Sunday, October 25, 2009
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Monday, August 31, 2009
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Saturday, August 29, 2009
How are we to inhabit
This space from which the fourth wall is invariably missing,
As in a stage-set or dollhouse, except by staying as we are,
In lost profile, facing the stars, with dozens of as yet
Unrealized projects, and a strict sense
Of time running out, of evening presenting
The tactfully folded-over bill?
-John Ashbery, (1977)
Monday, August 24, 2009
In A Desert In A Large Bunker Covered With Snow
- Liam Gillick -
Gabriel Tarde suffered from intermittent periods of semi-blindness, an extreme form of myopia that may have severely affected his academic legacy yet may well have led to the most potent theme of a neglected yet important work. This nineteenth-century French sociologist, who worked on the notions of the inventive in relation to the imitative, immediately preceded Henri Bergson as the head of modern philosophy at the Collège de France. Tarde wrote one piece of published fiction. The original French version, Fragment d’histoire future, was written in 1896, eight years before his death, at which point the much more celebrated and referenced Bergson took over his chair. That same year, Fragment d’histoire futurewas translated into English by Cloudsley Brereton, an inspector of schools who also contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and translated Bergson’s essay “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic,” among many other texts, essays and books.
As was the Anglophone habit at the time, hardly modified by the Hollywood practices of the present, it was deemed necessary to transform Tarde’s original title into something a little more exciting. So Fragment d’histoire future was published as Underground Man in English in 1905, with an introduction by H. G. Wells as both a tribute to a fellow science-fictionist and a selling point for the English version. At the time, Wells had already published his most famous books: The Time Machine(1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The War of the Worlds (1898), among others. His introduction to Underground Man marvels at the light-footed hubris of an academic entering the world of science fiction with a text that both enlightens us about a potential future and plays complex games with the place of the sociologist within intellectual culture. Wells accompanies this with a degree of patronizing respect for a notion of a complex culture that can multiply and erase itself simultaneously in terms of signifiers, potentials and narrative:
He [Tarde] rejects the proposition that ‘society consists in an exchange of services’ with the confidence of a man who has thought it finely out. He gives out clearly what so many of us are beginning dimly perhaps to apprehend, that ‘society consists in the exchange of reflections.’ 1
Underground Man takes catastrophic climate change as its starting point. The sun is dying although we are never told why—it just is—and the resulting drop in temperature drives everyone from European cities towards the Sahara and Middle East. (America is rarely referred to, but we can assume that the entire population of that continent is wiped out.) The timing of the disaster is unfortunate as it is explained that society has reached a certain heightened level, and a particular understanding between people has developed leading to a neo-Hellenic culture of sophistication and seriousness. This development is partly explained through a brief digression on the complexities of war in the future where only the weakest and most stupid people are sent to fight as the government relies primarily on technology, hence saving the “best” people to contribute to society’s progression.
These technological wars result in the unification of the planet under a neo-Hellenic system of both language and philosophy, yet there is an implication that a loss of intuitive people has resulted in an indulgent and self-referential political system. In the years leading up to the climatic disaster, society has gone through a number of dynamic changes in governmental technique. A wonderful new city in Iraq had been built where primacy is rotated between various models of government—from technocratic through bureaucratic to charismatic—including varied experiments in valuing the most creative people over the most practical, and accepting and rejecting a number of relativistic systems in quick succession.
It is at this notional peak of imploded yet heavily tested political democracy, expressed through the occupation of Iraq, that the sun starts to falter. The capital city is gradually abandoned. A wonderful metropolis built of marble on the ruins of Babylon hosts the last days of sophisticated modern political hubris in a complex and self-regarding way. While some doubt the rapidity of the sun’s demise and insist that it is merely waning, before long the rump of humanity is reduced to living in a large concrete bunker surrounded by enormous furnaces in order to stay alive. Food is scarce. While the bunker contains the elegant and educated remnants of society, the group grows weak and loses the will to continue.
It is at this point that the last people on earth are joined by a single individual—a man who has somehow defied the extremes of the surface climate up to this point. He is a throwback: a man who fought wars and punched people in moments of fury. He even carries a scar on his cheek—a mark of past values long denied and covered up by the civilized world. The complexities and contradictions of the culture immediately preceding life in the bunker tended to suppress and critique such behavior and appearance as antisocial while continuing a brutal path in a more “efficient” and veiled way. But these very traits have apparently led to the survival of this single character, despite all the trials and tribulations he—and everyone else—has had to face. His arrival provokes some degree of unease among the survivors, for he has a plan. Standing, he makes a speech—an appeal against looking up and onwards, instead proposing to move down, underground, into a world of half-light and interiors. While he suggests that the present generation will perish without pleasure, their work will provide the basis for a new society.
The bulk of the book from this point on outlines the process of creating an architecture with no exterior: a sequence of tunnels, grottos and caves where the remnants of sophisticated society can build a life based on ideas, aesthetics and thought. Nature will be better preserved through representation alone than anything on the now frozen and petrified surface of the earth. While every spring there are rumblings of dissent that lead some to venture and perish on the frozen surface of the earth in search of direct engagement with “nature,” in general people are persuaded that a life below is preferable to all civilizations that came before them.
Since trees, animals, plants and insects no longer interpose themselves between people, and vulgar desires no longer hinder progress, everyone seems to be born well bred. Everyone is born a sculptor, a musician, a philosopher or a poet and speaks well with the purest accent. Balance is maintained by indescribable politeness, courtesy and charm that is never false and is aimed to please without being obsequious or fawning. It has nothing to do with social hierarchy but social harmony. It has nothing to do with the degenerate air of government or royalty but is connected to a real reflection of feelings. Its refinement is to such an extent that the people who used to live on the surface of the earth cannot even imagine it. It permeates the machinery of our complicated and delicate existence like a fragrant oil. Anti-social behavior and misanthropy cannot resist it. The charm is too profound. 2
At one point in the text, they come across an old stash of video and audio recordings. By this point, the subterranean society is extremely developed, and their art and the architecture of interior spaces has provided them with a heightened, post-simulation of the living planet. When they view the video recordings, their depression spreads as they realize that their visions have superseded and transcended the reality of life on earth:
Luckily an intellectual, looking through a forgotten corner of the archives, found an old collection of recordings and films, which had been put together by an ancient collector. Using tape players and video systems we have been able to hear all the former sounds of nature accompanied by images. Thunder, wind, mountain torrents, the murmurs that accompany dawn, the monotonous cry of the osprey and the long drawn out lament of the nightingale during the multiple whisperings of the night. The resuscitation of another age created immense astonishment, but then disillusion arose among the most passionate advocates of a return to the surface. The earth was nothing like they had believed it to be, despite the work of the most realist artists and writers. It was something infinitely less ravishing and less worthy of regret. The song of the nightingale really caused an unpleasant surprise. We were all angry because it turned out to be so inferior to its reputation. You can be sure that the worst of our concerts is more musical than this so-called symphony of nature.3
Social sciences have the upper hand in the world below. Philosophers, sociologists and anthropologists work on their theories alongside the now diminished status of theoretical physicists, chemists and biologists, who no longer proceed with practical experiments but instead speculate and elucidate theories based on masses of data that were accumulated before the global catastrophe. No longer held back by the pressure to “observe,” the subterranean scientists make a number of key breakthroughs, working theoretically rather than in an applied way:
Recently one of them has discovered a new way of steering airplanes, which is quite ironic under the circumstances. These discoveries are useless yet they are always beautiful and generate new ideas, which although superfluous, remain elegant. They are welcomed by people in an enthusiastic way. And for the inventors they offer something more than glory, which is happiness.4
This loss of political will, combined with a hubristic rush to occupy Iraq, is inextricably linked within the narrative to a reverse acknowledgement of the importance of aesthetic work that is only forced home in the face of global catastrophe. While Tarde cannot be accused of consistent or elegant prose to match the subtlety of some of his sociological observations, his prescience, based on an ironically myopic lucidity, neatly conflates things into a troubling record of a future present that is parallel to our own.
1. H. G. Wells, Introduction to Underground Man by Gabriel Tarde (1904); translated by Cloudsley Brereton (1905).
2. Gabriel Tarde, Underground Man (1904); translated by Cloudsley Brereton (1905).
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Monday, August 3, 2009
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Saturday, August 1, 2009
Friday, July 31, 2009
Sophie Calle: Suite Vénitienne
For months I followed strangers on the street. For the pleasure of following them, not because they particularly interested me. I photographed them without their knowledge, took note of their movements, then finally lost sight of them and forgot them.
At the end of January 1980, on the streets of Paris, I followed a man whom I lost sight of a few minutes later in a crowd. That very evening, quite by chance, he was introduced to me at an opening. During the course of our conversation, he told me he was planning an imminent trip to Venice.
The Craving for simplicity.