Kitsch Endgame

Huma Bhabha

Huma Bhabha

“The main thing about the stranger, after all, is that he is strange. He is not like us; he will never understand us. Our greatest fear, perhaps because the possibility is often so seductive, is that we will become like him and loose ourselves.”
Robin Fox

“The maker of kitsch does not create inferior art, he is not an incompetent or a bungler, he cannot be evaluated by aesthetic standards; rather he is ethically depraved, a criminal willing radical evil.”
Hermann Broch

“One of the most American traits is our urge to define what is American.”
John Updike

“The evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornament from utilitarian objects.”
Adolf Loos

“Families, for example, are weird, so family houses are weird.”
Mark Wigley

Nothing stands of the 11th century Fatamid mausolea. The history of Islamic architecture is a history of missing parts. There are a couple of notable points to bear in mind, though, despite the huge gaps in chronological example. First, Islamic art, especially architecture, is one of textual citation. Buildings were almost like giant books. Second, Arabic is read right to left, and its worth trying to reorganize your Western eye to *read* the buildings in that way. However, more, spatially, the art of much of Islam, throughout the centuries, is one in which space is simply not linear. That is the most pronounced difference between the Christian west and Islam in terms of architecture. Still, the loss of so many of the major architectural works of medieval Islam has meant that the usual imposing of certain chronologies of style is for the most part impossible. The remaining masterpieces of Islamic building are being bombed to rubble as I write this. So those holes in history will grow larger.

“Whether the design object is Young British Art or George W. Bush, ‘brand equity’ – the branding of a product name on an attention-deficit public – is fundamental, and hence design is too. Consumer attention and image-retention are all the more important when the product is not an object at all. This became clear during the massive mergers of the Reagan-Thatcher years when new mega-corporations began to promote little else but their own new acronyms and logos.”
Hal Foster

Pirelli Tire bldg. Marcel Breuer, architect. 1969

Pirelli Tire bldg. Marcel Breuer, architect. 1969

That famous quote of Loos at the top of this page is, I believe, often misinterpreted. In fact I think the much of the idea, today, of how modernism was formed is misread. The desire was less for purity than it was for developing a relationship with the difficult. But let me digress a moment, for I think this is relevant, to what is already a confusing opening two paragraphs here. The film Mississippi Grind recently opened, and was met with pretty much universal acclaim. Not wild enthusiasm such as met Birdman, say, or Boyhood, but still pretty overwhelmingly positive critical responses. I won’t go into the reviews, because its mostly a waste of time, but I wanted to make a couple observations about the film. Starring the usually excellent Ben Mendelsohn and the usually less wonderful Ryan Reynolds, this is a film that falls in line with earlier films such as Scarecrow, and The Rain People, except it’s not as good, essentially. And the problem is that the films failures feel so familiar. If ever there was a film I *wanted* to like, it was this. And James Toback even makes an appearance. Critics seemed to compare it to California Split, and perhaps that has value, as comparisons go, or even in its way some of Cassavetes films. But the problem is that this is the work of filmmakers who you simply don’t trust. One is not convinced. Take the soundtrack; while its good to hear Furry Lewis and Big Bill Broonzy, these are not quite the right choices. The idea is right, but the particular choices are wrong. It feels arbitrary. And the darkness never really appears in these men, and even less in the women. Now, Scarecrow is a hugely overrated film, in fact. But seen today, it feels masterful. And I’ve never been a Cassavetes fan, particularly. But I can still appreciate his single minded search, and his integrity. Another distant cousin, thematically, would be Fat City, the John Huston boxing film from 1973. Fat City *felt* the way this film does not. And for lack of a better word I could say ‘authentic’. And that’s a terrible word, of course, in such a context. But the experience of that film was interlaced, throughout, and from the margins, by a kind of wisdom. Huston had his own limitations (Wise Blood) but with the right material, and timing, he did direct several films of lasting quality. In fact, Fat City remains a startlingly negelected film, and might be his best. Mississippi Grind is the petit bourgeois version of Fat City (or Scarecrow). It is the less intelligent version of Blue Collar or Two Lane Blacktop. It is not awful, and I regret having to say it’s not a good film, because too few serious works featuring the underclass are made. But you have to been part of the underclass, on some level, somehow, to create that visceral haunting tragedy of American life today. You have to have felt the sense of desperation that comes from having no money, none, and nowhere to turn. This is a film that could never have created a scene such as the one in Fat City in which the beaten Mexican journeyman fighter, urinating blood already, is leaving the arena. Alone. And before he reaches the doors to the parking lot the lights in the tunnel are turned off on him. There are fourteen levels to that approximately twelve seconds of screen time. That is what cinema can do.
"Fat City" (1973). John Huston, dr.

“Fat City” (1973). John Huston, dr.

One aspect of Mississippi Grind that can serve to segue back to missing Islamic architecture is this idea of landscape.

“The remaking of space in the image of the commodity is a prime story of capitalist modernity as told by Simmel, Kracauer, Benjamin, the Situationists and other radical geographers.”
Hal Foster

The idea of landscape is probably primordial for humans. Scott Atran is an anthropologist and cultural psychologist of sorts, and an often perceptive critic of contemporary society. One of his observations was that contemporary youth exist in a flattened world. He spoke before the U.N. security council on the topic of violent extremism. He said; “.. offer youth something that makes them dream, of a life of significance through struggle and sacrifice in comradeship.” For today, the loss of experience has exaggerated consequences for the most vulnerable, the most marginalized, and stigmatized. There is a degraded capacity to comprehend landscape, and to conceptualize the place one occupies in it.

Albert Tucker

Albert Tucker

“All supernatural agent concepts trigger our naturally selected agency detection
system, which is trip-wired to respond to fragmentary information, inciting
perception of figures lurking in the shadows and emotions of dread or awe.
Mistaking a nonagent for an agent would do little harm, but failing to detect an
agent, especially a human or animal predator, could well prove fatal; it’s better to
be safe than sorry. The evolutionary imperative to rapidly detect and react to rapacious
agents encourages the emergence of malevolent deities in every culture, just
as the countervailing evolutionary imperative to attach to caregivers favors the apparition
of benevolent deities. This is one way that the conceptual ridge of our
evolutionary landscape connects to the ridge of social interaction schema, in particular
with the evolutionary design for avoiding and tracking predators and prey.”

Scott Atran

The magical thinking of people in the West today is very close to the most obscurantist religious fantasies. And increasingly the idea of origin is simply not considered. A world in which everything is a fiction becomes one in which nothing is a fiction. And vice versa.

Justin Fantl, photography.

Justin Fantl, photography.

In a sense, this is also the structure capital took with the art market. Hal Foster observed twenty years ago that where once private art collections were turned into museums for the public, today the public arts are privatized. Very wealthy collectors (and dealers and gallery owners) work in unison with museum curators, and more, with politicians, to promote their brand. Art follows in its wake. There are often inseparable anyway. The landscape is owned, in other words.

This owned landscape is also, simultaneously an erasing of itself *as* landscape. Branded, but not there. The bad taste of most Americans is really closer to ‘no taste’, or the rejection of the idea of taste. There is a certain similarity to U.S. crassness, today, and early Nazi tastes. After all, *kitsch* is the offspring of fascism, of Nazi values. Hermann Broch was (besides being one of the three or four greatest writers of the 20th century for fiction) a remarkable cultural critic. And one that for some reason is read far too little. Broch said this of kitsch….“The artist pursues not a ‘good’ work of art, but a ‘beautiful’ work of art, what matters here is a beautiful effect. And this means that the kitsch novel, even while often using quite naturalistic language, i.e., the vocabulary of reality, describes the world not as it really is but as it is hoped and feared to be…”. Broch believed kitsch was substituting ethical for aesthetic. It is the exaggerating of emotion, but not any emotion, it the exaggeration of shallow emotion, fraudulent emotion, and that is its crime. For kitsch reinforces the essential untruths that sustain basic repression.

Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India. Roger Anger architect/designer.

Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India. Roger Anger architect/designer.

Hence, kitsch is always drawing upon the past, but again, not any past, but a simplified past. Its cultural excavation is targeted. Patrizia McBride’s essay on Musil and Broch, observed of Musil’s thought…“If aesthetic experience appears rooted in an alternative emotional mode that grants access to the singular, kitsch configures itself as an aesthetic modality that shuns the task of presenting singular experience and instead reifies it in ready-made formulas.” Now, Broch blamed Romanticism for the emergence of kitsch in Germany and central Europe. And he blamed it because, as he said, it gave up the infinite idea, and tolerated the finite by elevating it to the rank and importance of the infinite — the analogy being the Church’s refocus from infinite God, to finite earthly Church (as standard bearer, as it were, for the God of the infinite). The elevation of mundane and shallow to the status of importance is exactly what has happened in contemporary culture. Enough pimping and anything wins over the gatekeepers of culture. Soon, trust me, Taylor Swift will be seen in the same sentences as John Coltrane and Bach. Jay Z. is discussed as if he were Bartok or Miles. And in theatre, there is a endless parade of mediocrity that is, in each case, fawned over as the next big thing. For there must be a next. In the fine arts, Koons and Hirst are validated by financial gangsters like Saatchi, and soon embraced by even previously reticent critics. It is kitsch and this is the age of metamodern Nazi ‘volkculture’. And this promotion is the work, usually, of agents. The rise of the *agent* is a huge topic all by itself, but briefly for the purposes here; the agent functions as a sort of double. The theatrical agent, the sports agent, these are actually, literally, harbingers or portents of death. Freud originally saw the archaic (and narcissistic) self, in one or another stage of development, projecting outward what it found unpleasant or dangerous to itself. In earlier societies the projection took the form of a totem. Or a mask was employed. But in earlier cultures of the West, there was ambivalence surrounding the double. He or she was us, after all. It is interesting to note the *double* as it relates to puppets, and also, by way of Dostoyevsky, to homesickness.

In Dostoyevsky’s novella The Double, the lead character ‘Golyadkin’ awakes, disoriented, unsure if he is even awake. But then the atmosphere of the narrative is permeated with uncertainty. Golyadkin never feels ‘at home’. In fact he has trouble locating his surroundings. He is unsure if he is awake or still dreaming. The sense of not being home is profound, here, and its directly linked to how we are shaped by and help shape our family. The family and the home are sort of one. Golyadkin grows in anxiety, and his sense of place slips further away from him. And in this novella, shadows play a large role. The double, the act of projection, seems to need shadows. Kenneth Gross, in his book on puppets notes that Indonesian shadow puppet theatre, the blackness is a black that is ordinarily hidden. It is an absolute black. But in this tradition of theatre, the shadow is what adheres to us. They are literally us. The blackness is the result of the creation of shadow forms. There is a doubling of shadow as projection (of light, and of us) and as a kind of intelligence that lurks in the dark. When Golyadkin goes out into the street, he is acutely anxious, and then encounters two men he knows. His horror increases. His sense of confusion. Golyadkin hides further into the shadows (see Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows). So, there are these themes, and metaphors attached to the double, and they are ambivalent. The *agent* in contemporary culture is, then, a figure of familiarity, but one that is never family. The *agent* is also a messenger. But the agent as double is a vehicle for the projected material of our interior lives, our horrors and fear. The agent remains a guide as well. So, guide, messenger, our shadow self, and something else, something foreign. The agent is vested with a certain authority, but one which is bureaucratic and instrumental. The agent is always too familiar, too close. And is suspect. Nobody trusts their agent, not really. For the agent is a master of dark secrets, a magi; but the contradiction (or ambivalence) is that the agent is also banal. For the agent is a figure of the administered world, a projection of a denuded self. The agent, much like the lawyer, ‘represents’ us. He or she is a stand-in for us, a proxy. If we project onto this agent-vessel our anxieties and sense of danger, the agent is additionally, simultaneously, an empty vessel. A symbol of a hollow space world.

Gerard Van der Kuijl. 'Narcssus'. 1640.

Gerard Van der Kuijl. ‘Narcssus’. 1640.

At one point Golyadkin says, “I am suicide, that’s what I am”. The dread he experiences at the end of the novella is caused by the gaze of ‘two burning eyes’. Golyadkin’s despair is in the repressed material surfacing in the form of the father’s gaze. So there is this linkage between death and the double. The modern *agent* figure functions as a father, but one outside the family, one who is unrelated, literally, but one who also doubles (sic) as a messenger. The messenger from the other side. In Kafka, too, there is this sense of fatality that is associated with law and lawyers. With institutional impersonality. The home is always uncanny, but the agent is from ‘out there’, and represents rationality and order. He or she represents us in the courts of the unknown. But the agent is also a negotiator. An exchange value double.

One other dimension of this has to do with the intercession of Christianity. The trickster in one sense morphed into Satan, or at least one of Satan’s minions. The instrumental hierarchical system was solidifying and the repressed body and Eros were front line targets for the violence of repression. Puritanism is the introjection of self punishment, and this harsh authority was eventually made material in the form of a bureaucratic stifling of pleasure. The agent is, then the official licensed thief for the system — and it is interesting to link an early trickster figure like Prometheus, and his theft of fire (light) and the shadow world of the double. The licensed thief is then, always, working for the man. Not for ‘you’.

The agent is the deaths head of the arts world. The trickster figure, or rather the anti-trickster, really. For the Dionysian trickster is the destroyer of boundaries. The agent-trickster is the enforcer of secret boundaries. In the society of kitsch the super-ego is dominant.

Hermann Broch

Hermann Broch

Robert Musil, a friend of Broch’s, saw one role of art (for him perhaps the most important) as that of stripping away the kitsch and false from daily life. I have said before that the more immersed one is in the experience of art, the more able one is to resist both propaganda and regressive mass culture. Art provides psychic Teflon. Musil also saw the destructive affects of conceptualizing experience, especially aesthetic experience. That kitsch happens most easily in a society of easy concepts. This takes me back to my comment on the Loos quote. In this meta or post or post post modern stage of western cultural history, the question of value has slipped backward to equations with *entertainment* and that means an exaggerated emotional valance coupled to the actual shallowness of that emotion being intensified. In other words, I might cry at a Pepsi commercial. That does not make the Pepsi commercial art.

Hal Foster quotes Milan Kundera:
“Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: how nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: how nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.” This is the deceptively pernicious quality of all ‘family-of-man’ tropes. Lets all hold hands and sing the coke jingle…linking hands around the globe. That sort of image is behind the easy complacent vacuity of kitsch. But there has been, additionally, a spillage of kitsch one dimensionality into almost all areas of art. A spillage of that cheap exaggerated falsity, and it infects, certainly, all film and TV. It is so deeply embedded, partly, because Hollywood has consolidated its creative talent — the same dozen or so writers now, essentially, write ALL television drama. I suggest to you, viewer, pay attention to the credits. And even those outliers that exist are often tutored by one of the golden circle.

Philippe Parreno, Kunsthalle-Zurich.

Philippe Parreno, Kunsthalle-Zurich.

But it is the easiness with which one is invited to suspend critical judgement that has had the most detrimental effects on culture. Irony is certainly a part of this, both as cause and as effect. Once you start to take junk seriously; whether it’s Tracey Emin, or Marina Abramovic, or it’s Spielberg and the Cohn Brothers, the spread outward is impossible to stop. Warhol may have ushered in the cynical embrace of pure profit, but at least his eye and attitude contained an often surprisingly rich subtext. But this is all pretty well established, really. The Sothby and Christie’s auctions, the rise of Saatchi and other celebrity galleries, and through it all an increasing sense of desperation in the culture overall. Easy is finally emptied too quickly.

This touches on Scott Atran’s ideas about landscape and cognitive modules in the sense that if there are any evolutionary elements to how humans process the space around them, it is being blunted to the point of extinction today. Arthur Danto has asked, if perspective art was invented (an open question I think) then what of non or pre-perspective art? There is an essay yet to be written, I think, on the nature of the frame, and also the role of the edge in that transitional era before the Renaissance. One of the detrimental effects of kitsch has been to eliminate such questions.

Leonardo Alberti, 1450, Church of San Francsco.

Leonardo Alberti, 1450, Church of San Francsco.

And this loss of curiosity is coupled to simplified historical linerity — sort of forcing the interpretation of changes in art into easily digested epochs. Islamic architecture is so compelling, perhaps, because it is impossible to make those graphs of progress. Additionally, the space of Islamic architecture is much like that of classical Chinese painting. The space is non-Western and the intention of the authors of these buildings and images is illegible and mysterious if one applies Western criteria. Now, there is another aspect to the loss of cultural history, and that is the willful destruction of cultural history. David Simpson observed, in a comment with far reaching implications, that Kristallnacht, of 1938, foreshadowed the later destruction and genocide, and projecting forward to that destruction of Iraqi antiquities and shrines by U.S. forces. Burning down Synagogues was the first step, symbolic and real, that led to the Nazi concentration camps and genocide. The cultural genocide of Islam is not exactly parallel but it’s close. The German troops went into Russia and destroyed tens of thousands of public libraries, and tens of thousands of Palestinian homes have been destroyed over the last three decades, and now in Syria the same leveling of history is occurring. And in Yemen, where the pre-Islamic past in and around the ancient city of Sana’a is being obliterated by Saudi bombers.

"Arabian Nights" (1973), Pier Paolo Pasolini, dr. (photo courtesy of Le blogorouni).

“Arabian Nights” (1973), Pier Paolo Pasolini, dr. (photo courtesy of Le blogorouni).

Pasolini filmed much of Arabian Nights in Yemen. But so opaque is the awareness of what is inscribed in the buildings around us today that such acts pass almost unnoticed. The current issue of Uncube has a fascinating look at Auroville, that strange project of city building in the south of India. Joanne Pouzenc, whose web page is very much worth visiting, writes cogently of the strange architecutre that Frenchman Roger Anger designed over twenty years in collaboration with the Sri Aurobindo foundation and with Mirra Alfassa. What is striking now, looking at this landscape forty years later, is that while there is a temptation to see it as a weird form of kitsch, or almost parody, it is in fact something quite different. What that something is, however, is hard to define.

And perhaps it strikes one as strange, this Utopian center in Tamil Nadu, because the vision of the West is so conditioned to ‘look’ at things, the urban environment, in a certain way. A filtered way. The new mega cities — places like Sao Paulo, or Mexico City, or Mumbasa or New Delhi or Mumbai — the massive numbers of poor that exist in marginal areas that conceptually are non-existent for most in the U.S. or Europe. The extreme poverty that is endured by tens of millions around the planet is consistently removed from sight. How this intersects, exactly, with the cultural death of wide swatches of civilization is hard to comprehend. In the West, though, there is a strange psychic impairment taking place, and it finds its symbolic expression in the emptiness of 99% of contemporary culture and art. And, in a strange way, its most symbolic expression is in architecture.

Jason Martin

Jason Martin

The reproduction of structures of numbing ugliness seems destined to go on indefinitely. People living in small boxes, and in crowded poorly planned congested cities where hours each day are spent either in cars or on crowded unfriendly sidewalks or poorly maintained and dirty public transportation. In some ways, the New York subway is a minor miracle, and yet it is also a hugely debilitating experience to have to ride every day. The Los Angeles freeways are a form of torture. Both are stress inducing and perceptually crippling experiences. So, when looking at the photos of Auroville, it is hard to process fully the reality — the space, the scale, the relationship to human size.

The landscape of Mississippi Grind is oddly uninhabited. The choices of which diner, which old clothes store, or record shop are there for nostalgia’s sake (by the way, what year was this film meant to be? I ask because NOBODY buys Cadillac’s today, nobody dreams of a ‘white caddy’). This landscape is one of an imagined past, made uncertain, but who cares because its sort of ‘cool’. There is no *present* in this film, and this is its familiar and disquieting quality. For much of newer Hollywood product is made by a generation with no actual memory of the landscape. No memory, really, of *landscape*. No experience of it ‘as’ landscape.

The rise of kitsch is linked to all of this. In my father’s generation (he was born in 1907) the educated were duly educated to have taste. If you were uneducated, you didn’t think about culture — not as the educated classes did. Having taste was elitist, yes, but these divisions existed in different ways in different societies. The American working class had access though, and a tradition, of learning. The difference, in a sense, from that generation to those born after 1980 is that with the rise of marketing came the pressure to own not just commodities, but opinions. And if you have none, buy some anyway. One doesn’t have to learn if one can purchase. The point is that with the rise of National Socialism came the state implementation of cultural propaganda as a tool. The assault on the public began in a sense with the appropriation of volk-kulture by the Nazi cultural ministers and its official sanctioning and validating, and the creation of set associations such as patriotism and obedience.

 Ibrahim Rauza mosque, Bijapur India. Malik Sandal architect. 1620s.

Ibrahim Rauza mosque, Bijapur India. Malik Sandal architect. 1620s.

Ruth Kluger, in an essay on Broch’s notion of kitsch, writes:

“Horror {film} kitsch typically doesn’t inquire into the sources of violence in the perpetrators and
its consequences in the victims. It doesn’t enhance our understanding but simply presents us with stripped images that affect our emotions and don’t engage our critical faculties. Nor does it provide that cathartic breakthrough which Broch called our “irrational” perception of truths that are not accessible to logic.”

Remember that Adorno saw kitsch as a “parody of catharsis”. The mass culture of today, especially in the products produced by Hollywood, exists in a strange dynamic with the audience. The people who, by and large, make studio film and TV are quite affluent, overwhelmingly white, and increasingly cut off from the world of the working class. The world that is presented is a fantasy, but it is a particular sort of fantasy. And perhaps the most significant aspect of this very particular fantasy is the absence of landscape. Rarely is architecture a topic, and even more rarely is physical space presented. If one looks at the films of, say, Pasolini or Fassbinder, one is made is aware of the inscription of political consciousness on the cinematic representation of space and landscape. Even in Hollywood film, from the 1940s all the way through to the 1970s, this is mostly still true. The classic noirs are nothing if not examinations of a new hostile urban city-scape. The architecture of the urban night is one of authoritarian menace and psychoanalytic resonance. One feared the system, one did not look to be rescued by the system. The world was not to be trusted, but it is a concrete actual world unfolding in allegorical space. The representation of it is metaphoric, not propagandistic.

"Dark Passage" (1945). Delmar Daves, dr.

“Dark Passage” (1945). Delmar Daves, dr.

The city was a projection of inner demons, of man’s toxic dark soul. Today, the space is abstracted and given an ideological patina. Dark inner city streets are evil, the back alleys and river fronts that are run by an endless parade of gangs and drug dealers. The enemy are the poor. The loss of actual space, and the erasing of landscapes, has resulted in a loss of logical connective mechanisms. If one can always, as an example, find a parking place outside of wherever you are going…in the busiest of city centers, then this has removed a good part, in fact a gigantic part of the stress and frustration of daily life for most working people. It removes the rare commodity; time. The working class has less and less time to themselves. And recreation now, of course, resembles work. But the link to this is the space of urban centers, of rural countrysides. In mass culture they are abstracted. They are referred to, but they are not experienced. They are rarely endured unless pre-fetishized (i.e. Redford’s All is Lost) and criminalized. Man against the killer storm, etc.

“…the vast citrus forests that once surrounded Los Angeles, as well as cities like Riverside and Anaheim, have been transformed into pink stucco death valleys full of bored teenagers and desperate housewives. East of Los Angeles, in the San Gorgonio Pass above Palm Springs, where 4000 giant wind turbines harvest the Santa Anas, new subdivisions are being built next to fifty-year-old chaparral standing eight feet high and yearning to burn. Throughout the foothills, meanwhile, free-range McMansions – often castellated in unconscious self-caricature – occupy rugged ocean-view peaks surrounded by what foresters grimly refer to as ‘diesel stands’ of dying pine and old brush.”
Mike Davis

Dexter Dalwood

Dexter Dalwood

It is important to view landscape, too, in light of Freud’s notions of ambivalence. And ambivalence is conflicted feelings about something — it is not mixed feelings. It is an oppositional tension. And this relates to what Lacan called our “obscene super-ego”. The language of the super-ego tends to be that of kitsch; it is simplified and denies ambivalence in a sense. Or it tries to. As Adam Phillips points out, if we were to meet this super-ego persona in life we would think he was very boring and maybe mentally ill. The super-ego is a propagandist, an accusatory one dimensional figure. The idea of making a journey is a primal construct of psychological maturation. But one must have a place to travel — a space in which the journey takes place. The loss of landscape in narrative and culture has deep implications. The contemporary individual of the West is one with an exaggerated super-ego, a crippled narcissist.

“The Freudian super-ego is a boring and vicious soliloquist with an audience of one.”
Adam Phillips

The mimetic engagement with artworks, then, is degraded by this surplus super-ego. It is also, now, a kitsch super-ego. The reason, or one of the reasons, so much popular culture today feels so thin and unsatisfying is that it is made by people with compliance as their bedrock governing principle. Obedience to a world view manufactured by propaganda. And landscape has gone missing.

Ken Grant, photography.

Ken Grant, photography.

Adorno believed the idea of ‘homeland’ was an ideal, that in real terms no homeland existed, but that the longing for it was linked to emancipation. The fully emancipated individual was our home. Or was *home*. And that homelessness was now universal, and that in the culture industry and its product one could see the desperate demand for alleviating this longing. These kitsch substitutions only, in the end, exacerbated the sense of longing and isolation. Homesickness became a sentimental Disneyfied wish for cliched scenes of white stability. Films such as Mississippi Grind (and a dozen others, in fact hundreds of others) are so depressing exactly because they evoke a sense of longing for something, a destination, emancipation, that has never seemed so far out of reach as today. The destruction of history, whether in the form of the Pentagon’s project of destroying culture and antiquities, or in the revisionist writing on history that seems everywhere, are increasingly experienced with a kind of sadness.
Maydan i Shah, Ishfahan, 1611.

Maydan i Shah, Ishfahan, 1611.

The instrumental thinking of Western positivism and science has contributed to (and been caused by) the loss of experience, and particularly the experience of place, of landscape. The unthinkable is dismissed, because verification is the only law. Architecture in contemporary society is now an expression of disenchantment, and of failed emancipation.

“Architecture cannot at all flourish in the late capitalist hollow space since it is, far more than the other fine arts, a social creation and remains that way. Only the beginnings of a different society will make true architecture possible again, one that is filled at the same time constructively and ornamentally by its own artistic volition.”
Ernst Bloch

I spent a good deal of my life travelling. As soon as I had money, I spent it to travel. There was nothing that felt quite so liberating. Today, travel is an exercise in anxiety, and the securitized space of airport, train station and even bus station is debilitating. It seems possible that the landscape is disappearing for everyone, not only those who actively endorse its removal, or those who actually erase it.

An My Le, photography.

An My Le, photography.

“Islam is a non-iconographic religion; therefore, it encourages non-figural and non-imitating forms of art. When the Muslims gained power and wealth during the Umayyad period, they concentrated on the development of architecture. The great mosque of Damascus and the Dome of the Rock are their masterpieces.”
Fatema AlSulaiti

Of course literal travel no longer even implies metaphoric travel. That is part of the psychic liquidation of post industrial capitalism. The determination for a clean mental slate. Wiped away. The popularity of that plot idea in sci-fi — erasure of memory, speaks to the truth of it. Replacing or eliminating memory is almost a given in all science fiction product now. It is, again, both desire for and fear of. Both and.

It is harder and harder for people to register place. To actually *be* somewhere and recognize it. There is a structural similarity here, found in narrative and theatre, and perhaps even by extension to film and TV. Aristotle wrote that “a tragedy cannot exist without a plot, but it can exist without characters…” This is one of the weirder things Aristotle said in his poetics. The emphasis, though, was on ‘action’ — and in that sense it is a distant idea for contemporary minds. The relevance though has to do with representation. That the ‘representing’ is less important than the form, and the off-stage. The missing allegory. Today, such an emphasis on interior action rather than representation is anathema. Architecture is split between the strange reliance on photographic representation of buildings (including this blog) and the image produced, and on the presumption of that image’s importance, and the establishment of its commodity nature. Ancient and medieval architecture operate within a different register. Since we are using Pasolini, one could pick almost any of his films and note that action is interior. Same with Antonioni or Tarkovsky. Or in Beckett and Pinter or Handke.

Clifford Davis, photography.

Clifford Davis, photography.

The destruction of landscape is part of a project of total destruction that has begun, already, with the war on the poor. But the cleaning away of the *interior* is a crucial element in contemporary culture. I am reminded of Beatrice Columina, who writes about architects turning their eye inward. She also made some very compelling comments about Playboy magazine, especially in the 60s, and how it sexualized space. The juxtaposition of a Mies Van der Rohe building and the playmate of the month was part of a re-figuring of the representation of architectural space.
S.R. Crown Hall. 1956, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, architect

S.R. Crown Hall. 1956, Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, architect

The manufacturing of this idea of masculinity in a masculine space was of course one that was highly feminized. It was also a fantasy space, and advertised as such, really. Gender is inscribed on architecture as are all things. But one can see, in one way, that Playboy was also draining the enigmas and mystery from space, at least architectural space. The Playboy ideal was one of mastery. And the master allows no confusion or doubt. The Playboy aesthetic also coincided perfectly with an idea of transparency, but transparency as voyeurism. And there is this other set of metaphors that involved the increasing use of glass, and as Columina points out, about Van der Rohe, with X-rays. This also links to the draining of the self, the self as wiped clean, as transparent.

Julia Kristeva touched on the emptying of the psyche, though, when she wrote of abjection and the phobic object. “It is, I said it earlier, a metaphor. And yet more than that. For to the activity of condensation and displacement that oversees its formation, there is added a *drive* dimension (heralded by fear) that has an anaphoric, indexing value, pointing to something else, to some non-thing, to something unknowable. The phobic object is in that sense the hallucination of nothing; a metaphor that is the anaphora of nothing.” There are images Kristeva suggests here, and one is the ’empty castle’. Today, the prevailing mental strategy for survival is learning not to feel. But to do that one must degrade the ability for representation, but that is double edged. If one is so emptied that representation is stifled, then one is rendered speechless. The missing history, the hollowed space, the fragment and the interrupted…all these phenomenon signal a state of emotional paralysis. The continuing recurrence and repetition of such symbols and metaphors resist coalescing into a larger condition. There is a mute endgame that like Beckett, doesn’t really end. Adorno and Horkheimer said that man believes he will be free of fear once there is nothing left that is unknown. Which is true, as is its opposite. Man is free of fear once everything is unknown. This is the circularity of progress and it is inscribed most acutely in the conceptualization of landscape.

“Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part.”
Hermann Broch

A note on what happened to the Pirelli Tire Bldg (aka Armstrong Building) pictured above.


  1. Wyndham Lewis in his three vol. HUMAN AGE satirically presents
    the current political American circus with his Bailiff, puppet-master
    and company, but Musil seems to reflect something near your closing
    section with Ulrich seeking a path that would combine exactitude
    and ecstasy: to be exact, yet rise above common understanding.
    Still, he needs his sister- -double, an opposite gender. Difficult
    waters . . . All great artists reach for the ineffable: they know the
    cost and worth of “speaking otherwise”– being a Melville or a Broch.

  2. What a pile of drivel. You need to replace your rotten and mystical epistemology with something more rigorous and empirical, less you wish to keep producing such nonsense.

  3. John Steppling says:

    right…thats a kind of very representative comment. Thanks Ann.

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