An Urgent Object///

brett zehner

a version of avant garde poetics

A critical web of avant garde trajectories can be traced through an attempt at recovering the social body through poetry. For some this was a return to speech rhythms, through disordering of conventional syntax, lineation based on the breath.  For others it was a movement from song, to sound, to silence, to noise.  The list goes on:  Action poetics to social practice.  Image to concrete.  Documentary to investigative poetics to critical poetics.  Data to information to code to intermedia and hacking.  These trajectories more often than not have seemed to be radical gestures.  The body and its many sensing apparatuses thrown against the machinery of warfare, the machinery of the repressive state, and the machinery of empire.  The poet’s knowledge, the poet’s performance has embraced seemingly every methodological rupture in the endeavor to disrupt traditional systems of value and valorization.

This was an escape attempt away from the damaging effects of the machinery of the post-68 neoliberal generation.  Perhaps ironically, many of these movements found a way to a new social body by way of algorithmic machinic operations.  Machines of different kinds, machines as assemblages of all sorts, connections, ecology, networks.  At a wide angle this can be seen as an engagement with the ‘outside’ and the non human as the ultimate move away from poetic essentialism.  For instance, the Situationists embraced chance operations and algorithmic poetics as a gateway to an authentic desire.  Their predecessors COBRA took on the name of an animal as the ultimate subjective reaction against machines both literal and metaphoric.  The conceptual artists dematerialized the art work itself placing value on the innovation of the idea.  Certain conceptual poets claim a managerial joy in a machine without a subject while others revel in disrupting the fetish of production for productions sake.   Paradoxically, the dematerialization of aesthetics has paralleled the dematerialization of financial capital,  leaving the body of the bio behind, and leaving the earth of the geo in its wake.  Yet dematerialization is perhaps the wrong word.  And perhaps it is the wake that exceeds the ship.

capitalist escape from the bounds of resources and bodies

This aesthetic journey of ‘de-materialization’ toward the noosphere has its undergirding origins from the depths of the earth. One can trace these doubled trajectories of avant garde desires through innovative processes of resource extraction and labor organization, fueling the cult of youth and the material metabolism of the postwar generation.  These material and subjective processes followed into the space programs, creating remote subjects, distanciated communciations networks and the de-peopled gods eye remote viewing perspective of satellites.  This plantetary distanciation exemplifies a literal escape from the earth through the construction of the rational scientific subject, and the geo-aesthetic gaze.  A biography without the geography… a geography without the biography.  Material all the same.  There would be no ‘anthropocene’ without networks of fiber optics cables, swarms of dead sattelites and live sattelites stiching together the myth of the total world view.  Radioctive materials etched into the geology of the earth itself.  A poetics of the anthropocene.

conceptualism is the vanguard of financial capital…yet it is also its undoing

“The author, for instance, does not make books any more; it manages book projects.  Coca-Cola, which hands most of the bottling and marketing of its drinks to others, is little more than a collection of projects, run by people it calls ‘orchestrators’…BMW treats each new car ‘platform’, which is the basis of new vehicle ranges, as a seperate project.  Meanwhile, Capital One, a fast-growing American financial services group, has a special team to handle its M&A ‘projects’.  For all these firms, project-management has become an important competitive tool.  Some of them call it a core competence.”  (Newsweek with emphasis and replacements)

Conceptualism itself seems to be the vanguard aesthetic movement of this time of new labor practices…ungrounded yet relying on the materials of its age.  Like any engagement with an outside of thought, with the machine itself, there are happy accidents (play/games) and there are terrible consequences such as The Black Stack (the geo-engineered planetary wide accumulation of every accident, placing us in this predicament we are in).  It seems a little convenient however, for an aesthetic movement so in line with a managerial joussance of information arrangement to proclaim that nothing can be new and that we just need to appropriate and frame.

The real question becomes not a return to any body, or theory to justify whatever ‘authentic’ desire.  The question must become what kind of social body are we attempting to create?  Does it operate through a social poetics of network repair, of shame, of normativity, parrhesia, of patrolling desire?  Does it operate through dissensus, conjunction, happy accident, rumor, sleeper cells, secrets?  How do we connect the violence of language’s selection, of its speech acts, of its judgements, to the productive sign-machines that financial capital so readily encodes as authoritative languages?  And perhaps most importantly, where are the actionable bottlenecks in the translation processes between these seemingly de-materialized languages, their politics,  logistics, environments, and a de-colonial desire?  Do we occupy the same poetic forms as financial capital?

crises and the poetics of the question

The anthropocene, late liberalism, financial capitalism…whatever….

We seem to be in the double bind of a sensing, planetary scale network of computing data bodies, very literally a social body, yet we are finding this is not the social body we want.  A planetary scale project is underway connecting sensory information, databodies, and protocals, yet the body politic is impoverished.  We are embroiled in a networked pessimism.  Moreover, as media technologies and cognitariat subjectivities proliferate (dependent on a massive infrastructural web), countless species are vanishing into a dead silence.

So, is there a new escape plan?  Can we geoengineer a social body capable of attaching the general intellect back to each other and an environment?  But what would that look like…? We don’t need a machine for an algorhithm.  Yet how do we liberate the machine from our determnistic will?  And the horror of my own fantasy- if it is true that the post-68 generation has consumed all the joy, then how do we trust our own desires?  Wherever we go, will capital follow?

Can we re-occupy the disaster… As a way to join with the earth, each other, in a shared risk under a menacing sky?

These convoluted and neurotic procedural questionings can perhaps be made visible by mediating objects that exceed the subject toward a non human outside of thought.  What is called for is a framework for a composite object that is a spatiality in excess of durations and sensations that we currently inhabit.  An object alive and choreographing the anthropos.  We must stay with the trouble…following a who toward a what.  A guide to focus our ruptured attention.

object studies

Through two spectacular films we encounter objects which mediate a social body by representing the outside of a human system of communication.  So much is communicated yet so little is useful and understandable.  A re-materialization of a social body through the excessive object.

The first is the doomsday machine of Dr. Strangelove

In Dr. Strangelove a network of computers have been programmed to destroy all life on earth in the event of a nuclear attack.  This would produce a doomsday shroud that would circle the earth for 93 years.  Designed to trigger itself automatically.  Designed to explode if any attempt were made to untrigger it.  Designing madness.  Afraid of a doomsday gap.  It is not possible that they built a machine like this.  The technology requires only the will to do so.  Triggered automatically but impossible to untrigger.  This is the essential rhetoric of capitalism.  Deterrence is the art of producing the fear to attack.  Automated decision making process rules out human meddling, terrifying credible and convincing.  Buried bombs connected to giant complex of computers.  A specific circumstance programmed into a tape memory bank.  The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret.

The second is The Blob

This thing it killed the doc… Well what was it… a mass that kept getting bigger and bigger.  Oozing.
In the blob…a  meteorite falls to earth from an outside.  Our anti-hero-object erupts from beyond the human and the human eye.  The blob proceeds to envelop every subjectivity in the town.  Financial capital as violence.  A perfect connecting substance.  Homogenizing and creating equivalence.  A cancerous blob impervious to every conceptual, linguistic, or affective response.  Destroying certain white masculine paternal and militaristic reactions.  It is indestructible, indescribable…Nothing will stop it.  It will eat you, the town, the state, the country, the globe.  Only until they learn to freeze the blob do they vanish the blob to a frozen incubation stage in the distant arctic.  The freezing itself is a freezing of complexity.  An epistemological leap of liberalism.  A throwaway solution to catastrophe.
The eternal return of the blob.

an urgent object

In both of the above instances, an object mediates an urgent situation.  On one hand the object becomes an aesthetic, a sensing body producing or disrupting a knowledge of the world.  On the other, these objects both produce a social body in response.  Much like measuring the light of a black hole by viewing how light bends around it…we can see the communications networks, poetics of social relationships, and epistemological leaps it takes to survive a catastrophe.

For our situation I propose a hybrid of the above objects.  As an aesthetic project we should create a Doomsday Machine.  This doomsday machine will be a simple black cardboard box, a monolith in an urban core. Whenever someone asks a question of it… wonders what it is doing in that spot… the cardboard box will grow over night.  Nothing will stop the doomsday machine’s growth.  If it is taken down, it will pop up somewhere else.

This new doomsday machine will operate under the logics of the accumulation of designed accidents, always growing no matter what solution is offered.  This aesthetic response will make visible a problem, producing it in an allegorical manner that is small enough to comprehend.  Like a vaccine, it could produce a relation to neoliberal subjectivity that is excessive of its own forms.  What emotion will its story produce?  One of irreverence, of wonder, of stupidity?

Perhaps the doomsday machine will be a programme, spreading across the internet…every time it is mentioned it will reproduce itself over and over again with the question of urgency always growing… speeding up and cracking open new territories of problems and experiment.


Alice Gorman
Josh Lepawksy
Cathy Park Hong
Alexander Galloway
The Blob
Dr. Strangelove
Franco “Bifo” Berardi
Maurizio Lazzarato
Cecilia Vicuna

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