The Invention of Distance
Philately and Philosophy
The Dialectical Wanderings of the Escuela de Santiago
From Monad to Nomad
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The imperial networks established from the later 19th century to our own time have a dual structure. On the one hand, they are the rational instruments of expropriation and rule; but on the other, they accomplish an accelerating deterritorialisation of both wealth and governance. In this chapter, this dual character will be analysed as symptomatised in an almost-invisible area of visual culture, the design of airmail stamps, in which the contradictions of reason and unreason, linearity and spatialisation, are expressed in profoundly contradictory form.
Counterposing this duality of the imperial networks, the chapter analyses
works by the Escuela de Santiago. In these works, the limit points of communicability
are presented as the origins of a third practice, beyond the Eurocentric
dialectic of reason and irrationality. This work at the horizon of the
human universe, it is argued, offers an insight into an understanding of
culture in a telematic age which is free of the issueless binarism of domination
We know, or at least should know, that it was cash that drove the best of the 19th century: that the founders of the exile age, Hill, Edison, Daguerre, Marconi, Bell, Lumière, were entrepreneurs and felt the mad demand of accumulation as they felt their own beards. But something else ran through their inventions -- the post, the phonogram, photography, radio, the telephone and film -- because they met so suddenly the onrush of a common need. If it was exchange value that inspired and directed the evolution of the future in the hands of the 19th century, it was use value, the still-unconscious longing for severance, that fired the populations that paid for them. Though we always say the new communications shrink the world, the truth is that they expand it, making it possible, even desirable, to go, to leave, to cut loose from the ties of locality and stray across the globe, a letter, a call, a photo, a wax cylinder the alibi for absence. These media didn’t knit people together: they allowed them to move apart. Geography left the schoolroom and became the terrible liberation of distance. For every letter the steamships brought, they took a daughter or a brother away, and with their absence came the awful truth: that their lives had never been contained among the old certainties and familiar loves. What was once the ghastly fate of slaves and convicts became the common plight, and we are their ungrateful children.
Such separation had to be invented: no natural or divine ukase urged the fledgling from the nest. Mediation is the spawn of separation, and its unnatural parent, and both are born of the logic of capital. Imperial expansion is the outcome of the falling rate of profit. Something of that origin remains in the affectlessness of communications -- the privilege of objectivity, the fear of bias, the shunning of sentiment and the mockery and censorship reserved for those who spend their passions in the public media. There is no cool like that cool, no formalism. What severed each from each was the medium: the good cheer of the sender, the tears of the recipient. Nor should that surprise us: these media only served the geography of loss as a by-product of their major service of empire, military and commercial, and its pallid servant, the bureaucracy.
In Britain, the communicative media were held by government, in the Post Office, largest of the Victorian bureaucracies and the biggest employer in Britain, which gathered to itself the Royal Mail, telegraphy, telephony and radio. The GPO’s negotiating power made the Peninsula and Orient the biggest merchant fleet in the world, and transformed its activities from haphazard sailings into a global schedule. It was the achievement of the greatest of the late Victorian writers, Conrad and Kipling, to transfigure the grey men of instrumental communications into heroic bureaucrats, whose selflessness was transformed from the banal humility of clerks into the secret honour of the servants of time itself. Beyond the necessary loan of dignity to the vast insipidity of imperial employment, there lay a massive organisation of time and space, codified as sailing times, tonnage and delivery. An empire of global reach and offspring of unquestioned enterprise demanded an instrument of command, reconnaissance and decision: a network of communications that could no longer forgive the vagaries of older times, but insisted upon the smart and punctual, and which prized regularity of reporting more than speed itself. The function of the timetable was not to hasten but to order time, to make the temporal the servant of the spatial, and in doing so to order space, so that every place, however remote, however troubled, would share with every other the same moment in time. The schedule would lie across the earth like the lines of Mercator’s projection across the map, a proof of control as sure as the Ordnance Survey, as precise, as elegant, as ultimately brutal in its purposes.
Those purposes were expropriation on a planetary scale and the establishment of such organisational features as would achieve that goal. But the nature of the beast is never so certain. The bureaucracies became self-serving devices, their employees turning their attention more to the internal politics of the system than the initial businesses for which they were set up. The military hierarchy devoted themselves more to the wealth and prestige of their service than to warfare. The communications infrastructure took on, too, a life of its own, seeking out its own imperatives, unfolding its own logic, the more so since the major media were so close institutionally, and so closely interwoven with steam transport, the railways and the shipping lines. One of the most startling legacies of the imperial mails were the polite, unflappable, discrete and dedicated postmen, whose very uniform became a symbol of a kinder way of life, and whose comforting rounds have made the Post Office now by far the most popular of all publicly owned industries. What the postman brought, at least until the sad discovery of junk mail, was the longed-for letter, the card that spelt remembrance. The great fear of all who have flown the coop, or who have been left behind, is that they will fade from the memories of those they’ve left or lost. If the mails served the purposes of proximity for the masters, they made meaningful the experience of distance for the rest.
It is true that letter-writing, and even more so postcards, became, with the regular penny post, intensely formulaïc. The protocols of the letter emerge far earlier, but in the 19th century become the possession of the masses. Certainly this is clearest in the form letter, instrument of the emergent managerial culture of the day and brought to a peak of inanity with the invention of word processing and mail-merge. But rhetorical regimes are just as clear in the wording of postcards, even those sent from the front during the Boer and First World Wars, let alone those with messages ready composed that emerged in the modern holiday trade at resorts like Blackpool and in the great marketing ploy of greetings cards for invented festivals. Yet even here, even under the censorship exercised by the military during their campaigns, even though the jejune phrases that had to serve the needs of passion were the products not of poetry but of purchasing, some light peeped through: someone far away had been thinking of you.
A letter, like the police, always comes late, if it comes at all. It is an experience of time as well as of distance: only companies and the civil service must pretend to instantaneity and contiguity, to immediacy, the transparency of the medium. For the letter, as opposed to the communiqué, the medium is always sensible. At leisure, and several times over, you reread, deciphering the handwriting, the nuances of style, the choice of paper and ink. A real letter is not consumed but absorbed, not received but treasured. Even a card is left on the mantelpiece or pinned to the wall for days, months. The accumulation of missives and responses, snapshots, clippings and the odd cassette, kept as mementos, builds the feedback loop of remembrance, a bond whose poignancy derives from the solidity of the separation which makes it necessary and gives it its sadness and its beauty. A letter is a living thing, that retraces journeys made, and bears the emotions of departure and arrival in it: hence it is possible to speak of a dead letter office, and to visualise it as such an unhappy spot. A letter lives, because it is a temporal and spatial thing, sharing with organic beings the tragedy and delight of material life.
The overseas mail of which I have been writing was transformed by the
coming of the airmail. I have written elsewhere (Cubitt,
1996) about how the airmail was configured as existential melodrama in
the interests of the global administration of capital, notably in the novels
of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and how the contradictory workings
of that ideological enterprise evolved in the second most startling legacy
of the mail, the postage stamp. The heroic trans-Saharan, trans-Atlantic
and trans-Andean flights, the establishment of night-flying as an essential
part of the service, were and remain episodes of sublime adventure, even
as they swiftly became the building blocks of an ever more instrumental
gathering of communications into the nets of imperium. Hung between the
lonely frontier of the sky and the tyrrany of the clock, the air mail gave
birth to an exceptional visual language, the more extraordinary for being
so invisible. It is not just that the maps of air mail and electronic communications
are so similar that leads me to argue that the international postal service
marks the dawn of the accelerated modernity in which we now live. The complexities
of airmail stamp design express the conflict of imagination and instrumentality
which is still characteristic of modernity’s acceleration, in a period
in which every advance is tuned for capital, but is greeted by end-users,
with the genuine delight with which technological miracles have been,
for a hundred and fifty years, have been greeted as a source of inspiration,
marvel, hope: the nearest a secular age has to spiritual ecstasy.
These stamps were issued for contract air mail (CAM) routes, the first of which was opened between Jacksonville and Miami on the First of April 1926. The second was CAM 5, operated by Walter T. Varney, between Elko, Nevada and Paco, Washington State, the most dangerous of the CAM routes, since it involved flying over mountains and still wild and often unmapped territory. In fact, Varney supplied his pilots with a route map sketched on a postcard which he draughted while driving the route overland in a Model-T Ford. During the second leg of the journey, pilot Leon Cuddeback ran into a thunderstorm between Boise and Elko, and was forced to fly below the clouds to follow the route. The pilot on the return leg, Franklin Rose, advised of the storms, tried to curve southwest to avoid them, but was blown off course. An envelope carried on that trip is still in existence. Pencilled on the back are the words: ‘Plane crashed in Jordan Valley, Oregon - Pilot carried mail 30 miles on horseback and was not heard from for 2 days’. CAM 4, also a mountain route, between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, had similar navigational problems. The pilots took a Dodge truck out along the route to mark out with huge canvas V’s any potential landing sites that might be needed in emergencies. The June 7 inaugural flights of CAM 9 between Chicago and Minneapolis were considered jinxed, coinciding with one of the most violent dust storms recorded in the area: of six pilots, only one was not forced down, and one, Elmer Lee Partridge, died as his self-designed machine, the only one with an enclosed cockpit, crashed nine miles from his take-off point. In September 1926, Charles Lindbergh, then only a year graduated from flying school and nine months away from his famous trans-Atlantic flight, was forced to bale out over Ottawa, Illinois. The mail was recovered, and forwarded to Chicago by train.
These anecdotes are only scraps of a much wider history, and are quoted here not so much to praise the pioneer fliers as to put into context the way in which the iconography of flight was understood at the time. A core of this is danger and adventure, and with them a missionary understanding of the tragic destiny of the hero. In The Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh wrote:
The landscape format of the 1926 US ‘map’ issue extends this heroisation. The map of the continental United States is both geophysical and political: within the nation’s borders, the land is marked with its river systems and mountains, beyond them is undifferentiated ground. Thus it both singles out the administrative territory of the CAM service, and gives to it a materiality denied to Canada and Mexico. Though the actual transport of the mails was contracted out, the stamps bear not only this symbolic representation of the nation (exclusive, of course, of Alaska and Hawaii, which were in any case not served by air mail) but also the banner along the top margin announcing in serifed and shaded capitals ‘United States Postage’, so granting to commercial operators the kudos of patriotism (Lindbergh is reported to have inscribed on one extant photograph the words ‘I am proud to have done it for America. My reward will be your continued use of “air mail”’ [cited in Holmes: 156]). Within the constraints of the map and the wording, the stamp is meticulously symmetrical, the numerical values printed in each lower corner, the two biplanes mirroring each other on either side, the expanse of ocean on either coast rendered in the same shading and the same extent, the little architectural curlicues bearing the extremities of ‘United States Postage’ balancing one another while serving to fill the gaps that flank the words ‘Air Mail’. This symmetry can easily be read as a visual representation of how space is subordinated to the administrative powers of communications networks.
The spatial organisation of the stamp is likewise hierarchical. The map itself is furthest away; the aircraft hover in mid-space, and the words, numbers and decoration, rendered in perspective through a shading which pushes them forward from the picture plane, form the foreground. The ordered hierarchy is then: the country (which is more important than its political neighbours, pushed further back by their lack of detail) is a vast area conquered by the new technology of flight, in which the nation imposes itself on the territory. That the numerical values are given in a larger face than even the words ‘Air Mail’ might indicate that the fiscal is even more important than the political, but given that the employment policies of the US Mail were far less likely to produce clerks who were innumerate than red/green colour-blind, this may be explicable in far more practical terms. More important than relative size is the organisation in depth of this representation of transport, the relationship between geography and administration: the map, after all, covers more area of the stamp than any other single element, defining the shape of the stamp and giving philatelists the icon by which it is known.
But there is a further peculiarity to the use of space here that illuminates the complexities of the relationship between communications, modernity and bureaucracy, one which is partially produced by the drive to symmetry itself, which has produced at least three different and conflicting perspectival systems within the same design. The shading on the words ‘Air Mail’ and ‘Cents’ and on the numerals puts us below and to the left of them, a monumentalising effect, although the curlicues are seen straight on, so occupying an ambiguous spatial relation with the lettering. The aircraft are seen from a different angle, from slightly above, and from a right-hand angle on the left-hand craft and a left-hand angle on the right. So although apparently occupying the same plane, they are seen from different and mutually incompatible perspectives. It would appear that the designer, to save work but also to maximise the symmetrical balance of the overall design, has drawn only one biplane, then reversed the image along a vertical axis to produce what should be an identical craft on the opposite edge. The result is extremely troubling as design, since the two planes appear to be on a collision course, but without occupying compatible spaces. Finally, the map is drawn according to a conventional system of geophysical representations, shown as from a bird’s eye viewpoint compatible only with the small ornamental detail with which, however, it shares no other spatial reference.
In these apparent contradictions in the design we can read two factors at work. On the one hand, we have a clash of visual cultures. On the other, we have representational drawings based on the two dominant codes of Western visuality: perspective and the map. Given the history of cartography, in which the presence of perspectival representations of winds, the points of the compass, oceans and so forth are commonplace, we have only a little difficulty reconciling these irreconcilables. That we can reconcile them has itself a fascinating history, one which concerns the dialectic between these two systems as modes of organising space for the benefit of the viewer as the assumed agent of an imperial vision of the world. Far less easy to reconcile is the clash between the distinct perspectives on each of the two planes, but that at least is a problem within a single zone of the design. Because there is a further problem caused by the clash between the representational and the ‘heraldic’ aspects. Like heraldry, stamps employ a repertoire of standardised procedures for manipulating graphic elements in such a way that they form a syntactic system. These include the matching of words and images, but also of decorative motifs with photography, and mixtures of graphic and typographic systems. There are then two kinds of problem in this design: problems arising from symmetry, and problems arising from syntax. Both of these can be seen at their most acute in the relation between the biplanes.
What does it mean to say that these biplanes are on a collision course in a space in which they can never meet? To read allegorically does not help: it gives no defence against, for example, a reading of East/West dissymmetry. If we recognise that the problem arises initially as a syntactic one, we can grasp a more interesting troubling of the representation of space that arises specifically because of the initial design problem: how to make a graphic interpretation of this keystone of modernity, the new communications networks. To introduce a syntagmatic axis means, likewise, to introduce a temporal dimension to the question (represented above by the narrative query about a future collision). The design relies on the fact that it is very difficult to hold both planes in view at the same time. What makes this so disturbing as a design solution is that it relies in turn on the failure of the stamp to comprehend a single solution in a single moment: it already introduces time as a component of the design, and by implication makes distance, separation, key to the operation of its representational strategy.
The point of the stamp is to indicate that the country, symbolised by the map, will become a nation through a meeting of East and West. That this meeting might be catastrophic is an accident. But that it may never take place because the spatial orientation of the one is incompatible with that of the other is a product of the irreconcilability of symmetry with perspective, of one order of power over images with another. Caught in a double bind, these craft, and by implication the messages they carry, both must meet and can never meet. The site of this impossible congruence is the map: a world stretched out for inspection, but which, in turn, is untouchable by the traverse of the mails. It remains as intransigent graphically as it proved in actuality to the pilots of 1926. What was intended to celebrate the triumph of modernity as the triumph of administered communications becomes instead an admission of defeat. Although the monumental lettering retains its hold as frame of this confusion, within it the ancient problem returns: the absolute necessity of communication, and its absolute impossibility.
Of course, philosophy tends to deal in absolutes. We know, of course,
that despite the generalisations, communication does occur. What is in
question is the instrumental function of communication in the context of
accelerated modernity as globalisation. In its attempt to celebrate the
instrumental, for which a message either arrives or does not arrive, the
US 1926 ‘map’ issue, in failing that target, reaches, as so many communications
do, an utterly different and unforeseen one: that communications are themselves
nomadic. The purpose of scheduled air mail is to unite space and time as
speed, and to organise both under the management of the clock. The territory,
as defined by the map, is a temporal as well as spatial grid, reducible
to a managed structure. But the contradictions of this stamp make apparent
the opposite quality of the new networks: that the separations made possible
by the new media produce also a deterritorialisation of communications,
cutting them loose from the terminal points of sender and receiver, opening
them to the vagaries of reading. First, messages become material objects,
and are treated as such: stamps, envelopes, paper, orthography inspected
and treasured as things in their own right: hence the emergence in philatelic
circles of such arcana as ‘Lindberghiana’ and ‘crash covers’. And second,
the separation of sender and receiver makes the art of interpretation central
to new communications: and where there is interpretation there is reinterpretation,
misinterpretation, and response, not always from the destined recipient,
spiralling beyond the rationality of either the administrative categories
of sender and receiver, or the rationality of the Habermasian public sphere.
The new media’s mediations reinflect the human universe, extending its
horizons, not creating an alternative and enclosed universe of communication
but traversing even the bodies of humanity with the experience, not of
immediacy, but of temporal and spatial separation, of deterritorialisation,
of nomadic culture.
Not surprisingly, the Hayward show caused ructions involving the Venezuelan ambassador to Chile and various Chilean government departments. All the artists in the Escuela were threatened with loss of grant aid. Their response, published in La Epoca in August 1994 (Díaz et al 1994), acts also as a manifesto for the group’s work in postal arts. Central to their argument is that Dávila’s card does not ‘represent’ Bolívar, but collages together elements, including the equestrian portrait of Bolívar, dispersed as ideological themes in an oligarchical construction of Latin American identity. Art’s assault on good taste, they argue, is an assault on the rigid construction of heroic masculinity in hierarchical and administrative categories of exclusion, and the counter-attack of bitter and public censorship makes of the work an act of treason, of Dávila an enemy, and by extension, of art an implacable, treacherous foe: artist as spy. Representation has become sacred through its expropriation by the ruling class: to expose that intensity of ownership is to draw down the same ire that, in recent times, led to ‘public disqualification’ and banishment, the violence of exile.
Dávila, whose work has developed gay and transsexual themes for many years, is an exile: his continuing engagement with the avanzada in Chile during the Pinochet years was the origin of the Escuela’s airmail art. His graphic enactments of polymorphous sexualities in works like ‘Chilean Cultural Policy in 3-D’ (1993), included in the Decade of the 90s mailing, use complicated webs of montage and reference to destabilise the sense of identity that is associated with nation and national history: as Bolívar is shown on a postcard, so in the 1993 work an almanac page is rendered in the cheap green-and-red of 3D comics imported from the North, made in spray jet on vinyl, and transferred to a card. But perhaps the most significant element of the Escuela project is by the envelopes themselves, neatly printed like those sad bits of unsolicited correspondence from Readers Digest, but more significantly franked and coded for their postal voyages. The computerised address label sits across the envelope from the frank, England on one, Correos de Chile on the other. On the envelope, nearby, the printed words ‘La Decada de los Noventa’ or ‘La Mesa de Trabajo’ take on specific meanings from the distances which separate them from the other items printed there, extending the questioning of identity initiated in the works into the medium by which they arrive.
Travelling with Dávila’s ‘Libertador’ in the Ciudad de Santiago mailing are three works created on offset but coded as computer-generated: Duclós’ ‘Praefectura Urbis’, a satire on local rule which destabilises the symmetry of its central image, a pig’s head on a platter; Díaz’s ‘Ya que así me mirais, miradme al menos’, which juxtaposes half a dozen graphic techniques for measurement with the germs of a gnomic narrative; and Dittborn’s ‘La ciudad del espía muerte’, most of which is occupied by a black and white air-to-ground surveillance image, the raster exaggerated in the printing, of an ambiguous settlement, either shaded by poplars or with plumes of black smoke emerging from it against a barren landscape. That Dávila’s contribution motivated an apology from the Chilean government to the governments of Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia throws light on the elegance of the media-aesthetic trope which the Escuela has developed. While each work can be read as a specific and targeted satire on the state of Santiago, each acts also in detail on the problematic of representation: how representation has, as such, become a property of rule. Each, by different strategies but centrally through montage, destabilises those interpretative communities centred on administrative logic and instrumental reason. In doing so, they threaten to universalise the philosophical import of their specificities. But it is the trope of mailing the works which restores their specificity, while maintaining that same universal tenor. Like the biplanes of the 1926 stamp, they bring the local and the universal towards collision, but on trajectories which are incapable of sharing the same space. This contradiction escapes, however, the pure paradox of the 1926 design, transforming contradiction into dialectic.
Contradiction: that Dávila’s liberator is a pervert. The conception of heteronomous sexualities as perversity makes the work utterly legible: it is the satire of unreason on the Enlightenment, the exposure of national liberation by the forces of an undisciplined and hedonist body. That is simple contradiction, and it has two political implications that make it inadequate to this work, and in the longer term destructive of critical analysis, critical art. First, the sheer linearity of the reading is embarrassing. It is, precisely, the reading of the Venezuelan ambassador, a reading which, under the guise of some irrationalist emancipation, others not only the State but all the values and struggles which are ossified therein. It is an irrationalism stranded in the form of the rationality it seeks to overturn. Secondly, in its crude binarism of body against State, it fails to understand Dávila’s conception of liberation as unfinished historical process. To read the body as what is resistant to domination is to make it dependent on the domination which it resists. To read the polymorph as pure resistance is to misunderstand the processes of modernity, which precisely make possible a politics of sexuality, and to frame sexuality as merely a resistant epiphenomenon of a more fundamental, essential and ultimately immaterial domination. The contradiction eventually settles in the monad of domination: resistance can only be defined in relation to that which it resists. Unreason as satire can only exist as long as both reason and the objects of satire do.
The work of the Escuela is not rational, nor is it irrationalist, in the way that the great Latin American surrealists Robert Matta Echauren and Wilfredo Lam were irrationalist. They do not take their inspiration from the issueless binarism of contradiction, but instigate an enquiry that lies at the boundaries of a world model built on it. This is the horizon at which they stand, gazing away from the contradiction of mountain and sky to look towards the vast Pacific Ocean that defines their opposition and makes it possible. This undertaking commences with the immense effort of a turn from the twin temptations of madness and civilisation to investigate the terms on which either can be thought. This in turn demands an attention not to contradiction but to the dynamic transformations which can be captured in the dense materiality of existence, and most of all, for artists, in the matter of communication: the sending of work by air mail.
Dittborn’s contribution to La Decada de los Noventa is ‘The Bed of the Dead Spy’, a heavily rastered blue and pink domestic landscape, ambiguously interior and exterior, on which are superimposed the dates and destinations of his airmail paintings between 1990 and 1994, above which is superimposed a simple graphic of a bed. The dead spy figures in three out of four of Dittborn’s works in the Escuela mailings, and evokes the unease of an allegory without a symbolic key. The spy has three attributes: this bed, a car and a city. But his bed is airborne: it is not the bed that marks the body at rest, but a body in motion, associated with the airmail paintings, whose journeys cross four continents. And his car has crashed (‘The Car of the Dead Spy’ in The Work Table), and his city is either in flames or so small that it hides even from the eyes of satellites. What is a spy? We know only of treason and double-dealing, betrayals and the ethical ambiguities of a citizen without a nation, a patriot without a home. Who has executed or assassinated him and why? Can a dead spy still inform? Is this bed his deathbed, or his final resting place, and why does it still float uneasily above a sea of wanderings? The spy as enemy of the state has already escaped its embrace in death, and turns his enemy status into the material of a third position, beyond state and resistance, beyond the simplicities of contradiction.
Death, in any case, is a far more breathtaking antagonist than reason, and death is more than an end: it is, for many of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century the very reason why we must communicate. Because we are alive, and because we will be dead, we speak and listen, write and read, precisely because there is a horizon beyond which there is no more talk. That is a silence which is ultimate, but from it springs the demand for meaning. Dittborn’s airmail works are haunted by the dead, the dying, ethnocide, mummification, bereavement. These are the markers of a time which is not measurable in the ticking of clocks, a time indeed in which Dávila’s Bolívar can still be the liberator, though long dead. In the tiny zone in which life is, surrounded by oceanic dark, the regulation of schedules is the attempt of capital to defy the materiality of time, to build an impalpable monument of its measurement. To tear down the monument is only the obverse of the same regime, doomed to subversion, a spy’s procedure. That spy is dead, and spies for someone else.
What we must have instead is space and its live air, time, the time
of the journey which is also space. The spy is dedicated to immediacy:
the communicator enjoys the action of communication. In the mailing of
their works, the Escuela de Santiago commit an unforgiving act, uprooting
the documents of art made and sending them across the globe to find their
uncertain recipients among a hybrid and dispersed community. Most of all,
the works become, for the duration of their travels, entirely invisible,
sharing the little death of the cargo hold. To set out from Santiago, at
the furthest edge of the world, to inveigle their way into a few hundred
households; to travel, to have travelled, to be travelling, and not between
the metropolitan centres, but from the periphery’s periphery; to mark their
passages across the maps of capital as the viral seeds of another mode
of existence, not only because of their contents, but because their contents
are obscured by distance, by the silence of the journey, by the crumbling
edifice of allegory; to commit these cards to the postal networks is to
make physical the networks themselves. The immediate communications dreamt
of by cyberphreaks dematerialise the mode of conveyance, in pursuit of
the perfectly transparent message. The Escuela have learnt from Kantian
aesthetics the respect due to the actuality of the medium that mediates,
that hangs between -- between Santiago and ‘the world’, the local and the
global: between speech and listening, between speech and silence, between
speech and response, between speech and death. The thing and the
route that are well travelled are the same, and both are marked in their
hearts by the space and time of travelling.
Where there emerge cruxes in the argument, they hinge on the problem of making these absolutist models configure with actually existing phenomena. The war machine, they contend, is a specifically nomadic formation, though taken up and perverted by the State. But ‘a new nomadism accompanies the global war machine whose organisation overflows State apparatuses, and passes into energy, military-industrial and multinational combines’. At this point, they have to admit that ‘sleek space and the form of exteriority have no irresistible revolutionary vocation’ (Deleuze and Guattari: 481). Likewise, in discussing the exteriority on which the State is dependent, they must negotiate a binary externality of nomadism on the one hand, and the multinational on the other. These two forms, they argue, may even ‘become confused with one another, for example a commercial organisation is also a marauding band....It appears that these bands, no less than global organisations, imply an irreducible form of the State, and that this formal exteriority presents itself as a war machine, polymorphous and diffused. It is a nomos’, their term for the sleek organisation of the anti-State. (Deleuze and Guattari: 446). It is alarming enough that they see the two forms, transnational capital and nomadic culture, as one in nature, nomos.
It is more alarming that this influential programme for a postmodern politics cannot descry the guilty fact: that nomadism, reduced to a mere resistance to an hypostatised State, is more characteristic of the globally dominant forms of capital than the State-form itself. The State, if ever it existed in the pure form argued by Deleuze and Guattari, no longer functions as the key factor in global organisation. The sedentary is the characteristic form neither of empire nor of its accelerated structure, globalisation. As Critical Art Ensemble argue convincingly in their recent work, it is precisely the transnational corporations that have learnt the skills of the nomad. It is, they observe, all but impossible to storm the headquarters of an IBM or a News Corporation: like Ernst’s ‘Femme 100 têtes’, the hundred headless woman, there is no single place at which they are at home (Critical Art Ensemble, 1994: 11-30). The characteristics of the mediascape which we have inhabited since the establishment of regular steamship mail services, telegraphy and wire photography in the 19th century, and perhaps in earlier times, are not tied to locality but to the experience of communication as distance, and of space and time as fluid quantities, intermeshed with one another, and only barely controllable by supra-State organisations like the P&O Line or Western Telegraph.
In The Electronic Disturbance, Critical Art Ensemble set themselves the task of reinventing a mode of public art action in an age in which the public is not an available political category. This leads them eventually to a neo-nihilist interventionism: ‘The incitement of panic in all sites is the postmodern gamble’ (p.30), understandable as a North American passion, less credible in a Europe used to the depoliticising impact of terrorism. On the way to a weak conclusion, though, they indicate a crucial step in the evolution of art-action: ‘The electronic world, however, is by no means fully established, and it is time to take advantage of this fluidity through invention, before we are left with only critique as a weapon’ (p.27). I think they are right here, with the only proviso that few of the older communications media are ‘fully established’ either, even when their administrative infrastructures are in place as firmly as is the case with the international postal system. The telematic media, which link computers with telephony, are already intensely organised by commercial and military users (Deleuze and Guattari would presumably also disapprove of the centrality of academic networks to the public Internet), and such space as is available for surfing is increasingly circumscribed by subscription-only and corporate infotainment services. Such is the case if we look statistically. But the qualitative impact of a single letter from your lover is worth a sackful of time-share offers. What is more, the meticulous use of the communications media, undertaken with a keen understanding of their functioning, their semantics and their histories, can do far more than subvert them: they can remake them in another image.
Why, after all, subvert air mail? What do we stand to gain? How much more subversive of air mail is the internet, in any case, than anything we might attempt? The telephone damaged telegraphy badly, as did radio, though now we find the same media converging into a single web or highway. Even as the fragile metaphor of the web is replaced with that of a twenty-lane freeway, and the net-surfer with the image of corporate info-juggernauts, no user of the net can fail to be aware of how thin its contents are. We could be condemned to reading postcards, and find the same formulas devolving from an excitement scarcely distinguishable from banality. On the one hand, the net is content free; on the other, it is enamoured of its success, measured statistically in messages, connections and sheer bulk, like letters counted by the bag. This is precisely where the work of the Escuela de Santiago can illuminate both the aesthetic emaciation of so much contemporary communications and the possibilities for a new public sphere in the age of globally nomadic communications.
First, there is the material practice of communication, its density. A great deal is made of simplicity and clarity, the slogans of a communications world in thrall to speed, for whom industrial instrumentality is the measure of value. True simplicity is immensely difficult, and perhaps unavailable in a complex world. The false simplicities of pat responses, clichés, truisms, cult religions, sound bite politics and advertising jingles serve only to enclose the human world in a tighter horizon, the more forbidding as it excludes increasingly the one finality on which it is premised and which it treats as abject, death. That is the sense of density at which the Escuela’s work nags, the point at which the bafflement of meaning approximates the silence of the grave; neither rational nor irrational but the dark grounding of both.
There is the question of beauty, which is not prettiness, and is not of necessity profound. Like a salmon, the question is not from what depth it springs, but how far up into the light it has the power to hurl itself. Like a trout: beauty is a function of the traverse of borders, the hurling into the human world of a inexpressible sighting of what lies beyond it . The irony is that that beyond lies at the very heart of the human, the communicative, universe. The pioneers of cyberspace paint it as full as an egg, a plenum of information, bustle and trade. What they paint over is the void at the heart of every communication: the null point of the cargo hold, the silence between lovers on the telephone. Beauty is not just the mot juste, not only offering to speak when you cannot find the words to say, like Dittborn’s decapitated spy, still painting his illegible mark after the murder, his city a fecund or a blazing smudge in arid emptiness. Because beauty is so rare, so difficult, so utterly opposed to sentimentality (including the sentimentality of the brutal), it is still the most convincing argument against things as they are. It demolishes the notion that there is no otherwise. In the guise of sketchmaps for finding the horizon of the human universe, it tells us of the enormity of that from which corporate culture has excluded us.
Reason and unreason are two poles of a single thesis, whose antithesis,
because it has no name, is the matter of beauty. It pertains to the politics
of identity. Speaking about the experience of the Black diaspora, Stuart
Hall once said ‘Now that, in the post-modern age, you all feel so dispersed,
I become centred. What I’ve thought of as dispersed and fragmented comes,
paradoxically to be the representative modern experience!’ (Hall 1991:
44). The dialectics of empire and globalisation are at their most dynamic
and cruel as colonial experience and the experiences of slavery and genocide.
These extremities are not lost in the communicative webs which we serve,
and which we wish to serve us. Nor are fragmentation and dispersal, which
I think are not so novel as we think, matters for celebration or gloom.
They simply are, and must be the tools with which we remake, through the
detailed invention or meticulous repair of languages and distribution media,
the human universe, the communicative, which is ourselves, and which rides
towards us, slung in empty cyberspace and echoing what comes before and
after life, your shadow rising up towards you, a social fate for identities
no longer in thrall to the dull opposition of individual and State but
cast, with myriad others, against a horizon of what remains, so far, ineffable.
What does a medium do when it mediates? What can we do with what it does?
What is it that is being mediated if not ourselves, selves already perpetually
in motion with mediations that traverse and define us? If even so insipid
and unglamourous a medium as the post can be excavated and made new, made
to question and to flash a signal from the edges of what we are, then all
communication can be urged to perform miracles. There is no further purpose
in making resistance the touchstone of value, any more than clarity or
speed. It is a strategy among others, and perhaps weaker than many, because
it cannot escape the centre of which it wishes to be the margin.
In the Escuela, we can see: a virulent beauty for which communication is
both the necessary and the beloved, the means and the goal.
6 February 1995
Critical Art Ensemble (1994), The Electronic Disturbance,
Autonomedia, New York.
Cubitt, Sean (1996) ‘The New International Postal Order: From Air Mail to E-Mail’, paper for the Critical Practices conference, Middlesex University, 17 Sept 1994; part published in Pavel Büchler and Nikos Papastergiadis (eds), Ambient Fears: Random Access, volume 3, Glasgow School of Art/Rivers Oram Press, 9-21.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari (1980), Capitalisme et schizophrénie: Mille plateaux, Editions de Minuit, Paris.
Díaz, Gonzalo, Eugenio Dittborn y Arturo Duclós (1994), ‘La Escuela de Santiago responde los ataques contra Juan Dávila’, La Epoca, 21 de agosto, Santiago de Chile, p.B7; manuscript English version courtesy of Guy Brett; abbreviated version published in Art Monthly, Aug-Sept 1994.
Holmes, Donald B. (1981), Air Mail: An Illustrated History 1793-1981, Clarkson N Potter, New York.
MacDiarmid, Hugh (1967), ‘Second Hymn to Lenin’ , in Collected Poems of Hugh MacDiarmid, Macmillan, New York, pp 298-303.
Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de (1971) Southern Mail and Night Flight trans Curtis Cate, Penguin, Harmondsworth
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