The Aggregate and the Singular: Keep Your Distance
In the concept of pseudo-culture the commodified, reified content of culture survives at the expense of its truth content and its vital relation to living subjects. –Theodore Adorno
It goes without saying that the general climate of the image map is rampantly expanding as the internet itself expands. The results from these new online image-only maps have an exacting difference from a similar process found namely in Aby Warburg’s MNEMOSYNE Atlases.
Aby Warburg was an art historian who wrote on early modern art and cultural theory at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. He became well known for his art criticism as well as his investigations into patterns of mythological classicism, where he would relate various media and forms from different eras to his own contemporary forms of media, helping birth the study of iconology.
Warburg’s practice included the creation of multiple image maps, what he called MNEMOSYNE Atlases, after the Greek Titan goddess of memory. These effectively map-out a processes of association in which Warburg’s interest in distilling similarities of form, associations of meaning, and constellations of symbology interrelated to one another with no singular thesis of engagement. For example, a formal similarity from the 15 century may allow the viewer to slide over to a similar visual form made in the 18th century. The maps become a melting pot of various visual and formal cues, prompting time travel through form and new languages, erupting via symbols seemingly mimicking or critiquing one another.
We have similar expressions of logic in image maps with the advent of the web, and moreover, with the advent of intuitive publishing platforms. This associative logic found between images is the basis of the serialization one also finds in contemporary advertising. Clearly, contemporary culture situates this waterfall of images in a very different way than Aby Warburg. For instance, we can slide across the surface of current image maps by color, nationalism, attitude, pop narcissism, desire, or by way of a number of other aspects. Regardless, however, the wish to link and associate aesthetic form, sensibility and symbol in order to kind of synthesize a new attitude, logic, feeling, or behavior is nothing less than everywhere in the current contemporary online climate.
The similarity between these and Warburg’s MNEMOSYNE is how proximity and association dislodges reason into something else, into a form of non-reason, and that the confusion of logic exists in the function of design and layout: this is the efficacy of design’s power, that it negotiates the use of logic. One can use this negotiative power to help clearly relay information in a logical way, to make information very legible and easily readable. But such an enforcement of logic, as was well established with Bauhaus, is but one of several powers design has at its disposal. The misuse of logic and use of non-logic are equally integral to design, and it is now in our current era that these sleeping powers are awakening within a very ordered system: the web.
These establish pockets of pseudo-culture, erupting from what seems an infinite, effortless aggregation. Although he was preoccupied with tracing the decaying forms of cultural elitism—precisely because he found the onslaught of 20th century cultural production inhibiting to the achievement of autonomy—Adorno’s concept of pseudo-culture provides a scalpel to help fillet the contemporary situation. That is, conversely to these image maps existing at the expense of a “vital relation” to living subjects, the “truth content”—the twisting, bobbing logic of surface and plummet—effectively cannibalize and make anew the uninfluential remnants of reified culture. Sliding across a striated surface of collective memory, a user—a browser, scrolling along—may react to the similarities of form or color, densities of formal cues that channel a ghostly legibility, colliding with a given browser’s preference, opinion, with a spirit of disinterested pleasure. On the other hand, locating the origins of any particular image, plummeting into some form of reasonable association, either voluntarily or involuntarily, pierces into and beyond these surfaces. What these image-maps create is a renewed energy of quickening, a collapsing of disinterested pleasure, where the immediate, surface-content of images crystallize the database of cultural memory. Surface grazing is the preamble, plummeting into an origin is the chorus—a wormhole into the phenomenology of a cultural epoch, disrupted by the surface origin of the image next to it: a continual choir expressing the cohesion of eras.
Aby Warburg’s preoccupation with distance, believing that the collapsing and expanding of distance is the fundamental act of civilization, gives light to these climates of elastic distances. Contemporary image-mapping is a quick force, one without endurance that is averse to becoming fully integrated or wholly distanced. These pockets of pseudo-culture are the new, quick negotiations of truth content for all civilizations.
After decades of a very successful career as an art critic, in 1922 Warburg was committed to a mental asylum for strong depressions and symptoms of schizophrenia. He stayed at Kreuzlingen for a little over a year when he was eventually tasked to give a lecture to a panel of 21 doctors to prove his sanity, in what has become known as his famous slide lecture, the Kreuzlingen Lecture.
This slide lecture he gave to the doctors focused on a visit Warburg took to the Pueblo Hopi Native Americans 30 years prior, in 1895, something that would haunt his years once leaving the Pueblo region. Warburg took pictures during his trip of the Hopi people and the various designs and symbols common to everyday life. The Hopi had a ritual serpent dance with which they believed brought rain to the heavily arid climate. The serpent dance was a vital ritual to Hopi agriculture, as it was believed to be a ritual to bring rain and therefore water to the dry land and was symbolized with serpents coming down from thunder clouds.
Within all aspects of his aesthetic study, Warburg was particularly interested in registering the transmutation of beliefs within symbols. The Native Americans at this time were becoming heavily influenced by the hyper-rationalized Western thought and scientific elaborations of the world, including an overwhelming and brutal influx of Catholicism spreading across the Southwest. Warburg states in his Kreuzlingen lecture:
“The synchrony of logical civilization and fantastic, magical causation shows the Peublo Native Americans are in a peculiar condition of hybrity and transition. They stand on the middle ground between magic and logos, and their instrument of orientation is the symbol.”
Warburg caught a fast glimpse of this crossroads between magic and logos when he asked 10 children during his visit with the Hopis to draw a thunderstorm above their village. 7 of the 10 children drew lightning bolts, while 3 of the children drew serpents falling from the sky. Those 7 children who located a symbol outside of their Hopi visual language, the lightning bolt, was to Warburg the assimilation of Western rationality. This was not a triumph for Warburg, but a complete disaster stemming from European Enlightenment.
To quote from Warburg’s Kreuzlingen lecture again: “Our technological age has no need of the serpent in order to understand and control lightning. Lightning no longer terrifies the city dweller, who no longer craves a benign storm as the only source of water. Scientific explanation has disposed of mythical causation…”
The conqueror of the serpent cult and of the fear of lightning, the inheritor of the indigenous peoples and of the gold seeker who ousted them, is captured in a photograph I took on a street in San Francisco. He is Uncle Sam in a stovepipe hat, strolling in his pride past a neoclassicist rotunda. Above his top hat runs an electric wire. In this copper serpent of Edison’s, he has wrested lightning from nature.
Our contemporary climate has its own forms of mythological behavior, rituals and even its own animal. Of course, Twitter and its nearly amorphic logo of a bird is so well known that it almost reaches invisibility. Yet this bird, and the allusion to the stammering and incoherent song from its beak, tweets, embody a cultural climate of myth intermeshed with technology. The icon itself, the silhouette of a half-cartooned, half-realistic bird in flight, perhaps just passing overhead as we catch a glimpse of its sky-blue shadow, harnesses the near elusiveness of Twitter’s function and output. Twitter facilitates the collapse and extension of distance between a given user’s public and private domains; the Twitter bird is a near perfect contemporary emblem of indeterminacy, and the ritual of the contemporary climate that is an individual and private dance with the public, always attempting to remain convivial as these archaic spheres of public and private collapse.
With the collapse of distance, there is a ritual of the feed and of a given user’s seeding of tweets at the appropriate time, a strategy of giving public awareness of one’s bearing on a social event, a chance happening, or the most insignificant or private moment of one’s day. The determinate function of Twitter, beyond solipsism, is precisely in its non-determinant utility, and this is why, paradoxically, it’s a powerful platform: it does not direct behavior, but harnesses it and allows it to manifest by always removing the audience’s distance from a given user’s tweet, a continual performance without end.
Regardless of what it is called or even what symbolizes it, the human faculty of establishing culture through the ritual of symbol, the utility of logic, and what is currently omnipresent—the associative connections within the image map—is essential in the creation of sense. New means will always be found to express and gain sense, even if those means are covered in fears or celebrations of technological or mechanical overtaking. The current age has flipped what was once an immediacy of the written word on paper into distention and distance. Civilizations now have a new distance to oscillate within, and thus new pseudo-cultures to ravenously expand all cultures.