Christopher Kul-Want | Utopia and the Image of Imagination
Christopher Kul-Want. Course Leader for MRes: Art and Pathway Leader for Theory and Philosophy. Central Saint Martins. Utopia and the Image of Imagination (full version for Malmö fotobiennal 2021)
Living in the End Times
We live in a period when it is widely proclaimed that there will be no future; Capital continues to dominate the world order with invidious consequences as ecological catastrophe looms and nationalist tendencies prevail once more. Powerless to arrest the slide towards imminent global disaster, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek observes that for humanity today, ‘it is easier to imagine the end of life on Earth than it is to imagine the end of Capitalism.’ It would seem to follow from this ominous presentiment that the utopian hope for happiness and a world without alienation – if, indeed, it ever truly existed in the post-war era – is surely now dead and buried.
In historical terms, it might be thought that the death knell of the utopian spirit coincided with the end of modernity, an event recognized by Jean-François Lyotard in his landmark book The Postmodern Condition of 1979 when he stated that comprehensive belief in modern narratives of historical progress and social emancipation that were espoused, in their different ways by Hegel, Marx and Capitalist ideology, no longer existed, and that only skepticism remained. The postmodern, which Lyotard defined ‘as incredulity toward metanarratives’ corresponded to a loss of the narrative function, itself, a loss of, ‘its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal.’ Conventionally, the utopian spirit provides a model of social and communal emancipation through a temporal narrative of possibilization with the prospect at the end point of history of utopia’s actualization. Which is to say that, in Lyotard’s evaluation of the loss of the narrative function today, the utopian spirit is, definitively, deceased.
1 Ernst Bloch defined the hope for utopia as, ‘the yearning and overhauling image of a world without alienation.’ The Principle of Hope, volume 1 , translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1995, p. 15. While Walter Benjamin proposed that ‘the quest of free humanity [is] for happiness’, Theologico-Political Fragment [1920-21], One-Way Street and Other Writings, translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter, London: Verso, 1992, p. 155. With regard to the word utopia, itself, it is important for the present purposes to bear in mind that, in the original Greek, utopia means nowhere or no place (the prefix ou in Greek is a negation, while topos means place or site).
As Peter Osborne has pointed out, however, this foregoing narrative of utopia’s actualization follows a form of temporality that was developed under modernity and Capital whereby utopia’s possibilization is governed by a logic of the new. Following the thinking of Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch on the subject of utopian becoming, Osborne believes that, ‘in a world of restless ‘innovation’ and spectacularly achieved change, the imagined is in ever-increasing danger of being confused with the potential – that is, the already actually possible – and thereby with a hidden dimension of actuality itself.’ In other words, the imagined – the dreaming of utopia which Bloch defines as its correlative ‘principle of hope’ – is in danger of becoming subsumed under a determinate aim: namely, ‘the authoritarianism of the blueprint or the plan’ or, at least, ‘a series of partial achievements or instalments of the plan.’
2 Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, translated by Régis Durand, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986.
3 Ibid, p. xxiv.
How the imagined might be thought of apart from such a determinate aim of actualization, while still affirming utopian potential, is a point that shall be returned to later in this essay. For the moment it is worth observing that the idea of utopia as it emerged in European modernism has not been surrendered entirely, and without rearguard resistance, in the face of the prevalence of dystopian narratives today. Take, for example, the work of artists such as Thomas Ruff, Rachel Whiteread and Catherine Yass, each of whom, in their different ways, attempt to keep open the utopian-socialist aspirations of modernism even while they acknowledge that such aspirations were flawed and belong to a time that is now past. Through its use of colored tints on a monochrome image Thomas Ruff’s photograph w.h.s 02 (2000) [illus. 1] of a modernist social housing apartment in Germany has the effect of separating the apartment block from its environment so as to appear like the architect’s original model that is to be built in a future yet to come. Similarly, Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) [illus. 2], a white concrete cast of a tenement house in east London, shaped in a series of minimalist cubes, seems to suggest that the utopian spirit of modernism may still find a homeland. While Catherine Yass’ vertiginous-inducing High Wire (2008) [illus. 3], a four-screen video projection shot on Glasgow’s vast Red Road estate, recalls the utopian dream, – much older than modernism, itself, – of building a tower in the sky that reaches towards the heavens. More recently, the dream of utopia survives, albeit ambiguously, in Fiona Tan’s film Elsewhere (2018) [illus. 4] that counterpoints a series of shots of the Los Angeles skyline with a voice-over describing the archetypal utopian setting of a distant island where humans live in harmony with nature and all wars have been abolished.
4 Peter Osborne, The Dreambird of Experience: Utopia, Possibility, Boredom. Radical Philosophy, 137, May/June, 2006, p. 36.
The Artist of Contemporary Life
In as much as the city of Los Angeles, that features in Tan’s film, can be seen to represent today’s society of mediatization, the issue of technology and, specifically, developments in digital technology by Capital today has an important bearing upon the dialectical relationship in the social between oppression and freedom, control and socio-political emancipation. How, it might be asked, can the imagined – the freedom and harmony that utopia represents – remain possible in a globalized world of technological and mediatized control, a form of control to which consumerism, the product and the Subject’s very identity as a social being are subordinate? As a way of answering this question the work of the artist British artist Julian Opie provides a useful point of departure since the utopia that is envisaged in his work lies not in an imagined past or in a future to come, but in actuality now. How is this curious idea manifested, and what are its implications for understanding the Subject today in the era of hyper-industrialism and control?
Opie’s manifest concerns are with contemporary life, its forms of socialized attitudes and surface appearances. As part of his abilities, Opie possesses the efficient skills of a graphic illustrator; indeed, he is perhaps best known commercially for designing the album cover of Blur’s best hits in 2000, a commission he was chosen to fulfil, no doubt, because his work generally is focused upon the world of fashion and consumerist pleasure. All of Opie’s images of the past twenty years are relentlessly similar and bland characterized by an instantly recognizable, reductive style adopted partly from the semiotics of street signage. Empty headed and self-absorbed while, for all intents and purposes, ‘happy’, Opie’s figures walk and promenade about the city as if they are on catwalks and permanent display. Inhabiting a uniform cityscape reminiscent of Brunelleschi’s perspectival designs of ideal, Renaissance cities, it is as if a utopian fairytale has come true: no-one in Opie’s world would seem to want for anything (see, for instance, Opie’s Cityscape [illus. 5]). In this sense Opie’s subjects are the very antithesis of the male Subject of The Rolling Stones’ epochal song (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction of the mid-sixties, an anti-hero who stubbornly refuses to buy into the ‘useless information’ over the radio or the consumer ads on the TV about achieving a whiter than white wash, even though this causes extreme anguish since it alienates him from the opposite sex. Opie’s world is not about passion or intensity, let alone resistance: a joke about the nuclear power couple that is one of the titles of his artworks reads, ‘Husband: ‘Fancy a quickie?’, Wife: As opposed to what?’’
6 Hyper-industrialism is a term used by the philosopher Bernard Stiegler to describe our own era, ‘where supercomputing is applied to massive data sets, with the ultimate goal of controlling behaviour’, Automatic Society, Londres Février 2015, Journal of Visual Art Practice, vol. 15, nos. 2-3, 2016, p. 192.
In the dream-world envisaged by Opie there is no sense of alienation but rather a pervasive feeling of narcissistic satisfaction and pleasure. Frequently composed from a limited set of elements and building blocks Opie combines and re-combines these elements as if they were drawn from a catalogue; indeed, Opie produces his own sales catalogue of ready-priced images, posters, prints, vinyl blocks, wall paper designs, digital displays and films that can be sourced through the catalogue and ordered directly. One might be tempted to consider Opie’s images of empty-headed consumers, workers, and identikit fashionistas as ironic, a contemporary depiction of mindless consumerism as mere semblance, or, possibly, a joke about Capital’s utopian ideology of consumerist fulfilment. In this respect, Opie’s work could be understood as a contemporary version of the subject of the Land of Cockaigne (the land of plenty), a popular subject of parody in the late middle ages. But irony would not seem to be Opie’s intention. Rather, what is at stake in Opie’s art is the fact that his empty-headed subjects, by definition, do not possess, or own, a sense of identity in any conventional understanding of the term, and the consequences of this is perhaps more an experience that is uncanny than it is a source of satire or irony. Nevertheless, the question remains how is this conjoining of appearances with an empty or undefined essence to be understood in Opie’s art, if not in terms of irony or critique? And, what is Opie saying about our own epoch under Capital that it should be given such an Utopian cast?
7 See, for example, Julian Opie, Sculptures, Films, Paintings, Lisson Gallery, Private View, 9 February – 17 March, 2001, or Julian Opie Exhibition: Prints, Paintings, Films, Alan Cristea Gallery, 10 September–25 October, 2003.
As a way of beginning to answer these questions it can be noted that Opie’s work of generic pictorial and graphic elements that began in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, coincided with the rise of London as the world’s financial capital that eventually surpassed even that of Wall Street, although it is considered now to be in decline owing to Brexit. More generally, it coincided with the rise of digital information technology as the vehicle not just for financial transactions but also for commercial dealings and social networking. What has been highlighted recently, especially through the news that data harvesting was used in both the U.S. elections and the Brexit referendum, is the inter-penetration of social media not only by commerce but also political propaganda and control. The upshot of this is the fulfillment of a new era of ideology and power, the era of bio-politics anticipated by political thinkers and philosophers – Baudrillard, Foucault and Deleuze, amongst others – in the last decades of the twentieth century. Thus, Deleuze writes in Postscript on the Societies of Control in 1992 that Capitalism’s primary intention today is the selling of services and the purchasing of stocks and that, as such, ‘[capitalism] is no longer for production but for the product, which is to say, for being sold or marketed.’ In this new context code-tracking carried out by computerized algorithms is the medium by which, ‘Individuals…become ‘dividuals’, and masses, samples, data, markets, or ‘banks.’
From One Manhunt to Another: Fritz Lang Between Two Ages
A vivid illustration of the stakes of knowledge as control that is invested in data information today can be gauged from a comparison that the philosopher Jacques Rancière makes between two films, M [illus. 6] and While the City Sleeps [illus. 7], both directed by Fritz Lang and produced in 1931 and 1956, respectively. Each of the films are about the hunt for a murderer; in M the murderer is a paedophile and in While the City Sleeps he is a serial rapist as well as a murderer. The method for capturing the murderer in each film varies significantly and illustrates the differences between the operation of power in the modern era and its operation in our own hyper-industrial era. M is set in Weimar Germany as the paradigm for a modern society, and the hunt for the killer is carried out through police searches and raids, and by means of police records and interviews. In While the City Sleeps the methods for capturing the murderer are based upon the construction of the murderer’s identity via a set of statistical categories that purport to identify and always already ‘know’ the murderer in terms of his very appearance, tastes, predilections and desires.
9 Gilles Deleuze, October, Vol. 59, Winter, 1992, p. 5.
10 See Jacques Rancière, From One Manhunt to Another: Fritz Lang Between Two Ages, Film Fables, translated by Emiliano Battista, Oxford and New York, Berg, 2006, pp. 45-61.
In M the police utilise maps of the city and employ magnifying glasses searching for fingerprints and traces, to capture the murderer, whereas in While the City Sleeps it is the tele-visual screen that serves as the medium by which the murderer is caught: while on air, during a news bulletin, the broadcaster and investigative journalist Mobley (played by Dana Andrews) goes ‘face to face’ with the murderer who, himself, is watching the news while sitting at home in his bedroom. Employing the ‘knowledge’ of the clinical doctor, the psychoanalyst and other professional ‘experts’, Mobley constructs an identikit of the murderer constituting himself, in the process, as a sovereign subject who would seem to ‘know’ and possess inside knowledge about the murderer regarding his motivations and movements even though, in actual fact, his ‘knowledge’ is inferred from clues and traces of the murderer left at the murder scene. Recognising himself in the identikit provided by Mobley, the murderer finds that he is always already ensnared in a self-fulfilling prophecy about himself. Speaking from the position of ‘one who knows and sees you’ via a t.v. screen, Mobley exemplifies the regime of power dominant in western democracies today, a power that is all pervasive and, for all intents and purposes, all-knowing. By analogy, the subject today exists only in so far as s/he is always already apprehended as an a priori object of statistical knowledge and data information which is ubiquitous. In the 1956 film While the City Sleeps Mobley’s knowledge of the murderer was transmitted via a camera to a t.v. screen, while today information is harvested and transmitted via computerised systems, but this difference in the type of technological apparatuses used is largely irrelevant to the fact that ‘knowledge’ today is manufactured and reproduced via existing categories of identification built up through the use of data as this applies to consumer tastes and political tendencies as well as monitoring by the state.
The Enlightenment, Modernity and the Automatic Society
While today’s form of knowledge as power/power as knowledge that lies in the uses and abuses of data information came to fruition as a means of control at the end of the twentieth century, alongside the creation of the consumer society and the invention of the web, the basis of its ideology was already foreshadowed by the utilisation of prescribed forms of knowledge that goes back in history to the Enlightenment. In Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer identifies the philosopher Immanuel Kant as the perpetrator of a reactionary concept of knowledge through his quest to establish the necessary categories of understanding by which all forms of possible experience, now or in the future, are capable of being transformed into objects of immanent knowledge. Adorno and Horkheimer conceded that in Kant’s theory of determinant judgment a certain space is left for individual will and an inner intuitive sense by which to relate phenomena and experiences to universal concepts and categories but, as modernity has developed, they observe that Capitalism’s commercial interests forced its own mediated experiences upon the individual leaving no room for the will since, ‘There is nothing left for the consumer to classify.
11 Famously, Kant described his project in the Critique of Pure Reason (1780) as a ‘Copernican revolution’ involving a shift from the question ‘what must the mind be like in order to know?’ to the question ‘what must objects be like in order to be known?’ Ultimately, Kant’s answer to this latter question was that objects are conformable to the categories of understanding that he established in the Critique.
Producers have done it for him.’ Adorno and Horkheimer applied this maxim as a way of understanding the culture industries arguing that, ‘the regression of enlightenment to ideology…finds its typical expression in cinema and radio [which] consists above all in the calculation of effectiveness and of the techniques of production and distribution.’ This is apparent, Adorno and Horkheimer argued, in the contents of mass culture each of which, irrespective of the media, are subject to the same positivist forms of calculation and planning whereby the commercial and aesthetic value of the commodity is gauged in advance supported by market research for the sole purpose of achieving maximum profitability.
However, today what Horkheimer and Adorno call ‘the culture industries’ now constitute the very heart of economic development. All needs and desires in such a logic of universalized commodification are always already mediated through methods of anticipation and calculation that today match digital trails and personal consumer details with the dictates and predictions of the market, itself, reproduced by means of data information. Thus, Bernard Stiegler states,
‘Processes of automated decision making [are] functionally tied to the drive-based automatisms that control consumer markets – initially through the mediation of the mass media, and, today, through the industry of traces that is also known as the data economy (i.e. the economy of personal data).’
12 Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment , Translated by John Cumming, London: and New York: Verso, 1997, p. xvi.
For Stiegler, this means that today’s society of control is no longer based upon the models outlined by Michel Foucault of the factory (epitomizing the industrial age) or the corporation (as emblematic of the postmodern epoch) but rather the ‘hegemony of the industry of traces’ exercised by generalized digital automatization. that dominates the masses’ libidinal drives. Stiegler’s analysis of the operations of power at stake in today’s hyper-industrial age implies that the subject cannot be understood as alienated, or even exploited, as Marx proposed was the case under modernity. In a Faustian pact, the producer, as envisaged by Marx, sells his/her soul – the power of self-determination – to Capital/the devil; thus, the Subject is forever haunted by a distorted, ghostly image of its alienated self. Like the story of Faust, Marx hoped that there remained the possibility of regaining an authentic, unalienated sense of self – although in Faust’s case this is only achieved momentarily prior to his death. However, in today’s hyper-industrial age, there has been a fundamental shift in the nature of alienation such that there are no means by which to form a representation or an image of the Subject, even an alienated one, with the consequence that a tragic story such as that of Faust as a way of characterizing the fate of labor in the era of industrial capitalism has now become outdated and no is longer relevant to the present situation. To possess the means to produce a representation of alienation, and thereby gain a perspective upon this condition, requires a classical model of representation that establishes a reflective distance between the Subject towards its alienated other, whether this is in the form of a double, or an image, or a shadow. But in the social today no such distance exists: the Subject is absorbed into the information system that is both predictive and reproductive, an all-encompassing system from which there are no vanishing points. All needs and desires in such a logic of universalized commodification are always already mediated through methods of anticipation and calculation that are filtered according to the dictates of the information system, a point that the philosopher Jean Baudrillard anticipated as early as the 1970’s,
14 Bernard Stiegler, op. cit., p. 194.
‘In the generalized process of consumption, there is no longer any soul, no shadow, no double, and no image in the specular sense. There is no longer any contradiction within being, or any problematic of being and appearance. There is no longer anything but the transmission and reception of signs, and the individual being vanishes in this combinatory and calculus of signs…everything is spectacularized…evoked, provoked and orchestrated into images, signs, consumable models.’
Drink more water/ sleep sleeping/drinking more water/drink water/artists and art/you funny/art online/funny face…
Lyric lyrics/feeling tired/always feeling sad/feeling depressed….’
Erica Scourti, from Life in AdWords, Webcam Video, 2012 [illus. 8].
‘Everything is spectacularized…evoked, provoked and orchestrated into images, signs, consumable models’ this statement of Baudrillard’s perfectly describes Erica Scourti’s video, Life in AdWords (2012). For this work Scourti wrote and emailed her diary to her Google Gmail account each day and produced a series of webcam videos in which she read out the keywords attached to suggested ads that were appearing in her web browser. Based upon algorithmic harvesting these keywords are gained through data profiles, codified personal information, that advertisers access to produce customized, targeted advertising. Speaking to camera in a flat, tired voice, Scourti recites over an extended series of short takes a weave of repetitious keywords that arise from Google searches. In the recitation the ‘personal’ in the form of ‘personal’ likes, interests, occupations, needs, anxieties, and so on, exist wholly in terms of the identikit provided by the data profile information forming the advertised choices on the internet. All the scenes of Scourti’s Life in AdWords take place in an apartment during the day and often at night. Frequent references are made in Scourti’s recitation to mental and physical health issues – depression, stress and sleeplessness – as if the Subject exists in an inner, twilight world from which there is no rest or escape. Talking constantly, in ventriloqual fashion, the simulated signs of consumer retail, Scourti’s persona in this video work is closely related to the disembodied heads – also constantly chattering – of the American video artist Tony Oursler. Of Oursler’s installation The Influence Machine (2000) [illus. 9] – an open-air installation piece of a projected head onto a cloud of water vapour – the art historian T.J. Clark has written perspicaciously,
‘The face…cannot stop talking. It has a lot on its mind. Gradually one begins to gather from its ranting monologue that the face’s main problem is the Internet. The face is a ghost, or a soul, or a spirit seeking rest after death – part of a great family of such spirits. And rest has become impossible…the Internet has invaded the world of these spirits and taken over their wave-lengths.’
Like the water vapour onto which the projected face of The Influence Machine is composed, the subject of Oursler’s installation is formless and without substance. By implication, Oursler’s ghosts and spirits are very different in their import from the figure of the ghost that haunted modernism as featured, for example, in W.B. Yeats’s poem The Cold Heaven (1916) in which the poet dreads an afterlife of endless agony if he is not to achieve immortality in, and by means of, his art,
‘…Ah! When the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over, is it sent
Out naked on the roads, as the books say, and stricken
By the injustice of the skies for punishment?’
The Achievement Society
In his book The Burnout Society (2010) Byung-Chul Han claims that the regime of power constituting what Foucault called the disciplinary society dominated by the disciplinary institutions of hospitals, madhouses, prisons, barracks, schools and factories no longer obtains today. This regime, he says,
‘has long been replaced by another regime, namely a society of fitness studios, office towers, banks, airports, shopping malls, and genetic laboratories. Twenty-first century society is no longer a disciplinary society, but rather an achievement society [Leistungsgesellschaft]. Also, its inhabitants are no longer ‘obedience-subjects’ but ‘achievement-subjects’. They are entrepreneurs of themselves.’
16 T.J. Clark, Modernism, Postmodernism and Steam, October, 100, Spring, 2002, p. 154.
Han prefers the characterization of today’s society as ‘the achievement-society’ cum ‘the burnout society’ over Deleuze’s characterization of today’s society as the ‘society of control’ because he thinks that the term ‘control’ contains too much negativity that is more appropriate to Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society’. What governs behaviour today, Han believes, is an excess of positivity, rather than the rule of prohibition. Thus, Han says, in the realm of production and productivity,
‘the drive to maximize production inhabits the social unconscious…To heighten productivity, the paradigm of disciplination is replaced by the paradigm of achievement, or in other words, by the positive scheme of Can…The positivity of Can is much more efficient than the negativity of Should.’
In psychoanalytic terms, the Subject of ‘the achievement society’ is constituted through an implosion of the super-ego, with its imperative You should, combining with the ego I can, with the consequence that this Subject is governed by the drive rather than by a dialectic of lack and desire as was the case of the Oedipal subject. As Slavoj Žižek points out, the figure of the Oedipal, paternal authority is no longer operative within society, and that an ‘obscene’ Primal Father rules in his place, exhorting everyone to emulate him. Žižek formulates this Capitalist imperative inhabiting the super-ego/ego as ‘The injunction: enjoy/super-ego is enjoy!’ This commandment of the ruling ideologies to enjoy applies variously to sexual enjoyment, consumption, commodity enjoyment, up to spiritual enjoyment and realizing the self. In the light of this, Žižek suggests that desire no longer revolves around an unobtainable, forbidden – and therefore, effectively absent – object of desire guarded by a prohibitive super-ego.
18 Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, translated by Erik Butler, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2015, p. 8.
19 Ibid, p. 9.
Governed by a regime of prohibition, the disciplinary society produces, criminals, madmen and neurotics. In contrast, ‘the achievement society’ creates depressives, losers and addicts – with the qualification that addiction today is ubiquitous. Everything nowadays is potentially classifiable as addictive: not only the forms of addiction that were common-place in Freud’s time – alcoholism, drug or substance abuse, and gambling – but also sex, work, eating and conversely weight control, play, shopping, exercise, co-dependency and relationships, the TV or its latest incarnation, the internet – the latter, according to media reports, forming addictive Subjects from the youngest upwards. Today’s super-ego, with its demand to enjoy, forces desire and its objects of gratification to short-circuit into an implosive spiral of addiction inducing an enjoyment that is not enjoyment at all, but an imaginary, simulated idea of enjoyment. Since subjectivity is equated with the fulfilment of desire, it is as if the absent object of desire has now become ever-present since it is the Subject that is absent – empty, mindless, compulsively distracted. Such are the personae inhabiting Opie’s utopian cityscapes, and such are the spirits of Scourti’s and Oursler’s insular worlds. At one with Capital in its modes of productivity and technologically organized forms of consumption the Subject today, represented by these artists, experiences no external pressure of domination forcing it to work or consume but solely a compulsive drive to engage in both activities and, if necessary, risk burnout.
20 See Slavoj Žižek, The Super-Ego and the Act, Lecture, August 1, 1999, https://zizek.uk/the-superego-and-the-act/
But, if we can continue to think of Opie’s subjects as well as those of Scourti and Oursler that have been discussed, Han points out that,
‘the disappearance of domination does not entail freedom. Instead it makes freedom and constraint coincide. Thus, the achievement-subject gives itself over to compulsive freedom – that is, to the free constraint of maximizing achievement. Excess work and performance escalate into auto-exploitation.’
‘Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.’
Walter Benjamin, The Storyteller, Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov. 1936
21 Ibid, p. 11.
22 Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 3, 1935-1938, translated by Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland, and Others, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006, p. 149.
As a dialectical antithesis to the phenomenology of Capitalist induced forms of compulsion and the emptiness of consumerist distraction, Walter Benjamin identified the experience of boredom as having a mindlessness of its own that exceeds both Capital and, by implication, the Subject of Capital. Dedicating a section in The Arcades Project to ‘Boredom, Eternal Return’, Benjamin proposed that,
We are bored when we don’t know what we are waiting for. That we do know, or think we know, is nearly always the expression of our superficiality or inattention. Boredom is the threshold to great deeds.’
In an extended series of images of three-lane motorways entitled variously, Imagine you are driving; I dreamt I was Driving my Car; Night Motorway (available in print form as well as endless computer film) [illus. 10], Opie registers a commonplace experience of boredom in everyday life. In each image the motorway is depicted as empty, stretching ahead interminably. Simply composed in perspective and based upon three basic elements – asphalt, siding and sky – the only modulation between the different series is that of lane position and the curves in the road. The experience that Opie’s images of motorways present is one of detached boredom, a dream within a dream, that has none of the residues of consumerist fetishism that still affect the shapes and poses of his figurative images. Significantly, Fiona Tan’s film about utopia, Elsewhere, is accompanied by three films of endlessly streaming traffic on five and six lane motorways at night (Vertical Red, Vertical White and Vertical Wide on flat TV screens [illus. 11, 12, 13]). The movement of the cars’ head and rear lights, climbing up or descending down screen, induces a distracted affect akin to staring into a fire or at the flow of a river or waterfall. Kant in his treatise on aesthetics, Critique of Judgment (1790), mentions similar experiences of watching, ‘the changing shapes of the flames in a fireplace or of a rippling brook’ as forms of the free play of the imagination that cannot be subsumed by the understanding.
23 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project [1927-40], translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, 1999, p. 105.
24 Kraftwerk’s repetitive electronic song Autobahn, composed in 1974 is close in spirit to the motorway images of Opie and Tan. However, Autobahn may be interpreted to have a wry attitude towards German technological and cultural achievement, with its roots in the Nazi past, that is not part of these artists’ work.
Boredom is a common experience for drivers and passengers alike on long motorway journeys. Sometimes this experience takes an uncanny form in which the Subject discovers after a certain time of passing that she cannot remember part of the preceding journey as well as her own thoughts during it. In these circumstances memory becomes opaque and foggy, time has passed yet it cannot be quantified.
In this context, Opie’s images of empty motorways can be seen as dialectical counterparts to the empty ‘utopian’ imagery of his figurative work; similarly, Tan’s films of streaming traffic, that induce a sense of abstracted monotony, form a dialectical counterpart to her work about an imaginary utopia in the film Elsewhere. Thus, a connection might be posited here between the dialectical relationship of distraction and boredom underlying Opie’s and Tan’s work and the investigations of Benjamin – as well as Bloch and Heidegger – into precisely the same relationship.
25 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, translated by Werner. S. Pluhar, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987, p. 95. In actual fact, Kant’s intention in writing this passage is to distinguish between these sights and his concept of the beautiful that is defined by a notion of form and is without purposiveness. But, ultimately, within Kant‘s own logic of the Critique of Judgment his distinction unravels, see Samuel Weber, Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1996, pp. 15-25.
For Bloch, boredom is an important aspect of daydreaming and, in turn, this nurtures the utopian ‘imagination’ for the possible. Bloch characterizes the space of this imagination as uterine in form, ‘a…hollow space that has only just developed… where dreams drift in it, and possible things circulate inwardly.’ Not all forms of boredom were considered by these thinkers to be necessarily fruitful to the utopian imagination; Heidegger reserves a notion of ‘profound boredom’ as distinct from other forms of boredom such as that of waiting for a train at a railway station when time seems to drag, or of being bored at a dinner party when time seems to stand still. Profound boredom is not a matter of trying to drive time away, and nor is it an experience in which the present exists cut off from the flow of the past into the future, as with the preceding examples of the railway station or dinner party. Rather, profound boredom is, Heidegger says, ‘I know not what’, an experience of ‘indeterminate unfamiliarity’ because, as in the case given above of driving on the motorway, time bypasses the ego altogether: what has ‘happened’ is the unknown. A similar hiatus in what is available to knowledge in the inter-related experience of day-dreaming and boredom is remarked on by Benjamin,
‘Boredom is a warm gray fabric lined on the inside with the most lustrous and colorful of silks. In this fabric we wrap ourselves when we dream. We are at home then in the arabesques of its lining. But the sleeper looks bored and gray within his sheath. And when he lays awake and wants to tell of what he dreamed, he communicates by and large only this boredom. For who would be able at one stroke to turn the lining of time to the outside?’
26 Of course, Heidegger had a very different philosophical agenda to that of Benjamin and Bloch. Whereas the latter thinkers believed that history equated to politics, Heidegger thought history in terms of Being. But if it is possible to a put bracket around Heidegger’s ontology, then his ideas about boredom as an unknowable, ephemeral experience can be made fruitful politically.
27 Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, volume 1, translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 196
28 Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude , translated by William McNeil and Nicholas Walker, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995, p. 116.
Neither Benjamin, Bloch or Heidegger gave assurances that the bypassing of rational time in the experience of boredom would provide the basis for thinking, experimenting with, or even actualizing, utopia. Precisely because to do so would contradict the very possibility, itself. Nevertheless, Benjamin believed that, ‘boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience’ because the experience of profound boredom is unquantifiable and impervious to over-determination: it is a form of mindlessness that resists the Subject and is unavailable to capitalization. That a dialectical structure encompassing the experiences of distraction and boredom underlie Opie’s and Tan’s work about utopia may be significant for the arguments put forward on this subject by Benjamin et al in the era of modernity. Perhaps, by virtue of this continuing dialectic in representation, utopian possibility survives today in the interstices of our own, subsequent era of control. And that, contrary to the prevalence of dystopian narratives today, however prescient, a future can be affirmed after all. As Bloch writes, ‘The fact that we can…sail into dreams, that daydreams, often of a completely uncovered kind, are possible, indicates the great space of the still open, still uncertain life in man.’
29 Ibid, p. 117.
30 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, op. cit., pp. 105-106.
31On the continuing dream of utopian hope from one era to the next Benjamin writes, ‘In the dream in which each epoch entertains images of its successor, the latter appears wedded to elements of primal history – that is, to elements of a classless society. And the experiences of such a society – as stored in the unconscious of the collective – engender, through interpenetration with what is new, the utopia that has left its trace in a thousand configurations of life, from enduring edifices to passing fashions.’ The Arcades Project, op. cit., p. 4-5.
32 Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, volume 1, op. cit., p. 17.
Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, volume 1, translated by Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice and Paul Knight, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, p. 17.