“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Monday, March 30, 2009

Fiddlers on the roof

The spate of phallic art on rooftops for viewing via Google Earth deserves comment. It wouldn't be hard to do a Lacanian reading here. Google Earth promises the ultimate illusion of being able to see reality from the point of view of a (strictly nonexistent) Big Other, incarnated as outer space. It's as if outer space itself were looking at Earth and that we, by extension, were in the position of outer space. This view from the impossible Big Other's viewpoint is the basis of the Earthrise image that Al Gore popularized (in his movie and elsewhere; see Ursula Heise's new book). It's the ultimate totalizing gaze of surveillance at its purest.

You could read the phalluses as desperate attempts to normalize the situation. This takes various forms:

1) Flipping the bird to the view from the place of the Big Other, rather like the bumper sticker that says “How's My Driving? Dial 1-800-EAT-SHIT.” In a sense, aren't these bumper stickers there to convince us that there is a real, coherent Big Other—didn't Lacan say “Every bumper sticker is the bumper sticker of the other”? No, he didn't. It's amusing that the phallic symbol in the photo above “waited” for almost a year to be seen. So that in a way the illusion is that it was being “seen” by Google Earth itself before humans stumbled upon it. The phalluses are messages in bottles for voyeurs that return their own prurience back to them in the tawdriest imaginable form.

2) The gaze of the Big Other is imagined to be the phallus as such, so the phallic symbol tries to neutralize this by appearing as an object of that gaze. Just when we think we're standing in the phallic position of the all-seeing eye, the phallus appears “down over there” on someone's roof. Of course, this neutralization never really works—the phallus is everywhere and nowhere at once (and as the rooftop phallus meme multiplies, its impotence grows more and more apparent).

3) A parody of the Lascaux cave paintings, as if Earth dwellers were primitives viewed by extraterrestrial anthropologists—ourselves! Or the inverse—a perversely idiotic message to send to curious aliens: the essential bits of Man (who exited the Solar System on the Pioneer Plaque), minus the man.

The overlapping of primitivism and ultra-modernism here reminds me of the New York new wave scene, viz. Talking Heads and Laurie Anderson (“Big Science” in particular). Now anyone can do a David Byrne. In this case, the well-worn contours of the phallic symbol mock the newness of the possibility of seeing everything from the Big Other's point of view.
It's significant that the phallic symbols appear to be the very first form of unofficial Google Earth art. Okay so we've all heard of artworks that anticipate or mimic Google Earth—but never of art that can only be viewed via Google Earth. It's neat that the first example of this art is anti-art, graffiti.

4) Converting the entire surface of the Earth into a school lavatory wall brings obscenity and the ridiculous back into the sublime techno-joy. It's as if the pristine image of the fragile, glass-like Earth were already an antique product of a more naive age. In this sense the phalluses merely point out what was already the case. Google Earth actually abolishes Earthrise as a distanced, aesthetic object with an aura (you can almost see it!), since you can zoom in and out and see many, many different places and angles on a whim. Ironically, then, the kind of global view often seen as the devourer of the “organic” local perspective finds itself tossed into the dustbin of history. The phallic symbol merely points out how Google Earth has already de-aestheticized the planet.

We must now be on the lookout for art that no one may see, because it's been placed to be viewed via Google Earth. Isn't this exactly the way Holbein inserts the phallic skull into his painting The Ambassadors?

We can't view the skull, a memento mori, without viewing the picture from an entirely different dimension which erases the picture as an illusory window onto a deep, perspectival reality (we have to look at the painting perpendicular to it, on its right hand side). Google Earth art is essentially spectral/phallic in this way. We can't see it without destroying the illusion of a lifeworld upon which ecological ideology depends. All the human dwellings are flattened by the shift to another dimension.

Google Earth appears intimate with everywhere: in the Google Earth image of my house you can see the trash cans sitting permanently outside. You can see my mother's fish pond in Wimbledon, London. But this intimacy is achieved at the expense of simultaneously evacuating the deep, surrouding, immersive lifeworld.

Psychoanalytically, the ultimate horror is that there is no real phallus—it's always a distorted shadow of an image that we can only glimpse as an intersection from another dimension. The phallus doesn't really exist “within” any one of the dimensions—it only appears as/in the distortion of one dimension by another. So the rooftop phallus is impotent, and so is the Google Earth phallic gaze. Once you can see everything, there is no guarantee of meaning. The more information we have, the less richness. Ironically, then, the ultimate proof that “there is no metalanguage” (Lacan) is not that we're limited to our perspective within our horizon, but that once we achieve a perspective without a horizon (Google Earth), we realize to our horror that we are not outside of subjectivity, with its distortions and desires. There is no outside—and no local either!

So learning about global warming and our fragile Earth, and so on, serves to make us feel something much worse than an existential threat to our lifeworld. It makes us realize that there never was a lifeworld in the first place, that in a sense it was an optical illusion that depended on our not seeing the extra dimension that Google Earth (and global warming mapping) opens up. (See here for an elegant Google Earth guide to your locale's emissions.)

I recently saw the Coen Brothers' brilliant and disturbing Burn After Reading, which was as horrifying as it was hilarious, often simultaneously. The opening and closing shots were a kind of Google Earth zoom towards, then away from, the D.C. area location; and there's a general theme of surveillance and being caught in multiple ways of framing reality. The conclusion is very similar in effect to the discovery of the rooftop phalluses: the CIA has eliminated the people it thinks might be a threat, but they have no way to ascertain that the characters in question really were a threat, or even what they were threatening. What is truly horrifying is that the big picture view becomes just another actor, just another viewpoint among others, so that it doesn't contain the others in a nice holistic Russian doll set.

It is guaranteed by the laws of psychic physics that the more information we have in our greedy pursuit of being able to see and photograph everything, the more our sense of a deep, rich, coherent world will appear unavailable: it will seem to have faded into the past, or to belong only to others (primitivism). Some of us will eventually think that we once inhabited this deep, rich, lost world. Others will realize that even this sense of loss is an optical illusion created by our current modes of seeing.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Achocalypse Now

Just spent an evening with family watching the old Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the one with Gene Wilder in it. It confirmed my view that parts of it are as terrifying as Apocalypse Now.

It really is a case of death by chocolate. Consumerism is not only judge, jury, and executioner in this story, it's also the accused and the crime. The garden of chocolate scene is truly obscene in its staged confrontations with the unique, idiotic enjoyment of each character (“innocent” Charlie and Grandpa Joe included). Mr. Wonka himself, of course (with his obvious name) as the obscene superego father of enjoyment. (Some of Wilder's dead pans are just incredible in this respect.) And the psychedelic bardo of the “Tunnel of Love” episode is almost unbearable. More intense than almost anything by David Lynch. The anality of Augustus Gloop's chocolate suction. The heavy-handed Oompa Loompa songs, with their limping, foot-dragging beat and their sadistic chants (a foretaste of Twin Peaks?). Children should not be allowed to watch this film. It should be NC-17, really.

Three cheers for Aphex Twin for making a tune with a sample of Wilder quoting Arthur O'Shaughnessy:
“We are the music makers, / And we are the dreamers of dreams.”

As an environmental poetics guy, I'm struck by the weird ambience of the chocolate garden, surely an allusion to the underground garden of jewels in The Thousand and One Nights, which Keats turns into the palace of the stomach, in which a good claret creeps around (this is from an important letter he wrote). Kubla Khan-ish, too, and possibly also Milton's Eden, “A wilderness of sweets.” I'm fascinated by these inside–outside confusions. It's a meme that can mean lots of different things. Hitler called his policy “Lebensraum” for heaven's sake (“Living Room”). There are those weird Twilight photos by Gregory Crewdson that play on the inside–outside inversion meme. Interesting, isn't it, that we think of lawns as carpets? Kind of like your house has part of its inside on the outside.

But the Wonka garden is no hyper-masculine lawn with its crewcut straightness and republican public privacy. Lawns symbolize individualism that is non-unique. The Wonka garden, on the other hand, is a space of utterly unique pleasures. There's something queasily perverse in watching Mike TV's mom drinking white chocolate from some flower like a cupful of pus. It's almost like Tarkovsky's Solaris (which came out one year later) in its lugubrious use of flowing water, but an idiotically, hyperbolically sweet Tarkovsky.

In this space where your desires are instantly realized in the external environment, there is no humor and no laughter, despite the presumably comic antics of Wilder, which are done with a touch of Coca-Cola superego mania (“Enjoy!”). The sinister music, which keeps sounding a note of fear, makes this evident.

In his movie The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, Slavoj Zizek says something great: “We have a perfect word for a dream realized. That word is nightmare.”

In a way there's more ecocritique in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory than in a whole raft of wilderness epics.