This is the third and final post of a series under the same title.
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In the gravelled parking space before the station several cars were drawn up. Their shining bodies glittered in the hot sunlight like great beetles of machinery, and in the look of these great beetles, powerful and luxurious as most of them were, there was a stamped-out quality, a kind of metallic and inhuman repetition that filled his spirit, he could not say why, with a vague sense of weariness and desolation. The feeling returned to him–the feeling that had come to him so often in recent years with a troubling and haunting insistence–that “something” had come into life, “something new” which he could not define, but something that was disturbing and sinister, and which was somehow represented by the powerful, weary, and inhuman precision of these great, glittering, stamped-out beetles of machinery. And consonant to this feeling was another concerning people themselves: it seemed to him that they, too, had changed that “something new” had come into their faces, and although he could not define it, he felt with a powerful and unmistakable intuition that it was there, that “something” had come into life that had changed the lives and faces of the people, too. And the reason this discovery was so disturbing—almost terrifying, in fact—was first of all because it was at once evident and yet indefinable; and then because he knew it had happened all around him while he lived and breathed and worked among these very people to whom it had happened, and that he had not observed it at the “instant” when it came. For, with an intensely literal, an almost fanatically concrete quality of imagination, it seemed to him that there must have been an “instant”—a moment of crisis, a literal fragment of recorded time in which the transition of this change came. And it was just for this reason that he now felt a nameless and disturbing sense of desolation—almost of terror; it seemed to him that this change in people’s lives and faces had occurred right under his nose, while he was looking on, and that he had not seen it when it came, and that now it was here, the accumulation of his knowledge had burst suddenly in this moment of perception—he saw plainly that people had worn this look for several years, and that he did not know the manner of its coming.
They were, in short, the faces of people who had been hurled ten thousand times through the roaring darkness of a subway tunnel, who had breathed foul air, and been assailed by smashing roar and grinding vibrance, until their ears were deafened, their tongues rasped and their voices made metallic, their skins and nerve-ends thickened, calloused, mercifully deprived of aching life, moulded to a stunned consonance with the crashing uproar of the world in which they lived. These were the dead, the dull, lack-lustre eyes of men who had been hurled too far, too often, in the smashing projectiles of great trains, who, in their shining beetles of machinery, had hurtled down the harsh and brutal ribbons of their concrete roads at such a savage speed that now the earth was lost for ever, and they never saw the earth again: whose weary, desperate ever-seeking eyes had sought so often, seeking man, amid the blind horror and proliferation, the everlasting shock and flock and flooding of the million-footed crowd, that all the life and luster and fire of youth had gone from them; and seeking so for ever in the man-swarm for man’s face, now saw the blind blank wall of faces, and so would never see man’s living, loving, radiant, and merciful face again.
Thomas Wolfe, Of Time and the River (1935)
Not long after Thomas Wolfe published the novel from which I’ve taken that lengthy citation, Walter Benjamin, in his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (section XIV) wrote: “One of the foremost tasks of art has always been the creation of a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.” To that remark, Benjamin appends a note, which itself begins with a quotation from the definitive “Surrealist,” André Breton: “The work of art is valuable only in so far as it is vibrated by the reflexes of the future.” In turn, both Breton’s and, even more clearly, Benjamin’s remarks resonate strongly with the one from Jean Laplanche, which I already cited in my first post of this three-post series on the commodification of cultural products, his remark that “in the cultural domain” it is “a constant” that “the offer . . . creates the demand.”
What demand is the work of art today creating? What future vibrates in it? How and when could the demand it draws forth ever be fully satisfied?
Benjamin contrasts painting—and poetry—with film. By his account, which is also the account of many others both before and after him, a painting evokes contemplation. As Salvador Dali’s The Last Supper did years ago to me, as I recounted in my preceding post, the painting arrests us before itself, bringing us to a stop, interrupting our daily rush of business, calling upon us to look, behold, and ponder. “The painting,” writes Benjamin, “invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his speculations.” Similarly, a poem makes its reader or other “recipient,” to use Laplanche’s term, pause and reflect over language itself and its power to say. The poetic work also brings us to a stop, interrupting the flow of the daily chatter wherein we subordinate language and its saying to its mere utility as a means for conveying information.
The history of art, however, is for one thing the history of the emergence of new art forms called up the better to satisfy demands eventually created by developments in older forms. Slightly earlier than his line about art’s tasks including the creation of new demands vibrant with the future, Benjamin writes: “The history of every art form shows critical epochs in which a certain art form aspires to effects which could be fully obtained only with a changed technical standard, that is to say, in a new art form.” He sees one such “critical epoch” emerging for both painting and poetry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the emergence of Dadaism, in which, as Benjamin puts it, “poems are [reduced to]‘word salad’ containing obscenities and every imaginable waste product of language,” just as in their paintings the Dadaists “mounted buttons and tickets” and the like. What was in play in such developments, by Benjamin’s analysis, was “a rentless destruction of the aura of their [own] creations”—and, indeed, of the “aura” of paintings and poems and works of art in general.
What new art form was preparing its own way in advance in Dadaism and the entire epoch of art it represents? Benjamin’s answer is that “Dadaism attempted to create by pictorial—and literary—means the effects which today the public seeks in the film.” By the “studied degradation of their materials,” the reduction of their works to the status of trash and waste, what they aimed to achieve was the “uselessness” of their works “for contemplative immersion.” Dadaist works systematically eschewed the contemplation to which art before them had called its recipients, and instead sought distraction. To attain that end, “One requirement was foremost: to outrage the public.” The Dadaist work thereby “became an instrument of ballistics. It hit the spectator like a bullet, it happened to him, thus acquiring a tactile quality” whereby it “promoted a demand for the film, the distracting element of which also primarily tactile, being based on changes of place and focus which periodically assail the spectator.” Comparing the traditional painting to the film, Benjamin writes:
The painting invites the spectator to contemplation; before it the spectator can abandon himself to his associations. Before the movie frame he cannot do so. No sooner has his eye grasped a scene than it is already changed. It cannot be arrested. [Georges] Duhamel, who detests the film and knows nothing of its significance, though something of its structure, notes this circumstance as follows [in Scènes de la vie future, published in Paris in1930 after a trip to the United States, and translated one year later as America the Menace: Scenes from the Life of the Future]: ‘I can no longer think what I want to think. My thoughts have been replaced by moving images.’ The spectator’s process of association in view of these images is indeed interrupted by the constant, sudden change.
It is at just this point that Benjamin comes to speak—as Heidegger had done a bit earlier and differently, as I discussed in my preceding post—of “shock” in relation to the work of art. He writes that this catching, controlling, and manipulation of the spectator’s attention by the devices of film—cuts, camera angles, etc.—“constitutes the shock effect of the film.” Whereas Dadaism insisted on outraging the public, and in that very insistence remained within the bounds of the moral—“outrage” as such ultimately being a matter of moral offense—“[b]y means of its technical structure, the film has taken the physical shock effect out of the wrappers in which Dadaism had, as it were, kept it inside the moral shock effect.”
Cinema’s unwrapping of shock from it moral wrapping—unmooring shock from its moral anchoring, loosening and abstracting it from its moral setting—is, in fact, more than a merely moral matter, in any ordinary understanding of morality. It is, rather, a literal de-contextualizing of shock that sets shock altogether free of any context that might give it any “sense” or “meaning” that might enclose it, buffer it, cushion shock’s shock. To put the same point differently, by riveting attention to itself, forcing and manipulating that attention, stripping it of all autonomy and making it conform to wants not its own, distracting it persistently and insistently from itself, the cinematic manipulation of images uproots shock from the temporality that has always heretofore defined it, the very temporality that gives shock itself time to “register.” That is, it unhinges shock from the very “belatedness,” Freud’s “Nachträglichkeit,” that permits shock to be felt and registered in its after-shocks. In the same way, for the repetition with which shock continues to hold on to its recipients, the techniques set to work in film substitute the incessant multiplication of shocks. No sooner is one shock delivered than another, new shock is on the way, one shock following right upon the preceding one, coming one after another without let-up, like fists reigning down upon someone undergoing a lengthy, brutal beating the end of which comes only with death or coma. Instead of the Nachträglichkeit of traumatic time one has the endless Nacheinander of the ticks of clock-time, the “after-one-another” of the seconds as they click by without cease. The compulsive repetition whereby shock arrests those it strikes, demanding that they finally stop and accept the invitation to contemplation—and to “abandon [themselves] to [their] associations,” as Benjamin nicely puts it, just as one might when encouraged to share one’s “free associations” during psychoanalysis—gives way to the cascade of distractions whereby modern life assaults us all.
After all, that’s where all the profit lies waiting to be made!
In La Cité perverse, his discussion (which I’ve cited before in this three-post series) of the perversity that founds and grounds the contemporary global “city”—from civitas, the Latin translation of the Greek polis: the public place, the commons, the dis-enclosed enclosure of community we build together every day in our communications with one another—Dany-Robert Dufour makes use of the by now old idea of the “monkey trap” that uses the monkey’s own appetites to catch it fast. The trap is very simple. It consists of a small but solidly tethered contraption inside of which an appropriately monkey-directed enticement has been placed, so that the monkey has to reach inside the trap to retrieve the treat. The aperture to the trap, however, is just large enough for the monkey to insert its reaching, fingers-extended paw, to grasp the monkey-goody inside, but too small to permit the monkey to withdraw the same paw once it has closed into a fist around its trophy. All that the monkey would have to do to escape the trap would be to open its paw and retract it. To do that, however, it would have to let go of the treat it first reached inside the trap to grasp. The monkey’s appetite—its “greed,” if you will—just will not let it let go, that it might itself be let go from the trap. So the monkey just stays there, trapped by its own wants, until the trapper at his leisure comes to collect his catch.
I have repeatedly cited Laplanche’s remark that in “cultural” matters—which is to say in matter’s of Dufour’s “city,” the place of “civilization”—it is always the offer that first creates the demand. However, when demand gets perverted into the need for commodities, then citizens are transformed into consumers, and we all become caught in a trap from which our own efforts to extricate ourselves can only entrap us more tightly. When the exchange of commodities replaces the exchange of cultural communications (another redundant expression, when heard as I’d like it to be heard here), we are all made into monkeys caught in a monkey-trap by our own demand.
At that point, demand has become the death of desire, in just the sense of that latter term in which Jacques Lacan, for instance, admonishes us all not to let go of our desire. Once our desire itself, with no will or intention on our part, gets associated altogether un-freely with a manipulatively produced demand for commodities that have been expressly designed to entice us to confuse them with our desire itself and to grasp for them, we find ourselves caught in a self-made bondage. It is a situation in which what is really no true choice at all is forced upon us as the only “choice” available.
On the one hand, we can “choose” to put our hands in the trap. We can reach out to grasp the goods and goodies held out to us as the key to our happiness, only to find ourselves frustrated, depressed, and despairing when the commodities we have been made to long for finally come our way, and we find to our chagrin that they do not satisfy our desire after all. Far from it! “Is that all there is?” we ask—as we pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and start all over again, reaching for the next commodity presented to us as the royal road to happiness, only to be led again to the same frustration, depression, and despair, and so on time after time after time, one time after another till all our time runs out.
On the other hand, the always have the “option” simply—contrary to Lacan’s wise injunction against doing any such thing—to give up our desire itself. Since desire has now become inextricably confused with the market-produced demand for those very market-produced commodities the securing of which leaves us empty and looking for more each time it occurs, to let go of our grip on those commodities in order to free ourselves from the monkey-trap, opting out of such pursuit of commodities unavoidably presents itself to us as just such a relinquishing of our definitive desires themselves. But to let go of our very desire itself is, as Lacan saw, to consign ourselves once again to frustration, depression, and despair.
Only if something happens to bring us up short, to make us pause and reflect, inviting us, in contemplation, to abandon ourselves to our own free associations, does the opportunity present itself for the trap in which we are caught suddenly to spring open, letting us loose at last. To repeat what I’ve said before: that’s what art’s for. However, how are we to find hope in art any longer, when art itself long ago now ceased to invite and invoke contemplation, and itself became a device of sheer distraction? Diverted into distraction, art becomes subservient to commerce, and no less a caught-monkey than each of us, art’s recipients. To that extent, at least, art no longer offers any interruption of the flow of goods around the globe, but has instead simply become part of that traffic. Art, voiding itself of all “usefulness for contemplative immersion,” which is to say voiding itself of all of what Marx called its “use value,” retains only whatever “exchange value” the market may give. That exchange value is often considerable, even astronomical, to be counted in the hundreds of millions of dollars for a single painting, but in the process of becoming such a valuable commodity for exchange art altogether loses its dignity, and any worth it may once of had for itself. Nor does the art-work itself, as offer, any longer create the demand that answers to it. Instead, it is the demand for art, the “buzz”-built clamor in the art-market for a given commodity, that produces the supply—that is, makes whatever the buzz builds the clamor for count as “art” in the first place. “Art” thus becomes no more than that which gets taken as art, in effect, in the art market. Art becomes whatever so “counts” as art, whether paintings by Van Gogh or literal pieces of shit—such as those produced by the machine created for that purpose in 2000 by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye as the first of eight versions of a work he entitled Cloaca, and selling for roughly $1,000 per shitty piece, to borrow an example from Dufour.
None of this even shocks us at all any longer, of course. We have long ago grown quite numbed to it, just as nurses and doctors in the emergency room of a big-city hospital become inured to all the pain and suffering that perpetually surrounds them. Writing of the situation in the industrialized nations of 1936, Benjamin observes in one of the notes he appends to the passage from which I have been drawing citations that “film corresponds to profound changes in the apperceptive apparatus—changes that are experienced on an individual scale by the man in the street in big-city traffic, on a historical scale by every present-day citizen.” As he discusses both in his article on “the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” and elsewhere, everyday modern urban life is a life in which the individual is subjected every moment of the day to one shock after another, and made thoroughly numb in the process. Such numbing is always the result of being made the recipient of persistent, uninterrupted pummeling, one shock after another with no time any longer even left for any after-shocks wherein the shocks might be registered by those who undergo them. We monkeys are thereby kept always with our hands in the monkey-trap, being the good little monkeys our trappers would have us be.
A dismal picture indeed! For one thing, it is a picture of art in its death-throes. The commodification of cultural products which is at work in the globalization of the market economy puts out the light of the truth that used to put itself into work in art-works.
Much has happened, of course, in the arts themselves during the century and more since the Dadaism that Benjamin discusses first came along. In painting we have traversed multiple newer developments, fads, and fashions, from Cubism to Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Op Art, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Hyper-Realism, and various other developments. Poetry and literature have gone through modernism to post-modernism to post-post-modernism and whatever lies beyond that. Then there is the proliferation of brand new art forms from the Happenings of the 1960s to Body Art to the many permutations of Performance Art today. And all that’s not even to mention the progression in film itself, let alone the movement from mechanical to digital reproduction that Benjamin never really dreamt of, with all the possibilities for the production, reproduction, and dissemination of new works of art, and what amounts to the radical democratization of art and artistic creation that is taking place as the digital explosion continues to expand, like the universe since the Big Bang.
None of that, however, is any proof against art’s death. Death takes time, and the greater the life that comes to its end, the longer the dying. Concerning art, it is as Heidegger writes in his “Afterword” to “The Origin of the Work of Art”: “The dying proceeds so slowly, that it takes a few centuries.” And even after that, it may take far longer yet for the news of the death to get around—just as Nietzsche said it would no doubt take a couple of millennia before the news of God’s death was heard everywhere.
As for what, if anything, may be still to come, after the death of art, that is really just a form of the question of whether there is any longer any “culture” at all possible after that. Is there any future for culture? Or has the future itself closed down on us, consigning us all forever to an endless, trapped-monkey existence as good consumers, spending freely for the good of the economy, as President Bush urged us all to do during our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and especially after the first forward surge of the Great Recession of 2008 that those wars did so much to help unleash? In our benumbed and distracted consumer-condition, can there ever again be a new demand that gets through to us, if not from art then from elsewhere?
Benjamin himself offers some hope. So even does Heidegger. Neither could be accused of optimism, certainly. What is more, the hope that each offers is one that can only rise, Phoenix-like, from hopelessness. Both suggest, nonetheless, that there may be a way of pulling out of the traffic.
Can we? Can we somehow do that—pull out of the traffic in trauma, and the commodification of cultural products that is inseparable from it?
That is a topic I will leave for another occasion—another series of posts perhaps.