All that is solid melts into air

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"All that is solid melts into air": notes on the logic of the global spectacle. (Feature).

Author/s: Jonathan Flatley

Issue: Sept-Oct, 2002

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto

The revolution will be no re-run brothers; The revolution will be live.

Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

In his 1974 song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, Gil Scott-Heron sings of the ways that the dominant genres of television (the news, the soap opera, the commercial, the sitcom, etc.) prevent any oppositional political content from being represented there. In his view, the chief political function of television is to represent the interests of the white ruling class as natural and inevitable, while distracting us and turning us into passive consumers by "entertaining" us at the same time. The person whose structure of feeling is built around the experience of consumption, Scott-Heron suggests, is not the person who engages in radical political action: "The revolution will not go better with Coke/The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath." The song concludes with his insistence that the revolution will not be televised, it will not be a "re-run," it will be live."

In his insistence on liveness, on the necessity of revolution responding to and participating in reality itself, Scott-Heron updates a longstanding Marxist tradition anxious about our ability to represent and thus apprehend historical reality. Without a map of the historical situation in which we find ourselves, how can we possibly develop a plan for changing that reality? Our inability to map out our historical situation is frequently seen as the result of a stubborn melancholic intrusion of the lost past into the present. For example, in The 18th Brumaire Marx famously laments that: "The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living." Just when people seem ready to revolutionize themselves, they "anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service." Thus, they keep betraying themselves because they mis-recognize themselves, their real conditions of existence and their relations with each other. The revolutionary task is to be present to the present--to s ee the world as it is and act accordingly. I take this to be Lenin's suggestion when he remarks that," one can never be radical enough; that is, one must always try to be as radical as reality itself." We are always playing catch-up in relation to reality. There is a persistent time lag that we are always trying to close.

The difficulty of the task lies in the effort to determine what kind of a fluctuating "thing" reality is. This perpetual transformation is perhaps the one constant of modernity. In a phrase, which has since come to signify the ever-shifting, changeable and volatile character of modern life, Marx and Engels exclaimed in The Communist Manifesto that "all that is solid melts into air." (1) They referred first of all to the fact that capitalism by its nature is constantly expanding and therefore needs to constantly revolutionize itself in order to create new markets, leaving nothing solid or permanent in its wake, both destroying and conjuring into existence everything from cities to human populations along the way. They were also speaking of the way that capitalism reduces everything to the shadowy abstraction known as money. Both of these processes have accelerated and transformed themselves in the twentieth century. New technologies have greatly expanded the human capacity for both creation and destruction, an d the universality of money as a standard of value above all others has been supplemented by the (much discussed) process through which everything, if it is to be felt to exist at all, must also be able to be transformed into an image.

This is the situation of which Jean Baudrillard has written: "The very definition of the real has become: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction." In some circles, this development, often discussed as one of the basic features of "posimodernism," has been understood as an abandonment of the possibility of ever catching up with the radicality of reality that Lenin spoke of. The world cannot be represented because it is itself always already a representation, because the spectacle constitutes reality itself; or, as Andy Warhol put it: "I don't know where the artificial stops and the real begins."

In the days and weeks following September 11 I was in Moscow and I heard many people suggest that the attacks signaled the end of postmodernism. Such diagnoses were heard throughout the American popular press as well. The terrorist attacks, the argument, would go, were a massive "return of the real." They were not a simulacrum but a horrifyingly actual event of historical proportions; here reality had emerged with perfect clarity from amidst the confusing simulacra. There was no confusing the artificial and the real here. Slavoj Zizek compared the effect to the moment in The Truman Show when the Jim Carrey character realizes that he has been living in a constructed reality, or the moment in The Matrix when the Keanu Reeves character is shown the "desert of the real" that he actually inhabits. Everybody else in the world knew that life in the present world is regularly punctuated by events of terrifying violence; only America was able to live in a (fake, simulacral) world in which this was not the case. Many p eople seemed to be thinking: "Now you know what it feels like to live in the rest of the world." The hope expressed in many places was that America and Americans, through their own experience of suffering through the newly awakened "real," would gain a newfound sympathy for the violent reality in which the rest of the world lived.

While I think that it is true that the events of September 1 had the potential to bring people around the world together through a recognition of a common experience of death and destruction (as I will discuss more below), it is not because the events of September 11 signify the arrival of the "real" and the end of the simulacral. On the contrary, the attacks on the World Trade Center (WTC) are the clearest signal yet that the media spectacle is now a constitutive element of our "reality;" they signal not the end of postmodernism, but its apotheosis. After all, the attacks were planned precisely from the point of view of their reproducibility as images. Less visually spectacular, less symbolic, less ideologically contingent attack-sites that would have killed more people could have been chosen by the terrorists; a nuclear power plant, for example. The WTC offered a perfectly condensed and extremely visible site for a disaster that capitalized on the iconic reproducibility and, often horrible, attraction of sp ectacle. And, in the hours, days and weeks following the event, the images of the planes crashing into the towers and the towers collapsing were reproduced ceaselessly, tirelessly on television, in newspapers, in magazines. (Anywhere on earth where some kind of visual media are present, these images were shown.) Furthermore, as I hope to suggest below, The Truman Show effect whereby we feel that our illusory world has been punctured by the intrusion of reality is itself an effect produced by "live" television. The belief-that here we have hit a bedrock of historical reality allows us to disavow the more disturbing ways in which the attacks on the WTC have brought the persistent ontology of "reality" itself into question.

The collapse of the WTC offers an unusually apt site for considering the new ways that solidity melts into air and its implications for our constitution as subjects in our particular historical moment. We could hardly have a more literal illustration of the phrase than the disappearance of the towers into huge clouds of dust and smoke. How could something so large have simply vanished into thin air? New Yorkers were left with the stupefying fact-of sheer absence at Ground Zero (which has, incidentally, become the most popular tourist attraction in New York City). The absence of bodily remains made mourning difficult, since the loss itself became abstract and uncertain. And, to paraphrase Freud, because no one willingly abandons an affective attachment, the absence of a dead body to offer perceptual proof makes the already persistent mechanism of denial even more difficult to overcome. This frustratingly melancholic situation was further complicated by the somewhat surprising fact that the most forceful percep tual evidence of what had been lost was not visual, but olfactory. In a weird synaesthetic sublation of all that was lost, there remained a powerful, distinctive and unforgettable smell in the areas near downtown Manhattan for weeks (if not months) after the event. Several memorial acts have sought to express the difficulty of the mourning. The immaterial presence offered by the twin towers of light projected into the sky, for example, provided an elegant elegy for the disappearance into air of the buildings onto the visual presence of which people had cathected a surprising mount of emotional energy. Likewise, the memorial service that accompanied the end of the cleanup at Ground Zero was a silent one, the lack of language indicated that what was being mourned was not only the death and disappearance of so many people, but the very difficulty of mourning itself.

However, it is neither the scope nor nature of the destruction that makes the collapse of the towers unique. (The attacks were much less destructive and perceptually shocking and difficult to apprehend than, for example, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) What makes the events of September 11 singular is the way in which, as I already mentioned, the solid melted into air in another sense: the event was literally broadcast through the air in order to be televised "live." It is possible that no other historical event has ever received such a wide public viewing during the event itself. Those who did not see it "live" (which was uncannily possible because of the time lags built into the event itself) were presented with ample opportunity to see it shortly thereafter. This massive public viewing, mainly on television, is what constituted the event-ness of the attacks on the WTC. In fact, it was a "made-for-TV' event. And here, to borrow again from Baudrillard, "it is a question of the rev ersal of origin and finality, for all the forms change once they are not so much mechanically reproduced but conceived from the point of view of their very reproducibility, diffracted from a generating nucleus we call the model." (2) The television image of the crashing plane and burning towers preceded the reality not only in the minds of the terrorists, but in the minds of anyone who has seen a Hollywood movie. What we saw was a particular and familiar kind of spectacle-the spectacle of mass death, which we know and recognize as the "disaster." Although the attacks were an emotional surprise and a shock to everyone, hardly any person could say that they did not already recognize the images: how many times did we hear that "it looked just like a movie."

But this was not a cinematic event; it was a televisual one, a fact that television seemed eager to hammer home in its incessant repetition of the crashes and collapses. As a medium and technology, television appeared to be announcing its self-conscious supersession-through-sublation of cinema. Hollywood can represent terrorist attacks with entertaining sublimity, but only television can represent a terrorist attack as it happens-"live." In fact, after September 11, television can legitimately lay claim to have facilitated the creation of a new from of event: the live global media spectacle. For the first time, an event with global consequences, which was also about globalization, was broadcast live around the world.

The reach of television is becoming more global every day, at a rate that has accelerated greatly since the end of the Cold War: the globalization of capital requires it. For the professional economists of capital measuring so-called "development," "television sets per capita" is one of the most significant indicators. The emergence of this global television audience is. an important historical situation in its own right. The attractiveness of the Islamic fundamentalist rejection of western mass culture must be understood as an attempt to resist the cultural-technological hegemony of American mass culture. That such an extreme movement was required to effect this resistance testifies to the tremendous force behind the compulsion to "develop." It is not as if one can simply choose at this point in history not to participate in global capital. I would conjecture that movements such as the one spearheaded by the Taliban are attractive because they offer the promise of an otherwise impossible agency in relation t o the globalization of capital. (3) (n)

The promise of agency-through-publicity offered out by the ever-increasing global television audience gave the attacks on the WTC their raison d'etre. As has often been noted, the attacks were a brilliant use of the infrastructure of globalization to attack globalization. I think we can even say that once the global network existed for such a spectacle to be possible, its occurrence was inevitable. By using the existence of this global television audience to enable and publicize their attack on the globalization that made that audience possible, the event, in a neat circuit, renders the global audience at once the historical subject and the object of the event. This means we all participated in the event--indeed could be seen as its cause--by being consumers of the spectacle. This first global spectacle could only increase the power and reach of the media technology that made it possible, making participation in the global audience seem more attractive and necessary than every, thereby appearing to decrease a nyone's (including the Taliban's) agency in resisting the expansion of a television system which is, at least for now, run by a secular, capitalist logic. However, it is not clear that this new global audience will in the long run service either the interests of Islamic fundamentalist isolation or global capital. But control of access to such an audience will become a major political concern. That the United States felt it important to try to limit the reach of Al-Jazeera after they broadcast Osama bin Laden's speech of October 7, 2001 (asking, for example, that the major networks use caution before broadcasting any future bin Laden speeches) testifies to the fear the government has for the power of this new global audience. Although the major networks agreed, anyone with satellite TV could continue to get Al-Jazeera. Complete control will be difficult if not impossible, and although for the time being television audiences have again fragmented, I would venture that there will continue to be more and more fre quent eruptions of global audiences. (n)

In fact, it is possible that the audience brought into existence by this spectacle will form the revolutionary class of the future. It will do this not because the event allows us to see the ways in which we are all subject to a reality defined by disastrous, violent events, but because of the experience and affect of collective subjectivity created by this newly global mass genre--the disaster. In his important article on "The Mass Public and the Mass Subject," Michael Warner argues that: "As the subjects of publicity--its 'hearers,' 'speakers,' 'viewers,' and 'doers'--we have a different relation to ourselves, a different affect, from that which we have in other contexts." (4) What is this affect in relation to our experience of September 11? In the days and weeks following September 11, many people in the U.S. remarked on their ambivalent relation to the non-stop television coverage of the event and its aftermath: this coverage was both irresistibly attractive and almost invariably depressing. This ambival ent reaction gives us some clues about the internal contradictions of the event itself, (n)

In the disaster genre, television coverage holds out the promise of being completely up to date and present to the present: we see what is happening as it is happening. (5) Like a magical resolution of the childhood fort-da game that Freud wrote of, television is able to be both there--at the scene of the event with live coverage--and here--in our homes, indeed in billions of homes simultaneously. (6) The imaginary resolution between fort and da that the live spectacle provides also facilitates an unusually transitive relationship to the bodies represented on television: we are them and we are not them at the same time, The emotional charge of the event is here: it could have been me, but it was not. We get to imagine our own deaths, see our own funeral, as if we could simultaneously die and survive our own death. The attraction is analogous to the one that held itself out to Dostoyevsky's Kirilov, who, you will remember (in The Possessed), thought that by killing himself he could achieve an Archimedean dista nce on himself and indeed on all of humanity. He confused the idea or representation of his suicide with his actual suicide, It has, of course, often been noticed that the imagination of one's own death can be of great value. Nietzsche attributed life-saving powers to it, and likewise Rousseau would write, speaking of the self-distance that writing itself afforded him: "I can certainly say that I never began to live, until I looked upon myself as a dead man." (7) One thing suggested here is that only when you are able to abstract yourself, to look at yourself as if at a distance, as If you were mourning yourself, can you recognize yourself in a way that allows you to remember that you are alive at all. (8) (n)

Walter Benjamin argued that this was the vantage point once offered by the storyteller who reminded us to see our lives from the point of view of remembrance because that is how she or he viewed hers or his. The value of storytelling is that both the teller and the listener know that the listener will re-tell it with details from her or his own experience. This, by itself, shapes the structure of the listening. So each teller in his or her turn views his or her life from the outside, from the point of view of the story, which foretells the distance achieved by the epitaph. In listening to a story, one gets to imagines one's own epitaph in asking: how can my experience be put into a repeatable, narrative form? Benjamin argues that the novel arises in part in order to internalize this relational memento mori function--the reminder of mortality--as the storyteller disappears into the historical past. The novel promises the reader that he will share with the characters "their experience of death: if need be their figurative death--the end of the novel--but preferably their actual one...What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about." (9) It would seem that today, even the novel can no longer serve this function, even in Russia (the very land of the long novel), and it is now consumption--of commodities and media spectacles alike--that offers this self-negativity, the self-abstraction essential to feeling that you are at all. (n)

What gives the disaster its additional affective punctum is the fact that the dead body that we view is a collective one. This is why a mass death, unlike a collection of separate individual deaths, is news. If Rousseau could say that he "could not live until he could imagine himself as a dead man," then perhaps we can also say that collective existence and agency cannot be imagined until we can see our own collective death. In short, the disaster is so attractive because when we witness the spectacle of mass death, our collectivity as an audience-- something that is otherwise thin as air--becomes concrete and visible. Live television coverage of the disaster allows a mass affect to come into being that otherwise does not exist. This is not to say that everyone around the world was swept up into the same feeling of sympathy for the dead or into any other recognizable emotion, but that people were experiencing their emotions in relation to a collectivity. People were--even if only for a flickering moment-affec tively aware of their collective existence. The problem is that there was no Al mechanism for transforming this feeling of a collective subjectivity into a form with any duration, let alone a feeling of collective agency. The disaster whets our desire for collectivity and then frustrates it in the logic of individual consumption that dominates television programming; "the revolution will not go better with Coke." In other words, the disaster offers a collectivity that it then also forecloses. This is partly what makes it depressing. (n)

The world that had watched the collapse of the towers was aware of its collectivity, but in a startled, confused state. In such moments of confusion, time seems to stand still; one has a feeling that new ways of understanding and feeling about the world might be possible at such moments of crisis. Unfortunately, the U.S. immediately squandered any goodwill that had emerged in this moment after the attacks--even if only in the form of momentarily suspended animus--by forcefully reasserting its primary position in the world order. The desire for collectivity aroused by the disaster has been ceaselessly and aggressively channeled into a patriotic form that says "you are with us or against us," "our victimhood and our suffering exceeds all others and justifies any response." (It is worth remembering that the rhetoric of transcendent victimhood was the rhetoric of the Nazis; this rhetoric usually appears when it is needed to legitimize violence.) In the year since the attacks, all the efforts on the part of the U. S. have been to shut down and divide the global audience. These efforts have not slowed down but appear to be accelerating as the U.S. government tries to motivate public support for (among other agendas covering both domestic and foreign policy), a war with Iraq that network television will most certainly not televise from the ground. One already wonders who will have access to the Al-Jazeera coverage of the inevitable Baghdad ruins and dead Iraqi civilians. (n)

One also wonders: what if another compelling collective structure of feeling had been available after the attacks, one that would have successfully crossed national boundaries? Could the desire for collectivity have found another form, a compellingly agential one? It seems newly important to imagine and experiment with new narratives of global consciousness and global affectivity so that the next time a global audience flickers into existence we will be able to articulate its reality and seize it. (n)

In the second part of the sentence from The Communist Manifesto which I have taken as my epigraph, Marx and Engels assert that the way capitalism constantly denudes and destroys, leaving nothing holy, will allow us to see clearly the nature of class oppression as well as its collective nature: man will be forced to face "his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind." Now, it is the melting into air of televisuality itself that offers us the possibility for seeing these relations and for seizing them. In fact, it may be the only place in which they can be perceived, It may be that it is not as workers of the world that we will unite, but as a mournful and melancholic audience. Scott-Heron was partly right: the revolution will be live. But for better or for worse, that "liveness" is now available exclusively on television.


(1.) This case is made nowhere more eloquently than in Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Penguin. 1982).

(2.) Jean Baudrillard, Simulations (New York: Semiotexte, 1983), p. 100.

(3.) Others, including Saskia Sassen, Noam Chomsky and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, have commented more thoroughly on the political economy of globalization.

(4.) Bruce Robbins, ed., The Phantom Public Sphere (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), p. 234.

(5.) See Mary Ann Doane's "Information, Crisis, Carastrophe" in Patricia Mellencamp, ed., Logics of Television (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990) for a smart analysis of the temporality of the television catastrophe.

(6.) This ability of the technologically reproduced image to meet viewers in their own situations was part of Walter Benjamin's hopes for the politicization of art in his essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1968).

(7.) The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau (New York: The Modern Library/Random House), p. 236.

(8.) This is famously discussed by Jacques Derrida in "...That Dangerous Supplement..." in Of Grammatology (Baltimore, MD. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).

(9.) "The Storyteller" in Illuminations, p. 101.

JONATHAN FLATLEY spent 2001 in Moscow at the Russian Institute of Philosophy on a Fulbright Grant. His first book, Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism is forthcoming from Harvard University Press.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Visual Studies Workshop

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