“Some said, “It is he.” Others said, “No, but he is like him.”
Sarah E. James, writing of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s monumental decades long project of photographing industrial buildings, all of them abandoned and all of them presented in serialized sets, creating an industrial typology, has said: “There is no narrative”. She suggests the structures are aestheticized and rendered as functionalist sculptures. Now, this is an understandable statement in a sense, because so little importance is placed on what constitutes a narrative, on understanding how narrative works. Micheal Fried has written of the Becher’s, too. Fried is always interesting, and in the Bechers he sees an ontological status to the serialized images vis a vis their differences and similarities. Now this could be said of any serialized project, of course. And Fried gets on with some nonsense about Hegel, but then he writes that the objects the Bechers photograph make intuitable the conditions of their intelligibility. And this is correct. It gives these building specificity. And the specificity is achieved only because of the typologizing. The serializing always re-focuses the specific. And it is in this refocusing that the narrative takes place. For these industrial buildings, water towers and grain elevators, and coal bunkers are never abstract. This is the paradoxical dialectic of great portraits, and these are portraits.
Now Sarah E.James later brings in Adorno, and this is very useful, and also raises questions of mimesis again. The Bechers began their project duing the de-politicized (or the pretended non ideological) Adenauer period in West Germany (which also produced a generation of terrific German filmmaking, e.g. Fassbinder, Syberberg, Schlöndorff, Wenders…though I will return to this, and that older generation returning from the US; Gerd Oswald, Siodmak, and even Lang. The Oberhausen Manifesto, which formalized the aesthetic principles of these filmmakers was written in 1962. Adenauer left office in ’63). The Bechers believed in an ideal of anti ideology. Which is, naturally, ideological itself. As Adorno said (and James quotes), after catastrophe “art takes on an ideological aspect by its mere existence’. What is significant here, or what I want to argue, is that what the Becher’s actually removed, via their attempt at removing subjectivity and ideology, was just sentimentality and kitsch politics. For what is left is certainly connected to identity, and because it is not manipulative, and not ironic, it achieves something resembling philosophy, and Utopia.
Adorno believed in the autonomous for art, that as modernism faded or declined, and in the ashes of WW2, of Hiroshima and the Nazi death camps, that the autonomous was an agony, was deformed by the hyper instrumental thinking and logic of Western Capital, of the Enlightenment and science. What the Bechers did, from the start of their project, was to make material and specific their aesthetic, to formalize an aesthetic of stark unblinking stares. This was interrogation, was the police turning their table lamp around so the light was directly in your face. The lasting resonance of the Becher oeuvre is their resistance to documentary conceits. For within the idea of the documentary, or of documentation in culture, is the idea of Hegelian progress, of linear and/or continuous evolution of aesthetics and thought, and even of perception.
There is something interesting in traces that go back to the influence of The New German Cinema, however one wants to define that. But the from Oberhausen Manifesto onward, the films coming out of West Germany have taken on greater resonance than earlier critiques articulated. And in one way, its probably good to seperate Fassbinder from the rest because, well, Fassbinder is a bit like talking about DaVinci and the Renaissance. Fassbinder exceeds all context. But those films from Germany feel a good deal like the Becher’s photographs. The sense of restraint and emotional hardness, gives them a quality and scope that other New Wave movements lacked.
But I dont want to do an exhaustive think on Fassbinder, but more to relate him to both what is going on in the Bechers, and more, the growing sense of blindness I feel in contemporary American culture, in contemporary American daily life.
This is a trained blindness, and when I use the word blindness, its only half metaphor or symbol. With all normal emotions now pathologized, especially among the young, the solution lies in the opinion of scientific experts. The role of these experts; social workers or medical personel, is to find a containment solution. The first line of containment is, of course, prison. The second line, for those in not at the very bottom of the economic ladder, is psychiatric meds. Empathy is turned into a form of weakness, an obstacle to career and success. My friend Molly Klein put it this way:“Dominant class and their clerks have a tendency to pathologize socially valued affects (grief becomes ‘depression”) and vice versa (ruthless greed and callousness or sadism become ambiition and self worth).” There is a need, whether consciously planned or not, for the creation of context. This context is the homogenizing of vision. Everything begins to look, and often does look, like everything else. The mass media and culture industry promotes this by a presentation of narrative that blurs distinctions. Comedy film and TV move along at rhythm very like the rhythm of thrillers or sentimental drama. The other part of the manufactured context is to present the underclass as without any ability to self regulate. The term “jungle” is trotted out a lot, but if that word isn’t used, that is the idea behind most police drama or military/espionage narrative. Domestically its the urban underclass (black and latino) or increasingly in the new rural noir, the Appalachian or Rust Belt poor white trash. Internationally, it is the creation of a new Orientalism; starting of course with Islam, but extending to black Africa and to most of Asia. The public, meaning, really, the educated 20%, majority white, are fed a constant narrative of overcoming obstacles as the key to success. The very rich of course almost never had to overcome anything. But the narrative obstacles most often take the form of the poor. Increasingly, the poor are depicted as a Zombie horde, a violent and irrational underclass that needs direction and paternalistic guidance. But really, the deeper layer of meaning is,’dont bother with guidance, just dispose of them’. This is a new cynicism that has defined compassion as lack of ambition. Compassion is “wasting time”. In one sense it is the logical end state of instrumental thinking. Good money after bad. Those dumb ass poor just cant get it together. Wouldnt get out of the way of the Hurricane. The news features stories of babies in dumpsters, of rape and insanity. Even of cannibalism.
There is a confluence of discouraging compassion and valorizing competence. But competence usually is expressed as compliance. There is something, though, in the selling of these lurid (usually sexualized) tales of fear, and tales of obedience, that requires a training in how not to look. I suspect some of this connects to the constant fuzzy low resolution screen images of CCTV footage or cell phone video. The world ‘out there’ is always grainy and blurred. The underclass live in a low resolution world of limited pixels.
Ambition is a complex idea in the America of 2014. For this is society inching ever closer to feudalism, and ambition must be directed, and contains within it a certain ambivilance. Ambition is fine as a general idea, but less fine if individual. For the ownership class always preaches the virtues of sacrifice, and mainstream narratives often include working class sacrifice. It is attached to one of the more pernicious ideas the psych industry ever came up with, and that is “closure”. Closure means additional killing. This is one of those abstractions that literally has no meaning. What is being closed? Grief somehow is shut down? Because grief doesn’t work that way.
Closure is foreclsure in a sense. Experts aid in closure. The grieving individual certainly wouldn’t arrive at this idea by themselves. Whenever I have heard anyone actually use this word in front of me (and outside of mainstream commodity narrative almost nobody does use it) I have always been a slightly surprised, if not bewildered. “Closure?” This is simply a manufactured designation that allows people to get back to work. Someone murders your wife….like, say, a cop, and then that cop is….well, ok, this is a fantasy, but that cop is then executed (has any policeman ever been put to death in the US?). Do you feel closure? What DO you feel? A shudder of vengeful satisfaction perhaps, which is a very shallow emotion. More grief, probably. Defeat, sadness, melancholy. Futility. I don’t know.
But back to blindess, to the stare of the dead. One of the reasons that the Bechers work retains a quality of profundity is that the viewer cannot generalize the object. For exactly because of its typology, it refuses generalization. But it is more than that; the object is cleansed of judgement. What Hilla Becher has said, that they wanted to eliminate the documentary quality. For the documentary is open to an abusive subjectivity. The very best documentary filmmakers are always priests of their craft, there seems to be an almost Quaker like austerity to their process. The Bechers stare at their object. They are clinically preserving laboritory slides, but not for any purpose beyond the aesthetic. For this raises that issue of artistic pedagogy, or rather the pedagogy of the artwork. There is no such causation, art doesnt make people behave better, or at least not directly. The endless photo essays of genocide or mass violence, shown in the safe distant confines of a gallery or museum, will tend to be little more than voyeurism. One can find similar models of ersatz sympathy in journalism today. But that is a whole other topic…so staying on message, as the White House Press Secretary always reminds us, the power of photographers such as the Bechers is to become both priest and scientist, and to withdraw from false emotion the better to discover to where genuine human feeling has gone.
Art also implies, at its best, something of the collective, or common. I feel there is a crude model that suggests some division between seeing and doing, as if the engagement with an artwork is defacto passive. I’m not sure this is correct at all. This is why almost all “art activism” fails. As Ranciere says; “…if there is a politics of aesthetics, it lies in the practices and modes of visibility of an art that re-configure the fabric of sensory experience.” There are a host of issues surrounding all this, but thats not really the point of this posting, and is too complex to give a shorthand explication. Instead I want to return to the way in which image and vision are arranged to define class qualities and the way propaganda has enclosed discourse, and by extension the very way that vision has been affected.
The sense of missing people looms throughout the Bechers work. But it is a theme instinctivly found in much art of the last two hundred years. Isolation, or estrangement, or simply absence. The clarity in the work of the Bechers, and in their students such as Gursky and Hofer and Struth, suggests something that ruptures the insistance on the blurred life of the underclass, and the, at least, blurred indefinite and indistinct inner life of the bourgeoise. In film, the constant repetition of hand held camera (or steady cam) shots creates an artifical urgency, but also makes hazy the sense of location. Isolation is always distinct. What is missing is always, I think, in perfect focus.
For the culture industry is doing the opposite. In Speilberg or Zemakis, or Aronofsky (now referred to as sort of the new avant garde by Empire’s minions such as Jerry Stahl in a recent interview) the false creation of community, generalized but narrated as if specific, is the trademark effect. You arent really alone. I have noted recently how often 12 step meetings appear in pop culture product. Embrace your defect, its a sign of progress (and indeed I know people that this program helped…I guess). In a country with over two million in prison, the majority for non violent drug offenses, there is a strange dynamic in play. The culture of therapy asks that you admit your illness. I am an addict. Then they stigmatize you for being ill. But this idea of describing alcoholism or addiction as an illness is insidious I think. What is it, if it’s not an illness? The question of drugs seductive pleasures is a great threat to social order. Also, the notion of that all drug taking is really self medication has been tossed into the dustbin of history. Why? Because legal prescription medicating is part of the system of domination, of mediating daily life, of creating a functioning obedient work force.
The artifical community, created by the culture industry, is most often expressed in the new fantasy workplace. Probably the single most popular presentation of workplace comraderie is in the multitudinous versions of the CIA or FBI or local police headquarters. One would think working at the CIA was just the most fun fucking job in the world. Long distance surveillance, drone strikes on icky brown people, and hot lady agents in high heels. It is the perfect white male fantasy; well, rich white male fantasy. But it is more than that, it is the creation of a paradigm. There is no police or law enforcement agency in the world with a pleasant work space. None. Hot size 6 lady agents dont stroll around with hunky boy toy male agents, and not everyone is hyper skilled in hand to hand combat, nor do they have IQs in the 150 range. But like Wolf of Wall Street, this is the ruling class ideal. And the secondary trope buried within these faux CIA offices (or secret agencies within agencies…which is thee favorite Hollywood plot device right now) is the racism and class contempt of the ownership class, which sees danger in all third world countries, and those domestic thrid world countries such as Detroit, Oakland, or Harlen County Ky.
The culture industry today deals only in abstractions and generalizations. Where Brecht once could relate Nazi leaders to cauliflower sellers, or where Fassbinder saw the scapegoating mechanism of Capitalist society in the sexual power dynamics of rough trade hustlers, where fascist asethetic morbidity was the specific topic of Pasolini, or for that matter Robert Walser, and dozens more, these were re-coordinating the perceptual markers, re-alligning the experience one has of daily life, or even in the seemingly non political art of someone like Melville, and all the way back to Cervantes. As Jameson says; “..the novel plays a significant role in what can be called a properly bourgeois cultural revolution– that immense process of transformation whereby populations whose life habits were formed by other, now archaic, modes of production are effectively reprogrammed for life and work in the new world market of capitalism.” And then adding that the role of the narrative is in producing the ‘referent’, a quantifiable space of extension, of disenchantment, which is the commodity system and its perceptual rhythms, and all this will be established as ‘realistic’.
There is (and Jameson notes it) an important topic in this, the tension between the political aesthetic, and individual psychic histories. As Lacan emphasized, the “constitution of the subject”, that de-centering of the ego, is a useful approach to understanding how the mimetic is engaged by the artwork, and killed in its sleep (as it were) by state propaganda or The Spectacle…Hollywood film and TV largely.
The manufacture of a landscape in which the underclass is seen only in the most opaque way, is linked to the symbols embedded in that underclass, such as Zombie affect and pestilence, inability to self regulate. And management is a highly valorized attribute today. The inner city is hyper violent, and there is a cynical stance toward reformers of the inner city. Usually, the social worker or inner city teacher tries, but the material to work with (poor people) just always hurt themselves. They maybe dont deserve it (top text) but they fail anyway (its their nature; i.e. subtext). The artwork that expresses clarity — a visual privileging I suspect, but anyway — is work that today seems more disruptive than that which occludes in the name of self expression. There are, of course, many kinds of clarity — even many kinds of visual clarity. Barnett Newman expressed clarity. But so did Rothko, and even Pollock I think. I am not sure the overt clarity of pop art wasnt really just slightly out of focus (to strain this metaphor). But I have the feeling that once the ironic entered onto the aesthetic field of play, things got a lot fuzzier.
Still, things are never quite as simple as I suggest. Vogue fashion lay outs reflect a ruling elite sensibility in absolute large format and perfect focus. The scientific slide, the clinical or medical drawing, how does one’s perception of these images change over time? Henry Tonks, an army surgeon in WW1, painted a number of disfigured soldiers as part of a medical project. The entire topic of portraits in fact is riven with paradox and contradiction. The blank expressions of Thomas Ruff’s photos, or the blank affectless arch acting in Chiat Day ads, or Jim Jarmusch films, has always felt regressive to me. Victorial Beercroft feels far different than Rineke Dijikstra…but maybe I’m wrong. These are all artists that at the very least raise questions. From within these encounters will come more of a grasp of historical truth and less of the bland generalized myths of Hollywood. I increasingly feel as if art has become even more important in an age so self congratulatory about its own knowledge.
Inside is safe, controlled. Outside is a place of maurauding poor. Hence the Zombie and post apocolypse franchises. Inside is technically controlled, air conditioned, outside is unpredicatble, hence CCTV. There are still the shadows of ancient portents and warnings that we feel when a swarm of bats rise up from their caves at sunset. We still shudder at sight of a snake silently watching us. If the kistch model of history presents only war, the unconscious traces of history will express commons and fire and collectivity in the face of darkness. For the ruling class, the ‘outside’ is ever more criminalized. And military weather projects (http://www.globalresearch.ca/weather-warfare-beware-the-us-military-s-experiments-with-climatic-warfare/7561) probably speak to this.
The ownership class increasingly imprints a vision on image product, and it is increasingly nakedly racist and Imperialist. White male domination has reformatted it’s narrative. The underclass, the working poor, are simply pathologized. There are logical and material cul de sacs facing the working class at teach turn. Toxic enviroments breed childhood illness, which breeds various irregular behaviors. Such behaviors fall within what was once called normal, but today is made into a symptom. Normal is a simulacra. Dress size four. Ripped abs. Perfect hair. http://www.nysun.com/style/what-in-the-devil-is-a-size-6/36225/
The pathologized poor have this image reinforced by being filmed as if they were pathogens. As if always in quarantine. Through chain link fences, from surveillance angles, or just from above. The POV is often from a position of safety. And then it is either, as I said above, grainy or simply a shadowy night shot. The once subversive darkeness of wet urban streets in 1940s noir, has become a fashion shoot locale, and if inseted into narrative it is morphed into a darkened parking garage and always a lone woman walks to her fate, nervous, jumping at each sound, and eventually realizing her worst fears.
There is much more to discuss in the architecture of fear; the poetics of space that Bachelard didn’t realize I don’t think. Perhaps its more the de-poeticizing of space. But that is, I trust, next post. For now, there are clearly tendencies at work in how public space is being militarized. The city as war zone. The gated rich at at command headquaters, where foot soldiers guard the aristocracy. Class segregation is an open concept, now, and increasingly expressed nonchalantly. Narrative must find resistance through new strategies that will express the clarity, for the low grade resolution of CCTV image is reflected in the blurred babblings of much of what passes for journalism and thinking today. The language of piercing limpid transparancy is ever harder to find. A lack of focus, in thought, in architecture, in narrative. The CCTV age.