In a somewhat questionable marketing endeavour, the Eastern Cape Region has been sign posted, ‘Frontier Country’ and indeed this is what it is. Historically it is the site of the 9 Frontier Wars and much brutal conflict and living here presently can still seem the edge of nowhere by comparison to many major South African metropols. With Grahamstown at the heart of it, it is also a cosmopolitan space not without vestiges of past pain but - like many colonial outposts in a post-colonial time - it is no longer a satellite to an absent motherland, a mere microcosm of elsewhere, but also a world unto itself.

A potential space of intellectual, debate rather than military conflict – geographically isolated from metropolitan trends – a melting pot of many places, a crucible. In more recent history, this frontier space has been a site of culture, of experiment. Home to an annual arts festival, how is it that Grahamstown with a population of just under 140 000 can command so much creative imagination in novels, plays, poetry and art? Frontier, Border, at the end of the world but not about to fall off – merely at a vantage point to observe a view to come.
- Rat Western

DISCHARGE 2012             COLOUR COLLOQUIUM 2010             SYNTHETIC DIRT 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Ashraf Jamal: … living in a quake …

The most commonly used phrase in Japanese, expressed in moments of parting, is ganbatte kudasai – “please endure it.” Testimony to a human condition at once gritty and staggeringly inconsolable ganbatte kudasai nevertheless clings to a collective empathy and connectedness in the instant of a rupture. Despite its austerity, therefore, the endurance which the phrase appeals to reminds us that life is nothing without mutual care. That this care is at once human, cultural, industrial, and technological is both fitting and strange given the complex interconnectivity that informs and defines contemporary global life. In the case of Japan, a society, culture, and current catastrophe, we find an in-road into our debate on matters technological and mortal. While this essay turns on the current disaster that afflicts Japan, it is the global impact which this disaster invokes which, primarily, informs this rumination. To live in a quake one need not suffer the specifics of that world; nevertheless it is that world, which is also our world, which allows for the empathy, connectivity, in short the experience which accounts for a radical unsettlement experienced worldwide. Japan functions, therefore, as a coda for the sheer gravity that informs this discussion: a discussion that happens after, because of, and within the trauma that exists as I speak.

As Paul Theroux notes in a recent essay in Newsweek: “With [an] acute sense of limited land and a few natural resources, and the hostility of nature, [the Japanese] have taken pains to put off the evil day by manipulating their weird geography, even if it means a disfigurement. The result makes the strange Japanese landscape even weirder: it is the most possessed-looking place imaginable, its awkward-seeming features ordered and buttressed, the human hand visible everywhere. The notion of control and containment, which dominates Japanese life, dominates the landscape. Rivers are cemented into place, embankments are tiers of concrete blocks; sidewalks and bridges exist in the most unlikely places…. The watchtowers and sea walls all over the coast reinforce the look of Japan as a fortress in the sea. It is, of course, and illusion” (Nightmare and Defiance 29).

The catastrophe which has recently befallen Japan, comprising a seismic and oceanic horror and a nuclear crack-up has amplified all the more the necessity for connectedness, compassion, and mutual understanding, and, therefore, the sustenance of this very illusion and the defiance of the dangers which underpin it. That this tragedy is marked by the concatenation of the technological and the human reinforces the more the shaken core and the seam which informs 21st century culture; post-industrial, cybernetic, virtual in the very instant that it remains brutishly human; a global culture, in other words, in which a digital humanism, or a synthetic biologism, informs the fraught desire and ethical challenge which confront us. On the edge of disappearance as a species, locked into a hive or noosphere in which being has lost its metaphysical import and life is informed by a digital nihilism, or a banal solipsism, or a “transient” or “drive-by anonymity” (Jaron Lanier 63), the matter of recovery is not only a question of gathering up the rubble, recovering the dead, reawakening the living, and resuming where we have left off. Rather, as Jaron Lanier, inventor of the phrase virtual reality, reminds us: out of seismic upheaval comes new possibilities, new futures.

Lanier’s manifesto, You are not a gadget (2010) is not, however, the core of this essay; rather, the core thinker here is the French scientist-philosopher, Michel Serres. Published 22 years ago, Michel Serres’ Le Contrat Naturel – The Natural Contact – compellingly, indeed prophetically, reminds us of the dark consequences of urban densification and the interior life, a life sound-proofed, locked in rooms, the better to affirm our catastrophic distinction from the world all about us. Trapped within the yeah-saying language of science, the normative language of bureaucracy, and the sensational language of the media, we, today, “communicate irrepressibly. We busy ourselves only with our own networks” (NC 29). “We have lost the world. We’ve transformed things into fetishes or commodities, the stakes of our stratagems; and our a-cosmic philosophies, for almost half a century now, have been holding forth only on language or politics, writing or logic” (NC 29). We encounter nature and its catastrophes via the soulless and depthless vehicle of the internet. “If there is a material, technological, and industrial pollution, which exposes weather to conceivable risks,” Michel Serres reminds us, “then there is also a second pollution, invisible, which puts time in danger, a cultural pollution that we have inflicted on long-term thoughts, those guardians of the Earth, of humanity, and of things themselves. If we don’t struggle against the second, we will lose the fight against the first” (NC 31). It is this first and second pollution which I now ask you to keep in mind.

The question is: have we not already lost the battle? 22 years ago Michel Serres observed: “Europe weighs at least a quarter-billion souls. Not only in body weight, but in its crossed networks of relations and the number of world-objects at its disposal. It behaves like a sea,” and like a sea it is an element unchained. When unevenly distributed, “skyrocketing demographic growth becomes stuck together in giant units, colossal banks of humanity as powerful as oceans, deserts, or icecaps, themselves stockpiles of ice, heat, dryness, or water …feed on themselves, advance and weigh upon the planet, for worse and for better” (NC 17). Global inequality, the uneven densification of value and provenance, shows up this polluted and sullied world, a world marked by “the foul stamp” of privilege, hegemony, and the “exclusive appropriation of things.” This exclusiveness is none other than a parasitism that must be vanquished if the earth is to survive us.

Thus Serres notes: “parasites have to become symbionts; the excesses they committed against their hosts put the parasites in mortal danger, for dead hosts can no longer feed or house them. When the epidemic ends, even microbes disappear, for lack of carriers for their proliferation” (NC 34). Hence Serres’ invocation of “a natural contract of symbiosis and reciprocity in which our relationship to things would set aside mastery and possession in favour of admiring attention … contemplation, and respect; where knowledge would no longer imply property, nor action mastery, nor would property and mastery imply their excremental results and origins” (NC 38).

It is here, in this natural contract of symbiosis and reciprocity that we find the health of our present and our future survival as a species, as diverse yet intersecting communities, and as active agents of epistemic, psychic, and cultural betterment In drawing attention to the sullied root of systems based on self interest – be they interests vested in the orthodoxies of the ego, nation, region, god, or continent – Serres compels us the more to learn to reconfigure and transform these parasitic investments, for the simple reason that, inevitably, these investments kill the host that feeds them. Diversity, interpenetration, ceaseless crossings and re-crossings are critical, for a living form or being to thrive requires the perpetual estrangement of self-and-or-institutional interest. In this emergent schema “knowledge would no longer imply property, nor action mastery.” Rather, through the divestiture of one’s inheritance, the opening up of closed networks, and the erasure of all false provenance and false value, one begins – as a thing multiple, as that which multiplies – to revivify the accumulated waste which we have perceived as ballast. “There is nothing weaker than a global system that becomes a single unit. A single law corresponds to sudden death. The more plural an individual becomes, the better he lives: the same is true for societies, or for being in general” (NC 41).


Departing with Michel Serres’ contract, we enter upon the concerns of this colloquium. True: things appear to alter; true: novelty is king. And yet, what urgently needs to be addressed is the very basis for alteration and innovation. Diversity framed by a culture of consumption means little, indeed nothing. It is not a matter of being spoilt for choice; rather, what matters all the more is the matter of choice. And it is here that Nicholas Bourriaud’s conception of the postproductive meets Michel Serres’ call for symbiosis and divestiture in the very making of change. In setting aside mastery and possession as the defining quality of a relationship we begin to recover a far richer basis for the production of things and meanings.

What has become forcefully evident, particularly over the past decade and counting is the evidence that novelty and innovation – in this case in the arts – is the result of the canny use and abuse of existing forms, for today, as Bourriaud reminds us, we find “the eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work. The material [manipulated] is no longer primary. It is no longer a matter of elaborating a form on the basis of a raw material but working with objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects” (P 13). And, in the radical instance of a seismic crack-up how more intensely does this re-usage of shattered forms become!

Given the mashup of materials and information and their prolix and permissive interaction, how then sustain a belief in the singularity of things or ideas? As Bourriaud notes, “artists … program forms more than they compose them: rather than transfigure a raw element … they remix available forms and make use of data” (P 17) Thus, “to use an object is necessarily to interpret it. To use a product is to betray its concept” (P 24). This betrayal is twofold, for it reveals the excremental origins of the concept and it further estranges it. A consequence of this strategy which, given the oppressiveness of the object-world, is that it defers to memory in the instant that it institutes a forgetting. In time, of course, what was regarded as a primal memory or a primal drive ceases. For Serres, unlike Bourriaud, this is not necessarily a good thing because the age of simulacra has “eradicated long-term memory, the thousand-year-old traditions, the experience accumulated by cultures” (NC 30).

Here lies the rub, or certainly the conflict which might emerge from this colloquium: How integrate and sustain the best in tradition in a culture that is virulently post-traditional? How restore the valence of the cosmic in these a-cosmic times? In other words: How address the virulent intercession of synthetic and natural dirt? How imagine a newfangled wellness in this abraded, infected, and confected culture which we call home, hive, or noosphere? Given that we have exhausted, or are certainly in the process of exhausting our natural resources, believing that we could thrive in the domain of the synthetic alone, does this mean – 22 years after Serres’ vision – that we are caught on the cusp of death … or symbiosis?


Certainly it seems to me that here in South Africa we are confronted more by the convulsions and paroxysms of a dead and dying idea; more so than by the lived symbiotic force of the innovative. Then again, as Nietszche reminded us, the dead always outnumber the living and that, perforce, cannot stopper the will to life. “Adversity,” as Serres concludes, “is no longer attacking just our body … adversity is now attacking that which attaches and binds us all together and connects us universally, our earth and our species … Since Nagasaki we have our disappearance in our power, and the danger curve is rising exponentially. Though I have been deaf ever since the dominators of this world began thundering shamelessly, I hear, and I’m not the only one, the revealing hissing of air strata driven down by enormous falling rocks. Individual, local, ancient, and primitive death is being succeeded by a modern, specific, and global death, our collective worldwide horizon” (NC119). That said, and given a state of “distress” which distinguishes the mind of Michel Serres at the close of his book, he nevertheless asks: “Is this modern death going to awaken us from scientific sleep, and for what other casting off toward what excellence or virtuosity? Will it give back to us as much intelligence as the inventors of the sciences received in the past from its archaic sister? The more pregnant the death, the more capable our efforts, the greater the scope of our object-worlds” (NC 119).

By further compounding the paradox, Serres returns us to the crux of this meditation. Spurred by the seemingly insuperable catastrophe which has befallen us, a catastrophe of our own making, though not entirely so, we can, nevertheless, survive our demise as beings, as thinkers, as artists. This pregnant death, as we well know, afflicts Japan today. However, as Serres reminds us, this affliction also harks back to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan, prior to the recent synthetic and elemental horrors which have befallen it, was a society that sought to recover its shattered hermetic enclosure in a post-atomic age. Global lore tells us that Japan did recover and that, moreover, through science and virtuosity, Japan made a craven technological beggar of the earth. Today, in the aftermath of a ruin the scale of which is barely imaginable, we find ourselves suckling at the teat of CNN, BBC World, and many other informatic systems, in the hope of discovering some promise of recovery. In other words, pregnant with death, we compel ourselves to invoke new possibilities that could ease the backlash of a disaster with apocalyptic dimensions.

Serres writes: “All of a sudden the ground shakes off its gear: walls tremble, ready to collapse, roofs buckle, people fall, communications are interrupted, noise keeps you from hearing each other, the thin technological film tears, squealing and snapping like metal or crystal; the world, finally, comes to me, resembles me, all in distress. A thousand useless ties come undone, liquidated, while out of the shadows beneath unbalanced feet rises essential being, background noise, the rumbling world: the hull, the beam, the keel, the powerful skeleton, the pure quickwork, that which I have always clung to. I return to my familiar universe, my trembling space, the ordinary nudities … Who am I? A tremor of nothingness, living in a permanent earthquake” (NC 124).

Earth quake, sea quake, nuclear meltdown, these are peculiar grievous material and psychic realities which are experienced in Japan in this instant, but they are also conditions which all of us in varying degrees experience as a fallout of national, global, and technological mismanagement and abuse. In South Africa, a country with its own propensity for living within and thriving in spite of manifold and impending disaster, the question is: How do we move, and how move forward? Much has been spoken in the news of the capacity of the Japanese to hold onto some acculturated order and mutual respect, but, in a society such as ours, intrinsically loveless, careless, a society that fails to grasp endurance as a collective pact, how forge ahead, how make sense of our seismic distress?

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Postproduction, New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002.
Lanier, Jaron. You are not a Gadget, London: Penguin Books, 2010.
Serres, Michel. The Natural Contract, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.
Theroux, Paul. “Nightmare and Defiance,” Newsweek, March 28 & April 4, 2011.

Ashraf Jamal is an author, critic, essayist and a senior lecturer in the department of Art History and Visual Culture, Rhodes University.

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