As/Is







2.03.2016


Quietude/Non-Quietude


In a run of centuries that all made at least some of the right kind of noise, the twentieth may go on record as one of the quietest centuries in human history. The reason is simple: for the duration of the twentieth century, too little was produced of permanent value in too many high sectors and in too many high disciplines. The camouflage, or camouflaged, nature of daily life in the twentieth century hung on this contradiction: there was lots of loud activity on the surface, creating an appearance of vitality; while, beneath the surface, there was an impinging shadow of pure, desolate emptiness, and the sense that what was happening on the surface was both trifling and perverse. For me, the twentieth century is all about the Science of the Empty Spectacle— and there is a science to the creation, maintenance, and created obsolescence of the empty spectacles which constituted most of the landscape of the twentieth century. Empty Spectacles which work depend on what I call razzmatazz effects— large numbers of people gathered together in one space create the right kind of razzmatazz effects, for example, from sporting events to political rallies to popular music concerts. A crowd of 60,000 fans, gathered to see a football game, or Bruce Springsteen, is a decoy against the fact that both events have no real relevance in pushing the human mind, or the human race in general, forward. Both are set in place by the media to represent vitality, but the vitality is all surface level. Underneath the surface, there’s the dead, flat, quiet emptiness of what the twentieth century actually was. Which, by the way, would not necessarily be the case if the high sectors (science, philosophy, high art) kept up, and moved forward in the right way; in the twentieth century, they did not. A surfeit of razzmatazz was not balanced by the gravitas achievements which the human mind is capable of.

In art, the twentieth century razzmatazz was all about movements which espoused a rhetoric of limited thought, limited emotion, and limited intimacy between individuals— Abstract Expressionism, Pop, Modernism, post-modernism. The oeuvre of Andy Warhol actually bothers to announce itself as Empty Spectacle; but it is self-knowledge which points back, in a self-referential way, to its own desolate emptiness beneath the surface, and Pollock, Rothko, and the rest land us in similar territory, as does Duchamp before Warhol and Koons after. These artists are all, including Warhol, as quiet as they can possibly be, in their own anticipated obsolescence. They are Empty Spectacles made specifically, and in a purposeful way, to be destroyed into complete nothingness, like big crowds for sports and the like. Again, all is desolation beneath the surface. The fact that a book like Finnegan’s Wake, which is so blatantly a case of the emperor wearing no clothes that it begs to be laughed at (as does a hearty slice of Proust and Woolf), could be considered a twentieth century talisman, of real worth and having real gravitas inhering, is an indication of the essential School of Quietude gestalt form of high art and high sector life in the twentieth century. Poetry in the English language more or less announced its obsolescence as well, as Centrists wrote harmless greeting cards and avant-gardists churned out gibberish, a simulacrum of something purposeful, but not involving thought, emotion, or intimacy between individuals somehow. Philosophy and science I will touch less; specifically because whether Deconstructionism lives or dies still seems like an open question, and science is not my field, though I know that faux-science in the twentieth century was rampant.

The twenty-first century has to be better. Some of us have already set a body of work in place, beginning with the Nineties, which assures this. The irony, and it is a major one, is that if this a century of substantial progress, the polarities may reverse, and the surface razzmatazz and Empty Spectacles of the twentieth century will disappear. The price to pay for profound depth is a surface which must, of necessity, be quieter, as real, permanently relevant noise is generated. It may be that, in the twenty-first century, the masses are at a loss as to how to amuse themselves— if governments choose to emphasize individuals and the high sectors, this will almost certainly be the case. The stadiums full of cheering fans will no longer find a prominent place in the national economy, the media will be tamed or disbelieved, and the School of Quietude which was the twentieth century aegis or rule-book will invert into a century being, in a manner of speaking, avant-garde; standing in a place where boundaries are being destroyed and serious creativity is being pursued with vigor. Or, humanity being what it is, some of the Empty Spectacles will continue to balance what is happening in the high disciplines. Who knows? But I will say that, for this century to repeat the Quietude of the twentieth is now an impossibility. Philadelphia in the Aughts has already decided that for the rest of the nation, and the human world.