Topaz Internment Camp and Pioneer Existence: The West in Reverse

But the desert is more than merely a space from which all substance has been removed. Just as silence is not what remains when all noise has been suppressed. There is no need to close your eyes to hear it. For it is also the silence of time.

—Jean Baudrillard, America

This portable nation is put to the test once again when the internees were relocated to the permanent camps of the interior. An excruciating journey that subverted the traditionally liberating implications of mobility in American culture took the contingent from Tanforan to Topaz, a permanent camp. As if to remind the travelers that this was no pleasure trip, train stops were securely guarded. Okubo recounts how the train made a stop in the desert somewhere in northern Nevada for half an hour and the passengers were permitted to get off and walk around. “Barbed wire fences bounded the stretch on either side of the track and military police stood on guard every fifteen feet” (119), Okubo writes. As a capsule in motion, the train and the stops become an integral part of a mobile geography of exception. Instead of the optimistic imperative to go west, Japanese Americans were forcefully sent east so that they could undergo a process of Americanization. It is the West in reverse. History undoes its routes to revisit the blind spots of American colonialism. Contingents of Japanese Americans were relocated to camps built on Native American reservations. Poston was located on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, and Gila was constructed on the South Central Arizona home of the Pima and Maricopa tribes. The fact that Native American tribes harbored the unwanted guests creates, once again, a powerful simultaneity. As Sebald does in Austerlitz, Okubo traces “the marks of pain” that striate the smooth space of the American West. The sites where Native Americans were cordoned off during colonization hosted in heterotopic juxtaposition the most recent contingent considered dangerous to the national body. The unwanted hosts harbor the equally unwanted guests in remote parts of the country. In the rhetoric of the frontier myth, however, the internment camps were supposed to be “self-governing communities” or “colonies,” inhabited by colonists or pioneers in the middle of the desert; in the process, Japanese Americans would undergo a process of Americanization. It is the frontier thesis—double take. Japanese Americans unwillingly carry their particular errand into the wilderness, transformed into the traditional nomadic heroes of American literature and culture. The removal created the fantasy that the internees abandoned what Deleuze (1998) would call optic space, the space as regularized or governmentalized terrain, to inhabit forms of haptic or nomadic space, indeterminate spaces that were deemed productive of new becomings. The process rings fully familiar in the history of the U.S. and takes us back to the taming of the wild and the relocation of the alien. Domesticating, Americanizing, and removing thus appear as intimately connected to the imperial process of civilizing. Through the process of removal and allocation, the country contained and civilized those foreign elements that had to be tamed and Americanized (cf. Kaplan 1998, 583). The stages of the process had been fully tested before.

As sketched and described by the artist, the first look at Topaz City, the Central Utah Relocation Project, shows a desolate scene: the camp was made up of hundreds of low barracks covered with tar paper that stretched out in a cloud of dust, with soldiers patrolling the grounds. After the customary medical exam, Okubo and her brother were “free to go” in search of their rooms, 7-11-F, another formula they would have to call home. The room was unfinished, and the bare wall beams and rafters gave it “a skeletonlike appearance” (128). The camp itself had not been completed, she writes, and “fence posts and watch towers were now constructed around the camp by the evacuees to fence themselves in” (155), as if the internees were part of a gated community willing to sequester themselves. The comment and the sketch create a powerful juxtaposition, for the occupiers of an abstract space, the space of exception, can be mistaken for a contingent willing to exercise self-exemption. It is Okubo’s way of overlapping and expressing the interdependence between exception and self-exemption, the places of eviction and the places of self-sequestration, as Obata reminded his students.

The fence posts, however, were hardly necessary, for the camps were located in the desert. This location in an empty space or void in the American imaginary offers further vistas into this temporal and spatial dislocation. In the desert, according to Baudrillard, time attains “a sort of horizontal- ity; there has to be no echo of time in the future, but simply a sliding of geological strata one upon the other giving out nothing more than a fossil murmur” ([1986] 1988, 6). Japanese Americans become another geological layer that makes up the palimpsest-like presences in the West: the erosion and extermination of Native Americans, the arrival of pioneer civilization, the return of the Indian as an extra, and the oxymoronic condition of the Japanese Americans, forcefully relocated in a travesty of pioneer life right at the threshold where the projects of civilization run aground (cf. ibid., 70, 63). Furthermore, the desert offers an inverted image of customary or “civilized” life, for, to return to Baudrillard’s words, “the grandeur of deserts derives from their being, in their aridity, the negative of the earth’s surface and of our civilized humours” (ibid., 6). The internees’ condition as shaded or tainted figures becomes symbolically clear in some of the photographs taken by Dorothea Lange, one of the photographers commissioned by the WRA. Lange photographed internees at Manzanar as they made camouflage nets for the War Department. In one of the photographs, the workers are situated behind the net. With their silhouettes only outlined on the canvas, they seem to be part of the Cartesian plane. The photograph illustrates more than the industriousness of the workers. In its play of shadows and horizontal and vertical coordinates, it shows the Japanese American camouflaged and contained at home. It also illustrates their in-between status, inside and outside American society, caught in the tricky coordinates of the state of exception. As the horizontal and vertical lines intersect perpendicularly, the net recalls Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the fabric, the texture that “integrates the body and the outside into a closed space” (1988, 476). To return to Obata’s paradigmatic anecdote, the net is reversible, since it works as camouflage that facilitates escape as well as the grid that impedes escape.

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