In Analogy to Painting

Vera Molnar’s Computer Paintings

by Aline Guillermet

The Hungarian-born French painter Vera Molnar pioneered the use of the computer as a creative medium beginning in the late 1960s. This article by Aline Guillermet explores how Molnar’s computer-generated works used programming as a means to reflect on the autographicity of the handmade trace in drawing and painting.

The essay begins:

In 1948, Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener each published a work that would durably shape the concept of information for the digital age. Both mathematicians defined information in terms of entropy—a term borrowed from physics, which describes the disorganization or unpredictability of a system. While they differed in their interpretation of the term, both agreed to define information as a probability function wholly independent from material conditions. As Wiener famously stated in his book Cybernetics: “Information is information, not matter or energy.” The distinction Shannon and Wiener inaugurated between information and its context would have lasting consequences far beyond the narrow realm of communication engineering. Writing fifty years later, the literary critic N. Katherine Hayles summarized: “The time was ripe for theories that reified information into a free-floating, decontextualized, quantifiable entity that could serve as the master key unlocking secrets of life and death.”

The definition of information as disembodied pattern, in turn, led to a series of misconceptions that still inform contemporary conceptions of digital media. By contrast, Hayles argues that “for information to exist, it must always be instantiated in a medium. . . . Conceiving of information as a thing separate from the medium instantiating it is a prior imaginary act that constructs a holistic phenomenon as an information/matter duality.” In this article, I aim to extend Hayles’s analysis to the history of art by focusing on a series of computer-generated works produced by the Hungarian-born French artist Vera Molnar. A classically trained painter who started working in French computer laboratories in 1968, Molnar opened a space of mediation between the computational realm of information processing and the material practice of painting; in so doing, she directly challenged the duality between information and materiality that Hayles condemned.

Information needs to undergo a certain amount of analogizing before humans can experience it, a task that today is routinely, and more or less invisibly, performed by interfaces. Information, therefore, not only needs to be “instantiated” in a medium in the general sense, as Hayles contends, but also relies on specific material conditions in order to be perceptually experienced and cognitively processed. This holds important consequences for the visual arts. Well before the advent of the user-friendly interfaces that we know today, early technologies of data visualization and inscription enabled such an experience. Originally developed for the military during World War II, the electronic visualization and plotting of data (on a cathode ray tube [CRT] screen and on paper, respectively) was refined throughout the 1960s for the benefit of the booming postwar industry. It is in this context that a few computer scientists, working in research institutions that encouraged collaboration between engineers and artists, exploited the creative possibilities of the machines at their disposal.

As early as 1962, the engineer A. Michael Noll produced a series of “computer-produced patterns” at Bell Telephone Laboratories, using the newly acquired Stromberg-Carlson 4020 microfilm printer (also known as the “microfilm plotter”). From the outset, Noll situated his “patterns”—black and white plotted line drawings generated by connecting a series of points with straight lines—at the periphery of artistic creation in order to avoid “an unintentional debate at this time on whether the computer-produced designs are truly art or not.” However, the relation between these computer-produced works and modern visual culture was far from unambiguous. While Noll did not set out to create “art,” several of his productions appropriated an aesthetic derived from the canon of modern painting, whether intentionally or not: for instance, one of his first patterns, Gaussian-Quadratic (1962), “reminded [him]” of Pablo Picasso’s cubist painting Ma Jolie of 1911–12. Two years later, Noll also produced a series of computer-generated simulations of Piet Mondrian’s Composition in Line (second state; 1916–17)—a work to which I shall return in reference to Molnar’s practice.

In Europe, too, computer graphics originated within a scientific context. At the University of Stuttgart, the first works of computer art were produced between 1963 and 1964 by the mathematics students Frieder Nake and Georg Nees using the Zuse Graphomat Z64 plotter. Yet these early works were already embedded in a broader intellectual environment that sought to rethink the production and reception of art in the age of the computer. As early as 1964, the inventor of the Graphomat Z64, Konrad Zuse, had foreseen that his device—while primarily designed for technical purposes—could be put to artistic use. Moreover, Nake and Nees were closely associated with the philosopher Max Bense, whose information aesthetics aimed at developing a mathematical framework for the perception and creation of art. For these pioneers of computer graphics, modern art and visual culture functioned as a point of reference rather than as an example to emulate. However, as the context I have sketched indicates, their endeavors existed in tension with, rather than outside of, the artistic sphere.

By the late 1960s, a small number of artists had started experimenting with computers. For these artists, computer graphics did not exist in contradiction to modern art; rather, they envisioned using the machine to further develop features usually associated with human-made creation, such as inventiveness and organicity. Foregrounding the importance of materiality at the point when the algorithm is not only traced but also drawn and painted became a key strategy to legitimize the computer as an artistic tool. At the time, however, such works were largely dismissed by critics of traditional art, who failed to recognize any aesthetic specificity to the artistic appropriation of the computer as medium. Today, computer art is no longer an object of condemnation; yet it has remained on the periphery of the artistic canon and is generally classified by museum institutions under the category of print media. While media history and media archeology have done much to clarify the technological context of emerging computer art, such approaches fail to account for the way computer art has related to fine art. Among those artists who saw in the computer a new means to expand the possibilities of painting, Molnar best brought into productive discussion the so-called immateriality of the algorithm and the materiality of the computer-generated trace.

Molnar studied painting at the Budapest College of Fine Arts between 1942 and 1947 and moved to Paris in 1947. Between 1947 and 1960, she collaborated with her husband, François Molnar, an academic researcher in experimental psychology at the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique), the French national center for scientific research, on artistic productions they saw as “scientific experiments.” Having gained access to a computer in 1968, Molnar relied on the new discipline of information aesthetics, developed independently by the French physicist and philosopher Abraham A. Moles and the German philosopher Max Bense during the 1960s, as a theoretical framework for her creative practice. As a result, the balance between randomness and redundancy—crucial to information theory and its application to the visual arts—became central to the dialogue between classical painting and computer programming that she inaugurated. The manipulation of random parameters, in particular, enabled the production of “autographic” effects, such as trembling and hesitation, suggesting that the plotted line could imitate key characteristics of the handmade trace.

In this article I argue that Molnar’s computer-generated works reflect upon painting as a practice, a historical tradition, and an aesthetic experience. This claim, in turn, invites a reassessment of computer art in relation to the materiality of painting. The elements that constitute computer art as a medium—the coding process, the computer, the screen, the plotting table—all engage with materiality in ways that are fundamentally different from drawing and painting. Molnar’s production, however, shows that as soon as code becomes materialized, it is perceived in relation precisely to these existing instances of materially instantiated visual culture. My argument is structured around three series of works realized between 1973 and 1988. The first section deals with Molnar’s appropriation of information aesthetics in two series of plotter-drawn variations, Hommage à Barbaud (Tribute to Barbaud; 1974) and Computer-rosace (Computer-rose; 1975), in which Molnar experiments with Bense’s concept of an “aesthetic state.” In the second section, I investigate the different ways in which the materiality of computer-generated paintings comes to the fore, first in (Dés)ordres ((Dis)orders), a plotter drawing in color ink on white paper (1974), and second in a group of acrylic paintings begun in 1973 entitled Computer icône (Computer icon). In the last section, I focus on a single series of works produced during the 1980s, entitled Lettres de ma mère (My mother’s letters), to suggest that coding, in simulating autographic qualities, may evoke the materiality of painting. Continue reading …

ALINE GUILLERMET is a Junior Research Fellow at King’s College, University of Cambridge. Her research interests include postwar German art, the impact of technology on painting, and digital art. She is currently completing a book on Gerhard Richter.

John Lockwood Kipling’s Animals

On Verminous Life

by Parama Roy

Using John Lockwood Kipling’s Beast and Man in India (1891) as her text, Parama Roy examines the encounter of two contrasting economies of animal protection and animal cruelty, especially Kipling’s understanding of carnivory as the basis not only for human sociability but also of kindness to the nonhuman.

The essay begins:

In thinking about the history of animal protection in the nineteenth century, there is a familiar narrative that we rehearse. Prompted by a century’s worth of thinking, writing, newspaper campaigns, and abortive legislative attempts to address the question of the feelings or capacities of nonhuman animals and their claims to moral consideration from humans, the British Parliament passed an act in 1822 “to prevent the cruel and improper treatment of cattle.” Known widely as Martin’s Act, in honor of its sponsor Richard Martin of Galway, it was the first in a series of legislative undertakings—the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835, which was repealed and replaced in 1849, 1850, 1854, and 1876, and the Wild Animals in Captivity Act of 1900—designed to curb certain forms of animal cruelty and to provide legislative recognition of the entitlement of (some) animals to human protection. Together these acts were responsible for limiting or abolishing organized animal combat, animal baiting, the beating or torture of draft animals and livestock, and live pigeon shooting, though campaigns against animal vivisection had limited success. The enforcement of these acts and the concomitant education of the public in principles of animal protection were aided by the formation in 1824 of the Society for the Protection of Animals (SPCA), a body that would gain royal sponsorship a decade and a half later. Not only was Britain the venue for what has been called “the world’s first organized animal welfare movement,” part of a wave of social reform inspired by Evangelicals, Methodists, and Quakers in the Anglophone world. By the century’s end it also boasted “the most comprehensive animal protection laws in Europe.”

Fascinating as such accounts are, they would be enriched by consideration of the fact that debates on ending animal cruelty occurred in multiply scaled transimperial, national, and regional contexts. The colony was to become a crucial theater in the nineteenth century for thinking about the ways in which models of just and civilized sociability encompassed forms of obligation to the nonhuman. More significantly, debates about what constituted animal cruelty or animal protection occurred across a religiously heterogeneous and multilingual pluriverse, including in places with well-established and consequential traditions of theory and practice about moral engagement with nonhuman life. A consideration of these transimperial, cross-continental, and extrametropolitan archives opens up the possibility of reconstellating extant narratives of cruelty and care in the nineteenth century.

Such a claim is something more than a plea, by now familiar, to grasp the interlocutions and commonalities or contiguities across metropolitan and colonial histories. It is also a meditation on the possibilities and hazards of engaging evidence across significantly disparate civilizational contexts. Reading for signs of cruelty, sympathy, and protection under such circumstances involves forms of both learning and unlearning that are instructive for an understanding of what was indubitably a multipolar modern economy of humaneness and obligation.

As an example of a text that instantiates some of these issues in a particularly emblematic way, I present John Lockwood Kipling’s Beast and Man in India (1891), without question the best-known nineteenth-century Anglophone publication on the status of animals in India. But first, a few words about its author. Kipling was a polymath whose thirty-year career as a museum director, curator of international exhibitions, art-school educator, illustrator, preservationist, journalist, and editor, first at the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy School of Art and Industry in Bombay and then at the Mayo School of Industrial Arts at Lahore and the Lahore Central Museum, had a momentous influence on the revival of traditional arts and art education in the subcontinent. Loss of princely patronage, combined with an onslaught of mass-produced British goods, had led to a decline of craft skills in many places; Kipling took significant pains to revive these, drawing in the process upon a colonial sociology of caste to recruit students from artisan caste families to work at these institutions. He himself did not enjoy elevated status in an obsessively hierarchical imperial administration in India—he was artisanally trained and of lower middle-class origin—and yet his wife Alice and he were acquainted with several viceroys, most notably with Lord Dufferin. He achieved a significant measure of Indian, transimperial, and international fame, curating more than two dozen exhibitions in Paris, Jeypore (Jaipur), Calcutta, Glasgow, Melbourne, and elsewhere. He was a key figure in the staging of the Imperial Assemblage of 1877 that celebrated the official proclamation of Victoria as Empress of India. He had a hand, moreover, in the execution of two prestigious royal commissions—the Durbar Room at Victoria’s Osborne House and an Indian-style billiard room for Victoria’s son, the Duke of Connaught, at Bagshot Park in Surrey. He was well known in art and curatorial circles for these achievements, as well as for his many articles and illustrations, including those produced in his capacity as founder and editor of the Journal of Indian Art (later the Journal of Indian Art and Industry). Whatever he wrote on Indian arts, or Indian culture more generally, was likely to receive wide and respectful consideration.

For his Anglo-Indian compatriots, it was of equal consequence that he was a journalist of long standing, writing for the most influential newspapers of Anglo-India, the Pioneer (Allahabad) and the Civil and Military Gazette (Lahore)—as would his famous son Rudyard. In these outlets he wrote not with the expansive (if Orientalist) sympathy he brought to art education and conservation but in the legible and comparatively unoriginal idiom of Anglo-Indian conservatism; his articles thus underlined the shortcomings of the Indian educated middle class, Hindu reformers, and Indian political aspirations and mocked the follies of Bengali “baboos” and Indian servants. Several of his vignettes and written sketches for the Pioneer were repurposed for publication in Beast and Man. The book echoes sentiments widely shared by Anglo-Indians and, indeed, many Britons in the nineteenth century, though expressed much more wittily and often enlivened by the naturalist’s keen observation; many familiar tropes of Anglo-Indian writing on animals, religion, and ethics in the subcontinent reappear in it. It circulated quite extensively and, with very few exceptions, received strongly positive reviews on both sides of the Atlantic and in Anglo-India.6 It quickly came to be regarded as the single most important Anglophone text on animals and animal cruelty in India in the late Victorian period (and beyond).

Part of the remit of Beast and Man is to furnish a catalog of the varieties of domesticated and semidomesticated animal life in colonial India. But it is also a key document in thinking about animal protection and animal cruelty in the civilizational space of the colony. In this essay I will consider not the text in its entirety but its introduction, where these questions of protection and cruelty are taken up pedagogically through a proliferating set of parabolic maneuvers. Kipling’s overt objective is to furnish evidence by way of facts about the widespread practice of cruelty against animals in the subcontinent and to urge, by contrast, the superiority of a pragmatic modern economy of minimizing pain—an economy that demonstrates kindness to nonhuman life while simultaneously establishing carnivory as the basis of human concord and interdependence. But on the terrain of the Indian colony, Kipling’s economy of care and inclusion was to encounter a long-standing Indic economy, seen as non- or premodern, of vegetarianism and nonkilling of animals. This order he seeks to cast, not as kindness to animals, but as a form of cruelty to them. The encounter of these two contrasting economies of animal protection and animal cruelty in Kipling’s work yields some curious lessons about the unstable—rather than invariably triumphalist—idioms of animal protection and care in conversations that occur within and across a transimperial consortium. But before we can engage with the lessons of Kipling, it is necessary to scrutinize the two economies that meet agonistically in his text—the first being something that I name a Bania economy of conserving or saving life and the second, a modern economy of reducing suffering and administering care. Continue reading …

PARAMA ROY is Professor of English at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of Indian Traffic: Identities in Question in Colonial and Postcolonial India (UC Press, 1998) and Alimentary Tracts: Appetites, Aversions, and the Postcolonial (Duke UP, 2010), and co-editor of States of Trauma: Gender and Violence in South Asia (Zubaan, 2009). Her current book project is titled “Empire and the Nonhuman.”

Manufacturing Myth

Art, Judaism, and the Critique of Fascism in the Work of Ernst Cassirer

by Victoria Kahn

The essay begins:

The coincidence of the Trump presidency in the United States and the upsurge of rightwing movements in Europe, including Alternativ für Deutschland, make this an appropriate moment for reconsidering Ernst Cassirer’s analysis of fascism in the last chapter of The Myth of the State. Composed in the 1940s, when Cassirer was in the United States, and published posthumously in 1946, The Myth of the State was Cassirer’s last and most explicitly political work. In this work he suggested that the right lens for thinking about authoritarian political movements was myth, not the organic myth of earlier primitive cultures but instead the manufactured myth of late capitalism, which involved the appeal to irrational instincts and the manipulation of symbols. At the same time, Cassirer held on to the possibility of a rational critique of fascism. In our current era of such manufactured myths as “fake news” and “the caravan,” it is worth reflecting on an earlier historical moment when Cassirer confronted the manufactured myths of the Nazi state and offered a defense of rationality missing from much of our current political conversation. In this essay, I explore the basis of Cassirer’s surprising optimism, which I argue has to do not simply with his “symbolic turn,” his critique of neo-Kantianism for its neglect of language and other symbolic systems in shaping human experience, but with his recovery of art as central to the human capacity for critical thinking and his linking of this capacity to the survival of Jewish ethical traditions.

In an eloquent passage in the last chapter of The Myth of the State, Cassirer spoke to his dawning realization that the technological manipulation of myth could fundamentally transform human nature:

Of all the sad experiences of these last twelve years this is perhaps the most dreadful one. It may be compared to the experience of Odysseus on the island of Circe. But it is even worse. Circe had transformed the friends and companions of Odysseus into various animal shapes. But here are men, men of education and intelligence, honest and upright men who suddenly give up the highest human privilege. They have ceased to be free and personal agents. . . . They act like marionettes in a puppet show—and they do not even know that the strings of this show and of man’s whole individual and social life, are henceforward pulled by the political leaders.

Cassirer went on to argue that “the usual means of political oppression would not have sufficed to produce this effect.” It was technology understood as a series of techniques for producing (and as the new twentieth-century media for amplifying) the myth of the state: the systematic degradation of language, the introduction of new rites, the unifying myth of a master race, and the mythic view of time and history as fate.

Despite the eloquence of the last chapter, the book was not well received. In an early review of The Myth of the State, Eric Voegelin accused Cassirer of subscribing to an idea of historical progress, whereby myth was superseded by rationalism. Only someone who subscribed to this view could be surprised by the upsurge of myth in modernity. He also faulted Cassirer for not explaining why such myths arose and for failing to see that “the new myth emerges because the old myth has disintegrated.” At the same time, Voegelin noted the difference between Cassirer’s last book and some of his earlier work: in The Myth of the State, Voegelin found “no awareness that the myth is an indispensable forming element of social order though, curiously enough, in his earlier work on the philosophy of the myth Cassirer, under the influence of Schelling, had seen this problem quite clearly.”

Leo Strauss, who had written his dissertation under Cassirer, was also critical of The Myth of the State. He noted that, in Cassirer’s historical narrative, the achievements of the Enlightenment were called into question by Romanticism, with its “‘deep wish to go back to the sources of poetry.’ . . . The political insufficiency of romantic aestheticism, in its turn, paved the way for the ‘realistic’ political use of myth in the twentieth century.” (Ironically, Cassirer had made something of the same connection in The Myth of the State.) But Strauss then turned this characterization against Cassirer himself, asking, “Is not aestheticism the essence of his own doctrine?” By this, Strauss seems to have meant Cassirer’s failure to elaborate an ethical philosophy that would provide the grounds for a critique of the Nazi state. Strauss quotes Cassirer’s observation about Plato: “No modern writer would ever think of inserting his objections to poetry and art into a work dealing with politics. We see no connection between the two problems.” Strauss then objects: “But is not the obvious connection between politics and ‘art,’ according to Plato as well as other philosophers, that both must be subservient to morality?” For our purposes, what is interesting about Strauss’s comment is not simply its preoccupation with the source of morality but also its diagnosis of an ambivalence at the heart of Cassirer’s work about the role of art. Though Strauss doesn’t make this point, it’s notable that in earlier work, and in essays written about the same time as The Myth of the State, Cassirer did in fact defend the ethical dimension of art, in which he found, along with reason, a counterweight to myth.

More recent critics have also judged The Myth of the State to be disappointing and/or naïve. In a fascinating recent article, Chiara Bottici accepts Voegelin’s critique of The Myth of the State but then argues that the draft of the book in Cassirer’s Nachlass (collection of posthumous unpublished material) presents a far less optimistic view of human reason. Here, Cassirer admits that myth is a permanent function of the human mind. Moreover, he implies a dialectic between reason and myth that is not far from Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (I will return to this connection later in the essay):

The fiercest and most horrible things were done in cold blood. They were ordered, regulated, calculated. These crimes were no longer crimes of passions; they were methodical crimes. There arose quite a new “science” of political crime that could be taught and that quickly was learned. This science was based on fixed and entirely “rational” principles. It proceeded in a clear and consistent way.

Bottici then asks, “Is Nazism the result of a practical regression into mythical forms of life or of the invention of a new science based on completely rational principles? But if the latter is the case, then we have to conclude that Nazism was not a sudden and possibly only German deviation in an otherwise progressive road from myth to modernity, but rather the result of the application of modern principles themselves—and, to begin with, the very principle of modern science.”

What are we to make of these differences between the Nachlass and the published book? Bottici surmises that either Cassirer’s editor cut these passages to preserve the image of Cassirer as a rationalist, or Cassirer was himself ambivalent about his insights into the potential violence of reason and suppressed these formulations in the draft that was eventually published. And yet, the tension Bottici locates between The Myth of the State and the Nachlass is apparent in the published version of The Myth of the State as well. In the central chapters of the book, Cassirer describes Niccolò Machiavelli as the inventor of a new science or technique of politics, even if one can also find an occasional recourse to myth in his works. Cassirer thus implicitly raises the question of the relationship between Machiavelli’s technique and modern political techniques. And later, discussing the Romantic and Hegelian reception of Machiavelli, Cassirer writes that “Machiavellism showed its true face and its real danger when its principles were later applied to a larger scene and to entirely new political consequences. In this sense we may say that the consequences of Machiavelli’s theory were not brought to light until our own age,” and until “our modern forms of dictatorship.” Here Cassirer himself suggests something like a dialectic of enlightenment or at least of rational technique that paradoxically brings forth what he describes as “the most uncouth and uncompromising materialism in political life.” Continue reading …

Kahn’s essay argues that Ernst Cassirer’s thinking about the spontaneity of form-giving in the creation of art, which he allies to the ethical dimension of Judaism, informs his critique of fascism inThe Myth of the State. Aesthetics, for Cassirer, is not divorced from politics but one of its conditions of possibility.

VICTORIA KAHN teaches English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Her most recent book is The Future of Illusion: Political Theology and Early Modern Texts (Chicago, 2014). Her new book, The Trouble with Literature, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press in March.

Graphic Performativity

Powers of the Script: Prescription and Performance in Turn-of-the-Century France

by Antoine Lentacker

For all their concern with the nature of medical authority, historians of medicine have paid remarkably little attention to the history of the medical script, the main medium in and through which the doctor’s authority is enacted. This essay analyzes the medical prescription as an instance of a written performative. While focusing on the changing uses of one particular documentary genre in turn-of-the-twentieth-century France, it seeks to outline a broader theory of graphic performativity, or of the conditions under which the symbolic power of the oral performance is transferred and transformed as it is transcribed on paper.

The essay begins:


Although a somewhat stern personality, Paul Brouardel, dean of the Paris School of Medicine, enjoyed an occasional night out at the theater. On one such night in the late 1890s he had found himself particularly entertained by a vaudeville scene that had some relevance to his line of work, so he decided to relate it to his students. That scene, in his summary, involved an on-duty physician at a fictive theater who, longing for a night off, left his seat to a friend who was a stranger to the medical arts. By a stroke of fate, a young lady in attendance that night finds herself unwell, and all eyes turn toward the man occupying the on-call doctor’s seat. Put on the spot, the doctor’s friend quickly realizes he has no way out, so he rushes to the patient’s side, unlaces her corset, and, for good measure, pretends to write up a prescription, scribbling a few words without rhyme or reason on a slip of paper and signing it as illegibly as he could. While the ink is still drying, the script is snatched out of his hands and an usher is dispatched with it to the nearest pharmacy. Thankfully, the potion he returns with has the effect everyone counts on, and the indisposed spectator promptly recovers her health.

How are we to interpret such a scene? Is it that the prescription is useless? If a cure can be effected with a prescription that is senseless, illegible, and apocryphal—hence flawed in all the ways that seem to matter—what added value, we might ask, is there in the proper prescriptions of licensed and qualified physicians? Or is it on the contrary that the prescription does it all? That the accuracy of the diagnosis and the nature of the drug prescribed matter less in achieving the desired effect than the ritual of the prescription itself? Brouardel did not tell his students. Instead, he deemed the story “very fitting in a comedy, but not so in practice” and proceeded to lecture his audience on the need to write prescriptions clearly and legibly. Only later, in an article of 1905, did he appear to ponder what might have been the implicit lesson of the comedy he had delighted in ten years earlier:

The first source of the efficacy of the physician’s action is the trust that the sick place in him. The patient complies with and fulfills prescriptions in whole only if he surrenders completely to the authority of his physician. Trust sustains his moral fortitude; moral fortitude acts upon physiological processes; hope restores strength and resilience in the struggle against disease. The lack of trust has the opposite effect. Prescriptions fail to be fully observed; despair takes hold of the patient and recovery is compromised.

This essay follows Brouardel’s lead in accounting for the double nature of the prescription as both a drug to be consumed and an order to be trusted and obeyed. While suspending judgment on his psychophysiological speculations, it also sees the efficacy of the prescription as residing in an alchemy of words and gestures as much as in a chemistry of substances, and it sets out to describe what this symbolic efficacy owes to the form and medium in which the prescription is administered.

To name and analyze the symbolic powers of the medical script, I shall argue, we need a concept of graphic performativity. In elaborating this concept, two main pitfalls ought to be eschewed. The first mistake would be to locate the powers of performative speech in speech itself rather than in the relations of power between speakers and their addressees. Instead, we need to understand performativity as John Austin originally did—namely, as a theory of ritual whose efficacy is linked to a number of sociohistorical, as well as linguistic, conditions. Of the “conditions of felicity” of performative speech, the first to be mentioned in How to Do Things with Words is the “position of the speaker”: to produce its effect, ritual speech must be delivered by the “person appointed” to do so. Socially efficacious speech, in other words, is inseparable from the casts of socially codified roles in which speech is produced. In this sense, a theory of the performative speaks to the vaudeville scene Brouardel related to his students. The prescription in that instance worked its magic only because its author was, quite literally, in the doctor’s place, and also of course because he was a man of a certain age and poise, the sort of man who could claim doctors among his friends. Furthermore, it speaks to a rich historiography on the changing roles of doctors, patients, and (to a lesser degree) pharmacists in nineteenth-century medicine, a body of work in which few subjects have been as thoroughly investigated as has the struggle of an institutionalized medical profession for the exclusive authority to diagnose and to prescribe.

The opposite pitfall, however, would be to view the script as merely registering or reflecting relations of power constituted elsewhere and by other means. Authority is relational, and so it ought to be examined through its media as well as through its figures or possessors. On this the historiography has less to offer. For all their interest in the deployment of professional authority, medical historians have left the prescription, the main medium in and through which the doctor’s authority is expressed and enacted, virtually unattended. And so does Austin, whose performatives are typically oral performances engaging a kind of spectacle of the speech act. While there is no doubt that prescribing is a performative in Austin’s sense, a speech act whose proper performance endows words with a certain binding force and validity, it is an act deposited in a graphic artifact and mediated by it. Once the patient walks away from the stage of the medical consultation, the performance is over and only a script remains. Hence the specific question here is: How to do things with written words? As a general rule, writing frees the powers of speech from the body of the speaker, even as it threatens to undermine these powers by severing the link to the performance and performer from which they emanate. This means that there are specific conditions of felicity to the written performative—and specific ways it can go wrong.

By graphic performativity, then, I refer to the ways in which the graphic artifact captures and transforms the powers of the oral performance as it is transcribed on paper. My argument takes aim throughout at what might be termed a fetishism of the document. Documents do not attest, authorize, or document on their own, but only within shifting scriptural usages, practices, and institutions. To illustrate this point, I focus on one specific moment in the history of the medical script and examine it from the viewpoint of the three main figures involved in acting it out—physicians, pharmacists, and patients. The special attention the genre attracted in fin de siècle France resulted from the rise of a vast proprietary drug industry whose products were advertised in newspapers and available over the counter. France was not unique in this, but, for reasons explained in the first section of the essay, it was exemplary. French physicians during this period registered with unique acuity the erosive effects of printed medical advice on the authority of the script. Their conversations on the subject generated the trove of sources on which this essay relies. The next two sections consider the matter from the perspective of the pharmacist who judges the validity of the doctor’s note. This allows for a description of some of the concrete ways in which the script creates or loses a connection to the original scene of its production. The final section returns to the effect of the prescription on the patient. Its goal is to reveal the script as a medium in which the subject positions of physician and patient were not merely mirrored but also at once made, maintained, and destabilized. Continue reading …

ANTOINE LENTACKER is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside. His work is broadly dedicated to investigating the effects of changing communication technologies on the governing of people and things in Europe since 1800.

Looking and Geological Time

Staring into the Abyss of Time

by Stephanie O’Rourke

The essay begins:

Beneath the rock, more rock. It stretches deep into the earth in layered deposits of sandstone and shale, whose limits extend far beyond the edges of the plate. The engraving of the Harz Mountains [above], first published in 1785, depicts the textured surface of a quarry face recessed within a grassy landscape. To the right, a single figure ascends a hill toward a built enclosure. To the left, the curtain of the earth’s surface has been cut away to reveal a hypothetical cross section of its unseen depths. The composition symmetrically divides the realm of the human from that of the geological, with the quarry in the center acting as a fitting intermediary; it is, after all, a site where matter is “unearthed” by human labor and converted into resources. But within a few decades of this print’s publication, the preferred geological illustration of choice looked rather different, as an early example of a “stratigraphic diagram” found in Georges Cuvier and Alexandre Brongniart’s Essai sur la géographie minéralogique des environs de Paris makes clear [right]. Decorative elements borrowed from topographical landscape drawing have been abandoned, and the human figure is excluded altogether. Instead, rock strata are organized along a vertical axis whose annotations reflect both their relative depth and the geological era in which they were thought to have formed. In late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century stratigraphic diagrams, geological history came into view for the first time, pictured as a function of depth.

The distinctions between these two kinds of illustrations may seem subtle, but the emphasis the stratigraphic diagram placed on geological history reflected a broader scientific preoccupation with the relative age of different rock formations. While not itself antagonistic to human-centric time scales, this kind of illustration participated in the emergence of a new model of geological history that left little room for human history, human agency, or human experience. Whereas the cross section of the Harz Mountains integrated the human scale and the geological scale, whose compositional elements were presented in symmetrical harmony, human elements were purged in later stratigraphic illustrations or relegated to a small detail atop the uppermost strata along with the mise-en-scène of the landscape. In the intervening decades, scientists and savants alike were coming to terms with radically new accounts of how and when the earth was formed. The chronological scale used to measure geological history continually expanded as naturalists attributed ever-greater temporal depths to the rock formations that populated their world. And, correspondingly, human history occupied an increasingly small portion of that geological record; the human figure in [the Harz Mountain] illustration was, in a sense, shrinking. This trend reached its fullest expression in the concept of “deep time” put forward by the Scottish geologist James Hutton in the final decades of the eighteenth century. Hutton proposed that the earth’s formation took place over such a long period of time that it could not even be comprehended in terms of the time scale of human history, rendering human history comparatively inconsequential. As the sweep of geological time grew in the early nineteenth century, “human tenure on the planet” came to seem, in the words of Noah Heringman, “insignificant.” But in other quarters, the geological and the human were still being figured alongside each other.

Atop the rock, man. The German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, known for his love of the Harz Mountains, pictured a strikingly different early nineteenth-century encounter between the human and the geological in his Wanderer Above a Sea of Clouds. From a granite outcropping, an eponymous wanderer placidly surveys the rocky mountain formations shrouded in mist below him and the faintly rendered peaks that flicker into view in the distance. The figure’s physical elevation over his environment and his panoramic view suggest the fantasy of a geological landscape visually possessed and perhaps also physically mastered by the human subject. Long used as a kind of art-historical shorthand for European Romanticism in general, the painting has more recently been taken as emblematic of a model of early nineteenth-century bourgeois subjectivity concomitant with the rise of modern spectatorial practices: “the ascendancy of newly realized bourgeois aspirations, fantasies of autonomy” that, Jonathan Crary writes, “permitted at least an optical appropriation” of the natural world, if not a literal one. Like Crary’s, a number of influential accounts of the painting grant interpretive priority to how the painting frames the role and status of the human figure qua a perceptual encounter with nature, whether mediated or direct.

Yet as a cursory inspection of the two aforementioned geological illustrations makes clear, this was a period in which the relationship between the human and the natural was undergoing extraordinary changes within mainstream scientific discourses—and in ways that posed significant challenges for the dominance assumed by a very model of subjectivity predicated on the unconstrained visual appropriation of the natural world Friedrich’s protagonist seems to experience. Might this figure be poised not on a precipice but along a widening fault line between conflicting models of historical and natural time? After all, [the Harz Mountain] illustration and Friedrich’s painting are not as intellectually and historically distant from each other as we might assume. Mining and geology were important elements of a constellation of cultural practices within which European Romantic thinkers like Friedrich engaged with and conceptualized nature. “It would have been difficult,” Theodore Ziolkowsi notes, “to assemble a group of intellectuals in any of the centers of German Romanticism without including at least one or two guests who were somehow involved with mining” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Both Johann von Goethe and Georg von Hardenberg (better known as Novalis) were employed overseeing regional mines. Goethe even wrote rapturous lines about geological formations in his 1785 essay “Über den Granit.” As several scholars have noted, Friedrich himself possessed a genuine interest in geology and mountaineering and lived near one of Europe’s foremost centers of geological research for most of his adult life. It is apparent that Friedrich’s work might have both practical and conceptual points of contact with late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century geological discourse.

From this perspective, we might consider whether several of Friedrich’s works—and especially Wanderer—picture a perceptual encounter between the human and the natural that discloses not the sovereignty of bourgeois subjectivity in this period but rather its precarity in the face of divergent models of historical and natural time. In what follows, I reexamine Friedrich’s art with a particular eye to how it frames nature and history, on its own terms and also in relation to larger trends in German Romantic thought. By placing the “geological” aspects of his work within its broader scientific context, it becomes clear that a model of subjectivity predicated on spectatorship—and particularly the act of observing the natural world—was coming under extraordinary pressure in the early decades of the nineteenth century. As an encounter between the human and the geological, do paintings like Wanderer point toward the ascendance of bourgeois subjectivity or to its imagined annihilation? Continue reading …

Art historian Stephanie O’Rourke here examines the role of geological time in the work of the German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich in the early nineteenth century. Her essay foregrounds the challenges this model of time posed for the relationship between the human and the natural—a relationship usually considered central to Friedrich’s work—and for the perceptual powers of the viewing subject.

STEPHANIE O’ROURKE is a Lecturer in Art History at the University of St Andrews, where she specializes in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European art and visual culture.

Charismatic Talk

Talk That Talk: Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and the Seductions of a Form

by Matthew Hunter

The essay begins:

England’s Parnassus has long been studied for what it includes. Published in 1600, the printed commonplace book culls together passages from Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and other lodestars of its fin de siècle moment. The inclusion of such vernacular authors sets England’s Parnassus apart from the commonplace books that came before it, which anthologized only writers of classical antiquity. It also aligns the volume with more recently printed commonplace books, like Francis Meres’s Palladis Tamia (1598) and John Bodenham’s Bel-vedere, or The Garden of the Muses (1600), which collectively ushered in what Zachary Lesser and Peter Stallybrass have called “a novel conception of commonplacing,” whereby “‘Moderne and extent Poets,’ who wrote in the culturally and geographically marginal vernacular of English, [are treated] as suitable authorities on which to base an entire commonplace book.” But England’s Parnassus is just as notable for what it leaves out. When the coy Adonis, in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, resists the advances of the goddess of love, he protests by urging her to “Call it not love, since love to heaven is fled, / Since sweating lust on earth usurped the name.” It is just one of the many aphorisms from the poem that Robert Allott, the book’s editor, excerpts. But that is not quite how the passage goes in England’s Parnassus. “—Love to heaven is fled,” it reads, “Since sweating lust on earth usurpt the name.” As a heavy dash effaces the metalanguage that begins Adonis’s pronouncement, England’s Parnassus offers an early modern example of the transcultural tendency, documented by Greg Urban, for transcriptions to delete the metalanguage that marks them as transcribable in the first place, “as if the metadiscursive portions of the discourse were invisible (or inaudible) and yet capable of exercising an effect.”

So far as Adonis’s aphorism is concerned, Urban’s parenthesis is crucial. An imperative to speak that is itself spoken, Adonis’s metadiscursive “call” is a particularly self-conscious reminder that the many aphorisms of Venus and Adonis are part of an extended conversational exchange. In fact, although it is rife with passages of lush and alluring description, the epyllion resembles nothing so much as a dialogue, since its primary narrative action comes from the heated discourse that unites its two protagonists. Shakespeare’s most outrageously successful poem, in other words, is also his chattiest, and the aphorism is its principle form of talk. By deleting Shakespeare’s metalanguage, however, England’s Parnassus deletes the words that give Shakespeare’s aphorisms their situated, conversational force. The excision would seem to have set a standard for the criticism that has flourished in its wake. While scholars have been rightly attentive to the place of Venus and Adonis in early modern sexualities, or in the formation of Shakespeare’s durable career, or even in the history of rhetoric, the poem’s remarkably dialogic texture would seem to have been taken for granted.

This essay reads with Allott’s commonplace book and also against it. It returns Shakespeare’s aphorisms to their most significant context, the amorous conversations of Venus and Adonis, in order to show how the form flourishes in that poem as a potent and seductive form of talk. In this respect, Venus and Adonis does not simply reflect early modern attitudes toward the aphorism; it actively shapes them. The poem’s outsized popularity—it was reprinted ten times during Shakespeare’s lifetime—came in no small part from the way readers reproduced its aphorisms in their own conversations, in just the way that its protagonists encouraged: that is, erotically. Like other works from the early modern period, Venus and Adonis celebrates the aphorism as a model of conversational competence, but it takes that celebration a step further by turning the budding early modern art of conversation into just the erotic practice that, as Jeffrey Masten has recently reminded us, its etymology implies.

This essay follows upon Masten’s investigation into the multiple early modern meanings of “conversation:” “interchange of thoughts and words,” “intimacy,” “sexual intercourse,” and “conversion.” But it departs from his avowedly philological approach in order to consider not iterations of the word “conversation” but one especially erotic (and especially popular) enactment of conversation. By drawing together talk and desire, using the former to illuminate the latter, I extend to early modern studies the methodologies and critical frameworks of a field that has come to be called “language-in-use.” Language-in-use treats as its foundation what Charles Sanders Peirce called the indexical—or pragmatic—nature of language: the way words are saturated with meaning through the situated occasion of their use, as the empty pronoun “I” most readily demonstrates. Resisting literary analyses that, in the words of Michael Lucey and Thomas McEnaney, “seem to arise out of the encounter between a critic’s intellect and a text understood as a thing to be contemplated by that intellect,” language-in-use studies “how a work’s form, how the forming of a work, connects it (indexically) to the social world from which it emerges and also to the social worlds through which it circulates.” At the same time, the indexicality of language demands our consideration not only of how words absorb meanings from the contexts of their delivery, like a sponge in water, but also of how language meta-indexically—or metapragmatically—construes the very occasion of its unfolding.

The aphorism is at once indexical and constitutive of social relations. In Shakespeare’s moment as in ours, it is a form most readily associated with wisdom, learning, and erudition. We might think of these qualities as the aphorism’s pragmatic effect, the intersubjective meaning that the form communicates without making explicit in the moment of its utterance. Yet it is worth stressing from the outset that such meanings are in no way inherent or unvarying. As Asif Agha observes in an important treatment of language and social formations, “Cultural value is not a static property of things or people but a precipitate of sociohistorically locatable practices.” Any form is a relay of social relations, but if those relations ever seem essential or fixed—a property internal to the form—that is only because of how durably the form has been saturated with cultural value through reflexive and historically contingent occasions of use. In other words, the pragmatic effects of a form—didacticism, say, or wisdom—are metapragmatically achieved. Venus and Adonis is particularly illustrative of this achievement because it works to construe the social effects of the aphorism as erotic effects. Not only does the poem enlist the aphorism in seductive moments of talk, but it also metapragmatically accords the aphorism a metapragmatic effect of its own: in use, the aphorism frames the occasion of talk as just the erotic experience that Masten describes.

That sexual power comes from the aphorism’s two-pronged manipulation of conversation and contact. First, the aphorism indexes a speaker’s attention to—and respect for—talk as a collaborative undertaking. The form’s brevity projects a speaker who is not so caught up in his emotions, his anxieties, or his own words as to lose sight of the others to whom he speaks and from whom he solicits a reply. In this respect, the aphorism is a form of mastery. Its pith is the expression and the performative accomplishment of a presence of mind—call it composure—in the midst of the most demanding of social tasks. For Shakespeare’s Venus and the many readers who quoted her, seduction is one particularly demanding such task; it rouses the nerves, excites the body, and risks a humiliating loss of face. The aphorism offers a counterbalance to such challenges. It projects a speaker whose bodily excitations are held in check, who is assured in speech, and who is, accordingly, entirely present.

That presence turns the speaker into an erotic object, a figure who is fully open to his addressee. Yet the eroticism of the aphorism is just as much an effect of its curious self-effacement. As a pointedly brief expression of universal truth, the form announces that “fresh talk has momentarily ceased,” as Erving Goffman puts it, and “an anonymous authority wider and different from ourselves is suddenly being invoked.” The aphorism thus makes its speaker both charismatically present and alluringly, even seductively, withholding. The effect of that opacity is to draw us in. In projecting a speaker who is as absent as he is present, who is as withholding as he is composed, the aphorism issues an unspoken invitation, soliciting further contact from the speakers to whom it is addressed. This silent invitation brims at the heart of even modern-day aphorisms—think of the way pithy, seemingly profound declarations create speakers we want to hear more from—but in Venus and Adonis, it is pointedly sexualized. The invitation to talk, in this poem, is also an invitation to sex.

By framing the speaker as an erotic object, the aphorism simultaneously frames the conversation as itself an erotic encounter. This is the second, corollary effect of the aphorism, as indeed it is of any speech act meant to frame its speaker as a sexual object, since a definition of the self is always also a definition of the situation in which the self speaks. Yet what properly distinguishes the aphorisms of Venus and Adonis is the fantasy the poem generates about their use. As a poeticized conversation in which both parties trade aphorism for aphorism, Venus and Adonis unfolds as a script for how conversation might go, and, according to this script, the aphorism’s seductive power is to invite the addressee to respond with an aphorism of his or her own, as Adonis does when Venus courts him, so that the occasion of talk becomes a back-and-forth exchange in which each reply functions as part of a larger, unified whole. One word for such pointed exchange is stichomythia. Familiar to scholars of classical and Renaissance drama, stichomythia names idealistically formalized repartee in which alternate lines of a versified dialogue are delivered in rapid succession, drawing speakers into intimate and supercharged contact, sometimes even against their will. Such formalized repartee enjoys its fair share of treatment on the early modern stage. We might say that any instance of stichomythia produces a fantasy of how talk might go. I focus on Venus and Adonis, however, because it is the period’s most sustained attempt to embrace the eroticism that so often only simmers beneath the surface of aphoristic repartee. The aphorism is such an erotic form of talk, the poem shows, because it invites another to join in the collaborative, pleasurable improvisation of form. Sex is one of those collaborative, improvised forms. Talk is another. Continue reading …

In this essay Matthew Hunter draws upon the work of Erving Goffman and Michael Silverstein to read Shakespeare’s first poem as a guide to mastering the burgeoning early modern art of conversation. The epyllion follows the conversation manuals of its day in embracing the aphorism as a charismatic form of talk, but it departs from its precedents in attributing to the aphorism an overtly erotic force. By according to the aphorism the power to turn conversation into an erotic encounter, Venus and Adonis elaborates its period’s most seductive fantasy of talk.

MATTHEW HUNTER is Assistant Professor of English at Texas Tech University. He has just completed the manuscript of his first book, The Pursuit of Style in Early Modern Drama, which studies the panoply of styles that early modern plays codified as scripts for interacting in a newly public world.

Resistance by Art

Slow Protest in the Occupation of Cambodia’s White Building

by Brianne Cohen

The essay begins:


In 2011, artist Khvay Samnang offered “piggyback” rides to residents and visitors of the White Building in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, as part of his performance piece, Samnang Cow Taxi. Titled colloquially with his given name, it was a humble undertaking. Khvay wore handmade cow horns (fig. 1) and, despite his svelte frame, humorously carried people on his back as if he were a robust workhorse. Evoking the water buffalo, a laboring animal crucial to Cambodian agricultural practices, seemed an odd choice for someone ferrying people around the more urban setting of the White Building. Moreover, the taxi ride seemed to grant a touristic gaze for nonresidents of the dilapidated public housing complex. Yet the physical intimacy of the gesture, as well as the slowness and toil of it, lent a critical edge to the playful jaunt around the famous white apartment structure, transformed into a muddy gray from decades of neglect. The White Building was erected in 1963 as a modernist, utopian experiment in public housing. It was created soon after Cambodia’s independence in 1953 as part of a socially optimistic, homegrown wave of New Khmer Architecture, and it was intended to house civil servants and municipal workers. After the devastating Khmer Rouge regime collapsed in 1979, many returned to the city in need of housing, and the modest apartments were repopulated with dancers, musicians, artists, and filmmakers. Khvay’s own practice has been deeply indebted to the site and people of the White Building, and his slow, caring, arduous gesture highlighted a community of residents who, like the building itself, have been historically subject to state neglect, inattention, and habitual violence.

Today the building no longer stands. It was razed in July and August 2017 in order to make way for a new $80 million development by a private Japanese firm. The government had long threatened demolition of the White Building, claiming that the neighborhood was overrun with drugs, petty crime, prostitution, and poverty. Against this stigmatization, the artist collective, Stiev Selapak, roughly translated as “Art Rebels,” established an experimental arts space in the building, Sa Sa Art Projects, in order to raise positive publicity for its vibrant neighborhood of skilled cultural and municipal workers. “Sa Sa” is an abbreviation of Stiev Selapak, and the group is composed of three members: Khvay Samnang, Lim Sokchanlina, and Vuth Lyno. Yet despite their community efforts, the White Building’s five hundred households were more or less forced to sell their apartments to the development company and were evicted with minimal compensation. The land, after all, is in a desirable central location near the riverfront. After many years of resistance, the dynamic neighborhood was finally dispelled.

In this article, I argue that the artistic efforts of Stiev Selapak and many others to save the White Building constituted a form of what I term slow protest. In a sense, they worked to artistically “institutionalize” the building in order to validate its importance for local, national, and international audiences. This process of art institutionalization was effected through more “official” programs, such as educational initiatives, a physical and online archive, and the establishment of a regionally oriented artist residency. Yet it also assumed more “vernacular” avenues of institutionalization, through temporary experimental performances and collaborations with neighborhood residents, which emphasized the everyday, changing life of the building. Samnang Cow Taxi is an instance of the latter….

…In the end, Stiev Selapak’s and other artists’ attempts to institutionalize the White Building signaled an ethos of slow protest through occupation. Plainly, the building was a site of inhabitation, but by “occupation,” I mean also to evoke questions of political assembly and resistance to regime-made disasters. In light of actions such as Occupy, Arab Spring, and the Umbrella Movement, scholars have recently underscored the importance of such movements’ transience. In contrast, in analyzing the longer-lived, slower protest enacted by artists for the institutionalization and preservation of the White Building, I aim to tease out temporal nuances between resistant acts of occupation and inhabitation, and, in the end, I argue for the value of more permanent, intergenerational, and infrastructural forms of resistance that often receive less critical attention. The idea of slow protest signals the need for a type of activism that may not be immediate or spectacular, as in the case of revolution, but that could be more habitual, accretive, or eroding; less instantly recognizable; and geared more toward questions of maintenance and transformative infrastructure. Continue reading …

In this short Field Note in our current issue, art historian Brianne Cohen describes a resistance process she calls slow protest. She argues that through this process the Cambodian art collective Stiev Selapak and many others attempted to save Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building by working to artistically “institutionalize” the building in order to visualize and scaffold a more “official” space of appearance – physical and virtual – for its precarious inhabitants. Such slow protest served as a more durational instance of occupation, or resistance to state violence through political assembly.

BRIANNE COHEN is an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her research focuses on contemporary art in the public sphere, primarily in Europe and Southeast Asia, and she is the co-editor of the anthology The Photofilmic: Entangled Images in Contemporary Art and Visual Culture (Leuven University Press and Cornell University Press, 2016).

Landscape Art and Environmental Crisis

Chinese Landscapes of Desolation

by Corey Byrnes

Beijing Besieged by Waste, directed by Wang Jiuliang (New York, 2011), DVD. Image courtesy the artist.


The essay begins:

In his 2011 novel The Man with the Compound Eyes (Fuyan ren 複眼人), the Taiwanese novelist Wu Ming-Yi吳明益 imagines a scenario in which the Great Pacific Garbage Patch breaks free from the ocean gyre that keeps it out of sight, sending a solid mass of trash on a collision course with the east coast of Taiwan. The arrival of the trash island coincides with coastal subsidence and a tsunami-like rise in sea levels that inundates large portions of the coast and covers what remains in trash. When one of the characters travels down the coast highway past a famous scenic site, the Clearwater Cliffs, she is confronted with a troubling scene:

The sea was battering the base of the soaring bluffs with various kinds of debris. Hordes of tourists were issuing continual exclamations of amazement as they admired the magnificent view from inside their cars. Sara was more than a little shaken by the scene. The cliff itself was glorious, but she couldn’t get over how these tourists seemed not to see [sihu wushi 似乎無視] the sorry state the coast was in, regarding it as a wondrous scene to admire [qijing lai guanshang奇景來觀賞]. . . .

She had been on this island for two days, and only had brief impressions of the place, but she’d already noticed that the islanders were inured to breathing this air and were now trying to get used to the sight of this sea. The pristine Pacific Ocean as she had seen it in so many images had now vanished.

Sara, a Norwegian marine biologist, is shocked by the apathy of Taiwanese tourists who look at the “magnificent view from inside their cars,” ignoring the acrid smell rising from the trash-choked ocean. They look, but they seem not to see. It is only by looking with Sara that we see the coast for what it is—a landscape of wonder become a landscape of desolation.

This episode exemplifies the ambiguous relationship between two ways of looking that are central to what I call the landscape of desolation. The first is grounded in preconceived notions of nature, beauty, and the sublime. The second exposes the exhaustion of the physical world while also demonstrating how inherited landscape notions can inspire a blindness generated by a refusal to see despite a strong desire to look. If landscape is “a way of seeing the world,” as Denis Cosgrove put it, Wu reminds us that it is also a way of not seeing, a habit of looking detached from seeing and thinking. To look with the scientist Sara, it seems, is to see past the “many images” of a pristine Pacific Ocean. Yet even in this moment of discernment, we cannot quite leave behind the aesthetics of landscape and the ideas it conveys. The language of glory and magnificence remind us that the power of this scene comes not from the complete obliteration of the coast, but rather from a diminution of its natural beauty that is contingent on both the survival of a sense of that beauty and also the tenaciousness of not fully exhausted ways of looking.

Wu’s novel suggests that if you look long and hard enough you might recognize the material and affective ties that bind humans, nonhumans, and objects to one another as well as the habits of looking that so often obscure those ties. It is to the conflicted relationship between new ways of looking and the tenacious pull of untenable habits and seemingly exhausted traditions that this essay attends. As a “magnificent” but trashed landscape, the Clearwater Cliffs exemplify the epistemological and ontological confusion generated by climate change and environmental degradation. How are we to understand a world grown strange? What happens when the natural features we expect to find in familiar landscapes are no longer there, replaced instead by our waste? Are the categories and representational techniques that we have long used to describe the world adaptable to our current unstable conditions?

In their attempts to answer these and related questions, scholars have produced what can sometimes seem like an Anthropocene industry, dedicated in part to cataloging the artistic techniques that have evolved to address climate change and in part to advocating for particular forms they see as most effective in making it thinkable. While most agree that we need to harness the descriptive, persuasive, and imaginative capacity of writing and the arts to change not only how we see the world but also how we act in it, there is no consensus on how to achieve this goal. Amitav Ghosh sees the scalar flexibility of premodern epics and non-Western prose forms as offering alternatives to the modern realist novel. For Stephanie LeMenager and Stephanie Foote, what we need is a new narrative “critical realism” that makes visible “the multiscalar effects of global capitalism.” T. J. Demos has argued against the Anthropocene as a “universalizing discourse” that “disavow[s] differentiated responsibility” and “anesthetizes politics” in favor of an activist aesthetics that “politicize[s] art’s relation to ecology.” Prasenjit Duara has promoted “Asian traditions” more broadly as offering possible conceptual and practical solutions to environmental crises, and both ecocritics and the mainland Chinese government have advocated a return to the supposedly ancient ecological grounding of Chinese culture as a way of creating a new “ecological civilization” (shengtai wenming 生態文明).

In all of these approaches—and this is only a small sample—the underlying assumption is that cultural forms are capable not only of communicating information about the environment but also of moving viewers and readers affectively and, perhaps, to some sort of action, or at least to a change in consciousness that makes action easier. If we take landscape representation as an active “cultural practice” already centered on the relationship between humans and their environments and potentially capable of fostering ecological thought and action, then it appears to be an ideal ecocritical mode. But can we say with any certainty what an ecocritical landscape mode can or must do? Is “landscape,” an impossibly broad term that encompasses multiple disparate traditions, functions, histories, and media—many of which have contributed directly to our current environmental crises—actually capable of representing and responding to those crises, the worst of which are so often defined by their “unthinkability”? Continue reading …

In this essay Corey Byrnes explores how landscape forms are used by writers, photographers, filmmakers, and other artists from inside and outside of China to represent environmental problems in that country. It considers the “landscape of desolation” as an ecocritical mode designed to change how people see and act in the world in relation to both the shifting status of “Chinese tradition” and to earlier moments in Euro-American landscape art, particularly the so-called New Topographics Movement of the 1970s.

COREY BYRNES is Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese Culture at Northwestern University. His first book, Fixing Landscape: A Techno-Poetic History of China’s Three Gorges, was published by Columbia University Press in 2018.

Los Caballeros Templarios de Michoacán: An Ethnography

The Ethos and Telos of Michoacán’s Knights Templar

by Claudio Lomnitz

After a brief introduction, the essay begins:

Aporia of the “Cartel”

Since the drug war’s inception in 2006, organized and disorganized violence has claimed approximately 200,000 lives in Mexico, and more than 30,000 people have “disappeared.” In the thirteen years that have transpired since then, more people have been killed in Mexico’s war than in the US invasion of Iraq, and more have been forcibly “disappeared” than during Argentina’s Dirty War. Illegal economies have been revolutionized along the way, in processes that Natalia Mendoza has called “cartelization,” which started with the privatization of trade routes for illegal border traffic, most notably of drugs and migrants, and with the development of a bureaucracy within the illegal economy. Contrary to the general prejudice, “cartels” are not reliant on trade in illegal drugs in any transcendental sense; they rely essentially on the armed privatization of public space, the ransom of public liberties, and the forcible appropriation of public goods.

Because cartelization depends crucially on exacting tribute in exchange for protection, cartels can be seen as the privateers of deregulation, and in Mexico they are involved in the regulation of activities as diverse as drug running, undocumented migration, mining, fishing, logging, commercial agriculture, street vending, prostitution, illegal gasoline traffic, construction, arms trafficking, and appropriation of water sources. They are known as “drug cartels” because the vast wealth that poured in from drug trafficking in the 1990s helped leverage a diversification of activities, most notably in the business of transnational migration, but drugs are not indispensable to cartelization. Protection, territorial control, and the credible fear of unbridled violence are. Indeed, territorial control is an essential requisite for cartelization, but local entrenchment brings with it a core tension, that is, a tension between protection and extortion.

This antinomy between protection and extortion is expressed in social-organizational form as ambivalence between the representation of the cartel as a ruthless business and as a family-like guardian against, or coldly indifferent or downright hostile to, outside forces (such as the government). This tension between bureaucratic and familistic paradigms is inherent in the process of cartelization itself. Indeed, once cartelization sets in, the opposition between the “social bandit” and the regular unmarked brigand gets deeply complicated, because these two modes of criminal self-fashioning must be strategically juggled by the cartel and by individual operators at all times. This is because gaining territorial control requires some degree of redistribution such that a patriarchal rhetoric of protection naturally develops, but the final aim of cartel control is amassing unrestrained translocal organizational power and freely circulating private wealth. As a result, the contradiction between the familistic “man of the people” and the “strictly business” conceits of criminal self-fashioning is an aporia that runs through the whole of the so-called narcoculture. Indeed, the new cultures of criminality that are emerging in Mexico are forged in the space of precisely this contradiction.

The Pledge of the Knights Templar

In what follows, I focus on the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) and, tangentially, on La Familia Michoacana (The Michoacano Family), the organization from which the Templarios stemmed. These two drug cartels are often seen as exceptionally “bizarre and deadly” because they developed what has been characterized as “religious” and “messianic” components. Their exceptionality, however, has a strategic component that reflects and reveals a cultural logic that transcends the Michoacán case.

Michoacán has long been a marihuana producing state, and its Tierra Caliente region has also produced opium poppy since the 1950s. When Colombian cocaine started to be channeled to the United States through Mexican middlemen in the early 1990s, however, the value and scale of Mexico’s drug business surged. The much-galvanized cartels that emerged from this process had their home bases on or near the border, and one, the Tamaulipas-based Gulf Cartel and its “praetorian guard,” Los Zetas, took notice of Michoacán as a valuable asset. This was because Michoacán’s city of Lázaro Cárdenas is Mexico’s largest and most modern port on the Pacific Ocean, and a rail line had been built connecting Lázaro Cardenas to Texas, passing through Mexico’s burgeoning automotive and aerospace manufacturing region in the Bajío. In addition, Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente was home to experienced drug producers and runners, along with a thriving but relatively weak local crime organization known as Los Valencias. Given this tempting combination of factors, the Zetas decided to oust Los Valencias and take control of the state.

In order to do this, they relied on the leadership of a number of Michoacano operators, some of whom later staged a rebellion against the Zetas, forming an organization that differentiated itself by stressing their own local roots and commitments. This was the origin, in 2006, of La Familia Michoacana, whose identitarian strategy for seeking local support against the Zetas lies at the origin of the apparently exceptional familistic and religious bent of both La Familia Michoacana and its splinter group, the Caballeros Templarios, which emerged in 2011. The Templarios’ principal innovation was its code of honor. Thus, whereas La Familia portrayed itself loosely as an organization of Michoacanos pledged to protect the interests of the population of that state, the Caballeros Templarios thought of themselves as sworn members of a quasi-religious order with strict rules of induction for its members.

The Code of the Knights Templar of Michoacán (Código de los caballeros templarios de Michoacán) is a twenty-three-page document composed of fifty-three articles, chivalrous illustrations, and the text of the “Templar’s Oath.” It establishes in article 5 that no one who has not been inducted through the proper ritual and sworn to uphold the code may be admitted to the order, and in article 7 it imposes a vow of silence on all its members. Knights Templar must also believe in God (article 9), struggle against materialism (article 10), and fight against injustice and in defense of the values of society (articles 10-14). They must value freedom of expression and freedom of religion (article 15), foment patriotism (article 18), be chivalrous and courteous (articles 19 and 21), be respectful and protective of women (article 22), be sober and good humored (article 30), observe hierarchical discipline (article 31), abstain from killing without approval of the council (article 41), and forfeit their lives and that of their families if they betray the order (article 52).

Despite its punctilious effort at regimentation, and despite its belabored parallels both with the medieval order of the Knights Templar, or perhaps with the Freemason Lodge that existed with that same name in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the cultural significance of this effort of turning an extremely violent crime organization into a chivalrous order is anything but transparent. Indeed, even the code’s practical significance within the organization is murky. In part, this is because the Knights Templar had only a brief flourishing, from approximately 2011 to 2014, which is hardly long enough to consolidate a knightly ethos. The moral code of the Knights Templar was thus more a project than a well-established ritual order.

Moreover, we still know comparatively little about just how much of an effort the Knights Templar actually invested in shaping a unified ritual system. It is true that the writings of Nazario Moreno, who was the guiding intellect of the Knights Templar, were widely distributed amongst members of the organization and that Templar culture and propaganda was on show in the regional capitals of Uruapan, Morelia, and Apatzingán, but we don’t know the degree to which these displays were complemented by a routine drilling of new recruits or whether the distribution of publications was instead oriented to shaping a public image and, as such, was simply a part of the Templario propaganda machine.

To these considerations—insufficient time for institutional consolidation and insufficient information on the operative uses of Nazario Moreno’s key texts—I must add still a third, which is that, like all other drug organizations of this period, the Caballeros Templarios arose and declined in the midst of a war. They expanded rapidly for a time, then contracted and are now dispersed. To consolidate a knightly order under conditions of competitive recruitment and changing allegiances isn’t easy, and it seems likely that the Templars had only limited time and space for the indoctrination of newcomers, especially once the group began to expand into territories beyond Michoacán. Indeed, there is an inherent disconnect between the creation of a knightly order and recruiting an army, which is what the drug war demanded. As a result, the moral code of the Knights Templar was only briefly and unevenly implemented, while the degree to which it was adopted by the organization’s rank and file is still very much in question. Even so, the fleeting phenomenon of this cartel’s moral project provides a useful vantage from which to interrogate the connection between changing mores and Mexico’s narcoculture. Continue reading …

In this essay, anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz  mounts an ethnographic exploration of the ethos and mores of Mexico’s contemporary drug culture. He shows that Mexican drug organizations, in their dedication to the business of privatizing public goods, are thus at the same time parallel state structures and trust-based organizations of brothers working to build a collective future. The essay emphasizes the cultural elaboration of competing communitarian and bureaucratic organizational forms and ideals in order to explore the leadership style and moral codes of honor of the Knights Templar, underscoring the centrality of transnational movement in the invention of an acutely gender- and class-based culture of violent domination and caste formation.

CLAUDIO LOMNITZ teaches anthropology at Columbia University and is a regular contributor to the Mexico City press.  He is author of Death and the Idea of Mexico (Zone Books, 2005) and The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Zone Books, 2014), among other works.  His most recent book is Nuestra América: Utopía y persistencia de una familia judía (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2018).

The Rise of Digital Images

An Ecology of Operations: Vigilance, Radar, and the Birth of the Computer Screen

by Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan

The essay begins:

Computer screens emerged from the problem of integrating humans, computers, and their environment in a single problem-solving system. More specifically, digital graphics and computerized visualization emerged from the problem of integrating real-time human feedback into computerized radar systems developed by the US military in the early decades of the Cold War.1 In the course of the 1950s and 1960s tinkering engineers adapted techniques developed for visualizing enemy trajectories to somewhat less bellicose applications in computer graphics. Indeed, a wide variety of early computer-generated graphics—from John Whitney’s computer-aided animations and Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad program to early video games like Spacewar! and Tennis for Two—did little more than tweak the techniques of aerial defense into diversions like visualizing abstract patterns and intercepting, so to speak, an opponent’s tennis ball. To borrow film historian Kyle Stine’s felicitous phrasing, by folding picturing and calculation into dual aspects of a single process, these systems joined humans and calculating instruments in a single circuit of information processing. In fire-control systems (as mechanically aided approaches to tracking and targeting the enemy are often called), these feedback circuits often included the environment itself. Together, these elements of the system—human, instrument, environment—formed what I term an ecology of operations that distributed complex mathematical problems in recursive chains.

In the pages that follow I term this integration of visuality, calculation, territory, human problem-solving, and the human body in early information processing computational screening. At the most basic level, this term designates the productive integration of visualization technologies (that is, screen displays) and information processing (the screening and filtering of incoming data) that gave birth to digital graphics. Frequently, the screening of space (the flow of bodies across the membrane of a territory or through a battlefield) is also a key element of computational screening. As an analytical concept, computational screening calls attention to the history of computers as what Gilbert Simondon termed an “open machine,” reliant on continuous exchange with humans and their physical environment. In computational screening, visual, graphical, and optical media, as well as physical space and human bodies, collaborate in the production of circuits of computation. Although computational screening took shape in the complex human-computer systems of twentieth-century fire-control, today it includes a much wider array of problems involving conditions too complex to permit problem solving by computing machines alone (that is, without human support). The processing of crunchable social data by Facebook and the monitoring of traffic patterns by the navigation app Waze, for example, involve the development of sophisticated visual interfaces that entice humans to complete information processing tasks too complex for digital instruments alone. Indeed, the actualization of computers into something approaching Alan Turing’s universal machines is inconceivable without a vast array of visual interfaces that permit computers to enter into dynamic feedback loops incorporating input from users and their environments. Without the digital images enabling this circuit, the computer is little more than a fantastic automaton: that is, either an inert and preprogrammed bauble or a plaything that dwells in the imagination.

This article reconstructs a history of computational screening as it developed from naval artillery control systems developed just after World War II through the deployment of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) computerized radar defense system shortly before the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. This historical arc emphasizes how the demands that modern warfare placed upon vision, territory, and attention in this period produced not only a new kind of digital image but also, specifically, a new kind of interactive image: one that enlisted bodies, attention, and calculation in the production of space. As art historian Pamela Lee has incisively written, “Cold War defense strategy could itself be described as a semiotic endeavor—an attempt to decode a shadowy enemy through a raft of signs both militaristic and cultural, including ‘indexical’ traces registered through the new technologies of radar; anthropological analyses of Soviet, Japanese, and German attitudes to authority; and the interactive dynamics observed within the ascendant field of the behavioral sciences.” I track one of these semiotic endeavors, the development of computational screening, an enterprise that drew on radar, computer science, psychology, moving images, physiology, geography, and other fields to establish a martial aesthetic that informs the attention economies of twenty-first-century digital cultures.

This history of computational screening and its alliance of visual interfaces with information processing reframes a much-discussed problem concerning vision and computing. Frequently, theorists of media and visual culture have argued that the computer is not a visual device. Media theorist Friedrich Kittler posited that in an age of electronic screens “visible optics must disappear into the black hole of circuits . . . [because] computers, as they have existed since World War II, are not designed for image-processing at all.” Germanophone media theorists Wolfgang Hagen and Claus Pias echoed Kittler, resolutely declaring in their respective theoretical sallies that “there is no digital image.” These and a host of other digital iconoclasts argue that, unlike traditional media such as photography, cinema, or painting that have a more or less determinate relationship to light, color, and spatial extension, electronic signals have neither a fixed nor an intrinsic relationship to vision. Often these theorists further maintain that the digital image lacks stable relationships to human bodies and space. For the proponents of digital iconoclasm, electronic pictures are like the afterimages that flicker into perception after the severing of an optical nerve: They may “look” like the real thing but they are the tricks of habituation, bereft of any correspondence beyond the random flickering of electrical signals. Continue reading …

Image: Spacewar! running on the Computer History Museum’s PDP-1. Photo: Joi Ito

In this essay Bernard Geoghegan examines the birth of interactive computer screens from enemy targeting and tracking systems (especially computerized radar) that distributed information processing in an ecology of operations among humans, computational instruments, and the environment. He proposes a concept of “computational screening” to account for the integration of visualization and information processing that gave rise to digital images.

BERNARD DIONYSIUS GEOGHEGAN is a media theorist, historian of technology, and occasional curator. He teaches at the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London and can be reached online at or via Twitter at @bernardionysius.