Hyperreality Prevails

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Recognitions
Albrecht Dürer. The Rhinoceros. 1515. Woodcut.
23.5 cm × 29.8 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

To picture a rhinoceros in Renaissance Portugal, consider the unicorn. Whether conflated with the oryx or the narwhal at its southernmost and northernmost coordinates, the unicorn was no less of a shapeshifter than Dionysus, who came from the East―the two sharing goatlike renditions; the axis, as Pliny described it, being “sacred to Bacchus.” The unicorn began its westward march during the Bronze Age, from the Indus Valley; its virtuous, convertible version as horned horse―beguiled and betrayed by a virgin―anchored in Late Antiquity by the Physiologus. The hunt of the unicorn established itself as a Christian allegory, laced with barely suppressed panic menace, through the Middle Ages. Save for a handful of scholars who insisted on the identity of both creatures, the rhinoceros was all but lost to Western memory.

Anonymous. The Unicorn is in Captivity and No Longer Dead. 1495-1505. One of seven tapestries popularly known as the Unicorn Tapestries or the Hunt of the Unicorn. Wool, silk, silver, and gilt. The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Until 1515, there had been no rhinos in Europe since Roman times, when great exotics―animal and human―were consumed as entertainment. The Indian exemplar that arrived in Lisbon from Goa as a diplomatic gift to King Manuel I―and which drowned while being transported in the same capacity to Pope Leo X―was a time-traveller, an alien visitor, a royal hostage. It was beheld by two kings, examined by experts, dispersed by correspondents and inspired a curious woodcut as accompaniment to a self-effacing poemetto by a doctor Penni, whose claim to historical fame was to witness the beast.

Frontispiece of Giovanni Giacomo Penni’s Forma & Natura & Costumi de lo Rinocerothe stato condutto importogallo dal Capitanio de larmata del Re & altre belle cose condutte dalle insule nouamente trouate. 1515. 10 cm × 9,5 cm. Institución Colombina, Seville.

A letter describing the rhino and a[nother] sketch of it wound their way to Nuremberg, where Albrecht Dürer took what best he could from them―and Pliny―to show accuracy is accessory to success. His was not the first impression of the creature, nor―unlike Hans Burgkmair’s coeval woodcut―was his accurate, but Dürer’s rhino was too real for reality to outcompete. Despite the reintroduction of rhinoceroses to Portuguese and Spanish courts in 1577―and their sporadic appearance in art, under sometimes very illustrious names, yet earlier―Dürer’s rhino served as his species’ ambassador to Europe until the Enlightenment.

Burgkmair, Hans. The Rhinoceros. 1515. Woodcut.

The genius of Dürer’s rhino is partially encoded in its hyperreality. As it slouched westward over centuries, it became recognisable―in its resemblance to the concept of a rhino, and its deviance from it. Scholarly discussion on its skin abounds, with some opinions pointing to it not being hide, but hidden, armoured. After Pliny, King Manuel did try to make his beast combat one of his elephants, and the rhino’s portrait may include its cover as eventual automaton, test subject, neural link, cyborg. Unlike Burgkmair’s rhino, Dürer’s is also unchained, suggesting its identity as unicorn, the animal that can’t be captured lest through virgin eyes―like Dürer’s were. We may not have such eyes again.

Convergent Evolution

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Recognitions

Similarly to how social media collapsed high and low culture into a sinuous, middling unibrow; it made room for the fringe to graze the mainstream while allowing outliers and niche practitioners a foot in the door. Though institutional barriers to entry persist, a new art world has never been more possible. It would however be blinkered to consider it only in terms of finished and sanctified outputs; which often makes parameters of fault lines ripe for the pushing. Because it’s structural, the revolution won’t be televised until it’s irreversible and given us its first, fixed forms. The bet is safe, though: anticipate swerves wherever generalised crisis meets new media, patronage and deep shifts in values. The history of the avant-garde has never been more forward-facing.

My previous blogchain covered the surge in agile independent presses that support experimental writing through fictile business models; with a reach faster and more global than anything even their most explosive predecessors could have matched for ricocheting connectivity. The jury’s out as to whether these presses can or will attain real market and / or mythic penetration, though the signs are favourable (Fitzcarraldo Editions, for instance, was established in 2014 and has twice-proven Nobel olfaction.) Examples can also be found in the digital arts, where platforms like SuperRare permit the social collection of tokenised originals on the Ethereum blockchain. Initiatives like SuperRare are the undertheorised arrowheads in the emergence of complete ecosystems for art production and consumption that may soon give the gallery circuit a run for its money. The decentralised ledger may become the double-entry bookkeeping of art collection.   

Convergent evolution is behind the surge of genres that didn’t hit their unsuspected heights until quite recently; the most outstanding of which may be paleoart, a fascinating case spanning the history of human self-regard from evolution to post-humanism. Its archives are increasingly available in ways that urge the relational study of the scientific and artistic imaginations, their methodological friction and combinatory magic. Paleoart is basically an OS-cum-artform, closer in spirit and experimental nature to automata than illustration. Taschen’s 2017 Paleoart confirmed that it had finally arrived, transcending the scope of the natural history museum and the elementary school library. The synthetic shaping of prehistory through art and science over 200 years may contain important lineaments for speculative representation as we face a sixth mass extinction. The future could be fossil-fuelled.   

Amateur Vigour

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Recognitions
Peter Brown. Shot by Ned. 2015. Oil on canvas, 137 x 107 cm.

While news of the death of the novel―or of the book, for that matter―may seem no better than clickbait, the time is nigh to ask what next. In its Western variant, the novel built momentum over hundreds of years to become the dominant literary form of the twentieth century; its popularity and penetration dependent on―and responsive to―sometimes vertiginous phase shifts in media, means, markets. In this sense, its history also reads like a (living) fossil of the modern era, from mechanisation to globalisation, from the expansion of literacy to the invention of intimacy.

Given the scope, speed and scale of transformations and disruptions we are currently faced with―many of which the pandemic will consolidate or heighten―it would be remiss of us not to imagine new literary forms coagulating within our lifetimes.

And if the precondition for new forms is, indeed, platforms

Following the increased concentration of publishing and distribution; a handful of small, aggressively independent presses are now scouting for talent not in the koi-pond of MFA or residency programs but on social media, where it can be found at its most adventurous and unembellished. Business models vary but are central in the push towards autonomy these presses share. They are not manifesto factories, but agile enterprises that are [re]s[e]izing the means of production by taking everything, from their submission software to their bookmaking, into their hands; the way others microbrew beer or cure ham. Nor are these the zines of the nineties: the DIY book has at last hit its stride as a fine art, with objects as impressive as those issued by almost any major house―and better copy editing. The writers championed by these presses are, furthermore, early explorers in peerlessness, encouraged to pursue marginal practices that might be otherwise untenable by one-man editorial orchestras who aren’t tastemakers―a role best reserved for establishment reviewers―but craftsmen and colleagues themselves.

There are precedents, naturally, in presses like Adelphi, or magazines like Sur, with one significant and telling difference: the elective affinities at work here are more exclusively literary than anytime before. These are not groups of friends with similar backgrounds who meet periodically at a café or who attended the same universities. We’re not in Bloomsbury anymore. By and large, these are cadres of strangers from all walks of life―Twitter mutuals―more eclectic in their outputs than entire university departments.

Defamiliarisation is not in the product, but part of the process.  

To Attack and Dethrone Gods

This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series Recognitions
Still of Terence Stamp in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, 1968.

Borges was introduced to the original terrorist somewhere between Sir Thomas Browne and Marcel Schwob. He had no face and a name like a resonance chamber: Herostratus, arsonist of the second Temple of Artemis at Ephesus; punished with Oblivion, redeemed by Spectacle.

His subsistence, despite his damnatio memoriae, means Spectacle is not beholden to its Debordian trappings ―commodity fetishism, the mass media, etc― but rooted in the fundamental problem of representation, and so of art-world-historical interest. And as mundane as the Herostratian claim to infamy may seem today, it also took stock of change in the epochal temperature. To cite Debord himself: “[t]he growth of knowledge about society, which includes the understanding of history as the heart of culture, [and] derives from itself an irreversible knowledge, is expressed by the destruction of God.” Herostratus’ arson ushered in a new and outré aesthetic limit-experience, and it is interesting that legend has it Alexander was born on that very night.

The terrorist organisation as we know it ―cast as the asymmetric shadow of the modern state on a cellular level― lays no claim to the Herostratuses of the world, who are after attributions more exclusive to the State ―or, indeed, God― than the means of production. To become as the State, or like God, is to seize and control the means of destruction, no matter how fleetingly. To “attack and dethrone God” is to pay off an entire world’s accursed share.

The society of the spectacle decorates the serial killer with the benefit of Method, but it is the Herostratian terrorist who has κόσμος. He is destruction as the herald of a new world order. He may look like Descartes or like Terence Stamp in Teorema, but for his act to be effective and to ―maybe― resonate within collective, folk, historic or genetic memory, it must be unrepeatable and unforgettable. Therein his nod to Spectacle: the Herostratian knows that, more so than beauty, terror has aura.  

Two days ago, social media was ablaze with reports of “baby witches” hexing the Moon. The implications of their assault on not just Artemis, but the Thing-In-Itself, are occult and even philosophical, but they are not artistic, or historic, or spectacular. This attempted deicide was borne not from irreversible knowledge, but from a dearth of knowledge so profound as to be irreversible. As a charge on the Debordian House of Representatives, it didn’t even nick Representation.

A Spectre Is Haunting The West

This entry is part 4 of 10 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.

Mediating Consent

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series The Feed

When theologian Martin Luther debuted his Ninety-five Theses in 16th-century Germany, he triggered a religious Reformation — and also a media revolution.

1630 map of the Maluku Archipelago (Moluccas, or Spice Islands)

The printing press, invented approximately 50 years before the 95 Theses,  extended Luther’s reach from the door of the cathedral to the entirety of Europe. His criticisms of the Church were the first use of mass media: critiques of Catholic doctrine in pithy, irreverent pamphlets, produced at scale and widely distributed. As a result, Luther ushered in not only Protestantism, but an entirely new media landscape: one in which traditional gatekeepers — the church, wealthy nobles — no longer held a monopoly on the information that reached the people. The Catholic Church responded, of course, with pamphlets of its own — defending Catholic doctrine, refuting the new heretics, fighting the battle for hearts, minds, and Truth. 

The battle for control of narratives persists today, though the speed and scale have changed.

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The Age of Diffraction

There’s a state of mind that’s been increasingly common for me lately, which I can only describe as a sense of being outdoors in time during inclement temporal weather. I’ve been searching for the right metaphor to describe this feeling, and I think it is the feeling of being diffracted. Like being a hapless, innocent electron being tortured through the famous double-slit experiment. Here’s a cool animation I found on Wikipedia (physics would have been so much more fun if these sorts of animations had been available when I was learning this stuff).

Animation by Jean-Christophe BENOIST at French Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

If your state of mind is normally like that of a particle — you are here and now, thinking about this, doing that, with some uncertainty around it all — being diffracted is feeling like a wave. Like you’re in multiple states at once, with those states interfering with each other in ways that creates subjective dyschronia or timelexia.

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Markets Are Eating The World

For the last hundred years, individuals have worked for firms, and, by historical standards, large ones.

That many of us live in suburbs and drive our cars into the city to go to work at a large office building is so normal that it seems like it has always been this way. Of course, it hasn’t. In 1870, almost 50 percent of the U.S. population was employed in agriculture.[1] As of 2008, less than 2 percent of the population is directly employed in agriculture, but many people worked for these relatively new things called “corporations.”[2]

Many internet pioneers in the 90’s believed that the internet would start to break up corporations by letting people communicate and organize over a vast, open network. This reality has sort-of played out: the “gig economy” and rise in freelancing are persistent, if not explosive, trends. With the re-emergence of blockchain technology, talk of “the death of the firm” has returned. Is there reason to think this time will be different?

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Weirding Diary: 1

This entry is part 1 of 11 in the series Weirding Diary

I did a little poll asking people the extent to which they are treating the current zeitgeist as a temporary weirding (TW) versus a permanent new normal (NN).

The results got me thinking: what is the difference between the two? I think the answer is societal fun levels. A situation is a normal situation if inhabiting it is a matter of going on with your sustainable survival/existence habits, and expecting the situation to persist indefinitely. The mark of normalcy is the allocation of surplus energy to fun, after you’ve taken care of necessary present and future-oriented behaviors.

A situation is temporarily weird if you either can’t, or don’t want to, adapt to it using sustainable habits. In the former case, you cut back sharply on fun, minimize use of resources to survive, and save as much as you can for post-weirding normalcy. In the latter case, you try and exit the situation.

Wartime is the archetypal temporary weirding. Wartime civilian behaviors are sharply constrained survival behaviors. There is a limited ration of fun available to keep up morale, but in general, the wartime psyche does not incline to fun. You expect the war to end at some point, and a return to normalcy. Even if it is a new kind of normalcy that forces you to drop some old habits and form new ones.

When the situation is ambiguous, as it is around the world today, we cannot estimate the proportions of transient weirdness, new normal, and temporarily depressed old normal in the mix. In terms of an investing metaphor, we don’t know whether to go long on the zeitgeist by buying into new cultural stocks, hold on to old cultural stocks that we hope will regain their old value, or short the zeitgeist somehow.

I’m trying out a new format for exploring themes long-term. This is the first entry in my weirding diary.

The Age of Early Divinity

If you’re the sort of person who reads this blog, you’re probably the sort of person who wastes time wondering what we should name the age we are living in, instead of being out there doering things. Is it the Information Age? Digital Age? Eternal Millennial September? Avocado Toast Age? Anthropocene? Terminal Hobbesian Age? Post-industrial? Post-capitalist? Post-authentic? Post-reality? Post-post-modernist?

Are there quality long-arc candidates, good for at least a couple of centuries, that are not a depressingly negatively defined, backward looking post-something, with reasonable supporting logic? Allow me to offer a new candidate: Early Divinity. Here’s a table illustrating the logic of the name, which I’m fairly confident (p < 0.05), is a good one.

The name is inspired by the line Stewart Brand stole from anthropologist Edward Leach for the inaugural Whole Earth Catalog: We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.

Early divinity, simply defined, is an age, or more technically, aeon (a period presided over by a particular incarnation of Aion, the eternalist personification of time in Greek mythology), when we are as gods but aren’t yet good at it. In fact we suck at it. It is an aeon marked by the taking-on of civilizational challenges worthy of gods, and getting really mediocre or failing grades at it. One day, we might get good at this god game, but it’s going to be a while. So settle in and enjoy the Mediocre Civilizational Universe of Early Divinity, MCU-ED.

Periodization, of course, is something of a parlor game for amateur historians like you and me. Real historians are going to hate this anyway, so we might as well have fun with it. Here’s my meta-theory of Aionic periodization that yielded this label for our age, and a preview of what godly things are in our near future.

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