In the universe of Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the question, “Is this all there is?” no matter how the terms are defined, must be answered definitively in the negative. In the quaint Pacific Northwest town of Twin Peaks, the equally odd denizens of the (evil) Black Lodge and the (good) White Lodge inhabit and guide mere mortals struggling through the campiness and menace of contemporary American life. Appearing in 1990 on ABC, the first season of Twin Peaks was a rousing success, a fact that elicits near universal amazement. “How,” one often hears, “did a surrealist auteur create a commercial hit in the unforgiving world of network television?” After the second season quickly revealed the (human) culprit of the murder mystery that dominated the first season, however, ratings dropped, despite the show’s clear statement that that culprit was not the real one, that a deeper evil lay awaiting. The second season ends with the protagonist, the brilliant and mystical FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), pursuing a madman into the Black Lodge only to emerge in his evil doppelganger form.
Twenty-five years after the show’s first run, Twin Peaks has returned, this time without the constraints of network television. Rather than tie up the loose ends, Frost and Lynch have catapulted us into a new beyond: the evil spirits from the first season appear to be undergirded by a deeper evil (the Mother), with an army of sooted henchmen and frog-insect hybrids, all unleashed by the grandiosity of the first nuclear experiments in White Sands, New Mexico. The purported moral is that the entrance into the atomic age has opened the floodgates previously protecting us from the nether world, leading us to wish that “this” was indeed all there was.
The revelation through Brakhagesque montages that White Sands lay at the origin is surely a characteristically bizarre act of atonement. After subjecting his audiences to the most graphic and disturbing products of his unconscious, David Lynch gave us meaning, and in a form that the mediasphere could only process by asking, “What the hell is happening?” I imagine Frost and Lynch giving each other a somber pat on the back at this moment’s conception. And yet the White Sands sequence, in once again convincing us that “this is not all there is” in the world of Twin Peaks, only repeated a crime committed twenty-five years ago.
In a way, it makes perfect sense that something that serious people call “art” would appear smack dab in the middle of the culture industry in the 1990s. The political and economic revolution that produced modernity gave birth, amidst the shifting sands of social structure, to the dream of free, creative individuality, to the historically novel possibility of art. It is no accident that the half-century after the French and Industrial Revolutions included the literature of Stendhal, Honoré de Balzac, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and the young Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Frédéric Chopin, and Franz Liszt. Though these artists recognized box-office success and sales as a limiting factor, they also enjoyed the freedom that bourgeois society had engendered. Like the machinations of the bourgeois public sphere in general, their work was not, in the words of Jürgen Habermas, “mere ideology.” It expressed a possibility, even if produced by a society that made its full realization impossible.
The disaster of what Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno call the “culture industry”—roughly, the forms of media (television, film, radio) that appeared in the early twentieth century—was that it crushed this dream underneath the weight of mass-produced stereotypes. Without ever really participating in bourgeois culture—which, despite its contradictions, signaled a real protest against alienating conditions—the masses were flooded by the culture industry, which swooped in to take on the function of traditional religion. If there is something to cling to amidst the wreckage of the twentieth century, it is, for the theorists of the Frankfurt School, the work of artists such as Arnold Schoenberg and Franz Kafka who still divine the faint specter of autonomy, who have not been totally smothered by the flatness of late capitalist society.
The “There is no alternative” and “End of history” ideologies could not have triumphed after the fall of the Soviet Union without convincing the last holdouts that their dream—art—could be made within capitalist society, and herein lies David Lynch’s nefarious service to neoliberalism. Twin Peaks convinced us to settle for this being all there is by giving us a fantasy that it is not. The revival of Twin Peaks, in further “pushing the boundaries” of what is possible on television, doubles down on the function of the original. Forget the racist stereotypes revived by the foot soldiers of the Black Lodge, who look like they were lifted directly from Birth of a Nation. David Lynch’s real offense is to have made possible the last twenty-five years of capitalism, which may well have put us on the path to imminent planetary disaster.
The one redeeming feature of the new series has been the fate of the protagonist. (Note: this piece was written before the final episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return had aired.) The “good” Dale Cooper finally escaped from the Black Lodge after twenty-five years but, thanks perhaps to the cunning of his doppelganger, returned to earth in stunted form, in the body of the pathetic Doug-E Jones. Whereas the Cooper of the original series was both deft and sensitive, a hero for men and their imitations alike, Doug-E barely functions. He can only ape the words of others. He has forgotten how to use the bathroom. The end of one episode features Doug-E staring blankly at the feet of a statue. Perhaps this is Lynch’s admission that any daring élan we might have felt at the beginning of the ’90s has been extinguished. In 2017, we must stand dumbly before the catastrophe developing in front of our eyes.