Ramón Salas
Demons in the Dumps
“Error”, individual catalog, Ed. Gobierno de Canarias 2009.

 

In the gloomy interior of an industrial ruin from a distant time when the economy still revolved around material things of practical value—a ruin, it has to be said, saved by our pathological need to compensate memory loss by expanding our heritage—Marina Núñez projected several diabolical beings, curiously enough, from Burgos cathedral. The interior of oil tanks is similar in size to Gothic cathedrals, but their walls, though thin, are not transparent. In this dark shrine, a cave-become-temple (or shelter) for the sight, in the heart of the city, the sinister figures spun round and round, like Sisyphus condemned to incessant staticness, like the bastard offspring of the angel in X Men and like Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines. I say “sinister” because they are as strange as they are familiar. Many of us grew up reading retro-futuristic comics of musclemen clad in loincloths and Viking helmets, brandishing laser swords and piloting weightless mounts somewhere between witches and robots. But not even syncretism is what it was.

“There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm”.

Walter Benjamin [1]

It is difficult to extricate ourselves from the present crisis. Optimists think of it as short-term, and pessimists as structural. Once again optimists are shown to be those who think we live in the best world possible, while pessimists are those that fear they may be right. However, the crisis is systematic. Capitalism is based on perpetual growth, a dynamic evidently unsustainable in a limited world, and regulated by a global market that leads us to do what we believe to be suicidal knowing full well that, if we don’t do it, someone else will cover that demand or exploit that supply. The winds of history are against us no matter how aware we are of catastrophe. Just as well they’ve stopped blowing.

When the Berlin wall came down twenty years ago, we declared the end of history (and of historicity). Since then, it has been much easier to imagine the collapse of capitalism than a viable alternative. The denunciation of art and the art of denunciation have become a mere promotional spectacle: we are just as aware of the situation as of our unwillingness to modify it. We need models. But the past lacks prestige and the future perspective.

The pre-modern world looked back to the past from where all authority derived. “And God saw that it was good…”. The Almighty could not be wrong; history was an unforgivable movement towards decadence but it allowed us to go back mythically and retrospectively to our origins and there reencounter the true nature of things. Notorious identity. The bourgeois revolution revealed that tradition was an alibi to legitimise and naturalise the unjust order of things that laid down the condition of every person at the moment of their birth and according to their lineage, gender and colour. In future, individuals would be whatever they could make of themselves and history would write itself by looking forwards.

In the end, the future turned out to be just as unclear and pliable as the past, the myth of progress just as axiomatic as the former dogma of the origins. And Vitruvian man, for centuries the symbol of the artistic canon, appears to occupy an area somewhere between the past and the future. The Son of God transfers to this high lineage his right to put himself forward as a “measure of all things”, yet he bases these measures on an abstract reason with little debt to the past and many possibilities for the future. To a certain extent, condensed into that figure was the techno-melancholic humanism that so fascinated the fascists and still defines our imagery. We are nothing; technology has freed us from nature and its essence. However, incapable of proposing other alternatives to the proliferation of devices, it has awoken the ire of the exiled gods. We maintain our human appearance, even more “human” than ever, thanks to gyms, operating theatres and anabolic steroids. But if we don’t want or can’t admit to the consumption of prêt-à-porter post-human prosthesis, we seem doomed to resort to pre-modern mythical communities. Between the world and the global village there is nothing more than desert.

The past’s loss of prestige was followed by disillusionment with the future. Like the Baudelairean dandy, hidden beneath our thick layer of make-up, we throw ourselves upon anything new just to be the first to bear arrogant witness to the feeling of déjà vu that it provokes in us. The dandy was the master of ceremonies of the spectacle of boredom and, consequently, the gravedigger of a future that, by exchanging a hundred likely eternities for one present moment in the hand, was stamped with the fate of the dispensable.

Post-modernity only has eyes (and has nothing more than eyes) for the present. The winds of history have stopped blowing and the unsupported angel has fallen onto the ruins where the most legendary past and the most visionary future have fused together in an incoherent cocktail of technological modernism and cultural archaism that Guattari called chaosmosis. The sudden curb on meta-narratives has fractured and mixed up their entire historical content, which is now offered to us looking all the world like a theme park, a sort of Venice illuminated by Las Vegas. The lofty towers scaled by Spiderman were torn down by aircraft piloted by medieval kamikazes receiving digital orders from monks living in caves. And as Bush discharged all his technological fury against the infidel whilst invoking the God of his ancestors, he was stirring up financial engineering that would make the value of land vanish into thin air.

“Epistemic narratives can no longer linger over the simple statement of indecisiveness and uncertainty. Or, worse still, over the celebration of the fragment and plurality of the world to which post-modernism wanted us to become accustomed. The socio-economic, political and cultural catastrophes of the last decade show that the loftiest towers in New York and the western world’s apparently most reliable investments topple when interacting with the beliefs and rites of peoples who hide computers in caves, simultaneously circulate drugs, arms and peasant utopias and who can be removed from governments but not eliminated as “threats” to what we call modernity.”

Nestor García Canclini [2]

Perhaps Klee’s angel is stunned because he has just come across the surface of a picture with no perspective. Perhaps he’s as dumbfounded as Jim Carrey when he steers the prow of his yacht into the back of the set in The Truman Show. Not so much stunned at the sight of the Global Village, where the most virtual future and the most time-worn past coexist, scattered around the same area, but at having understood, like Buzz Lightyear, that the infinite goes no further than Andy’s playroom.

No future. Counter-cultural slogans have been adopted by heads of human resources. Contracts are temporary, (de)formation permanent, mobility non-stop. A biography can no longer have ideas (incompatible with the capacity of adaptation to variable market demands), a climax (incompatible with economic, occupational and affective deterritorialization) or an ending (future objectives and projects condemned to failure because of a short-sighted concept of profit). It used to be psychological and occupational suicide to consider life in the long-term, but nowadays it also appears to be economically irresponsible in a world in recession. We must continue to take out mortgages that are vital to carry on acquiring prêt-à-porter identities and paying interests that will ensure our commitment to growth. Otherwise we will lose credit and end up joining some millenarian sect in a world in recession. Like El Roto (cartoonist) said: “the whole caboodle’s going down; keep blowing”. Otherwise the angel of history will continue to spin round and round without even leading us to catastrophe.

To practise displacement, it’s best to travel light. For years, living was linked to gaining experience, a narrative-like concept that meant maturity in private and competence in public. Today experience is interpreted as resistance to change that also frustrates the enjoyment of dispersed sensations. We have to let ourselves go. If we can’t change the world, we can at least change our point of view. We are tourists; we cannot alter the hotel décor or timetable, but we can demand the entertainer be conscientious. The body yearns for the weightlessness of a wandering mind. The mind yearns for the freshness of an eager body. And old age is a decadent vice.

But the price of eternal youth is always a curse. Like Dorian Gray, the longer his body remained young the more his likeness was exposed to his excesses. The smooth surface of faces that have undergone cosmetic surgery and the screens on which they are projected expose us to a new kind of temporality. Paradoxically, the more we revamp ourselves the more we risk becoming less original. Like fashion or new technology, we have transcended the habit of calculating age according to decline and now do so through the super speedy chronometer of obsolescence.  Before anything can break down it is no longer in vogue. We may fantasize about vanquishing death, dispensing with the body and saving our memory to a light data storage format, only to discover to our horror that these indestructible devices expire even faster than the flesh. The huge variety of discs and formats we have been using to save our digital and magnetic memory are as operative as they are useless. What will we choose to replace the body and that will last longer?

The prestige of youth is inversely proportionate to that of the future, since youth is not identified with a possibility in the making but with a present moment to be enjoyed, or endured. Now even utopias are pinned on catastrophe. We were as aware of the growth of the real estate bubble as we were that the bang would be less deafening from inside. We are as aware of the unsustainable nature of our present as we are that we will only let go of the imagery of growth when oxygen, petrol, or at least, credit have dried up. The worse the better. Only the ruined present will save us from the future. It will render it unnecessary by bringing it to us. We can’t even show our solidarity to our descendents since, as Zoe Sofia so provokingly states, if the future is already here, there is no sense in considering the survival of future generations, as we effectively are those future generations.

The anticipated future no longer occurs. According to the logic of the image, it is reproduced. And what we reproduce, according to the aesthetic of the complaint, has nothing to do with the future that we wish for. To a large extent because the wish has also collapsed in the face of the gravitational pull of the present. The angel has his back to the future; he cannot wish for something that he isn’t looking at and only understands as the spread of a civilization born out of the anticipated ruin of its own decadence. The chance meeting of a building by Calatrava and a Valencian country damsel dressed in traditional costume on a formula one track no longer has the revolutionary dimension that Lautréamont imagined.

Baudelaire, who understood that man’s, and therefore a poet’s, maximum obligation was the reconstruction of meaning from the fragments of the present, proposed the devil as interlocutor since, when all is said and done, he shared our disgraced condition and, as an old hand, would understand more than us about that orphaned, post-human nature. But it was also Baudelaire who, after having a grand old time with him, reached the conclusion that his buddy was nothing more than a “poor devil”. The devil had already warned him, “what did you think, that I was God?”

Like Leonardo (da Vinci), the poor devil is imprisoned in the mirror of the divine. Blumenberg recounts that the tardy appearance of flying devices was linked to our difficulty in letting go of mimetic logic. Convinced that the Creator had made a perfect world, we couldn’t even imagine the possibility of flying in a way that did not imitate the flight of birds created by Him. Only by substituting mimetic rules for the laws of physics were we able to develop mechanisms that were more efficient than beating wings. But the devil, like Eve (and perhaps Leonardo), let’s not forget, wanted to be like God. Staring into the mirror, he remained fixed to wings that mimicked the work of the Creator. He wasn’t satisfied with adopting the mechanics of reality; he wanted to get to the meaning (direction?) and perhaps set a different course.

The human condition is embroiled in original sin, in the blasphemous undertaking of redirecting the dynamic of the established to the order of meaning. But blasphemy has no meaning apart from the order of the divine, and meaning has no order apart from the future. Doesn’t blasphemy bring us closer to God? Perhaps real hell is the image of the divine falling into oblivion and, therefore, the denial of the human, a paradise of present happenings, raised by imposing the abstract laws of efficiency onto the logic of nature without the human temptation to overstep them.

“Post-humanism is a twentieth-century legacy that still rings with the old discourse of the pseudo-vanguard about the end of… The best of these analyses is the investment they stimulate, since they allow for a close examination of what they supposedly leave behind. Thus, the best of the post-human is the “poshuman”. That is, it enables us to continue witnessing the successive metamorphoses of what at different times and places we call “human”.

José Luis Molinuevo [3]

Since we can no longer go towards the future, the future is coming to us. Through a necrological whiff, it shows us the worn image of our youth. Digital nomads ride wheel-less bikes and run on belts that stop them from going anywhere. Their technology is reminiscent of instruments of torture, but it frees them from the angst-laden component of mobility (definition of the sense of direction), dissociates strength (of the biceps or the processor) from possibility and turns movement into tourism—a theme park of pre-cooked expectations. Perhaps hell is ultimately like an eye separated from the body, its socket now a cavern only penetrated by the light of appearance; an eye that surfs at r.e.m. speed between Sisyphus, Leonardo, the X-Men, Fukuyama, Baudelaire, Spiderman, Klee, Benjamin, Calatrava, El Roto, Jim Carrey, Blumenberg, Buzz Lightyear, Wilde, García Canclini, Lautréamont, Molinuevo (to whom I owe most of the ideas tossed out here) and Marina Núñez.

All’s fair as long as contact is kept.


[1] Ninth thesis on the concept of history.

[2] Diferentes, desiguales, desconectados, mapas de la interculturalidad, Gedisa, Barcelona, 2004, page 142.

[3] La vida en tiempo real. La crisis de las utopías digitales, Biblioteca nueva, Madrid, 2006, page 72.