Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Ode to Joy

Recently, artist Mary Fortuna published an album of photographs on Facebook of the retirement party held in 2006 for long-time Detroit News art critic Joy Hakanson Colby. At the time, Nick Sousanis, known these days as author of the award-winning graphic novel Unflattening, ran an online publication called thedetroiter.com. (Since defunct and its content taken offline and archived.) He asked me to write an essay in honor of Joy for thedetroiter.com, which he posted in full on Mary's thread. I had forgotten about it and reading it now 13 years later, it holds up pretty well. I reproduce it here for the record.

* * *

I was honored to be one of the 200 or so members of the Detroit art community who celebrated Joy Hakanson Colby on July 11 at Lola's in Harmony Park, marking her retirement from The Detroit News after serving as art critic there for 60 years. The depth of Colby's impact on the Detroit art scene was evidenced by the mere fact of who showed up to offer her best wishes as she embarks on the next chapter in her life. The gathering was "completely 'A' list" as former Cranbrook sculptor-in-residence Michael Hall put it, as he made a sweeping gesture with his hand from a perch at the crowded bar.

Colby herself was the epitome of the artworld doyenne, accepting the tribute being lavished upon her with an aura of serenity worthy of the Dalai Lama. Dressed in an oriental-style silk jacket of saffron (the Buddhist color of spiritual tranquility), black slacks, and black flats, and a large white flower pinned to her left shoulder, she looked every bit the aesthetic sage as she peered owlishly at well-wishers through her signature oversize-lens glasses. She was unruffled even when Detroit Institute of Arts Director Graham Beal, who started off the speeches, cloddishly said not once but several times that he wasn't mentioned in a recent Metro Times article Colby wrote looking back on her remarkable career. (In fact, there’s a whole paragraph on Beal’s directorship.)

The evening was bittersweet. On the one hand, it was wonderful to have the feeling of community one rarely gets in Detroit these days. Seeing Bob Wilbert, John Piet, Stephen Goodfellow, Tyree Guyton, Niagara, et. al. in the same room was a happily surreal experience of Motor City artworlds colliding. Add to that collectors Gil and Lila Silverman, Frank and Shirley Piku, and Marc Schwartz, plus the blast-from-the-past of erstwhile Xochipilli Gallery Director Mary Wright coming out of hiding to take her place alongside one-time Birmingham neighbors Ray Fleming, Susanne Hilberry, and Corrine Lemberg. Then there was the younger set, DetroitArtsBlogger Ann Gordon and Metro Times Arts Editor Rebecca Mazzei. Also significant was the presence of people like Lester Johnson, Gilda Snowden, and Anita Bates, a testament to Colby's leadership, with her coverage of artists of color, in working to heal the near mortal wound racism has inflicted on Detroit.

And yet on the other hand, there was the underlying anxiety over an era coming to an end and what that might portend for those left in the bleak aftermath. (And that's before factoring in that Dick Cheney still runs the country.) In the last paragraph of her Metro Times article, Colby grimly, but no doubt accurately, observes that no one is ever again likely to have the opportunity to do what she's done during her time covering the art scene in Detroit. The Detroit News has a listing on JournalismJobs.com soliciting for a "fine arts writer," but that person will cover classical music, theater, dance, and opera in addition to the visual arts. Setting aside the implicit elitism built into that beat (something Colby herself certainly wouldn't countenance), it means that there won't be the kind of in-depth coverage of the art scene as in years gone by.

This is indeed a tragedy. I remember being a teenager in a working-class suburb of Detroit, picking up my family's copy of The News one Sunday, and seeing a huge spread about a group of artists who lived and worked someplace near downtown called the Cass Corridor. Through adolescent eyes I got a glimpse of the fact that art wasn't necessarily something old and fragile to be preserved in some musty museum and worshipped from behind a velvet rope. It was something the people in those photos, who lived in my very own town, actually did, probably even as I was sitting there reading about them. Even more important, it was something that I—traumatized as I was by having seen Fredrick Edwin Church's Cotapaxi a few years earlier and thinking I could never paint like that and should just give up now—could see myself doing. What are the chances of that happening to some other budding young talent with the flimsy "lifestyle" section of today's paper, filled as it is with celebrity gossip and reviews of video games?

To be fair, this isn't just Detroit's problem. All around the country, newspapers are cutting back local coverage of the visual arts, of all of the arts for that matter, in pursuit of higher profits squeezed from cost-cutting measures that include spreading newsroom staff (known to bean counters as "full-time equivalents" or FTEs) as thinly as possible. It's simply more economical to own a chain of newspapers and drop articles from around the network into the various "newsholes" (those pesky empty spaces between the ads). That's also why cultural commodities like CDs and DVDs, TV programs, and movies, which are nationally distributed, are more likely to be covered than local art shows. All the same, it's ironic because local art shows are something local media by default have an exclusive on—it's damned unlikely anyone is coming from New York or LA to review Douglas Semivan's upcoming show at Madonna University in Livonia, no matter how good it might be.

It's also important to recognize that the way media are consumed has changed. It's no secret that newspaper circulation has been declining for years, hence the decision to cut staff in an effort to outpace diminishing advertising and subscription revenues. It's also true that the readership demographics of most newspapers are increasingly skewing upward. Although there were a few youngsters at the Colby soiree, most of the people were of the "getting-long-in-the-tooth" persuasion, including me. I'm sure the same holds for the larger community that knows Colby's writing. More and more, younger people are turning to alternative media, like the Internet, to get the information they need. That's not something to be bemoaned so much as accepted and acted upon. (That said I wish to hell someone would show me how to make money at it.)

That's where something like TheDetroiter.com comes in. Right now, it's where the most in-depth coverage of the Detroit art scene is to be found. It's where our community, beleaguered as it is, seems to be converging. While it's entirely fitting that we look back in appreciation at what Joy Colby has done (and it's a lot to be sure), it's just as essential that we look to the future. The best way to honor Colby's legacy is to keep working at that which she so obviously cares about and to move the cause forward by any and all means at hand. And I bet if you were to ask her, she'd be the first to agree.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Robert Bielat, In Memorium

The artist and my friend Robert Bielat died unexpectedly on December 13, 2018 at age 69. At the time of his death, he was preparing for a spring show at AtomArt in Ferndale. His partner Veronica decided to continue with the exhibition as a tribute. His friend and fellow foundry rat Todd Erickson cast several unfinished pieces for inclusion in the exhibition. (Had Bielat lived there certainly would have been more!) Veronica asked me to write an essay for the exhibition, which I was honored to do. Below is the text of that essay. Check out the exhibition, which runs until May 24.

* * *

Robert Bielat was an artist’s artist, a sobriquet generally applied to creative producers whose work is brilliant but idiosyncratic, deeply compelling in a way that is obvious to other members of the tribe, but not necessarily so to the market or to the arbiters of “good” taste. Bielat (which is the way he always addressed himself to me) was definitely brilliant and definitely idiosyncratic, as anyone who knew him would readily attest. He is an artist whose work I continually returned to over the years. In reviewing my archive in preparation for this essay, I note the first appearance of Bielat in my writing in a review I wrote of the “Detroit Bronze” exhibition at the Michigan Gallery in the September 1986 New Art Examiner; the most recent was a profile for Sculpture magazine in May 2007. In between were catalog essays, features, and reviews. The total number of words I have devoted to Bielat is certainly among the most for a single artist. Yet I always seemed to find something new to say, another way into the work that is more a reflection of its fecundity than my ability to discuss it.

A Bielat exhibition was typically packed to the gills with work, another reflection of his seemingly boundless creativity and in no small measure an acknowledgment of his perceived need to get as many of his ideas out into the world as possible in the brief time he had to be a sentient part of it. (Bielat’s work is truly the embodiment of the adage: “Ars longa; vita brevis.”) Be that as it may, there are certain themes that run through his oeuvre, and I hope in the next few words to identify some of them.

The most obvious and central is the Romantic notion of the will-to-art, a self-determined, intuitive, and autopoetic approach to creative production whereby Bielat absorbed his experience of the world around him and reprocessed it into an expressive vision that was uniquely his own. Bielat possessed an advanced degree in art, but his work seemed to be completely sui generis, as if appearing out of nowhere fully formed, a result of its own conditions of being, and as if it had always been there.

This last thought brings up the notion of time in Bielat’s work. Specifically, the phenomenological concept of “sedimentation”—that the past is embedded in the present and that the present is the procrustean bed of the future—is both physically and metaphorically manifest in the work. This is evident in Bielat’s use of the castoff in many works over the years, synecdoches of past presents gone to seed. I have often invoked critic Roberta Smith’s observation, made in reference to Robert Rauschenberg, of “bringing the refuse of life into the refuge of art” in discussing Bielat’s work, especially as a register of Detroit’s postindustrial condition, which he experienced firsthand. In the later work, time takes on a more world-historical character, particularly in such work as the “Sentinels” series, several of which reference ancient mythologies and epic themes, and more recently with the use of bronze that has been patinated to evoke a connection with millennia of human creation, again fueled by a recognition of existential finitude. Time registers in other works in the buildup of surface textures—the burnt-away traces of duct tape and aluminum foil used to hold sculptural elements together prior to being packed into the mold—left as a residue of the casting process.

Bielat’s recent re-adoption of bronze manifests another important element in his work, namely, its materiality. Bielat always asserted the primacy of the thing in his production, whether it be the collection of objects, old and new, that he integrated into his sculptures, or the metals he used in casting. His approach to ceramics, as well, reflected an engagement with the material limits of the medium—stressing the clay, piling on the glaze, leaving sections of bisqueware visible. This attention to materiality is sometimes not so obvious, again, in scorched traces of bindings and other fugitive materials, such as cardboard facings, as they evaporated under the intense heat of molten metal filling the voids they left in the mold.

The multifaceted ways in which Bielat worked his materials suggests one last aspect of his aesthetic to which I want to draw attention, namely, his concern for craft. (Bielat completed his undergraduate studies at what is now College for Creative Studies when it was the School of the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, whose “maker” aesthetic has maintained its influence throughout his work.) There was always a certain way that Bielat approached his work, not just in his concern for materials, but in how he insisted on maintaining the visibility of the steps taken in its making, for example, the fastenings of the components of an assemblage and the flash along the edges of a cast element. Bielat always worked directly, eschewing preparatory sketches or studies. He maintained a phenomenological dialog with his work, responding as much to its internal dictatesmaking adjustments along the wayas exercising control over its development. This sensibility aligned with that of the Arts and Crafts movement, regardless of how seemingly far afield the work drifted from traditional techniques.

In 1987, I wrote a catalog essay for Bielat in which I quoted philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, author of The Phenomenology of Perception, a book that continues to influence artists to this day, and which is appropriate to reconsider at this time:
What one too deliberately seeks, one does not find; and he who on the contrary has in his meditative life known how to tap its spontaneous source never lacks for ideas and value.
Bielat lived that principle, as an artist and as a human being. The work is his testament.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

The Medium is (is not) the Message: Marshall McLuhan and His Legacy

On March 19, 2019, I gave a talk in the Valade Family Gallery on the campus of College for Creative Studies in conjunction with the exhibition "Feedback 4: Marshall McLuhan and the Arts." I used a quote from avant-garde filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas as a preface: "The film critic should not explain what a movie is all about, surely an impossible task; he should help to create the right attitude for looking at movies." Similarly, my talk was not about the show, but about McLuhan as a jumping off point for subsequent developments in media theory, which would be useful in looking at the work on view. Below is the text of my talk, slightly edited for publication. Also, several of the original images have been replaced due to copyright. I want to thank the CCS Communications Design Department, and in particular Professors Doug Kisor and Susan LaPorte, for the opportunity.

* * *

Marshall McLuhan and me in the Valade Family Gallery at CCS (Photo: Matt Raupp).
“The Medium is the Message” is perhaps one of the best known aphorisms of Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan. Among his most influential books include: Gutenberg Galaxy, a study of the influence of moveable-type printing on culture and human consciousness; Understanding Media, a more comprehensive study of the ways in which various media, especially the electronic, affect society; and The Medium is the Message, an inventory, as its subtitle suggests, of the effects of different media on the human sensorium, co-authored with graphic designer Quentin Fiore.

Media, McLuhan holds, are not just technologies that humans invent but the means by which humanity is itself reinvented. Emerging in the early 1960s, McLuhan’s understanding of media, and more particularly the condition of mediation, contrasts with most mainstream theories up to that point. (An exception was Harold Innis, a professor of political economy at University of Toronto whose books Empire and Communication and The Bias of Communication, influenced McLuhan early on.)

A good example of then mainstream thought is Harold Laswell’s famous model of communication from 1948, which understands the process of mediation with the formula: “WHO says WHAT in WHICH CHANNEL to WHOM to WHAT EFFECT?” Theories in this vein are also known as Hypodermic Models, which view the process of mediation as proceeding in one direction, from the encoder of message through the medium of communication to the receiver with the content essentially injected into the mind of the intended recipient. The Hypodermic Model sees media as transparent, i.e., a membrane to be looked through to the content,with the message being affected by the “noise” a medium might embody to distort the sender’s “true” message.This perspective often sees mass media, in particular, as a tool of indoctrination, an apparatus for, to use Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky's term, "manufacturing consent,” in modern liberal democracies as well as in authoritarian regimes.

This perspective goes back to the Greeks, particularly to Plato who in The Allegory of the Cave denigrates mimesis as an imperfect representation of the Truth of the Ideal Forms and also in Phaedrus where he quotes Socrates as being critical of writing as an interruption of the direct communication of soul-to-soul intercourse. (The irony is that we know this because Plato wrote it down.)
MediaTetrad.svg
McLuhan's Tetrad of Media Analysis (Image: CC BY-SA 3.0)
Where traditional theory sees media as transparent, McLuhan sees it as what Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin in their book Remediation: Understanding New Media term “hypermediated,” which is to say, a process of “looking at” vs. “looking through.” McLuhan’s Tetrad of Media Analysis proposes a multifaceted perspective that looks at what a medium (1) “enhances,” for example, a music video adds a visual narrative (sometimes for the better, sometimes not) to the performance of a song; (2) what it “reverses,” for example, painting’s reversal into its condition of flatness in the face of photography’s capture of the real; (3) what it “retrieves,” for example, radio’s recovery of the spoken word vis-a-vis print, and (4) what it “obsolesces,” the hypertext’s deconstruction of print’s linear flow.
Deer Hunt, Neolithic Wall Painting, c. 5750 BCE (Photo: Klaus Peter Simon CC BY-SA 3.0)
We first see the effect of mediation in what McLuhan’s student Walter Ong terms the transition from orality to literacy. In oral cultures, communication is direct between those present at the time. Orality seeks to preserve and reproduce existing meaning through repetition and mnemonic devices. We see this in the epics poems handed down through the millennia and among the griots of Africa. This zis encoded in visual culture, as well. In the above example from Neolithic Era, before the invention of writing, space is undifferentiated and time is static. Literacy on the other hand separates the originator of a thought from its receiver in space and time, promoting a distinct understanding of individual interior subjectivity.
Cunieform, c. 3500-3200 BCE (Photo: Bjorn Christian Torrisen
CC BY-SA 3.0)
The invention of writing changes that. This is an example of cuneiform, one the earliest known examples of writing developed in the 4th Millennium BCE in Sumer in Mesopotamia. Cuneiform started out as a system of accounting prior to being adapted to communication more generally. Similarly, McLuhan recognized computers as not just counting machines but as communication tools that would have profound effects on society and human consciousness.
Victory Steele of Naram Sin, c. 2250 BCE (Photo: Rama
CC BY-SA 3.0)
We can see the introduction of narrative into visual culture early on. Not long after the introduction of cuneiform, The Presentation to the Innana, (also known as the Warka Vase), 3200-3000 BCE, tells a story, literally from the ground up, of agricultural surplus being grown, harvested, and offered up to the Sumerian goddess Inanna. The sequential segments of the object further introduces the horizon line to delineate space, a technique also evident in the later Victory Steele of Naram Sin, c. 2250 BCE, depicting the King of Akkad leading his troops to victory over the Lullubi mountain people.
Meister des Marchel de Boucicart, page from a French Book of Hours, 1410-1415 (Public Domain).
We see a similar transition from manuscript to print, from the unique, private expression of the individual hand to the stirrings of mass communication.
Page from the Gutenberg Bible, The Epistle of St. Jerome, 1453-1455 (Public Domain).
McLuhan marks the origin of modernity with the development of moveable-type printing, calling the book the “first commodity.” Print enables the broad dissemination of information across large distances. In addition to being the first inklings of what we now call consumer culture, print had other profound social, cultural, and political implications. In Understanding Media, McLuhan identifies print as the founder of the modern nation-state. Prior to print there was no standard grammar or spelling. National languages are standardized under print as are the geographic boundaries under which they are understood. Print gives rise to what Benedict Anderson terms “the imagined community” of nationalism under which individuals think of themselves as a people bound by a common sense of identity even though they have no direct contact with one another.

Print additionally ushers in the vernacular. Prior to the invention of print and the standardization of language, official communications in Europe were conducted in Latin with “the masses” essentially left out of the loop. The formation of national imagined communities using the vernacular further gives rise to notions of a universally literate public and eventually with the Enlightenment the idea of the form of national self-governance called democracy.

There’s another aspect of media evolution that is relevant to the discussion, which Bolter and Grusin term “remediation.” McLuhan notes that the content of one medium is always another medium. For example, the content of writing is speech. Bolter and Grusin refine that idea to posit that as media emerge, they begin by capturing previous media. So in the case of print, the first iterations of typography, as seen for example in the Gutenberg Bible, sought to mimic uncial manuscript; other manual processes, such as hand-illuminated pages, were also remediated in published books. Narrative cinema begins by remediating the novel and indeed the Library of Congress continues to organize film studies under the heading of literature.
Albrecht Durer, St Jerome in His Study, 1513, engraving/Nadar, The Sewers of Paris, 1864-1865, photograph (Public Domain).
Bolter and Grusin use as one of their primary examples of remediation the transition in visual art in the 19th century with the invention of photography. As Bolter and Grusin, as well as the art historian Erwin Panofsky, note, media transparency as a representational form, i.e., “looking through” the picture plane vs. “looking at” at it, has its origins in Western culture in the Renaissance with the development of linear and atmospheric perspective. Before the development of these techniques, representation was, to use Bolter and Grusin’s terminology, “hypermediated,” that is, imbued with the awareness of form as a material construction, as opposed to the “immediacy” of media transparency. That photography remediates Renaissance perspective can be readily seen by comparing Albrecht Durer's St. Jerome in His Study, 1513, with Nadar's mid-19th-century images of the Paris sewers where the perspective is quite similar.

From this perspective, the Late Gothic is not a more “primitive” form of representation vis-à-vis the Renaissance, but one with a different set of concerns. The culmination of representational transparency in painting is arguably Impressionism, in which the artist is rendered as a conduit for recording the instant of pure perception, the threshold between subject and object. Photography makes a more radical claim to immediacy via the insertion of a mechanical apparatus between the observer and the observed, removing any trace of the hand, which cannot be completely eradicated in drawing or painting. (Of course, there is a conundrum in that notion as a "representation" the medium is always already at once removed from the "real.")
Pablo Picasso, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912, mixed media (Image courtesy: PabloPicasso.org).
It is around this moment historically that painting begins its turn back to hypermediation, resulting in Cubism and the invention of collage. And it is Cubism that subsequently provides McLuhan’s initial insight that the medium is the message. (It is interesting to note that immediacy continues to hold sway in Hollywood’s fetish for special effects and in new media in areas such as virtual reality and immersive environments.) This idea in media theory has its parallel in art history in the argument that it is photography’s superior claim as “an imprint off the real” that frees painting to explore its more formalist conditions. There is cause for questioning this argument in looking at photography at the end of the 19th century, which has its moment of remediating Beaux Arts aesthetics (see for example the portraiture of Julia Margaret Cameron and the still lives of Roger Fenton) whereas much painting of the Impressionists actually presages the street photography of several decades later. This can be seen, for example, in Edgar Degas's Place de la Concorde, 1875, with its dynamic composition of one figure entering the picture plane on the left and another walking out it on the right, the two separated by a triangle of empty space thrusting down between them, pushing the classic pyramid organization of figures off center.

One of the more fruitful extrapolations of McLuhan is the mediology of French theorist Regis Debray, which studies the transmission of meaning in culture through language and images. In his book Media Manifestos: On the Technological Transmission of Cultural Forms (Verso, 1996), Debray sees cultural transmission as operating within “mediaspheres,” epochal shifts in the organization of culture, and indeed being itself, in the wake of innovations in communications technology. Prior to the invention of writing, culture was transmitted within the mnemonosphere, the sphere of oral culture, as described by Ong. This was followed by the logosphere, which emerges after writing. The graphosphere emerges after print, and finally there is the videosphere, which emerges with the audiovisual (by which Debray means primarily television). Debray organizes these last three spheres under three regimes: the idol, art, and the individual, which respectively cast the image as a being, the image as a thing, and the image as a perception.

A comparison I find particularly illuminating, as it were, for Debray is sources of light: the spiritual (from within), the solar (from without), and the electric (from within), the last reaffirming McLuhan’s notion of electronic media as extensions of the nervous system. Again we see this in visual art.
Cover of the Codex Aureus of Sankt Emmeram, 870 (Public Domain).
The medieval cover of the Codex Aureus of Sankt Emmeram, 870, from the logosphere is a prime example of hypermediation.
Edgar Degas, Place de la Concorde, 1875, oil on canvas (Public Domain).
Edgar Degas's Place de la Concorde, 1875, comes from the graphosphere. Note the dynamism of the composition and the immediacy of its representation, again particularly in relation to photography of the period.
Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II, 1963, combine painting (Image: Sharon Mollerus CC-BY-2.0).
Robert Rauschenberg's combine paintings from the videosphere are good examples of hypermediation and what we would term “remix” culture today. One wonders if the current intellectual property rights regime were in effect then would there have been anything such thing as Pop art.

Another application of McLuhan is Joshua Meyrowitz’s study No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior, which adds sociologist Ervin Goffman’s dramaturgical theory, the fact that social life is like a theatrical performance, into the mix. Meyrowitz takes Goffman’s notion of “frontstage” and “backstage,” that relations in public are stage-managed as a result of practices that have been rehearsed in private, and flips them, arguing that television as a communications medium brings things that have typically constituted the backstage into public view and vice versa. Television further breaks down barriers of place, bringing the far off into the living room and presenting the domestic for mass consumption. Television, Meyrowitz notes, is a “secret-exposing machine.”

While rejecting McLuhan’s technological determinism ( i.e., the theory that technological change is the prime mover in the development of social structure and cultural values), Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies theorist Raymond Williams does note the profound effect television as a technological and cultural form has had on daily life.

Principal among them is the concept of “flow,” the way in which television programming serves to organize one’s time, from the morning newscast and daily weather and traffic report as we prepare for our day, the daytime programming geared to the stay-at-home to the unwind of the evening news and the respite of so-called “prime time” entertainment at night. The television is a constant presence in the home. Even when it is not on, we have the sense that something is happening in there. We often turn on the television with no plan of what to watch specifically, but rather simply to see what is on. When watching any program there is always an awareness that there may be something else to see. (Jerry Seinfeld has a quip that men don't watch television to see what is on, they watch it to see what else is on.)

The invention of VCRs, DVDs, DVRs, and now on-demand and online viewing have radically disrupted the old model of televisual flow. Time-shifting has emerged to both customize and atomize the consumption of visual content and the way we experience space and time.

Hypertext (Image: Andrea Riverac CC: BY-SA 3.0)
The binary digit, and the communication technologies that have been built upon it, have greatly impacted the practice of everyday life. One media effect is the development of hypertext, which on the one hand connects an astounding array of archives and individuals across the globe, what Pierre Levy terms “the collective intelligence in cyberspace” and others term “the hive mind,” and on the other hand deconstructs narrative flow of the printed text as understood by McLuhan and those who have worked in his shadow.
One of the key effects of print, according to McLuhan, is the division of labor in society, or what sociologist Emile Durkheim termed “organic solidarity,” the fact that social relations are like different organs of the body, each performing a particular function that cannot stand on its own but is necessary to the functioning of the whole. Sociologists term this “differentiation.” Digital technology is contributing to a new condition of “de-differentiation,” or what media scholar Henry Jenkins terms “convergence culture.” That is, media and social roles are collapsing back together.

We see this, of course, in smart devices that enable us to manage a whole host of communications, entertainment, and other life functions from a single mechanism. In the corporate sector this is evidenced by so-called “flat” organizational structures where layers of management have been removed, to be replaced by information technology systems of oversight, and authority pushed down to lower levels.

Another example is the collapsing of work and leisure—we are connected to our devices 24/7 and are thus always on call. The second largest shopping day of the year is “Cyber Monday,” where consumers complete holiday shopping left over from Black Friday online, typically from the workplace. Then there is the “prosumer,” the melding of producer and consumer in social media platforms such as Facebook, Snap Chat, and the like, where individuals are entertaining themselves and their friends in the form of “user-generated content,” all the while providing data intelligence to advertisers and other elements of surveillance society to be harvested for profit and power.

McLuhan foresaw this process of convergence in what he termed the “global village,” or what globalization theorist Manfred Steger terms “the global imaginary” (after Benedict Anderson’s notion of the imagined community writ large, facilitated by the proliferation of electronic communications technology at the planetary level).

By virtue of an integrated communications network, a foreshadowing of the internet, McLuhan foresaw a contraction of global relationships as far-flung parts of globe came into more frequent and closer contact with one another, either physically or virtually. Positive interpretations of this suggest the prospects for a new age of cooperation in the evolution of humankind and the planet. On the other hand, McLuhan also understood the potential of global communications to put stress on notions of the nation-state and local identities. As McLuhan is often quoted as saying: “The global village absolutely ensures maximal disagreement on all points.” Steger and others have since noted what Samuel Huntington terms “the clash of civilizations” in negotiating what constitutes a global imaginary.

This begs the question: “Where does that leave us?” McLuhan continues to be relevant to the conversation. The inaugural issue of Wired, for example, was dedicated to McLuhan. In a 1969 interview with Playboy magazine, McLuhan expanded upon his observations on the global village thus: “The global-village conditions being forged by the electric technology stimulate more discontinuity and diversity and division than the old mechanical, standardized society; in fact, the global village makes maximum disagreement and creative dialog inevitable" (emphasis added).

It is in exploring the possibilities of the latter part of that statement that cultural producers (i.e., artists, designers, and other creatives) have both the opportunity and responsibility to act as thought leaders and productive citizens, to map out imaginary futures and then set out to realize them, using their best knowledge of media technologies and effects, for the greater good.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Can Democracy Work? A Disputed Question

'Can democracy work?' is a question whose answer in the affirmative seems less and less certain these days. On one hand is the rise of authoritarianism. In a recent segment of his HBO show 'Last Week Tonight', John Oliver expressed concern over the trend, citing the obvious, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Chinese President-for-Life Xi Jinping, but also Hungary's Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, and far-right politician Jair Balsanaro, the new President of Brazil. On another, and equally disconcerting to Oliver, is the fact that many of
these authoritarian regimes have ironically gained power by being duly elected by their constituents. The United States is not in a league with the aforementioned examples, although it's not for lack of trying by the current incumbent executive, AKA 'Individual 1', and his cronies. Taking up the question literally is historian of ideas and Professor of Politics at the New School for Social Research James Miller, whose latest book endeavors, as its subtitle suggests, to give a history of democracy from ancient to modern times.

The idea of democracy has its origins some 500 years before the common era in the Greek city-state of Athens. Indeed, the terms we use for democratic politics come to us from the ancient Greeks, from dēmokratía, rule by the people, and politiká, affairs of the city. Every citizen was expected to directly participate in the political life of Athens; they were not elected but chosen by lottery, providing equal opportunity for all to serve. Assemblies of citizens, which took place at least 40 times a year, were open to all and ordinary citizens held public office and served on juries. And yet, even then democracy was a contested idea.

Perhaps most famous was the critique of Plato, who in the Republic held that democracy necessarily degenerates into tyranny due to the susceptibility of public opinion to false beliefs, exemplified in the Allegory of the Cave where shadows cast by a fire on the wall are mistaken for reality. The model of good government was instead aristocracy, led by a philosopher-king who ruled with reason and wisdom, guided by knowledge of the Ideal Forms. Plato was joined by his near contemporary, the classical historian Thucydides, who blamed the defeat of Athens at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) on the manipulation of the citizens by demagogues (from the Greek dēmagōgos, leader of the people) who persuaded them to blindly march down the road to perdition.

Moreover, the definition of citizenship in the Athenian polis (city) was restricted to adult males who had completed military training; slaves, including those who had been freed, women, and foreign residents were excluded. Citizens could also be disenfranchised as a penalty for certain crimes and failure to pay debts to the state. And not unlike the United States today, the elite sought over time to restrict citizenship further, in the case of Ancient Greece to only those descended from citizens on both sides. According to John Thorley's Athenian Democracy (Routledge, 2004), at best the category of citizens accounted for no more than 30 percent of the total population.

For the next two millennia, the notion of self-rule as exemplified by the Athenian democracy lay dormant, generally considered inferior to either monarchy or aristocracy. The Renaissance saw the embrace of the republican model, first described by the ancient historian of the rise of Rome, Polybius (c. 200-188 BCE), as a system of checks and balances that merged monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with the last constituting an unstable element that while useful in guarding against the abuses of the first two was liable, much as Plato and Thucydides feared, to devolve into mob rule. It wasn't until the mid-eighteenth century that democracy as a form of political governance began to be re-embraced and developed into that which we recognize today.

Contrary to the adherents of American exceptionalism, Miller picks up democracy's story not with the United States in 1776 but with the French Revolution a decade and a half later. A key figure here is the 'dreamer of democracy', as Miller once characterized him in a book of that title, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, particularly as he retooled the concept of sovereignty from the divine right of monarchs to the 'General Will' of a people. Another important figure of the period is the political theorist and mathematician, the Marquis de Condorcet, who drafted the first modern democratic constitution, which was never implemented as he was forced into hiding in the wake of the Jacobin uprising that culminated in the Reign of Terror. (Condorcet was arrested as he attempted to flee Paris, imprisoned, and died under circumstances that continue to be the subject of speculation.) And of course, there's Maximilien de Robespierre, who as a member of the Committee of Public Safety argued for the execution of King Louis XVI, as well as a speedy and abundant use of the guillotine as a tool for purifying the body politic and to which he himself ultimately fell victim.

A reading of The Federalist Papers reveals the deep skepticism with which the American Founding Fathers held the notion of pure democracy, advocating instead for a system of checks and balances along the lines conceived by Polybius. The three branches of government effectively mirror Polybius's republic with the executive mirroring the monarchy, the judiciary the aristocracy, and the legislative the democracy. Even in the last instance, however, the bicameral structure of the legislative branch additionally checks the democratic impulse with the Senate reinscribing a measure of aristocratic restraint over the potential unruliness of the House of Representatives. The Electoral College further foils majority rule. The exception was Thomas Paine, who in the 1776 pamphlet Common Sense argued for a unicameral legislature subject to robust citizen oversight via a broad definition of the franchise and frequent elections, a rash suggestion quickly refuted by future President John Adams in his riposte Thoughts on Government. Even so, throughout the nineteenth century, the idea of democracy continued to expand in the United States and elsewhere in the West.

Thomas Jefferson arguably introduced the term democracy, if not entirely the fact of it, into the American political lexicon under the auspices of the Democratic-Republican Party, which defeated the Federalists in the presidential election of 1800. Jefferson's political ideal was hardly that of Rousseau, Condorcet, and Robespierre, though, with its commitment more to the republican side of his party's name than the democratic. The democratic aspiration expanded with the rise of Andrew Jackson to the Presidency in 1828 in the wake of the factionalizing of the Democratic-Republicans, along with the expansion of the franchise to a majority of adult white males, as opposed to being restricted only to property holders. Ironically, Jacksonian democracy at the same time promoted a strong executive at the expense of the legislative branch and to a lesser extent the judiciary, a case of the populist demagoguery critics of pure democracy have so often decried.

Other instances of attempts at proliferation of democratic reform over the 19th century include Chartism in Britain, the working-class movement that sought expansion of the franchise to all males over the age of 21 and other egalitarian initiatives, and the Paris Commune of 1871, the short-lived radical government that ruled the city in the wake of France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. As Miller notes, both failed to achieve their immediate goals, but particularly on the left they became models of pure democratic societies to come and in fact foreshadowed reforms that expanded suffrage and solidified the modern political parties under which most forms of national self-governance continue to operate.

A major issue Miller seeks to address is democracy's ostensible relationship to liberalism, which has its origins in the Age of Enlightenment. Against tyranny and superstition (which is to say monarchy and the Church), the thinkers of the Enlightenment sought to place equality and reason at the center of human affairs. In particular, the so-called Father of Liberalism, the British philosopher John Locke, held that each man (sic) has a natural right to life, liberty, and property, the last notion of which Jefferson elided into the pursuit of happiness. As a political and moral philosophy, liberalism advocates the freedom of individuals to self-determination. From this, Locke developed the radical idea that government is a social contract that requires the consent of the governed in order to be legitimate. In practice, liberal democracy has proven to be a fraught concept.

In his Social Contract, Rousseau asserts that direct democracy exercised in a small city-state is the environment in which freedom can best flourish. Yet the modern democracies that have arisen in the last two centuries in the industrialized West have been large-scale enterprises administered perforce through vast bureaucracies. Over time, these systems have tended to follow early 20th-century Italian sociologist Robert Michels's 'iron law of oligarchy', that complex organizations, including nation-states, eventually evolve (devolve?) into being run by a small leadership class. (Later in life, Michels embraced Fascism as a charismatic counterpoint to bureaucratic oligarchy. Be that as it may, a sustained reading of Gore Vidal, not to mention sociologist C. Wright Mills, suggests the veracity of Michels's theory in the case of America at least.) In the penultimate chapter of Can Democracy Work?, Miller cites 28th President of the United States Woodrow Wilson, American journalist and political commentator Walter Lippman, and Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter as acknowledging democratic 'sovereignty' as more a matter of consent than participation. Even the notion of consent has increasingly diminished as dramatically rising inequality and economic wealth concentration, along with the political influence it buys, threatens the very foundation upon which the modern democratic project has been erected.

Running throughout Can Democracy Work? are personal asides from Miller about his educational development from childhood to college and beyond, which some readers may find distracting. As a fellow, if somewhat younger, Boomer, I found them compelling as a kind of autoethnography of Miller's evolution from a 1960s campus radical and card-carrying member of Students for a Democratic Society to tenured professor who, wistfully perhaps, continues to hold out hope for the democratic impulse, if in far more measured form; it's a coming-of-age story for a generation of Americans whose ideals of social, economic, and political progress foundered on the rocks of brute capitalist power. (Full disclosure: Miller was my thesis advisor in the New School Liberal Studies MA program.) In fact, Can Democracy Work? is best read alongside Miller's study of the New Left, Democracy is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (Harvard, 1987), particularly in light of last year's 50th anniversary of the Democratic National Convention in which antiwar protesters were confronted by Windy City police and National Guard in full riot gear, a fiasco from which the party has arguably never fully recovered, and marking the onset of the crisis of democratic liberalism that continues to this day. (Boomer disenchantment runs throughout another of Miller's books, the award-wining Flowers in the Dustbin: The Rise of Rock and Roll, 1947-1977 [Simon & Schuster, 1999], drawing upon his three-decade career as a pop music journalist for Rolling Stone, Newsweek, and elsewhere.)

Taking a cue from the examples of the Chartists and the Paris Commune, whose egalitarian aspirations failed in the short term but heralded the expansion of democratic practice over the long run, Miller ends both Can Democracy Work? and Democracy is in the Streets on a more positive note, acknowledging the propensity of the idea of democracy to persist against all odds. It's an example of the motto often attributed to Italian Marxist and legendary jailbird Antonio Gramsci, to wit: 'I'm a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.' In these seemingly dark times, that works well enough for me.

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Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea from Ancient Athens to Our Times by James Miller. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018. 320 pages. $27.00. This review crossposted at PopMatters.com.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life

There's a line, usually misquoted and often erroneously attributed to either Hermann Goring, Henrich Himmler, or Joseph Goebbels, that goes: 'When I hear the word "culture", I reach for my gun.' (The actual line, from the 1933 play Schlageter by the equally despicable Nazi playwright Hanns Johst, translates to: 'When I hear "Culture"... I release the safety catch on my Browning!') The role of culture in waging ideological warfare is the motivation for curator and art activist Nato Thompson's book Culture as Weapon: The Art of Influence in Everyday Life, now out in paperback. Thompson asserts that culture is not just contested terrain, it is a tool used by elites to assert and maintain power.

Culture as Weapon is a follow-up to Thompson's 2015 Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century, which surveys the ways in which contemporary artists and activists are confronting power, using a range of tactical interventions and strategic alternatives, such as culture jamming, indy media, and socially engaged art practice. In Seeing Power, Thompson references advertising, public relations, and other forms of communication in 'the production of affect', a media-theory concept that describes how emotions are mobilized to influence human behavior, from what to buy at the grocery store to the most deeply held beliefs. Culture as Weapon offers a history of the development of the techniques of affect production and gives examples of their use in the present day, mapping the landscape within which the tactics and strategies of artists and activists described in Seeing Power are deployed. (Thompson presented some of these tactics in an exhibition he curated at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art titled 'The Interventionists' and showcased strategies in the Creative Time project he organized under the title 'Living as Form'. Both are documented in books with those respective titles published by MIT Press.)

Thompson begins his dissection of the production of affect with a brief history of its development in modern American culture. Fundamental to the story is the work of Ivy Lee, generally credited with being the founder in the late 1800s of modern public relations, whose first major client was the railroad industry with the assignment to promote the interests of management against the burgeoning union movement. Another key figure is George Creel, a former investigative journalist tapped by Woodrow Wilson to head up the Committee on Public Information as part of the effort to muster support for American participation in World War I and vilify its detractors. Arguably the most notable character in the early history of public mind-control is Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, who parlayed his relationship to the father of psychoanalysis into a lucrative career manipulating the collective psyche. His clients included Big Tobacco and the nefarious United Fruit Company. Bernays also wrote the 1928 book Propaganda, which married social psychology and early media theory to develop techniques of 'persuasive' communications. (Highly influential at the time of its publication, Propaganda slipped into relative obscurity with the rise of fascism, which cast the term if not the practice into serious disrepute.)

A more overt affect-producing factory is advertising. Here Thompson starts with the culture industry critique by the dour German Marxists Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. Written during the closing years of the Second World War when the two highbrow academics sought asylum in LA, the collection of essays published under the title Dialectic of Enlightenment expressed their view of the utter degradation of culture under capitalism. For Horkheimer and Adorno, the damnable thing about capitalism is its ability to turn any and all expressions of 'pure' culture into marketable products to be peddled to the unsuspecting masses. The critique was picked up in more virulent form in the 1950s by the Situationist International in France, which distrusted mainstream culture in all of its forms as the tools of a society in which even the most intimate social relations are mediated by spectacles of consumerism and false consciousness. (Ironically, the SI is held in many quarters to be a major influence on punk, an ostensibly anti-establishment social and cultural movement that quickly turned into a highly marketable commodity.)

Thompson calls upon the usual suspects in the form of Mad Men David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett, and Bill Bernbach who led the so-called 'creative revolution' in the ad biz in the 1960s by rejecting the previous regime's methods of 'scientific' advertising based on the repetitive exposure of 'unique sales points' to stimulate behavior modification. Instead, these Svengalis of the creative revolution tapped into consumer desire in part by creating iconic campaigns—The Man in the Hathaway Shirt, The Marlboro Man, the Volkswagen Beetle—that are well known to anyone familiar with advertising history.

In the postmodern age, the production of affect has moved from inside the consumer's head into the environment she inhabits. Contemporary consumerism doesn't reside simply in products any more but in experiences, as well. In this regard, Thompson presents case studies of the retail environments of IKEA, the Apple Store, and Starbucks, spaces where social interaction is completely stage-managed to inculcate a mindset ripe for the harvesting of profit.

The production of affect has implications that are broader than marketplace manipulation; it has invaded the public sphere in every way. The result, as Thompson argues in Seeing Power, is a profound distrust of everything, an alienation so deep as to render mass paranoia the default orientation of being in the world. Pervasive distrust now governs the political process to the detriment of democracy itself.

But as Thompson notes: 'We must learn from power even if we do not agree with it.' A crucial point Thompson makes is that there ultimately is no escape from 'the system'. Rather, the point, as Karl Marx proclaims in the 11th Thesis on Feurbach, 'is to change it'. In both Seeing Power and Culture as Weapon, Thompson offers examples of resistance by artists and activists that not only imagine another world, but seek to put their ideas into practice. If culture is a weapon of power, then power can be gained in the production of alternative culture. It is the time-honored function of the artistic and activist vanguards. It is a battle that, quite frankly, never ends.

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Update 13 June 2018: Two articles that engage the question of culture in contested terrain, both of which center on George Orwell, one of which cites Edward Bernays's book Propaganda: "How Orwell Gave Propaganda a Bad Name"; "How George Orwell Predicted the Challenge of Writing Today."

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Elinor Ostrom's Rules for Radicals

Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) is the first and only woman to have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics. Even more noteworthy is the reason for which she was so recognized, namely, her work on the commons, collective forms of ownership that challenge the self-interested rational calculations of private ownership upon which mainstream economics is based.

Derek Wall, visiting tutor in political economy at Goldsmith College and International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales, wants to position Ostrom as a key thinker for the political left as her work challenges the forces of so-called free-market capital. Wall's book Elinor Ostrom's Rules for Radicals: Cooperative Alternatives Beyond Markets and States (Pluto 2017) is an introduction to Ostrom's life and work and its relevance to political action in the Age of the Anthropocene. Wall takes his cue from Saul Alinsky's 1971 Rules for Radicals, but the rules in this case are of Wall's devising not Ostrom's, though they were gleaned from a close reading of her work.

Ostrom was born in Los Angeles during the Great Depression and studied political science at UCLA.  She married a fellow student, moved to Boston, and supported him while he attended Harvard Law. They later divorced and she moved back to LA in order to pursue an economics PhD. She was prevented from entering the program at UCLA because she had not taken enough mathematics in high school, a course of study she had been prevented from doing because she was female. She received a doctorate in political science instead.

Elinor Ostrom in 2009 (Photo credit below)
Ostrom's interest in the commons was inspired by her second husband, Vincent Ostrom, whom she met while assisting him with his PhD work, which looked at cooperation among municipalities to manage water resources in Southern California. The galvanizing moment in her development occurred after she and Vincent moved to take up teaching positions at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Elinor attended a lecture Garret Hardin gave at IU based on his influential essay "The Tragedy of the Commons," published in 1968 in the journal Science. An advocate of population control who took his cue from Thomas Malthus and William Foster Lloyd, Hardin argued that shared resources are subject to overuse by unregulated individuals whose self-interest is to maximize those resources for their own personal gain without regard to all others, ultimately leading to the collapse of the resources and the detriment of all. Hardin supposed two solutions to the tragedy of the commons: privatizing them to individual owners who would protect their investment or strict state regulation, a dichotomy Ostrom rejected.

Ostrom had seen the effective use of shared resources as part of her PhD work and set about researching other examples of successful management of the commons. Among her case studies were the communal ownership of grazing meadows in the mountains of Switzerland, community irrigation systems in Spain and the Phillipines, and the management of village commons in Japan. She also looked at examples of failed commons in Nova Scotia, Sri Lanka, and Turkey. These cases informed the work that became her 1990 book Governing the Commons, for which she is best known.

In conducting her research, Ostrom distinguished between common pool resources and common pool property. The former includes forests, fisheries, and other areas from which it is difficult to exclude others and are thus available for collective use. The latter is a legal category that enables collective ownership. Examples of these include: property held on behalf of the public by the state, producer cooperatives, and real estate condominiums.

Among the traits of a sustainable commons are clearly defined boundaries, participatory governance, and nesting within a wider system. These principles informed Ostrom's interest in institutional analysis, direct democracy, and co-production, all of which Wall cites as foundational for a progressive politics. Analyzing and understanding the rules upon which institutional structures are built is the first step in transforming them for the common good. The second two open up pathways for theorizing and implementing models that move beyond conventional economics based on self-interest to those based on sharing.

Wall obviously has enthusiasm for his subject and much of the book is honorific in tone. But he also presents positions Ostrom held that might not square with some of his intended readers on the left. In addition, he lays out arguments against her.

While Ostrom advocated for the commons, she did not embrace them universally. Neither did she rule out the efficacy of markets. Similarly, while she employed a range of methodologies in her work, including ethnography, secondary-literature review, and surveys, she did not reject conventional economic statistical models out of hand. Instead, Ostrom assembled a multi-dimensional toolkit as deemed appropriate for the question under consideration. She also did not propose to overthrow capitalism, but did reject the hegemonic Eurocentric ideologies under which it has evolved.

Wall acknowledges the validity of the Marxist critique of Ostrom's conception of the commons. As he writes:
[T]he commons didn't fail because of a breakdown in trust and cooperation by the commoners but instead the commons were enclosed, stolen and shut down by capitalists, imperialists and various species of the rich and powerful (113).
From this perspective, he points out, the micro political economy of managing the commons at the heart of Ostrom's analysis distracts from the larger considerations of world-historical class struggle. (Wall doesn't say this, but the embrace of the tragedy of the commons itself is but one element, albeit a critical one, of the social imaginary of capital as it emerged from the Second World War, ensconcing rational-choice theory as increasingly hegemonic in all aspects of social, economic, and political life, a story well told in S.M. Amadae's Rationalizing Capitalist Democracy: The Cold War Origins of Rational Choice Liberalism.) Ostrom's position is obviously pragmatist, an argument  for action under conditions where it is deemed possible.

Pragmatism has fallen into disrepute in the eyes of many on the left these days, held to be the province of those, such as New Labor in the UK and the Democratic Leadership Council in the US, who espouse small-bore changes that have essentially left the mechanisms of capitalist power in place. And yet, there are examples of cooperation one may point to—the social and solidarity economy projects in Europe, South America, Africa, and the US (see the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on the Social and Solidarity Economy, as well as the US Solidarity Economy Network). These efforts may be perceived as merely incremental (I would argue that they are more than that). Be that as it may, they do offer avenues for material progress while the millenarians among us wait for the Angel of History to descend.
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Elinor Ostrom photo: © Holger Motzkau 2010, Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons (cc-by-sa-3.0)

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Is It Just the Pynchon In Me, or What?

I first published this essay in the UK-based online journal Oomska in 2010. When I recently tried to share the link, I discovered that the website had been deactivated. I reproduce it here for the archive. The essay has its origins in a class on the postmodern turn (AKA "That 70s Class" and "Civilization and Its Disco"), which I took at The New School with New Yorker contributing writer Luke Menand.

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I first became aware of Thomas Pynchon my senior year at Michigan State. One of my housemates, whom we called Bopper (and still do, actually), was reading Gravity's Rainbow, which at the time had just come out in paperback. One of the first things that caught my eye was the book's dedication to Richard Farina, the author's close friend and classmate at Cornell, who had died too young in a motorcycle accident in 1966. Farina's name was familiar, as part of a 1960s folk duo whose other half, Mimi, also happened to be Joan Baez's sister.

But for me it had greater significance as Farina was the author of a single novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. For years, Farina's tale of hipster Gnossos Papadopoulis was part of my back-to-school ritual, the last thing I would read before heading back to campus each fall.

I started reading Pynchon with V., however. And I was immediately taken with the crazed plot lines, the even more crazed characters, and the alternate reality in which they existed. It was even cooler than Kerouac, I thought, the same level of delirium but with more erudition. I dug the yo-yos who aimlessly rode the subway from one end of New York City to the other, and also alto saxophonist McLintic Sphere, whom I identified as based on free-jazz master Ornette Coleman. An art student, I endeavored to execute a performance piece modeled on the character Herbert Stencil in which I vowed to speak of myself in the third person for the rest of my days. (Alas, life imitated art for only a week and a half before I abandoned the project.)

Gravity's Rainbow came later when I was out of school and working an entry-level office job where my responsibilities were such that I could spend half the day reading. The intertextual relationship of V. and Gravity's Rainbow was of course amusing, not to mention self-gratifying in the pleasure gained from knowing winks on the author's part to the cognizant reader. Also engaging were the things that were seemingly bizarre yet based on reality, for example, the covert operation of parapsychologists, gathered under the code-name PISCES, who really did work for British intelligence to undermine the Nazi war effort by counter-posing "white" magic to German occult practices. I was dabbling in the hermetic tradition myself as a source for making art and thus found entry into the book's deeper meaning through that channel.

I re-read Gravity's Rainbow a little more than a decade later when my stepdaughter gave me Steven Weisenberger's A Gravity's Rainbow Companion for Christmas, still arguably the best aid to negotiating Pynchon's labyrinthine opus. (Although there is an error that to my knowledge has never been corrected, namely, on page 152 where Weisenberger notes the numerological symbolism of tetragrammaton as signifying the eight-lettered name of God in Judaism when the prefix 'tetra' means four in Greek and refers to the four Hebrew letters Yod-He-Vau-He from which the Old Testament word Yahweh is derived.) But it was on the third time through just a few years ago that I believe I uncovered some heretofore-unnoticed elements of my own.

Two of them relate to Gravity's Rainbow's major theme of what sociologist Max Weber terms the "disenchantment of the world" by modernity, the supplanting of religious cosmological systems by technological apparatus under the rule of rationalism. These are revealed when the episodes are arranged in cumulative order.

The first is the eleventh episode of Part Three, which cumulatively is the fortieth episode. Placed at the center of the book, the apogee of its trajectory, it is also the longest. While the episode opens on or about July 9, 1945, much of the narrative is a genealogy of the German rocket program back to its origins in the Society for Space Travel. But, the episode is more importantly an allegory, which doubles the narrative onto American history a generation later. In Judeo-Christian symbolism, the number 40 is one of fulfillment: The Great Flood lasted for forty days and forty nights, the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years after escaping Egypt, and Christ's temptation lasted for forty days. And so it is that Episode 40 of Gravity's Rainbow is also one of fulfillment—of the landing on the moon by Apollo 11 in July 1969 in fulfillment of the dream of the Society for Space Travel.

In explaining the dream to his daughter, Ilse, the rocket scientist Franz Pokler uses a map of the moon to help her visualize it. Ilse chooses a spot in the Sea of Tranquility where she would like to live when people are able to go to the moon. And it was a spot near the crater Makelyne B in the Sea of Tranquility where the Lunar Expeditionary Module set down when Neil Armstrong took his historic "giant leap for mankind." (It's also significant to note, as Weisenberger does, that the author of Gravity's Rainbow's opening epigraph, Werner von Braun, directed both the Apollo 11 project and the German rocket works at Peenemunde where Pokler is stationed.)

The other episode that gains resonance in this manner is Episode 21 of Part Three, cumulatively Episode 50. Fifty is the number of days after Easter that the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ's disciples. The Pentecost, also known as "whitsunday" or White Sunday, is an important date to Gravity's Rainbow's narrative. In 1945, Pentecost fell on May 8, which was V-E Day, and also the anniversary of the death of occulist Madame Helena Blavatsky plus the birthday of US President Harry S. Truman. It was Pynchon's own eighth birthday as well. Thus, the date is an harmonic convergence of narrative trajectories: the end of the war in Europe, the occultic other of Judeo- Christianity, the opening of the door to the Atomic Age, and the author who would tie it all together.

But, the fiftieth episode is also a kind of worldly Pentecost for the character Enzian the Herero. In the spirit of the giving of tongues, Pynchon writes: "There doesn't exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you're afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away—there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding." In the pages that follow, Enzian articulates the grammar of War and Technology, which are the lingua franca of global capital unto the present day.

While these two examples show how a cumulative reading of the episodes can amplify an existing understanding of Gravity's Rainbow, there's another trope that flows through the text to which I believe the novel's dedication provides a clue.

Weisenberger takes note of the importance of the number 9 to Gravity's Rainbow's narrative development, in particular as a number of incompletion—the interrupted countdown of the rocket launch, the lack closure of the book's nine-month- long narrative, etc. In addition to setting the time span in months of the narrative overall, nine is the number of days that transpire during the novel's first part. The first nine episodes are a unit when the structure of Episodes 1 and 9 are compared: Both episodes begin with their main characters dreaming. Both begin and end with rocket attacks. Their openings are similar in terms of meter and have virtually the same number of syllables. This Gnostic cosmology of world inside world, like the layers of an onion, inaugurates a narrative thread that unfolds in Gravity's Rainbow through factors of the number 9, beginning with the tenth episode.

The tenth episode seems to come out of nowhere. To be sure, Weisenberger refers the time of Episode 10 as "unspecified" and characterizes it as "grossly surreal." However, a trope is introduced in Episode 10 that carries throughout the book and constitutes an essential subtext to the novel. To see this, we must go outside the text, but not very far. As noted earlier, Gravity's Rainbow is dedicated to Pynchon's friend from his college days. And I would argue that the reference is as much an elegy for the unfulfilled spirit of 1960s counterculture as it is for the bright young man who tragically died before his time during that decade. In Episode 10, the Dionysian impulse of the 1960s, a charismatic eruption against the Apollonian demiurge of rationalist society, is unleashed. In the episode, Tyrone Slothrop journeys down a toilet in search of a lost harmonica. In the 1960s, soldiers in Vietnam referred to the battlefield as being "in the shit." The 1960s are further personified in the figures of Malcom X (the bathroom attendant, Red, encountered by Slothrop) and JFK (referred to as "Jack Kennedy, the ambassador's son"), both of whom were assassinated in the 1960s. This eruption of the carnivalesque, the counterculture of the 1960s, was very much a factor in the political and cultural landscape of the time of Gravity's Rainbow's writing, ultimately leading to what Pynchon elsewhere terms the "Nixonian repression." This theme runs through Pynchon's later, much-underappreciated novel, Vineland, where speaking of the character Brock Vond he writes: "Any sudden attempt to change things would be answered by an immediate misoneistic backlash not only from the State but from the people themselves--Nixon's election in '68 seeming to Brock a perfect example of this."

Episode 10 also begins a mathematical formula that ties seemingly unrelated episodes of Gravity's Rainbow together. This can be expressed in the formula, "E = N x 9 + 1" with "N" functioning as a geometric progression. (10 = 1 x 9 +1, adding an "isotrope," as it were, to the molecular structure of incompletion.)

The next episode to pick up the trope is Episode 19 in Part One (19 = 2 x 9 + 1). Set in pre-Hitler Berlin, the episode is ostensibly concerned with Franz and Leni Pokler's discussion of Western science. The narrative's focus is more on Leni, making the second expression of the trope feminine. (In numerology, the number 2 is feminine.) This episode is permeated with language of the 1960s and early 1970s, which is anachronistic in the context of a narrative that until then has been consciously periodized. (The extensive research Pynchon undertook into period slang and colloquial usage of the 1940s in writing Gravity's Rainbow is well documented.) The first is the term "detente," which began to be used during the Nixon administration to describe its policy toward the Soviet Union. Next is the reference to a fictional leftist magazine, Die Faust Hoch ("the raised fist"), a reference to the controversial incident in the 1972 Munich Olympics in which American athletes were stripped of their medals for raising their black-gloved fists in salute to Black Power during the award ceremonies. There is reference to the "Revolution" and the fact that "AN ARMY OF LOVERS CAN BE BEATEN." The "President" is quoted as saying, "I'm sending all the soldiers home," which was Nixon's second-term campaign pledge. Finally, the utopian image of the 1960s Dionysian release is set against the vision of "a rational structure in which business would be the true, the rightful authority."

The trope is again picked up in Part Three, Episode 8, or Episode 37 (37 = 4 x 9 + 1). This episode also appears to interrupt the narrative flow and concerns a group of Argentine anarchists who plan to make a film of the epic poem Martin Fierro. The scene takes place in a harmonica factory, recalling the action of Episode 10. There is a western film being shown, and in the film, the horse Snake appears, the same mount of Crutchfield the Westerner who also first appeared in Episode 10. Pynchon mentions a character, Shetzline, which refers to David Shetlzine, a contemporary American novelist and friend of Pynchon and Farina from Cornell. In the epic of Martin Fierro, the protagonist gaucho initially resists colonial control of the pampas but ultimately sells out, a metaphor of the demotic thrust of the 1960s counterculture, which even by the time of Gravity's Rainbow was being commercially co-opted. But, the most compelling reference closes the episode: "It took the Dreyfus Affair to get the Zionists out and doing, finally: what will it take to drive you out of your soup kettle?" By the time of Gravity's Rainbow's publication, The New York Times had published the Pentagon papers and The Washington Post had broken the Watergate scandal, which eventually concluded with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

The trope culminates along with the novel in Part Four, Episode 12, or Episode 73 by the cumulative measure (73 = 8 x 9 + 1). Contemporaneous references include the cryptic statement in Weissman's Tarot: "If you're wondering where he's gone, look among the successful academics, the Presidential advisors, the token intellectuals who sit on boards of directors. Look high, not low," an obvious allusion to then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The figure of Nixon is again evoked, this time by the character Richard M. Zhlubb, "fiftyish and jowled, with a permanent five-o'clock shadow (the worst by far of all the Hourly Shadows) and a habit of throwing his arms up into an inverted 'peace sign.'"

When set against the circular structure Weisenberger erects for Gravity's Rainbow's plot line, the cyclical time of the ancients, the formula of countercultural references can be seen as a offering up a cautionary tale of resistance to modernity in general, which though defeated for the time being might hold out the hope of eternal return. The notion of progress shatters in Gravity's Rainbow as the narrative splinters into fragments, an index of the differentiation of social forms in rational society as understood by Weber, fellow sociologist Emile Durkheim, and others. Like a rocket it explodes in a charismatic festival to revert to the cycle of time immemorial (the multiplier 8 of the last episode in the formula is the numerological sign of eternity). Weissman's Tarot presents The World as his future card; the number of The World in the Major Arcana is 21, which is the number episodes in Part One of Gravity's Rainbow, bringing the end back to the beginning.

Hence another thread of meaning is woven into the fabric of Gravity's Rainbow. Or is Carducci just being paranoid?