For sometime, the question of how folkloric traditions and national mythologies spawn current social technologies has intrigued me. Recently, writing for technology journals — my thoughts have turned North— Finland in particular because of the onslaught of wireless technology innovation.
What strikes me here is that of all the Nordic countries, Finland has the most concentrated myth pool and a ancient reputation for sorcery. I think it’s noteworthy that the magical climate has transitioned into a hi-tech one.
Now, while I look for ways in which mythology creates this sort of social engineering— main is interest is not the mere transition from magic object to wireless tool— my observations of West African situations have brought me to more diverse conclusions. West African mythologies are every bit as complex and magical as Nordic ones (and just as irrational)—except while up North the basic impulse seems to have transitioned into technology— in a country like Nigeria this magical landscape has made for theory defying economies and unstable democracies.
Before the internet boom occurred in the West— there was an explosion of similar proportions in West Africa: there was a Neo-Prophet/ church on every corner. And I’m not talking about Judaeo-Christian evangelism— but more a syncretic hybrid of archaic knowledge and new consumerism. For example a prophet claiming to be anointed by the cherubim and seraphim of the celestial regions, also advertised the collaboration of spirits such as “Seiko” and “Timex”— entities known for their accuracy.
I draw the comparison to the World Wide Web because it strikes me that cyberspace occupies the same cosmological hierarchy that the celestial heavens of Judeao-Christian mythology did in medieval imagination. What’s more, this new encryption liberates people from race, class and gender barriers. In cyberspace, just as in Heaven, you can be as the angels: perfect. Or anything you choose to be, as in the realm of fable.
Is there such a huge rift between advances in Scandinavia and West Africa? I think not— it always seems to come down to the fetish object: the palm pilot, the carved mask, the talisman, the designer label— both functional and utilitarian. So if F is for Finland, F is also for Fetish— and this is what I’m exploring in art, literature and technology. The fetish as a culturally derived object. A do-it-yourself kit to advance one’s culture.
Indulge me as I hypothesize: utilizing a diverse array of cultural forms, on a global scale, I have devised the outlines for a Fetish Lab that will interrogate the relationships between magic, art and technology.
F IS ALSO FOR FETISH
That the syntax of invention is stymied by the scientific mindset is only one aftershock of the Enlightenment— which not only succeeded in a sharp divide between Art and Technology—but also extinguished the life expectancies of hobgoblins and other inhabitants of the Dark Ages. All such indigenous populations where condemned to realms of non-being.
Yet what is it that separates Art from Technology— if not models of thought? Objet d’art have oft been relegated to the realm of the decorative and philosophical— constructs bereft of praxis. Design also languishes— too often stripped of philosophical/spiritual content somewhere down the assembly line.
To advance, we must apply new registers, new complexes to our perception of Technology. As the Budweiser ad suggests, “Change your latitude.”
Utilizing an array of cultural assembly lines, indulge me in this outline for an 8 week Fetish Lab, primed to investigate the spaces between varying constructs of Art and Technology.
The idea is to create “paradigmatic technologies.” The Fetish Lab will strip down art/technological objects/machines— to basic function(s), and then reconfigure them in novel contexts.
EXPLORING THE BODY OF THE FABLE
An overview of the mythical world– metamorphoses and the fluid chain of being and appearances in the world of Fable; Shamanism and transvestitism; human /animal assemblages; the dangers of flux to the Western Ego; The Enlightenment haunted by its technological phantoms.
Screening: Existenz/dir. David Cronenberg /97 min./ Canada/1999
In his film work, David Cronenberg’s has consistently explored the metamorphoses of the human organism in relation to its technological (media) environment. In Existenz (as with his other films), the erotic dimension between machines (human and technological) is brought to the fore. Technological expression becomes organic: melding, merging and disappearing into the human body. Or is it the other way around?
Existenz manages to convey high concept in low sci-fidelity: the special effects are fleshy and organic— there is a complete lack of ‘industrial light and magic’. As in tantra, the sexual act creates portals into new worlds; the viewer is enmeshed into a visceral environment of amphibians and green growing things.
The Beautifully Dressed Gentleman— From Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard (Grove Press/1994 307 pg.)— thiss a springboard for the discussion of the magical body of the fable and the restrictions of a modern ego ideal.
Perhaps the more spectacular achievement of Amos Tutuola’s major opus The Palmwine Drinkard is it’s sublime subversion of the English language, at a time when Nigeria was still under British rule. Written in a funky syntax-defying argot, it resembles a West African version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. That said, The Palmwine Drinkard is a delirious romp through a West African psyche.
Tales From Ovid— Translated by Ted Hughes/Faber & Faber/2000
Ted Hughes’s last good deed before his death in 1998 was to hand over these partial translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses to his publishers. The balance of Ovid’s bawdy elegance and Ted Hughes extreme liberty with language creates one of the more successful and sophisticated collaborations in literary history.
WHAT IS FETISH?
Why were the painters of High Renaissance so preoccupied with mystical folds, miasmas and “eyes” in their work? A slide presentation of Renaissance painters, Da Vinci, Vasari, Bronzino and others. The Mannerists in particular, who sought to transform the body into a fashion object, persisted in punctuating their work with these mystery elements.
The object world— what happens when something gazes back at you? The Medusa Eye through history, The Evil Eye, The Eye of Horus. What distinguishes a Fetish/magical object from its technological counterpart?
Technological objects produce similar effects to those of the magic ones in fables— yet they fail to frighten/fascinate us. They don’t embody the sublime.
Perhaps we could surmise that just as technological machines mimic the body and become human prostheses— so also the magic object activates the capabilities of body of the fable, thus posing a threat to our current subjectivity.
A fetish has a certain autonomy. It can look back.
Lab: An object— fetish, technological, artistic decorative or otherwise and is stripped down in terms of its functionality—bearing in mind it’s paradigmatic counterparts.
Snow Crash— Neal Stephenson/Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub/2000 448pgs
Neal Stephenson is one of the more salient writers of popular science fiction published today. His writing pops with engaging philosophical and ideological constructs— and then the writing just pops, period. Snow Crash, his first major novel, (among other countless ideas), is concerned with the evolution of an Ur-myth into a high tech coding environment. In The Diamond Age he takes this further using ideas proposed by sixties child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (The Uses Of Enchantment) as the layout for his protagonists development.
Der Golem /dir. Paul Wegener & Carl Boese/75 min/1920/ Germany
An early exercise in German Expressionist cinema (others included The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari, The Student Of Prague), Der Golem rescucitates a kabbalistic myth. In a 17th century ghetto in Prague, to protect the persecuted Jews, a Rabbi creates a clay mannikin (a golem) who comes to life when the magic letter is placed on it’s forehead. With all the problems of Frankenstein (and BladeRunner) to boot, soon the Golem is running around with a mind of it’s own. All they need to do is get that darn alphabet off of it’s forehead— and reduce him to a lump of clay. But can they— in a moral sense?
THE SHAPE WE’RE IN: THE ENVIRONMENT MACHINE
Safe dir. Todd Haynes/1995/119 min./US
Safe might just be the film that captured the zeitgeist of the ‘90s—as the fall out of the ‘80’s explosion. In Safe, a Southern Californian housewife suddenly finds herself allergic to her environment. Against the back drop of middle-class consumerism and ‘So Cal’ banality— her situation escalates and becomes life-threatening. A thematic homage to Sci-Fi movie par excellence—2001:A Space Odyssey, Safe refuses an easy narrative closure. Initial New York audiences found themselves uneasy: was this a comedy, Sci-Fi flick, or a dramedy?
Discussion: What happens when your world comes alive? The magical landscape is full of threat and promise. How much more it’s technological paradigm?
guest lecturer: James Flint, Author of Habitus
James Flint, author of Habitus lives in London and is a contributing editor to the Art and Technology journal, Mute as well as Wired (UK). To celebrate the millennium, he invited everyone to lunch.
Discussion: Moderated Q& A with Flint.
Habitus by James Flint/ Fourth Estate Classic House/ 2000
Habitus, James Flint’s first novel is a fluid enterprise of science, philosophy and Brit irony woven into an often heart-wrenching narrative.
The main characters— Hasidic math prodigy Joel Kluge of Brooklyn running from his Orthodox background only to discover the Kabbalah in Cambridge; sex prodigy Jennifer Several of Stratford-upon-Avon escaping the grips of convention; and in Los Angeles, Judd Axelrod— whose talent and salvation is gambling— intersect , interact and move across continental boards: Cambridge, Geneva, Berlin, Reno, New York, Dachau, Treblinka and London. By chance, fate and cosmic glitch, the three manage to foster a fetus— a child with two fathers, twin hearts, a girl who is the future…
Above it all is Laika, the first dog in space— who after a week in orbit, experiences a leap in consciousness. Transforming information into energy— she becomes an all-seeing-eye-god: at one with her space shuttle until her next metamorphosis at the denouement of the novel.
CODE CULTURE: HOW WE EMBED OURSELVES INTO A LARGER MACHINE
Ghost Dog /dir. Jim Jarmusch /115 min./US (1999)
In Jim Jarmusch’s rich low key mood piece, Ghost Dog— a Black Samurai warrior, transposes the rites and codes of medieval Japan on an urban landscape. The racial predicament of this film has generated controversy: is there transcendence through an ancient code— or is this a misnomer?
Discussion: On Code. An overview of oppressed peoples and religion: Haitian Revolution, Christianity and slavery in North America; the role of the Baptist Church in the Civil Rights Movement. Malcom X. Also medieval cosmologies and Cyberspace.
How a code can translate you— and your environment.
Introduction from The Geopolitical Aesthetic Frederic Jameson; Indiana University Press 1992.
Frederic Jameson has been a leading Marxist interpreter of contemporary culture for over three decades. His perspective on culture in a nutshell: the cultural artifact contains oblique reference to the environment and ideological modes in which it was produced.
In the introduction of the Geopolitical Aesthetic, Jameson uses instances in world cinema to raise the notion of the Political Unconscious— a totalizing narrative that eludes representation— but rather pops up like stray threads of a world sock that we get to unravel if we tug hard enough.
STEALTH: INVISIBLE CITIES
Guest Lecturer :
Maliqualim Simone, Author: Invisible Governance
Maliqualim Simone had the distinct notoriety of being the youngest Black Panther at the precocious age of 16. To elude prison (during the infamous Chicago 7 trial) he was whisked off to Algeria. Making his way through North Africa and Europe, Simone returned to the US to study clinical psychology. Today he is an Urbanist. He has headed research at the Graduate School of Public and Development Management, University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and the Coalition for the Development of Urban Africa in Dakar as well as numerous NGOs. Simone co-authored Invisible Governance with BBC correspondent David Hecht, his other publications include Political Islam and Urban Practices in Sudan. Presently he is a Fellow at Columbia University in New York City.
Discussion: Moderated Q&A with Simone follows
Invisible Governance: Micropolitics in Africa David Hecht & Maliqualim Simone/ Autonomedia/1992
Few books have delved into the social configurations of African economic and political systems with such informed competence— and zest. Invisible Governance reveals the trickster element of African sociology— syncretic inventions of survival, as opposed to a worldview of Africa rife with starving babies and relief funds.
THE SMART BODY (™) – TECHNOLOGY AND THE BODY
Screening: Velvet Goldmine, dir. Todd Haynes/117min./ US/1998
Velvet Goldmine is Haynes paean to the 70’s glitter rock era. Fictionalizing the lives of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, Haynes spins a twist on social history— locating Oscar Wilde as the progenitor of glamrock—with Mr. Wilde as a changeling— or an alien drop off. The Portrait of Dorian Gray serves as the floorplan for this film which sometimes fails as a narrative— but succeeds wonderfully as a visual essay.
Discussion: On Simulation. On the Mirror image as feedback technology; Ideas, language and syntax as progenitors/matrices. Introducing the Smart Body™— the human body evolved through technology.
Questions for Maxwell’s Demon
Flummoxed by inconsistencies in thermo-dynamic theory, 19th century physicist, James Clerk Maxwell came upon a means of resolving these issues: he invented a gremlin to put his theories to test. This “light fingered fellow” was able to sort, track and map the behavior of molecules where human perception failed. Thanks to his faithful familiar, Maxwell was able to create the Theory of Electromagnetism. As reward his imp retained the fond moniker of “Maxwell’s Demon”. And he is still in the constant employ of many a latter-day physicist. More recently he appeared in the film “Velvet Goldmine” running a simulation of David Bowie. In between this between impressive itinerary we found a moment to discuss his ideas on how technology evolves us into smart bodies.
Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Faster Than A Speeding Bullet
Guest Lecturer: Grisha Coleman, Artistic Director, HOT MOUTH.
Trained as a dancer, Grisha Coleman left New York performance group Urban Bushwomen to create the internationally acclaimed performance troupe HOT MOUTH. Described as an aesthetic tribe, HOT MOUTH strips language and media down to the bone, restructuring modes of communication through vocal and visceral choreographies. Recently, Coleman’s interests have turned to computer gaming technologies and their impact on the human organism.
Discussion: Moderated Q&A with Coleman
“… ‘Control’ is what Burrough calls the new monster, one that Foucault recognizes as out immediate future. Paul Virillio continually analyzes these ultra rapid forms of free-floating control…
There is no need to invoke the molecular engineering, the genetic manipulation slated to enter the new process… there is no need to ask which is the toughest regime… there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons—”
from “Postscript on Societies of Control”
In the process of formulating concepts and an outline for the Fetish Lab, I consulted with Maliq Simone (one of the featured guest lecturers—see week 6) who is a specialist on African urban policy. While enthusiastic about the project in general, he was skeptical about the point of the film screenings which he found to be superfluous. Below is my response to him—
Your feedback got me thinking— the question of praxis. How does this shape social policy? What was Thomas Sankara* talking about— how do we apply “African Technology” without exposing it— and risking termination?
Why the film screenings?—it’s a quantum universe, things are only things when you are looking at them— they respond to the gaze. When you are not looking, they are not there (or not things). What happens when the West is not looking, what is Africa without the benefit of the Western Gaze? What was happening before Africa was “discovered”? The answer is irrelevant because Africa was never separate from the rest of the world in the first place— unfortunately (unlike China) it has always been part of a global economy— or better put a World Body. The problem has always been with distribution— its place in this economy in modern times as a “resource’ to be plundered, and since the Freudian model emerged— Africa is pretty much treated like a repressed unconscious— rich with primordial imagery and resolution— but unfit to govern modern man in his environment.
An error occurs when Africans themselves fail to realize the cogs of this world body, the strictures they’ve been placed under— the result is often reactive, which is why there has been a dearth of original thinking especially in the Humanities. And let us not forget Henry Louis Gates and the “signifying monkey” the space assigned to most African intellectuals in the West. How do we escape this without pretending to exist in a vacuum?
Redistribution is the key. The current model is a bit top heavy, the ego too large for a head too small to monitor such a vast body. We need to employ the Alexander** technique, relaxation and redeployment— accepting each part of the organism is really part of the brain— linked by the nervous system. It’s no coincidence that the market place is the scene of the crime and evolution in the West African Psyche. Time to work that body— rewire the whole.
A good place to start is with the cultural imagination— rewiring the ocular machinery— we find this in myth when the Medusa gaze is turned in on itself to reverse the charges. This is where these screenings and Sci-Fi texts come in: they demonstrate the process of rewiring and the possibilities. Furthermore, films like Existenz regress the idea of the (world) body to earlier stages of development, so that evolution veers into novel trajectories. Velvet Goldmine and Safe both deal with what Baudrillard terms as “seduction”— the tendency of an economy of signs to imploded upon itself.
These texts all point towards the possibility of redistribution.
If you think of it this way— the hegemony of The Gaze, pixilated and redistributed across the world screen— it’s hegemony is eradicated as its musculature adapts to the new parameters— the mindset fluctuates and so does the structure— nanoseconds at a time it doesn’t exist, because it can’t see. This is the margin— envelope for (r)evolution— when no one is looking.
Every hacker knows this, ‘cos exu*** told us so.
At the time of writing this the New York Stock Market has taken major hits: the NASDAQ spirals astronomically (downwards) leaving Internet and New Technology shares in ruins as investors scramble to salvage what’s left of their money. If New Technology, which was the bane, the future dream of the coming New World Order, can’t rescue itself— then we are in a future crisis right now. It means that no one is immune—developing nations and imperial powers level will soon level at this junction. To reiterate Deleuze there is no need to point fingers or single out the worst offenders— rather we need is to develop new artillery to combat the unseen catastrophes headed in our direction.
The future is in the hands of cultural re-programming. The Fetish Lab is equipped to interrogate the genepool for these developments: what I am proposing here is is the praxis of applied Cultural Studies; applied Design and applied Technology. The Fetish Lab aims at a curriculum that goes beyond mere artworld sophistry and strives for socio-cultural impact.
* Thomas Sankara— this ill-fated West African head of state was the military leader of Burkina Faso. At a Pan-African leadership summit in 1985, he reportedly took out a carved fetish mask and announced: “this is African technology.” Two days later he was dead from an assassins bullet. The general consensus on the street was that he got his ‘just desserts’ for the sacred faux pas of unmasking the functions of the African Mask.
** Alexander Technique– is a form of physical therapy utilized by actors to upgrade the body’s versatility and suppleness as per the demands of performance. The technique employs deep relaxation in the musculature, granting autonomy to each part of the body.
*** Exu is the Brazilian manifestation of the West African trickster-god, Eshu Elegba . Comparable with the Norse Loki or the Greco-Roman Hermes, Exu as lord of the crossroads and the information highway is a relentless prankster, story-teller and hacker extraordinaire.