories of particularly brutal early eighteenth century Anglo-Indian warfare and notes that roles of power, for both groups, were highly malleable in the New England borderlands. While Cray risks being scrutinized for emphasizing white motives and memories as opposed to their native counterparts—in general, in opposition to Taylor—this is likely due to the lack of surviving documents, if any were written at all, left by this particular Abenaki group in the 1720s.[ii]

Cray’s Massachusetts frontiersmen saw “Community ties and military rank dissolved when men were few and exposed… to possible attackers.” Among the farmhouses in Dunstable stood “ever-present garrison houses—silent structures reminding its inhabitants of the unsettled state of borderland life.” This was an ever changing landscape, whose civilian population lived day-by-day in fear of Abenaki attacks. There was hardly any intercultural accommodation in this region, and it would be hard to label the New England war zone as a middle ground in White’s fashion. Rather, Cray nods to James H. Merrell’s disenchantment with interracial friendliness in Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier (1999). While not as ominous in tone as Merrell, Lovewell’s Fight also shares with Into the American Woods a penchant for the forest. The woodlands were an unfamiliar battleground for backcountry Massachusetts settlers, and many warriors on both sides of the conflict met their fates among the trees.[iii]

Cray says something new about borderlands methodology by infusing memory into his story, to a much greater extent than historian Joseph S. Wood did in ““Build, Therefore, Your Own World”: The New England Village as Settlement Ideal” (1991), but perhaps more importantly, he speaks to blood drenched countrysides and woodlands, the contingent nature of war, and reinforces the notion of borderlands by conflict.[iv] Indeed, while this more violent facet of borderlands history has evolved since The Middle Ground, it reaches an all time high with Lovewell’s Fight. Cray reinvigorates historical inquiry into the “martial spirit” of early American players, and their motives, desires, successes, and failures shed light on what life was like in colonial America, at the fringes and beyond.[v]

Lovewell’s Fight greatly contributes to northeastern North American colonial borderlands historiography. Cray says something new about military and diplomatic history, and opens doors to future inquiries in the field. His study calls historians to reevaluate the social, political, military, and religious relationships between whites and Indians in early American history. Lovewell’s Fight speaks to the importance of military analysis, to the loss of daily life patterns due to incessant conflicts, and to an even darker facet of northeastern borderlands history.

[i] Robert E. Cray, Lovewell’s Fight: War, death, and memory in Borderland New England, (University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 2-26.

[ii] Cray, Lovewell’s Fight, 2-26.

[iii] Cray, Lovewell’s Fight, 16-57. See also James H. Merrell, Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Pennsylvania Frontier, (W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).

[iv] See Joseph S. Wood, ““Build, Therefore, Your Own World”: The New England Village as Settlement Ideal,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 81, No. 1, (March, 1991), 32-50. Wood tracks the imagined ideal of the New England village in American memory. While not a borderlands study per se, and certainly not in relation to Cray’s work—there are no Indians present in Wood’s article—Wood nonetheless contributes an important piece to colonial borderlands historiography, as he suggests that the general relationship between people and nature in New England constitutes a different kind of borderland. Whether consciously or not, James H. Merrell greatly elaborates on Wood’s idea of nature as a primary actor in borderlands regions in Into the American Woods.

[v] Cray, Lovewell’s Fight, 32.

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NACCS-TEJAS Poetry Book Award

Dear readers, the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies-Tejas Foco has announced this year’s call for submissions and nominations for its annual poetry book award. The full details are below. The deadline to submit is December 15, 2016.

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From Dissertation to Book: Writing a Book Proposal

Dear readers, I’d like to introduce Dr. Lori Flores, Assistant Professor of History at SUNY Stony Brook. She has collaborated with us in the past, particularly on a great book review series from last year featuring the work of her graduate students. Now, we have the pleasure of publishing her first post for BHb, which provides some great ideas about adapting one’s work for a book proposal. Most recently, Lori authored Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farmworker Movement, part of the Lamar Series in Western History published by Yale in 2016. -Mike

I am often asked for advice on how to navigate the transition from completing a dissertation to revising the dissertation into a book, and writing academic book proposals for publishers. Here are seven tips that might help demystify the book proposal process (disclaimer: I’m a historian, but hopefully these tips translate across disciplinary boundaries):

  • See your work with new, fresh eyes.

If you’ve just finished your dissertation, congratulations! Now set it aside for a good while. Trying to tackle dissertation-to-book revisions too soon will prevent you from seeing your graduate school-inspired language, and from knowing what needs to be tweaked, cut, or added in terms of content. Many times, you need a more distant perspective on your work in order to articulate to editors how you plan to produce a book, which is an entirely different beast in terms of framing, style, and structure. Feel free to circulate your work to valued colleagues for their input while you’re gaining that distance, and tackle other passion projects or interesting new readings in your field for some inspiration.

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CFP: American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) Annual Meeting in Austin, TX, September 6-9, 2017

Annual Meeting 2017 Theme: I AM History

The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) will present its 2017 Annual Meeting in Austin, TX from September 6-9.

I’m part of the conference committee and will be part of the group reviewing proposals. Feel free to get in touch with me if you need presentation and/or panel ideas: http://about.aaslh.org/am-call-for-proposals/

i-am-historyProposals are submitted online and are due December 9. Contact Bethany Hawkins with any questions at hawkins@aaslh.org or 615-320-3203.

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Honoring the Legacy of Dr. Mario T. Garcia, October 26, 2016

The UTEP Department of History hosted “Honoring the Legacy of Dr. Mario T. Garcia: A Graduate Student Roundtable Discussion of Chicana/o Movement History,” as part of the University’s 2016 Distinguished Alumni, on Wednesday, October 26, 2016, at the Rubin Center Auditorium on the University campus.

According to the UTEP History Department, Dr. Mario T. Garcia received his BA and MA from the Department of History at UTEP in 1966 and 1968 respectively. He then went on to complete his Ph.D. at the University of California at San Diego.  He is the author of several influential books, including Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920, which focuses on the history of El Paso between 1880 and 1920; as well as The Chicano Movement: Perspectives from the Twenty-First Century; The Latino Generation: Voices of the New America; and Blowout! Sal Castro and the Chicano Struggle for Educational Justice. He has published approximately twenty titles in all.  Dr. Garcia has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is currently a distinguished professor of History and Chicano studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he has been a faculty member for 41 years. The roundtable included student discussions of their research in Chicana/o history, followed by comments from Dr. Mario T. Garcia about his life’s work.  In his presentation, Dr. Garcia spoke about his development as a historian and his challenges and opportunities in writing Chicana/o history.

Dr. Jeffrey Shepherd, Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, opened the session and Dr. Ernesto Chavez, Associate Professor (far right) introduced Dr. Garcia.  Student panelists included (from right to left): Dennis Aguirre, Doctoral Candidate; Melanie Rodriguez, Doctoral Candidate; Angelina Martinez, Doctoral student; Blanca Garcia, Doctoral student; and David Robles, Doctoral Candidate.

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Notes on the 2016 UHA Annual Meeting at Chicago

Greetings from Chicago, Illinois!  From the 13 to the 16 of October, 2016, urban historians, city planners, biographers, architects, and public policy specialists convened at the Philip Corboy Law Center of Loyola University Chicago for the Urban History Association’s Eighth Biennial Conference.  David-James (DJ) Gonzales and I had the opportunity to attend and present at this year’s meeting.

We arrived on Friday, October 14 and were able to visit some amazing panels that interrogated the themes of carcerality and the state, urban history before the “city,” settler colonialism, and the lack of scholarship on urban Latinx history.  It is exciting to see over the years how each urban history conference features more and more panels on Latinx neighborhoods, community activism, and radical political thought.  Some of the panels that were scheduled for the weekend included: “The Fight for Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles, Post-1965,” “Latino Studies and the New Urban History,” “Urban Latinos: Ethnic Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Transnational Communities, and Cities in the Postwar United States,” “Latinos and the Changing World of Urban Work,” and “Rethinking the Boston ‘Bussing Crisis’”

Moreover, there were some great sessions on the connections between ethnicity, immigration, and urban space, as with a plenary on “A City of Immigrants: Immigration Reform since 1965 and its Urban Consequences.”  The panel sought to present post-1965 as a defining point not just for civil rights, but for new groups of Latinx immigrants to the country.  There was also a roundtable titled, “Settler Colonialism in American History?”  This panel was absolutely terrific, especially because of the open conversations the panelists had with the audience.  An individual from the audience posed the question, “Can only native scholars utilize settler colonialism in their research and can settler colonialism only be used to understand native pasts?”  Nathan Connolly, a Black historian of property rights and land in Florida, responded that the moment we start to put restrictions on who can write certain pasts or operate specific optics is the moment white supremacy succeeds.  Llana Barber, a specialist in immigration and Latinx history, concurred and suggested that settler colonialism helps attenuate the differences between different historically-marginalized ethnic groups.  She compared Puerto Rican and Native American pasts, referring to land sovereignty and citizenship rights through the guise of a friendly state.  The roundtable concluded that settler colonialism can and is helpful in thinking through ethnic histories like the Latinx past. Continue reading

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