This year I’ve been thinking about being Jewish during Christmas time more than the last few years, so I thought I would share a bit.
It’s something that is impossible not to think about, but I try to ignore it mostly. It isn’t extraordinarily pleasant, and not something I like to dwell on, anyway.
I would call myself completely atheist, but in a Northwestern United States New-Chaos-Animism sort of way, or at the very least, not the sort of atheist who feels the need to paint his lack of belief on the side of buses. Except of course, in the marxist-anarchist “no gods no masters” sort of way, which is a statement that makes me smile, except that I’m still not painting it on the side of anything.
All of which is to say, I’m not Jewish in the sense of my religion, so I wouldn’t like to step into the role of speaking “as a Jew”–whatever that means. At the same time, I am decidedly Jewish in the sense of culture, because the complicated atheist/anamist/anarchist syncretism I practice in every day life does have a certain historical precedent.
The joke I use to explain what this means, told by one of my grad school professors in NYC, who was also a practicing psychoanalyst (and this context matters, of course), goes like this.
A secular Jewish couple on the Upper West Side decides to send their son to a Catholic school, because it is the best school that is close to where they live. So the son goes to school, comes home, and the father asks him, “what did you learn in school today?”
The son says, “I learned that god is actually a trinity. There’s the father, the son, and the holy ghost.”
The father gets outraged, his face turns red, and he stands and speaks to his son in a stern voice. “Son, listen well, and listen good. There is only one god. And we don’t believe in him.”
If you have lived in New York you get the joke, just as easily as you understand the difference between a kosher deli and a synagogue. A secular Jew and a religious Jew are not the same thing, even though they are both Jewish in certain ways. Religion, ethnicity, nationality, and race are all different categories. Religion is what you believe and practice, ethnicity has to do with cultural heritage, nationality is about nation-states and legality, and race is a made up category that lumps a bunch of unrelated visually observable genetic signifiers into an believed-amalgam that could stand in interchangeably for any or all of the former three. I’m an ethnic Jew. I call myself Jewish, even though it is not my religion, it could hardly be a race at all (when people try and “race” Jews they are talking about only a particular subset of Jews… omg did you know there are black jews?) and it sure as shit has nothing to do with Israel.
If you got the joke, you probably understand the difference between these four categories, but not everyone does. I’m reminded of this every so often now that I live in the Northwest, where Jews are less common than on the East coast, and certain people don’t get it. A friend of ours, upon learning that I was Jewish (the fact that she had to “learn” that a hairy guy with a good-looking nose and a German last name is Jewish speaks its own truth) asked sincerely, “if he is Jewish, why doesn’t he wear the hat?” She had never known a Jew, let alone a secular Jew, and so had never understood the difference.
But there is a problem with understanding Jewish as only an ethnicity, that is especially apparent around Christmas. There is a tendency to minimize this difference. If it is “just” ethnicity, and not religion, then we are really all equal, right? After all, there are plenty of ethnically Christian people who aren’t religious. As we are all secular, united by science, reason, humanity, etc, we must be the same, right?
My mother was Christian until she married my father, and then she did the “secular Jewish conversion” in which we celebrated Jewish holidays but had a Christmas tree once my brother and I entered high school, because the tree was pretty and ornaments are fun. My own partner, from a secular Catholic ethnicity, did the same thing when we began cohabitating, of her own accord. I’m not going to speculate on their motivations for doing this, even though I have some ideas as to why. The important thing is that this is a thing. There is a conversion process, in terms of “formally” adopting the religion that you do not believe in. There’s no ceremony, no oath. Just a personally understood choice that one-is-this, different-than-that. This is the difference in ethnicity.
I never had a Bar Mitzvah, so I am not “really” Jewish, under some technical religious definitions (the variety of which is its own interesting discussion). But this ethnic-not-religion difference is not an ambivalence–it was something that I specifically did not do, because my family made the conscious choice to not go to synagogue. We had Jewish friends and family who went to synagogue. But we did not. In the same way as my mother and my partner, I had a not-Bar-Mitzvah: the secular Jewish conversion of choosing to not participate. There was no moment at which I had to decide to be or not to be a religious Jew (there was a momentary teenage rebellion, but we’ll set that aside), and yet I could have chosen the opposite.
My relationship to Jesus was never ambivalent, but this was a different sort of ambivalence. This was never going to be my god. Not from idle lapse, but because whatever Jesus is, it is as alien as Ganesha, as Baron Samedi, as a Thetan, and so it was not a matter of simply opting out, but of rejecting every reason to opt-in. I read plenty about all of these ghosty things, because I was curious (it always cracks me up when evangelicals approach me as if they know nothing about Jesus, because man, I have heard that sales pitch, believe it or not.) But unlike how as a secular Jew my secularness was always a choice of rejection, my rejection of other faiths was always a choice of non-subscription.
This gets to the heart of what being ethnically Jewish is. It is always a decision in the context of the larger culture that is not ethnically Jewish. I never felt any pressure to choose a religion or be religious. But my entire spiritual existence (or lack thereof) exists in having a very small, textually odd religion as my rejected heritage, while around me, there is a majoritarian mass of “major world religions” that are very much used to being that majority.
This means (and is the point I am getting at) that to be ethnically Jewish in the United States is always to be Other.
It’s not such a bad Other to be, all things considered. Being this sort of Other in the United States is a far less worse experience than to have dark skin, to be a woman, to visibly perform a non-heterosexual sexuality or non-cis gender, and so on and so forth. But it is still Other, in its own way.
When I was in elementary school, I lived in a town in rural Connecticut for a time. We were one of two Jewish families in town, and so you can imagine that there was pretty short shrift dedicated to alternate holidays in those socialization zones. I somehow still learned the awful Hanukkah songs invented as alternate socialization mode, played dreidel with my cousins, and ate latkahs–all that was fine. But here is what I remember. I remember a conversation with my parents, sometime when I was probably around six or seven. We were talking about the fact that Santa was going to visit all these other kids and bring them presents, but not going to visit us. We got Hanukkah presents in spades, but of course, I was curious about the idea of receiving all gifts on one morning, rather than over eight nights. Did the other kids net more gifts than I did? Were they bigger? These are things that a kid that age is concerned about. But then comes the rub–I knew that my gifts came from my parents. But the other kids thought their gifts came from Santa. The issue came up. My parents assured me that Santa did not exist, and Christmas gifts came from essentially the same place as Hanukkah gifts. But why did they pretend that there was Santa? It’s fun for them, said my parents. We didn’t play that game, they said, because we were Jewish and our family did things differently. But if the other kids play pretend by believing in Santa, I shouldn’t ruin their fun by telling them they were wrong.
Think about the pressure this puts on a kid that age. The truth is revealed to me: the biggest holiday of the year for kids is based upon a lie. (Notice that this all about belief in Santa, not Jesus. But we all know who the real deity is on this holiday.) To a six year old, this is the equivalent of telling them that the Illuminati runs the world. The Christmas De Vinci Code was being entrusted to me. But then: I’m told that I should keep this mind-blowing secret to myself, in order to ensure the opiated pleasure of all the other children.
So it makes sense that a kid given this tremendous burden to protect the fantasy of others might grow up to study religious studies, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and make a lifestyle out of rejecting ideologies, to hack together some sort of pragmatic spiritual practice from rocks, tree bark, black clothing, and fire, because at least objects cannot lie, and practice that requires no belief cannot be a delusion. Despite what labels might be more appropriate or accurate for describing whatever it is that I do (all those A-words), for me it is linked to my Jewish ethnicity. Sure, I’ve seen a lot of other things, experienced direct bigotry, and had other things effect my Jewish ethnicity as well. Being Jewish in Connecticut was a far cry from being Jewish in Georgia, where one is likely to be confronted with a look of horror upon Christian faces. I got called “a Jew” in the street a couple weeks ago, which I have to say was a fairly new experience for me. But there is something about this secular experience Christmas, and the holiday’s wide-spread, ecumenical “goodwill” that makes it just so pernicious.
Every time I hear someone say “Merry Christmas”, see an ad for a Christmas sale, have someone ask me if “I’m ready for the holidays” long after my holidays are over, or give me a funny look when I don’t get a reference to one of their quasi-religious songs, I remember that I am not like other people. And it isn’t just that I don’t believe, or don’t like Christmas. It is that those around me just assume I merely don’t like Christmas, that I’m obsessed with some sort of agnostic political correctness, or just because I don’t go to church. Why the hell would someone ask me if I go to church? How is that a question I should have to answer? I don’t celebrate Christmas or go to church because I have always been something Other than Christian. I never gave up Christmas. It was never mine. It belongs to someone else. Being a secular Jew is not like being lactose intolerant. I am not Christmas-deficient. I am something else entirely, and other people’s failure to even imagine that could be possible is the greatest insult of all. This “holiday-blindness” piles on to everything that I have experienced in terms of the winter holidays since the time I was six years old, and reminds me, time and time again, while I will never accept the majoritarian bias of secular Christianity as anything related to my culture.
It sounds as if I’m bitter. Why wouldn’t I want to just enjoy the holiday, rather than make a big thing about it? Surely a secular, ethically Jewish person would have no opposition to gathering around a Charlie Brown Humanist Miracle, because the “real” meaning of the holiday is friendship, togetherness, so on and so forth. But that is just it: that is not what the holiday is about. The holiday, in the United States, is about celebrating the false inclusiveness of Christian capitalism–a peaceful unity that anyone can enjoy, provided that their reject their own heritage and beliefs, and join the morass. Even if we leave Jesus out of it entirely, Christmas still asks a secular Jew to reject his/her ethnicity and accept secular Christianity. Every Christmas-themed TV show plot, every green and red sweater, every red-nosed reindeer and every speaker whispering Christmas music in the background is a missionary text. It reads: “Christmas is normal”. The argument is: “Sure, you can opt out. But remember that by doing so, you are irrevocably different.”
And I’m not bitter (though I am a little bitter that it is necessary for me to prove that I’m not). I’ve been to many Christmas celebrations, and I’ll go to many more. They are unavoidable. I like any feasting holiday, so I make the most of it and enjoy a day off. And as I said in the beginning, this is not an extraordinarily pleasant line of thought, so I try to not brood on it. I have another drink instead.
But many Jews of all categories like to teach others about their traditions. Even though I know more than I at time I’d ever like to know about Christianity, I don’t expect people to know that about me. I’m serious. Consider this my gift–a look into my conficted, spiritual soul, where I don’t go very often, let alone let others tour at will. And so on this Christmas, I hope I can teach you a little bit about how we secular, ethnic Jews celebrate your Christmas holiday. Booze, blog posts, and a bit of that old existential confusion. Have a happy holiday, to all my friends of Christian heritage. And to my friends of all the other heritages in the world, thank goodness it’ll be another year until we’ll have to go through this again.
If I tried to combine every thought that came in my head while watching this video into a coherent essay, I would have something book length, so instead, I’m just going to spit it out.
Wow. Mind blown.
First of all, great job, Grand Rapids. Sincerely. The city put together a mammoth effort, even without the help of Kickstarter, and came up with an Internet video that was not only successful, but put others in the category to shame. I tend to think with art of a more casual sort, if you don’t have a concept that in itself is necessarily going to knock it out of the park, at least go big on the effort. Done and done.
And in throwing their hat into the meme, white America reminds the internet that it exists. The internet is not just pro-democracy fronts and third-world music blogs, folks! It is possible to have a good old fashioned Main Street parade online. No taco truck reviews, no workers’ rights, no sex, no militant screen printing hacker collectives. Football, American made cars, and, well, apple pie.
I don’t say this simply to be facetious. Main Street America does exist, and it would only be a publication as idiotically outdated as Newsweek, (see link for back story on that) who thinks that it is somehow more an arbiter of taste, more up with the times and pace of the internet than a city on a river in Michigan. All those “real Americans” you saw in the video have Internet connections, and you better believe they cancelled their subscriptions to Newsweek, if they even had any.
And isn’t it somewhat refreshing, to see the meme of America rescued from hate-filled invective, pulled out of the politics for one minute, to mug for the camera in a way that makes us seem welcome in “real America” once again; to make Chambers of Commerce look like nice community organizations, rather than the money behind union crushing, the propping up of corporate property rights, and anti-gay legislation? I mean, it is almost enough to make me forget the experiences I’ve had being called “fag” while crossing Main Street, USA, and make me think about living in the Midwest again. Almost.
Not that any of these nice folks in Grand Rapids would do something like that. They all look like nice people, with nice lives. And with the sort of effort necessary to put a project like this together, the goodwill and support for the community provided by local businesses, lawmakers, and everyday people alike, they might have a different sort of town that defies the norm, where people band together and form a community, indeed, the only thing that’s ever formed community, unlike many so-called defenses of “family, community, and small business”.
And so I wonder if, after raising $40,000 to make this video, the next weekend they all got together to put in bike lanes. Or to build low income housing. I just wonder, I don’t mean to imply that they should have done this instead. They can do whatever they like with their time, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a video, any more than there is anything wrong with putting in a statue of Robocop, as elsewhere in Michigan. But a community is defined by what they choose to do with their community. And a definition is not only what is said, but also what is not said. This might be the cornerstone of self-expression, whether you are a city or a person, or any other entity.
This juxtaposition between the little that is said and the lot that isn’t said is not an accusation in my mind, but when I watch two videos back to back (as the vicissitude of the Internet decided for me), the question is automatically posed. And what is the question, anyway? I’m not entirely sure. But when there’s a nice singalong going on in the streets of one town, when somewhere across the world there are beatings and worse going on in the streets of another town, there should be a question asked, shouldn’t there? Even if we can’t quite bring it to our lips.
I wonder if, maybe not unlike in the classic song Grand Rapids decided to sing, this video could be the moment that something died. Not in a fiery plane crash, of course. But in the sense that when something is memorialized, it in its reality is somewhat ceased. You don’t plant a gravestone for something that is still living. Don McLean reacting to the 60s with nostalgia for something that people wanted to believe still existed, even though that sort of Americana was now a ghost. The ghost of Main Street America, in a world of Tahrir squares. And yet they can still sing this song, with help from their platinum sponsors. That’s something, right? Isn’t it? To whom?
Lastly, in a fit of SF splendor, I imagine this clip resurfacing after a number of years, and discovered by some disaffected youth, longing for the way the continent “used to be”. In a saga reminiscent of Damnation Alley, they set off across whatever this terrain will look like then, attempting to find the promised land of Grand Rapids. What is it that they will find? Probably not radioactive, mutated cockroaches. But other than that, I can’t say that I know with certainly in any direction.
The title is “Apopheniac Communiques”. Along with seven fantastic contributors, I’ve put together 28 pages of art, poems, short stories, and commentary. It’s full of low-fi awesomeness, pasted together by hand in the “traditional” zine style. Is there a pattern? Is there a theme? That will be for the reader to decide, but suffice it to say, we’ve already put a call in to the proper authorities who deal with such miracles.
In keeping with the classic tradition, I’ll be offering copies in the “mail-art” format: for $2 in either fungible currency or un-cancelled postage, I’ll mail you your very own printed copy, on cream-colored paper, in beautiful 4.25″ x 7″ format.
Mail those monies here:
4835 SE Sherman St.
Portland, OR 97215
AND… because it’s totally crazy, I’ll accept Bitcoins as payment. In fact, I’ll let you name your price if you choose to pay in BTC. Email me to get my public key and to give me your address.
The zine is licensed under Creative Commons (Attrib-Comm-Sharealike). And hey, if you just want to see what it looks like, even though it would never, ever compare to having a real life zine in your hands, here is a link to the full PDF.
I hardly would like to implement a hierarchical taxonomy of American culture, either with upper and lowercase C’s, or with any other modifier to the word. No judgment, please, on what is good culture or not. No suffix of “Americana” for example, to connote a certain sort of nod and wink behind the back of certain less popular states in the middle of the country. Nor would I, through my abrasive tone of a curmudgeon seeking to willfully impose anti-establishment incitement upon people far too busy to think about such foolish things, and as part of my lifelong role as generally ungrateful son of these shores, seek to simply lambaste and deride any particular part of the cultural content of this vast continent. Whether through the expositionary exhibition of suspicion and distrust at which I excel, the ad hominem insult and verbal roll of the eyes I all too often express, or the openly paranoiac philosophical theory I pull out of my pocket and wave in the air when I’ve had one too many and forget that I’m in a public bar and that they’ll probably call the cops. I would hope not to take on, any more than the average writer, such tendencies we typically summarize as bias; the mental price of doing business that we inwardly acknowledge as what we must reign in and control if we wish to take part in a liberal society. I have my own opinions about what is good culture and what is… well, otherwise than that. As do we all. I acknowledge them, but have no need to tack them to any cathedral door, nor cast them in stone and deposit them on a courthouse lawn.
Not to say that there is any good reason to hide these opinions, so long as they are presented as a (albeit, often argumentative) theoretical basis for self-motivation to aid the production of worthwhile cultural products, rather than those that are… less than worthwhile. I would hope and expect that anyone else would be just as willing to justify their own pursuits by judgments about its cultural worth, at least internally, so as always to be pushing the envelope towards whatever it is that they seek. Just as I would also expect that upon confronted with criticism towards oneself, a person would be able to either surmount that criticism in his or her own mind, or otherwise interpolate it, to emerge with one’s own course improved and/or reified. Whether that course is the creation of a controversial piece of avant-garde artwork, or the decision to take a cruise to Cozumel. Maybe the rationale is apropos of nothing; but this is still a rationale, and ought to be defended as such. “What is the reason? No reason!” Perfectly acceptable and difficult to refute. And therein, a cultural process on such firm ground should not be wary of receiving criticism. And so we shouldn’t shy from giving it, if we feel it is necessary.
But, this sort of epistemology and hermeneutics of judgment and justification is dry and dull. Because really, once you have attained a certain perspective of relativism for critical judgment, you are simply locked into a cycle of your own self-improvement. If all criticism can be taken or given constructively, then everything, critical or not, becomes constructive. And there is no choice but to construct. This is good, of course, because you can finally stop castigating television for ruining society and start working on actually improving society; you can stop complaining that there is nothing worthwhile in the world and begin making what is worthwhile; you can stop basing your career around proselytizing against certain things, and base it on supporting things. In general, criticism becomes a very positive activity, because even when you are lambasting the shit out of some poor artist/tourist you detest, you are only ever preaching to the choir. Your negativity is transmuted into positivity, because once you’ve realized the person you are criticizing probably doesn’t give a shit, you are only going to be stimulating yourself in your own chosen direction. The thesis and the antithesis are synthesized; the dialectic is complete; we wake up and try harder tomorrow. And this is boring. You can’t burn anyone at a stake once you realize everyone is playing different roles in the same stage-play that is the human species. Real progress, as it turns out, is as boring as world peace.
Luckily, there is another sort of epistemology that we can turn to for that carnivalesque excitement. The sort of rush, a will to power and manifest destiny that will get us out of bed in the morning. We’re not slaying barbarian hordes, and there probably won’t be a medal in it for you. But we are discovering and claiming resources, in the biggest gold rush in human history. The borders are open folks, and tickets are cheap. Welcome to the cultural gold rush. Get in while the getting is good.
Let’s turn that mischievous metaphor aside, because it is mischievous, and because it is not really accurate. There used to be a resource market in culture. This was called Classicism, Antiquities, Anthropology, Folklore Studies, Archaeology, History, Literature, and more generally, the Humanities. There was a rush to accumulate all kinds of cultural artifacts and artistry, once these minerals were discovered. As the waters of criticism receded, the value of everything was laid bare, and it was ripe for the taking. Land once considered valueless was determined to have vast veins of semiotic deposits. Economies that had been sinking for centuries were boosted when the boom of cultural production came to town. Entire civilizations were revitalized. Great mercantile exchanges were founded back in the home countries, to which the cultural colonists could send the fruits of their prospecting, for sale on the open market. Entire educational industries developed, feeding on the flows of these resources, and the liberal arts education was one of the hottest commodities out there. Good for a thousand uses, the liberal arts education was made of cultural minerals, and ran on cultural minerals. Nearly every home in America had one—the first member of the family to obtain such a commodity was more celebrated than the main bread winner of the household. And with this gadget in his or her (but often his) possession, the task of winning the bread often fell on to the shoulders of this new education-bearing class.
But you know all this. Ancient history. We might have learned it somewhere along the way, as sort of an explanation for while our modern versions of that cultural commodity don’t seem to pack the same punch. Or maybe we deciphered this history through our own intuition—via our suspicions that somehow they’ve changed the formula somewhere along the line, or that perhaps the construction quality just isn’t what it once was. At any rate, there is a sense of the old, the obsolete, the outdated to our current liberal educations. That maybe this commodity had more of a relationship with ancient history than it ever had with us.
Thankfully, I don’t have to solemnly add that the former boom towns are now decrepit wastelands, and that the once proud factories stand like ghosts, uncanny reminders of the curse of economic cycles and the fleeting, transitory nature of any wealth and success. On the contrary. The culture industry is just as strong as it was, and it is probably more profitable now than ever. More educational commodities are produced each year than the last, and the countries that mine the cultural minerals are getting more of a share of those profits than they ever did. Something is changing, it just isn’t reducible to GDP.
The functional monopoly is fading. The luster and quality of the mineral isn’t diminishing, but its effectiveness is. Not in a way that it is being less effective, but that its presence doesn’t guarantee anymore success than a synthesized substitute. What is running out is the metaphor. Now it isn’t liquid gold. It’s only book learning. The molecular structure is less structured. The reaction was only ever a catalyst—and now the reaction is running on its own.
Okay, really—enough of the poetic license. I’m overstepping the bounds of my land grant. You don’t need me to dig this out for you, and that is the whole point. Cultural products and the skills we use to develop them—be it liberal education, a general appreciation for the humanities, an artistic goal, or even cold hard cash—are better distributed than ever before. It turns out that culture is not a mineral after all. It doesn’t have to be compressed in the earth for thousands of years before it becomes virile. It is not only found in certain places. It doesn’t only form in the rare pinch-point between a set of specific historical circumstances or at the hands of great persons. Meaning is now found in the least assuming of places, and in this way, meaning means more to the people to which it means than it ever did in the past. The metaphor that constricted how we understood and used culture, is broken. Anything goes, as long as it explodes. If you can light it on fire, it’s fuel. Culturally, that is. Maybe for other things later.
One of the best ways to see this is by, as ever, seizing the means of production. Visit the mines and the factories. The former centers of educational production are well-funded, but they are beset by problems. As they add wings and libraries, found new on-site museums and repatriate artifacts, they only draw further criticism. They get the money they need eventually, and perhaps they even spend it well. But are they doing it right? Are they up with the times? Are the customers satisfied? Is the product worthwhile? No one seems to know anymore. We go to the museums, we read the books, we take the classes. But have we learned anything? What’s more frightening than this fate is not knowing how to fix the problem or whose fault it is. Everything seems educational, and yet we don’t feel any smarter.
But this is not the end of the tour. Perhaps it has always been around to a certain extent, and we just ignored them in our thrill at the tall skyscrapers and massive smokestacks, the expansive parking lots and the expensive executives of the major industrial centers. There is, mostly unseen, a cottage industry in culture. A distributed, effective, industrial grassroots. A thriving network of culture that we hardly notice, and perhaps doesn’t even notice itself. These are, for lack of a better unifying rubric, the Small Museums of America.
You’ve seen these museums advertised when you drive along the interstate. The Museum of Western Industry and Mining. The Cowboy Museum and Alligator Center. The Tri-Country Fabric and Textiles Museum. The Town of ______ Heritage Center and Museum. The _____ Museum, with the blank filled by some unknown person’s last name as indicator of, what? How are we supposed to fit these small museums into the ecosystem of our cultural industries? The large museums, the Smithsonian, the British Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art all hold particular places. They fill roles in the canon. The big exhibitions travel to a certain number of pre-designated spots, like a large concert tour. We know how to treat these institutions. We know why we visit them: they are the central trading houses of certain cultural markets. We know what we can find there, and we go there for that purpose. But what about the small museum? Is it a tourist trap, just meant to suck a little cash out of the pocket when you stop for lunch? Is it simply something to do, in an area that has no other attractions? Or is it a vanity museum, only in existence by bequeath of some person or group that would like to see a particular “museum” dedicated to a certain topic in a certain place, and this was the limit of their resources? How do we know that anything important really happened in this place, and that this museum has any cultural artifacts of real worth?
We don’t know. It could be a worthless waste of five dollars. It could be a waste of time and gas to drive that far from the highway to find out. Or worse, it could simply be boring. Any of these things are possible. But here is something that we do know: it will be a museum. What good is a shitty museum, you might ask? The very thing that makes it a museum. Perhaps amateurish pit stops along the highway could be enjoyed on the level of kitsch, or in that nod and a wink Americana way I mentioned previously. But there is something about a museum that cannot fake or mimic what it does. There are no fake factories: a factory produces things, and if it does not produce, it is not a factory. Similarly, there are no false museums. You could argue the merits of that museum’s production, but you could not argue that it produces. The very act of calling oneself a museum denotes a very real effort to collect a certain amount of objects, and to present them to the public in a meaningful, cultural way. It is a dedicated arena of exhibition, whatever that may entail. Perhaps it is a collection of memorabilia, with only handwritten index cards to identify them. It could be a house full of antiques, with a volunteer staffer the only guide for their interpretation. It could be art that would never be shown on the walls of a canonical museum, and yet someone picked them to hang on these walls, in lieu of others. Every museum is curated. Every museum exhibits. And every museum wants you to come and see what it has waiting for you.
If you talk to the people who work at these museums, you will find a good number of volunteers. You will find people who already have an intimate connection to the subject matter, and not just a desire to work in museums. They will tell you about how they got barely enough donations to stay open this year, and how they have plans to add another room, or to build an accurate recreation of _____, if only they can reach their new fund raising goal. They will tell you of other small museums in the area that are similar and worth your while, or completely different and worth your while. And they will be glad to see you, and glad that you are hear to see what they have to show you.
Yes, it’s off the beaten path, and it’s a breath of fresh air, and it’s something different, something unique, and something new. But what it is, more than anything else, is culture. This is the stuff, right here. Not the true, the authentic, and the real: but the actual, the close-up, and what remains. A lot of this stuff, if it was not in the Small Museum, would not exist. No one else wants it, and no one else has the money and time to care for it. But this museum does, and so it exists, entered into the vast catalog of human culture. It might not be the most superlative instance of whatever it is, but it very much is what it is. There is an element of actual being to these things, a different sense of the world historical. They are not perfect specimens, preserved against the ravages of time. But they are what’s left. They are what could easily not exist, except for the fact of their exhibition. And in this way, they are art. They are cultural production. They are nothing more than what someone took the time to create with his or her own hands, and in that, they are everything. It is not a class of culture, or an aspect of culture that we’ve previously overlooked. It’s culture, no different than a Michelangelo or an Air Jordan sneaker, for exactly the same reasons. It is this culture, the vastness of the Small Museums in their totality, that is reducing the vitality of the canon. For better or worse. Far be it from me to judge.
What you get from a visit to a Small Museum is all up to you. There are no guarantees from this sort of cultural criticism. Like all consumption, what you get largely depends on you. The Small Museum is something of the “getting to the bottom of things”. As I stress, this verticality is not in the sense of a hierarchy or systemic ranking, nor anything radical or of deconstruction. But underneath the larger structures of our cultural production and distribution, there are minor structures and systems. Smaller, and yet the same. The hand that picks two shells out of thousands from a beach, tosses one into the ocean, and puts the other in the pocket. The mechanisms of choice. The Boolean logic binaries hiding within the vast spectra of aesthetic preference. The oddly human way in which we pour our memory over unsuspecting inanimate objects using our senses. This is going on all the time—not so much at the root of everything, but comprising the root, the stem, the sap, the leaves, and the fruit of everything. Everything that we would want to refer to within the easy confines of a metaphor. Once you’ve visited some of the Small Museums of America, you’ll want to see more. It will become a “thing” with you. You might, if you let it get to you, even start thinking of non-museums as Small Museums. The gum on a sidewalk. The bathing suits that people choose to wear. The names of gun shops. The taste of shitty beer. Other people might think it’s odd, even though they are doing the same thing more and more often, even though they don’t realize it. We are all judging, offering our criticism, and then turning around and showcasing, exhibiting, viewing, consuming. And then moving on. Others might treat you as an odd specimen. But don’t let it bother you too much. We’re all moving in this direction.
If you like, you can accompany me on my visit to yet another Small Museum of America next week. We’re going to the Museum of Walmart Parking Lots. Don’t forget your permission slip, and $9.99 for an extra value meal.
This one could probably double for a Spider-Mad-Men mashup. If for some reason you wanted such a thing. I would have added angular ties, if that was the direction I was going for. But this one remains strictly Lynch. You can tell because of the weird shoes the one woman silhouette is wearing.
This was done for Warren Ellis’ Remodel thread. I always like those, but I don’t draw very well. I do, however, make posters. This will probably be the only Steampunk thing ever to be found on POSZU. And, frankly, it’s not even a very good poster. But I wanted to play along, and so here it is.
I do like the mask though. In my vision, the Steampunk Batman franchise would use the mask as it’s Bat-logo.
Not sure how this design relates to the subject matter of the book. I do like the island silhouette motif–its a repeatable icon that could be used in branding or as chapter headers in the text. But are the different takes on the outline meant to stand for certain utopias discussed in Maly’s authoritative treatment of utopia’s afterlife? Or are they simply meant to be variations on a theme–signifying the epistemological category of utopia in general, or the critical approach Maly employs in bringing them all together in context? Those who have already read the book, or are seeking it out by name, will be aware of the prose on its own merits. So is it really necessary to overload the cover with line drawings of “network” imagery? Perhaps a simple dust jacket with the title and a bit of color would have been more appropriate. But, the goal of the cover is to sell the book–so clearly that is what the publisher intends with this approach.
Well, I thought long and hard about whether or not I should post this one. But here we are.
For starters, Cyborg Month is officially over. But more pressing than that, was the issue of whether or not I really wanted to admit that I’m that much of a geek that I not only conceptualized a poster to commemorate Cyborg Month, but then spent more than several hours bringing it into existence. This is probably bordering on the fan art territory, to be quite honest. And that is a slippery fucking slope.
But then I was looking at these awesome Czechoslovakian Book Covers, and I was thinking how it is a shape that book covers, especially for academic titles, are so serious with their design, and don’t venture into art quite so much anymore. I was also thinking of the ubiquitous conference poster, that anyone who has spent time in academia will have seen slathering the walls and bulletin boards of their department hallways. What an excellent opportunity for art! Here are posters that are going to be printed, regardless of whether they have anything on them. Why not use that as a space for artists?
So here is my contribution of a poster for the 50 cyborgs not-really-a-conference-not-a-book-either. Advertising something that is already over, without really advertising it, and mostly just contributing to general Internet over-exuberance. The scheme was actually something I came up with for a customer, that I can tell they will not like, but I liked it, so I wanted to actually use it. Looks like a vintage set of Uno cards, kind of. The draw 4 card especially, which I can’t find an image of on the Internet (only the current version). Oh, and the circuit diagram is actually a working circuit for a voltage amplifier. Yikes. Went there.
So here we are. I’m a geek; cyborgs are awesome; and I spend a lot of time rotating and re-sizing vector art on the computer to amuse myself. If you are a cyborg geek as well, you are welcome to a full-sized PDF of the poster, available here. Everything on POSZU is Creative Commons Non-com, Attribute, Share-alike, by the way.
I didn’t remember who actually invented the Segway; I had to look all this up on Wikipedia. But when I first read the news that “the owner of Segway died on a Segway”, I automatically assumed that it was indeed the inventor who had perished, until I re-read the headline twice, and began to wonder. I then confirmed that Heselden was the owner and NOT the inventor. I have not seen a news story about the accident that clarified this, though none explicitly made the false assumption, either.
So why did we all assume the inventor had died by the hands (wheels) of his own creation? Maybe it was an honest mistake. The Segway was unveiled in a flurry of speculation and hype, in which many predictions about the invention were made by other self-made inventors like Steve Jobs, who claimed it would be more significant than the personal computer. As this hype washed over us, the archetype of “the inventor” hung over this device, like Edison over the lightbulb, Einstein over relativity, and Jobs himself over a number of ubiquitous devices. A singular person had designed this wonder, and eventually we would celebrate him and his invention in the manner of these other “great men of history”. So when we hear the Segway has turned on its master, we assume that the robot has risen to kill its maker, not the current majority stakeholder in the first of no doubt several backing-capital turnovers.
But the mistake is not so honest. There’s something we like in this lie. There is a story we enjoy, so much so that we prefer the fiction to the fact. There’s something that completes an archetype. It’s not just the trope of technology destroying those who wield it. It is the Frankensteinian horror: the flesh of the hands that brought life into mechanical hands, hands that so artistically made objects into living things, being slashed to bloody bits by those cold metal fingers. The plot of Edward Scissorhands is an example, as is The Terminator Saga, and many other tales of industrialized pathos, the Fordian Doom bending back to poke us through the brain, to snap our twig-like limbs, and to crush our skulls under heavy metal feet. Not just destroying the world, but killing the maker himself (invariably, “him”-self). From ingenuity to invention, from dust to dust.
If you frequent Twitter, or certain circles of it, anyway, you might detect a subterranean desire for this particular sort of ironic pathos. Though it is clearly not just Twitter, but a feature of our current consciousnesses. Twitter only amplified this unconscious sentiment, 140 characters at a time. We cross our fingers and pray that the daily stream of bad news is some way ironic, or symbolic, or in other ways fitting to the overall tragedy of human existence. This is not the sort of thing we wish for out loud in polite company, but we all do it. We wish that the executives of BP would die in fiery fuel oil explosions. We hope that those who mock our beloved Internet become ill for not checking their symptoms via Google. Or at least those who refuse to admit the usefulness of 140 character messages end up being saved from rampaging mutated kittens by sending a SMS to emergency services. We wish that there was some sort of perverted justice in the world to take the place of regular justice that just does not exist.
And that is only the most defensible category of this urge for symbolic death. In the case of the inventor of Segway, there may be some angst towards an expensive device over-built in hype, but it would not fulfill anyone’s sense of justice to see the man perish at the hands of his own machine. It would merely make it more interesting. Such an end would conclude the bizarre chapter of human technological history that is the Segway with a larger-than-life meaning, a tragic symbolism worthy of Greek mythology, an almost Promethean demise in which an inventor gives something of great promise to the world under the best of intentions, only to have his breakthrough mocked, derided, accepted only by the most suburban of police forces and mall security squads, only to have it eventually be the very sword driven through his heart. This is the death we wished for Dean Kamen (at least symbolically), and gave to him undeserved through a sadistic, Freudian Twitter-slip.*
I’ve been trying to think of a name for this urge–this desire to make bad news more allegorical than it is. This morning, I think I came up with it: “Ballardianfreude”. The word “schadenfreude” comes from the German words “schaden” (adversity) and “freude” (joy). It describes the pleasure we gain from others’ misfortune, the joy in adversity that is not our own. J.G. Ballard was a master of modernist irony, describing in all its disgusting glory the oxymoronic pleasure we get from pain, the doom we find in technology that sustains our lives, and the beautiful trap we have built for ourselves out of this modern world. Inside, between the gnashing gears of our transmissions, lies the deep pleasure in the dirty oil, beneath the shining carapaces of bezels and dashboards, the gleaming exteriors shining with speed that will, after Ballard, always evoke their guts, and ours. It is with these eyes, that once opened to the sexiness of car crashes and the orgiastic organicism of overpasses cannot fail to continue to find these artifacts of apophenia, with which we seek out items to reinforce our Ballardianfreude. The only thing more uncanny than to find out we are all going to die is to discover that for no reason, some of us are going to live. Against the positive humanism that turned against us to castrate our dreams, we place the negative affirmation of Ballardianism, the reassurance of beauty and meaning in death. And in this deployment of Ballard’s themes, we in this age, find a certain joy.
And so we seek to find it. For every inventor, an untimely death. For every worldly success, a deep unconscious failure. For every dream made real, a thousand chained to the rocks, with their livers ripped out by ravenous carrion eaters every time the sun rises.
Of course, the pleasant upside to Ballardianfreude is that we are constantly disappointed. The world isn’t as dark as we see it, just as it isn’t as light as we’d like it. Reality is the constant fuzz of gray that a television displays when it is not tuned to a channel or to a pirate broadcast, but to the inherent noise-interference of the universe. A world of constant accidents, some comedic, some tragic, and some utterly meaningless. A man dies in a scooter accident. These things happen every day. The relief from meaning lies in its absence, the surreal reality of the possibility of patterns. Tomorrow there will be traffic accidents and bridges constructed, broken hearts and newly discovered dreams.
The true meaning lies in the sound and the fury. Something is, utterly, utter nothingness. Signifying that.
* Like the undeserved ire for Kamen, so suffers the Segway. I am equally guilty, simplifying the Segway to improve my story. While the Segway didn’t live up to the hype, it is a great tool for personal mobility, especially for the disabled. There are also many off-shoot designs for different purposes. If I live long enough to where my legs begin to fail me, I hope there is some easy device like this in existence that allows me to get out and continue to explore the world, while standing upright.
Well, I think it’s safe to say that doing these posters is some of the most satisfying work I’ve been up to lately. So satisfying, that I’m running out of Twitter-quips to turn into posters. If you’d like to compose something witty and succinct, hit me up @interdome, and maybe if you sound as self-satisfyingly sardonic as me, I’ll immortalize you in a poster.
Today’s poster is inspired by @djrupture, who hasn’t been tweeting as much lately, but if he starts doing his breakfast posts again, then I will most definitely have to do a breakfast poster. “Breakfast posters”: the future of digital print. Forget direct mail. Breakfast is where it’s at. You heard it here first.
Now, I am not the major Terminator fan that is nailing his ass to the wall. Well, at least not exactly. You see, I am not a fan of the Terminator, that is to say the T-800: not even as an anti-hero. What I am a fan of, is the film, The Terminator.
And this is the ambiguous technicality on which I will make my case. Not the technicality that Jonah Campbell mentions in his footnote–that in fact, yes, there is dialog in the film explicitly referring to the T-800 as a cyborg. I am referring to the film itself–the film, The Terminator, is a cyborg. This is the ambiguous part.
Because, a film is not a cyborg any more than the character of the T-800 is a cyborg. In the same way that the T-800 is not so much a classic cyborg as it is a special effect, a movie melange of various horror themes involving technology and human mortality, as Campbell describes, it would be disingenuous and perhaps a pretentious stretch to claim that a work of culture is such a cybernetic feedback system.
But I am a dealer in post-structuralism, and disingenuous and pretentious are two of our main product lines. So here goes.
There are two features of any film. (There may be more, but let’s start here.) There is the plot, or narrative of the story being told, and there is the aesthetic form of the film. One might isolate these into content and form, but I wouldn’t go so far as that. I only separate these two aspects at all, by means of their function for delivering the culture-item itself to the viewer. Film excels at delivering this distinction. There is a quality of film, which I could delve into in a whole other essay, that still attracts the eye, and pulls it in to its artistry, even without the smooth sugar of plot to help it down. Perhaps it is in the timeline of film, the fact that film will progress even without a story. Or maybe it is the moving, visual quality that attracts the attention. I see this most explicitly in Eastern European and Russian film. Tarkovsky, Vertov, Tarr. The ability to just look, without saying anything.
Even Western blockbusters and spine-tugging B-movies still tap into this feature of the media. Horror films, by the fact of hackneyed and predictable plot rendering its narrative aspect practically moot, let the image and spectacle of violence, music, and anxiety build to avant-garde levels. This is the way we are introduced to The Terminator–as another sci-fi afternoon at the movies. An unbeatable villian, from a future where all is war. He guns down cops without a thought. And he will not stop until he kills one particular woman.
But there is more to the film than meets the eye, and it is not just the red eye of a machine burning beneath a suit of flesh. There are little tidbits scattered throughout the film. These are small things–little bits of aesthetic that could be easily missed in the pulse-pounding chases and the furious suspense and the eventual violent release. But while your endocrine system is responding to the plot, your aesthetic systems are responding to these small elements. The naked male body of a body-builder, triangulated between a vitrivian man, steroid experiment, and zeitgeist politician. Punks on the edge of society, receiving their just comeuppance, or meeting their (no) future? A female sex object, that will not take off her headphones, even during sex. A motor scooter–the closest we’ve come to a jet pack in the automobile age. Exotic reptiles, kept as pets. Breaking a date on a friday night. A joke, in the form of an answering machine message–”machines need love too.” Cops addicted to nicotine and caffeine. Targets assassinated according to their order in a phone directory. The announcement of one’s own death delivered live over broadcast TV. Los Angeles, home of Hollywood, Blade Runner, dystopic future prison-states and other natural wastelands. Vehicles and weapons, interchangeable, dumped as soon as they cease to function. A synth soundtrack–the fusion of futurism and current culture, an entire history to itself. A bar called Tech-noir. Dogs as man’s best friend, and machine’s worst enemy. Mutilation without pain. Killing sprees. Fast speeds. Robots as toys. Robots as manufacturing workers. Robots as distractions. Robots meant for killing robots. And a Polaroid camera: an image, an emotion, and entire life developed in the briefest of market transactions that will become a key piece of history, to those who will live to see it.
I could delve into each of these images and themes (and boy would I love to, if anyone read 10,000 word articles on the Internet), and unpack and interpret them and their cybernetic connotations for our culture. But, sticking to the post-structuralist promise, I will keep it meta. Each of these images is a cultural mechanism. A feedback loop in celluloid, plugged into our brains. Written in the programming language of Hollywood, Year 1984 AD. Together they form a cybernetic system, regulating the functioning of our aesthetic being, expressing a particular continuity through our emotions of fear, paranoia, and desire. Paranoia of a machine-man is a cyborg reaction. Paying admission to collective horror at simulated violence on a projected light screen is a cybernetic affect. Dancing in a dark, dirty dance club is a feedback loop. Falling in love at the end of the world is the expression of a pattern. Reading the coded messages in a film as part of the experience of viewing a film is culture, and our culture is part of a system, and the programming therein makes one B-movie into a film that defines not only part of an era, but part of us.
So, it is still perhaps disingenuous for me to say that The Terminator is a cyborg, if I am also going to argue that our entire culture of expressive media and consumption of that media is part of a cybernetic structure. But it is. Our notion of what cyborgs are, and aren’t, and what this might mean for our bodily integrity, our history/future, and our entertainment on a Saturday night, serve to prove the point, not only of cybernetic systems, but also of ourselves. We are the emotions we experience at the movies. What we want to show each other, what we want to see, and what we want to feel, is ourselves. Around and around again, always adjusting, always re-orienting, never quitting, as long as we’re alive.
In the end, we are cyborgs, starring with red eyes into a dirty mirror, and using a scalpel to pull a bloody bit of ourselves out, so that we can watch it fall into the water, and scare ourselves to death.
And we’re back with another Motivational Poster, this one completely without the courtesy or permission of @dcurtisj. Not to say he wouldn’t be courteous if asked–I just didn’t ask.
Love this slogan. M and I laughed about it for a long, tasing fifteen minutes. She tried to roll it out at work, but they weren’t having it. Too bad. No one can escape the future, so you might as well learn to like it. Hopefully this poster will motivate you for that.
This one has a lot to like. A symbol, ready for branding a tased future, pastel colors, and enough repetitive circles to make you puke. Which is a good thing, because if you’re puking, you are more likely to survive being tased. Really. There is scientific evidence to back this up.
Another motivational poster, though not from Twitter, this time. M, my partner, just read The Ask by Sam Lipsyte, which she enjoyed. She also enjoyed my other posters, and so she asked me to design a poster around the text above, which she thought was a hilarious line from the book. That’s the line, as near verbatim as she can remember. I don’t normally do requests, but she gets that privilege. Though let’s be honest: if someone had a request, I’d probably do it (if I could think of something.)
InDesign practice-wise, the logos were the easy part. Doing the speech bubbles took forever, trying to shape all those tiny curves. Anyone know of a preference setting so that the Zoom hotkeys will zoom on the current view, not on the selected object? If you do, let me know over Twitter, or something. (@interdome.) Was getting car sick from scrolling around.
So now she has this lovely poster to grace her bedroom door. I struggled with this one for a bit, until I hit upon the icon theme. It ends up fitting nicely with the “motivational” qualities of the rest of the series. We’re thinking of surreptitiously hanging these up and grocery stores. You could think of it as a guerrilla art campaign to “Ban the Bag”, or we could just be jerks. Either one is really fine.
If you are as tickled by it as she is, even though you are not my partner in the eyes of the State and therefore required to act with at least brief bemusement as required by law, you can download the full PDF here.
Another motivation Twitter poster, words courtesy (and all of these are without permission, I might add) of @AmericanRoulete.
As you might be able to tell, I like minimal. For some reason, I was thinking airline advertisement. I wanted to make the faded curves fade on a gradient, but I ran out of time. Anyway, it’s kind of more jarring this way, and jarring is good, as long as it isn’t amateurish. But too late for that anyway.
At the very last minute, I decided to make it work on its side as well, which I might like better, but I can’t really tell.
Looks even more like an airline ad now.
You can print it out and try flipping it around for yourself, with the PDF, here. Feel free to try it with art facing the wall. That might even be best.
This poster could be better, but I have so many paths on the pasteboard now it’s making everything slow and irritating, so like that, it’s done. I wish the center colored heptagons were 3D, like a prism, but it is what it is. I don’t want any of these to take more time than I can devote in one day.
The nature of a symbol is that it is immediately known upon perception to convey meaning. Even if the meaning is not understood, it’s presence is apparent to the beholder. Like a spark jumping to conductive material, across a threshold of resistance. Conscious humans and symbols are a part of a biunivocal framework in this way–saying the same thing with two different mouths, or perhaps, saying words while knowing an ear is listening. Speaking to, rather than simply vocalizing. Communicating, not just making noise.
But this solidly unifying feature of symbols, finding strength in the bipartite connection between consciousness and its material expression on walls, in books, in language, in art–belies the problem: how does one identify a symbol?
A symbol could be anything. An italicized word, a scrawled bit a graffiti, a sigh at the end of a spoken sentence, a dented fender left unfixed. Meaning is an extensive concept of metaphysical significance–it seeks to search out from its prescribed boundaries, and incorporate other things into itself. Things that did not mean anything before begin to mean, because of their provenance to other meaningful things. Symbols do not just communicate with human consciousness, but with anything else the human consciousness perceives. There is no limit to perception other than perception itself, and so the word on a page does not have more meaning within the confines of the black ink than in the pure whiteness of the paper, but in between the two, and everything else: the music in the room, the temperature of the air, the sitting position of the reader, the other things that happened that day, the thoughts lingering in the mind through which the words will be read, and with mix and melange with the words and ideas later that night in dreams.
We try to keep our symbols simple. It’s easier that way. A certain number of consonants, a limited number of vowels. “Typical” vocabulary, regional dialect. The edges of the TV screen. Sometimes we just want the radio on in the background; we’re not always at the opera. But therein, a privileging of symbols necessarily occurs. We can change the volume of the radio, and take it with us in the car, unlike the sublime roar of a forest waterfall. Poems are spoken directly, and to the point. The form is an aspect of the symbol, and we tend to prefer the unified, the intentional, the deliberate and the apportioned. It suits us, that is, the symbolic perception relationship between symbol and human consciousness. It still has a freedom of interpretation, but it is more clear, and distinct.
And yet, we continue to look for more. Since the beginning of recorded history, we have looked for symbols in the structures of the natural world. In the stars, in the flights of birds, in the movement of water, in the folds and strata of the earth. Divination, these days, is understood as a foretelling of the future, because of our modern obsession with the progression of history. But divination is not just about the future. It is about time itself, about the current operating structure of the earth, whether controlled by metaphysics, gods, demons, or other perceived forms of technology and magic. The often quoted symbolic adage about distinguishing technology from magic is itself only a way of dividing the choir of symbolic angels into a tabulatory rubric suitable for logomancy. Which is the technology, and which is the magic, which we are supposed to be unable to distinguish from each other? And what are we supposed to gain by saying this? It only matters if you are going to give one a different meaning than the other. What’s the difference to you? What can magic do for you that technology can’t? Or vice versa?
Magic used to be what was erroneous, dangerous, or banned. Magic was a symbol with its own meaning. It was the power that we wished that we had, and the power that those with real power didn’t want us to have. There were certain acceptable forms of meaning, for directing attention onto particular parts of nature. Acceptable ways of reproducing, of owning property, of measuring the year, of celebrating ourselves. Magic wasn’t a different form of meaning, just different content. The idea that noticeable signs in the livers of animals might be tied to the fabric of fate is really not so different from the idea that the fates are all linked to a single theological presence that we cannot control. Both are ways of apportioning meaning in what we perceive, only one finds that meaning in the dark innards of livestock, and the other finds a threat to its meaning in the former.
Technology was a magic, but more self-reflexive than hepatomancy or theology. It began in a similar way, observations of meaning, the search for symbols, and the invention of either when it suited the human consciousness. A better way of counting required numbers; a way of tracking the seasons involved observing the stars; an awareness of the importance of blood and the interior of bodies led to attempts to see further inside, to figure out what we were really made of. What we learned or invented was passed on, in a stratification of meaning we called knowledge. If it worked, it stuck around, if not, it was improved or abandoned.
But a funny thing occurred. A strain of knowledge grew that sought to refute itself, to quickly abandon untenable theories of meaning and suggest new theories, that looked everywhere for the smallest traces of meaning, which it would unite and synthesize into theories. We called this science, and it took technology as its material. It wasn’t enough to simply have a plow that worked, or to generally have an idea of when the solstice would return. It had to work better, and it had to be exact. Any unpredicted meaning was a sign of weakness. It wasn’t enough to simply have knowledge, it had to be scientific knowledge. Numerology wasn’t as functional as mathematics; astrology wasn’t as accurate as astronomy; hepatomancy wasn’t as useful as medicine. Theology, eschatology, and metaphysics were not as fruitful as chemistry and material physics. Technology needed to separate itself from the magic and the religion. This was a meaning with a particular ethic, and a particular form, both of which could not square themselves with these other sorts of meanings. This didn’t mean that other ways of accumulating knowledge would disappear–we were still human, after all, seeing symbols on any surface to which we turned our eyes–but it meant that there was a difference between this meaning and other meaning. The power this meaning accumulated only grew.
Until the present day, when the power and rule of technology is so wide, that it is impossible for us to see it all in one glance. The symbol of scientific meaning, whether it be an equation, a code, or a method, cannot provide a viewing lens back upon itself at all times. The expanse and extension of this form of meaning’s plateau is just too great. Magic was isolated enough to form a localized genealogy of symbolic knowledge, and religion was simplistic enough that it could be apprehended through the single image of a human, mystic, prophet, or martyr; a unitary or categorical notion of the ineffable; or a simple list of precepts. Technology, however, is everywhere, and there is no technological specialist on earth that can understand the meaning of more than a fraction of the technological expanse.
What we’ve created is a world, on top of the old world. A new realm of symbols that transfers the realm of previous symbols, and transfers that realm again, and again. The symbols have lost the unity they had only just attained in magic and religion, now shifting through patterns so diverse that they continue to move even as they are locked into meaning. It is almost as if this plateau of human meaning is generating the meaning itself, and we are only able to glean the symbols of this meaning when the technology allows us to. As if it is the human consciousness, and we are only the brief, unitary symbols that float over its expanse, and make up its perceivable entity. We are the moments of its meaning, and it is only in rare moments that we are able to find any meaning for ourselves.
It is a time of technomancy, when we look to the technology we have devised with confused eyes, scanning over it for any sort of knowledge, any brief symbol to which our human consciousness might connect, to which we might join in a connection of understanding of the technological structure that surrounds us. We are needing magic to understand and deconstruct the magic we are already practicing. There are ghosts in the machine because otherwise there would only be more machines. It would be a terrible fate to have to apprehend the technological world with the pattern of meaning that would have us write it all down and remember it all. These ghosts, thankfully, are the parts of our technological world that we can write down and forget. We can cross our cell phones, grip the edges according the methods we have been taught, and think that we understand, because we’ll never be able to learn the rest. This is the real life in which you will never have to use calculus.
The blessing of a dream is not in what the dream foretells, but because you had a dream from which you might be able to tell anything. The symbol engines are churning still, even though we’re feeding them the dirty fuel, the kind they haven’t burnt for centuries. The leaking trail of anxious meaning emanating from underneath the designed shell of your consciousness means that at least the symbol lines are still pumping–if there was no pressure in the system at all, then we’d really be in trouble.
You know it means something, and something important. Not only because of the classic propaganda poster stylings, but because of the evocation of the swastika, and the extreme violent of the hand gesture, and the desecration of widely-known sacred object.
But what is it saying? Is it a pro-Nazi poster, claiming that the Bible is the enemy, and it should be violently stabbed? Or is an anti-Nazi poster, claiming that the Nazis are the enemy, because they would do such violence to a Bible? Do you react more strongly to the soul-violating desecration of the Bible, the physical violence of the bayonet, or the symbolic violence of a swastika? What are your emotions being harnessed to support? Should you be stirred by this violent harnessing, or feel even more violated for someone attempting to hijack your emotions for a cause you do not support?
On a wall during wartime, we would instantly know the answers to these questions, because the context clues would unite with the signs that are present, and meaning would flow. But as it is, it is “ceci n’est pas propaganda”, because the force of its meaning as propaganda has been removed, by a disavowal similar to Matisse’s famous surrealist move. You know it is propaganda, but at the same time forced to admit it is only a meaningless sign intending to be propaganda, because the meaning it intends to have has been disturbed by a cutting of the context net. So it intends to be, and yet is not, while still clearly being.
Until, you realize the caption is written in ENGLISH, thereby re-uniting you with the context. If it is assumed to be a legitimate, vintage poster from the war against the Nazis, then the context was obviously that of England or America, or another English speaking country, which all happened to be on the same side of the war. Therefore, context is re-established by divorcing the language of the sign from the immediacy of your own context. The caption is no longer a mere caption, but an “English caption”, which is not just the transmission of a message but a contextual message itself.
You might, as I did, not being a native French speaker, be amused by the fact that in French, negatives are actually given a conjugation that to English speakers might appear to be a double negative with the “ne (no) ‘est (it is) pas (not)” construction. And so the binary separation between “is” and “is not” in English, in French is a separation that unites a phrase around the verb, and thereby twice cuts the verb off from the sentence rather than simply modifying it. And then the difference in language adds additional ironic context to an ironic picture-phrase combination.
But in the case of the propaganda, the language difference is the only thing to deliver us from irony. Unless, of course, the caption was rephrased to say “This Is Not The Enemy”. Or, better yet, “Ceci n’est Pas Le Adversarie.”
I’d also like to introduce the swastika that was marked on the Arizona Capital in refried beans, after the controversial passage of the law illegalizing non-legal immigrants in the state, a potentially ironic response to a political controversy fraught with its own ironies.