Leonardo On-Line: Artist's Rant . . .

The Search for Redemption

The search for a redeemer, it should be said, is not exclusive to the German nation in the post WW1 era. The idea of redemption is contained within the idea of Progress and is part of the energy that fueled the Second Industrial Revolution in the late nineteenth century. The artistic expressions of the nineteenth century are filled with roads to redemption and portraits of the faces of Redeemers: redemption through machinery; redemption through romantic love; redemption through genius; redemption through nature; redemption through education; and finally, in our own time, redemption through the production and consumption of goods and services. One has only to scan a newspaper on Sunday afternoon or watch an hour of commercial television to become overwhelmed with all of the possibilities for redemption that Western society has available for purchase.

Redemption from Enforced Passivity

The real history of the liberation of humans dates from the 1880s. In the autumn of 1886, Sigmun d Freud read a paper about a case of male hysteria before a meeting of medical professionals in Vienna. Freud in 1886 was primarily a neurologist who had an interest in the study of neurosis. Hysteria, since the time of the Greeks, was considered primarily an illness of women. The root word of hysteria, hysteros, means womb. Hysteria was also thought to be caused by some kind of sexual difficulty or deprivation. In the Middle Ages, hysteria continued to be considered an illness of sexual origin, perhaps of diabolical causes. Many people who were tried and killed for witchcraft in the Middle Ages may have been hysterics. By the nineteenth century, however, hysterics were seen as "fakers." They were seen as people who had "nervous symptoms" such as convulsions, paralysis, spasms, pain and other physical symptoms. The study of the nervous system in 1886 was a new frontier. Sigmund Freud, along with Charcot, took hysteria seriously as a medical problem. By bringing a case of male hysteria into the medical meeting in 1886, Freud identified hysteria as a problem that was not limited or defined by gender.

The idea of hysterical identification, according to Freud, allows patients to express, in their own symptoms, not only their own problems and experiences, but those of several other people. Hysterical identification enables an individual patient suffer for a group of other people and to act all the parts of the drama that they are involved in. Freud characterized hysteria as a "psychic infection." Identification is not imitation. It is, rather, an assimilation based on a similar case and is derived from common elements that remain unconscious. Identification is the original form of emotional tie with an object. In hysterical identification, the object persists. Hysterical identification contains elements of and strives toward the condition of the "wanna-be."

Further explorations suggested that hysteria was in fact a dis- ease that had its origins in self-censorship, that docility called enforced passivity and known in the vernacular as "put up and shut up." Hysteria is the consequence, in other words, of social control. The need for prediction and control is our inheritance from the work of Copernicus and Galileo who, in the 1500s, delivered a blow to the human psyche so terrible that the society has not yet really dealt with its ramifications. The blow dealt by astronomy was this: humanity is not the center of the universe; God has other things on his/her mind. This blow, which is not unlike the psychic injury dealt Germany through the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War One, required the installation of reflexive mythologies in Western culture. Myth Number One, by Isaac Newton: The universe can be known through human reason. If the universe can be known, its behavior can be predicted and therefore controlled. The effects of this myth are everywhere visible.

Lewis Mumford, in his book The Myth of the Machine, writes about something he calls the "mega machine" or the "invisible machine." He describes this as

a machine made of living but rigid human parts, each assigned to his special office, role, and task, to make possible the immense work output and grand designs of this great collective organization . . .

Mumford goes on to discuss the qualities that the components of this invisible machine must possess in order for the machine to work. Chief among these qualities is that of docility. We might also call this passivity. The passivity is of an enforced type: The bending of the human spirit into a mechanical form requires this. According to Mumford, it is the assembly of a group of individuals with individual memories and wills into a mechanized group or megamachine of this type that built the pyramids of Egypt. Mumford also suggested that

the secret of mechanical control was to have single mind with a well-defined aim at the head of the organization and a method of passing messages through a series of intermediate functionaries until they reached the smallest unit. Exact reproduction of the message and absolute compliance were both essential.

Mumford also sees the military as a blueprint for the megamachine and notes, "through the army, in fact, the standard model of the megamachine was transmitted from culture to culture. . . . "

The invisible or megamachine was not unique to any one culture. Latin American writer Mario Vargas Llosa has suggested, for example, that one of the reasons that the civilizations of South and Central America were overrun by European invaders during the fifteenth century involves a kind of social organization among these groups that suggests the invisible machine that Mumford describes.

The invisible machine in the shape of the medieval church can be said to have at least partially inspired the intellectual revolt that is called Renaissance Humanism, for example. The megamachine is large and impersonal, and the kind of administrative method required to operate a megamachine requires a studious repression of the autonomous function of the human personality.

Since the nineteenth century, culture in Western Europe has been built on the production and distribution of consumer goods. As Karl Marx suggested, production creates product and the need for product simultaneously. We live at this moment bounded on all sides by both visible and invisible machines. In the sense that women have traditionally been individuals who must deal with the imposition of enforced passivity, we have, for the most part, all become women. And we have become women because it is becoming nearly impossible to escape the invisible machines and the passivity that they require and impose through mass media and institut ionalized fantasy. Donna Haraway, in her book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, calls this the "feminization" of work.

Advertising creates institutionalized fantasy. Advertising sets up and defines the terms of the fantasies. Advertising speaks to us about the search for romance and about the forepleasure that we may receive through the acquisition of consumer goods. Advertising also provides us with a shopping list from which we can select those images and ideas with which we may construct the collages of hysterical identifications that we call selves that speak to us and to others about the unconscious connections that we share.

Redemption from Self-Censorship

Women, according to Camille Paglia, have been identified with the moon, with the dark, with nature. The struggle to conquer woman has, in some sense, been poetry about man's inability to conquer the universe. Control of nature would seem, at least superficially, to resonate with control of, and redemption from, death.

Women, therefore, being colonies of the male imperative, have traditionally been secondary to the artistic and creative process; they have been exempted from speech. They have been silenced, and silently they have fed and clothed the makers; they have been the models, the muses. The business of women in the arts, for the most part, has been one that might be described by the word "adjunct." In addition, as John Berger and Camille Paglia have noted, the whole visual tradition of Western European art is full of naked, distant women looking at the floor, the trees, the skies, the Glory of God; looking everywhere, it seems, but into the eyes of the beholder. These defeated, bashful images of women seem to say to us, "I am not really here---or, if I am here, you don't see me." One wonders what success the male imperative would have had in Western society if the European iconographic tradition would have been filled, instead, with paintin gs of naked, distant men looking away from the beholder while shyly covering their genitals.

The relationship between women and technology is similar, in spite of the best efforts of writers like Erika Whiteway and Tiffany Lee Brown. These two women, who insist that technology ought not be gender-identified, like Camille Paglia and Annie LeBrun, have taken on conservative orthodox-feminist victim-consciousness. Orthodox feminism would restore women to the condition of the medieval gynaeceum, in that it would restrict women, in many cases, to writing about "women's studies" and "women's issues" and making "women's art." It is interesting to note that both Whiteway and Brown are part of the renegade-publisher community at this time.

Equally illuminating with regard to the position of women and technology is the history of women and telephony, which appears to illustrate stereotypical ideas about the roles that women are assigned in cultural change: At the opening of the age of telephony, all telephone operators were boys. Eventually, the boys were replaced by women because women were nicer, more reliable, and more docile than the boys.

Redemption through the Aesthetics of Fascism

The National Socialist Party in Germany was a movement grounded in Modernism that travelled essentially in two directions: it aestheticized political discourse and, at the same time, gave politics an irrational edge normally associated with religious experience. In part, this was due to the German need to dehistoricize its relationship with the rest of the world as the result of the devastating conditions of the Treaty of Versailles. Norse mythology was manipulated by the National Socialists to create a psychic defense against the effects of the Treaty of Versailles. Substance and content were not important to them, and neither were the moral consequences of their actions. Legalit y, which is form, was everything.

In his essay "The Art of Telling the Truth," Michel Foucault, writing of the tension between antiquity and modernity, asks the following: "What is my present? What is the meaning of this present? And what am I doing when I speak of this present? This, it seems to me, is what this new questioning of modernity means . . . "

According to Berthold Hinz, the Third Reich was a dehistoricized culture. Dehistoricization was a way of dealing with the psychic wound inflicted upon the German culture by the disastrous outcome, for Germany, of World War I. The fascist impulse in aesthetics is directed at the surface and resists depth.

It has been said that Dante's poetry was meant to be read as scripture was read, that it could be read in a variety of ways, including, but not limited to, the allegorical and the moral. Dante left a letter saying that he himself wanted the Comedy interpreted as Scripture. Dante saw his poetry as an extension of Holy Writ, which meant that the content was not arbitrary or slippery. In order for expression and content to serve fascism, it seems that expression must be overdetermined and content underdetermined. Substance, in this setting, is counterproductive, because the substance or content in this setting (if it exists at all) is unstable and can be changed. Consequently, the surface features of the work are more important than the substance of the work. Fascist aesthetics are more or less the opposite of Dante's thinking about his own work.

In fascist aesthetic practice the superficial features of the work engage the beholder immediately, and one apprehends the organization of the pattern as arbitrary and not connected, except in a reactionary way, to the practice of the past. What fascism undoes is the ability of the beholder to read symbols as one might read Dante. Fascism creates an artifact of ruin which ultimately is as romantic as the nineteenth-century ruins of Fonthill Abbey. Fascist aesthetic practice is a romanticization of the intellect and the abstract; it is irrationally rational. Irrational rationality is an aura that clings to Hitler, as well.

Martin Heidegger, in his essay "The Anaximander Fragment," said that "thinking is the first poetics." This suggests the idea that thinking is something essentially mimetic and representational in nature; something that can slip and be slipped; something that is not at all tied to telling the truth. It is important to say that the United States has also become dehistoricized to some extent since the Vietnam War. Both cultures, German and American, moved toward image and away from representation. Represe ntation, as Jean Beaudrillard has pointed out, has its ultimate authority in the divine.

Berthold Hinz has also pointed out that dehistoricized cultures are searching for some kind of "metahistorical unity." Hitler certainly tried to create the image of unity in architecture and visual arts such as painting by requiring artists to work in representational and genre styles. Genre painting is an artform that speaks to the values and aesthetics of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European middle classes. Genre painting and representational architecture, two forms of art expression favored by Hitler, are essentially forms directed towards symbol making. The German citizen of the Third Reich was encouraged through spectacle and image to identify with German greatness. The citizen of the post-Vietnam United States has also been encouraged to identify through spectacle and image with the greatness of America. The interesting part of both of these identifications-with-greatness is that the citizens of these nations are encouraged to identify with the greatness of their nations precisely at those moments when the nations themselves are forced to confront the possibilities of their own actual decline in greatness.

Cyberpunk: Redemption from the Body

In cyberspace, or Cyberia, as some call it, nobody has a body. Identities float around freely, and the identities themselves are flexible and subject to change without notice. Cyberspace is that invisible, disembodied sphere, as several authors have noted, where electronic interaction takes place. It is the place where your telephone calls happen; it is a kind of electrical Isla nd of the Blessed. Rudy Rucker, RU Sirius, and Queen Mu, in their 1992 book Mon do 2000 User's Guide, defined and packaged cyberculture and tied it to postmodernist criticism, particularly that of Jean Baudrillard with regard to hyper-reality and simulation. Cyberculture is interesting also in terms of its support of consumer/commodity models of hysterical identification with fetishes, in this case primarily those of electron ic goods and services.

One of the most interesting and mostly unexamined subtexts informing cyberculture, however, lies in its ties to Greek Cynicism, a philosophical system that survives primarily through anecdote and is connected to followers of Socrates. Cynicism as a belief system is actively hostile to the physical body, as if somehow not to have a body would be a good thing, as if having a body were a form of limitation. As an example, Cynic thought and belief inform traditional Christian beliefs about sensuality and ascetic practice. Cynicism wants a divorce from the body, and cyberculture has acquired the technology that can provide it.

In cyberspace, everyone is a simulation of themselves, and this is possible, in part, because all of the visual cues that inform more usual forms of personal interaction are missing. All things are possible without these cues, and the lack of these cues gives rise to interesting debates as to what constitutes real, as opposed to simulated, identity. These debates acquire a special poignancy when disembodied voices find themselves inevitably and relentlessly attracted and pulled towards the wisps of other disembodied abstracted identities, which one might as well call "head cheese"---an idea that suggests an intellectual construct devoid of substance or context. "Head cheese" can also be used to describe a text that is fleshed out and humanized in the mind of the receiver, a quiet disembodied voice in the imagination that exists primarily as the shadows of one's own thoughts.

In cyberspace it is also possible to create and support multiple identities. It is possible even to make a claim that creation of identity and affect constitutes a form of poetry. This is an aesthetic act of spectacle that is directed at the surface and also resists depth. The ethic of truthfulness is such, in cyberspace, that multiple-identity creation is sometimes not perceived as dishonesty; the justification being that each identity is merely a fleshing out or development of some "real" aspect of the identity hacker's own personality, as he or she perceives it.


It appears at this moment in time that the ideals and values that humanity has cherished since the Renaissance are going up in flames. Traditional ideas about the value of the individual are threatened by hysterical identification and institutionalized fantasy. Consensual reality is in a state of flux, gender roles that rely upon the ability to do physical work are collapsing and humanity is beginning to realize that nature cannot be conquered and colonized.

All the while, however, humans are laboring with great intensity to create large mechanical social structures that invite both male and female to participate in a kind of self- willed passivity that previously only females enjoyed. Donna Haraway, in the "Cyborg Manifesto," explains the blurring of categories of human, nature and machine, and suggests that privilege based upon gender and species are rapidly disappearing. Looming on the horizon as a result of this intense and competitive transformation is what mathematician and writer Vernor Vinge refers to as the Singularity: that moment when most grounds and values that define the human will collapse and have to be reinvented as the result of the creation of superhuman intelligence technologies. The posthuman era is at hand. The posthuman era is the newest and perhaps most terrifying mask of the redeemer, but it is what we wanted, it is what we have been working towards and what we have asked for. Whatever shall we do?

copyright 1997 ISAST

created 1 July 1997

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