Robert Savino Oventile
Oil-soaked, coal-roasted, gasoline-delivered: the American Dream epitomizes fossil-fueled existence and promises a nightmare in the ongoing planetary ecological crisis. The American Dream associates the word dream with the Great Acceleration—the bundle of human pressures (fossil fuel use, population growth, mass urbanization, deforestation) that, rapidly increasing around 1950, pushed the Earth into its Anthropocene configuration. The consequences are now emerging: global warming, sea-level rise, extreme weather, mass extinction, societal breakdowns, refugee crises. Given such trends and the Great Acceleration’s continuation into the early twenty-first century, Earth system scientists wonder whether humans will decouple civilization from fossil fuels in time to dodge irreversible ecological catastrophe: “Will the next 50 years bring the Great Decoupling or the Great Collapse?” They suggest that by 2050, a century after the Great Acceleration took off, “We’ll almost certainly know the answer.”
The likely inventor of the phrase “American Dream,” historian James Truslow Adams, defined the dream in The Epic of America (1931): “That American dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank, which is the greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world.” When Adams exalted the American Dream during the Depression, while millions struggled with economic devastation, the phrase named a shared hope. A couple of decades later, the economic growth characterizing the Great Acceleration imprinted on individual and collective psyches a lasting expectation of the American Dream’s inevitable fulfillment. After World War II, the United States surfed the crest of a global growth wave far exceeding any previously seen in the industrial period: “In the half century after 1950, the global economy grew sixfold,” with growth “peak[ing] between 1950 and 1973.” Although unevenly distributed globally and even within the United States, the benefits were felt most strongly among Americans, an apparent fulfillment of the American Dream.
As viral as blue jeans, this dream found its defining realization in the 1950s. In the United States from 1947 to 1960, “GNP per capita increased 24 percent” and “personal consumption spending increased by 22 percent.” “In the 1950s,” amid the postwar baby boom, “with only 7 percent of the global population, the United States . . . accounted for half of global manufacturing output and accrued nearly half of the world’s income each year.” The Time-Life Books series Our American Century includes The American Dream: The 1950s, and a 1959 Saturday Evening Post cover pictures the Dream: beneath the moon, a young white couple rests against a tree with the stars above constellated into a home, a garage, “a pool, two cars, two pets, three children, a stereo, a television, a washer and dryer, a drill press, [and] an air conditioner.” Most Americans alive today were born under that constellation. Of the current U.S. resident population (approximately 327 million as of July 2017), about 84 percent were born in 1953 or later. As historians J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke note, a clear majority of humans now alive have spent their entire existence within the Great Acceleration, “the most anomalous and unrepresentative period in the 200,000-year-long history of relations between our species and the biosphere.” The perceptions, desires, and memories of most living Americans are confined to the era of the Great Acceleration.
An artifact of an unprecedented historical moment, the 1950s American Dream influenced subsequent history by shaping its dreamers’ consciousness. How does this occur? Philosopher Bernard Stiegler notes that sensations, memories, and dreams intertwine. Following the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, Stiegler calls sensations “primary retentions.” Memories are past sensations worked into “secondary retentions.” For Husserl, individuals apprehend objects via memory’s selective editing of sensation. Memory’s edits influence apprehension—perception itself. But for Stiegler, collective memories always inform this process. Consider two Americans, both born after 1945, encountering a specific car. The American who possesses memories of that car apprehends it differently than the one who does not. But before ever driving, both had inherited collective dreams about cars, the “signature commodity” of the 1950s American Dream. Stiegler calls inherited dreams, such as the dream of home ownership, “tertiary retentions.” Tertiary retentions format the interplay of primary and secondary retentions, of sensations and memories. Neither the term “myth” nor the phrase “cultural heritage” quite defines tertiary retentions, which are mnemotechnical: they are collective memories that media technologies convey across generations. Technologies capable of handing down collective memories include print (novels, histories, leaflets), film (newsreels, documentaries, propaganda shorts), and digital new media (smartphones, tablets, laptops). Americans now google images of dream homes and cars; these pixelated images mediate their perceptions and memories of the cars they drive and the houses they occupy.
For a movie that hands down a peculiarly American collective memory of the Great Acceleration, consider 1968’s Bullitt (dir. Peter Yates). In 1968, a boy sits in a theater watching actor Steve McQueen as police sergeant Frank Bullitt careens his Ford Mustang down city streets to pursue villains fleeing in a Dodge Charger, which finally crashes into a gas station (cue high-octane fireball). This famous chase sequence traversing the San Francisco hills constitutes a tertiary retention of the Great Acceleration. Besides advertising fossil-fueled vehicles via film, a medium inseparable from oil, the sequence encodes a collective memory of the rush of power, speed, and dominance that the Great Acceleration afforded select Americans. A human-initiated planetary event, the Great Acceleration became manifest to a specific population through sensations coded as “I’m in the driver’s seat.” Bullitt retains a collective memory of those sensations so coded. Never having driven, without personal memories of driving, the boy in the theater dreams about driving. His dream implicitly anticipates his future as a continuation of the American Dream’s transient, unsustainable, fossil-fueled realization. The carbon dioxide from the cars he will drive lingers in our atmosphere still.
With the Great Acceleration leaving the biosphere awash in the Anthropocene, to continue dreaming the fossil-fueled American Dream results in films such as Fast and Furious 8 (2017) and in the presidential administration of Donald J. Trump (January 20, 2017–?). Dreaming the future as an irrecoverable past’s triumphant return (“Make America great again”), the Trump administration is (as of this writing) accelerating Anthropocene processes with dystopian potential. This acceleration ties the American Dream to a definition of U.S. sovereignty as somehow unacceptably compromised by, and incompatible with, international climate treaties, pushing the dream further into climate change denial. Proponents of expanding fossil fuel extraction—for example, by opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling—must turn the dream from hope for the future toward a violent nostalgia for the past. American English needs a loanword that would help to open the language to ecotopian possibilities—a future of solar-only cities, postcarbon hedonism, cross-species solidarity, and so on—by reengineering our dreams, American or other, to welcome sovereignty’s delimitation, climate change science, and genuine hope for the future.
Consider the Spanish noun sueño as that loanword. Sueño refers both to sleep and to the dreams that occur in sleep. Tengo sueño translates as “I am sleepy,” while “I have a dream” may be rendered as tengo un sueño. This essay focuses on sueño as dream, though sueño as sleep plays an important role too.
Addressing the climate crisis necessitates renegotiating sovereignty. Around the resurgent question of sovereignty, renowned seventeenth-century Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderón de la Barca may help Americans (and others) to dream differently. In un sueño, borders between day and night, waking and sleeping, and existence and inexistence become permeable. The wavering of borders un sueño may trigger occurs when Calderón stages a fathomless, unnerving convergence of living and dreaming in his play La Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream) (1636). Calderón’s play opens after Basilio, Poland’s king, has imprisoned his infant son, Segismundo, in an isolated tower because of an astrological prophecy that his son would become a tyrannical monarch bent on crushing his father. Basilio would defy the stars. After his imprisoned son comes of age, Basilio tests the prophecy by having minions drug Segismundo and bring him to the palace, where Segismundo awakens to find himself king. Should Segismundo prove a viable sovereign, the stars will have been refuted. But when Segismundo turns despotic (to prove his will boundless, he throws a servant out a high window) and so seems to confirm the prophecy, Basilio drugs him again and returns him to the tower. Upon awakening, he is told that his brief life as king was merely un sueño. With narcotics and subterfuge, Basilio attempts to replicate and stage-manage the labyrinthine interlacing of life and dream that is the play’s larger theme. This dynamic exceeds and undoes Basilio’s attempt to conjure a future amenable to his sovereignty. Returned to prison, his father’s stratagem ironically leads Segismundo to accept the interlacing of life and dream—that duplicitous simulacrum conjured by Basilio. Attempting to master fate by seeking to foil the prophecy that his son will abase him, Basilio stages kingship as un sueño. At the play’s end, after the populace turns against Basilio and frees Segismundo to name him king, the wisdom of his first acts stems, he says, from his having let un sueño be his “maestro.” Consider un sueño as potentially both sovereignty’s remedy and its poison. Calderón stages life’s interlacing with dream as simultaneously the strategy of the sovereign and the sovereign’s ultimate undoing. Although Calderón’s vision is irreducible to the American Dream, the latter tends to congeal into a dream of fossil-fueled sovereignty—dreamt by 1950s-era United States as the oil-guzzling global hegemon, but also dreamt by Americans for whom being at the wheel signifies the will’s autonomy. Somewhat like a self-driving electric car with an MP3 of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! playing on continuous loop, La Vida es Sueño ironizes sovereignty as a dream that entrances the sovereign. Rather than signaling identification with or participation in sovereignty, in Calderón’s play, encountering la vida as un sueño reveals sovereignty as evanescent and contingent, ripe for the undoing.
To counter many American dreamers’ increasing aversion to knowledge and science, consider Calderón’s avid reader, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a poet of seventeenth-century New Spain so famous in literary tradition that she was known as the tenth muse. In her poem “El sueño,” Sor Juana describes the sueño realm as a liberation from daytime conventions and authorities. Early in her life, before becoming a nun, Sor Juana secured viceregal patronage, which was crucial to the network of allies that allowed her to pursue her literary ambitions. Sor Juana’s “El Sueño” elaborates a dream vision in which the soul takes flight, surveying the world’s wonders and soaring skyward to seek the pinnacle of knowledge. Nighttime becomes the soul’s ally. The poem begins with night falling and sleep overtaking all, including those inclined to police Sor Juana during the day, from the calculating suitors who sought Sor Juana’s hand in marriage during her time at the viceregal court to the clerics who sought her silence after she became a nun. In Sor Juana’s sueño, borders of time and space give way. The soul envisions the famous lighthouse of Alexandria and an even more ancient Egyptian wonder, the pyramids. At the poem’s close, with daylight’s return, the soul’s flight ends as the sleeper wakes. Sor Juana’s poem narrates a dream that opens a realm of free inquiry and liberates the soul so the speaker’s desire for knowledge finds limits more in the cognitive capacities of the human than in the restraints of censorious authority. Climate scientists in the contemporary United States might envy Sor Juana her sueño. She would empathize with their resistance to ongoing efforts to defund and ignore climate science.
As for Calderón, so for Sor Juana. When authorities seek to imprison the mind or to silence thought—the Trump administration’s efforts to shut down research on global warming, for example—the time has arrived to embrace un sueño, for in un sueño desire and hope may flourish and serve as motivation for resistance. Consider the Spanish civil war. During an October 12, 1936, public gathering at the University of Salamanca, a region held by the fascists, philosopher Miguel de Unamuno confronted the fascist officer and propagandist José Millán-Astray. With the fascists in attendance chanting “Viva la muerte” (Long live death), Millán-Astray shouted at Unamuno, “Muera la inteligencia” (both “Death to the intellect!” and “Death to the intellectuals!”). The next day, Unamuno was expelled from the university.
But even amid fascism’s ascendancy in civil war–era Spain, un sueño manifested, at least to Mexican essayist, poet, and public intellectual Octavio Paz. Recounting his experiences of the Spanish civil war in El Laberinto de la Soledad (The labyrinth of solitude), Paz describes how he saw in the faces of the antifascist fighters un sueño made flesh: their faces shone with incarnate utopian hope, “la Esperanza.” Paz recounts how this vision sparked within him an unquenchable desire to once again encounter human beings profoundly transformed by “la Esperanza,” a luminous hope shining in an utterly bleak time. The sueño Paz encountered in waking life exemplified and prefigured, if only fleetingly, a “reconciliación del hombre con el universo,” a reconciliation of humanity with the universe. The utopia Paz hopes for contains environmental resonance, as this utopia features harmony between the human and the nonhuman—in Paz’s terms, “el hombre y la naturaleza.”
How would sueño becoming a loanword in English help to activate the ecotopian imagination? In the United States, the word sueño would alter English speakers’ collective dreams—that is, their collective memories—pushing those dreams to become less stereotypical. Stereotypes whiten out the object triggering them, whomever or whatever that object may be. The more a collective memory involves the stereotypical, the more that collective memory works on individuals’ sensations and memories to airbrush a given object from consciousness, as when stereotyping leads to invisibility. Stalin ordered comrades he disfavored erased from photos to scrub their existence from collective memories and to deny reality. Alternative facts, fake news, and climate change denial build on the stereotype potential of collective dreams. Yet collective dreams may also work on sensations and memories so as to underscore the reality of an object’s existence. Political struggles often entail reimagining collective dreams to bring the reality of given humans (or nonhumans) to consciousness. Collective dreams that sharpen an object’s reality for consciousness are what French philosopher Bernard Stiegler terms traumatypical. While stereotypes reinforce conservative impulses, traumatypes might help rearrange our collective dreaming. In contemporary Anthropocene circumstances, the ecotopian imagination welcomes the way that traumatypes underscore an object’s reality, while climate denialism allies with the object’s disappearance into stereotypes. That a collective memory’s traumatype potential may contribute to the ecotopian finds support from novelist Iris Murdoch: “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” Sueño entering English might help English speakers’ dreams become less stereotypical and more traumatypical, making ecotopian futures more imaginable.
When celebrating his 2017 reelection as the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti evoked his vision of the city as inclusive to all people, regardless of religion, legal status, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Garcetti described this civic ideal as the “Los Angeles Dream.” Delinking Los Angeles from some national political imaginary newly entertaining toxic ideologies of exclusion, the mayor’s phrase “the Los Angeles Dream” shifts toward the traumatypical, but the phrase “el sueño de Los Ángeles” would do so even more effectively. Given the meanings of the word sueño that this essay underlines, the phrase “el sueño de Los Ángeles” might suggest the city as a postcarbon metropolis open to dismantling sovereignty’s traditional anthropocentrism in pursuit of multispecies coexistence.
As the American Dream becomes more stereotypical in Stiegler’s sense of the word, el sueño americano may enact the traumatypical. In specific local or national forums, to insist on this phrase would enact resistance to the scapegoating of immigrants and challenge the vision of a United States walled off from Mexico. This vision already dreams the near future as ecodystopian, given the likelihood that climate change will in the coming decades force millions of Central Americans and Mexicans northward. The development of humane, environmentally sound policies and practices regarding these climate refugees will depend on the delimitation of sovereignty (Calderón), the free pursuit of knowledge (Sor Juana), and the transformative hope (Paz) that the word sueño invites U.S. speakers of English to embrace.
Admittedly, the ecotopian force of the word sueño suggested here involves a selective assemblage of meanings, and any single word’s force is limited. Yet denialist messaging relies on the force of words, images, and dreams, as does the struggle in the Anthropocene for an ecotopian sueño of coexistence. For more and more humans and nonhumans, a future dreamt as fossil fueled—that is, as an extension of the present—may only arrive as a nonfuture: extinction. The fossil-fueled American Dream, a precipitate of the Great Acceleration, dreams the future as an extension of the most unsustainable aspects of the present. El sueño americano, el sueño de Los Ángeles, or a more local or individual sueño might dream the future as ecotopian.
However impatiently, however immodestly, however improbably, tengo un sueño. This sueño is impatient as it demands hospitality for and solidarity with the stranger. This sueño is immodest as it implies a contestation of the entire panoply of stereotypes operative in the fossil-fueled American Dream. This sueño is improbable as it envisions a future beyond what can seem all too probable: the Anthropocene becoming a fossil-fueled dead end.
As the American Dream, made “great” again, takes a dystopian turn that features the empowerment of climate change denial in the U.S. federal government and a supremacist and ecodystopian fantasy of walling the United States off from Mexico, welcoming sueño into En-glish, specifically American English, would be a timely act. Rather than walling Spanish off or walling the word sueño in, English would host sueño as an inassimilable guest. Sueño would open interstices in English, allowing what might be to interlace with what is, giving ecotopian visions a chance to haunt English speakers’ Anthropocene existence.
Another Path: Nahual
Dedication: For Melissa Santos.
1. See Will Steffen, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney, and Cornelia Ludwig, “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration,” Anthropocene Review 2, no. 1 (2015): 81–98.
2. Steffen et al., “Trajectory of the Anthropocene,” 94.
3. Steffen et al., “Trajectory of the Anthropocene,” 94.
4. James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1931), viii.
5. J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press), 128.
6. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Peak Oil: Apocalyptic Environmentalism and Libertarian Political Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 60.
7. Schneider-Mayerson, Peak Oil, 60.
8. John Archer, “The Resilience of Myth: The Politics of the American Dream,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 25, no. 2 (2014): 11.
10. McNeill and Engelke, Great Acceleration, 5.
11. See Bernard Stiegler, “The Organology of Dreams and Arche-Cinema,” in The Neganthropocene, trans. and ed. Daniel Ross (London: Open Humanities Press, 2018), 154–71.
12. Schneider-Mayerson, Peak Oil, 63.
13. Bullitt, dir. Peter Yates (1968; Warner Home Video, 1997), DVD.
14. Tom Cohen, “Arche-Cinema and the Politics of Extinction,” Boundary 2 44, no. 1 (2017): 246.
15. Pedro Calderón de la Barca, La vida es sueño/Life Is a Dream, trans. and ed. Stanley Appelbaum (Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 2002), 184.
16. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “El sueño/First I Dream,” in Poems, Protest, and a Dream: Selected Writings, trans. Margaret Sayers Peden (New York: Penguin, 1997), 78–129.
17. Gabriel Jackson, The Spanish Republic and the Civil War, 1931–1939 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965), 300.
18. Octavio Paz, El laberinto de la soledad y otras obras (New York: Penguin, 1994), 49.
19. Paz, Laberinto, 48.
20. Paz, Laberinto, 48.
21. Iris Murdoch, “The Sublime and the Good,” Chicago Review 13, no. 3 (1959): 51, quoted in Dale Jamieson and Bonnie Nadzam, Love in the Anthropocene (New York: OR, 2015), 204.