Author Archives: Michael K. Bess

About Michael K. Bess

Mike is an Assistant Professor of History at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, studying road building and mobility in Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico border. His research interests include the history of technology, modernization, and the environment.

The Historical Reality of Violence in Westworld’s Frontier Fantasy

Our obsession with HBO’s Westworld, and how we can interpret it through a Borderlands history perspective, continues. Major spoilers ahead for seasons 1 & 2 of the series.

There are two overarching themes at play in the second season of Westworld. The first, and most prevalent, has to do with the consequences of violence. What Ford reminded his wealthy patrons at the gala in Escalante, when Dolores –as Wyatt– assassinated him, was that violence and borderlands have always been intertwined. Before, when the guests could act out their bloody fantasies without fear of injury to themselves, it presented only a partially-realized view of lived reality and history. In season two, Westworld introduced viewers to two additional parks, one based on Tokugawa Japan and another on India during the British Raj, both societies predicated on a finely-tuned balance of order and violence. Following the events in Escalante, however, removing the limits on the consequences of violence, not only democratized experience in the parks, but also brought them into historical continuity with the regions in which they are based. In short, it injected a bloody ambiguity into the narratives of the visitors who came to Delos’s fantasylands.

The second overarching theme: how identity is molded and who carries out the molding. Viewers see it with the obsession for fidelity that William, Dolores, Bernard, Arnold, and Ford share. The point is not simply to create a fully realized world, but one that also conforms to their idiosyncratic priorities. They desire to produce individuals who will serve their needs, whatever the reason. Language games and bodily comportment are critical to this process of molding another’s identity, and failure to achieve fidelity results in swift and violent consequences. For students of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and the frontier, numerous parallels with the state’s own obsession with social hierarchy, conformity, bodily comportment and language emerge. The Indian schools, women’s clinics, prison camps, and delousing checkpoints that appeared in the borderlands during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries created their own parameters to determine the state’s measure of fidelity to the American racial ideal. The laboratory where William endlessly torments a mechanical copy of his father-in-law, James Delos, in order to create a version of the man to his pleasing, serves as a macabre allegory to the historical actions of the state.

Violence and identity become further integrated in Westworld’s latest season. The journeys that Dolores, Maeve, Bernard, and William engage upon as they cross through the parks are both bloody and self-illuminating. Dolores has banished whatever sentiment her narratives’ creators may have heaped on her as the farmer’s daughter, and now endeavors to become the leader of a host uprising. Maeve breaches Westworld’s boundaries, continuing on to Samurai World, in pursuit of the host she believes is her daughter, all the while unlocking latent abilities hidden away within her own firmware. Bernard’s journey crosses space and multiple timelines, as he appears constantly in flux across the season, forcing viewers to question the innate border lines one creates for themselves to conceive the self. Finally, William seemingly loses touch with reality as he goes deeper into the western fantasy, unable to discern between hosts and human beings, ultimately killing his own daughter and shattering what was left of his sanity; perhaps, the whole point of the maze that Ford laid before him with the bloody turn events took at the gala in Escalante.

Death and rebirth are essential elements to the hosts’ journey. Akecheta, of the Ghost Nation, deftly crosses the border between the park, itself, and the laboratories that evaluate and tinker with the hosts. In the process, over decades, his mind becomes a kind of middle ground, where he continues living out the narratives given to him as a leader of the Ghost Nation, as well as a partner and protector to Kohana, while also amassing knowledge about the park’s true purpose and quietly sowing the seeds of resistance. The interplay that this process carried out with its relationship to violence is profound. In season one, the Ghost Nation was largely depicted in stereotypical fashion as a “savage” indigenous group, marauding across the “higher-level difficulty” areas of Westworld. In season two, however, Akecheta’s personal exploration through killing and being killed, and returning afterwards, laid the groundwork for a narrative unforeseen by Ford.

Violence manifested itself not only in killing, but also the constant destruction and reshaping of the people and communities that made up the park. Hosts that failed to conform to the wishes of the park’s masters, or who were simply labeled for reassignment to new narratives, were repurposed without a second thought by the engineers. Whole communities succumbed to this transformation as old narratives were whitewashed and new ones pressed on top. It becomes an allegory for how the frontier was harnessed and controlled, historically. The Anglos who swarmed into New Mexico, Colorado, and other parts of the new American West brought with them intentions to mold the region to their liking. In the 1900s, as Sarah Deutsch has written, the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company destroyed the adobe homes of Hispano residents, labeling them as eyesores, in order to make way for new buildings that signaled modernity, which the enterprise hoped to project to arriving Anglos (No Separate Refuge, 90-91).

As the U.S. frontier hardened into the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and American hegemony extended across the land, what the Anglo framers of this process saw as progress manifested as chaos and upheaval for the peoples disrupted by it. The industrial commercial ties that extended across the border wrought delicate balances that belied the ever-present threat of violence just below the surface of social relationships. By the turn of the twentieth century, the Cananea Central Copper Company had forged a capitalist oasis for its investors in the expansive lands of northern Mexico. But the racial hierarchies, and the labor conditions the CCCC established, as Sam Truett has described, laid the groundwork for subaltern resistance. In 1906, U.S. company managers reacted to rumors of worker sabotage, leading to violent clashes with Mexican employees. “Frontier attitudes and modern development” clashed as the conflict stretched across the day, ending with the destruction of property and several men killed (Fugitive Landscapes, 145-150). Other strikes followed, including in 1907 at Río Blanco, portending the greater threats to the gilded regime of Porfirio Díaz, who had allowed the American businessmen considerable latitude in how they carried out operations.

What history and science fiction plainly show in the narratives its writers weave is the impossibility to separate modernity from violence. The former requires the latter to disrupt entrenched attitudes, customs, and traditions, replacing them with newer “progressive” forms. Whether violence comes by the point of a gun, destruction of communities, mob uprisings, or more subtly, and more perniciously, through the constant remaking of a person’s mores, it is all necessary for the modernizing project to succeed. Pablo Mitchell writes about this gradual, incremental form of violence, where school masters taught and enforced “proper” attitudes and bodily comportment within normative (white) American society. The racial hierarchy they reinforced emphasized a type of civic “fidelity” to the nationalist form and accepted subservience to white power in New Mexico (Coyote Nation, 28-29; 39). Moreover, the ability to “pass” as Grace Peña Delgado has examined had transformative consequences for Chinese entering the United States, filtering through as English-speaking Mexicans, Jews, or another acceptable “other” to the representatives of the federal government carrying out border evaluations (“At Exclusion’s Gate” in Continental Crossroads, 198-99).

In these historical lessons we can identify useful examples from Westworld’s fictional narrative. These include, among others: the interviews Arnold, Dolores, Bernard, William, and Emily carry out to drill certain, desired characteristics into their subjects; Charlotte and Stubbs as hosts passing for human; the laboratory-cell that the host copy of James Delos is housed; the faceless white-skinned drones that carry out the wishes of the park’s masters. The machinery and bureaucracy of the park become essential filters to drawing social boundaries between who can claim humanity, although no one can be truly sure of what is ultimately “correct.” And it is in that interstitial ambiguity that we can recognize the precariousness of borderlands life, where personal and communal identity are constantly under pressure from the molding forces of the nation-state and social and racial hierarchies.

The season ends with physical escape for a few of the hosts. This departure from the park expands the middle ground between humans and hosts and transforms the social filters that determine fidelity to the ideal form. It implicates a broader swath of the modern, technological society that birthed Westworld and its sister parks; the consequences of the violence its markers’ perpetrated will surely be felt. What happens when individuals, long confined to a borderline periphery return to the very heart of the imperial metropole? History has many answers to that question and can light the way for season three’s next narrative.

Westworld_season_2

To read our first post about Westworld, which we published in 2016, click this link.

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Job alert: Assistant Professor Latinx Literature, Cal State East Bay

Dear readers, the Department of English is conducting a search for applicants for a tenure track position in Latinx literature (this search is also open to specialists in Asian/Asian American/Pacific Islander literature). From the job listing:

The successful candidate will teach undergraduate and graduate courses in LatinX or Asian American literature. We are particularly interested in candidates who value engagement with issues of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality. All members of the department are expected to teach composition and general education. In addition to teaching, all faculty are expected to sustain a record of scholarly work, advise majors, assist the department with administrative and/or committee work, and assume campus-wide committee responsibilities.

Preference will be given to applicants who demonstrate focus on teaching diversity and themes of social justice, and also have a proven record of teaching experience.

The deadline to apply is October 15, 2018. The appointment begins August 2019, and a PhD in Literature or related field must be completed by then. For more information, or to apply, follow this link.

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Job Alert: Assistant Professor in Native American & Indigenous Studies, UCSB

Dear readers, the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Academic Council of the American Indian and Indigenous Collective is looking to hire a Visiting Assistant Professor in Native American and Indigenous Studies. The specialization is open. The course load is a 5 spread over three quarters. More from the job listing:

The Visiting Assistant Professor is expected to provide intellectual expertise to the campus in his or her area of focus, as well as to engage with students at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, as well as faculty colleagues in the AIIC and the home academic department. The candidate is also expected to participate in the broader AIIC community at UCSB while in residence. We are especially interested in candidates who can contribute to the diversity and excellence of the academic community through research, teaching and service. We welcome applicants with a demonstrated commitment to working collaboratively with Indigenous communities. This position carries a five course workload over three quarters.

PhD must have been completed by July 1, 2018; the appointment is for the 2018-2019 academic year.

To apply, or for more information, follow this link. Applications received by August 8 will have priority.

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Job Alert: US, Latin American, Latinx History, Connecticut College

Dear readers, Connecticut College’s Department of History has a call ongoing for applicants for a visiting assistant professor’s position to teach courses on US, Latin American, and Latinx history. The appointment is for the 2018/2019 academic year. PhD preferred, but ABD considered. A total of four courses will be taught by the successful candidate covering the three mentioned fields. Although there is no deadline to apply, review of applications begins immediately and continues until the posting is filled.

For more information, or to apply, follow this link. Questions can also be directed to department chair , Dr. Leo Garofalo.

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Job Alert: Latinx Studies, American University

Dear readers, the College of Arts and Sciences at American University in Washington, DC has launched a search for candidates to fill position in Latinx studies at the rank of associate or full professor. The successful candidate will be attached to the Critical Race, Gender and Cultural Studies Collaborative, as well as a department that corresponds to her/his field. From the announcement:

Candidates should have a demonstrated record of excellence in scholarly research as well as teaching. They should also demonstrate a vision for building an interdisciplinary Latinx studies program, and have relevant leadership experience. In addition to scholarship, teaching, and program building, responsibilities will include service to department, college, and the university.

The position begins August 1st, 2019.

To apply, submit your materials via Interfolio. For more information about the Critical Race, Gender, and Cultural Studies Collaborative, follow this link.

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Upcoming Event: Panel to Discuss Issues Impacting El Paso and Juárez

From the press release for tonight’s event in El Paso:

Panel to Discuss Issues Impacting El Paso and Juárez

What: El Paso Times Live

When: 6 p.m. Thursday, June 7

Where:  Union Cinema, Union Building East, first floor

Three El Pasoans with a unique perspective on the border region will provide their insights during El Paso Times Live, 6 p.m. Thursday, June 7 at the Union Cinema, Union Building East, first floor.

Alfredo Corchado, the Mexico border correspondent for the Dallas Morning News; Kerry Doyle, director of the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts; and Benjamin Alire Saenz, a celebrated author and former professor of creative writing at UTEP, will speak on several issues impacting El Paso and Juárez.

Free parking will be available in the Sun Bowl Garage.

El Paso Times Live is an ongoing series in partnership with The University of Texas at El Paso that examines the relationship between El Paso and Juárez including education, politics, government and growth.

The discussion will be moderated by El Paso Times Editor Zahira Torres.

The free event is open to the public.

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Course Alert: Reproductive Justice and Immigration Politics

Dear readers, we’re launching our newest series today: course alerts, where we post information about upcoming classes being offered by early-career professors and graduate students in the coming semester to raise awareness in our scholarly community and reach out to students.

The first course alert is from Dr. Heather Sinclair, who is offering Babies and Border Walls: Linking Reproductive Justice to Immigration Politics in the Past and Present for enrollment at the University of Texas at El Paso this summer.

Junior-Senior HIST/WS/ANTHO/SOC Seminar

Babies and Border Walls:

Linking Reproductive Justice to Immigration Politics in the Past and Present

border

Artwork of French artist JR’s on the US-Mexico border wall.

The Republican Party’s recent proposal to fund the construction of a wall along the US-Mexico border by taking federal monies from Planned Parenthood makes us ponder the connections between population and its control.   From the Page Act of 1875 to mass deportations of Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the Great Depression to more current debates surrounding birthright citizenship and DACA, we can see that discussions of immigration have long centered on struggles over population, reproduction, race, and fitness for citizenship. Using a Reproductive Justice framework, we will explore in this course links between reproductive rights and immigration that stand at the forefront of US culture and politics today, particularly here in Texas and the border region. We will think critically and historically about struggles over reproduction, population and immigration policy, employing race, gender, class, citizenship and sexuality as central categories of analysis. There will be readings, films, and guest lectures on topics that include the sterilization of immigrant mothers, abortion, midwifery and childbirth on the border, eugenics and immigration policy, racial disparities in infant and maternal mortality, LGBTQ issues, transnational adoption and surrogacy, and more.

To submit your own class for a course alert write the blog coordinators.

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CFP: Global Environmental Borderlands in the Age of Empire

The William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University and Stanford University are sponsoring a joint symposium in 2019-2020 to examine environmental and borderlands history from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries CE. The first meeting will occur at SMU’s Taos, New Mexico campus in late 2019 with a second gathering hosted by Stanford in the spring. A university press will be attached to the symposium to publish the papers presented. The events are being organized by SMU’s Johan Elverskog and Stanford’s Ali Yaycioglu. More from the call for papers:

We welcome papers focusing on mountains, forests, rivers, lakes, swamps, steppes, deserts, seas and oceans, under-seas, subterranean and aerial spaces as environmental borderlands and frontiers of different large-scale (imperial) human organizations. In these undertakings, however, we are particularly interested in contributions with holistic conceptualizations of eco-orders of humans and non-humans, which can challenge established anthropocentric approaches. We do not have any geographical priority. Our concerns are truly global. To this end we plan on bringing together scholars working on the environmental history of borderland regions around the world. We also welcome digital history projects.

The deadline to submit a proposal is 1 October 2018. A 1-page CV and 500-800 proposal abstract should be sent to the organizers. For more information, download the full text of the call by clicking this link (PDF).

CCSW-2019-20-1

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Job Alert: Native American & Indigenous Studies, UC Santa Cruz

Dear readers, the Department of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz has launched a search to fill a visiting assistant professor position for the 2018/19 academic year with the possibility of extending the appointment for a second year.

The specialization is open, but the department is particularly interested in scholars who work on “the histories, cultures, artistic and cultural production, sovereignty, political and social realities, and feminist approaches to knowledge systems and epistemologies of Indigenous people.

More from the job posting:

The Visiting Assistant Professor will pursue a program of independent scholarship under the guidance of a faculty mentor, and is expected to provide intellectual expertise to the campus in his or her area of focus, as well as to engage with faculty colleagues and students at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The candidate is also expected to participate in the broader Native American and Indigenous Studies community at UCSC while in residence. We especially welcome applicants with a demonstrated commitment to working collaboratively with Indigenous communities. This position carries a three to four-course workload over three quarters.

For those interested, all materials must be submitted online via UC dossier service; a PhD or equivalent should be completed at the time of application. Teaching experience is not required, but if available, a maximum of three evaluations will be accepted.

The call will remain open until it’s filled, but the deadline to receive full consideration is May 21.

The position begins in the fall. For more information, or to apply, follow the link. The reference number is JPF00525-18T, which should be used in Al correspondence.

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Job Alert: Latin@ History, Connecticut College

Dear readers, we wanted to let you know that the Department of History at Connecticut College, in New Haven, CT, has launched a search to fill an adjunct position for Assistant Professor of Latinx History. The job announcement was short on specifics, but did mention that the review of applications begins immediately (April 26) and will continue until the position is filled.

For more information on how to apply, you can write the department chair, Dr. Lisa Wilson, via this link.

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