— Make of this what you may: We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or so, at least, I have been told. The princess is caged in the consulate. The dog barks and the sybarite sleeps on the sixteenth floor, dreaming perhaps of empty deserts from which the smoothened boulders of history have recently rolled. The landscape of this dream is level like the ocean, which it is not. Its surface bears the record of existences other than our own. It is the vacant lot into which all dreams of final theories, departure countdowns, sermons, and suicides have been decanted. Its geology is the sand of Borges and the rock of Smithson. Its presence is the non-site of the unrealized idea, the dark matter of excerpted testimony, of lip syncs and Park Hyatts, of shooting stars and narrative trails. It is where we go to transcribe our beliefs.
But this is a place that doesn’t necessarily exist except in the mind of the self-described woman with long straight hair who wears a migraine and a bikini to every eruption of zeitgeist, waiting, perhaps, for the tidal wave that will not come. Next to the bright rictus of her social ring flash is the man who wears headphones and darkness tuned to the residues of silence, of drum trigger and distortion. A skeleton attached by earpods to an iPod, he is the librarian of his own metal congress. Choosing loneliness over vulgarity has become a national pastime for those who live, like him, with an apprehension of what it might be like to open the door to a stranger and find that the stranger does indeed have a knife. And now it seems that stranger is all around us in the malevolent conga line of images and events, of hooded prisoners and un-Genevered conventions, suicide bombers and sex videos, Tinkerbells and mink-lined mukluk boots. These are the narratives that couldn’t be dreamt because they have indeed come to pass.
Joan Didion described a time, around 1971, when she began to doubt the premise of all the stories she had ever told herself; a common condition, but one she nonetheless found troubling. Different sounds now fill the empty lots and the angle of those daylight political shadows may have changed. But now, more than ever, we seek to find the narrative line that strings together ever more disparate experiences, that makes sense of worlds where it is possible to watch porn and preach religion at the same time. For the man with the basement headphones and the woman on the sixteenth floor, that sense may be one of competing theories, the most workable of multiple choices drawn from the offerings of creationism, intelligent design, bad gurus, and the policy voodoo otherwise known as government rule. Some, if not all, of this abiding uncertainty inevitably seeps into the things we make.
In this view, the groundwater from which we drink has already been contaminated, and perhaps Victor Hugo was right all along to claim the sewer as the resting place of all failure and effort. And as far as I’m concerned, any choice carries the potential for abandonment and betrayal, not just those of the political sermonizers, whose dreamworks are devised to obscure any intelligence that might trouble the dreamer, but also those of common neurasthenics, like myself, who rub themselves up on a daily basis against nameless derelictions of personal conscience, dubious sexual conducts, inexplicable bereavements, jackknifed relationships, and other proteins of normalcy and fear.
And so we look out from places like these, places of personal moral scrutiny, into the cloudy imperium of national conscience. In an effort to discover senses greater than our own, we turn from local malfeasance to primal decree, hoping, perhaps, that in the interrogation of notions about how we came into being might also be found the template of our own creative aspiration. But the turn from the sewer to the wellspring offers few reassurances. After all, the view that we, along with the rest of the earth’s plants and animals, have evolved via the accumulation of the tiny fraction of random mutations that proved useful— a view that commands solid majorities in most of the developed world and has the near-unanimous support of scientists everywhere—turns out to be just one option in an equal opportunity buffet that has science and superstition served up side by side.
And, as our least privileged die in crusades conducted against the infidels of progress abroad, faith-driven anti-rationalism at home unravels the premise of social evolution, dumping it without regard like the secular fuel of an airliner bound to go down. On this, the bad-weather channel, we learn that science is marginalized precisely because it now lies outside the interests of the governing conservative coalition. That’s why the White House—sometimes in the service of political Christianism or ideological fetishism, more often in obeisance to the baser motivations of the petroleum, pharmaceutical, and defense industries—has altered, suppressed, or overridden scientific findings on global warming; pollution from industrial farming; forest management and endangered species; environmental health, including lead and mercury poisoning in children and safety standards in drinking water; missile defense; HIV/AIDS; and nonabstinence methods of birth control and sexually transmitted disease prevention. That may also be why, in contemplating the abduction of American democracy, I can only understand it in terms of a loss of faith in my own method and powers of narration. At once seduced and abandoned by those narratives that supported the endeavor of finding and making images that can adequately reflect the mendacity of our sad and frightened times, it’s easy to understand why Gitmo has become a verb as much as a place, why blindness in faith and in war has cast its shadow across all descriptive effort.
Let me go further. I do not know why I did or did not do anything at all. Perhaps it’s because fighting for peace is indeed like fucking for virginity. Wrong means to a right end. Perfect anodyne solution to a situation where nothing is true and everything is permitted. The Situationists, at least, got that much right. Ours is indeed a culture of palindromes that achieves its full despair-producing effect through the recognition that our sense of the beginning is arrived at only through our knowledge of the end. In foreign as in personal policy, we have become accustomed to graduating through all rituals of self-annihilation in similarly unseemly haste, as if hesitation of any sort would be to open oneself up to the objections of rationality, or to expose a lack of steel for this premature confrontation with the end. In this cultural mosh pit, boredom and violence find their perfect détente. Slamming quickly through homegrown pleasures to the importation of other more threatening species of blankness, we create out of circumstances and predilection our own self-styled laboratories for testing death. Hence the prevailing darkness, the litter of broken pixels, the preference for black paint on top of embroidery, gnomic haikus, and SMS exchanges over rhetorical dialectics. These are the cultural products of the good-faith inroads we made toward the extinction of personality as sought by adolescence and clung to in adulthood as a hope unfulfilled. They are also the fatalities of ignorance and innocence, the collateral damage of our personal wars.
Honking helps, and war in this case seems to be the answer. Militarizing against evil, terror, and drugs gives local cant to global abstractions. In foreign and domestic policy, the caricature of the evil-doer has become a one-size-fits-all boogie man as effective in the mobilization of American might against one-eyed Muslim clerics— our version of Rambo versus the Hobbit— as it has been at home, where the rural fabric is being torn apart not by the consolidations of corporate farming but by high school kids freelancing as chemists. But in truth it’s not the meth-lab aneurisms that darken the CAT scan of rural North America. Rather, it is a more insidious, sub-audible Armageddon that leaches out from the prescription pads of the pharmaceutical interests and into the heads of those for whom the Esperanto of Xanax has created a language of pain management, a muffled syntax of absent subjects and late-in-the day verbs. Everything around has the soft, disinterested feel of conversations belonging to others.
As with our heads so we furnish our homes. In the vicinity of airports and other spaces recognizable by the failed prevalence of any history, we buy into flat-pack socialism turned to a profit— sensible Scandinavian furniture that measures in the metric system and suggests the region’s famous long winters and high suicide rate. Dave Hickey may have been right when he described his personal Vegas as “the only indigenous visual culture on the North American continent, a town bereft of white carpets, ficus plants and Barcelona chairs— where there is everything to see and not a single pretentious object to be scrutinized.”1 From such a lack the isolation of substance can itself become a state of interest.
And if we have become used to a type of art that speaks in ad hoc responses to the driving forces of the market and taste, we have also become accustomed to the platitudes that seek to make sense of the senseless by incorporating the things we know among the things we don’t and perhaps never can. Here our art is served as seismograph, alert on the fault lines of culture to every tremor of the fashion plate. And while it would be not only curious but wrong for the texture of now not to reflect these uncertainties, it is also hard not to think of the dark troika of dislocation, dreaming, and dread as narratives told only in self-defense. The woman on the sixteenth floor and the man whose world is drowned in distortion have in common the intuition that these stories we tell ourselves in order to live may yet be inadequate. Their descriptions fall short in ways not fully understood. They leave me consulting menus of strange choices and calamitous consequences. Meanwhile, I receive emails and texts like nighttime companions, each with its insinuation of personal literature. I see typed passages in my sleep, underwater texts, almost decipherable. Looking at this carnival of unnecessary ideas, it’s easy to imagine them as the portents of other, better-rehearsed ends. At the same time, each local refusal of the narrative overview allows the bad disjunctive idea to breathe its own air. And with the inhalation of this ambivalence comes the exhalation of contradiction. And so we recognize ourselves encoded in the rhythm of these minor graces, and what, after all, is there not to like about that? Man, these antidepressants really are strong.
1. Dave Hickey, Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1997), 23.
Neville Wakefield is a writer and commentator on contemporary art, culture and photography. He currently is creative director for Adam Kimmel Projects and co-creative director of Tar Magazine, first issue released, October 2008. He is also senior curatorial advisor for PS1 MoMA and the curator of Frieze Projects at the Frieze Art Fair. Among many projects, he is a co-founder and co-producer of DESTRICTED, a series of films that address the issue of sexuality in art. He most recently curated the exhibition BUILT TO SURVIVE THE REAL WORLD, in January 2009, at Andrew Roth Gallery in New York.