Three screens, a blinded cyclops, a name
I was in Lisbon a while ago to talk about cities and about things people occasionally do in and between them, like loot and blockade. I had never been to Lisbon before. It reminds me of San Francisco, if SF had the courage to get all gussied up in tin-glazed ceramic tiles and let itself get weather-buffed for a millennium. (The human equivalent is a crusty old sailor wearing paisley. Who had gone through a national revolution less than 40 years ago, or in human timescale, a couple years ago.) I strongly urge San Francisco, and all American cities, to consider these twin options: massive political upheaval and gutsy ornamentation. Graffiti doesn’t count, on either front.
Not living in Lisbon, I walked and looked at buildings. At the top of the Church of Santa Engrácia, standing on the big bone-grey terrace beside its big bone-white dome, you look out over the city, the water, across to Samuco and Barreiro. It’s a vista, a point for sightseeing, where people pay money to get wowed. Either by the scale of human construction (the dome opening internally over a suicide-hungry drop, down onto sheen marble; the sprawl of the city laid out down a gulf and back up the other side, circling around a bay) or by what, in its scale, seems to threaten that construction and render futile all attempts to locate meaning or “progress” in it (the sea, the sky, and the built fact of the city itself, which in its brick-by-poured-concrete-brick accumulation to the point of enormity becomes the hardest to think in terms of willful management). Those two options basically cover the gamut of reasons why people go to look at things: get blown away by what was made, get blown away by what could unmake it in a geological hot minute.
As with most vistas, there’s a coin-operated viewfinder. Put in a euro, grasp the unnecessarily ergonomic metal handles, and look more closely with the aid of technology at what you look at otherwise, thereby scoring a late game point for the “wowed by the scope of human construction” team. They are grand, swiveling binoculars, with a magnifying lens between your eyes and the thing at which you gawk. This is not to mock this. I love them. Other than the foul ticking-down of their quarter-fed chronometers and aside from any Rear Window fantasy, they let you move across that gap that can never be quite breached: the city as an entirety and the city as a set of instances. I walked up to the white plastic – at the recognition of these qualifiers, a slight unease: white? plastic? – viewfinder. The thing looks like an enormous, prop comedy cordless telephone. And it feels like one, slightly pebbled, integral.
But it cannot be looked through. There are no round places to stick your eyes in front of, to try and focus them through lenses of polished glass which can themselves be focused. There is just a screen.
Because it is a virtual viewfinder. You swivel the ungainly beast and rather than look through it at something, and hence see that thing more closely, you aim it at things that you cannot see, because there is a screen in your way. You turn the apparatus, and it records the content of the vista with its lens, and it displays that content on the screen. It’s like looking at a vista, except without perspective, depth, distance, decency, or the capacity to look at it when direct sunlight falls upon it. In other words, the experience of contemplating a vista that bears almost nothing in common with itself.
Of course, it does have a point other than merely being an expensive, ham-fisted literalization of the basic form of spectacular logic. (i.e. You are “really seeing it”, getting the luxury sight, going all out in the name of cartographic vision precisely insofar as you cede vision. You see it only insofar as you get yourself blind.) Because when you aim the camera-turret, it not only reproduces the already existent in new mediocrity, it also gives you information about those things. As I learn from its constantly looping demo, it tells you what it is looking at: what those buildings are called, when they were built, what is connected by that bridge. Things one might want to know, things that actually are useful. Things that would be far better to be told by a human who has spent enough of her life getting to know a place that she can tell you not just the name of the king who ordered the construction but why he was an asshole and what the population dynamics are like now, how the strike went down, how the city is changing over decades. Something for which a person could be paid, rather than an overgrown smartphone, something around which a conversation could start, rather than a greasy fingered jab at a picture of a pixel city.
Instead, there is no one on the terrace, other than the blinding device. It is lovely out there, and if one has to work, there are far worse places to stand for someone who could see a city, smell it, speak of it. It’s spring, you know. Spring, when:
The EU commission remains convinced that the harsh austerity measures will eventually bring Portugal back to economic growth.
Eurostat figures released on Monday, however, showed that 15 percent of Portugal’s labour force was officially unemployed in February, one percent higher than what the troika had reckoned with. And over 35 percent of Portuguese under 25 years of age were unemployed, an increase of almost ten percentage points compared to the same period last year.
“We have seen the figures and were a bit surprised by the rapid rise in the last quarter. We still have a bit of difficulty in interpreting the figures, it may be that seasonal factors were not taken into account properly,” Weiss said.
Ah yes, “seasonal factors.” Such as “the general overwhelming of human needs by the doubly static and manic growth of all that is alleged to serve them but which has utterly forsaken even the loosest of correspondence with them.” Like the winter blues or hayfever. A factor as perennial and lateral as kudzu. Unlike kudzu, though, capital has no root crown to be lopped off. Regicide is always a good start, but it simply won’t cut it. But like kudzu, what is cut – that is, separation itself and all that reinforces its gaps – must be destroyed in toto, not merely displaced. Buried in other ground, the severed head of state reinaugurates the old state of affairs. In the version that would be a film, our heroes awake the cold morning after to find a market economy blooming at dawn…
How vile this life of ours, in which the ongoing catastrophe of the social is excused on the changing of the seasons, in which 35% unemployment of the “young” is seen as par for the austerity course, in which work is both to be hated and not to be had, in which churches are to be climbed but not even to be improperly made better use of, in which cities are to be seen and explained but not by our eyes or our mouths.
I look at the moronic viewfinder. It pivots slightly in the wind, then sits still as plastic and silent and cruel as a shit phone in the middle of the night when there is someone whose voice you want to hear. It should be put out of our misery.
I turn it around, slowly. Like any body with its back to the screen in a horror film, one turns it with trepidation. A mother is a long-cellared husk, a child is a evil dwarf. Somewhere there will be a knife.
But here, someone had stuck a wad of purple gum over its cyclops camera lens, to block its vision and ruin the game. To enucleate this low-res Polyphemus bolted to the ground of a roof, cursed to swivel and not to call out to its father at sea any words of blame and loathing other than WELCOME TO VIRTUAL VIEWFINDER! TOUCH THE SCREEN TO GET STARTED! Doomed from the start to stare at the horizon as blindly now as when no man had put a single eye out before, that orb sizzling like a gored egg as heat and sharp made it permanent night, until somebody now has done the only thing left for a sham Odysseus to do, in an era without sheep or metis or gods or hate or epic or flame or sight.
Tonight it did not rain in Bologna where it has been raining too much. But the other night I was sitting on a stoop in this city, next to a bar where I had bought a beer. It was crowded, because it was Thursday, and it was raining, because it is springtime and weather makes its own sense. There were no tables, because the ones in the rain were wet, and because it was Thursday.
I sat in a doorframe. People with dogs kept coming in and out of it to take the dogs to shit on the smooth sidewalks and to leave that shit there. I was reading Günther Anders. I don’t know German, but his books are translated into Italian. Every time I read him, I’m startled that he hasn’t been more important to more people, myself included. The book is Die Antiquertheit des Hassens (or L’odio è antiquato or The Obsolescence of Hate). It is about the historical loss of hatred through the increasing complexity and dominance of technology in capitalism. The section I was reading might as well have been titled, “The Waning of Military Affect,” but it is not. It has a better title: “I beneamati artiglieri,” the beloved gunners or, better, the beloved artillerists. It’s about how the transformation of warfare toward war at a distance is bound to, and furthers, the outmoding of hate. It bears an enormous amount in common with Farocki’s films, albeit shot through with a bitter jag of melancholy. There’s a moment in it where Anders recounts a conversation he had with Claude Eatherly. Eatherly was the pilot of the reconnaissance mission that checked weather conditions above Hiroshima and gave the go-ahead to the bombing. He later tried to smuggle weapons to anti-communists in Cuba, forged checks of others and donated the money to a children of Hiroshima fund, held up banks and post offices without stealing anything. He and Anders corresponded later around an anti-nuclear campaign. Anders writes,
When I asked Claude Eatherly if even for a fraction of a second he had hated (before, during, after) the inhabitants of Hiroshima condemned to death by his report from Tinian (“no cloud, go ahead” or the like), he looked at truly like I was an idiot and asked in return, “Why the heck should I have hated them?” [Anders adds this footnote: This “killing without hate” corresponds to “fucking without love” (not by chance historically contemporary). In both cases acts and affectivity are violently separated. This “diremption” [scission, disassociation] is characteristic of “obsolescent man.”]
I think of the weather report given, sighted through a small window as if through a screen, with instruments taking measurements, dials giving data that has meaning that eyes cannot see. It reads the landscape, but it does not produce hate. For Anders, hate is like matter: it cannot be created or destroyed, merely rearranged, hidden, displaced, pulverized, latched onto, haunted by, swamped, dropped, frozen. When it does not find a target, it hides out in labor, in the crevices of things, in screens, in touch, in an overlay of sight across cities and bodies.
A woman sat down next to me on the door frame. I didn’t notice her sit down because I was just then reading the words “Why the heck should I have hated them?”, and it is hard to notice much when those are the words you are reading, when those words have to do with war and yet don’t mean “… I did not hate them and therefore war wasn’t made, the bomb wasn’t dropped.” When I looked up, she was looking at the screen of her cellphone and reading a text message. It was a small, normal phone, near outmoded with an LCD display, not a glowing tablet to be smeared and dragged and expanded as if it had more texture than glass. Not many words can fit on that screen. When you read a message, the sentences arrive broken, like poems.
She was crying, hard, that way where one looks left and right while trembling and looks up and to the right and tightens the lips and clenches the eyes like there was something else to see further away. The screen went black, and she was still looking at it. I didn’t know what it had said. No, I don’t, or Yes, I have been, or They don’t when know when / she will be out. Or something that doesn’t mark an event or a declaration but just words, neither right nor wrong, but at the wrong time. A tone that isn’t warm when it should have been, or when what might have indexed a care forthcoming is instead distracted, belongs to a different universe within this one, fully indifferent to the fact that there is not hatred here but there’s another affect which has taken shape and which will go unremarked, and how it is that one would not cry.
I sat like an idiot, reading a book about the end of affect.
I thought I should offer help, a stupid offer, not that one expects it to be anything that I would be able to do something about, but just so that we don’t fully reinforce the monadism of social life, of the gap between friends and strangers. But she was caressing the small grey screen of the phone, which was still not lit, as if it were an object of skin, wiping the rain off of it, off this thing that transmitted the message that did not want to be read. I don’t know what one could say to that.
Then someone opened the door behind us, and she got up. She was wiping her eyes as she did, and she walked away.
Because of these screens – this blinded viewfinder, this unlit phone – I decided to restart a project of mine. It’s marked here in the changing of the name of this blog to Socialism and/or Barbarism. That was the name of the project I wrote for three years and ended in December. After I stopped it, I started writing in different modes, much less online, then writing more what felt like what essays are sometimes supposed to feel like, then thinking about online writing as something that couldn’t be tracked back to, that would never remain the same. None of these quite made sense to me.
A name is simply a name, and occasional coolness, accuracy, or durability of titles aside, they shouldn’t matter more than they have to. The changing of the name here therefore matters that much: very, very little. But over time, names can also can hint toward a particular form, a certain shape or use of screen, and a way of delimiting, or dragging in, a peculiar set of materials. In this case, the name of that project I stopped was related to a messy field of thinking that only coalesced through the practice of its own accumulation over a couple years of reading, watching, and writing. It was one through which I might understand something about these dead screens and lenses, about the living hate, sadness, or love respectively embedded in, reflected by, and routed through them, and about the whole disastrous system of relations in which they circulate and by which they are moved. These particular instances belong to a certain kind of thought I had been following for a while, one that resides in the figure of the and/or, of overdetermination, of the consequences that follow from dealing with the current presence of all the detritus left behind by a past full of built and abandoned futures.
When I ended the project earlier, I wrote something very long about why I did so. Now that I am restarting it, I won’t do so, for a simple reason. (Other than the fact that the announcement or proposal of something is rarely of more interest than the thing in itself, unless the proposal in question is Joseph Beuys’ suggestion to make the Berlin Wall taller by 5 cm for “aesthetic reasons.”) The reason is simply that everything I wrote before, every suspicion I had about the mode of online writing, every contradiction I see at work in what it means to process thought and affect through this form: all of that still stands. The difference is simply that I now think, as I used to, that there are things to be gained by dwelling in those contradictions, or at the least, worrying away at that house, building, and city from within, rather than turning out to tundra or pasture.
So this is to start again something I had halted, three years after it first started, a few months after it stopped. It seems best to do so under the sign of a toxic phrase to be stolen, modified, to be blinded with tears or gum, wiped clean, looking out at an ocean torn from its origin:
There are clouds, go ahead.