19.28, Thursday 2 Mar 2006

One thing that Marshall Berman does really well in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is map out the dialectic that comprises the city and the people in it:

Throughout this book I have tried to show a dialectical interplay between unfolding modernization of the environment--particularly the urban environment--and the development of modernist art and thought. [p309]

I'd like to recast this as intrinsically political. The city is the forces of conservatism, by which I don't mean it must manifest some kind of right-wing, highly moral, or libertarian attitude. I mean that when you see a housing estate of tower-blocks, you're seeing an urban cathedral. A thousand bureaucrats worked a thousand man-years to make that happen; it was given life with the power passed down to them by the city-planner king, and given time by the obstinate, slow-to-change system of institutions, habits and legal frameworks that support them.

The physical city is the cross-section of a single, terrifically co-ordinated human process. It is that process that is the thing that persists and bulldozers forward; it has its own rhythms, and demands all debate and discussion happens on its own terms. The buildings, roads, infrastructure, taxes, residents and shops are just its leading edge, and upset citizens in planning committees are just its bow-wave. We meet this force of co-ordination and organisation - which must, by its nature, be conservative - head on. We live in it.

The antithesis to this is the radical left. These people engage in a dialectic process with the right - the forces of conservatism - to fight over the built environment, that which shapes and channels us. But you can't engage the process itself, because you then become part of the system, you get co-opted. You have the engage the leading edge instead, because only at the point where the process becomes present - in time and space - is it vulnerable, and able to be subverted. You have to find ways to hack the system: You write books and make art which change the perceptions of the city, changing the very human foundations on which it is built; You reinterpret the physical fabric, picking up the cobblestones, bought with your taxes, used by the police, and throwing them back in the face of the city.

You must, as I've heard pataphysics described, make a parasite map, present in every moment of the city, one that finds the exceptions of the city--an un-map which exerts force on that which is mapped.

Berman continues:

This dialectic, crucial all through the nineteenth century, remained vital to the modernist of the 1920s and 1930s; [...]. By the 1950s, however, in the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, this process of dialogue had stopped dead.

Then: It is not that culture itself stagnated or regressed: there were plenty of brilliant artists and writers around, working at or near the peak of their powers. The difference is that the modernists of the 1950s drew no energy or inspiration from the modern environment around them. [...] the most exciting work of this era is marked by radical distance from any shared environment. The environment is not attacked, as it was in so many previous modernisms: it is simply not there. [p309]

I think what happened - and this is the world we live in still - is that the left won. In the urban space, they woke up one day, pushed at the door and found it open. Berman shows how reinterpretation of the city was suddenly allowed to influence the urban environment and development, in the 1960s:

This new intimacy between the life of the dance and the life of the street was only one aspect of a great upheaval that was going on through the 1960s in nearly every genre of American art.

[...] They experimented with a fascinating array of art forms: forms that incorporated and transformed non-art materials, junk, debris, and objects picked up on the street;

[...] The essential thing, Oldenburg said, was to "look for beauty where it is not supposed to be found."

[...] this was a New York whose whole fabric was beginning to decay. But this very transformation that made the city appear rundown and archaic, especially when compared to its more "modern" suburban and Sunbelt competitors, gave it a special poignancy and radiance for the emerging makers of modern art.

This I find especially provoking: "I am for an art," Oldenburg wrote in 1961, "that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum. I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and comes out on top. I am for an art that tells you the time of day, or where such and such a street it. I am for an art that helps old ladies across the street." [pp319-320]

It sounds great, but it's too practical, and too pragmatic. If it's everyday once, it can be art. If it's everyday twice, then I'm not so sure. As much as I'd like to think that the functional systems of government and control of human process had been dominated and re-channeled by revolutionaries, it seems more likely that the forces (the conservatism, the institutions, the glacier of progress) just moved elsewhere.

They abandoned the city to the left, and while the left thought it was making a difference, it was simply occupying a management position, running the machine just as it should always have been run: keeping the going smooth, and keeping people happy. Now we have public art, street theatre, free buses for kids, tower-blocks torn down, suburbia broken up with mixed living, and all the rest. There is no battle and there is no protest--because none is needed. The battleground is no longer the city.

Now collections of humans are organised in corporations, on the internet, in the military, in entertainment. London's Canary Wharf stands in for the dark, satanic mills. The water there carries away karmic sweat and blood. I'm not saying that there are individuals who run the world, and who actually are the capital-R Right. Instead, it's systemic: In our history, there will always be a self-defending, self-creating, self-enriching, self-empowering, self-organising system of forces that commands and controls process, developing production lines for human process to create its inhuman self. And there will always be a way to undermine this system, to rehumanise and deproductise the way and what the system becomes.

The thing is that we've forgotten the rhetoric of protest. Sure there are groups that encounter marketing - the culture-jammers - and people who engage the various industries (like open source, and free music), but the people who are closest to protest now are the ones not doing it: the spammers, and the virus writers. These are the people who have really understood what the system provides, and can throw it in the face of the controllers.

[Counter-examples: What about punk fighting the National Front in the 1980s with their fists and music, or the miners, or the Poll Tax riots?]

Protest means, like dadaism, standing up in-front of people as if you have authority and have something important to say, then saying "blah blah blah" and doing that for the very first time--hacking the system and the people whose lives expect to operate in that system. From then on, every person who stands up is saying "blah blah blah," whatever words they come out their mouths.

To protest, you have to take the present, and construct a new present with the tools provided, and put it in-front of the people. And you have to win, because the modern world, as Marx understood, is popular. You have to win by marketing.

I want to create something that is of our time, and outside the terms of reference for our time. I don't want to resist anything, but instead have what I create speak on every level of another way. And I want it to be popular.


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