Sunday, May 27, 2007

the (anti)material imagination

One has to admit that modernism in art is, for the most part, a pain in the arse. It's too often not the dissolution of the imaginary border between art and life, but rather a series of put on weirdo gestures: a contrived wounded bird act that only serves to stress by contrast the elevated actressy qualities of its producers.

This apparent division: between primary qualities and secondary qualities; the ideal and the real, that art sometimes promises to abolish but really cannot, for political reasons: this apparent division follows so closely the style and rhetoric of advertising as hardly justifying enquiry into its other possible sources.

The rules of advertising are of necessity simple. The pure colours of advertising surely indicate the divinity of the commodity, (necessarily material but) somehow free from the depredations of time that afflict all thing material.

(the influence of these ideas could be tracked alongside technological advances in printing)

But this same metaphysical system is (naturally) applicable universally, and one can imagine the consequences: a wonderfully pure sphere of interpersonal communication (inevitably) undercut by an ugly insistant materiality.

(something Lyotard gets very well: the interplay of the concept ordering matter and the materiality, so to speak, of matter: the grain of the voice etc, like all problems a political problem)

Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, exiled in Switzerland, writes of the first Cubist painters:

"In the words of Locke, these painters distinguish between primary and secondary qualities. They endeavor to represent the primary, or most important qualities, as exactly as possible. In painting these are: the object's form, and its position in space. They merely suggest the secondary characteristics such as color and tactile quality leaving their incorporation into the object to the mind of the spectator"

In my opinion Kahnwelier has the right terminology but applies it inexactly. The point, surely, is as much to stress the real richness of materiality against its induced reflexive evasion.

1908: Picasso is going to attempt to undermine this upstart Primary. Marie Laurencin is looking at things from a different angle.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

braque attack

Who can now recall the allusive, vaguely prissy style of Jean-Francois Lyotard?

"What then, is the postmodern? What place does it or does it not occupy in the vertiginous work of the questions hurled at the rules of image and narration? It is undoubtedly part of the modern. All that has been received, if only yesterday (modo, modo, Petronius used to say), must be suspected. What space does Cézanne challenge? The Impressionists'. What object do Picasso and Braque attack? Cézanne's."

"In an amazing acceleration, the generations precipitate themselves. A work can become modern only if it is first postmodern. Postmodernism thus understood is not modernism at its end but in the nascent state, and this state is constant."

And in fact Lyotard is here close to recapitulating the historico-philosophical system his work sets out to undermine: the graduated unfolding of the Western Spirit: pontiff upon pontiff: each stage in turn precipitating the substrate of its successor, formally:

Maggot - Caster - Maggot

(a system that incidentally erases the influence on cubism, for instance, of non-western art and mass-market kitsch art)

Lyotard's work, in contrast to this, is understood to exemplify "incredulity towards meta-narratives". But is this really an attack on something fundamental? Or rather a grandiose way of querying the persuasive but ultimately faulty metaphysics of television? That by its academic nature cannot but eternalise a problematic that is very much historically specific?


"The spiritual life can be accurately represented by a diagram of a large acute triangle divided into unequal parts, with the most acute and smallest division at the top. The farther down one goes, the larger, broader, more extensive, and deeper become the divisions of the triangle. The whole triangle moves slowly, barely perceptibly, forward and upward, so that where the highest point is “today;” the next division is “tomorrow,” i.e., what is today comprehensible only to the topmost segment of the triangle and to the rest of the triangle is gibberish, becomes tomorrow the sensible and emotional content of the life of the second segment.

At the apex of the topmost division there stands sometimes only a single man. His joyful vision is like an inner, immeasurable sorrow. Those who are closest to him do not understand him and in their indignation, call him deranged: a phoney or a candidate for the madhouse."

- Wassily Kandinsky Concerning the Spiritual in Art

Friday, May 25, 2007


Brueghel's peasants do not yet teach Zen. We suspect this set of lessons, in this form, derives from the rise of the commodity system through the late Nineteenth Century.

(The centralised dissemination of social instruction by the church replaced by a more diffuse form of instruction via the capitalist system)

All this in Zen: the staged object lesson (teaching as symptom or parlour game demonstration), with its leisure and its mystery, all this reflects, maybe too much, the experience of windowshopping. It's mirroring, perhaps, a situation where commodities invite pretexts (seemingly), any pretexts, for their existance, rather than pretexts preceding the purchase of commodites. And as such we're unsure as to whether we're getting the authentic Zen, or if rather it's a broken-off piece of the overall superstructure, fused with ideas from books and simply rebranded: Zen.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

these bits and pieces

"...for certain I am sending you the pictures I told you about yesterday in my letter ... there are three of them the biggest a violin on its side and then a still life done at Druetrx the hotel-keeper's place with the letters Mazagran armagnac cafe on a round table a fruit bowl with pears a knife a glass. The other still life Pernod on a round wooden table a glass with strainer and sugar and bottle written Pernod Fils with in the background posters mazagran cafe armagnac 50..."

- Pablo Picasso

"The Architect's Table is cluttered by objects that had traditionally been either hand-made or produced by relatively simple, if not pre-industrial techniques. That is to say, the 'object-world' evoked or depicted by this and other such Cubist paintings is the precisely object-world that was -- at that very time -- being rapidly destroyed, and replaced with a new one, by mass industrial production. Every conceivable object -- no matter how 'aristocratic' or 'banal' in past times -- was then beginning to be mass-produced and widely distributed by huge industrial combines. The reign of the spectacle-commodity had begun. Tables and carafes and posters and pieces of furniture and glasses and calling cards and knives were mass-produced by complex electrically-powered machines. The skilled artisans of the past were now unneeded, obsolete; the relatively scarce objects formerly reserved for the bourgeois alone could be increasingly be purchased by anyone, anywhere."

"Clark notes that 'viewers of Cubism have always relished the sheer banality of the things it does denote,' but is unable to rise above this banality himself. He asks, half-rhetorically, 'What could we find to say about them?' If this were the T.J. Clark of the chapter on Pissarro and anarchism, the answer would be: 'These bits and pieces are fragments of the world hated and bombed to pieces by Seurat and Ravachol.'"

- Bill Brown

Already we can do more to categorise the object-world of cubism.

Firstly the recapitulation of the baroque ensemble that itself registers delight, fascination and horror with regard to the passage of time:

(Kautsky: "we see that identical words change their meaning over the centuries, that ideas and institutions that resemble each other externally have a different content, because they arise out of the needs of different classes under different conditions")

so, perishable precious items: fruit, flowers; stringed instruments;

(Plato: "for harmony is not like the soul, as you suppose; but first the lyre, and the strings, and the sounds exist in a state of discord, and then harmony is made last of all, and perishes first" )

objects mass-produced through the factory system and consumed straightaway, or nearly: newspapers; tobacco;

objects petitioning for an alternative use of time: aperitifs; the calling card.

Monday, May 21, 2007


"I can hardly understand the importance given to the word research in connection with modern painting" Pablo Picasso says in a 1923 interview, coolly anticipating Daniel-Henry Miller's latest fulgurescence. But how does cubism work?

You can imagine:

accepted the cinematicity of consciousness,

the minimum that a film needs to do to stress its involvement in (what we are obliged to call) a three-dimensional world is that it captures an object in rotation.

Now, the film here would consist of many (notionally) two-dimensional images, the aggregation of which merely give the impression of three dimensionality.

But each of these images outside its sequence could equally represent no possible real object.

Simultaneous to the realisation of objectivity in (notionally) three dimensions is the complementary realisation of the object in time.

Consequently the forced thwarting of three-dimensionality of the object of cubism simultaneously thwarts the temporality of this object.

Cubism as such is, for the first time in the history of western art, able to capture the metaphysics of commodity production.


"To my fellow lodgers:

I am in possession of five toy rifles. They are hanging in my wardrobe, one on each hook. The first belongs to me, and the others can be claimed by anyone who wishes to send his name. If more than four people send in their names, the supernumerary claimants must bring their own rifles with them and deposit them in my wardrobe. For uniformity must be maintained; without uniformity we shall get nowhere. Incidentally, I have only rifles that are quite useless for any other purpose, the mechanism is broken, the corks have got torn off, only the cocks still click. So it will not be difficult, should it prove necessary, to provide more such rifles. But fundamentally, I am prepared, for a start, to accept even people without rifles. At the decisive moment we who have rifles will group ourselves around those who are unarmed. Why should not tactics that proved successful when used by the first American farmers against the Red Indians not also prove successful here, since after all the conditions are similar? And so it is even possible to do without rifles permanently, and even the five rifles are not absolutely necessary, and it is only because they are, after all, there, that they ought also to be used. But if the four others do not want to carry them, they need not do so. So then only I, as the leader, shall carry one. But we ought not to have any leader, and so I, too, shall then break my rifle and put it away.

That was my first manifesto. Nobody in our house has either time or inclination to read manifestoes, far less think about them. Before long the little sheets of paper were floating in the stream of dirty water that, beginning in the attics and fed by all the other corridors, pours down the staircase and there collides with the stream mounting up from below. But after a week came a second manifesto.

Fellow inmates:

Up to now no one has sent his name to me. Apart from the hours during which I have to earn my living, I have been at home all the time, and in the periods of my absence, when the door of my room has always been left open, there has been a piece of paper on my table, for everyone who wished to do so to put down his name. Nobody has done so.”


the horror of production

In the world of advertising the most persuasive effect to employ is horror. This advert positively whispers (to an audience some of whom may have never been in a factory) but you don't know about how any of this works. You only know whatever we tell you. As such it's neo-liberal propaganda, but inverted: stressing as nominally positive terms that normally signify decadence; so, stressing surplus rather than its opposite. Got me?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

the classical

"Between the two world wars the revolutionary working-class movement was destroyed by the joint action of the Stalinist bureaucracy and of fascist totalitarianism (the latter’s organizational form having been inspired by the totalitarian party that had first been tested and developed in Russia). Fascism was a desperate attempt to defend the bourgeois economy from the dual threat of crisis and proletarian subversion, a state of siege in which capitalist society saved itself by giving itself an emergency dose of rationalization in the form of massive state intervention. But this rationalization is hampered by the extreme irrationality of its methods. Although fascism rallies to the defense of the main icons of a bourgeois ideology that has become conservative (family, private property, moral order, patriotism), while mobilizing the petty bourgeoisie and the unemployed workers who are panic-stricken by economic crisis or disillusioned by the socialist movement’s failure to bring about a revolution, it is not itself fundamentally ideological. It presents itself as what it is — a violent resurrection of myth calling for participation in a community defined by archaic pseudovalues: race, blood, leader. Fascism is a technologically equipped primitivism. Its factitious mythological rehashes are presented in the spectacular context of the most modern means of conditioning and illusion. It is thus a significant factor in the formation of the modern spectacle, and its role in the destruction of the old working-class movement also makes it one of the founding forces of present-day society. But since it is also the most costly method of preserving the capitalist order, it has generally ended up being replaced by the major capitalist states, which represent stronger and more rational forms of that order"

Debord Society of the Spectacle

Thursday, May 17, 2007

the politics of fantasy

"the truth is there is something terribly wrong with this country"

"if our government was responsible for the deaths of a hundred thousand people"

"you are being formally charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism, treason and sedition"

de te fabula narratur

[its you what there talking about]

This film is already suggesting the fragility of its worldview (this is what it sells). And yet it does not theorise alternatives, rather it reproduces a paranoid politics derived from its paranoia.

The social conditions bringing about this vexed worldview are never alluded to. Instead the film launches into a yet more unreal fantasy: the vendetta of a corpse persisting in its desires. Natalie Portman is suffering. And her desires, and by implication yours, persist only in death.

Introduction to trial by suffering: certainly a reactionary theme and some of these scenes relate to historical fascism: the sexualisation of desexualisation; puppet and dwarf; the Reichstag burning.

Fascism as a historical force can hardly follow such prompts. The point at which we are obliged to use the language of fascism will follow from the crowding out of every other alternative rather than the content of the most egregious propaganda. And alternatives still exist.

But what kind of cinema would be made by people who learned about politics from commercial newsproduct? or people who learned about sex from commercial pornography? and what kind of politics?

Can we not suppose that the figure of V is the imaginary incarnation of inculcated inaction? the representative on earth of all the recipients of impersonal communication: publicity; propaganda; pornography? a figure representing separation universalised?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Friday, May 11, 2007

Cinema Reviews: 300

It's well known that the hook for every big-budget film is deployed in the trailer. These films are not art and do not deserve to be considered as such. But the trailers are revealing.

This is 300 though it might as well be called The Phalange. An expensive publicity campaign for this film ran at the same time as the US administration threatened war against Iran (formerly Persia).

This film is notable for its naïvety and its reproduction of racist figures. But central to its appeal is a valorisation of idiocy typical of commercial cultural product.

Firstly what you get is the sound effects, turned up too loud, with a fragmentary message, something about Aryanism. This is to introduce "Adult to Child" communication, if only formally, since the content is hardly the work of adults.

300 works around ideas about knowledge. Knowledge, in this case, must be understood in its most important sense, as social and sexual knowledge. What the film does is reproduce the discourse of the hypothetical village idiot, who can barely think or speak, who understands almost nothing of customs or history, as if this ignorance, rather than its opposite, was indissolubly linked to the male sexual ideal. 300 is a fairy palace of idiocy, which even here cannot be loved for what it is, but only tacitly accepted for a short while. For this reason the Spartans are condemned to die, in order to remove the context where this SEN discourse would be ridiculed and punished, as it is in reality every day in class society.

The militant idiocy of The Phalange is worthless, ideologically speaking, in any genre other than genocidal warfare. 300, however, is hardly bound by the constraints of the old bourgeois cinema, and is not at all restrained from imagining its Others along the lines of a racist miscegenation fantasy. This is Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, shown as everything Aryanism represses: a teeming mass embodying the repressed gay sex fantasies that cannot but be induced in its bullied masochistic Aryan audience.

This is Nazi cinema and ought to be regarded as such.