The Anxious Age – Is Post-Postmodernity Defined by Mental Distress?

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Introduction: Countermodernism

 

In 1979 Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998) over-simplistically defined Postmodernism as “incredulity toward metanarratives, which was undoubtedly a product of progress in the sciences”.[1]  More simplistically still, this means that the theoretical machines of Modernism and before were rapidly ceasing to function as science progressed.  In Lyotard’s words, “postmodern scientific knowledge cannot be based on performativity, because efficiency must be calculated based on a stable system”. Nature and society are not stable (or closed) systems, and as such it is counter-intuitive to evaluate and accept universal truths derived from the variables of those systems. The truth-value in a stable system is inherently homogeneous and tyrannical – it will always favour the knowledge-bearer and work towards hegemonic disparity (knowledge is power).  Metanarratives, then, are told from a position of privilege or State, and any events of knowledge-based ontogenesis have their relative successes and progressions judged against a minor system of inconsistencies and innovations.  “New moves,” as Lyotard called them. As is demonstrated by dictatorships, control does not promote innovation, but rather homogenises the system.  This echoes in many ways Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Felix Guattaris’ (1930-1992) analogy of Chess and Go whereby the game of chess represents the state, while Go epitomises the War Machine (the difference between a closed or stable system and an open and unstable system).[2]  Knowledge in the postmodern world is about change, adapting to it, and generating new ideas (nomadology), not on an established rigid scientific method. In 2019 we are indeed sceptical of grand narratives, yet our faith in science is perhaps greater than ever.  Mental illnesses, which are too often ascribed to biological causes, are medicated with confidence by general practitioners, and ingested blindly by the patient.

In Lyotard’s own terms, this precarious era following Postmodernism may then be defined as a blind credulousness toward the metanarrative of the sciences.  This will neither be proven nor disproven as, like Lyotard, I invite and anticipate paralogy (Lyotard again, referring to a discourse without consensus – an open system), though I do hope to add my voice to the already rich – somewhat cacophonous – well-pool of perspectives to be found in contemporary theory.

No discourse is ever initiated truly objectively: the writer always has a vested interest in the points made and the results found, contrary to any claim against this.  For is it not the initial spark of enthusiasm for any topic which drives that writer onwards, and is this not in and of itself self-interest?  My own vested interests are first-person perceptions of parenting a child whose behaviour is erratic, violent, recalcitrant and without context.  I propose to show how this behaviour, which is increasingly commonplace, carries not just biological hallmarks but is also linguistic in nature.  This perspective is parallel to Mark Fisher’s (1968-2017) belief that mental illness (in particular Bipolar Disorder) are the consequence of life in a neoliberal world rather than a biological imbalance, and as such it is vital to the sprit of this study to compare Postmodern theorists such as Deleuze and Guattari (who maintained that culture is biological) with the latter-day writings of Fisher.

This study takes the singular hybrid form of a third-person autobiography which will jump in and out of first-person perspective and critical analysis.  It does this because in order to evaluate the minor narrative it behoves us, in the manner of Postmodernism, to also evaluate the metanarrative.  In short, while I will be questioning the sources of my information, it will be equally important to evaluate my own narrative – to question the contingencies which have occasioned my experiences and shaped my perspectives thereon.

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This is by no means the first attempt I have made to link our present social, political and cultural epoch to mental health.  In 2016 I wrote:

 

“(t)he schizophrenic is subject to fragmented thinking and delusions, synthesises words which make only subjective sense to the patient; repeats words and phrases over and over, each time as if for the first.  The schizophrenic displays a lack of emotional expressions, shows little to no enthusiasm and exhibits repetitive, jarring speech abnormalities.  Studies have shown that a key environmental factor in the onset of schizophrenia is childhood separation or loss – dislocation from a previous generation.  The post-millennial condition is schizophrenic in all of these factors and more.  Perhaps the most critical similarity, though, is in the delusional impersonation of established personalities of import without prejudice to the historical or mythological frameworks in which they belong.”[3]

 

If the term “schizophrenic” is appropriate to our times – if indeed the metanarrative is, in itself, schizophrenic – then it is the state which promotes a fractured society.  Not only, then is this a cultural matter – it is universal in its scope and implications.  Let us begin with the following statement, and allow this study to take us where it may:

 

“10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental problem, yet 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems have not had appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.”[4]

 

What does this extract from a 2008 study suggest about our present age?  First, it speaks of a huge disparity between mental illness and our understanding of it.   Secondly, and more perniciously, it can only mean that healthcare professionals can no longer keep up with the vast amount of caseloads which grow exponentially by the year.  Numbers alone cannot provide or subtract weight to a hypothesis – if there are 10,000 children, and 10 percent of those have mental illnesses, out of those 1,000 children 300 have had sufficient intervention, while 700 have not.  And how do we qualify the sufficiency of “sufficient intervention?”  Has it been sufficient to bring the young person back from the brink of crisis and prevent self-harm or suicide, or has it been sufficient to provide them with the intellectual and rational tools to live lives relatively free of such crises?  Furthermore, the word “diagnosable” invites all manner of discourse, for is not science here limited to a pre-established metanarrative?  Psychiatry and paediatrics follow strict diagnostic criteria built on decades-old research, focused all-but-exclusively on biological study.  The linguistic question in such studies is a secondary concern, while any study of psychological abnormalities in our present age must, by necessity, bring linguistic and environmental factors more into focus.

It is for this very reason that I eschew statistical data: it belongs to the fixed sciences, those closed systems which are regulated by serotonin and its parameters of activity.

 

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Episode I: PostNormal Hyper-Reality

 

The trouble begins in 1992 at the age of 14.  Nothing out of the ordinary happens that year – no bereavement, no stress…no perceivable external reason for the boy to make an attempt on his own life.  The only warning sign is a gradual onset of ennui, a sense of hopelessness and despair the like of which the boy’s parents are at a loss to account for.  One evening it occurs to him that the most sensible, rational act would be to overdose on pain killers, go for a walk and allow the drugs to destroy his organs.  When he wakes up in the hospital, the boy is overcome with the certainty that this would be the first of many such occurrences.  Over the years the boy will have no less than six hospital admissions on his medical record with varying degrees of seriousness.

 

In hindsight the boy (quite patently a reactivated prosopopoeia of my younger self) recalls that 1992 was likely one of the first periods of his life when the full pernicious implications of the neoliberal orthodoxy.  That year we marched in London in protest of the implementation of Poll Tax, and that same year (and contrary to previous legislation to abolish it), it was announced that Poll Tax would be replaced by Council Tax in 1993 (Thus the age of rebranding was born which continues to the present day).

 

The 1990s saw the dominance of the SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) over the field of mental health and psychiatric treatment.  Commonly referred to in the US by the brand name Zoloft and in the UK as Lustral, Sertraline is the most commonly prescribed SSRI, replacing Prozac in the early Twenty-First Century as the by-word for antidepressants.  I first began taking Sertraline in 2002, but it proved no difficulty in finding someone who had a more recent experience with the drug.  This user, who wished to remain anonymous, likened the first sensation as euphoric: “slightly drunk, without the loss of inhibition.”   The subject also went on to suggest that there may be placebic elements to SSRIs: “after the initial rush of happiness, it felt like I was carrying on the course of medication just to avoid withdrawal – which the doctor warned me would be unpleasant.”

 

Perhaps we are looking at antidepressant medication in the wrong way.  Instead of providing a means for coping with the world around us, could it not be the case that SSRIs actually create docile bodies?  Slavoj Žižek famously claimed about John Carpenter’s They Live,

 

“…definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left. … The sunglasses function like a critique of ideology. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, glitz, posters and so on. … When you put the sunglasses on you see the dictatorship in democracy, the invisible order which sustains your apparent freedom.”[5]

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Sertraline, and medication which acts in similar ways, act as the sunglasses in this example, yet the effect is opposite.  To put the sunglasses on is to become blind to the insidious processes of control and power which govern society.  A cursory glance at the listed side-effects of Sertraline seem to confirm this:

 

  • depression, feeling strange, nightmare, anxiety, agitation, nervousness, decreased

sexual interest, teeth grinding,

  • shaking, muscular movement problems (such as moving a lot, tense muscles, difficulty

walking and stiffness, spasms and involuntary movements of muscles), numbness and

tingling, abnormal taste, lack of attention,

  • visual disturbance, ringing in ears,
  • palpitations, hot flush, yawning,

 

As a long-term user of Sertraline, I can attest to all of these side-effects, and more.  The decreased sexual interest is of particular importance, having a Lacanian frame of reference.  Is this not the virtual definition of castration?  To repress desire in this way is to dissolve the Oedipal Stage, revealing the “real” father – which in this case is the State itself, and we can place more stock in Lacan here than perhaps any other contemporary theorist. If we contrast the figure of authority between that of a century (or even half-a-century) ago to the figure of authority of today, the difference is vast.  What was once domestic and proximal (the literal father) is now global and distal (the state apparatus), and this latter has no need to even interact directly with us: it has proven much more effective for us to actively regulate ourselves.  We surrender our desires to the desires of ideology, allowing the neoliberal clinamen to prevail.  While it is no great revelation to say that governments and ruling elites control society in ever-more pernicious ways (proving this would indeed be akin to proving that water is wet), there is also the neoliberal concept of “post-truth” to contend with which paints our political climate in colours far brighter than those of reality.  Anthropologist Alexei Yurchak coined the term “hypernormalisation” to describe the attitude of paradoxical political blindness which permeated Russia in the latter years of Soviet rule[6], and the progression from this to what Mark Fisher called “Capitalist Realism” is self-evident: while the former pretends that the climate is functional, the latter knows that the opposite is true, yet cannot imagine an alternative.  Fisher in fact takes his cue from the State Realism of the Soviet Union and its propagandist machinery, Realism has nothing to do with the Real.  On the contrary, the Real is what realism has continually to suppress.”  SSRIs are the perfect societal adjunct to this state – what better way of maintaining the illusion of stability than freely giving subjects the perception-managing drugs they crave?

 

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Episode II: Psychomodernism Vs. Schizomodernism

 

The child screams.  Perfunctory sounds no longer suffice to convey the ever-more complex thought processes in his head, nor do the articulated phonics which he has learned to parrot back at his father allow these abstractions to manifest themselves.  In his frustration the child begins to slam his head against the living room wall, once, twice…until the very succession of this action has deadened the images in his mind that he cannot yet begin to grasp.  The skin on his forehead is aflame with pain and the wall retains the crimson memory of the boy’s rage.  The child’s terrified father sobs as he applies the towel-wrapped frozen bag of vegetables grabbed in a panic from the fridge to his son’s head.  As these incidents increase in both frequency and severity, the child’s parents naturally seek medical help, only to find themselves subjected to the most tortuous cross-examinations and intense scrutiny.

 

This is, without question, a linguistic problem.  And, sure enough, as the child’s vocabulary becomes more sophisticated, so the violent head-banging decreases.  This would, ordinarily, serve as the happy ending scenario to a troubling-yet-not-altogether-atypical parental crisis.  However, over the course of the following years more troubling symptoms develop: an explosive aversion to fire alarms, the sound of a hand dryer in a public toilet, an intolerance for clothing…all of these point towards behaviour typical of the autism spectrum.  At 7 years old the child is removed from his school following an attempt to strangle a classmate, and what follows is a nearly two-year diagnostic period during which the child is assessed by numerous professionals in order to gauge speech and language (to satisfy the linguistic question), psychology (to address mental health) and paediatrics (for autism-related issues).

 

There are also the protracted and focused attacks by the child upon his mother, resulting in the latter’s body (in particular her lower torso) being covered in bruises and swelling.  Occasionally these attacks are facial, and black eyes become common.  And then there are the secondary effects.  The child’s mother is forced to forego employment during the week, surrender her studies (ironically in social care) and the relationship between her and the child’s father eventually becomes so jaded and warped that they end up finding one another again at the end of the process – only this time they are entirely different individuals to the couple who fell in love a decade previously: they are beaten, disillusioned…all promise of future prosperity scuppered by bureaucratic torpor.

 

It is now seven years since the child began to display troubling behaviour, and two years since his parents sought help from the Umbrella Pathway, a service provided by Worcestershire County Council to “provide an assessment process for all children and young people presenting with neuro-developmental disorders which may be due to Autism Spectrum conditions (not ADHD).”[7]  Among the non-diagnostic suggestions made by professionals is PDA:

 

“Pathological demand avoidance (PDA) is a behavioural profile associated with apparently obsessive non-compliance, distress, and florid challenging and socially inappropriate behaviour in children, adolescents and adults.”[8]

 

While PDA is a behaviour profile within the autism spectrum, it is by no means unanimously agreed upon by professionals whether or not it belongs on the autism spectrum.  It is therefore referred to as a sub-type.

 

When I informed my older brother of this prospective diagnosis, his immediate response was to exclaim “you’ve just described yourself!”  Could it then be that there is a biological element which I have passed onto my son, which has only become recognised scientifically in his generation?  In hindsight I recall my childhood carrying hallmarks of PDA: an aversion to authority, discomfort at regulation and intense feelings of suppressed rage.182634_1880487455791_3649772_n

However, what if the problem lies elsewhere, in the most pernicious and overlooked social evil: standardisation?  A hallmark of neoliberalism, standardisation regulates the mainstream of the state apparatus, covering all areas of government and the public/private sector.

 

The government’s own website states:

 

 

Standardisation is the process of creating, issuing and implementing standards. A standard is a document, established by consensus and approved by a recognised body. It provides rules, guidelines or characteristics for activities or their results so that they can be repeated. They aim to achieve the greatest degree of order in a given context.[9]

 

The two words which jump out there are “order” and “repeated.”  These hallmarks of meta-power can be traced to Deleuze and Guattaris’ notion of the state apparatus and the war machine and to Michel Foucault, who would say that “order” in this context can be translated into “discipline” in order to produce normalisation and therefore “docile subjects.”

 

Episode III: Dromomodernism and Aggressive Desublimation (There Can Be No Conclusion)

 

In Precarious Rhapsody, Franco Berardi states:

 

“The acceleration of information exchange has produced and is producing an effect of a pathological type on the individual human mind and even more on the collective mind. Individuals are not in a position to process the immense and always growing mass of information that enters their computers, their cell phones, their television screens, their electronic diaries and their heads. However, it seems indispensable to follow, recognise, evaluate, process all this information if you want to be efficient, competitive, victorious. … The necessary time for paying attention to the fluxes of information is lacking.”[10]

 

In a hypernormalised world of post-truth, what better way to control a people than to bombard them with a constant strobe of information parcels?  As Twitter feeds accelerate and Facebook becomes ever-more hyperbolic, so too do our levels of anxiety.  Can PDA be rooted in biological neurosis which is exacerbated by linguistic factors?  Paul Virilio (1932-2018) argued that “there was no ‘industrial revolution’, only ‘dromocratic revolution’; there is no democracy, only dromocracy; there is no strategy, only dromology.”[11]  Dromology is derived from the Greek “dromo,” which refers to the activity of racing, ergo speed and acceleration.  Dromology, then, is surely how we should countenance the flow of information in the modern age. There can be no true conclusion to this study: as linguistic cultural and social factors multiply and accelerate, we can only wait to see how our biological and linguistic bodies cope…if, indeed, they can.

 

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[1] Lyotard, J., Bennington, G., Massumi, B. and Jameson, F. (2005). The postmodern condition. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[2] Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. and Massumi, B. (2017). A thousand plateaus. London: Bloomsbury Academic. (pages 523-551)

[3] Davis, G. (2016). No Job for a Grown Man (part six) – in Explication of the Schizophrenic Age. [online] Legally, I Own the Thoughts of the Dead. Available at: https://grumpusart.wordpress.com/2016/11/07/no-job-for-a-grown-man-part-six-in-explication-of-the-schizophrenic-age/ [Accessed 30 Apr. 2019].

[4] Children’s Society (2008) The Good Childhood Inquiry: health research evidence. London: Children’s Society.

[5] Slavoj Žižek, THE PERVERT’S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY. British Board of Film Classification (19 June 2013).

[6] Jurchak, A. (2006). Everything was forever, until it was no more. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[7] Hacw.nhs.uk. (2019). Umbrella Pathway. [online] Available at: https://www.hacw.nhs.uk/our-services/childrens-community-health-services/umbrella-pathway [Accessed 30 Apr. 2019].

[8] (Newson et al. 2003; O’Nions et al. 2014b)

[9] GOV.UK. (2019). Standardisation. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/standardisation/standardisation [Accessed 30 Apr. 2019].

[10] Berardi, F. (2010). Precarious rhapsody. London: Minor Compositions.

[11] Virilio, P. and Polizzotti, M. (2006). Speed and politics. New York: Semiotext(e).

Through the (Immediate) Past, Darkly

We are compelled to bookend the event, to portion months and years up into manageable, quantifiable volumes of matter and memory.  If time is the ultimate capitalist commodity, then our quantification of time is its currency, and it is in this way that the annual review-of-the-year rundowns which one can read in any given broadsheet or tabloid, or viewed on December 31st through a gaze of varying levels of ridicule are -to all intents and purposes – its audit.  Is it of any value to do this from a philosophical angle?  And, indeed, wherein lies the point?  Is it in order to file away each successive year into a unitary index for the historian or sociologist to access at their convenience?  If so, are we not further commodifying our notions of time?  In order to give this interrogation some perspective, perhaps we should benefit from referring to Manuel DeLanda (1952 – )’s excellent introduction to A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History:

 

“(I)f the different “stages” of human history were indeed brought about by phase transitions, then they are not “stages” at all – that is, progressive developmental steps, each better than the previous one, and indeed leaving the previous one behind.  On the contrary, much as water’s solid, liquid, and gas phases may coexist, so each new human phase simply added itself to the other ones, coexisting and interacting with them without leaving them in the past.”[1]

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This being considered, is not our Gregorian inclination towards sectioning off units of duration rendered utterly meaningless?  Certainly, it may serve to “time-map” individual and collective events, it can also be useful as measurement of progress and decline.  It can, however, be of very little use to the contemporary thinker as Élan vital.  It is futile to review a year in terms of its singularity.  What we think of as “time” is little more than the shifting of energy, the passing of matter from one state to another.  There was, and never could be a 2018, as duration, that which we think of as “time” would necessitate each antecedent year forcing themselves as one into that year which is being experienced.  This is Bergsonism at its purest (albeit, too, at its most simplified), and if we were to take that model of the  present being nothing other than the past happening all at once – insofar as one may interpret such a complex idea out of its parole – then we may find a perfect analogy for our times: the Twenty-First Century can be defined by its concentrated repetition of the past, both culturally and politically, and perhaps provides us with the first significant parallels between Henri Bergson (1859 – 1941) – for decades dismissed as an antiquity of the old guard in philosophy – and Marxist poststructural thinkers such as Jacques Derrida (1930 – 2004) and, more recently, Mark Fisher (1968 – 2017).  For, if we were to take the concept of Bergson’s Duration out of the confines of analytic philosophy and place it in the broader spectrum of Critical Theory (and we surely can, as was amply proven by Gilles Deleuze (1925 – 1995)’s re-interpretations of Bergsonism), then what we are presented with is a like-for-like match of what Fisher called The Slow Cancellation of the Future[2], the “temporal malaise” which is so much a hallmark of contemporary culture that one is hard-pressed to discern between that which has been created last week and the artefacts of the 1970s and 1980s.

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Contemporary thinking, I would suggest, has all but eradicated the notion of a sole Philosopher King stood atop his plateau (to borrow the Deleuzian analogy).  This has been the case for several decades.  In his 1957 foreword to the second edition of Critique of Everyday Life, Henri Lefebvre (1901 – 1991) notes

 

“…professional philosophers generally ignored the book; for – starting with its title – it entailed relinquishing the traditional image of the philosopher as master and ruler of existence, witness and judge of life from the outside, enthroned above the masses, above the moments lost in triviality, ‘distinguished’ by an attitude and a distance.” [3]

 

Philosophy has, over the years, necessarily been a process of cross-pollination of thought.  In Elemental Discourses, John Sallis (1938 – ) writes

 

(i)n Derrida’s texts there are many voices. Some occur as citations from Husserl, Heidegger, or other authors. Yet, in the strict sense whatever is set forth in citations is not the voice of another but rather a passage from a written text. Even if what is cited should happen to be words once heard in the voice of another, they will, in being cited, have been transposed into the written text; in this transposition the voice of the other will have been silenced. And yet, we sometimes attest that in reading the words of an author we can hear his voice behind the words, that we can hear it silently resounding.”[4]

 

Thus we may observe the clinamen of Lucretius evolve throughout the ages and become Deleuze and Guattaris’ desire, accounting for the clinamen’s inclination towards capital.  Indeed, the most pertinent and evolutionary use of philosophy is to commandeer from its massive historical inventory of themes and ideas – and, it can be argued, this is how philosophy finds its true meaning (Deleuze and Guattari themselves said “the only question is which other machine the literary machine can be plugged into, must be plugged into in order to work.  Kleist and a mad war machine, Kafka and a most extraordinary bureaucratic machine ….”[5]).  One need not absorb every text by Foucault, or attend two-hour lectures on Lacan to gain a healthy reserve of critical resources with which to formulate one’s own theories. Plato’s cave and Wittgenstein’s stonemasons serve very well as building blocks for an architecture of language and socialisation, reality and simulacra.  These ideas the modern philosopher must osmose and re-interpret, modify and apply pressure to, and for that very reason philosophical models function in much the same way as art: intense critical thought and complex abstractions simplified to the nth degree as signs, giving flesh to otherwise untranslatable concepts: art builds real architecture in Utopia and peoples it accordingly, yet it draws its strength from its ability to topple said architecture and rebuild.  Artistic movements provides the zeitgeist for this architecture, and these zeitgeists are the very agents of its destruction and reformation.  Much to Plato’s imagined chagrin, art is in many ways inseparable from critical thinking. At any given moment, the human mind is subject to incalculable heterogonous abstractions which superficially bear no relation to one another other than their chronological linearity – or the oft-cited stream of consciousness, that convenient one-size-fits-all coat with which lazy commentators have dressed such diverse literary figures as Beckett, Burroughs, Thompson, Joyce and Proust. Terms such as stream of consciousness exist to categorise that which has no formal category (other than, in this instance, that of literature).  But, if we again consult Bergson, thought processes are time in its purest state.

 

“Let us assume that all the sheep in the flock are identical; they differ at least by the position which they occupy in space, otherwise they would not form a flock. But now let us even set aside the fifty sheep themselves and retain only the idea of them. Either we include them all in the same image, and it follows as a necessary consequence that we place them side by side in an ideal space, or else we repeat fifty times in succession the image of a single one, and in that case it does seem, indeed, that the series lies in duration rather than in space. But we shall soon find out that it cannot be so. For if we picture to ourselves each of the sheep in the flock in succession and separately, we shall never have to do with more than a single sheep. In order that the number should go on increasing in proportion as we advance, we must retain the successive images and set them alongside each of the new units which we picture to ourselves: now, it is in space that such a juxtaposition takes place and not in pure duration.”[6]

 

The Twenty-First Century has, since 2001, been bereft of landmark political or social moments.  The key word here is “landmark,” indicating a fixed point in time after which the ideological apparatus in place before the event can no longer function, such is the impact it has on society, economics and culture.  The word “landmark” also implies space, rather than time, yet is no misuse: chronology and geography are intermingled in memory, creating those very ghosts which populate Derrida’s hauntology, and in keeping with the concept of hauntology, the most critical phenomena of the year occurred just as it was ending.  Two separate and distinct events, which happened no more than a week from one another at the end of December and superficially bear little-to-no relation, but which in fact have great reciprocal significance.  Firstly, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series gave us another instalment in the form of the feature-length Bandersnatch, which was closely followed by the announcement that HMV had gone into second liquidation, His Master’s Voice now nothing but a pitiable whimper in the neoliberal wind.  As outmoded a capitalist model as it is out of touch with the times, HMV has, for decades, pre-packaged culture and sold it on as part of some great promise that what that culture represents is the very essence of what one needs to understand our times.

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Within the first few minutes of Bandersnatch it becomes apparent that popular culture will never tire of revisiting the 1980s, as though that decade was both the genesis and zenith of our postmodern metanarrative.  And yet again, the past is shown to us through countless factual and technical filters – for instance, it is safe to say that nobody ever bought a Tangerine Dream album in WHSmith in the mid-1980s.  WHSmith, like HMV represents the Harrods model of “everything under one roof,” which for a store that deals in entertainment and culture, is a laughably hyperbolic claim.  Yet our memories of these shops, for those of us who had childhoods in the 1980s, portray them as precisely that, for our own undeveloped awareness of the sheer richness and variety of culture is reflected by HMV’s own limited scope of same.  Thus, it adequately met our stunted expectations.  As culture and technology evolved at an ever-increasing rate in the latter half of the Twentieth Century, it soon became the case that this capitalist model of the third place serving as cultural nexus could never fulfil our ever-more-sophisticated understandings of culture.  This could partially explain our craving for nostalgia, as the artefacts of the 1980s remind us of the last time we were culturally satiated – the economy of craving and fulfilment was in balance (perhaps it is only in childhood that this balance is ever truly equal).  “Nostalgia,” though, as Simon Reynolds (1963 – ) points out, is translated etymologically as “homesickness.”[7]   Contemporary sociologists favour the notion of a fourth place in order to tackle the workplace/home environment crossover, but it is more accurate to re-identify The Third Place as increasingly virtual.  This is hardly surprising, since 9/11 shattered what was quite possibly the West’s final moment when an event was experienced collectively in The Third Place, and was the last “where were you when…?” moment in living memory.  As the Twenty-First Century has unfolded, global events have occurred in what feels like a steady trickle, owing not to a lack of event, but in the way in which events are now relayed to us.  In the sixteen years since the towers collapsed, the ingestion of current affairs has gradually slipped away from the static television screen and become something experienced singularly (one-on-one) through portable, streamlined devices.  Before the internet, the news was fed to us daily at precise quarters of a clock, with the 6 and 9 PM instalments reserved for in-depth investigations into the ramifications of the day’s events.  This may well still be the case, but it is now by no means how we initially learn of these events, which are continuously fed to us via the offices of internet newsfeeds which have no beginning or end, and wholesale information dumps such as Twitter.  News is no longer dropped on us four times a day around a centralised information hub (i.e. television or radio), but is now with us all day, and can be accessed from any location via mobile phones, tablet and laptops.  Wi-Fi has freed us from the necessity of the specific location, and thus the “where were you?” moment can no longer really exist, since such an occasion is marked by more quotidian, tangential social interactions (since social media, we are paradoxically no longer social beings) – history has always been made in conjunction with analogue discourse to provide context and understanding; the pause for reflection has been superseded by the knee-jerk re-tweet.  Is it any wonder, then, that cultural eruptions comparable to that of 1976 have been scarce-to-non-existent during the last decade-and-a-half, and that the cultural satellites of the punk movement can now be bought in Primark on t-shirt racks which also contain images of Miles Davis and Marvel superheroes?

In this sense we can quite easily relate the lack of modern social information exchanges and their replacement by personalised feeds of information to a Twenty-First Century flatness, or to put it simply, an age when globally-relevant events are still unfolding on a daily basis but are no longer felt as shockwaves.  Without shockwaves there can be no fissures, which is where Twentieth-Century culture once thrived: jazz, pop, punk, Abstract Expressionism, Conceptual Art and the Postmodern break in general all happened as a consequence of events which were felt as they occurred, and carried real consequences, unlike the political pantomimes of today.  The ages in which these events happened had their own zeitgeist modelled from the social mood, and are remembered – perhaps rightly or wrongly – for their cultural and social values.  In an age which has had no real shockwaves or fissures a void has inevitably been created which has no atmosphere, zeitgeist or – crucially – human analogue.  Since domestic concerns are primarily centred around economy, the average Western citizen concerns him or herself with financial survival and the waning scope for prosperity.  Let us, for a moment, contemplate upon a strata of people working not for prosperity or an elevated standard of living, but only in order to cling onto the standard of living they already have.  The opiate of the masses has been superseded by a cold bucket of water, terror at a knock upon the door.  The clinamen of capital (its desire) is absolute subjectification.  In 2018, Brexit once more proved itself to be that very subjectification, spreading fear and hatred across the UK and using similar (albeit more sophisticated) tools to divide the country as did Germany in 1939.  Brexit is more pernicious than the campaigns of history, however: there is no single identified common enemy, no one sub-section of society singled out for persecution.  Rather, it plays to the worst fears of all social stratifications, always with one lingering threat – you will lose what you have. Again, as with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961, one can discern a palpable sense of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil,” a clear attitude of “rather you than me.”  Brexit has played into the neoliberal ideology in the only way it could: divide and conquer.  But in recent years, it has become the norm for events to resemble past situations.  Occupy, it can be argued, was itself a modified sit-in, grafted from the late-1960s onto the present day and given an Economics degree.  Where it has prospered – as opposed to the disenfranchised, disconnected youth of fifty years ago – is in its organisation and the clarity of its voice, both of which can be attributed to technological agencies unimaginable in the last century.  We have lost our sense of the epoch-making event, the galvanising force to attempt something different: the rule book is no longer torn up, so much as it is re-told through post-millennial perspectives.

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October saw the release of Peter Jackson’s They shall Not Grow Old, a technically astonishing colourised documentary to mark the centenary of Armistice Day.  Nothing can detract from the visual and journalistic achievement, although one could also read the film via Jean Baudrillard and liken the process to, for instance, the endeavours of Japan’s Ōtsuka Museum of Art, where only precise facsimiles of well-known original works are displayed.  The museum is, of course, anything but that: indeed, one might say that it is part-PowerPoint presentation / part-PT Barnum grotesquerie.  Or perhaps the film is more akin to the Abbey of Saint-Michel-de-Cuxa which was rebuilt by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.in Upper Manhattan using building materials from the original abbey in Southern France from what remained after it was rebuilt in 840.  The latter suggestion is given more weight when one considers that much of the original footage found in They Shall Not Grow Old was filmed using arcane hand-crank cameras which struggled to maintain a steady 12 frames-per-second, which is why the original films appear so jerky.  This jerkiness has been digitally offset by high-end digital trickery to save the World War One soldiers from an eternity of coming across like “…Charlie Chaplin-type figures.[8]”  This obviously means that fifty percent of what one sees in Jackson’s film is not original footage at all, but very sophisticated computer animation.

When Jackson says “I wanted to reach through the fog of time and pull these men into the modern world, so they can regain their humanity once more” he misses the mark somewhat for what has actually happened is that these veterans have indeed been brought out of the past, but only in a digital suspension: half-human, half-computer-generated chimera, they hang on the screen like exhibits from the Ōtsuka Museum.  Similarly, much of the audio track to They Shall Not Grow Old is actors’ dialogue, translated via the offices of a deft lip-reader who no doubt spent as many hundreds of hours reviewing the original footage as Jackson’s team did animating it.

Curiously, one can with great ease finish watching They Shall Not Grow Old and immediately begin watching the first episode of Peaky Blinders (set in 1919, one year after armistice) without any disruption in either narrative or visual quality.  Peaky Blinders itself, is an example of history’s reworking and re-presentation.  Its non-diegetic soundtrack is entirely of the Twenty-First Century, and consists of artists aping the late 1970s and early 1980s.

 

There can be no table of contents for 2018, nor can it be reviewed month-by-month.  The writer cannot simply disclose a year as a series of events which range in importance or ramification.  I certainly have not done this (nor would I ever wish to).  Charlie Brooker, when not writing episodes of Black Mirror, will scan the year in a linear manner in his New Year’s Eve Wipe, but for serious discourse this can never fully articulate the essence of a twelve-month duration.  I will, however, borrow one recurring sound-off from Brooker:

 

“That was (2018)…now go away.”

 

[1] DeLanda, M. (1997). A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History. New York: Zone Books, pp.15-16.

[2] Fisher, M. (2014). Ghosts of my life. Winchester: Zero Books, pp.21-39.

[3] Lefebvre, H. (1991). Critique of everyday life. 2nd ed. London: Verso, p.5.

[4] Sallis, J. (2018). Elemental Discourses. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p.13.

[5] Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (2004). A thousand plateaus. London: Continuum, p.5.

[6] Bergson, H., Ansell-Pearson, K. and Ó Maoilearca, J. (2002). Key writings. New York: Continuum, pp.49-50.

[7] Reynolds, S. (2012). Retromania. London: Faber and Faber, p.50.

[8] Ilse, J. (2019). Prince William attends World Premiere of “They Shall Not Grow Old”. [online] Royal Central. Available at: http://royalcentral.co.uk/uk/cambridges/prince-william-attends-world-premiere-of-they-shall-not-grow-old-110509 [Accessed 2 Jan. 2019].

Two Steps Back: a Critique of Today, a Dismissal of the Past and a Eulogy for the Future, as Presided over by Mark E. Smith and The Fall

“I had come to loathe my husband, Mr Harlax.  I mean, physically, be revolted by him.  I could look at him and think only of the functions.”

 

  • Artemis ‘81

 

Différance is the funeral held for the meta-narrative.

 

Memorex.  Manufacturer of computer peripherals and recordable media.  Established in 1961, Memorex were synonymous during the 1980s with home recording.

 

Kraken.  Legendary squid-like sea creature said to wrap its tentacles, once disturbed, around vessels and drag them to the bottom of the ocean.

 

The time of year I remember most distinctly from my childhood were those strange weeks when the nights drew in.  Halloween, Bonfire Night…the cheap masks at the shop at the end of the twitchel (because that’s what they were called in North Nottinghamshire), the divine aroma of potatoes being charred on the backyard fire which, in our age of ultra-safety, would never be bureaucratically tolerated.  Those cold, dark evenings carried their own gothic magic as a child.  One could quite easily imagine Spring-Heeled Jack bounding from the council estate roofs and the bizarrely-gnarled trees in the woods actually being science fiction organisms.  Renowned as one of the most haunted villages in England, the remains of an old Roman garrison sat atop the clay hill which hamletted the village on all sides.  There was always a spectral threat on the lips of our parents, and all of this has indelibly left a quasi-Victorian gothic impression on my recollections of the early eighties.

 

To begin, then, with the problematic word.  When we say “haunting,” we are tacitly referring to the ineffable: concepts which, when attempted to give form to or study, vaporise.  Something altogether apart from philosophical immanence, this is the run-out groove which carries the fading analogue vibrations of our specific pasts, and if words such as “haunting,” “ghosts,” “spectres,” (ad nauseum) are to characterise memory this is only because these terms serve best to outline a difference which cannot be described in binaries.  We may, if we are so inclined, steer off track and cite Bergson at this point though it serves just as well to propose that memories are recalled in units, rather than successive elements of time.  Were we to recall perfectly our entire lives in reverse beginning with the absolute present then we would doubtless pick up on subtle ideological or cosmetic shifts in our environs.  We would, however in all probability miss the greater shifts and distinctions, but given that this kind of recollection is impossible, we instead focus on the event.  These events, as unitary measures, are themselves “haunted,” as it were, by dead elements (be they cars which are no longer on the road, a foodstuff no longer manufactured or a television programme that nobody else remembers being aired).  We may then say that we are haunted by the event, or even the unit.

 

This is hinted at by Derrida, yet made explicit by the 21st Century permutation of Hauntology.  Our factually oblique and rose-tinted recollections of the past coupled with the present conundrum of  “already been done” has suspended Western culture in a temporal loop.  “Two Steps Back,” in fact.  The time-locked cultural blockage of an age after Postmodernism has rendered the “new” profoundly spectral: we are watching, listening and responding to ghosts.  These ghosts are the spectres of Modernism and pre-Modernism, the last cultural epochs where technological and biological growth were anywhere near in tandem with one another.  Indeed, the “new” is necessarily enshrouded with quotation marks – even visually, the word is spectral.  Unknown to me in the 1980s, the literal ghosts alluded to in local folklore were in fact the unconscious parental responses to a time which made more harmonious sense, when there were less technological leaps to bemoan.

 

Différance is the individuation between biological memory, political memory, cultural memory…it is how Proust’s memories distinguish themselves between Dostoyevsky’s, how Beckett’s memories are internalised whereas Joyce’s remain geographical.  Escape from Marienbad, indeed.  Différance is the temporal linguistic rift rent by dromology. Différance is the colloquial vapour trails left hanging in the air in the wake of cultural imperialism.

 

Différance is the family unit with lost unity.

 

Derrida likened the spectre of Marx (that phantasmagorical after-image which has haunted capitalism for over a century) to Hamlet’s father: literally and etymologically the root spectre at the feast.  Indeed, that crucial textual link was made early on by highlighting that Hamlet was “the Prince of a rotten state,” allegorically that same rotten state which was to be found in the wake of communism itself, its ectoplasmic remains congealed in the scattered debris of the Berlin Wall.  1980s Britain, or its working class communities, had more than it’s share of this rot: alcoholism, redundancy, solvent abuse, domestic violence, mass unemployability…all of these were to be found, as a child, beneath the superficial halcyon sheen of the nuclear family.

 

 

 

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This impression is what always returns when one hears The Fall.  The oblique, rumbling production on Dragnet, the keyboard trail on Frightened, the choppy vaudeville of City Hobgoblins.  And those words…like tapping into long-forgotten truths which revealed themselves in layers the more one could discern them.  Listening to any Fall record was worth a dozen trips to the library and provided a far more comprehensive (albeit labyrinthine) education than one could hope to gain in those Thatcherite penal colonies we were forced to attend during the week: instant psychic Cinerama of a world made up of grotesque (ha!) dog-breeders, phantom stalkers, Disneyland beheadings and strange conjugations of literary figures.  Mark E. Smith saw himself as a writer above all else, and it is indeed within those wordscapes that one is ensnared once those primitive, repetitive rhythms and snarling Northern barks have either enchanted or repelled you.  One reads The Fall as one reads Deleuze – in layers and multiplicity; the libido in despair, castrated by its own production.  Listen to Room to Live, or Tempo House and you have a Deleuzian machine absorbing as it creates.  One can almost hear the ideas forming in Smith’s mind just before he contorts them, the rhythm section in endless repetition as time strangles the pleasure principle.

 

Once one hears The Fall (either as a joyous or attritional experience) one is at once haunted by The Fall: like Marxism, the time between first contact and present time is rotten with phantoms.  The “ghosting” effect on an old television broadcast is merely the ghost of multiplicity, information forced down a tube which is continuously caught up with itself in a cathode Möbius.  The “captured” cultural elements of the past, ensnared by Smith, become distorted in much the same way as Francis Bacon would pervert his subjects and, like Bacon, Smith froze his subjects at their most primal as though intuition led him to their animal state: Terry Waite, Alan Minter, MR James, Lou Reed and Doug Yule (in an instant fused into the one chimeric state) – all in a state of “…becoming Fall.”  The industrial landscapes sonically conjured by a superficially grotesque rumble are another “becoming,” for in that instantly primal cacophony lay not only the bleak Conservative wasteland of late-70s and early 80s, but also admitted to the industry of Blake’s Jerusalem – a bleakness far sootier and rooted in diaspora than anything suggested by Kraftwerk or Joy Division.  Here was (and is, captured in essentia) an industry transcending political trend: if Marxism is the spectre haunting Europe (macro), then The Fall conjure the specificity of a Britain enslaved to a Marxist ontology, or rather the phantom of differance which manifested itself in a typically Northern blue-collar attitude which eternally defies translation.

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This was the Britain one would experience if one watched Coronation Street on through a lens in any way similar to Smith’s – the Barlows’ crepuscular killing sprees, Kevin Webster copulating with Jack Duckworth’s pigeons in the outhouse to produce a malformed beak/moustache hybrid, all in those lurid cathode reds and blues of early colour television, yet with shadows darker than a Castiglione monoprint.  And we respond to those grotesqueries knowing full well that we – the working class with our fathers risking life and limb daily at the colliery – are the grotesque products of a perverted society.  Smith took the narrative experimentation of The Velvet Underground and twisted it to his own vision, throwing in all manner of literary, cultural and political allusion along with it – the mystical autodidact Roman Totale XVIII his early prosopopoeial alter-ego emerging from the song lyrics to commandeer the sleeve notes.  So within, so without.

 

Music has been something which comes and goes in my life, with precious few exceptions.  When I wanted to put together a band at the age of twelve, I was too young to do so to any extent other than drafting in school friends to help create an undisciplined cacophony in the spare room.  It was, for them, something to stave off boredom and nothing more.  For me, it quickly became the case that I could entertain myself more effectively by making a cheap guitar and amplifier sound like something other than a cheap guitar and amplifier: hiding the amp under a pillow with the bass turned all the way up sounded like the atonal hum of a building site, whilst striking the strings with metallic objects made for the sounds of cinematic stabbing (reflecting the potentially lethal act of striking electric guitar strings with metallic objects in the first place).  I made no further attempt to form a band until in my early twenties, when any chance of finding like-minded individuals had been scuppered by the lumpen musical ideals left in the wake of a withered Brit Pop: young musicians wanted to sound like solo Paul Wellers and already-existing bands stank of being fully endorsed by their parents, who were probably in bands which emulated Paul Weller in 1983.  There was nowhere to be found the kind of person who wanted to create the kind of sonic experimentation I needed to make.  The Velvet Underground’s currency – which has always been in fluctuation in the eyes of the mainstream – was at an ebb.  Such is the way with being out-of-synch with things: always one paradigm shift from having a real chance at something special.  In hindsight, of course, I count my blessings for the music business is among the vilest of industries, and I then lacked the sheer bloody-mindedness to persist at all costs like Mark E. Smith always has.  More than this, I lacked the discipline to maintain a single sound throughout anything approaching a career, much less stick to so singular a discipline as music.  This is why the likes of Smith, Billy Childish and other counter-culture luminaries who doggedly refuse to attenuate themselves to anything as crass as a marketable sound have to formulate their own economies – and not just financial economies.

 

Shane Meadows’ 1999 drama A Room for Romeo Brass was filmed in the same village alluded to in the first paragraph.  Shot nine years after I left the village, there is a marked difference in the landscape of my childhood and that recreated on the screen, a difference which went beyond representation.  Seeing the village in Meadows’ film, I felt no nostalgia, no sudden desire to return there.  Indeed, aside from the novelty of recognition, there was nothing to link the me in the present to the me who recalled playing in the exact locations now being used as a stage for Paddy Considine.  Partially, this can be attributed to simple displacement and the passage of time, but more crucially the topography had altered to such an extent over those nine short years that my very conception of the village had become the recollection of a ghost, or at the very least an erasure.  My childhood existed only in my memory, and no amount of old photographs (of which there are very few) could ever amount to anything more than a multiplicity of reflection.  Time is no longer a thing which can be measured by temporality alone – of all the images and zeitgeists left to us by the Twentieth Century, a sense of echoing pastiche is likely the dominant sensation which has only increased with massive exponentiality to the present day.  Which decade is this year in the 1990s emulating?  To what extent do the purveyors of culture in 2012 understand the forms and aesthetics they are aping from 1969?

 

I have, since an age too far back in my memory to place with any exactitude, been in a state of mourning.  This is no silly Freudian claim of being desirous of a return to the womb: personally, I frequently refer to that oft-repeated Smiths lyric whenever I encounter Freud – “it says nothing to me about my life.”  The mourning I claim is the mourning for a childhood half received, or indeed a deferral of childhood which was felt just as (if not more than) keenly during my infancy.  Betraying the above claim, I must nonetheless turn to Freud for his unheimlich to describe that jarring notion as a child that there was always something wrong, something awry or missing.  Unheimlich is perversely the most fitting term for my domestic childhood situation, for the home was sporadically and decidedly unhomely.  Growing up with alcoholism from an extremely early age means that there has been no chance for the child to know anything other than a home run through with alcoholism, and that home being in a relatively (by today’s standards) tight-knit community means that any social comparisons must be drawn from other homes which are in some way complicit with alcoholism (few could have not known that our house was the one with the parent who lapsed wildly into stupors lasting days and, sometimes, weeks.  Yet very little was ever done to circumvent the vicious circle of dependency: in fact, the reverse was so often the case).  In such circumstances, one lives in a microcosm of Other: there is nothing wrong with this picture…and everyone who knows precisely what is not wrong with the picture knows how to mind their own business about what is not wrong – at least until their front door is closed.

 

When an infant encounters an adult who is drunk, the first instinct is to think of the adult as “unwell,” which is conveniently confirmed by other adults and becomes the official euphemism. “Unwell” also means “absent” in such cases, even if the unwell person is in the same room, because the sober parent has been purged of all parental virtues, such as responsibility, kindness, indulgence or accommodation.  The entire architecture of home life is dismantled to such an extent that the very state of childhood is placed in suspension.  If a parent is too drunk to collect their child from nursery, then that child ceases being a child in the eyes of nursery staff and becomes a problem.  If a child is not in school because of parental alcoholism, then that child is now a “case.”

 

But what is perhaps the most destructive of all are those periods when the parent is sober: life is less complicated, certainly, and the parent/child bond is soldered together once more, but there is always the dread – which can occur at any time, with or without warning or cause – that the unwell will return, rendering the moments of sobriety something to fear just as much as the periods of chaos.  This, then, is the mourning I have felt since infancy.  Petite morts in the most literal sense: mourning the death of the home, the death of a childhood being allowed to live itself out, the small, staggered death of a parent.

 

I was six years old in 1984, the year forever burned into scholarly discourse as the official death of the blue-collar worker in Great Britain.  My father worked in the mines, though ours was a colliery who outlasted many others in Nottinghamshire.  Although Calverton Colliery almost survived the century due to private finance (the office block was the last structure to be demolished in March, 2000), redundancy hit our household in 1987-1988.  The Calverton in A Room for Romeo Brass is the neoliberal perversion of industry: Vicky McClure’s character works in a fashion outlet in St. Wilfred’s Square, which was formerly a chemist; Considine’s Morrell is unemployed, friendless and entirely disconnected from both morality and self, a parody of identity tripping over itself to fill in the cracks left over from a patchy education and a (tacitly) fractured home life.  This is a society very much in the process of restructuring itself, redefining its identity by drawing from its immediate past, its discordant present and its bleak future.  Almost twenty years on and that future is not so much bleak as eerie: children no longer play in the streets (an ostensibly glib statement at first glance, but no less true for it).  For children in 2018, socialising has become compartmentalised into school, after-school clubs and birthday parties.  The common ground of having parents who worked within a location-specific industry is gone, and in its place are streets full of adults who are too busy keeping their heads above water with insufficient McWages to integrate with others on the street – often because those others command higher wages for less effort, but perhaps more often because there is little understanding of what the other’s job actually entails.  What once unified communities has alienated it.  Mark Fisher adroitly pointed to this diasporic labour culture as both cause and symptom of depression in his excellent essay Good for Nothing.  The working-class curse of being made to feel inadequate for professional jobs, whilst feeling inferior (or at the very least, fraudulent) in office or factory work:

 

“…because I was overeducated and useless, taking the job of someone who needed and deserved it more than I did. Even when I was on a psychiatric ward, I felt I was not really depressed—I was only simulating the condition in order to avoid work, or in the infernally paradoxical logic of depression, I was simulating it in order to conceal the fact that I was not capable of working, and that there was no place at all for me in society.”

 

It is only natural that this phenomenon trickles down to our children.  As displaced as we are in our present economy, this can be nothing compared to a child who feels no tangible connection to a world both virtual and indifferent.  We recognise ourselves (or partial vestiges of ourselves) in our immediate culture and react to this accordingly, yet when our immediate culture is purely virtual (such as is the case when a child’s daily routine consists of school-dinner-bathtime-device, as opposed to a routine from the late Twentieth Century which was more akin to school-play-play-dinner-play-bathtime-bed), psychic well-being suffers just as surely as physical well-being suffers from vitamin deficiency.  Children identify with – and, terrifyingly, become – nebulous, uncanny forms in video games: forms which have nondescript facial characteristics, limited movement and lifespans with no value.  They are both Geppetto and Pinocchio with no reference to a higher meaning.  Small wonder, then, that they struggle to place any real value to the social realm.  The mirror stage ceases to function when the mirror ceases to reflect.  We are now (and have been for some time) in an age of mass childhood dysfunction which has increased at such exponential speed that psychologists, behaviourists, therapists (et al) can no longer sufficiently account for it.  This is because the accounting must come from fields outside of Freudian specificity: the social sciences (as evidenced by Fisher) are where the answers are to be found, and from a sociological perspective they are to be found relatively easily.  We need only refer to Foucault and thereby note the homogenisation of the state apparatus (the school being modelled on the prison, for example) to see the link between this and a gaming platform such as Roblox, which takes this model to the nth degree.  Players create and interact in virtual cell-like buildings, which can vary between prisons, schools, houses, pizzerias or indeed any simulacrum of our reality.  Very little distinguishes these artifices aside from superficial décor, and the tasks each player performs is largely standardised and based on production / consumption.  The neoliberal ideal supplied (as only the neoliberal ideology would be allowed to) as plaything for a standardised socialising.  If any suggestion had been made to me (and, I imagine, any other child) in the 1980s that performing perfunctory tasks in order to achieve virtual (i.e. non-existent) rewards could in any way be passed off as entertainment or – even more scandalously – playtime, this would have been dismissed as some species of Stalinism: a tin-pot attempt at coercing child labour masquerading as fun.  Platforms such as Roblox offer no conduits for the superego to develop, and creativity is limited to the basic additions the child can make to their domains.  This is the very business school one imagines when listening to The Birmingham School of Business School from the 1992 album Code:Selfish:

 

 

Weave a web so magnificent

Disguise in the art of conceit

….

Deposits prisoner robotics

Home to their wives Stepford

Case-carrying

Business School

 

At the expense of all else the neoliberal worldview must emulate itself, asserting its financial and political dominance in self-replication, deceit and a means to an end mentality (the end of which must ever be kept out of sight and grasp).

 

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I was twenty-five when my mother died, just one week after her sixtieth birthday.  Those small, staggered periods of mourning I had undergone all throughout my life until that point returned, massively intensified and furiously indignant at the torment I had lived through.  To have my mother’s death played out in front of me so many countless times, whereby the person who should have been a constant in my life mockingly replaced by something so animalistic finally and so swiftly taken from me at a point in my own life when I should have been adjusting and reacting to the vicissitudes of my own adulthood felt like the most vicious betrayal of all.  Depression had been a factor in my life since the age of twelve (if I have to give an age to the time when it was finally recognised that the sense of “wrongness” at home had finally been absorbed by my own psyche to become an unwellness in its own right), and by the time of my mother’s death I had already made no less than six attempts at my own life.  Any attempts at academia up to that point were offset or sabotaged by personal feelings of insufficiency and I had tellingly fallen into catering – a vocation frequently associated with verbal abuse and physical suffering.  All relationships I had were a priori doomed to failure, though that only served to exacerbate the pain when this inevitably became the case.  Again, the protracted mourning period playing itself out.

 

A Memorex, then, for the Krakens.  These memories remain buried, submerged beneath countless quotidian events waiting to be re-activated by sensory stimuli.  The stimuli, though, must be of the time of the memory in order to function.  The Memorex must be a pure recording.

 

Ti West’s 2007 film The House of the Devil goes further than pastiche: it wants you to believe that it was made in the early 1980s, down to the camera tints, synth-heavy soundtrack, dialogue and content (devil worshippers here deliberately chosen to harken back to the Satanic Panic in the wake of the Richard Ramirez killings).  Most tellingly, however, is the film’s title shot.  Filling half the screen in garish yellow, the title reeks of cheap exploitation horror though the inclusion of the film’s date in Roman numerals gives pause: the tradition of placing the film’s title with it’s production date directly underneath with All Rights Reserved is something which died out in the late 1970s, thus creating not only a jarring anachronism but also – perhaps most poignantly – turning the charade in on itself.  What we are left with is not a reference to the past, but rather an atemporal, half-remembered throwback which forfeits historical exactitude in favour of nostalgia for a time which never happened as it exists in collective memory.  The House of the Devil is by no means alone in this stylised misappropriation: It Follows, Beyond the Black Rainbow, The Neon Demon, Nightcrawler, Under the Skin and Amer are but a small selection from the hundreds of motion pictures made with an eye to providing the viewer with that most ultra-postmodern thrill of experiencing the past as they have always remembered it: not factually, but mnemonically via associations and cultural connection.  The danger of this, of course, is in the potential for collective memory to wipe out the historical fact.  A Twenty-One-year-old watching these films today has no first-hand experience of 1984, therefore leaving them with nothing to distinguish between the two oppositions.  Reason concludes that the result of this phenomena will be an entirely muddled collective memory in 40-50 years whereby the Twentieth Century will eventually be remembered amorphously and atemporally.

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Though the above may be a peculiarly altermodernist symptom, its eventual effect is, to all intents and purposes, what one is listening to on And This Day, Hex Enduction Hour’s cataclysmic denouement.  Time crashes in on the listener all at once, the preceding fifty-three minutes of the album serving as individual elements while And This Day serves them all up at once.

In 2018, we are still in the process of mourning (a deferred mourning, but a mourning nonetheless). We mourn the failed promises of modernism while we adjust constantly to the increasing pressures of a neoliberal world.  For the working classes, we mourn ourselves as we struggle to ward off the demands of abstract capital.  Our ongoing mental and psychic collapse is as much the product of Victorian Dad ideology as it is lagging concentration in an age of advanced dromology.  “Pull your socks up” is scandalously still being uttered by mental health workers who themselves cannot ever hope to reach the bottom of the piles of cases stacking up every day.  Those children lucky enough to be dealt with in timely fashion are furnished with ADHD statements as readily as birth certificates, while other children less fortunate (mine included) wait years to be granted a cursory inspection, before an inevitable non-conclusive conclusion.  The fault lies squarely with the parents, so the official party line of responsibilisation goes.  Parents, however, are sinking under ever-increasing debt just to stay above water.  For the working classes, the very concept of a meritocracy is not as ludicrous as it is offensive. Perhaps this penchant (yearning, even) for the relics of the past – albeit reformatted to fit in with our collective memory – is nothing less than a coping strategy: there was a time when those in need would be accommodated, when the poor were dealt with sympathetically rather than with scorn.  And as much as we know this to be far from the truth, it is a falsehood far more comfortable than today’s crushing truths.  Mark E. Smith was the ever-present rage against the horrors of neoliberalism: fiercely opposed to the fol-de-rol of social media and distrusting to the end of a system which streamlines cultural endeavour to fit the device, Smith took The Fall and made it rougher as the rest of the world became sleeker.  The grotesque salmagundi of sound sculpted in the 1980s, consisting as it did of harsh Germanic repetition, quasi-Jamaican barked ad-libbing, Velvet Underground drone and a brash form of working class country music (country and northern, if you will [and he did]) had, over the last decade, become a feral beast of unrelenting curmudgeonly fury, primed and aimed at any and all facet of a West so utterly surrendered to the growing weight of capital.

 

Mon coure et je suis d'accord

As amusing as it may be to recall Smith’s innumerable bon mots, jibes and drunken slurs collected over the decades, it is nonetheless to miss the point – Samuel Beckett was no less the caustic wit when in his frequent cups and Jackson Pollock could just as easily clear a dinner party as Smith could a pub.  Yes, I frequently return to YouTube for my regular fix of Smith’s brusque humour in interviews yet, for the proper stuff, I delve feet-first into Grotesque and Hex Enduction Hour.  These albums weren’t joking.  They meant every rancorous syllable.  While Morrissey was regaling us with upturned bicycles and Oscar Wilde throwbacks, Smith gave us the world red in tooth and claw, only redder and toothier.  And while the former produced countless soundalikes throughout the eighties, nineties and to this day, nobody has ever managed to sound like The Fall.  Quite right, too.

The Nomadological Worm

Introduction

This is a treatise on nomadology. Yet, often more than this it is a treatise on the rhizomatic influence Gilles Deleuze has had on contemporary art and – on a much wider scale – Western culture in general. It is only reasonable, then, that its structure should be nomadic in nature, fashioned as such more as a tool to illustrate this often problematic Deleuzian concept than as a homage to A Thousand Plateaus , his and Felix Guattari’s magnum opus. Ours is an age when linearity is a matter of both personal interpretation and artist’s prerogative: from meta referentiality, disruptions in a given narrative order, prosopopoeia or a more time-honoured allegory. During the course of this dissertation I shall be using many of these devices, yet the most notable will be prosopopoeia in the form of Harry Irene, a fictitious art critic who will on occasion resemble Clement Greenberg, will sometimes reflect the mannerisms of John Berger or even unashamedly ape Brian Sewell. Never affected with malice, this gestalt interpretation merely serves to reflect on the typically modernist attitude which was the hallmark of mid-Twentieth Century criticism. We can imagine pince nez, and furnish Irene with them accordingly. Yet, If Irene is a virtual gestalt of Twentieth Century art criticism, then this of little significance. Art critics have always necessarily been spectres at the feast of invention: they help to mould style by trimming away excess, adding (sometimes) rich commentary and narrative to artworks and exponentially increasing the culturally affective clout of same. Conversely, their function can also serve to stifle and stunt cultural growth. Perhaps one can say that the text can also be read as an affectionate lampooning of that profession, although one must therefore remember at all times that this would merely be subtext. A lighthearted subtext, certainly, but subtext all the same.

As an artist I have constantly been nomadic in my practice: this goes hand-in-hand with a mind which is constantly flitting from one concept to the next, considering the commonalities which unite otherwise disparate issues and allowing one sole constant throughout my body of work – myself. From themes such as father/son relationships, mental health, hauntology, Althusser’s interpellation, cinema, memory, identity and even the work of Deleuze himself, I have never remained lingering on any one topic for long, nor has the materiality of the work remained static. When a viewer once commented that my work consisted of “everything but the kitchen sink,” I briefly entertained the idea of sourcing that very item and, early on in my career when lamenting my own lack of style or idiosyncratic visual coding, a tutor responded with “you know what? It’s overrated.”

This dissertation does not seek out the specific times and places of any nomadological departures per se, and certainly the aim is not to traipse once more through Twentieth Century art history in an attempt to temporally tick the boxes which support my thesis. What it will do, however, is suggest artists whose spirit has either prompted or perpetuated nomadic art practices. Again, this is by no means a left-to-right recounting of the past as it meets the present for to do so would run counter to the very phenomena discussed. It will remain atemporal throughout, much like the indexical numbered lines of flight detailing specific instances of events which, in one way or another, are nomadic. It is important that this work be allowed to stop and start at its own pace, according to its own nature, that it reads like a Deleuzian plateau.

Chapter One: Harry Hits Out

Harry Irene, much like other similarly flamboyant modernists of the day, espoused formalism and unity as the hallmarks of “good art.” With six years’ boarding school behind him and an impeccable grasp of Latin, for a while Irene was considered the Philosopher King of art criticism. The spokes on his bicycle would resonate machine-like as the art critic weaved his way throughout the London streets from one gallery to the next. Good-natured and sympathetic to all, with the notable exception of artists. By and large, he openly despised them. His beloved Willem de Kooning set the benchmark, if one were to ask him, of painterly excellence. Robert Rauschenberg, on the other hand, he considered the scourge of the art world – if one were to ask him, Irene would lay the blame of aesthetic decline almost squarely on Rauschenberg’s shoulders, and was particularly scolding towards any artist who appeared to ally themselves with the American. In 1967 Irene wrote on Conceptual Art “the ill-deserved revival of the redundant French buffoon.” Typically dismissive of anything which eschewed the aforementioned two values of formalism and unity, Irene said this in 1962 of Öyvind Fahlström’s solo exhibition at Paris’ Galerie Daniel Cordier:

“The novelty of in-patient logic combined with a flagrant disregard for context notwithstanding, the Cordier has delivered a flat, jejune show. The painterly has been reduced to the wax crayon, and Rauschenberg apparently loves it. The exhibition brochure features the blushing artist rejoicing that there are like-minded souls in the world. All structure, such as it is, is purely virtual – blending the political with the fantastical and presenting the result in works that are only ever two steps at best above an adolescent’s boredom-breaker may appeal to the radical, but should not be encouraged if art hopes to maintain its plateau. Cartoon politics and beatnik affectations belong to the pulps, not the Cordiers.”

The plateau alluded to would be – in 1962 – one more singular and hierarchical than a plateau suggested by Deleuze and Guattari. Theirs was one of a reciprocal multitude, while Irene’s was still very much in the nature of the sermon on the mount.

In 1980, The Fall paid tribute to Harry Irene in the lyrics to How I Wrote Elastic Man:

Life should be full of strangeness
Like a rich painting

The above couplet, whether Mark E. Smith at the time realised it or not, also succinctly outlines what Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari referred to as “lines of flight,” and implies by its imperative that life is only worth living if it encounters strangeness. Analogous to the becoming outlined in the two volumes which comprise Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Deleuze and Guattari propose that it is through the encounter that consciousness and subjectivity are defined. The various and infinite forces which our universe (that non-transcendental state which the authors refer to as the plane of immanence) is governed by are always in flux, connecting and passing through other forces at random and in so doing creating new perceptions and systems of thought. “Strangeness,” then in this context should be read as an encounter (be they subjective or objective) between two disparate forces. Simply put, the subjective force of an art work upon the viewer only opens up possibilities for discourse if that art work is unfamiliar, strange or in many cases ugly, to that viewer. This makes possible and likely new ways of perception, new modes of thought and new creative possibilities (for the strangeness perceived by the viewer should, if interpreted correctly, inspire fresh creative forces which pass through the viewer-becoming-artist). These phenomena are not restricted to any cultural discipline (or, as Deleuze and Guattari would have it, “captured”), but are instead multi-disciplinary in nature. In this respect, lines of flight can be traced between contemporary art, cinema, literature or – as the above lyrical example attests – music. Art is never purely a process of subjectivity: rather it is emancipatory in the sense that it opens up potentiality. Abstraction becomes a plane of immanence on which the virtual is perceived as utopian potentialities.

Among Deleuze & Guattaris’ more crucial themes – in terms of contemporary art-world parlance – is that of nomadology, which has gradually over recent years become a dominant practice. The nomadic artist will jump from materials, themes, ideas and strategies in an ostensibly random manner, whilst retaining a core constant (on the plane of consistency, staying with Deleuze) which is more often than not the artist him or herself. This text should therefore focus on nomadic practices, their origins and their implications, the central idea that art should retain a chaotic sensibility in order to remain relevant in a chaotic word. More than this, though, is the sense that while a given artist superficially seeks to create order from chaos, there is also a strong element of the opposite: to create a chaotic linguistic framework from a pre-existing order, and then to reassemble the elements taken apart into a seemingly chaotic bricolage, which is in itself deceptively ordered.

To place this phenomenon into an historical context, it is perhaps useful to go back to Post-Conceptual Art, that 1970s movement which not only reintroduced materiality to conceptual practice, it added new and emergent materials in order to expand the potentiality of same. John Baldessari is often credited with creating both Post-Conceptual practice and its taxonomic during his tenure at the California Institute of the Arts, although one could also argue that the basis for Post-Conceptualism was already put in place by the Fluxus movement. Certainly, Happenings bore all the extra-material hallmarks of Post-Conceptual art, though artists who were the product of Fluxus were already exhibiting nomadic traits as far back as the 1960s. Yet Baldessari, in 1973, was using strategies of games in his work Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square (best of 36) which mirrored those of Swedish multimedia artist Öyvind Fahlström. Fahlström can be said to be a forerunner of nomadic practices.

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Line of Flight #1: “Everyone is an artist,” Joseph Beuys once famously said. Rather than a trite throwaway statement, Beuys perfectly sums up the Deleuzian concept. Where nomadology and the rhizome resonate most profoundly is in the biological, rather than the linguistic (although we may reason that the two are not mutually exclusive). If everything is in a perpetual state of becoming (desire, as Deleuze would have it), then everything is subject to affect: one body affects another to varying degrees of intensity. What Beuys proposes is that the substance of art (whatever form this may take) increases the intensity of the affect. A person who spends their entire life without once putting brush to canvas, without moulding clay or taking any photographs is still an artist in the affective sense, in that their very existence will resonate with another living thing. Art, as Wittgenstein once said, is a semiotic triangle – a thing is art if it “arts,” thus affecting the receiver. Human beings, by their very linguistic nature, are artists due to communication.

Irene had already dismissed Fluxus the previous decade as “Flatus.” Having met Joseph Beuys in Germany, he had advised the artist to purchase for himself a proper pair of trousers.

Irene would later – in 1978 – reverse his opinion of Fahlström somewhat, citing the “latent and intersticial nature” of his work. In accordance with the paradigm shift brought about by Baldessari’s post-conceptual departure, Irene was but one of a number of critics who began to realise the potential of the idea as opposed to the finished work. If Fluxus began to erode the material norms of art practice, then post-conceptualism re-assembled art practice in a way which, for commentators such as Harry Irene, was perhaps too much of a shock to traditional values to at first work in the same manner as previous decades.

Rather than pertaining to actual nomadic people, nomadology is simply an illustrative tool to suggest that we may think and write without reference to hierarchical, arborescent models. Favouring the rhizomatic at all times, Deleuze and Guattari propose a means of production which is emancipated from any pre-established linguistic framework. The painter should paint without reference to other painters, the playwright (like Beckett) should write according to their own haecceity and to the fire with the Shakespearian orthodoxy.

Line of Flight #2: in 1966, Tom Phillips purchases a second-hand copy of W.H. Mallock’s obscure Victorian novel A Human Document whilst in a furniture repository with painter R.B. Kitaj. He sets himself the task of reworking every page in the book, by inking over, deleting and otherwise mutating the story into an entirely new and rhizomatic narrative interpretation. Completed in 1973 and exhibited that same year, Phillips’ A Human Document Redux, now retitled A Humament , was published in its new incarnation in 1980. Since then the novel has mutated even further, with Phillips re-working his interpretation and developing this into an opera. According to Phillips, “Once I got my prize home I found that page after randomly opened page revealed that I had stumbled upon a treasure. Darting eagerly here and there I somehow omitted to read the novel as an ordered story. Though in some sense I almost know the whole of it by heart, I have to this day never read it properly from beginning to end.” This is precisely how Deleuze and Guattari propose that the reader approach A Thousand Plateaus, ignoring the left-to-right linearity of a book in any traditional sense.

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Nomadology is subject to lines of flight, and the biunivocal relations between bodies which occasion these lines of flight. The nomadic artist flags vectors and creates other lines of flight towards new vectors. Consider the work of Ken + Julia Yonetani, which “explores the interaction between humans, nature, science and the spiritual realm in the contemporary age, unearthing and visualizing hidden connections between people and their environment.” This self-assessment, courtesy of the duo’s website, already sounds nomadic yet, when we consider any collaborative venture we may conceive of two (already nomadic) vectors meeting to create a further (two-fold) nomadic vector. This vector, then, contains an exponentially greater potentiality. This phenomenon bases itself on the concept of the smooth and striated space. Striated space being hierarchical and of the state (that which can be counted and occupied in sedentary steps), whilst the smooth is rhizomatic, multitudinous and decidedly more democratic.

Chapter Two: In Which Style is Forsaken in Favour of a Globalised Non-System of Signs

Can art be traced on a map with any degree of exactitude? By this, we may imagine a vast chart which historically positions movements, artists, themes and media, imagining further that these can be connected according to commonalities: which themes link two otherwise seemingly disparate art practices? Certainly, we can draw inferences from social and political issues, in that prevalent societal factors in the 1950s, for instance, can still be attributed to the contemporary work – societal factors are never purely tied to one particular epoch.

Line of Flight #3: 2013. Raqs Media Collective bring their multimedia project The Last International to New York’s Performa 13 biennial. From the germ of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ idea to move the Council General of the First International Working Men’s Association to New York City in 1872, the exhibition develops into “a deep sea dive, head-first, into the future, and into infinity” which “stages debates, a wine-drinking symposium on time, involves a runaway rhinoceros, a time travelling bicycle, a conversation between a yaksha and a yakshi, as it turns mathematics and botany into poetry and creates a ruckus out of concepts, questions, symbols and totems.” Raqs transcend linear time and geographical space, imagining temporalities and realms which might be considered hauntological. Jacques Derrida postulated that Marxism would haunt Western society from beyond the grave in an omnipresent, miasmic manner neither alive nor dead. Raqs do not indulge in prosaic nostalgia: they re-imagine the past as a precursor to a present that never was.

Beyond that which is immediate in art, past issues of form, colour and content, lies a subtle, reflexive mechanism. Shadows present themselves in the varying distances between the machinic apparatuses of the work and the eye; the eye and the brain. These shadows are interpreted in tandem with the more tangible, visual stimuli to make up a process of affect (the ability to affect and be affected) which may or may not immediately be perceived by the subject. Often, the encounter is the essence of art, a trend which has persisted throughout the latter half of the Twentieth-Century and has found its own milieu in Relational Aesthetics (for what else could we term this affective discourse if not “relational”?). Relational Aesthetics is now a central fixture of an art market which has long celebrated the rhizomatic, the nomadic and the affective yet can more throroughly be traced back to Fluxus.

We take the view that Deleuze and Guattari’s prodigious invention of concepts should be understood as an attempt to create a new set of coordinates for thinking that can and should be modified to suit new circumstances and new questions.

Art history has proven time and again that political and social entropy leads to multiple points of departure in art practice orthodoxy: Dada owes its inception to the First World War, the decidedly nomadic catalogue of Ilya Kabakov is a by-product of Social Realism. It is perhaps churlish to expect an artist’s milieu to remain the same in a world in a constant state of flux. In an age of rebranding, rebooting, re-shuffling and profound uncertainty, art which rigidly adheres to an aesthetic model is now more often than not seen as a trifle old hat.

We can observe here that nomadology had already been a practice and attitude within the art world long before Deleuze and Guattari had coined the term, and had indicated a shift towards the virtual and latent which has since become standard vernacular. Artists, like writers, are involuntary narcissists. Both fabricate worlds in which said artist’s ego has the dominant ideology, and both dictate life and death according to their whims. Every writer and every artist is God to their individual micro-disciplinary practice, a practice which we can perceive as a world, or sphere. If we were to create a model of the seemingly endless practices being engaged at any one time, we would see an actual world filled with these spheres orbiting one another, feeding off of a shared, reciprocal energy. To begin any kind of creative endeavour is to feed from and absorb the energies flowing from these multiplicitous bodies, and to negotiate the regulations governing these. The artist borrows and re-conditions: nothing is purely genius. In this sense art is always a collaborative process, allowing multiple voices to be heard to varying degrees of intensity. This process has previously been referred to as a constellation, though art practice in the 21st Century has become a thing decidedly more immanent, allowing literal connections, juxtapositions and collaborations to occur. The artist, we can argue, who does not engage culturally, socially or creatively with the spheres in orbit around them must either be an artist of the most profound genius, or no artist at all. We may also think of the artist as the zeitgeist of their particular field, in that an artist cannot help but be a vector in a specific chain of semiotic connections starting with obsessions and inspirations, contemporary osmosis and going on to include those works which the artist has necessarily inspired. Naturally, the number of “inspirational” vectors both before and after the artist’s own vector can be nigh-on infinite, and each prone to mutation – for the flow of creative energy goes backwards as well as forwards. We retrospectively attribute aspects culled from other sources to a piece of work after we have encountered the second pieces of work, altering and mutating the meanings and semiotic representations to both primary and secondary sources. Indeed, in this respect are there any longer primary or secondary pieces of work? The present is irreducible to any singularity. This is what Bergsonism teaches us, and what common sense forces us not to forget. The present can only ever exist in any quantifiable measure as a memory, in which case it is imbued with attributes gleaned from the fanciful whims of subjective recollection (an object observed by many people five minutes ago is already undergoing an erosion of reality whereby the individual recollections of these many people have themselves trailed off into the unstable areas of perception, association and interpretation).

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Öyvind Fahlström connected the semiotic schemata of Fluxus with the lexicon of popular culture in a way which has now become familiar within galleries and biennials: understanding the simple maxim that society and culture are in a perpetual symbiotic loop with one another and adjusting the linguistic framework of his art accordingly. Five decades later, Franck Scurti is doing much the same thing, albeit from a decidedly altermodernist perspective. Compare Fahlström’s appropriation of Robert Crumb’s Meatball cartoon for his 1969 sculptural assemblage Meatball Curtain (for R. Crumb) with Scurti’s hand-drawn comic insert for his 2002 exhibition at Switzerland’s Kunsthaus Baselland. Both employ the semiotic tactics of Marcel Broodthaers in their playful linguistic displacement. Consider 1974’s Les Animaux de la Ferme (The Farm Animals) : illustrations of multiple breeds of cow with their actual taxonomies replaced by car manufacturers. A tactic derived from Magritte, certainly, yet altogether more playful and with a more cynical eye. This is among Broodthaers’ more renowned pieces, and serves to throw the observer into a nonsensical black hole.

This practice is today lauded among the echelons of criticism, unlike in Fahlström’s time, which suffered from a modernist reactionary backlash. Franck Scurti enjoys higher praise from contemporary critics such as Nicolas Bourriaud:

It is through his writing that Scurti distinguishes himself among the great French artists of his generation, including Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno, Dominque Gonzalez-Foerster and Xavier Veilhan. Yet for all that he does not stand out because of a formal trademark, a formula that can be infinitely repeated. His “style,” if that term must be employed, lies rather in a movement toward assemblage, a personal phrasing, not in some visual code bar that is easily spotted among a thousand others. He seems to make it a point of honor (sic) never to repeat the same figures, even to change his working principle with each new show.

Scurti’s offbeat milieu is to direct idea into already-present social matter, to transmute the semantic drift of signs and apply a meaning that is certainly rhizomatic. For 2000’s video installation Colors, Scurti observed a football match between Ireland and France held in Dublin where various corporate sponsors had ill-advisedly painted their corporate logos upon the pitch. As the rain started to fall, the paint diluted and became tacky, covering the players in these corporate, interpellative primaries. There are several ways in which we can read this: one interpretation would be of a capitalist spillage, whereby the economic machine becomes jammed with its subjects; another reading would be the cross-cultural accident of a sporting event resembling an art “happening.” The following year, a gallery in Lyon was temporarily taken over by a clothing manufacturer making cheap t-shirts. Each day a different cartoon was printed on the shirts reflecting on the day’s practices. In 2013, Scurti put his own spin on Broodthaers’ series of mussel pots by filling a snakeskin suitcase with popcorn, while an interview given to Blouin Art (with the headline “Duchamp Prize Nominee Franck Scurti on Being an Artist Without a Style”) Scurti said “I really think that things are happening elsewhere today. Don’t you kind of feel as if you’ve seen everything? The phrasing is more important than the style, I believe.”

The artist without a style, while immediately striking the reader as a pejorative, is perhaps one of the more fundamental elements of nomadology. To forsake geographic restrictions, ontological categerisation or indeed to eschew any sedentary restrictions is to take full responsibility for one’s own freedom: to discard the State we must truly discard the State, and in this we cannot expect to retain a State-defined, repeatable identity.

Chapter Three: Harry Plays Go!

Line of Flight #4: In 1980, Peter Greenaway delivers The Falls, a feature-length absurdist narrative concerning the mysterious Violent Unknown Event (VUE). Formerly a student at Walthamstow College of Art, Greenaway then begins a film career which retains many of his art school traits. Throughout his career, Greenaway references his cultural background and persistently returns to the prosopopoeial character Tulse Luper, who lingers on the narrative edge of much of Greenaway’s films.

Line of Flight #5: Prior to his death in 1986, Harry Irene delivers a two-hour lecture which is itself essentially nomadological. Beginning with Irene singing the praises of Nam June Paik (much to the bewilderment of those in the audience who are familiar with Irene’s previous writings) and comparing the Korean’s work to that of Auguste Rodin. With a full appreciation of Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus to his credit, Irene postulates that the smooth sculptures of Rodin have, Via Paik, been re-interpreted as striated and found a new smoothness in the artist’s appropriations of television sets and radios, and particularly focuses on Paik’s robotic assemblages:

The robot in this instance is nothing less than a self-contained monad. It is a haecceity as much as it is synecdoche – the thing is the body and the bodies form the thing. Perhaps our emerging media works best in unity, or perhaps the sum of its parts it entirely irrelevant. This is of no consequence given that our world is inescapably built of this technological fabric, as intransigent and unmoveable as Rodin’s marble.

Irene then goes on to postulate that the cinematic output of David Lynch proved the futility of Freudian interpretation, citing the director’s latest Blue Velvet as an attack on modern psychoanalysis because the entire film is bookended by the camera going both inside the human ear and passing out of the ear. Irene theorises that the film therefore only exists inside the subconscious and refuses to extricate itself from the same until it becomes convenient for the director to do so. Few present in the audience can see the logic in this, though they are more than satisfied that Irene has become that most miraculous of things: the State Machine which has become the War Machine. Typically the nomadic, eventually, becomes the sedentary. The War Machine becomes the State Machine as it attempts to preserve its own order. The champions of Abstract Expressionism eventually became its protectors – bulwarks against the oncoming storm of postmodernism. So for Harry Irene to become an exemplar of this phenomenon in reverse is something startlingly unique. Irene, a lifelong proponent of chess, and the occasional school champion of same, has recently taken up the game of Wei Chi. Whereas chess is fixed and rigid, Wei Chi (or Go, as is its Western nomenclature) is ever-expansive (infinite, even), observes a few simple rules and allows for a fluid competition. The game is only over when one or both players decide that enough is enough. One imagines that if Max von Sydow had challenged Death to Wei Chi rather than chess, the film would still be playing out today.

“Chess pieces are coded; they have an internal nature and intrinsic properties from which their movements, situations, and confrontations derive. They have qualities; a knight remains a knight, a pawn a pawn, a bishop a bishop. Each is like a subject of the statement endowed with a relative power, and these relative powers combine in a subject of enunciation, that is, the chess player or the game’s form of interiority. Go pieces, in contrast, are pellets, disks, simple arithmetic units, and have only an anonymous, collective, or third-person function. “It” makes a move. “It” could be a man, a woman, a louse, an elephant… But what is proper to Go is war without battle lines, with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy, whereas chess is a semiology.”

How can we take this passage and apply it to art practices? Key words such as “coded” and “Semiology” can here be read as hallmarks of a closed and distinct practice (i.e. that of painting), whereas in Go the authors describe a “springing up at any point,” and “movements not from one point to another…without aim or destination.” We can understand this last as being of the rhizome.

Deleuze and machinery are somewhat synonymous. The War Machine, the State Machine, etc. The State Machine is static and sedentary. We can look upon this is the machine of bureaucracy, that thing which has become fixed and immobile due to its own inability to expand and mutate – bureaucracy stunts growth, as it were. The State apparatus apportions and distributes territory and marks out borders. The War Machine, however, is subject to change. It plots its own territory according to its own arbitrations. It affects, is in a constant state of becoming and is by its very nature nomadic. The mirrored affect in contemporary art is primarily an intellectual one, in that the artist, when once would be disciplined and produce according to history and contemporary tutelage, now pays little mind to the historical regime of artistic discipline. Codings and de-codings no longer function in the same way, thanks also to the capitalist and – perhaps more so – neo-liberal paradigm shifts within our very language.

If we consider the social factors contributing to the late-Twentieth Century nomadological turn in art, then the most obvious event would be the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. Before this, countries were silenced – the suppression of artistic freedom was a la mode for a regime which allied itself with More’s Utopia. East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria had literally no presence on the global art scene whilst the Berlin Wall stood. Borders, both literal and metaphorical, were dropped overnight. That same year Centre Georges Pompidou hosted Magiciens de la Terre, billed as the world’s first truly global art exhibition, it sought to sought to correct the problem of “one hundred percent of exhibitions ignoring 80 percent of the earth.” It would be churlish to assume that these two were events were not connected: Communism is a literal State Machine, and its dissolution here literally gives was to the nomadic.

We shall conclude with a reverential mention of Michael Haneke’s 1997 TV film Das Schloß (The Castle), in which the director explicitly acknowledges Franz Kafka’s original, unfinished text . The film ends with sheer abruptness, as Kafka wrote (or, indeed did not write it), with K traipsing through the snow. He never gains entrance to the castle, nor is the bureaucracy in place to prevent this given any resolution. It is problematic to offer any absolute conclusion on the topic of nomadology, for it is both an ongoing phenomenon and, in many ways, has always been there on the horizon of our society and culture. If the fall of communism led to a nomadic rupture, then the same can be said for each time capitalism gives way under pressure. The War Machine exists on the border of the State, and can be said to be the very thing which applies pressure to the apparatus. Kafka is synonymous with the bureaucratic machine, so the novel’s abrupt ending – though technically an unfinished work – is the most profound way for it to finish. Haneke reflects on this, and pays homage to its nomadic nature by allowing his film to just…stop. I, in turn, pay homage to both Kafka and Haneke by following suit.

Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. and Massumi, B. (1993). A thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.
2 Smith, M., Scanlan, C., Hanley, S. and Hanley, P. (1980). How I Wrote Elastic Man. [vinyl] Manchester: Rough Trade.
3 Baldessari, J. (1974). Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square (best of 36). [8 color photographs] Not exhibited.
4 Mallock, W. (2005). A human document. United States: Elibron Classics.
5 Phillips, T. and Mallock, W. (2005). A humument. New York, N.Y.: Thames & Hudson.
6 Tomphillips.co.uk. (2018). Tom Phillips – Tom Phillips’s Introduction to the 6th Edition, 2016. [online] Available at: http://www.tomphillips.co.uk/humument/introduction [Accessed 8 Jan. 2018].
7 Kenandjuliayonetani.com. (2018). Ken + Julia Yonetani 米谷健+ジュリア – collaborative artists. [online] Available at: https://kenandjuliayonetani.com/en/ [Accessed 8 Jan. 2018].
8 Raqsmediacollective.net. (2018). .:: Raqs Media Collective ::.. [online] Available at: http://www.raqsmediacollective.net/works.aspx# [Accessed 8 Jan. 2018].
9 Derrida, J. (2012). Specters of Marx. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.
10 Buchanen, I & Collins, L (eds) (2014), Deleuze and the Schizoanalysis of Visual Art (Schizoanalytic Applications). London: Bloomsbury

11 Fahlström, Ö. (1969). Meatball Curtain (for R. Crumb). [Enamel on metal, plexiglas and magnets] Barcelona: Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA).
12 Broodthaers, M. (1974). Les Animaux de la Ferme (The Farm Animals). [Lithograph on paper (edition of 100)] Various: Various.
13 Bourriaud, N., Sans, J. and Durand, R. (2002). Franck Scurti. Paris: Palais de Tokyo.
14 Scurti, F. (2000). Colors. [Video Installation (3 Screens), Master Betacam] Angoulême: La collection du FRAC Poitou-Charentes.
15 http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/831686/duchamp-prize-nominee-franck-scurti-on-being-an-artist-without [Accessed 8 Jan. 2018].
16 The Falls. (1980). [film] Directed by P. Greenaway. Gwynedd, Wales: British Film Institute (BFI).
17 Blue Velvet. (1986). [film] Directed by D. Lynch. North Carolina: De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.
18 The Seventh Seal. (1957). [film] Directed by I. Bergman. Filmstaden studios, Sweden: AB Svensk Filmindustri.
19 Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1986). Nomadology. New York, NY, USA: Semiotext(e).
20 Steeds, L. and Lafuente, P. (2013). Making art global. London: Afterall.
21 Das Schloß (The Castle). (1997). [film] Directed by M. Haneke. Germany; Austria: Österreichischer Rundfunk (ORF); Wega Film; Arte; Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR).

The City in Relation to, and the Artist Enslaved (Part One)

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The myth of the city as archetype, and the illusion of genius loci are no more than the remnants of an age before subtopia, if one subscribes to the architectural nay-sayer Ian Nairn. Not his words, but more a miasmic conflux of Lefebvre, Foucault and…the latter-day artist who trawls the city streets knowing full well that he is, in fact, walking on all streets in gestalt. Without the frame of architecture, art can say little about its environs and more often than not carries an a la mode motif which is not merely influenced by trends in architectural norm, but is also governed by them.

Artists, like writers, are involuntary narcissists. Both fabricate worlds in which said artist’s ego has the dominant ideology, and both dictate life and death according to their whims. Every writer and every artist is God to their individual micro-disciplinary practice, a practice which we can perceive as a world, or sphere. If we were to create a model of the seemingly endless practices being engaged at any one time, we would see an actual world filled with these spheres orbiting one another, feeding off of a shared, reciprocal energy. To begin any kind of creative endeavour is to feed from and absorb the energies flowing from these multiplicitous bodies, and to negotiate the regulations governing these. The artist borrows and re-conditions: nothing is purely genius. In this sense art is always a collaborative process, allowing multiple voices to be heard to varying degrees of intensity. This process has previously been referred to as a constellation, though art practice in the 21st Century has become a thing decidedly more immanent, allowing literal connections, juxtapositions and collaborations to occur. The artist, we can argue, who does not engage culturally, socially or creatively with the spheres in orbit around them must either be an artist of the most profound genius, or no artist at all. We may also think of the artist as the zeitgeist of their particular field, in that an artist cannot help but be a vector in a specific chain of semiotic connections starting with obsessions and inspirations, contemporary osmosis and going on to include those works which the artist has necessarily inspired. Naturally, the number of “inspirational” vectors both before and after the artist’s own vector can be nigh-on infinite, and each prone to mutation – for the flow of creative energy goes backwards as well as forwards. We retrospectively attribute aspects culled from other sources to a piece of work after we have encountered the second pieces of work, altering and mutating the meanings and semiotic representations to both primary and secondary sources. Indeed, in this respect are there any longer primary or secondary pieces of work? The present is irreducible to any singularity. This is what Bergsonism teaches us, and what common sense forces us not to forget. The present can only ever exist in any quantifiable measure as a memory, in which case it is imbued with attributes gleaned from the fanciful whims of subjective recollection (an object observed by many people five minutes ago is already undergoing an erosion of reality whereby the individual recollections of these many people have themselves trailed off into the unstable areas of perception, association and interpretation). The myth of the city as archetype, and the illusion of genius loci are no more than the consensual assemblage of memory and fantasy. The organic optic machine has gradually been superseded by the technological optic machine, which we are more prone to place our trust in, but this new optic machine is still slave to perception: holding a camera in one’s hands is still a subjective choice and remains dependant upon the whims of those hands’ owner: does the photographer stand or crouch?

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The homogenisation of Western culture has been so insidious in its multiplication that one struggles to attribute any one particular starting point to it. Certainly, it has become more noticeable since access to the internet, and yet more acutely its associated virtual cellular structure, became a global entitlement. The dominant economic patois of affected American doggerel has never, since the Second World War, loosened its grip on the remaining Anglosphere. On the contrary, we have collectively become increasingly enchanted by the two extremes of North American lexical orthodoxy: to wit, the disaffected dismissiveness of Generation X, and the hyperbolic enthusiasm of Disney-regulated plasticity. These two ends of an economic spectrum are doubtlessly also tied geographically – The West Coast, most typically associated with the American Dream, promotes the latter, whilst those areas hit by economic struggles (Michigan still being the primary exemplar of American civilisation in decline in the minds of Europeans) inspire the former. This gross generalistion notwithstanding, it barely scratches the surface of psychoanalysis to suggest that this is no accident. The myth of the city as archetype, and the illusion of genius loci are no more than the consensual assemblage of memory and fantasy, a virtual engine which powers an ideological zeitgeist machine of sorts, and this machine is constantly leaking non-standardised dialectical argot which Europe has long been (bafflingly) enchanted by. European Contemporary Art still heroically stands, here and there, against this inexorable tide of semantic slovenliness and does so with a clinical aloofness which has nothing to do with what might be called “pedantry.” I am here thinking of the kind of minimalist, precise sculptural works associated with the likes of Heimo Zobernig, Angela Bulloch or John McCracken – artists who, while certainly borrowing certain traits of American minimalist art, adhere more strictly to a Germanic aesthetic rather than the pop-infused work of, say, Sarah Morris. Understatement is still understood as being more intellectually keen than the peremptory vicissitudes of the great spectacle: it allows for contingent interpretations wherein lines of flight flow more rapidly, and with greater intensities.

Fresh Fruit from Rotten Vegetables (part four): Neither For Nor Against Architecture, Yet Happy to Pit Wodiczko Against Bataille

Bataille and Foucault would have it that our day-to-day existence is governed by architecture: the tomb, the prison, the government office, etc. I have previously surmised that the 21st Century is a schizophrenic age, and what could be more schizophrenic (if we accept Foucault and Bataille) than a climate in which architecture is endlessly toppled and reconstructed? In my more languorous moments, I am myself guilty of making the connection between architecture and the human body (or, at any rate, the human psyche), in which social housing is issued on the merits of reproduction and death, educational institutions mirror the structural logic of the prison block (in this, one would be churlish to argue with Foucault) and the architecture of consumption – the supermarket, the fast-food outlet or the shopping complex – mimics the human digestive system, whereby consumers pass through the architectural “body” and experience change as they do so (the change in finance; the change in ownership; a re-balancing of symbolic power during the monetary exchange). The struggle to secure social housing, for the working classes, has produced an architecture of desire – or, indeed, a Deleuzian lack (regardless of the psychoanalytic attributes of the actual architecture, endlessly cycling back to the model of the panopticon).
Even in an age of site-specificity, art is still slave to architecture, as our constantly urbanised world endlessly re-interprets the metropolis in tandem with our fluctuating relationships with it. The lambent nature of semiotics within art is such that a work may not be removed from one location to another without there necessarily being a re-evaluation of its meaning – the removal and re-location itself may actually be the element which contains said meaning. Is the present-day work of art, then, an extension of architecture or is it (logically) a removable part of the architectural body itself? If we have already imbued distinct examples of architecture with psychic properties, does it not then follow that the art – created within one such property – is created with similar properties, and when we re-locate that art are creating a rift in the structural relationship between the architecture and the art?

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When studying the relationship between architecture and art, it is difficult not to cite Venturi’s model of the Duck and the Decorated Shed and share the analogy across the two disciplines.  Some art is as it is (just as the same is true in architecture), because its form is dictated by its functional meaning.  Cinematic Art is decidedly duck because its form and meaning are both historically linked to the Platonic shadow, which retains the basic outline of the archetype without projecting the regularly-perceived reality found outside the screen’s border.  Its meaning can be re-interpreted depending on the situation of the screen or the texture of the surface on which it is projected, yet it ever retains its integral nature of duck: it remains as it is due to its functionality.  Paintings can be either duck or decorated shed, as history has repeatedly proven – they are both functional and ornamental (depending upon the painter’s intention).  Sculpture is formally the closest artistic discipline to architecture, owing obviously to its dimensions, although that too carries a history of semiotic ambiguity.

One must then question why it is easier to apply the duck analogy to Video Art than it is to the other disciplines.  One trite answer would be that it is the newest, and therefore its meaning has not been afforded the time necessary to confuse.  Video Art has yet to be commodified as a soft furnishing – one can easily imagine a projection of (fittingly) three flying ducks on a living room wall and instantly mock the notion, yet there was a time when sculpture and objet d’art would not be found anywhere other than in the palace.  Though Video Art has already proven itself to be semantically malleable: the masterful way in which Krzysztof Wodiczko transforms architecture with projection alters both the video and the structural surface.

Fete de Montréal / Partenariat Quartier Des Spectacles

Fresh Fruit from Rotten Vegetables (part three): The Tension of Kafka’s Bureaucracy

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Why is Kafka so relevant ninety-three years after his death?  Simply because his milieu was one of pure bureaucratic tension: not only did his works comment on the bureaucracy of his age, they foreshadowed the docile bureaucracy of the decades to come.  Today’s bureaucracy is so sluggish and short-sighted that it needs the smiley-faced, epigrammatic lexicon and cheery-voiced affectations of the customer-service ideology to in any way placate a society so ground-down by its ineptitude that is has come to expect the tension of confrontation.  When K attempts to gain entrance to the castle he is met with bureaucratic underlings who embody the rusted cogs deliberately put in place in any system to deter the achievement of knowledge.  For, knowledge being power and power being the ultimate capitalist commodity (even greater than time itself), it must be doled out in microscopic measure and in predetermined quantities (and the predetermining always carried out in turn by those with a slightly greater measure of [again, predetermined) of knowledge).

Kafka is referred to time and again in contemporary art, because his fictions achieved what contemporary art always strives for, which is to tabulate a social or cultural atmosphere and trim away the bureaucratic fat which obscures the fact of a thing from the view of the populace.  In order for any member of a populace to attain a greater standing or position of merit they must first use their predetermined measure of knowledge (granted [again, generally-speaking] on the basis of their social standing) and figure out a way to interpret the climate they live in with the power they are given.  Sometimes this measure of power is out-of-balance with a person’s social standing: for instance, poor communities with little educational clout produce fiercely intelligent individuals who have not the bureaucratic means with which to harness that intelligence.  Conversely, and this is more often the case [or so I have found], upper-middle class communities tend to award the dullest, most docile of its citizens with intellectual power which said individual has no way of yielding responsibly.

So, when speaking of bureaucratic tensions, the artist opens up a vast area for exploration.  And, like Kafka before him or her, has to trim away the fat put in place by the very bureaucracy they seek to expose.

Fresh Fruit from Rotten Vegetables (part two)

The word tension is probably old-hat these days (for, as Mr Virilio would no doubt point out, once a concept or term has been applied to any discipline it is already old-hat, ready for supersession).  But tension is without doubt the cultural vernacular of the Twenty-First Century: our Western, capitalist existence is based on myriad tensions, all applying pressure upon one another.  We have bureaucratic tensions (which are particularly relevant to me at the moment, and govern all of our daily lives), dialectical tensions (created when cultures, beliefs or political leanings co-exist) and – perhaps the greatest tension of all – the tension created when a sublimely fascist government manipulates a society into fighting amongst itself for individual endurance.

When dealing with dialectical tensions the burden is at once upon the artist to identify which dialectical oppositions are in conflict (or, as is often the case, should be made to be in conflict).  Heraclitus postulated that nature and society were a unity of opposites (one relying on the other to exist), but since Heraclitus’ day society has fragmented and re-unified itself so many times that it has created new dialectical unities (patois being an obvious example).  Nature, in the meantime, has carried on regardless, thus giving the lie to the old Greek.  Certainly, using Heraclitus in this manner is to simplify matters to a stultifying degree, and it is the critical theorist’s job to join the dots between the ancient Greeks and what remains of our post-Postructuralist reasoning, not the artist’s.  But finding these tensions (wherever these tensions are elusive enough to require any efforted search) is one of the first tasks when creating work in an environment which thrives on these dialectics.  Most artists – if I am being general – use material tensions to convey the dialectical tensions found in everyday life: steel, plaster, MDF, glass…these are all materials which have their tensions, and the most obvious way of reflecting these tensions is to manipulate said materials.  Find their weak spots, identify the precise area where they are most likely to buckle, etc.  For somebody who largely eschews the usage of materials (although there have been occasions when they have been incredibly useful), these tensions must be found dialectically.

Hence the artist as cultural renovator, manipulator or (and I have long preferred this term) magpie.  What shines in a pre-existing cultural climate must be made to stand in opposition with other things in either the same or a separate cultural climate (whether they be shiny or otherwise): only then do we find the inherent meanings, encoding and – worryingly enough – discriminations, perspicacities and intellectual failings (or, similarly, triumphs) in a given society.

Decalcomania: Rhizomatic Analogy of the Art Object and its Simulacra – Where is the Precious Essence?

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There are two instances within this essay of previous journal entries being spliced into the main body of text. This works on two levels: the first level is the most logical, in that two short passages lay dormant in relatively spurious pieces of writing, and as an author I decided that they would be put to better use to illustrate similar points herein. The second reason is more abstruse, and perhaps illustrates those aforesaid points to a greater degree. Does the removal of these paragraphs and their subsequent transplanting onto these pages take anything away from their original essence, or are they given greater weight in the context of a lengthier (and by implication, more profound) text? The free play of signs and signifiers (so says Jacques Derrida [1]) would have it that those words were never rigidly fixed into those journal entries to begin with, and were merely a perceived element of my own construction. Yet what is a similar thing happens to works of art?
Decalcomania is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as the process of transferring designs from prepared paper on to glass or porcelain. Without referring directly to the materiality explicit within the definition, Deleuze and Guattari – in their seminal work A Thousand Plateaus (2) – employ decalcomania to illustrate the rhizomatic process of creating maps rather than tracings. Here the map is the origin and centre of thought, whereas the tracing is the regressive tendency of ascribing hierarchical signifiance to arborescent thought, or to suggest that the map is, in the first place, fixed and unable to be altered in any way (with further implications that the map is the word of “God” [we may infer “God” in this context to refer to any form of higher spirituality or metaphysical other] and thus final). The distinction between arborescent and rhizomatic thought is key to an understanding of Deleuze and Guattaris’ philosophical viewpoint, and holistically of poststructuralist theory in general: arborescent plants are hierarchical and operate in a linear, binary and above all vertical manner, placing earlier strata of the root as original and containing greater value. In this way, one can trace Western thought retrospectively through to Plato, and work forwards from there. Deleuze and Guattari suggest the rhizome as a more truthful representation of thought, whereby roots operate in multiplicities, connecting thoughts non-hierarchically and operating within what they call the plane of consistency.
In Naruto, Japan the Ōtsuka Museum of Art has, since 1998, had on display nothing except ceramic reproductions of notable artworks from history. These works are created by firing photographic images onto flat ceramics, and the idea for this is ostensibly (and superficially) one of preservation: keep the art alive for as long as humanly possible by exhibiting its replica. This exemplifies perfectly the tracing as fixed arborescent obeisance to an established academic orthodoxy, and accepts unquestioningly the judgements of historical criticism. However, in contrast to conventional etiquette, visitors are actively encouraged to touch the works on display regardless of the fundamental truth that there is, in fact, nothing to touch – all that is reproduced is a two-dimensional photographic image and even sculptural works are reduced to these two dimensions. One could just as well enter “art history” into Google Images and project the results upon the gallery wall, such is the complete lack of substance for the visitor to actually interact with. These facsimiles also unwittingly work towards destroying the essence and vitality of the original: the more we rely on the reproduction as our primary communication with an artist’s intention, the more we allow that original intention (as most effectively contained within an original work) to fade from existence. This process, while ostensibly done in the name of preservation, actually preserves nothing, and merely allows us the privilege of choosing to erode the original art piece – erosion from the publics’ first-hand knowledge of the work (and, ultimately, memory) versus a more physical erosion which would result from prolonged exposure to public contact.
There are echoes of Georg Simmel (1858-1918) to be found within the not-so-radical praxis of the Ōtsuka Museum, and we are reminded of his lauded essay Der Henkel (The Handle, 1911) (3), in which Simmel postulated two distinct realities for objects: that of functionality and that of aesthetics, whilst correlating the unity of the two.

The handle belongs to the enclosed unity of the vase and at the same time designates the point of entrance for a teleology that is completely external to that form. It is of the most fundamental interest that the purely formal aesthetic demands on the handle are fulfilled when these two symbolic meanings of it are brought into harmony or equilibrium. Yet this is not an example of that curious dogma which makes utility a criterion of beauty. For the point at issue is precisely that utility and beauty come to the handle as two unrelated demands–the first from the world, and the second from the total form of the vase.

Doubtless Deleuze and Guattari would perceive one reality (the aesthetic) as the tracing of the other (the functional), however in the years following their deaths – 1995 and 1992, respectively – much has changed to redefine “reality” in the first place. And in this we arrive (somewhat rhizomatically) at Baudrillard – for we cannot discuss the ramifications of simulacra or an evolving sense of “reality” without also discussing his famous “Xerox degree of culture.” (4) We need only refer to the cloisters of Saint-Michel de Cuxa and their repatriation – twice-removed from their native South West France to New York and ultimately back to their original location to understand that very little is indeed beyond this process of artificial longevity. A dismantling, relocation and reassembling of an original artefact is by no means any less of a reproduction than a direct copy. The Ōtsuka Museum of Art handles art with much the same species of binary removal: once removed, the original works are also removed from the lay consciousness, while its clone assumes the role of its analogue source. For the essence, it may well be argued, lies in the birth of the original, because only at an artwork’s inception is the semiotic unity of intention (signified), creation (signifier) and display (sign) at its purest and only then is an artist and that artist’s audience experiencing a Deleuzian rupture. The event is forever time-locked into an artist’s primary idea and a viewer’s initial encounter. After this event, the art remains as a reference for future discourse. If the sign is the art piece, the signified is the referent and the signified the meaning, there is an extra layer of meaning between Sign and Signified which takes place during artistic presentation. To wit, the meaning in Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting is not on the canvas itself, nor was it during the painting’s creation, but rather lies in its presentation as an absence. This absence is seen often throughout the Twentieth-Century in response to Wittgensteinian silence, which in itself is demonstrated in Ludwig Uhland’s Count Eberhard’s Hawthorn whereby the referent in the poem is the cutting, or sprig. The fact that the meaning of the sprig is never revealed is where Wittgenstein find’s the essence of philosophical truth. Rather than some mystical, ineffable essence, absence is, linguistically, that which has the most power in being shown rather than said.

Count Eberhard Rustle-Beard,
From Württemberg’s fair land,
On holy errand steer’d
To Palestina’s strand.

The while he slowly rode
Along a woodland way;
He cut from the hawthorn bush
A little fresh green spray.

Then in his iron helm
The little sprig he plac’d;
And bore it in the wars,
And over the ocean waste.

And when he reach’d his home;
He plac’d it in the earth;
Where little leaves and buds
The gentle Spring call’d forth.

He went each year to it,
The Count so brave and true;
And overjoy’d was he
To witness how it grew.

The Count was worn with age
The sprig became a tree;
‘Neath which the old man oft
Would sit in reverie.

The branching arch so high,
Whose whisper is so bland,
Reminds him of the past
And Palestina’s strand. (5)

Contemporary art has a propensity for relying on an arborescent structure of value for individual works – a propensity which has been in decline since Duchamp, yet which still – paradoxically – ascribes immense importance to the Duchampian method: a method which itself stood for (amongst other things) the end of arborescent hierarchies of culture. Art criticism still tends to value the already-valued whilst time-locking singular cultural events (or, to use a term favoured by Deleuze and Guattari, ruptures) in reverence to art historical (or arborescent) hierarchies, yet human endeavour constantly proves that the creative process exists far outside of such rigid temporality. On any given day, the human mind is subject to incalculable heterogeneous abstractions which superficially bear no relation to one another other than their chronological linearity – or the oft-cited stream of consciousness, that convenient one-size-fits-all coat with which lazy commentators have dressed such diverse literary figures as Beckett, Burroughs, Thompson, Joyce and Proust. Terms such as stream of consciousness exist to categorise that which has no formal category (other than, in this instance, that of literature), and visual artists are no more immune to such taxonomies. It is far too convenient to brand Thomas Hirschhorn a “Relational Aesthetician,” or Rauschenberg a “Pop Artist” when those are two synthetic terms created critically and applied arbitrarily. Rauschenberg could be equally as conceptual as any of his contemporaries in the ‘sixties, and in many ways Hirschhorn would have flourished during Fluxus or the Situationists. The only “real” reason why Pop Art was Pop Art is that there were critics present to record it. There is always more going on than critical terminology allows for – indeed, one of the primary questions an artist must ask of his or herself is whether or not their output should “nutshell” the world when the world, subject to the fundamental laws of universal entropy, will never do the same. It is not an artist’s job to present the world in its de facto state, but rather to recognise its many subliminal codifications, deconstruct said codifications and re-present all of this via strategies of different codifications peculiar to an artist’s peculiar specifications.

Certainly, the strategies available to an artist differ all the time, and often in tiny, incremental ways, and thus the artist must surrender to the multiplicity, or the plane of consistency. One can easily cite such an artist as John M Armleder as a primary exemplar of a body of work becoming one with the plane of consistency: ever-elusive of the Modernist propensity for material invention and suspicious of the Postmodernist tendency towards aping the past, Armleder has time and again fused the aesthetic with the utilitarian in his Furniture Sculptures. Initially associated with the Fluxus movement in the late 1960’s, the Geneva-born artist went on to found the Groupe Ecart in 1969 and has, for nearly five decades, produced an evolutionary body of work which makes little-to-no distinction between Art and life. Armleder has variously selected inspirational sources from what he calls “a supermarket of forms,” a term which we can infer to mean a world of constantly-replenished objects, new or outmoded commodities and a semantic slippage of quotidian vernacular.
Thus we have Armleder and The Groupe Ecart on the one hand, offering us the notion that there is virtually nothing to separate the art object from the utilitarian, while on the other hand The Ōtsuka Museum of Art has homogenised the art object, converting it into a simple referent. If Armleder’s marriage of the quotidian to the essential yet retains trace elements of recherché (and one has good cause to argue that this is the case, and more besides), then the Ōtsuka has dredged history of its cultural precious essences, drained its artefacts of their rarity and left nothing but the dried husks picked clean by centuries of critical orthodoxy. The essence, then, can be said to lie within the encounter: an encounter which, owing to that aforesaid Xerox degree of culture, has within the walls of the Ōtsuka, become retrospective, regressive and redundant.
Bereft of its essence (and therefore its life), let us linger on the mortal analogy and imagine a mortuary. This mortuary is arrayed with metal drawers containing bodies: a few drawers are open. If we look at the corpses prostrate in these drawers, we begin to recognise them – there is Baudrillard, whose drawer is adjacent to another containing a perfect replica of Baudrillard. Barthes is on the left and one shelf down, holding a photograph of himself in his present state, whilst Wittgenstein has a ghostly speech bubble protruding from his mouth (the speech bubble is blank). This is how art critics would perceive this morgue, whilst the linguist would see something different (for example, Wittgenstein would have a children’s game of language with him in the drawer, whilst Barthes would be accompanied by a television set broadcasting nothing but advertisements). If a thing is perceived correctly in a certain context by an individual working within that context, is that essence not then of equal value to the perceptions of another viewer considering the same object from another? If a Duchampian shovel can be removed from the context of the gardener and transplanted into a more academic field of semiotics (in that instance, the art gallery), cannot then an art object be appreciated with as much merit in a garden for its ornamental or utilitarian ends? Critical Theory offers us various vantage points from which to consider, not only aesthetics, but the essence of the art object – that often-elusive substance which imbues an artist’s wares with perceived value. If Contemporary Art ever hopes to rid itself of its Promethean bondage and exist with any value in a world outside of its own, then artists and critics alike must ever – like John M Armleder – strive to operate lines of flight (a further term coined by Deleuze and Guattari which refers to a disregard of disciplinary applications and cut through any and all barriers which segregate thought in order to fully appreciate its essence).
We are arguably living in an age in which Derrida’s free play of signs and signifiers is the cultural currency. Few are the objects which remain fixed to a semantic field, yet a lack of semiotic boundaries and demarcations within society and culture themselves, do we not now have to begin to question the old, Modernist notions of value within Contemporary Art? Lines of flight flow through all that we behold and touch and, as the Ōtsuka Museum has shown us, nothing is ever around to touch forever.

 

References

  1. Derrida, J. and Bass, A. (2001) Writing and difference. London: Taylor & Francis.
  2. Deleuze, G., Guattari, F. and Massumi, B. (2013) A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.
  3. Simmel, G. (1958) Two essays. The Hudson Review, 11(3), p. 371. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/3848614.
  4. Baudrillard, J. (2005) The conspiracy of art: Manifestos, texts, interviews (Semiotext(e) / foreign agents). New York: Semiotexte/Smart Art.
  5. Uhland, L., Platt, A. and Ludwig, P. (2010) The poems. United States: Nabu Press.