The Venus Effect

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Recognitions
Diego Velázquez. Rokeby Venus, c. 1647–51. 122 × 177 cm. National Gallery, London.

Velázquez’s Venus is perhaps the most naked on record: with nothing but her lovechild, Cupid, to hold up a mirror to her difuse reflection (deflection?), she lacks most of the mythic giveaways of her traditional representations. She is unlandscaped, unjewelled and unmyrtled. She can’t be [M]arsed. If not for the luxuriant fabrics she is recumbent on, or for that fleshly tongue of curtain, her room is as featureless as Cupid’s left leg, which is as faded as her face. Seen glancingly, she is the picture of a modern, mortal woman: an adaptation that, to some extent, accounts for her survival into our days.  

An icon in a history of iconoclasm, she first materialised in the private rooms of Felipe IV, to join two other mirror-carrying Venuses by Titian and Rubens. Though female nudes were rare and heavily policed in the Baroque Spanish court, Velázquez ―as court painter― was as heavily protected; his Venus admired by the king and by some of the realm’s most powerful courtiers, who made sure she didn’t succumb to hazard or censorship.

This Venus is not self-absorbed, but considerate of the efforts required to protect her. She shows us her backside but not her pudendum, unlike her more brazen revision as Goya’s Nude Maja. Her gaze is averted from the viewer, but complicit with the painter. By hook and by crook, she made it to England, where she took on her Rokeby title and garnered the devotion of another king, Edward VII, who secured her placement in London’s National Gallery.  

In Art and Illusion, E. H. Gombrich has Matisse retorting to criticism on the proportions of one of his portraits by saying: “This is not a woman, this is a painting.” The Rokeby Venus is neither.

In 1914, Mary Richardson, a British suffragette out for symbolic blood, took a meat cleaver to Venus, slashing her seven times from rump to neck. She was upset by the painting’s allure and claimed she meant to “destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history” to protest the arrest of Emmeline Pankhurst, “the most beautiful character in modern history.”

Befitting her stature and nature, the Rokeby Venus was restored. In addition to spending six months in prison ―the maximum sentence for defacing a work of art― Ms. Richardson became an early model for a very different mirroring of womankind: the angry feminist, antithesis of the eternal feminine.

Notes: A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

I just finished the heaviest read so far in my pandemic reads list, Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, about the 14th century, loosely an account of the European experience of the Black Death. It is a 784-page monster and I read it in 15-30 minute chunks at bedtime over 68 days, while live-tweeting it.

I was going to try and reshape my live-tweeting into an actual longform review/summary, but people seemed to like the live/fresh feel of the livetweeting, so I decided to just clean up and post the thread here as notes, with some light editing, linking, and addition of a few post-twitter [editorial additions]. This is also a book that benefits from a lot of Wikipedia bunnytrailing on the side, and I found myself doing a lot of reading about characters and events mentioned in passing. I’ve linked a selection of those to these notes.

Aside: if you like this format, let me know. I have a bunch of threads on Twitter that are probably suitable for this sort of light-touch blogification.

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Mansionism 1: Building-Milieu Fit

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Mansionism

In politically turbulent times, when it is not clear which way the arc of history will bend, it is useful to reframe the question of political futures in terms of built-environment futures. Instead of asking, what kind of milieu will we inhabit, you ask the potentially easier question, what sort of built environment will we inhabit? You then try to infer the future of the milieu from that. The question can also be asked in more specific ways, such as what sorts of futures contain mansions? Besides allowing you to focus materially on what you likely really care about, such questions allow you to finesse more fraught political questions.

Loosely speaking, the reframe turns a scenario-planning question into a design-fiction question. The underlying hypothesis is that the medium is the message. If you can forecast something about the medium, you can forecast something about the message. Here, the medium is the built environment, and the message is the range of milieus that might thrive or wither within it. This gives us the idea of a building-milieu fit (BMF), by analogy to the product-market-fit idea used in the startup world.

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Two Spooks

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Recognitions

It may or may not be true that there are no extant photographs of Johann C. Schmidt, aka Max Stirner. The ones I may know of lack the auratic power of the two penetrating character sketches Friedrich Engels did of him: the first, a remarkable, vulpine profile he drew from memory for John Henry Mackay, Stirner’s biographer, near the end of his life; the other, a dramatic standing portrait of the author of The Ego and Its Own, smoking calmly behind a toppled chair in a riotous group sketch of Die Freien done sometime around 1842. This is the source code of the Stirner meme.

Stirner casts one of the longer trickster shadows in modern political philosophy, his variegated reputation built on little more than an opaque biography, a yet more opaque essay and a historic, if circuitously occluded, difference of opinion on its merits by two more notable contemporaries. To exaggerate, but only slightly, Stirner was to Marx and Engels what Judge Schreber was to Freud and Jung: the forked foreshadowing of their future theoretical endeavours, the haunt their funhouses were later built around as partial efforts at containment.

The existence of a Stirner meme speaks to this hauntological capacity, especially as it relates less to Stirner’s ontology of egoism than to his subordinate notion of “spooks”, the eidetic non-entities that preclude egoist ownness. At its best, it seems to operate as an identifier for a contemporary Union of Egoists, a makeshift, voluntary, sovereign coalition of non-aligned “spookbusters” and well-read trolls.  

Even in its stark and sharklike graphic language, the Stirner is in dialectic contrast to another famous, black-outline cartoon meme: the gormless Wojack or “feels guy”, who lacks self-possession and is beholden to the spooks of sentiment, morality, appetition, political commitments, identitarian leanings and every sort of yearning-to-belong.

Though both have been subject to the usual memetic distortions, the Stirners have gained apotropaic, maybe even exorcistic traction, while the Wojack has become the figurehead of NPCs, a spook-unto-himself, incapable of self-rule. And while the Stirner is, of course, a perverse, self-parodying spook by merely representing ―rather than enacting― ownness, the Wojack flags the iterations of its absence. In Internet parlance, the Stirner is in a relation of ownership with the surrounding world; the Wojack is [p]owned.

Two spooks are fighting inside you. Take, and ye shall be given, goads the Stirner. The Wojack has only two choices: submit, or be dragged.  

A Spectre Is Haunting The West

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Recognitions

A tiger was reported loose in Oakland on the night of May 31. The report was false, yes, but it hardly mattered because―as is rarely the case with fake news―it had vision. In short, the report was false but the tiger was Real. To cite @aesthetikeit, here was a “symbol of the aimless and violent spirit of history” made Presence, if not Flesh, for the death and rebirth of American Cities.

Nor was this the only apparition of wildlife to take place during the riots: there was talk of lion eidolons in Minneapolis and suppositious hippos in Chicago. And is it a coincidence that so much of this rampant phantasmatic fauna is consistently not Western and, indeed, predominantly African? I think not. On April 9, I wrote in lapsuslima.com that: “The uncurbed vertigo of world events […] does not belong to the uncanny, with its homely and domestic connotations, but to the prodigious.” I expressed surprise at the continued dearth in apparitions. All in due course: they arrived with the riots, in a classical return of the repressed.

And now, for fearful symmetry: the fourth Parisian scene in the second edition of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil―a peerless testament to life and time during great urban metamorphoses―is a poem called “The Swan.” If the ‘Tableaux Parisiens’ are a manner of Ulysses prior to Ulysses, “The Swan” is an object of vertiginous compersion: an utterly contemporary reconciliation of the mythic and pathetic, held in place and opened up for operation in a chiasmic net.

The place is Paris during Hausmann’s transformations; as it was carved into its lauded and beloved modern form, under imperial auspices, to ward off contagion―and the building of barricades. Here Andromache, the epic exile and widow of ages, shares the stage with the titular swan-out-of-water, a bird that is majestic in its element but piteous outside it. There is also “the negress,” a figure clearly modelled after Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s Haitian and adored “mistress of mistresses,” described as “wan and phthisical / Tramping the mud, and with her haggard eyes / Seeking beyond the mighty walls of fog / The absent palm-trees of proud Africa.”

But there’s no going back for her. The year is 1861. In Paris, Baudelaire, the melancholy father of modernité, is already drawing attention to the literal consumption of black lives by Western polities. Across the Atlantic, the United States erupts in Civil War.

“The swan stares on at the slur.” Daily Record. June 5, 2020.

MJD 59,004

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Captain's Log

I’ve been thinking a lot about experiments. In an interview last year, James Mattis described America as “this great big experiment of ours.” I made a 2×2 to think about this. America falls in the Grand Design Experiments quadrant. The x-axis is self-explanatory, the y-axis is ordinary versus extraordinary in the sense of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I wrote about this before in Extraordinary Laboratories.

As an experiment, America is a set of extraordinary (and not coincidentally, exceptionalist) claims about the nature of government.

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Through a Glass Lightly

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Recognitions
A riff on Stanley Tigerman’s Titanic, but with the Farnsworth House in lieu of Crown Hall.

On May 18, 2020, architecture’s overlong twentieth century was brought to a symbolic close with the simultaneous (second) postponement of the Venice Biennale and the annual flooding of the Farnsworth House. The latter is an object lesson on the failed state of architecture in the evolving situation.

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New E-Book, and a Portfolio Update

I have a new Kindle ebook out: Breaking Smart Archives: Selected Newsletters, 2015-19. This is a sequenced selection of 32 of the better essays from the Breaking Smart newsletter from the last few years, covering the period between the original 2015 Breaking Smart essay collection on software eating the world (also available as an ebook), and my recent pivot of that whole project to a subscription newsletter for serializing my longer projects.

As I’ll be the first to admit, the collection is weirdly choppy, both in form (a mix of essays and twitter-style threads), and content. But it was oddly satisfying to put together (thanks to Alex Wagner for his help), and I did my valiant best to impose some sort of coherent thematic structure onto it.

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Whistler’s Giantess

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Recognitions
James Abbot MacNeill Whistler. Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother. Oil on canvas. 144.3 cm x 162.4 cm. 1871. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

In Mr. Turner (2014), Mike Leigh’s lambent portrait of the artist as an old man, the protagonist sits for a daguerreotype. Behind the camera is an American prosopon, whose primordial photographs are advertised to “stand the test of time and climate.” Intentionally or otherwise, the scene establishes a passing of the torch between light-wranglers. It also anticipates the appearance of Turner’s unnatural successor, the American James Abbott MacNeill Whistler, whose technique a sitter once described as developing “a negative under the action of […] chemicals.”

Whistler would not set foot in London until 1859, eight years after Turner’s death but, when he did, the groundwork would be more or less prepared for a career agonist. A cosmopolitan whose scope extended from the US to Russia through Chile, Whistler would systematically be [at] the centre of the world, at a time when European art was barely postindustrial. Wagner may have held court at Bayreuth, but Whistler forged, and bridged, the early modern transatlantic artworld.    

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Leaking into the Future

Liminality is hard to navigate, and one can be forgiven for flailing gracelessly when attempting to do so. What makes me impatient though, is people not even recognizing liminality when it is all around them. People continuing to march into non-existent futures, like non-playable characters (NPCs) in video games making walking motions with noses pressed up against impenetrable walls. When there’s masses of such people all around, the liminal turns into the surreal. I made up a visualization to try and get at this sense of surreal mass obliviousness to liminality.

It’s not complete, and you could argue with the particular patterns of forks and merges I have illustrated, but the important thing is the topological structure, and the cowpath-like tracks leaking away from the entire paved system, in a fundamentally new direction. History hasn’t just been knocked off course; our normal processes for constructing history have been knocked out. What I called the Plot Economy in my March 9 post (has it already been 2 months? Wow!) has shut down. Collectively losing the plot means our ability to keep a constructed sense of historical time going has shut down.

Instead of “progressing” or “declining” into a future mapped out over decades, from within the safety of grand narratives shared with millions, we are leaking into the future, one day at a time, sans narrative support.

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