Academic journal article Suffolk University Law Review

Living Deadwood: Imagination, Affect, and the Persistence of the Past

Academic journal article Suffolk University Law Review

Living Deadwood: Imagination, Affect, and the Persistence of the Past

Article excerpt

In this paper, the object of my attention is the HBO television production, Deadwood. (1) In this highly acclaimed series, NYPD Blue's (2) creator, David Milch, both drew on and disrupted the genre of the American Western, generating fans in both popular and scholarly circles. (3) The series, part historical, part fictional, takes place in the 1870s, a time explicitly marked by the forward movement of colonial expansion. It is set in the illegal settler camp of Deadwood, in the shadow of the Black Hills of what is now South Dakota, what was long part of Lakota Indian territory.

As historians would remind us, that territory was the subject of a treaty (4) that promised that no white people would enter without the express permission of the tribes, a treaty which promised the Army would remove any settlers who did come, and a treaty, like so many other treaties, whose terms were violated. For the hills held gold, and prospectors came, and gold was taken, and an outlaw town sprung up, providing goods and services to those with gold, and people flooded to it, and fortunes were won and lost, and the illegal settlers were not removed, and the outlaw town was eventually made legitimate. Hundreds of thousands of Indian peoples of course lost their lives or were displaced as the colonizing settler society spread over the land.

The series's starting place is the camp of Deadwood, a place beyond and outside of the law. It is filmed in what one might call a mode of gritty realism, in the palette of dirt, blood, sweat, and mud. The dialogue balances on the thinnest edge between the exquisitely poetic and the discomfitingly profane, rather like Shakespeare meets The Sopranos. (5) Viewers are placed to re-inhabit the camp of Deadwood in this time of change, to consider how it might have been that order was built from chaos. The town is populated by a range of compelling characters, some fictional, others historic, including Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, and George Hurst. David Milch, creator and executive producer of the series, asserts, however, that the story is less about the people than about the camp itself. It is, he says, "about something larger, about drivers below the surface, moving the characters and the action forward." (6)

Deadwood is, of course, a story about the past. Such stories, Edward Said reminds us, tell us less about that past than about cultural attitudes in the present. (7) Further, such stories participate in creating what Raymond Williams referred to as "structures of feeling." (8) In this context, I find both Deadwood, and Milch's comments about it illuminating. What does the series assume and presume about those who are inside or outside the legal, and or, social order? What are the "drivers below the surface"? What are we to understand about the relationship of those drivers to law, order, and the economy? What structures of feeling invite certain kinds of emotional investments, certain ways of thinking about the past and its place in laying the sediment for the world in which we now live? These are some of the questions I want to touch upon in this paper. In the spaces of imagination it opens to us, in the pleasures it offers us, what does Deadwood suggest about the place of the outside and the outsider in our past, present, and future?

In this discussion of imagination, I do take the question of pleasure quite seriously. In the interest of full disclosure, and with a measured dose of self-mockery, I might confess that, as befits a feminist, the pleasure that most interests me is indeed my own. I confess myself to be a fan; one episode and I was hooked. (9) Of course, I also acknowledge the variability of people's experiences of pleasure in the stories, textual or cinematic, that they consume. My love of the series might be matched by others' equally powerful experiences of revulsion, annoyance, or even disinterest. I am not suggesting here that Deadwood should or must move viewers in specific ways, but rather, that it is important to grapple with the feelings, pleasurable and otherwise, that inhere in the viewing experience. …

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