technological idolatry

Technological idolatry is the most ingenuous and primitive of the three [higher forms of idolatry]; for its devotees (...) believe that their redemption and liberation depend upon material objects - in this case gadgets. Technological idolatry is the religion whose doctrines are promulgated, explicitly or by implication, in the advertisement pages of our newspapers and magazines - the source, we may add parenthetically, from which millions of men, women and children in the capitalistic countries derive their working philosophy of life. (...) So whole-hearted is the modern faith in technological idols that (despite all the lessons of mechanized warfare) it is impossible to discover in the popular thinking of our time any trace of the ancient and profoundly realistic doctrine of hubris and inevitable nemesis. There is a very general belief that, where gadgets are concerned, we can get something for nothing - can enjoy all the advantages of an elaborate, top-heavy and constantly advancing technology without having to pay for them by any compensating disadvantages.

- Aldous Huxley, from 'The Perennial Philosophy' (1945)

This warning about technology comes from an unlikely source, Huxley's classic work on mysticism, written during WWII, when mechanized warfare was in full destructive swing in many parts of the world, but apparently gadgets (bulky radios? bakelite phones?) were already becoming a source of worry as well.

Huxley's analysis fits remarkably well with Nicholas Carr's discussion of a recent lecture given by Bruno Latour, titled 'On some of the affects of capitalism' (pdf).

As Latour shows, today's belief in capitalism has reached an almost transcendental level of absolutism. It has become "second nature", contrasted with the "first nature" of our messy, finite, earthly existence, and it operates in the rarified priestly realm of spreadsheets and growth percentage points.

...the world of economy, far from representing a sturdy down to earth materialism, a sound appetite for worldly goods and solid matters of fact, is now final and absolute. How mistaken we were; apparently it is the laws of capitalism that Jesus had in mind when he warned his disciples: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." (Matt 24-35).

Carr, in turn, points out how Latour's vision of absolutist economics applies equally well to technology.

Latour finds, in thinking about our shifting sense of economics, a great irony in the "inversion of what is transitory and what is eternal." The irony becomes even stronger when we consider the similar inversion that has taken place in our view of technology. The glory of technology stems from the possibilities it opens to people in the material world of first nature. The glory hinges on technology's contingency, on the way it yields not only to circumstance but to human desire and planning. When technological progress comes to be seen as a transcendent, implacable force, a force beyond human fashioning, it begins to foreclose opportunities at least as often as it opens them. It starts to hem us in.

Huxley defined three varieties of what he called "higher idolatry": technological, political and moral - distinguished from "lower idolatry" because they managed to achieve "the highest degree of respectability". Today it would seem there are two: economic and technological, both characterized by the mantra of what Adam Curtis called 'The Curse of TINA' (There Is No Alternative) and its corresponding affect, helplessness.

Both Huxley and Latour mention hubris and its retribution, fate or nemesis (literally, 'to give what is due'), and both relate this to the real world, to "first nature". Today these are global, and to most people abstract threats like climate change, while for Huxley it was the (overseas) reality of WWII.

Modern man no longer regards Nature as being in any sense divine and feels perfectly free to behave towards her an overweening conqueror and tyrant. The spoils of recent technological imperialism have been enormous; but meanwhile nemesis has seen to it that we get our kicks as well as halfpence. For example, has the ability to travel in twelve hours from New York to Los Angeles given more pleasure to the human race than the dropping of bombs and fire has given pain? There is no known method of computing the amount of felicity or goodness in the world at large. What is obvious, however, is that the advantages accruing from recent technological advances – or, in Greek phraseology, from recent acts of hubris directed against Nature – are generally accompanied by corresponding disadvantages, that gains in one direction entail losses in other directions, and that we never get something except for something.

in holland...

For more exotic wanderings in Dutch literature, who better to turn to than J. Slauerhoff? The restless poet who never felt at home in his time or place, and whose most famous poem is appropriately titled 'Homeless' ('Woninglooze', 1934), starting with the immortal line:

Only in my poems can I make my home

Never at home in the Netherlands, Slauerhoff travelled the world as a naval doctor, drawn especially to the East and to China. His stories and novels take place in all corners of the globe, including Spain and Portugal, China, the Middle East and Mexico.

And he never seemed to be at home in his time either. He was often labeled a late Romantic, whose classic rhymed poetry seemed outdated in the explosion of modernist styles of the interbellum. At the same time, his cross-cultural interests and intertextual experiments - as in his novel 'The Forbidden Kingdom' (1932), where the identity of a sailor in 20th century Macau fuses with the 16th century poet Camões - made him thoroughly modern. His groundbreaking work to make some of China's classic poets accessible for Dutch readers, much like Ezra Pound did in English, added another layer to his modern oeuvre.

One thing speaks clearly from his work: Slauerhoff didn't like Holland very much. As he once remarked:

...in Holland you need to be careful [when you voice an opinion]. It's a good country, in global trade too, but if you'd depend on it for your inspiration it would be a sad state indeed. I consider Spain and China the most civilized countries of the world. Dutch culture is like rye bread: solid, substantial but lacking grace.

Even more than 'Homeless', which describes the pull he felt of a wandering life, Slauerhoff's poem 'In Holland...' ('In Nederland...', 1936) articulates the desperate push away from his native country.

Here is the poem in full, in the translation by Paul Vincent. (Poetry International has the Dutch and English versions conveniently side by side.)

Continue reading the full post »

patterns gallery

Here's the start of a new photo gallery, called patterns, collecting abstract images of organic and inorganic, natural and industrial structures.

The image that best illustrates the idea is this one, 'Beijing Tree' (2013), where organic and inorganic overlap...

Beijing Tree

Explore the full patterns gallery.

planned landscapes

Exploring "the effect our culture has on landscape," Ger Dekkers' photo book 'Planned Landscapes: 25 Horizons' (1977) shows the Dutch polder landscape at its starkest, abstract extreme.

If, as the saying goes, God created the world but the Dutch created Holland, then these photos reveal the Dutch as obsessive-compulsive planners, designing and executing their environment with a ruler, dividing manmade land and domesticated water, laying out straight asphalt roads and planting functional windbreaking lines of trees.

Ger Dekkers - Planned Landscapes - single image

The book consists of 25 landscapes, each consisting of a series of seven square images performing a formal operation on what are already rigidly formal compositions. Cinematographically speaking, Dekkers uses tracking shots - usually parallel, sometimes perpendicular - and occasional panning shots to create slightly different perspectives of the same landscape. His mathematically executed operations further heighten the landscapes' artificiality, resulting in minimalistic, graphical compositions that remind of Mondrian's paintings except for the pale palette of greens, browns and blues.

In many instances the landscapes become purely abstract compositions of lines and planes, with the horizon as a constant, always in the same place in the middle of the square. As Dekkers explains:

The horizon acts as a middle line in the square pictures; this gives a continuous line that runs throughout the series, and thus the whole project.

The continuous horizon line is repeated in horizontal lines of tree shadows, and juxtaposed by vertical lines of trees and canals, occasional diagonal lines of dikes, and sometimes, very playfully, the curve of a road. Even the frivolous patterns of clouds, which in 17th century Dutch painting often dominated low-horizoned landscapes to emphasize nature's majesty, are here subjugated to the middle line of the planned horizon.

Ultimately, as Dekkers' approach shows, and as other modern Dutch artists have also realized, only by taking its plannedness to its graphic extreme is the Dutch landscape's beauty revealed.

Here is one complete series, titled 'Wood near Biddinghuizen 2' (provisionally cobbled together from a battered copy, just to show the idea).

Ger Dekkers - Planned Landscapes - Wood near Biddinghuizen 2

The book, from 1977, dates from the era when planning was at its modernist height, with Le Corbusian thinking looming large over both city and landscape planning. To create these kinds of images today would still be possible in some parts of the Netherlands (Flevoland, Friesland, Zeeland perhaps), but it would probably be much harder to find such pristinely empty horizons. The new era of neoliberal planning would be unavoidably visible somewhere on the horizon in an industry zone of distribution center boxes or a newly erected suburb that advertises authentic living in the country.

In our information age it would also be difficult to find any landscapes unadorned by signs - road signs, warning signs, property signs, billboards, recreational signs for boating, bicycling, walking with or without dogs, and explanatory signs at each of the tiny patches of newly introduced wilderness picturing which species have been designated to thrive there.

In a strange way, Dekkers' planned landscapes are a thing of the past, replaced by micro-managed landscapes whose horizon is constantly broken by clutter and nudging - abstraction replaced by distraction.

reality poem

Dis is di age af reality
But some a wi a deal wid mitalagy
Dis is di age af science an' teknalagy
But some a wi check fi antiquity

W'en wi can't face reality
Wi leggo wi clarity
Some latch aan to vanity
Some hol' insanity
Some get vision
Start preach relijan
But dem can't mek decishan
W'en it come to we fite
Dem can't mek decishan
W'en it comes to wi rites

Man,
Dis is di age af reality
But some a wi deal wid mitalagy
Dis is di age af science an' teknalagy
But some a wi check fi antiquity

Dem one deh gaan outta line
Dem naw live in fi wi time
Far dem she dem get sign
An' dem bline dem eye
To di lite a di worl'
An' gaan search widin
Di dark a dem doom
An' a shout 'bout sin
Instead a fite fi win

Man,
Dis is di age af reality
But some a wi deal wid mitalagy
Dis is di age af science an' teknalagy
But some a wi check fi antiquity

Dis is di age af decishan
Soh mek wi leggo relijan
Dis is di age af decishan
Soh mek we leggo divishan
Dis is di age af reality
Soh mek we leggo mitalagy
Dis is di age of science an' teknalagy
Soh mek wi hol' di clarity
Mek wi hol' di clarity
Mek wi hol' di clarity

- Linton Kwesi Johnson

Here is the song: 'Reality Poem', from his 1979 album 'Forces of Victory'. This particular song doesn't just showcase LKJ's legendary dub poetry, it also balances his words with an equally lightfooted, extended guitar jam in the second half of the song that says just as much about reality...

For some more explicitly political tracks, try 'Sonny's Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)', 'Fite Them Back', or the evergreen 'Inglan Is a Bitch' (which is also great as spoken word).

the cave

Each day is a glass room that we must smash in order to break through into a landscape, and be involved. To be involved is to be alive.

Well-known for his prose, poetry, illustrations and visual art, Mervyn Peake's plays have somehow largely escaped attention: of the ten plays he wrote only one was staged during his lifetime.

'The Cave' (1950s) had its world premiere in 2010. Described by biographer G. Peter Winnington as Peake's "most philosophical work", the play was reviewed in The Times as having:

...streaks of the angry postwar nihilism of Anouilh and Sartre: the hopeful theme of rejecting fear and social coercion leads only to amoral fragmentation in the last act. But it is extraordinary: a howl, an imperfect and painful philosophical struggle, part of a remarkable artist's testament.

The play is set entirely inside a cave and covers thousands of years of human history. Its three acts take place in, respectively, the Stone Age, the Middle Ages and the mid-20th century. In these three situations, the same family is confronted with a stranger, a girl whose free spirit is felt to be threatening. They fear her because she knows no fear. Only the family's eldest son, an artist, recognizes in her a kindred spirit.

'The Cave' is subtitled 'Anima Mundi', the eternal world soul that connects all life on earth - an idea formulated by Plato, though known in other cultures as well. With this concept Peake expresses the central mystery in the play, a mystical spirit that endures independently of religion and in spite of mankind which seems driven only by fear and conformism.

The family's hostile and superstitious response turns out to be a constant throughout history - from the prehistoric nature worship and the medieval Christian witch hunts to the post-religious 1950s. For Peake the modern age is by no means free from irrational, dogmatic ideas either. Fear of the atom bomb, which threatened to bring destruction on an even larger scale so soon after WWII, looms large over the third act. (While these days the nuclear doomsday scenarios might seem outdated, there are curious parallels with the dominant fears of our own age, of terrorism and surveillance.)

Peake's aim with 'The Cave', in his own words, was "to show how man has always needed the supernatural in the form of one kind of God or another". The play grimly shows how man needs God primarily to exorcize his own fears, and how in absence of religion he will seek replacements in politics and alcohol (as subtly implied by the liquor cabinet in the third act, on the spot where before stood an altar and an ecclesiastical gargoyle).

However, unlike the postwar existentialists - who couldn't imagine any kind of religious faith after the Holocaust - Peake did not reject the metaphysical completely. Instead, he made it into an imperative: modern man's challenge is to use his creative powers to animate the world himself.

Mary, the girl who embodies the world soul in 'The Cave', pleads:

You must know in your heart that it is not the creed (...) that matters but man with his nerves and sinews, his dreams and his courage and his restless spirit. Man the Miracle.

In 1945, soon after the liberation, Peake visited the concentration camp Belsen as a war artist of the British army - an experience that would haunt him for the rest of his life, and that would make the responsibility of the artist and the efficacy of art into important themes in his work. 'The Cave' brings together the two themes of religion and art, involvement and animation/creation in a hostile world.

For despite its destructive ending, 'The Cave' also shows that direct experience of the world soul is possible, albeit only for some. It is the 'Anima Mundi' as 'mysterium tremendum et fascinans', the mystery that evokes both fear and fascination, and that is reflected in the wild, surreal visions that Peake paints in his dialogues.

The metaphor of the glass room he had used before in a poem, 'Each Day We Live Is a Glass Room' (c. 1946). Even more explicitly than in 'The Cave' it made inspired living into a daily challenge for man, even if the glass room of his soul is so "blind with usage" that he can no longer see the miracle of man, and of the enduring world soul.

A decade later, in 'The Cave', Peake's outlook was decidedly more somber, but this essentially optimistic idea still survives.

The text of 'The Cave' is so far unpublished, though an edition of Peake's plays has been announced.

all the world's memory

Because he has a short memory man accumulates countless aide-mémoires. Confronted with these bulging repositories, man is assailed by a fear of being engulfed by this mass of words. To assure his liberty, he builds fortresses.

Alain Resnais' short documentary 'Toute la mémoire du monde' ('All the World's Memory', 1956) explores memory, the theme he would further pursue in films like 'Hiroshima mon amour' and 'L'Année dernière à Marienbad', in its most physical form: the library.

An homage to the National Library of France, which aims to collect everything printed in the world - the francophone world, that is - the film is also an essay on the record-keeping obsession of man, that "paper-crunching pseudo-insect".

But from a 21st century perspective, what is most impressive, and curiously nostalgic, is the sheer physicality of all this knowledge. The film shows the height of analog information culture, with over 100 km of shelf space, millions of index cards and a vast pneumatic messaging system.

From our perspective, too, man's "fear of being engulfed by this mass of words" is almost presciently ironic...

Criterion has the complete film online.

will o' the wisp

Bloem is not the only Dutch writer to have used the November weather of the Low Lands to set a dreary, forlorn tone. Willem Elsschot's novella 'Will o' the Wisp' ('Het dwaallicht', 1946) starts:

A dreary November evening, with a soaking drizzle that drove even the bravest of us from the streets, and it was too far to trudge through that icy curtain of rain to the bar I always drank at.

'Will o' the Wisp' was the last published work of Flemish novelist Willem Elsschot, and it remains one of his most cherished stories.

Elsschot - Will o'the Wisp / Het Dwaallicht - 1

Best known for his novels 'Soft Soap' ('Lijmen', 1924) and 'The Leg' ('Het Been', 1938) and the novella 'Cheese' ('Kaas'), Elsschot has a towering reputation in Dutch literature as one of the greatest stylists, whose work remains as sparklingly fresh and shrewdly ironic as when it first appeared. Only some of his work is available in English, and while a translation of 'Will o' the Wisp' exists (translated by Alex Brotherton and published as 'Three Novels', 1962, also including 'Soft Soap' and 'The Leg'), it is sadly out of print and virtually impossible to find. Perhaps at some point a publisher will dare a reissue, but in the mean time some extended quotes will give a taste of this little masterpiece...

Because 'Will o' the Wisp' is a timeless piece of literature. At a mere 50 pages, it forms the concentrated statement of the themes that run through all Elsschot's work, and that here take on a mythical, even mystical quality. Elsschot was a sharp but compassionate observer of man's yearnings - from his most lofty aspirations to his basest desires - and his inevitable disillusionments. Here, with deceptive simplicity, he shows human endeavors to amount to no more than chasing phantom lights in the distance.

Elsschot - Will o'the Wisp / Het Dwaallicht - 2
Continue reading the full post »

responsive, nobile, projects

In a long overdue overhaul of this website, but in time for its 10th anniversary later this year, I have implemented three changes:

  1. A responsive layout, meaning the site adapts gracefully to the plethora of different screen sizes out there, and in particular should improve readability on tablets and phones.
  2. A new font to replace boring old Verdana. Nobile is a no-frills webfont selected for pleasant long-reading.
  3. The start of a new portfolio section with a number of recent projects. More to be added in the future.

Traditional features like the monthly background image (now in its 86th month) are of course unchanged.

Any bugs or glitches? Let me know!

iffr: the fall of the romanov dynasty

A challenging close of the IFFR on Saturday with a Grand Talk program that consisted of a screening of the 1927 USSR propaganda film 'The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty', German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk reading a chapter from his forthcoming book, and a discussion between Sloterdijk and Romanian director Andrei Ujica to connect these two trains of thought.

The following is from some notes scribbled in the dark, so rather sketchy...

Esfir Shub's 'The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty' - a silent film performed with live piano music - was made for the 10th anniversary of the Russian revolution. Looking back on the period 1913-1917, from the eve of WWI to the establishment of the socialist state, it is composed entirely of archive footage, pioneering a new subgenre of documentary filmmaking as well as opening an astonishing window on life in Russia and Western Europe a century ago.

The film's communist propaganda frame shows most explicitly in the title cards, which sarcastically comment on the old Russian order of landowners, priests and bourgeois capitalists - let alone the perfidious European order of speculators, industrialists and "capitalist plunderers fighting for markets", who all stand to gain from the approaching WWI. The titles also frequently employ ironic quotation marks, denouncing the "holy fathers" and "his majesty".

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty - 1

Sloterdijk commented on the film saying that if you would take out the title cards, the impression that remains is one of moving masses - endless, agitated, marching masses of people without individuality. "The effect is unheimisch, as if whoever still considers himself an individual is betraying the collective."

This observation provides the link between the film and the chapter from his new book, announced by his publisher as 'Modernity's Enfants Terribles' ('Die schrecklichen Kinder der Neuzeit'). Also dealing with the fate of the last czar, Nicholas II, and his family, it explores the events of WWI, both in Europe and Russia, and the start of what he terms a "century of disinhibitions".

After the "total degradation of individuality" of WWI, 'civil life' would never be the same again. In a variation on Heidegger's concept of "being-unto-death", Sloterdijk talks of "being-unto-a-mass-grave" - a new existential state in post-war Europe that at the time was signalled by Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset in 'The Revolt of the Masses' (1930). This state of perpetual agitation made demobilization impossible in many parts of Europe, including Germany, and led the masses to abandon what Mussolini called "the horror of comfortable life" for a march forever forward - and ultimately into WWII.

The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty - 2

The same agitated, revolutionized masses were what Lenin found when he returned to Russia after the February revolution of 1917. Thoroughly steeped in the history of the French revolutions of 1789 and 1793, he realized that the only way forward for a revolutionized people was more revolution, in an iterative process to prevent at all costs a return to normality - a principle later perfected by Stalin and Mao.

In 1917 Russia this meant first, the October revolution and after that, all-out class warfare. This included the establishment of the infamous Cheka - which created an "informalization of executions" by uniting in one organization prosecution, judge, jury and execution - as well as the gulags and persecution of former royals. In this context the fate of the czar's family is telling: while Lenin first planned to stage an edifying show trial, he later abandoned this idea in favor of having the family summarily executed in a Yekaterinburg cellar.

For Sloterdijk this event also symbolized a wider break with the past, a cutting off of historical continuity, in line with Lenin's maxim that the revolution doesn't need historians. The archetype of the new, modern man that emerged during this time is the bastard, that is, the child that doesn't inherit from the previous generation. It is the one who is free from the weight of history, and the most motivated to climb the social ladder - the self-made man who embodies the century of disinhibitions.

It will be interesting to see how Sloterdijk develops this archetype in his book and who, exactly, are 'Modernity's Enfants Terribles' - especially in light of his observation that today we are again seeing a rising hatred of individuality and liberalism.