Raptor, Rapist, Rapture:

The Dark Joys of Social Control in Thomas Pynchon's Vineland

"With his own private horrors further unfolded into an ideology of the mortal and uncontinued self, Brock came to visit, and strangely to comfort, in the half-lit hallways of the night, leaning in darkly in above her like any of the sleek raptors that decorate fascist architecture." Thomas Pynchon, Vineland.

Between 1963 and 1973, the American author Thomas Pynchon (born in 1937) published three novels: V. (1963); The Crying of Lot 49 (1966); and Gravity's Rainbow (1973). Taken together, these dense, critically acclaimed books form a kind of loosely intertwined trilogy in which certain characters and themes occasionally reappear. The very length of Gravity's Rainbow (over 700 pages long) seemed to suggest that, with its publication, a cycle -- perhaps the cycle -- had been completed. Maybe Pynchon would never publish another novel. How could he? What more could he have left to say? As the years (the 1980s) went by and a fourth Pynchon novel didn't come out, it seemed that the author -- well-known for keeping his "private life" truly private, for not even allowing his photograph to be taken -- had indeed quit when he was ahead, and stopped writing novels.

And so, it was something of a surprise when, in 1990, Pynchon finally published Vineland, his fourth novel. Inevitably, perhaps, it was perceived to be a disappointment. Take for example these fairly typical comments, made at the time the novel was published by Brad Leithauser, writing for The New York Review of Books. For Leithauser, Vineland "fails in any significant degree to extend or improve upon what the author has done before"; it "marks a return to what was weakest in his patchy novella," i.e. The Crying of Lot 49; it contains "no pleasure [...] to compare with the one great delight of Lot 49 -- its madman-in-a-library's hunger for arcana"; the humor in Vineland "has no bite"; and the characters "are strictly one-dimensional." After a couple of months on The New York Times' bestseller list, Vineland dropped from sight. It wasn't made into a movie, not even a "Made for TV" movie, despite all the hints dropped in the novel about how appropriate that would be.

Vineland is weak, there's no doubt about it. The text is too long and padded out with filler. Future editions should delete the superfluous characters (DL, Takeshi, and Blood & Vato) and cut everything after page 293 in the first edition, that is, the last 100 pages. "Used to think I was climbing, step by step, right? toward a resolution," says one of the novel's characters (Weed Altman, killed by Roscoe, now floating around as a "Thanatoid") about his murder. "First Roscoe, above him your mother, then Brock Vond, then -- but that's when it begins to go dark, and that door at the top I thought I saw isn't there anymore, because the light behind it just went off too." Unfortunately, many of Pynchon's readers may feel the exact same way about Vineland about two-thirds of the way though the book, well before they've reached this ironic passage.

To be fair, both V. (450 pages long) and, of course, Gravity's Rainbow could also use some serious editing. . . . But I don't want to defend Vineland or try to convince others of its high quality. All I want to do is provide the right setting for a single stunning sentence that it contains. If future editions of Vineland are edited as I've suggested, this sentence will become the novel's centerpiece, its otherwise missing resolution, the steadily illuminated door at the top of the stairway.


"Carking care is my feudal castle. It is built like an eagle's nest upon the peak of a mountain lost in the clouds. No one can take it by storm. From this abode I dart down into the world of reality to seize my prey; but I do not remain down there, I bear my quarry aloft to my stronghold. What I capture are images." -- Soren Kierkegaard, Entweder-Oder (1911).

Since terms taken from architecture seem especially useful in this project, let's say that both V. and Gravity's Rainbow are constructed like gigantic labyrinths, through which the Reader must, very slowly at times, make his or her way through narrow passages, totally alone, except for the narrator's voice(s) and those of the characters. Narratively speaking, The Crying of Lot 49 is a more straight-forward affair, but the Reader still travels, alone, in a labyrinth, this time somewhat wider but still narrowly passaged, that matches the twists and turns of a mysterious, centuries-long conspiracy against the Post Office. To quote Vineland's narrator somewhat out of context, Pynchon's first three novels describe "a Casbah topography," created by "the arrangements of hillside levels, alleyways, corners, and rooftops," which is "easy to get lost in quickly, terrain where the skills of the bushwacker became worth more than any resoluteness of character."

Vineland, by contrast, is constructed like a large public square. It is intended to be open, easy to get through, and big and wide enough so that masses of people can see the "attractions," all at the same time. In Vineland, the Reader isn't alone, but can hear, in addition to the narrator's tour-guide voice, the sounds made by other Readers, lots of them locals, most of them tourists snapping pictures and chattering away like birds. It is certain that Pynchon has failed to build, removed or blocked off a great many of the side-streets, cul-de-sacs and alleys that Readers would normally find in one of his novels. But if the Reader knows how to drift or wander "aimlessly," he or she can still come upon several passages in or through which it is possible to get completely and intoxicatingly lost, like a madman in a library.

Here's one of them. On this tour, we'll only take a few steps into it.

Fortunately [for musician Billy Barf, playing at an Italian Mafia wedding without knowing any Italian songs] Ralph Wayvone's library happened to include a copy of the indispensible Italian Wedding Fake Book, by Deleuze & Guattari.

While they weren't authors of books that help chart-reading musicians fake their way through songs that they don't know -- though the idea is pretty amusing, given their occasional attempts to imitate or "fake" schizophrenic writing -- Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari were the authors of a series of books about capitalism and schizophrenia, most notably Anti-Oedipus, published in 1972 with a preface by Michel Foucault about the book's relevance to fighting contemporary fascism. In a passage that applies to them as well as it applies to Wilhelm Reich, author of The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Deleuze & Guattari write, "Reich is at his profoundest as a thinker when he refuses to accept ignorance or illusion on the part of the masses as an explanation of fascism, and demands an explanation that will take their desires into account: no, the masses were not innocent dupes; at a certain point under a certain set of conditions, they wanted fascism, and it is this perversion of the desire of the masses that needs to be accounted for."

Like Anti-Oedipus and The Mass Psychology of Fascism, Vineland is an attempt to account for the fascist "perversion of the desire of the masses." There have been fascists in America for decades. Take for example someone like Brock Vond, the U.S. Attorney, COINTELPRO specialist and anti-drug zealot who is the novel's anti-hero. He's called a "fascist" several times. Though the word is often used casually and inaccurately, Brock Vond is a real old-time fascist. Like the Nazis,

he was a devotee of the thinking of pioneer criminologist Cesare Lombroso (1836-1909), who'd believed that the brains of criminals were short on lobes that controlled civilized values like morality and respect for the law, tending instead to resemble animal more than human brains, and thus caused the crania that housed them to develop differently, which included the way their faces would turn out looking [...] By Brock's time the theory had lapsed into a quaint, undeniably racist spinoff from nineteenth-century phrenology, crude in method and long superseded, although it seemed reasonable to Brock.

In the aftermath of what the narrator calls "the Nixon Reaction" or "the Nixon Repression," which began in 1969, overt fascists such as Brock Vond were able to find both a home and plenty of financial support in Washington, D.C. Despite changes in personnel and Presidents during the 1970s, "the Repression went on, growing wider, deeper, and less visible," culminating in Ronald Reagan's "war on drugs," in which -- in Pynchon's version -- Brock Vond features prominently.

Vineland is set in 1984, the year that Reagan was re-elected President. Of course, it was also the year that George Orwell set his famous anti-Stalinist and anti-fascist novel, 1984. Orwell -- or, rather, the betrayed relationship between Winston and Julia -- is clearly the reference when Brock Vond tells Zoyd, just after Vond has gotten him to snitch on his ex-wife for the FBI, "Believe me, she'd have done the same to you." But Orwell wasn't really given his due back in 1984, perhaps because nothing exactly like the following scene from Vineland ever took place.

Was Reagan about to invade Nicaragua at last, getting the home front all nailed down, ready to process folks by the tens of thousands into detention, arm local 'Defense Forces,' fire everybody in the Army and then deputize them in order to get around the Posse Comitatus Act? Copies of these contingency plans had been circulating all summer, it wasn't much of a secret [...] Could it be that some silly-ass national emergency exercise was finally coming true? As if the Tube [television set] were suddenly to stop showing pictures and instead announce, 'From now on, I'm watching you.'

Pynchon clearly believed that, just because the year 1984 didn't bring actual "telescreens" into every home in the country, this didn't mean that Reaganism wasn't an American form of fascism. The year 1984 was in fact the perfect occasion to ask what Pynchon calls "the perennial question of whether the United States still lingered in a prefascist twilight, or whether that darkness had fallen long stupified years ago, and the light they thought they saw was coming only from millions of Tubes all showing the same bright-colored shadows," that is, the old question that brings forth "the names -- some shouted, some accompanied by spit, the old reliable names good for hours of contention, stomach distress, and insomnia -- Hitler, Roosevelt, Kennedy, Nixon, Hoover, Mafia, CIA, Reagan, Kissinger, that collection of names and their tragic interweaving that stood not constellated above in any nightwide remoteness of light, but below, diminished to the last unfaceable American secret, to be pressed, each time deeper, again and again beneath the meanest of random soles, one blackly fermenting leaf on the forest floor that nobody wanted to turn over, because of all that lived, virulent, waiting, just beneath."

In hindsight it seems clear that 1984 did indeed mark the end of the Twilight and the beginning of the Dark Night of Fascism in the United States. But to see down on the forrest floor that rotting tramped-down leaf, to pluck out that hideous worm-like truth and to digest it -- why, you'd have to have a bird's eye, a bird's beak and a bird's stomach to do it.

Look, birds are everywhere in Vineland, from the message-laden carrier pigeons "taking off one by one" on the novel's very first page to the "redtail hawk in an updraft soaring above the ridgeline" on its very last. In between, there are pigeons, mockingbirds, sparrows and, of course, chickens-coming-home-to-roost and parrots that tell bedtime stories to troubled children. Even when you can't see them, the birds are out there, in the trees, making loud, strange, even "delirious" sounds. The effect, Pynchon's narrator notes, is especially striking at twilight.

There's a passing reference to the "shelter" snitches can find in "the shadow of the federal wing," that is, under the protection of the federal wing of the United States Government, here visualized as something similar to the fatherly, even God-like giant bird in Prince von Bulow's Memoirs: The World War and Collapse of Germany, 1909-1919.

An eagle spreads his wings
Over his young
So, ever and anon,
His might has covered me.

But most of the birds in Vineland are predatory, not protective. On the second page, there are blue jays "who came screaming down out of the redwoods and carried off the food in it piece by piece" and, right in the middle of the novel, there are "city falcons who hunted pigeons in the booming prisms of sun and shadow below." Raptorial birds such as these -- others include eagles, hawks and owls -- use their sharp claws and pointed beaks to seize and carry off their living prey. There's a strong etymological link between raptor and older definitions of rapist, someone who seizes human beings and carries them off by force. In the Greek myth of the rape of Ganymede by Zeus, who takes the form of an eagle to perpetrate the crime, the two meanings co-exist.

The aforementioned fascist, Brock Vond, is a human raptor. In the words of the novel's narrator, "the narc's natural prey," that is, "an average doper of the sixties," would expect that a cop like Vond would have "the reflexes of a predator." Vond doesn't disappoint: he almost literally preys upon stool pigeons, a "classical pigeon" like Roscoe (who kills his mentor because of a rumor that he was really an FBI agent), and any of "the birds" that Vond puts in cages in his prison-like Political Re-Education Program. A professional sadist, Vond is also capable of (fantasizing about) rape. "Smart mouth," the narrator says. "One day he would order her [Frenesi Gates, the woman Vond is obsessed with] down on her knees in front of all these cryptically staring children [hippies], put a pistol to her head, and give her something to do with her smart mouth. Each time he daydreamed about this, the pistol would reappear, as an essential term."

Vond also has a weird predilection for using helicopters to spot, fly above, descend upon, seize and carry off individual people. "Death From Slightly Above" is the nickname Vond's colleagues give him. In his raptorial use of helicopters, Brock Vond was a pioneer. "No hour day or night was exempt from helicopter visits," the narrator says about the late sixties, "though this was still back in the infancy of overhead surveillance." By 1984, as a result of Reagan's "war on drugs," aerial surveillance -- especially the helicopter surveillance of marijuana-growing areas of the United States such as Vineland, California -- had become fully developed.

Significantly, "Death From Slightly Above" is terrified of being raped. "In nightmares he [Brock Vond] was forced to procreate with women who approached never from floor or ground level but from steep overhead angles, as if from someplace not on the surface of Earth, feeling nothing erotic but only, each time it was done, a terrible sadness, violation . . . something taken away. He understood, in some way impossible to face, that each child he thus produced, each birth, would only be another death for him." Perhaps these nightmares of being raped by bird-like women replay a trauma Vond experienced as a child; perhaps they express his guilt and remorse for the crimes he's committed as an adult. Either way, Vond's way of coping with these nightmares is to reverse the positions, so that he is the rapist from above and not the one below being raped. But the structure of oppression remains intact.

An average novelist, perhaps even a good one, would have been content with these twin images of anti-hero Brock Vond: raptor/rapist. But sometimes-a-great novelist Thomas Pynchon went ahead (reached above?) and added a third term, namely, rapture, which is commonly taken to mean the state of being joyous or deeply engrossed. Following this meaning, the narrator describes Frenesi's (mostly sexual) feelings while being transported on the back of DL's motorcycle as "biker rapture, for sure." But other, less innocent meanings of the word are also at play in the novel. Etymologically linked to both "raptor" and "rapist," rapture can also mean to have one's imagination, feelings or sense of self transported, seized or carried off. And so Pynchon is careful to highlight the aspects of passivity, acceptance and surrender.

In a memorable description of an on-coming storm (more "death from above"), his narrator says that "Weather commentators tried to maintain the tradition of wackiness the job is known for, but could not keep out of the proceedings an element of surrender, as if before some first hard intelligence of the advent of an agent of rapture." One might have expected those words to have been an angel -- "the advent of an angel of rapture" -- and not an agent. "Agent" sounds too instrumental, too human, too mortal, especially for the advent of "the Rapture," otherwise known as the first resurrection of the Elect, which is supposedly prohesied in the Bible.

I saw the souls of those executed with the ax for the witness they bore to Jesus and for speaking about God, and those who worshipped neither the wild beast nor its image and who had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand. And they came to life and ruled as kings with the Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This was the first resurrection. Happy and holy is anyone having part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no authority, but they will be priests of God and of the Christ, and will rule as kings with him for the thousand years. (The Book of Revelations, Chapter 20, Verses 4-6.)

There's an obvious reference to the Rapture in the scene in Vineland in which a band wakes up Thanatoid Village by playing J.S. Bach's "Wachet Auf": "To one of the best tunes ever to come out of Europe, even with the timing adapted to the rigors of a disco percussion track able to make the the bluest Thanatoid believe, however briefly, in resurrection, they awoke, the Thanatoids woke." But it is the agent, Brock Vond, who is mordibly obsessed with death, resurrection and rapture.

At a press conference held in the aftermath of a brutal and possibly murderous police attack on a "subversive" university campus, Vond is asked about the whereabouts of the large numbers of students who have turned up missing. "Why underground, of course," Vond says. "That's our assumption in this, from all we know about them -- that they've gone underground." He's pressed by someone who asks, "You mean they're on the run?" This doesn't seem at all likely. The questioner persists, "Are there warrants out? How come none are listed as federal fugitives?" Before having the questioner removed from the room, Vond answers, "Underground, hm? Rapture below." In other words, the missing students aren't on the run and disguising their identities to avoid capture. Brock had them "axed" and buried "below," in the (under)ground. And if they were good Christians while they lived, ha ha ha, they are now ruling as kings with Christ. On another occasion, Vond cries out to one of his colleagues as they try to use a helicopter to kidnap Frenesi's daughter, Prairie, "The key is rapture. Into the sky, and the world knows her no more."

And so "rapture" is a powerful, highly ambivalent, even troubling word here. Brock Vond the rapist fancies himself to be a raptor in the service of Jesus Christ. But does this mean that his prey are enrapt or experience rapture? that his victims don't merely "surrender" to him, but willingly give themselves over, in other words, that they actually enjoy being raped?

To answer these questions, Pynchon gives his readers Frenesi Gates, whose perverse relationship with Brock Vond began back in the sixties, when he "convened his roving grand jury in Oregon to look into subversion on the campus of a small community college, and 24fps" -- a radical filmmaking collective of which Frenesi was a member -- "had gone there to film the proceedings, or as much as they could find with Brock always changing venues and times on them at the last minute." Like hunters, the members of 24fps stayed on Vond's trail, and, thanks to luck and Frenesi's eagle-eyes, were able to capture him on film.

They chased him from the courthouse, through the rain, to a motel, then to the fairground exhibition hall, the college and the high school auditoriums, the drive-in-movie lot, finally back to the courthouse again, where Frenesi, by then not expecting him, just trying to shoot some old WPA murals about Justice and Progress [...], in the middle of a slow pan across the rotunda, happened to pick up in her viewfinder this compact figure in a beige double-knit, striding toward the staircase. Another camera eye on the same crew might've dismissed him as one more pompous little functionary. Zooming in a little on his face, she began to track him. She didn't know who he was. Or maybe she did. (Emphasis added.)

This scene has a kind of twin. About 70 pages later, the narrator explains that the proto-fascist criminologist Cesare Lombroso "had divided all revolutionists into five groups, geniuses, enthusiasts, fools, rogues, and followers, which in Brock's experience about covered it, except for the unforeseen sixth, the one without a label Brock was waiting for, who at last came striding toward him now through the drizzle, a few pounds thinner, her hair full of snarls, barelegged, her camera taken away, no weapon of witness but her eyes." The parallelism or symmetry between these two scenes suggests that Brock Vond and Frenesi Gates are a "natural" pair, destined to be lovers, despite their "political" differences.

But do these lovers have political differences worth speaking of? According to the narrator,

Brock Vond's genius was to have seen in the activities of the sixties left not threats to order but unacknowledged desires for it. While the Tube was proclaiming youth revolution against parents of all kinds and most viewers were accepting this story, Brock saw the deep -- if he'd allowed himself to feel it, the sometimes touching -- need only to stay children forever, safe inside some extended national Family. The hunch he was betting on was that these kid rebels, being halfway there already, would be easy to turn and cheap to develop. They'd only been listening to the wrong music, breathing the wrong smoke, admiring the wrong personalities. They needed some reconditioning.

When it came to Frenesi, Brock's "hunch" was right on. Though Frenesi and her mother, Sasha, were long-time Leftists surveilled and persecuted for their political beliefs and activities, both women have a half-childish, fully fascist fetish for uniformed authority.

Sasha believed her daughter had "gotten" this uniform fetish from her. It was a strange idea even coming from Sasha, but since her very first Rose Parade up till the present she'd felt in herself a fatality, a helpless turn toward images of authority, especially uniformed men, whether they were athletes live or on the Tube, actors in movies of war through the ages, or maitre d's in restaurants, not to mention waters and busboys, and she further believed that it could be passed on, as if some Cosmic Fascist had spliced in a DNA sequence requiring this form of seduction and initiation into the dark joys of social control.

What's disturbing about this irrational and perverse "turn" toward fascism -- also described by Sylvia Plath's poem "Every Woman Loves a Fascist" -- is the unexpected fact that awareness of it doesn't trigger terrible realizations about the "bad" things one has done, but terrible realizations about the "good" things. "Long before any friend or enemy had needed to point it out to her," Pynchon's narrator says, "Sasha on her own had arrived at, and been obliged to face, the dismal possibility that all her oppositions, however just and good, to forms of power were really acts of denying that dangerous swoon that came creeping at the edges of her optic lobes every time the troops came marching by, that wetness of attention and perhaps ancestral curse." And so it seems that only evil is possible; good intentions are constantly betrayed by one's eyes, lobes and desires.

Then why not stop "denying that dangerous swoon," that rapture, and give oneself over to it completely? This is in fact what Frenesi does, only she choses to call it love, not self-betrayal or rape.

She came and lay next to him, but not touching. The storm held the city down like prey, trying repeatedly to sting it into paralysis. She lay on her elbow, unable to stop gazing at Brock [...] [She thought that] someplace, lost, stupified, needing her intercession, was the 'real' Brock, the endearing adolescent who would allow her to lead him stumbling out into light [...], returning him to the man he should have grown into . . . it could've been about the only way she knew to use the word love anymore, its trivializing in those days already well begun, its magic fading [...] Yet if there was anything left to believe, she must have [believed] in the power even of that weightless, daylit commodity of the sixties to redeem even Brock, amiably, stupidly brutal fascist Brock.

And so Frenesi became this fascist's lover and, what's worse, a COINTELPRO agent in his employ. She told a fool named Roscoe that political leader Weed Altman was really an FBI agent and then gave Roscoe the gun that he eventually used to kill Weed. And, worst of all, she did it -- all of it -- because she wanted to, not because she was ignorant, stupid, drugged or duped. Note well the conclusion of the scene that takes place during the storm: Frenesi and Brock entered into their tangled relationship with both of their respective pairs of eyes wide open to the truth.

At some point he must have gone drifting to sleep, and she hadn't noticed. She watched over him, hers for a while, allowing herself to shudder with, even to surrender to, her need for his bodily presence, his beauty, the fear at the base of her spine, the prurient ache in her hands . . . at last, so swept and helpless, she leaned in to whisper to him her heart's overflow, and saw in the half-light that what she'd thought were closed eyelids had been open all the time. He'd been watching her. She let out a short jolted scream. Brock started laughing. (Emphasis added.)

Like the twin scenes in which Brock and Frenesi meet each other, this "eyes wide open" scene is doubled. It so happens that this second doubling or twin contains the single stunning sentence for which I've been preparing the arrival. Here it comes: in the aftermath of Prairie's birth, Frenesi was deeply depressed. She felt an irrational hatred for her newborn, "the tiny life, raw, parasitic, using her body through the wearying months and now still looking to control her." Fearing that she might kill Prairie, Frenesi sent her to Sasha for safe-keeping. According to the narrator, "It was in those hours of hallucinating and defeat that Frenesi had felt Brock closer to her, more necessary, than ever." Was Frenesi active? Did she "fly" to Brock, wherever he was? No, she was passive; he flew to her.

With his own private horrors further unfolded into an ideology of the mortal and uncontinued self, Brock came to visit, and strangely to comfort, in the half-lit hallways of the night, leaning in darkly in above her like any of the sleek raptors that decorate fascist architecture. Whispering: "This is just how they want you, an animal, a bitch with swollen udders lying in the dirt, blank-faced, surrendered, reduced to this meat, these smells. . . . " Taken down, she understood, from all the silver and light she'd known and been, brought back to the world [...] (Emphasis added.)

Brock Vond once again reversed the positions while leaving the oppressive structure intact. Like the TV set that declared, "From now on, I'm watching you," Brock switched from watched-over to watcher. He was then seen as and for what he really was: a gargoyle on a fascist building. Confronted by this uncanny vision, Frenesi didn't experience "rapture" of any kind. But the fascist perversion of her desire didn't depend on her enrapture. She was strangely comforted by what had at first made her scream, and that was enough for Brock to "take her down."


Note the loose ends. Why does Pynchon refer to "any" of the sleek raptors that decorate fascist architecture? Are all raptors the same? Are all raptors sleek? And what about his vague reference to "fascist architecture"? Does Pynchon intend to evoke architecture that is designed and built by fascists? If so, which fascists? The reactionaries who, during World War II, referred to their own governments as fascist (Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany and Franco in Spain), or the reactionaries who, since WWII, have refered to their own governments as democratic, though they are actually fascist (Reagan/Bush in America, Thatcher in England and Sharon in Israel)? Perhaps Pynchon intended "fascist architecture" to signify a generalizable style of architecture that can appear anywhere, in either "democratic" (implicitly anti-fascist) countries or those countries that are explicitly fascist.

It's tempting to reduce Pynchon's allusion to "any of the sleek raptors that decorate facist architecture" to a very specific reference: the gigantic eagles that appear on buildings that were designed or constructed in Nazi Germany between 1932 and 1945. Pynchon refers to these very raptors -- "Eagles cast in concrete stand[ing] ten metres high at the corners of stadiums where the people, a corrupted idea of 'the People,' are gathering" -- in Gravity's Rainbow. Ancient symbols of tele-vision, independence, speed, and power, these sleek raptors are easy to visualize. Not only did the Nazis perch them at the entrances to highways and at the tops of stadiums, government buildings, train stations, and buildings that overlooked public squares, but they also used them in their songs, banners, sketches, models, paintings, photographs and propaganda films. (Though the Italian fascists didn't share the Nazis' obsession with eagles, the German fascists were hardly the first conquerors to use them as symbols or emblems of their military power. Eagles have been used in this way at least since the time of the ancient Egyptians.)

Sleek is an interesting word to use in this context. Not only does it describe the smoothness or glossy look of a bird's feathers, but it also suggests that the bird is well-fed and thus not necessarily preoccupied with its next meal. It is not immediately dangerous. There is time to escape while the raptor -- like Brock Vond before one of his televised press conferences -- takes time to groom himself properly, to make himself look "slick," that is, suave, sly, shrewd, seductive. The raptor will kill when he's good and ready. He will not depend upon what accident or good fortune has placed within his grasp. He will select and kill what he wants, when he wants.

Significantly, other than being sleek, the raptors decorating fascist architecture in Germany had little in common. There was no model or prototype, no standardization of presentation. (Same thing for the hackenkreuz, or "swastika," which, for example, could either spin clockwise or counter-clockwise.) And so the German raptors differed, sometimes quite substantially, as to their respective stances, postures, attitudes, and head positions. As a result, they communicated a very powerful but very confusing message. Why couldn't the symbol of power get control over of its own representations? Why was it always the same (an eagle) but always different (a different eagle)?

In Nazi Germany, this paradox was also played out at the level of architecture itself. Unlike the Italian fascists, who favored a certain definable style (stripped-down, unadorned neo-classical forms built on a truly monumental scale), the Germans made do with whatever worked: neo-classicism, volkische or vernacular forms, American engineering designs, even Bauhaus-style modernism. For the German fascists, form didn't follow function. As long as the building or the symbol functioned as intended (facilitated total control), it didn't matter what form the building or the symbol took. Significantly, the Nazis weren't worried that the inconsistency of their forms or symbols would eventually undermine their meanings and thus their usefulness. Indeed, the Nazis wanted their symbols to "inflate" to the point that they became emptied of all meanings. With meaning exploded, without anything "to know," there's no longer two groups of people that the State has to control (those "in the know" and those who don't know anything). There's only one big group, which makes total control so much easier.

(Written by Bill Not Bored and originally published in the May 1990 issue of Art Paper. Substantially revised September 2002.)



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