Some years after defeating Custer, Sitting Bull joined Buffalo Bill‘s famed Wild West Show, in which he acted the part of an Indian for an appreciative audience of whites. During the course of westward expansion, white people had utterly destroyed his way of life—yet they came to watch his performance out of a sense of romantic nostalgia: a belief in the natural beauty of the vanished west, and in the wild, noble freedom of its savage onetime inhabitants.
For Rebecca Solnit, this is the history of the American west in a nutshell, and also a lens through which we can understand the birth of Hollywood and the creation of our present-day culture of pervasive image and fantasy. The real west was destroyed—the land became home to cities, farms, factories, and mines; and the Native Americans were killed or confined to reservations—and meanwhile white people read dime westerns about the heroic Kit Carson (who once found a copy of a fictional account of his heroism with the body of a woman he’d failed to rescue) and tourists started to visit the first national parks to appreciate the tamed beauty of the west. As America industrialized and began to conquer time and space through inventions like the railroad and photography, reality gave way to image, and the world we all live in now came into being.
This is only part of the thesis of Solnit’s truly extraordinary 2003 book, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West—you’ll note that up until now I haven’t even mentioned the book’s central figure, a photographer who laid the groundwork for the invention of motion pictures, and meanwhile cast a very long shadow over the arts and sciences. And even that’s not the whole of Solnit’s story: she’s also very much concerned with issues of class, and the ways in which the culture of industrialization impoverished the lives of ordinary people, while meanwhile vastly enriching a fortunate and merciless few. It’s a story of great cultural and environmental change, of politics, murder, science, art, and loss. Solnit’s depth of knowledge is astonishing, but this book is in no way episodic, prone to tangents, or bogged down with unnecessary details; instead, she weaves all of this material into a seamless and powerful whole, told in beautiful, passionate prose, and bursting with rare and compelling insight.
Muybridge—an immigrant from England who would change his name or its spelling several times—first settled in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, where he for a time ran a bookstore. Eventually he became a photographer, and enjoyed great success making landscapes, often in the employ of railroads or other corporations who hoped his pictures would promote their services and the west in general. But his greatest contribution would come through his motion studies—under the patronage of railroad baron (and founder of Stanford University) Leland Stanford, Muybridge became the first person to accurately capture motion on film. His photographs of Stanford’s horses required a significant technological advance, and the end result astonished many people: since no one had ever been able to freeze motion before—to show motion as a sequence of discrete events, rather than as a continuous whole—no one had previously been able to answer questions about motion as basic as whether or not all four hooves of a galloping horse ever left the ground.
For the first time, an image became more compelling than perception: the “truth” of a horse’s gait could be more reliably described by the camera than by an unaided human eye. This, Solnit argues, is the birth of our contemporary culture: in which we live constantly awash in images, and devote much of our time and consciousness to the experience of those images, rather than to the “real,” more direct experiences of life to which people were limited until the abstract powers of the image were fully unlocked. Further, Solnit sees this culture as fundamentally shaped by the history of the American west: a place where people had the freedom to re-invent themselves, and who chose to re-shape the the places of the West with very little regard to its cultural or natural history. Media culture operates in much the same way: it’s a space of image and abstraction, where history and nature are little more than raw material for representation, for transformation into elaborate shared fantasies. We all live in the wild west now: a place where everything is mutable and free, and where people and cultures and history and the land all get swept up in the inexorable flow of the omnipresent river of images.
And still, that’s not all there is to Solnit’s book—but short of retyping it here, I think I’ve about exhausted my ability to describe it. But one more story/image from the book: after Sitting Bull’s time in the Wild West show, he returned to a reservation, where he became involved in the Ghost Dance religious movement, which promised the retreat and disappearance and death of the white man, and which gained adherents in many different Native American cultures in the last days of the Indian Wars. Solnit writes:
The reservation administrators saw the Ghost Dance as insurrection and Sitting Bull as a leader, and they wanted him arrested. On December 15, 1890, the reservation police woke up Sitting Bull to take him away. While he was getting dressed, his small house was surrounded by his supporters, and in the shootout that followed he was fatally wounded. But the white horse Buffalo Bill had given him was trained to perform at the sound of gunfire, and for a moment that fused entertainment, spirituality, and confusion, everything stopped when it seemed that the horse was doing the Ghost Dance.