I want to know what this word means. The past couple days I’ve encountered it as a problem over and over again, taking a different form each time.
The first was at a screening of John Gianvito’s The profit motive and the whispering wind, taking Zach‘s advice. Short reviews here and here. It demonstrated to me how unaccustomed I am to the visual language of cinema that doesn’t compensate for its low budget with other kinds of excess (gore and sex), i.e. the better part of ‘experimental’ films. Even as I was trying to adjust to the way the images looked and felt, their content, the graves of American socialist and progressive heroes and sites of violent struggle, many of which wear their absence from the cultural memory in the form of overgrowth or intentional concealment, would not allow me to look away. How could I, after having done so for so long? Good interviews here and here, where Gianvito discusses his decision not to include any information about the sites or the people referenced within the film, that doing so would have given the illusion of mastery over the material (in the manner of something like the History Channel or PBS), and stalled reflection on why general knowledge about these events and people is so spotty. This is didacticism as a confrontation with ignorance as opposed to the false sense of its defeat.
Its effect is different from the ‘hauntological,’ especially in the most recent adventures in electronic music, in that the interruptions of the past and future into the present are not mystified. When the film displays a site in apparent non-relation to its very different contemporary surroundings — fast food restaurants and highways, in the case of the Boston Massacre an unmarked street corner — the specificity of names and dates displayed by intertitles or by the physical markers prompts us to reconstruct that connection, not to dwell on its absence. Zach’s comparison with Terence Malick is appropriate: both summon a certain kind of romanticism with regard to nature and history, unafraid of beauty (Gianvito’s work won me over eventually), and though too intelligent for nostalgia, both resist categorical distinctions between nature, history, and aesthetics. Gianvito is able to achieve similar effects to Malick (and Tarkovsky, whom he has scholarly interest in) while eschewing the ‘excesses’ of fiction or expensive cinematography. Unlike Malick he is not a mythmaker, and so is both more and less direct in addressing his audience.
For exhibit B, an art show named “After Nature” after the poem “Nach der Natur” by W.G. Sebald, an increasingly admired writer whose work I am unfamiliar with, except for the poem, which is (like Gianvito’s film) full of historical references I’m also unfamiliar with. Here’s a short section, translated from German (and virtually annotated):
On the Basel Crucifixion of 1505
behind the group of mourners
a landscape reaches so far into the depth
that our eyes cannot see its limits.
A patch of brown scorched earth
whose contour like the head of a whale
or an open-mouthed leviathan
devours the pale green meadow plains,
and the marshily shining stretches
of water. Above it, pushed off to behind the horizon, which step by step grows darker, more glowering,
rise the hills of the prehistory of the Passion. We see the gate
of the Garden of Gesthemane, the approach
of the henchmen and the kneeling figure of Christ
so reduced in size that in the
receding space the rushing
away of time can be sensed.
Most probably Gruenewald painted
and recalled the catastrophic incursion
of darkness, the last trace of light
flickering from beyond, after nature,
for in the year 1502, when he was working
at Bindlach, below the Fichtelgebirge,
on the creation of the Lindenhardt altar,
on the first of October the moon’s shadow
slid over Eastern Europe from Mecklenburg
over Bohemia and the Lausitz to southern Poland,
and Gruenewald, who repeatedly was in touch
with the Aschaffen Court Astrologer Johann Indagine,
will have travelled to see this event of the century,
awaited with great terror, the eclipse of the sun,
so will have become a witness to
the secret sickening away of the world,
in which a phantasmal encroachment of dusk
in the midst of daytime like a fainting fit
poured through the vault of the sky,
while over the banks of mist and the cold
heavy blues of the clouds
a fiery red arose, and colours
such as his eyes had not known
radiantly wandered about, never again to be
driven out of the painter’s memory.
A good portion of the art in the show seemed to unfold the darker and more morbid currents of the poem out into flat, confrontational snark. Confusion, I think, has a tendency to fall back on sensation. The environmental clusterfuck and the revolution in infrastructure and basic ways of thinking that will be necessary to adequately confront it are rich in interpretive possibilities, as productive of fantasy as the constant holocaust of industrial society’s development and expansion. So it would make sense that most such fantasies would be uninterested in moving beyond their very interesting moment — instead meditating on its possible components, or compiling its imaginary genealogies. Apocalypse, therefore, was all over everything.
Has life without fire become unbearable for them?
After Sebald, Werner Herzog was the show’s elder statesman. The still is from the oil-drilling documentary (with an opera soundtrack) Lessons of Darkness. The New Yorker review notices this:
Something is happening in artists’ studios: a shift of emphasis, from surface to depth, and a shift of mood, from mania to melancholy, shrugging off the allures of the money-hypnotized market and the spectacle-bedizened biennials circuit. (In fact, the underappreciated recent Whitney Biennial hinted at the mutation.) It’s a fashion auditioning as a sea change.
You suspect that a big change is coming when sensitive young people project (and, because they’re young, enjoy) feelings of being old. This has often signalled a backward crouch preceding a forward leap.
Trying on the clothes of rebels, manic prophets, or admen gives way to trying on those of elders in mourning. Competing for the privilege of manifesting “durable truths” that the institutional art market, having been ‘running on empty’ for quite a while now, so desperately needs to sustain its credibility and self-respect. But the private fantasies it puts on display have even less capacity to make anyone care about anything than they did eight years ago, when it was still cool to glory in superficiality. The best of the art on display was still only ‘interesting,’ like this piece by Roberto Cuoghi, part of a sequence of fanciful maps of the axis of evil:
It seems to me that what’s missing is a sense of shared collective energy, something more than just a vague ‘zeitgeist’ culled from reading the same articles on middle eastern wars, fuel resource depletion, and global warming. I have a hard time seeing how that could ever happen in the mortuary space cultivated by museums and high-end galleries in their efforts to capture the image of a masterpiece.
More than anything else, cultural institutions crave legitimacy in a crisis. To be reassured that we still believe in their ability to tell us what’s important.
Exhibit C, a conversation on architecture:
The hype machine will not let up even for one tiny little second. An unscripted dialogical performance between two aging head honchos of a field is an ‘event’ worthy of this exaggerated self-importance that no one takes seriously, but everyone still seems to feel obligated to participate in.
The theme was performance, which in architectural parlance refers to the field’s digital revolution, with design programs such as AutoCAD replacing traditional drafting, initiating the explosion of new forms with no relation to anything outside algorithmic variation — some of which could never be actually constructed even if they were somehow granted permission. Eisenman complained of the lack of accepted criteria for ordering a proliferation of forms whose only law seems to be “infinite variability.” Wigley agreed with a few reservations about the language (which is apparently a first for them). As for why this is the case, they eventually concluded that architectural education and production is still very “conservative,” with a rhetoric still based on cultivating individual genius and a practice still rooted in the medieval guild model of each school training students according to a narrow range of institutionally accepted formal principles. According to Eisenman, without an adequate theory to structure the potential of the new technology, the products of the latest generation of architects are little more than “toys”: “Where we are with architecture is really still at the level of the sandbox.” There was some back and forth about the potential for inter-firm collaboration and open-sourcing of formal strategies, and then everything devolved into arguments with the audience for and against the need for theory.
Hearing architects talk is like re-reading Theory articles from the ’80s, with Derrideans and Deleuzians and post-Marxist Foucaultians throwing their overly sophisticated discourses at each other, except the same arguments are happening amongst literary theorists now in the language of ‘political theology.’ The political theologists have mostly ignored technology for Hobbes, Schmitt, and Augustine, and like ’80s Theorists, architects are still wound up about technology, whether it represents order or chaos. Still, the guiding questions seem to be the same: do we need theory, what is theory good for — the word ‘theory’ serving as a vehicle for equating metaphysics, authority, law, order, religion, with ‘genius’ as its honored, structurally mandated exception. Wigley saying, self-critically of course, something like “architecture provides the illusion of certainty in the face of uncertainty.” Is the overthrow of the Power of the Institution an Apocalypse? Is Apocalypse Necessary? Is it Good?
I see intellectuals from the baby boom still dominating the direction of argument, and my generation still following dutifully along with their regression into some kind of bizarre guilt complex for having rejected the illusions of the 1950s, its ideological marriage of authority, comfort and the assumption of plenty. If with the latest set of challenges to industrial capitalist hegemony we are forced to encounter old limits anew, they are not going to fit into the categories once used to contain them, as if they were the only ways anyone has ever knew how to think (as if they were thought itself), the power discourse of yesteryear serving today as a kind of pathetic security blanket.