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.

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.

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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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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Masks All The Way Down

This is a guest post by James Curcio, an excerpt from MASKS: Bowie & Artists of Artifice (Intellect Books), available now

Bowie appeared unusually prescient when it came to the Internet, and what its social significance would be, though he maintained an amount of pre-millenarian utopianism. Perhaps this prescience is more akin to an optical illusion; he was already well on his way, having spent most of his life plumbing the rewards and dangers of the mask before most people had even recognized the unmooring power of anonymity or the virtual. Although an ever-shifting world of masks may be navigable to aliens like Bowie, many have not found themselves so well equipped. This is surely the fraying future society he imagined when he penned the character/interlude ‘Algeria Touchshriek’:

I’m thinking of leasing the room above my shop to a Mr. Walloff Domburg
A reject from the world wide Internet
He’s a broken man, I’m also a broken man
It would be nice to have company
We could have great conversations
Lookin’ through windows for demons
Watchin’ the young advance in all electric 

Digitization has yet to allow us to flee our material origins. If we shut ourselves offline, we do not regain some unity with the silent heart of the world. Those who go permanently offline and return to the village of the future may find it is falling in on itself, the windows cracked and soot-stained. It is eerily silent, with not even the sound of coyotes howling in the distance.

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Worlding Raga 6: World To Live

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Worlding Raga

In a few weeks I’m going to become a dad. I’ve been feeling a new urgency to imagine what life might be like for a person born native to this weird atemporal era. But what that really means remains speculative until, well, she arrives. So in anticipation for this new world of a person entering my life, and in the spirit of this month’s timely Refactor Camp exploring the fertile side of Escaping Reality, I thought it’d be fun to imagine: what would living in a culture of Worlding feel like?

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Worlding Raga: 4 – Who Worlds?

This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series Worlding Raga

So far we’ve been discussing Worlding as an art. One that an individual creator can engage in on their own. As Venkat suggested, we are already living in an emerging Worlding culture replete with examples, from superhero franchises, to blogamatic universes, to people as channels of their own lives. It made me think it’s worth zooming out for a post to consider: what possesses a person to want to make a World? What reward does Worlding offer over all the other drives competing in an artist’s mind? Who Worlds in there?In the midst of the creative process, the artist experiences a jumble of voices and competing directives. To an untrained ear, this seems like the undifferentiated expression of an inner monologue that can’t make up its mind. But if you listen carefully, you can begin to hear distinct voices fighting to be heard. It took me a long time to realize that an artist is not one unified person, but something like a crew of sub-personalities or mental demons. Each with their own motivations, sense of opportunity and threat, and unique filter for relevancy. What if we could learn to identify each of these demons? What if we could become more aware of who is speaking, understand what each cares about, and begin to strategize how and when to use them?

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Worlding Raga: 2 – What is a World?

This entry is part 2 of 7 in the series Worlding Raga

Hi, I’m Ian Cheng. I’m an artist. Over the last six years, I’ve been creating a series of simulations that explore an agent’s capacity to deal with an ever-changing environment. These works culminated in the Emissaries trilogy, which introduced a narrative agent — the emissary — whose motivation to enact a story was set into conflict with the open-ended chaos of a simulation. In the process, I began to see the edges of a new layer of artistic activity. One that could organize my base ingredients — deterministic stories and open-ended simulations — into something more than the sum of its parts. Something meaningful yet alive, bounded yet transforming. I’ve been calling this activity Worlding.

At Venkat’s invitation, I’m contributing to Worlding Raga with the hope of further developing a literacy around Worlding. As a tourist of this part of the blogosphere, I’ve been drawn to the spiritual dimension of Ribbonfarm again and again. It is the side of Ribbonfarm that is hungry to identify phenomena in the wild that don’t seem to die, and to name them so that they are enduring tools for others to see and act anew. This voluntary desire to surf chaos, metabolize it into new order, and then do it all over again, is sometimes called “walking with god.” Maybe it’s more like slouching with god around here. Either way, it is a spirit I resonate with and one that I believe is highly suited to Worlding.

First things first. What is a World?

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The Internet of Electron Microscopes

This is a guest post by Chenoe Hart

After you have stared at your computer screen for a while, it’s recommended that you give your eyes a break to refocus on a more distant outside view. In past years when our monitors looked more like boxes than tablets, you might have already been looking into such a space. The perception of digital content on the screens of CRT displays was inextricably accompanied by the additional perspective lines of the monitor enclosure extending behind it. Expanses of beige plastic stretching past the foreground of your observation might make the eyes operate in a slightly different manner compared to our modern condition of viewing flat panels whose minimal depth renders them closer to two-dimensional apparitions. We always knew that the internet was an ephemeral entity presented in translation from abstract code into pixels on our screen, but our immediate sensory feedback perceived it to be the front of a three-dimensional box possessing further physical extension.

Construction photograph of the interior of the Statue of Liberty, from the U.S. Library of Congress.

Many of the words we commonly used to describe the early emerging internet reference an implicit dimensionality: “cyberspace” was non-ironically used as a descriptive term, we explored it those spaces through “web portals,” and the act of “surfing” the web implied negotiating the surface of a physical mass which contained further inaccessible fathoms underneath. The “-tron” suffix marketing the electron gun technology used in those CRTs became the name of a film in which our computers contained an alternate universe of extending light grids. Before “the cloud” gained popularity as an ephemeral metaphor abstracting away the details of how we store our data in other people’s computers, The Matrix rendered the physicality of the internet as a dark enclosed underworld of forbidden knowledge.

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