Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Lost Trailer Utopias: The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and Fifties America *. (Essays)

Academic journal article Utopian Studies

Lost Trailer Utopias: The Long, Long Trailer (1954) and Fifties America *. (Essays)

Article excerpt

House TRAILERS OR MOBILE HOMES, housing America's elderly and working class families, are today's throwaways. Literally zoned into obsolescence, they have also been culturally devalued, perceived as the unfortunate waste products of an ever shifting, mobile capitalism. However, as Evan Watkins argues in Throwaways: Work Culture and Consumer Education, such throwaways "are produced by and indispensable to present social organization" (7). The trailer's history as a mobile home (which begins in the mid-fifties) and its changing signatory value testify not only to the destabilizations of twentieth-century capital, and with it the continual devaluation of working class labor, but also to the ways in which these changes get reproduced at the level of the sign. The American dwelling--from the log cabin, tenant farm, railroad box car to the mobile home--is part of a more complicated economic and social history of the organization and reorganization of American capital. The trailer is an object, a cultural phenomenon, that is significant precisely because it currently represents a "failure," a throwaway of the latter 20th century. It stands as the vanishing mediator between two stages of twentieth-century capital, finally discarded today along with many of its so-called "trash" owners. Instead of looking to one of the decade's bright and shining figures, this essay looks to the trailer, a critical failure, to get at the period's historical tensions and concerns. Put another way, the im/mobile trailer is "successful" at signifying the complexities and even "failures" of the 1950s American dream--one that still resonates with many who view the 1950s as the apex of American capital and culture. The trailer came of age during the height of modernism, during the spectacular fifties. People tend to still identify with the ideals of the 1950s (such as the return of the fifties "playgroup," Mom-centered domestic culture), even if not directly with the era (Eddie Fisher's music no longer flies off the shelf).

American cultural and social historians, from David Halberstam to Karal Ann Marling, tend to view the 1950s in terms of its perceived "best and brightest" achievements: Elvis, Disney, McDonalds, Brown v. Board of Education, television, the introduction of the credit card, Barbie, etc. The fifties remains the beginning of rock-n-roll, television, the civil rights movement, fast food culture, America's world economic and cultural hegemony. In other words, the fifties has become romanticized even within historical debates. This historiography seems to repeat itself: Cold War containment, the booming commodity culture, etc. These scholarly contributions are indeed important as are the subsequent rereadings in understanding the decade. However, what of the fifties' underside? What of the technological/social innovations and cultural productions that failed or have been forgotten? If we are to define such limits, should not we take a look at the objects which fall outside of those limits? Looking at "the other fifties" may be a way of revisiting history through the lens of change and finding the possibilities and foreclosures lost in the process. I would like to re-imagine the fifties through the changing cultural, material and social value of the house trailer. This essay then attempts to get inside the trailer while simultaneously suggesting that there is always an outside--another historical place to go.

The trailer, I argue, is the most interesting late twentieth-century transitional objects. Pulling its occupants forward with promises of infinite mobility and the simulation of single family home ownership, it figured the transitions of postwar High Fordism. And yet, as a proto-Post-Fordist object, the fifties trailer also signaled the instability, flexibility and ultimately the disposability which has come to characterize today's economy. Like Walter Benjamin's work on the Parisian Arcades, this essay wishes to recover the utopian "intimations" or possibilities deposited within today's decaying trailer and trailer park community by remembering the house trailer's shiny 1950s history. …

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