Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Natonality, the machinic and the spectacle.

Kasemir Malevich was by his own account the first "president of space". He said this in Summer 1917, before he became a 'Suprematist'. This statement isn't to do with outer space (that came later), nor is it a statement of egomaniacal insanity (not exclusively, at any rate). The topic of space obsessed Malevich, since what the world has been busily doing to space since the late nineteenth century was revolutionary, a profound and inconceivable break: what we can matter-of-factly refer to as technology was shattering traditional perceptual frameworks and inspiring frenzy. Whether it was the Lusitania or the Zeppelin or the first flight of an airplane, crowds in the six figures would be drawn to witness the spectacle - a spectacle commonly reported as leaving people spellbound with pleasure and excitement. When the Zeppelin was spotted flying over German workplaces, people would rush out to watch, and leave their bosses pleading with them to return. The sheer scale of these innovations and their gravity-defying activities were overwhelming traditional visual habits. I mean, to even see a thing like a ship properly, in its entirety, you would have to walk some considerable distance away from it. This revolutionising of the senses held not only for passive observers, but also for pilots who couldn't help but enthuse about the airborne way of seeing the world.

And, of course, the pilot had a different way of experiencing war - not a messy, bloody, earth-bound affair, but something noble and iconographic. Malevich dealt with all of these themes in 'Aviator' (above, click to enlarge), a 1914 painting in which the dimensions are literally shattered, proportions deliberately sent askew. The 'ace' in the aviator's hand refers to the 'flying ace', a title accrued by a pilot fighter who has shot down five or more enemy air craft. The change produced admiration and dread, a theme reflected in the advertising, in which the great ships would alternate between being "floating palaces" (which they certainly were for the pampered press corps) and "monsters", "colossuses".

Not only that - they were looming beings of great and obvious power, but also immensely fragile. Their triumphs and failures were romanticised (a cruise would literally be described as "a romance"), they were technological "miracles" but also mythopoeic monsters capable of tragic downfall as much as heroic mastery. Their creators were deified: it is said that Graf Zeppelin was more popular than the Kaiser ever was, despite the fact that his invention was a patent failure.

Indeed, it was precisely when it failed that it generated the most urgent support with donations flooding in from ordinary Germans who wished to see it succeed. Other exercises, such as the RMS Lusitania and the RMS Mauretania were conscious efforts at international military competition, especially at doing down the German chap. Indeed, if the change of scale and power produced apprehensions about the control of the technology, one way to overcome this was to embed it in a spurious 'community', an imagined community in fact - technology of such scale as, say, the Zeppelin, was not something that one could have a merely invidual relationship with. It 'belonged' to the community precisely through the media spectacle - remember, the spectacle is a social relation mediated through images. All sorts of political and social meanings could be overlaid to the happenings of these 'titans' by news editors (peculiarly emphasised was the fact that the Zeppelin did not emerge from Prussia, which is where the Kaiser was from, but from the far south-west). Further, it could be defined against other nations, as part of a great race for mastery of the skies.

The extraordinary invention of cinema left people "vibrating with emotions", their mood altered as if - so it was said - by the magician's hand, as if by sorcery in fact. As if the technology alone was insufficient to explain the powerful charm that cinema exerted. Such was the reputed power of the cinema that one headline in the British press read: "Talkie Cure for Deafness". It told the story of a 73-year old woman whose lifelong deafness came to an abrupt end while watching the sound film Singing Fool. On the one hand it was credited with "lifelike fidelity", its mimetic properties celebrated, so that the cinema acquired a more compelling reality than a cold and windy street mere yards away. On the other, it was feared and resented for creating stupefaction, for being a deception, a trick of persistence-of-vision that played on the physiological limits of human perception, for overwhelming viewers, for imposing impressions that preceded cool assessment, and for threatening to unleash latent irrationalism by bringing to life fragments of the unconscious. The cinema was not unique in producing suggestions of supernatural or miraculous power, as we've seen. Indeed, if its effects didn't seem to be obviously deducible from the technology involved, so the construction of the great ships seemed mysterious: shipyards were packed with a tangle of beams and scaffolding, a maze of girders, and soon there emerged something extraordinarily, well, "lifelike".

The advertisers caught on to the power of the spectacle: knowing full well that few took the rhetoric about 'modern wonders' strictly at face value, they used the spectacle's forms to gain the attention, capture the imagination and override rational detachment and scepticism. The political multivalency of the technology worked to their favour, and there was no need to point to any great narrative. In fact, the mark of the spectacle was its valorisation of moronic sensation, its championing of the facile sense of amazement and wonder. In the tradition of PT Barnum, bafflement was the whole point, and a tremendous source of revenue. And, of course, it was precisely where the cinema and the other new technologies interfaced, when the great ships like the Titanic were themselves represented in the powerful idiom of celluloid, that the spectacle reached its most lauded heights, with each technology imparting the other with impact. E A Dupont's 1929 film 'Atlantic' was recognised as a technological masterpiece in itself at the same time as it represented a technological masterpiece. The sense of an unprecedented innovative period in human history, with its obvious political and social connotations, had long since been reduced to its barest component of awe (the better that it could be commodified).

I think I heard a sharp intake of breathe when some of you read the word "machinic" in the title. Relax. I only wanted to mention that the very notion of the "machinic" is not strictly to do with technology. It was partially generated by Deleuze and Guattari from Bergson's critical encounter with turn-of-the-century science and its inability - as he saw it - to escape from determinism and a linear view of causation. Crudely, how is genuine innovation possible if all present possibilities are already contained within the past? How is it possible to have a radical rupture? The "machinic" is an attempt to solve this problem. I don't feel like trying to explain in detail how that is, but this explains it very clearly, and it's written by a proper philosopher. I raise it, tentatively, because these heterogenous elements - inter-imperialist rivalry, the development of new transit and military technologies, the development of a mass culture, the development of photography, the socialist challenge - was a highly efficient cultural machine, and arguably produced a novel nationalist idiom. The community is no longer imagined through the printed word and a presumed uniformity of experience. Nationhood is achieved through the spectacle, through the compelling image of 'modern wonders', whose political polyvalency both assures the widespread acceptance of technology as thoroughly imbricated with progress even after World War I and perpetuates the notion of a national community in which all endeavours are to the same end, all part of a Promethean struggle for the triumph of the human spirit. It is arguably much more powerful and persuasive than appeals to eccentric notions of Heimat or Albion.