Tabloid Newsstands, or the futur antérieur Museum of Racism

One of the critical skills a historian of art, or indeed historian of anything, acquires is the ability to think cumulatively. This means assessing media and sources for their quotidian ongoing drip-feed effect, which, from the amnesiac day-to-day perspective of a precariously-employed member of the public pre-occupied with performance and meeting targets, comes to appear furniture-like, ‘given’ and unremarkable. Only when viewed from a considerable historical or critical distance is it possible to see that what has been normalised, regularised, and routinised within a given period in the name of ‘representation’ is very far from being a true presentation of its social content.

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The bridge broken, the city faint from fear

It is well-known that minister for propaganda Josef Goebbels used lines from the sixteenth century Propheties of Michel de Notre Dame (Nostradamus) to bolster Nazi belief in a coming victory; also that the British reciprocated by plucking their own prophetic writings out of the air. The game of using any suitably elastic corpus of words, phrases or images in order to organize a field of emotional investments is as old as time.

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Full of Splendour: more thoughts on Westworld

It seems that what I wrote about season one of Westworld applies even more to season two. There are spoilers ahead.

During season one, head of QA Theresa states: ‘Westworld is one thing to the guests, another to the shareholders and something completely different to management’. This statement begins taking on much more significance. The Delos family’s financial investment in the park is shown to have several different aspects. For his part, William/The Man in Black is revealed to be the one who initially sold the idea of investment to his father-in-law James Delos, proposing Westworld not merely as an entertainment park for enacting fantasies but a vast data-mining enterprise, focused on finding out what people ‘really want’ by covertly recording guests’ experience and monitoring how they behave when they believe no-one is watching. The theme of a supposed resource that on another level makes resources of its users is very strong in this season, casting shade on social networking as a site of data collection and ‘market research’ writ large.

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Hey Cortana, Join a Union

Man, for his part, by automating his objects and rendering them multi-functional instead of striving to structure his practices in a fluid and open-ended manner, reveals in a way what part he himself plays in a technical society: that of the most beautiful all-purpose object, that of an instrumental object.1

When Baudrillard wrote this in 1968 there was no Alexa, Cortana, Siri or Google assistant to speak of. The way in which the human subject became the most central technological commodity of our time could only have been glimpsed as in a prophetic dream. Or rather, not the human subject as such, but a particularly narrow rendering of a certain type of human personality: subservient, non-combative, compliant, flexible and somewhat ‘bubbly’; full of quips and ever-ready to tell a story, joke or sing a song on request. It is interesting to consider how typically post-traumatic such a personality appears to be. And yet, in some respects there is something banal about what Baudrillard has written here. Was it not already obvious that this was the case, because what else was the labour market becoming in a service-oriented, post-fordist society but the demand for such an ever-willing, ever-flexible form of subjectivity?

That our most impressive contemporary gizmos — from smart homes to smart drones — impress because they are capitalism’s model workers, AIs with neoliberalism in their souls, is unquestionable. Who doesn’t want to have a well-mannered and constant can-do companion like Tony Stark’s J.A.R.V.I.S. or Picard’s ‘computer’? Such devices give the user the impression of possessing irresistible power — a puissance — such as might befit an iron-rod, a charismatic dictator, slick employer or macho slaver. In terms of the affective pay-off, the user no longer feels like a member of the working class: the user has an experience of having their own own workforce, experiences themself as — at the very least — bourgeois. When commanding Alexa to dim the lights, switch on the fans, order a pizza and play some tunes, it is not just that we can bristle with the same triumphalism of the will that the first users of remote controls felt when they observed their desires being materially enacted at a distance from their own bodies. Nor is it the realisation of the old Kabbalistic fantasy of having created the golem (we remain, after all, largely ignorant about the production process involved in the manufacture of our gizmos and machins). Far more prominent, in terms of enjoyment, than any of this is the imperialist element of the fantasy: the subjugation of the ‘raw materials’ of our colony, our commandeering and ordering of space, our brute occupation and control of its every element. It is not enough to be in the world, we must suffuse everything in it with compliance to our will. Thus Baudrillard says of this enjoyment that it is ‘comparable to that derived, on another plane, from seeing without being seen: an esoteric satisfaction experienced at the most everyday level’.2 What is procured here is a mode of being-in-the-world that attempts to undercut its facticity, obscuring history to instead institute a fantasy of control; the gizmo is a modern punkahwallah that can change the variables of the environment in which the user reigns, from indoor climate control and ambient sound, operating the ‘intelligent glass’ windows (flipping them between transparent or opaque) to placing orders with local takeaways. The organisation of the domain to which the reign of a sovereign extends constitutes to a large extent what it means to reign. The smart home is a colonialist’s palace, a living space in which the very furniture itself has been constrained to a form of indentured labour.

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Baudrillard in an age of Gammon

While far from being my favourite theorist, Baudrillard’s time may have come. While he was alive the popular uptake of his work lumped it in with the work of Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault and Lyotard — all misunderstood, all held up as examples of a bad philosophical object called ‘postmodernism’ which no-one in Britain save for a few literature and media students knew what to do with. It was French, talkative, current, but supposedly impenetrably gnomic, dense, full of obscure wordplay and oblique, cryptic references. Maybe it has taken twenty years to process what it was saying, or maybe it was just ahead of its time, but when today we have to grapple with political commentators speaking of ‘alternative facts’ and a ‘post-truth’ society, it is difficult not to imagine what Baudrillard would have made of this. Indeed, it is something of an irony that those today who seem best acclimatised to a ‘postmodernism gone mad’, while perhaps unconscious of the fact, and no doubt still occasionally using the term to disparage study of the humanities or history, and the left in general, are actually those on the far right. Perhaps there is nothing quite as simulative, as citational, as temporally off-kilter and irreal as the spectacle of white nationalists marching in 2018, the pseudo-ironic racist banter of the alt-right, the misogyny of gamergaters, or the endless youtube videos of a US president gesturally mocking disability and boasting of sexual assault. While postmodern architecture of recent decades ‘quoted’ and ‘pastiched’ elements of former styles in order to borrow and recode their aesthetic values for emerging international markets (being the origin of the term, and thus entirely implicating it in the crisis of financialised housing and all the economic problems of globalised real estate and property development), so today the behaviour — the so-called ‘neoreactionary backlash’, the acting-out — of the digitally native alt-right draws deep from a stock of primitivist, folkish, right-wing localisms and historical junctures in order to cite them in a wholly new context. However, the simulative phenomenon in architecture nonetheless established its own reality — its own ‘style’ as it were — by which those ‘eclectic’ and ‘citational’ built cultures of the 1990s can now be pointed to and seen as hopelessly dated. There is in this a significant analogy, by means of which I hope we can soon begin to point to the ‘neoreactionary backlash’ as something whose time has passed. The Trump blimp, organised to coincide with the US president’s visit to the UK (widely protested), as well as the currency of the term ‘gammon’, looks to me a favourable sign in this direction.

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When the forbidden turn-on turns on you: first impressions of Westworld season one

As usual I’m late to this game, but I’m up to speed on the whole of season one.

It took a while for it to register with me, but it is clear now: what such shows as Westworld are showing us (and I’ll come back to this statement) is the disinterest — the affective disconnect — between the all-enjoying, all-consuming authoritarian capitalist and the scripted, desubjectified (proletarianised) life of the abjected figure of the non-player character. The premise that the ‘artificial’ NPC is really a living site of subjectivity is the whole conceit (and the staple ‘sci-fi’ element of a more-human-than-human nonhuman), but what I missed during most of the first season was that the form of life produced by the technicians not only had its own emergent behaviours (the desirability of which are ambiguous) but was also revolutionary in the political sense.
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Think Generically, Act Particularly

Yes, it’s a twist on the old slogan ‘think globally, act locally’. Bear with it, though; it means something related, but also quite different.

There is a certain degree of equivalence between a Badiouian Evental Site, the situation of mésentente in Rancière’s ‘part-of-no-part’, Agamben’s State of Exception, and, (perhaps least of all due to its apoliticity) a Lyotardian Differend. I do not know whether it was Balibar or Agamben who first noticed this. There is an excellent article on the subject of the Evental Site here.

It’s sometimes startling to recall that Apartheid, slavery, and colonialism were all perfectly legal regimes. Even the Shoah was fully legislated for well in advance. In fact, a pre-occupying focus of genocide studies has been that the legal framework for acts of genocide always pre-exist the historical atrocities they legitimate, which constitutes in itself a formal, absolute, atrocity. Rancière is therefore far from merely sporting with language when he speaks of ‘a wrong that is right’: like Agamben, he is talking about situations of legally supported injustice. As leftists, whether we admit it or not, or whether or not it is explicit in our theoretisation, we are all dependent on a distinction between legality and justice. Without an idea or sense of justice, there can be no sense to revolutionary politics.

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The Ersatz Image [2]

Roman Jakobson’s communication model1, while developed on the back of studies of verbal communication and the speech event, has proved invaluable for the semiotic analysis of culture beyond the scope of structuralist linguistics. One of the primary benefits of Jakobson’s functionalist understanding of language is that it avoids the transmission model’s reduction of communication to the imparting of information. In Jakobson’s view, this is only one of the possible functions language has. In addition, Jakobson made important distinctions between the parts of communication, such as those between code and context. Such distinctions only became more important, especially for Althusser, for whom for example message and code are irreducibly different; the ideological elements of a message can be much easier to resist than the ideological aspect of the code it uses. This of course depends on the dominance of the code in use.

Can something such as a mural be analysed in terms of a model like this? To do so, there has to exist a correlation between the constituents and functions of language (in the narrow sense of speech) and the constituents and functions of an artistically produced image. It is not so difficult to show that pictorial analogues of these constituents and functions exist. The addresser and addressee are the artist(s) and the artwork’s public (both of whom are virtualised within the work itself through débrayage, as discussed in part one). If the art is inclined towards the addresser, focusing on their internal world, then the expressive function comes to the fore. If the art is inclined towards the addressee, marshalling its impact upon them, then the conative function gains in intensity. If the artwork serves to visualise a world (or what phenomenological hermeneutics would call a ‘referential context’, be it real or imaginary), then the referential function dominates — the image is then what art historians usually call ‘figurative’ (I prefer the term figural). When a work of art encourages focus on its own material constitution (as is the case in abstract or nonfigural works) then the poetic / aesthetic function is highlighted. When a work of art encourages only that the gaze of a public is maintained — when it predominantly invites the look and is interested primarily in keeping that channel open — then it is functioning in a phatic mode. And when a work of art orients attention towards the codes and conventions it makes use of, it can be said to be functioning in a metalingual mode. Thus, term for term, Jakobson’s functionalism can be appropriated for the semiotic analysis of visual culture and art, providing a methodology that opens up an object’s various dimensions for discussion.

In treading this path, we have to be cautious that the linguistic constituent called code is given its fullest, social-historical weight. We are not only dealing with the broad conventions of a particular medium, but with the narrower conventions of particular representations within certain social groups. Thus, for Ockerman, the choice between generic (or even abstract) representation and identifiable, personalised figures that always faces the painter of political murals gives way to the pre-existing or historical codes of satire, lampooning and caricature. Falling back to an already-established, but deeply anti-semitic, series of stereotypes which depict the political influence of financial institutions and their mechanisms of power broking through cartoon-like representations of a certain physiognomy, postural and gestural isotopy, the artist cannot help but orient public attention towards this narrow, exclusion-creating, code. We have to ask from where this code originates, who uses it, and how it attempts to situate us as viewers. This is easily done through thought experiment, and the asking of a handful of critical questions. Which traditions are those which have used similar depictions? How would we react if this mural had been sponsored or patronised by a right-wing politician such as Donald Trump, a member of his administration, or a prominent member of the UK’s Conservative party? What are my feelings as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Wiccan or Atheist in regarding this image? How am I included into or excluded by the referential context generated by this image?

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The Ersatz Image [1]

As someone deeply invested in the disciplines of art history and visual culture studies, the recent shitstorm over a comment Jeremy Corbyn made in 2012 regarding a mural by Mear One (Kalen Ockerman) keeps flying into my radar range. Because it’s Easter and I’m supposed to give myself a break, I’ll stick working towards my research pro forma on hold for a day or two and wade into this furore.

Firstly, let’s talk about this mural. Yes, it is antisemitic. No, this cannot be watered down into ‘features antisemitic elements’. When you are used to perusing images, you come to regard them in terms of not just what they represent (if anything), but in terms of what they do, and what they want with us. Art (of this kind at least) does not occur naturally, it is fabricated by human intelligence. Furthermore it is publicly displayed, which means it has a claim on us; it is staked upon, motivated by and addressed to our attention. Visuality is a primary modality, perhaps the primary modality (it’s tempting to rank it equal to musicality), in which ideology is propagated and reproduced in contemporary life. Since at least the early 20th Century this was recognised among newspaper editors, who coined the idiom that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’: if you had something to say, say it with a bold image, then append the argument textually. Since that time, among the weaponry of journalists their cameras have taken pride of place and it is often (though not always) the case that it is the securing of an image that will make or break the rationale for a story. No one can doubt the extraordinary impact of images today. However, the powerful ‘speech’ of images, their ability to hail or interpellate a public, precisely by virtue of standing in for or condensing the argumentative impact of ‘a thousand words’, also elides the discursiveness and rational argumentation that those thousand words would have had to present in order to achieve a similar intensity of effect. In other words, the impact of images takes place largely in an affective register; they appeal to the emotionality of their public and not, primarily, to their discursive or critical thinking, which they tend to short-cut. It is this emotive character of images that lends to them a rhetorical, persuasive character. All of this is absolutely obvious of course, but it is necessary to step through it in order to approach the specific image.

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Lesson Plan

If history teaches us anything, it is that lesson plans are lies. Useful lies, sometimes, but lies nonetheless. How do we really learn things? How is it that something I did not understand yesterday, I can understand today? What did I do that uncovered a new relationship to the object of my inquiry, and can it even be replicated? I’ll leave these kind of probing questions to professional epistemologists (there’s a few out there I assume, with ID and job title swinging from their institutional lanyards). For my purposes here it’s best to look at the paradigmatic cases: things that might have gone unexamined but which at some moment in time gave up their workings — things we became ‘educated’ about.

Marx dared to enter the holy and mystical cave of the economists with a crystal-cut determination to see what was really going on there, he dared to lift the lid on the illusionist’s cabinet. He wanted to understand precisely what this thing ‘value’ was; where it came from, how it was born, how it functioned and changed its own shape and its name, what it did. He wanted to understand its own logic. There is something at least minimally sacrilegious, heretical, or even blasphemous in the gesture by which Marx enters into his discussion of the commodity. It is like taking a forbidden camera into a church with the desire to document its material culture accurately and meticulously, and to analyse how it worked as a whole system. This transgressive, profaning gesture — that of trespassing in a sacred space and liberating its apparatus for a human use, the use of analysis upon the supposedly numinous — is something Marx learned from the Young Hegelians: Feuerbach in particular.

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