were the greats, Euclids, etc., but today everyone must work at trying
to interpret the riddle of technology.
The time has come to stop making sense -- to replace History with myriad
exaggerated theories of post-, para-, quasi-, and super-. History has
been defeated by the determinisms of market and numbers, by the processes
of reification and abstraction. These form the great juggernaut of modernity
that has destroyed History by absorbing it, by turning each of History's
independent concepts to serve its own purpose. Another kind of response
is then called for. Ideas that themselves change or dissipate as they
are absorbed, that are formed with the presupposition that they will be
subject to reification. Only a rear-guard action is possible, of guerilla
ideas that can disappear back into the jungle of thought and re-emerge
in other disguises, of fantastic, eccentric ideas that seem innocuous
and are so admitted, unnoticed by the media-mechanism, of doubtful ideas
that are not invested in their own truth and are thus not damaged when
they are manipulated, or of nihilistic ideas that are dismissed for being
It seems that "the war babies," those born after 1937-38, were
"born dead" -- to use a motto favored by the Hell's Angels.
The philosophism of "reality" ended some time after the bombs
were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the ovens cooled down.1
Marxian thought has always assumed that the breakdown of the pretenses
of humanistic culture would yield a reality that was more responsive and
coherent than that of humanistic illusionism. Yet behind the mask of humanism
there exists not the truths of materialism but the nightmare scenarios
of logic and determinism. There emerges a crystalline world responsive
only to numerical imperatives, formal manipulation, and financial control.
Consider the 200 or so general reservations agents at Pacific Southwest
Airlines in San Diego. The airline warns its agents that they are subject
to "computer-assisted productivity measurement and telephone monitoring."
Simply put, this means that the agents are electronically supervised from
the moment they plug in their headsets to the moment they leave. They
are expected to average 109 seconds a call, and 11 seconds between calls,
during which time they catch up on paperwork. The computer also tracks
break and lunch times. Agents are subject to demerits if they are "unplugged"
for more than 12 minutes a shift.2
Capital has always spoken of itself as a culture of flux, premised on
ideas of change, evolution, and development. But capital is, in fact,
a universe of stasis, governed by immutable self-perpetuating principles
that gradually but incessantly push back all other realities in a process
of ever-increasing purification. Ironically, the universe of pure capital,
characterized by the model, by numerological truth, and by abstract relations,
is a kind of realization of idealist philosophy. But the world of essences
turns out to be dominated not by Spirit, but by the commodity. The abstract
world turns out to be not a utopia, but a site of alienation and banality.
This is perhaps the real meaning of American culture: the image of immigration
over the ocean, of travel over the plane of water. That voyage entailed
a process of erasure by which, through passage over an abstract plane,
the specificity of Europe could be disengaged, leaving the laws of capital
to play themselves out unfettered.
This is not to say, however, that America is the future. On the contrary,
Europe is today the true locale of science fiction. The evidence is all
there: the cars are faster, products are more rationally designed, the
financial markets function with greater suppleness. Even Europe as nostalgic
site of authenticity bespeaks its science-fictional character, as if it
were the continent that "time had forgotten." World War II brought
about another kind of disjunction with the past.
Programs called "worms" are capable of altering a system's fundamental
operations or shutting it down entirely. They delete specific portions
of a computer's memory, thus creating a hole of missing information. Another
type of software demon, called a "virus," instructs the host
machine to summon its stored files. Each time the machine does so, the
program copies itself onto the software. The computer's memory can soon
turn into a mass of confusion.3
Use-value and exchange value. The idea of change in capitalism is premised
on the idea that consciousness within capital can qualitatively change.
Such change is embodied in the idea of a change from a society of use-value
(where men were men and horses were horses) to a society of exchange-value,
where illusion and manipulation are dominant. But when was this golden
age of use-value? Is it not possible that use-value was an ideological
invention of the Nineteenth Century? After all, the birth of modern capital
in the Renaissance was based on trade in luxuries, in silk and in spices.
It was based on the invention of bills of exchange. The first mass-produced
objects were books.
The factories extend their flanks of fouler brick one after another, bare,
with shutterless windows, like economic and colossal prisons. . . . And
inside, lit by gas-jets and deafened by the uproar of their own labor,
toil thousands of workmen, penned in, regimented, hands active, feet motionless,
all day and everyday, mechanically serving their machines.4
As early as the Renaissance, certain structural features appear in capital
that remain unchanged to the present day, while at the same time undergoing
a continuous process of intensification. These devices are premised on
the idea of the breakdown of existing limits of time and space, and replacing
those limits with more malleable definitions. Paradigmatic of these devices
was the invention of the bill of exchange, by which a merchant could buy
or sell goods in one city by means of a note promising payment in another
city at a later date. At the same time, corporations were first formed
whose members were tied together by common business interests rather than
by familial relationships. At this point also, transportation networks
began to develop, with the emphasis on decreasing the time it took to
travel or move goods from one place to another. The constant impetus has
been to make time more easily manipulated, while specific spaces have
become more interchangeable. The guiding principle has been to replace
all other directives with the governing power of the market.
Should an American savage come to the Palais Royal, in half an hour he
would be most beautifully attired and would have a richly furnished house,
a carriage, many servants, twenty courses on the table, and, if he wished,
a blooming Lais who each moment would die of love for him. Here are assembled
all the remedies of boredom and all the sweet banes for spiritual and
physical health, every method of swindling those with money and tormenting
those without it, all means of enjoying and killing time. One could spend
an entire life in the Palais Royal, and as in an enchanting dream, dying,
say, "I have seen and known all."5
If capital is static, how then does one account for the appearance of
change within capital? While capital's basic forces remain static and
move towards establishing their pure hegemony, the economy of scales does
change. As capital's domination becomes more and more complete, so does
the level of alienation become intensified. The notion of a classical
capitalism existing in the Seventeenth Century thus also comes under scrutiny.
The idea of a classical capitalism would thereby become a completely purified
capital of the future rather than a rudimentary capitalism of the past.
The biological model was not the most appropriate one for the history
of things. Perhaps a system of metaphors drawn from physical science would
have clothed the situation of art more adequately than the prevailing
biological metaphors: especially if we are dealing in art with the transmission
of some kind of energy; with impulses, generating centers, and relay points;
with increments and losses in transit; with resistances and transformers
in the circuit. In short, the language of electrodynamics might have served
us better than the language of botany; and Michael Faraday might have
been a better mentor than Linnaeus for the study of material culture.6
The appearance of change in capitalism is premised on two factors. First,
increase in numerical scale produces a development in the character of
institutions. Thus, a row of seventeenth-century houses in Amsterdam differs
from Co-Op City in New York. Renaissance Florence differs from late Twentieth-Century
Tokyo. The speed of the stagecoach differs from that of the Concorde.
But structurally, each of these phenomena remains consistent with its
predecessor. Secondly, each stage of technological and social development
is based on a further step towards abstraction: a further severing of
the ties between the goal to be achieved and material nature, a further
tying of technology to the abstract reality of rational thought. Thus,
to draw again from the example of transportation, one observes a progression
from sailing ship, to steamer, to nuclear-powered submarine. In the development
of money, one sees the progression from the precious-metal coin (bearing
the likeness of the sovereign), to paper money (bearing the symbols of
the state), to the plastic credit card (bearing the logo of the corporation).
Ed Debevic's is a zany 1950s diner where the cooks heap on the meatloaf,
the waitresses wear saddle shoes and a brightly colored sign reads, "Ed's
Chili Dog: The Cadillac of Chili Dogs." A half mile south stands
Shaw's Crab House, a dimly lit seafood emporium reminiscent of the haunts
that gangsters frequented in the 1940s. On the north side of town, Un
Grand Cafe, with its brass fixtures and festive paintings, recreates the
fin de siecle gaiety of a Paris bistro. Although very different, these
colorful restaurants have two things in common: they usually have lines
out the door, and they are owned by Richard Melman, an irreverent 44-year-old
restaurant impresario. . . . To get the atmosphere right, Mr. Melman pens
a description of each proposed restaurant as if it were a movie treatment.
For Ed Debevic's, he wrote that the year was 1952, when teenagers were
not yet wild and Elvis was not yet a giant. Ed, a fictional character,
was Polish and opened up his diner after serving in Korea.7
This idea of progressive abstraction combined with progressive numerical
increase might be characterized by the term hyperrealization. Hyperrealization
is usually used to describe the jump between industrial culture (the real)
and post-industrial culture (which is hyperreal). However, one can draw
from that chain of events a sequence which more generally describes the
progression of epochs within capital. Each era becomes a hyperrealization
of the preceding era, which in turn is assigned the value of reality.
The process of hyperrealization is vividly seen in a single urban landscape
-- such as that of New York. The walk-up row house is hyperrealized into
the large elevator-serviced apartment building. The corridors, plumbing,
and electric systems of the brownstone multiply and proliferate into new
configurations reflecting new hyperrealities of population, economics,
and technology. In a similar way, the office building is transfigured.
Scale is transformed from the four- or five-story commercial building,
to early skyscrapers like the Woolworth Building, to the World Trade Center,
with its massive height and floor space. Materials change from wood, brick,
and stone, to steel and glass, to synthetic plastic panels. The early
office towers emphasized high-relief in their facades -- allowing natural
light and shadow to play dramatically across their surfaces. In the post-war
era, the curtain walls become flatter and flatter and more and more reflective
and glossy. The passage of light is de-emphasized, while the interior
of the building becomes visually hidden (by its reflective surface): on
a symbolic level, as well, the office tower moves toward self-contained
The use of this idea of hyperrealization is particularly helpful in the
analysis of events in twentieth-century art. One may see Cubism as a hyperrealization
of Cezanne, or Cezanne, for that matter, as a hyperrealization of Courbet.
Similarly, one can understand Abstract Expressionism as a hyperrealization
of pre-war European modernism, or Frank Stella as a hyperrealization of
Abstraction Expressionism. Each transition reflects a movement toward
abstraction, in the social sense, from the previous norm. Thus, in each
stage, form becomes both more empty and more generic. In certain cases,
such as that of Abstract Expressionism, scale is even made to increase
in a way that follows the increase in scale evident in the social landscape.
The modern conception of man as a machine is more economic than biological
in its accent. It refers to the human robot rather than the human animal,
and suggests an efficient control of the costly movements of the body,
a submission to some external purpose indifferent to the individual. .
Hyperrealization also offers a useful alternative to the polar concepts
of influence and appropriation. If the idea of influence posits an historical,
conscious relationship between one generation of artists and the next,
and appropriation offers a denial of such ideas as historical hierarchies
and the possibility of transformation, hyperrealization implies that cultural
change does occur. However, such changes are beyond the historical will
of the artist and are subject instead to the movement of conditions within
the social. Hyperrealization would differ, moreover, from the psychoanalytic
idea of the "strong misreading," which implies as a source of
change an Oedipal struggle between one generation and the next. Hyperrealization
suggests that, regardless of the possible existence of such Oedipal conflicts,
generational change in culture is caused by extra-individual deterministic
Hyperrealization also helps explain the fixation with "The New"
that is characteristic of this culture. It is sometimes said that The
New is tied to the concept of originality. But The New is more profoundly
linked (as is perhaps the cult of originality itself to the process of
hyperrealization. The New represents the hyperrealized state of something
that came before. Thus, consumer products are often labelled "New"
to lend them the aura of hyperrealization. There are also periodically
cultural movements entitled New or New Wave -- in music, dance, or literature
(there is even a New Humanism). Such labels announce the arrival of a
phenomenon that seeks to be seen as a hyperrealization of the previous
cultural norm. The prefix pop- (as in pop-culture) functions in a similar
The perfect heroes and heroines of this myth of modernity were the petite
bourgeoisie. They appeared in many ways to have no class to speak of,
to be excluded from the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and yet to thrive
on their lack of belonging. They were the shifters of class society, the
connoisseurs of its edges and wastelands. Thus, they became for a time
the alter egos of the avant-garde -- ironically treated, of course, laughed
at and condescended to, but depended on for a point of insertion into
a modern life.9
As the process of hyperrealization leads unceasingly to the closure of
the system of capital, all the old organic categories begin to lose their
meaning. The traditional dualities of life-and-death and male-and-female
collapse into identities. There are today no longer any men or women,
despite the seeming revival of those categories in the current decade.
In fact, a figure like Sylvester Stallone is emphatically not male but
only a generic sign for the idea of male, while Madonna is only a sequence
of nostalgic representations of female.
Likewise, the poles of life and death collapse into a state of non-life
and non-death. No one either lives or dies. The possibility of life is
negated by the imposition of mechanical time and by regimentation, both
physical and temporal. Meanwhile, death is replaced by disappearance and
is negated by the manipulation of time within the recording media.
In the visual arts, the era of the early 1970s believed itself to be a
great flowering of post-capitalist culture. It believed that the commodity
and its mind-set would be replaced by performance and by site-specific
works. The artist would perform in real time, enacting an example of non-alienated
work. The artist would play out the role of the free-subject, creating
a model that would be emulated elsewhere in society. But the '70s represented
not the flowering of a new consciousness, but rather the last incandescent
expression of the old idealism of autonomy. After this, no time would
be real, no labor would be living, no cultural expression would be outside
the commodity system.
The artists of the '70s abandoned living in the traditional urban neighborhoods
and began to inhabit under-utilized manufacturing buildings in places
like Soho in New York. In do doing, they were rejecting all the problems
of the established capitalistic urban order and were starting for themselves
a new culture in these buildings where people had never before lived.
Here, there would not longer be bourgeois apartments, but only open "spaces."
Harmful commercial American food would be replaced by life-giving macrobiotic
cooking. But this kind of "renovation," by which the commercial
function of the old loft buildings was ignored and formally changed, was,
in fact, a crucial factor in the modern city's transformation into its
empty double. Suburbia, which had previously come to surround the old
"modern" city from without, now began to take seed, like a virus
from within, as these areas were turned into "bedroom communities."
[Howard Hughes] was the first one to close the empty circle, in the thirties,
with his Lockhead Cyclone -- note that it wasn't a mystere or a Phantome,
it was a cyclone. . . . He came back to the same spot, New York. Howard
Hughes was the Lindbergh of the end of the world, a hero of post-modernism.
After he invested enormously in aviation, he set up movie studios. He
had a hand in everything that appeared at that time having to do with
speed, the airplane, and the cinema. He tried to enjoy his omnipresence
in the world. First, he lived by having several apartments all over the
world, each decorated the same way. Every day he was served the same meal,
brought the same paper at the same times. . . . Then the situation became
unbearable and he ended up a technological monk in the desert of Las Vegas,
without getting out of bed. He spent the last fifteen years of his life
shut up in a hotel tower, watching films, always the same ones, especially
an old American film on the life of men shut up in "Ice Station Zebra"
in the North Pole. He saw it one-hundred sixty-four times.10
The consumer-credit corporation had acquired an investment banking and
brokerage house. The needs of the brokerage house required that an extensive
new computer facility be built. The corporation had originally planned
to build the facility in the suburbs, where costs were lower, but a location
was selected in the city after the city government had offered the corporation
a site for free. The building was called the Financial Services Center.
It was located next to a highway, for automotive access. Twin escalators
ran up to a second-floor elevator landing. At night, car-service taxis
would line up to take home late-working employees. But the computer center
was also situated in an area of warehouse buildings that had been converted
for residential use. Thus, "amenities" were required for the
"community." Next to the building, which was a modern design,
sheathed in prefabricated, textured concrete panels, in front of the parking
area, a small park was built with lawns, nineteenth-century lampposts,
and a wooden latticework pavilion supported by white neo-classical columns.
Around the perimeter of the park were several tall metal poles, functional
in design, without any historical decoration, on top of which were located
video surveillance cameras, in beige enamel bullet-proof casings.
There is a certain collapsing of the poles of capital and labor. The CEO,
nominally the corporate leader, is captive to the status of the corporation's
profits and stock price. The company's stock may, in turn, be held by
a variety of institutions including, perhaps, union pension funds, which
are presumably representatives of labor. Likewise, for labor, as it is
cast in the role of the consumer, there is a move toward the leveling
of hierarchies. Andy Warhol said, "You can watch TV and see Coca-Cola,
and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke,
and just think, you can drink Coke, too."
There is also a certain breakdown in the hierarchies of work. The impetus
to power is replaced by an impetus to glamour. As Warhol also explained
in 1975 (before airline deregulation): Airline stewardesses have the best
public image. . . . Their work is actually what the waitresses in Bickford's
do, plus a few additional duties. . . . The difference is that airline
stewardessing is a New World job that never had to contend with any class
stigmas left over from the Old World peasant aristocracy syndrome."
Most importantly, however, the heads of the system -- the 'captains of
industry,' the producers of popular entertainment, and the political leaders
-- no longer operate in a free field either. They too are prisoners of
demographics, computer models, and market forces.
Life has been replaced by what Debord calls the "non-living."
This is the space of dead labor where life no longer follows its own course
and becomes alienated from itself. The role of living is transferred onto
the figure of the celebrity who plays out the idea of autonomy with its
free field of action. Life becomes solely a media image. Archeologists
believe that in Aztec society, specially chosen youthful members of the
nobility were given a year of pampered life and then sacrificed for the
satisfaction of the gods. But the practices of contemporary culture are
no less savage. When a person becomes a media celebrity, his or her life
is no less literally taken away. The celebrity's organic time is put to
use to create the generic image the media requires. The star "renounces
all autonomous qualities in order to identify himself [or herself] with
the general law of obedience to the course of things."
The very idea of organic time is superseded and replaced by a mechanized,
segmented, digital time (that corresponds to the space of this system).
The standard of chronological measurement has become the fate of vibration
of the quartz crystal. Living time is transferred onto the sequential,
segmented, linear mediums of visual and audio recording. First, film replaces
organic time with its strings of mechanically-timed sequential images.
The videotape replaces film, further entrapping life into magnetically-encoded
lines of information. In audio, as well, sound is first transferred onto
the phonograph record where it is mechanically reproduced by means of
the linear track of the stylus, then onto magnetic tape, and finally onto
the audio disk, where a light beam reads digitally-encoded information.
As the system is purified, it gains a para-spiritual quality: living sound
becomes an alchemical amalgam of light-beams and numbers.
The same system that mediates life mediates death. The inscription of
time onto these linear tracks allows it to be halted, repeated or altered
at will. With film and television technology, a scene from London in the
1930s, for example, can be replayed at any time and any place. The "action"
never dies, but it loses its specificity as to time and place. Warhol,
in particular, understood this process. This is what led him to undertake
the constant activity of photographing, taping, and filming. In so doing,
he took it upon himself to re-enact the functioning of the media, its
transformation of the organic moment into the media moment. It is nevertheless
true that, for the time being, there is still some awareness of the organic
death of the physical body. But this has become an event without meaning,
an embarrassment. When possible, it is hoped that the bodies will just
disappear, so as not to interfere with the reality of media time.
Life and death also lose their meaning as metaphors that describe culture.
To speak of the death of modernism is to speak of an organic end in a
culture in which the construct of the organic has become both dispersed
and crystallized, in which endings are transformed into sequential continuities.
Death is replaced by the process of hyperrealization. Classical art does
not die. It is hyperrealized into modernism. Modernism, in each of its
stages, is, in turn, hyperrealized into something else.
On the Sony, a two-dimensional space war faded behind a forest of mathematically
generated forms, demonstrating the spatial possibilities of logarithmic
spirals; cold blue military footage burned through, lab animals wired
into test systems, helmets feeding into fire control circuits of tanks
and war planes. Cyberspace . . . a graphic representation of data abstracted
from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity.
Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations
There are religious overtones to these occurrences. The numerical systems
become in and of themselves the bearers of meaning in the culture. In
this sense, there are three great religious centers in the United States:
Los Angeles, which is the new eternal city, the new Rome of the media,
and Las Vegas and Atlantic City, which are pilgrimage towns where the
populace goes in quest of numerical truth. Los Angeles is the Rome of
media representations. In Beverly Hills, the houses of the stars are laid
out with all the frozen splendor of the palaces of cardinals in Baroque
Rome. Throngs go to Universal Studios and Disneyland to pay homage to
these shrines of media reality. Las Vegas and Atlantic City are the great
sites of the vision quest. With the timeless and placeless casinos, the
populace tests itself against the pure numerical games. Here the metaphysical
lessons are learned, portends reveal themselves, fates are sealed.
Get back in touch with yourself by getting into a Kohler Masterbath. Now
your private world consists of six climate sensations (sauna, whirlpool,
sun, steam, wind, and rain), each to be conjured or banished at will.
Program your climate in advance or change it from moment to moment.12
Along with life and death and men and women, sexuality also ceases to
be a factor. The '60s and '70s were not so much a period of sexual revolution
as a last florescent display of the idea of sexuality before its collapse
into the ecstasy of numbers. Foucault claimed the ancient regime was a
society of blood where martial courage, the willingness to die in war,
was the ruling passion. He claimed that bourgeois culture invented sexuality,
with its emphasis on procreation, familial cohesion, and sensual pleasure.
If the sexual era has an historically-determined beginning, it may also
have an historically-determined end. Today, the passions of the flesh
are replaced by more abstract obsessions. There is the eroticism of speed,
of the automobile and the airplane; there is the eroticism of numbers,
of the financial markets and the personal computer; and there is the eroticism
of the media, of the Walkman and the color T.V..
What seemed to be an environmental expedient turned out to be the key
to creating a new kind of internal world -- a theater that walled out
all distractions and focused all attention on what the industry calls
the "retail drama." Because it is cut off from the Earth's daily
and seasonal rhythms, and because management demands that everything always
looks new, the enclosed mall is timeless: because it is isolated from
its surroundings everywhere, the mall is placeless. It is a malleable
space in never-never land, linking the idea of shopping with the idea
Throughout this century, artists have described the transformation of
the organic body into the machine. Cubism, Futurism, and Duchamp (in The
Large Glass) were all concerned with this eventuality. Robert Smithson's
early work is obsessed with the same notion of flesh becoming armor, with
organic appendages becoming riveted tubes. Warhol, of course, said that
he wanted to be a machine. The conceptual artists took this one step further,
making art that approximated machine processes. Hanne Darboven became
a computer lost in its own calculations. Roman Opalka became a kind of
human digital clock. Sol LeWitt anticipated computer program trading on
Wall Street with program sculpture.
All this reflects the literal loss of the human body in this century.
The human figure becomes the statistical figure. The production line substitutes
mechanical motion for organic motion. In medicine, medical engineering
replaces human organs with electro-mechanical ones. Pills, whose appearance
always retains a purist geometric and coloristic symbolism, are ingested
to change metabolic function or mood. Genetic engineering, or course,
completes this process. Not only is the basis of life explained as numerologically
encoded data, but life is then subject to techno-mechanical manipulation
whereby the laws of production finally replace reproduction. Each human
life becomes a statistic, demographically useful in determining government
policy, marketing strategies, and insurance rates. Previously, it was
only the worker whose body was subject to compromise by the machine. Today,
the whole social body willingly subjects itself to the same regimentation.
There are the disciplining stainless steel machines of the health club,
the confined geometric spaces of the automobile, and the functionalism
of the International Style.
Sol Yurick, in his book Metatron, has written of this system from a point
of view that might be called a reverse-structuralism. According to Yurick,
it is not ancient, natural archetypes that are influencing the present
system. Rather, pure capital itself is a perfect formal archetype that
one can see crudely played out in traditional power structures. Thus,
the present represents a disclosure of the play of pure financial and
electronic systems, no longer encumbered by traditional mythology and
Despite the contribution of Baudrillard, it is important to note that
the significance of Simulation is as a summary of the researches of the
'60s and not as an original discovery in and of itself. Within the realm
of criticism, Simulation is a synthesis of the Debordian Spectacle and
the semiotic researches of Roland Barthes. But the precedents in the arts
in the '60s are no less clear: The Beatles, after all, sang, "Strawberry
Fields, nothing is real, nothing to get hung up about." Warhol said:
"Nothing was ever a problem again, because a problem just meant a
good tape, and when a problem transforms itself into a good tape it's
not a problem anymore." The key contribution of Baudrillard is his
detailed description of the functioning of a semiotic system without a
The combination of darkness and enclosure of the gambling
room and its subspaces makes for privacy, protection, concentration, and
control. The intricate maze under the low ceiling never connects with
outside light or outside space. This disorients the occupant in space
and time. One loses track of where one is and when it is. Time is limitless,
because the light of noon and midnight are exactly the same. Space is
limitless, because the artificial light obscures rather than defines its
Progressively, all of the social is being transferred onto the electro-magnetic
digital grids of the computer. From long-distance telephone service, to
air-traffic control, to banking, the flow of all communications, movement,
and resources is channelled through the digital circuits. The computer
chip becomes a universal gateway through which everything must pass. With
computer graphics and synthesized voices and music, computers even gain
a hand in rebuilding specific reality according to their own digital rules.
It is not generally acknowledged to what extent each individual is tied
to these grids of computer communication. But the telephone line is an
endpoint in a huge electronic network that enmeshes the entire globe.
More importantly, credit cards, which are replacing the relative autonomy
of currency, tie huge segments of the population into a kind of slavery
of computer debt. One is lured into the system with the promise of a "credit
line," the ability of the "user" to spend the computer
money any time and any place. But, if the payments are not make, a kind
of passive wrath comes down on the user, who is banished from the system
and the grids. That is to be left as helpless as an excommunicated Christian
in the Middle Ages.
Thus the social is finally becoming the site of "pure abstraction."
Each human being is no longer just a number, but is a collection of numbers,
each of which ties him or her to a different matrix of information. There
is the telephone number, the social security number, and the credit card
number. The financial markets, those huge arenas of abstract warfare,
have completely detached themselves from any relationship with the material
world. Currencies float. National boundaries crumble. The markets come
to be governed by technical factors, by computer-controlled trading. The
hero of the marketplace is no longer the engineer, who is still engaged
in practical technology, but rather the financial wizard, the "number
cruncher," the manipulator of purely abstract forces.
On an experiential level as well, the social moves onto the grids of circulation,
each one embedded in the next. Each day, the "suburbanite" moves
from subdivision to car to office building. The traveller moves from the
grid of the urban streets to the transcontintental network of superhighways
to the global network of air travel and back again. Sensual pleasure is
replaced by abstract pleasure. Food is replaced by ambience. Space is
replaced by amenities.
The history of abstract art is a reflection of the history of this transformation.
With Cezanne, the materiality of the object comes to a poignant end. In
Cubism, the burgeoning commodity-culture of the new Twentieth Century,
and its inhabitants are transformed into a gray world of abstract planes
and vectors. With Mondrian, a decade later, any reference to specificity
is gone and the world is described as an utopian grid of abstract flows
and forces. If Mondrian emphasized the systematization in this situation,
Abstract Expressionism reflects the alienation to which this system gives
rise. Systemized space is revealed as emptied of meaning. This is the
reality with which the empty spaces of Rothko, for example, are filled.
Thus the history of abstract art is the history of a real progression
in the social. It is the history of the organization of the compartmentalized
spaces and the formal systems that make up the abstract world.
Robert Smithson, "A Museum of Language in the Vicinity of Art,"
Art International, March 1968.
2. Harley Shaiken, "When the Computer Runs the Office,"
The New York Times, March 22, 1987.
3. Jamie Murphy, "A Threat from Malicious Software," Time, November
4. Hippolyte Taine, Notes on England, 1859.
5. Karamin, Letters, 1790.
6. George Kubler, The Shape of Time, 1962.
7. Steven Greenhouse, "Eateries Aim to Entertain," The New York
Times, August 21, 1986.
8. Meyer Schapiro, "The Nature of Abstract Art," The Marxist
9. T. J. Clark, The Painting of Modern Life, 1985.
10. Paul Virilio, Pure War, 1983.
11. William Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984.
12. Kohler magazine advertisement, 1987.
13. William Severini Kowinski, "Main Street in a Spaceship: The Covered
Mall," Smithsonian, December 1986.
14. Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour,
Learning from Las Vegas, 1972.