domingo, 19 de agosto de 2012

Modernity by Nichloas Mirzoeff

There was no single experience that could be called the modernity of visual culture. Rather it was an interface of lived experience, the expansion of capital and its tendency to become an image under conditions of intense accumulation, and the resulting mass circulation of images. All these modes of modernity were experienced in different forms depending on historical and cultural circumstances. In a sense, the very all-embracing sense claimed by the idea of modernity expresses what it wanted to be: a way of describing and understanding the modern world. That world was inherently confusing, as Marx and Engels famously described it in The Communist Manifesto ([18481 1948): "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned." The force behind this transformation was the world-shattering growth of capital. Modernity is the experience of constant transformation, of things not staying the same, of endless invocations of the new and the different, all in the service of renewing capital. In Marx's classic analysis, capital is the abstracted form of the value people find inherent in objects. This value can be expressed in two ways: as a use-value, meaning the value that a coat has when I wear it in cold weather; or as exchange value, meaning the value that the coat has when I sell it or swap it for something else. The exchange is based on the amount of human labor it took to create the object. As that can be hard to measure, value has taken an abstract form that we call money.

Marx understood modernity to be formed when people no longer exchanged things directly according to need but in search of more money. An invested sum of money could be used to make coats that, when sold, return a higher quantity of money than the original investment. This "magical" difference comes from the difference in the amount paid to those who work producing the coats and what the employer can sell them for and it is therefore known as surplus value. If money continued to circulate in this fashion, growing in quantity by means of extracting surplus value, it became capital. Whereas an individual may only buy and sell according to need, "the circulation of money as capital is an end in itself, for the valorization of value takes place only within this constantly renewed movement. The movement of capital is therefore limitless" (Marx, [1867] 1977: 253). The next characteristic of modernity, then, is circulation: the endless circulation of goods, money, ideas and to a greater or lesser extent, people. This change was so clear to Marx because it was far from new: "World trade and the world market date from the sixteenth century, and from then on the modern history of capital starts to unfold" ([1867] 1977: 247). That is to say, while there was certainly capital before the sixteenth century, with the expansion of Europe and the beginnings of colonialism and the slave trade, the modern history of capital took a decisive turn at that time.

As capital came to shape the world in its own image, people experienced the world very differently. Marx describes how commodities - those things that are bought and sold - claim the human labor that has formed them as their own inherent characteristics. In trying to explain how it is that manufactured "sensuous things" become "social," or beyond the sensible, Marx drew a parallel with eyesight. He recalls that what we experience as "the objective form of a thing outside the eye" is really no more than the stimulus of the optic nerve. Although light does enter the eye in a material form, the value of the commodity has no connection to its physical properties or the labor that went into making it. For those beyond subsistence level, commodities are desired for often irrational reasons-think of the last pair of shoes you bought: did you actually need footwear or did you want those shoes? Objects come to express our desires, our personality, our sexuality, our religion and so on. As Marx put it, "the definite social relation between men themselves . . . assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things" ([1867] 1977: 165). Rather than people relating directly to each other, relations are mediated by commodities, not just relations with others but even the understanding of the self. This "commodity fetishism," as Marx famously called it, attributes life to things, even though we know they do not have it. So when a middle-aged man like myself purchases a sports-car, almost everyone can make the analysis "mid-life crisis" without difficulty. But that does not stop people from buying or wanting the cars. In short, commodity culture decenters people from their own experience and makes them mediate it through objects.

In part because of this decentering, modernity was lived and experienced in and through the body as a crisis of time and space. When Copernicus proved that the earth moved around the sun in 1543, his discovery undermined the idea that humanity was central to all creation. Although Copernicus placed the center of the universe near the sun, it no longer revolved around humans, who were revealed as a small part of an infinitely large system. In 1752, the British state moved from the inaccurate Roman, or Julian, calendario the Gregorian calendar that equated more precisely with the rotation of the earth around the sun, requiring only one "leap" day every four years to stay synchronized with the earth's orbit around the sun. In order to catch up, the date had to be moved forward eleven days, prompting a widespread protest movement with the slogan "Give us back our eleven days." At the beginning of the nineteenth century, time was registered on clocks according to the specificities of each locality. With the development of railways and other mass communications, standardized time zones and national time were adopted, creating many local anomalies on the borders of, say, Eastern and Central Time in the United States. During the revolutions of 1848, rebels took to shooting the clocks, expressing their sense that standardized time was a form of social control. The historian of science Peter Galison has recently suggested that such alterations in the depiction of time were in part what prompted Einstein's theory of relativity, which, as it were, generalized decentralization. In a relative universe, there is no center, only places from which to observe.

The space in which people lived changed drastically and often incomprehensibly. Modern cities radically changed the lived environment in the nineteenth century, just as enclosures and clearances created a new form of countryside. The creation of the modern city of Paris by Baron Haussmann in the 1860s has become the epitome of this process. Haussmann drove wide, straight and lengthy boulevards one of which now bears his name) through the winding and narrow streets of old Paris in the center of the city. In so doing, he at once destroyed many working-class districts of the city, provided the means to move troops efficiently into the city in the event of an insurrection, and created the cityscape that was to be celebrated by the Impressionists. With the development of the global museum circuit, it is safe to say that some exhibition is celebrating this version of modernity on a daily basis. In the twentieth century, the modern city became New York, with construction driving upwards in the form of the skyscraper that has become the global symbol of the modern city, as any visitor to Shanghai, Taiwan or Singapore can attest. Just as Marx emphasized that the accelerated pace of change in Europe during the course of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution relied on a much longer process of capital accumulation, so did these transformations of modern space follow from the long history of European overseas expansion. In this history, certain nations came to constitute themselves as representing the modern in relation to other nations and peoples that they conquered or colonized. The spatial and temporal crisis of modernity caused the world to be experienced as a picture, first as a still and then as a moving image. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger-no Marxist, it should be said - renamed modernity the "age of the world picture." He clarified that

a world picture . . . does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as a picture . . . The world picture does not change from an earlier medieval one into a modern one, but rather the fact that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of the modem age. (Heidegger, 1977: 130)

That is to say, it was not the ability to make pictures with greater and greater ease that created the age of the world picture but rather a need to render the experience of being in the world as a picture. The long experience of modernity, in this view, has been one in which its displacing and decentering permanent circulation could only be understood as a picture. Even the human sensorium has reacted and continues to react to the new urban conditions and the ubiquity of visual media. In his meditation on the impact of film, the German critic Walter Benjamin argued in the 1930s that in features such as the close-up and slow- motion "a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye - if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man" (Benjamin, 1968: 236). It is clear that the camera can reveal features that cannot be seen by the unaided eye and alters our understanding of the exterior world. We may not be able to see a horse's legs while it is galloping but thanks to Eadweard Muybridge's 1872 photographs, we know that centuries of equine painting in which their legs are depicted as pointing backwards and forwards are in error. Now exploration, which was once the physical discovery of hitherto unknown geographical space, had become the charting of perceptual and pictorial space. Benjamin concluded that we have developed an "optical unconscious," analogous to the unconscious mind mapped by Freud, a means of negotiating experience in the age of the world-picture. In short, modernity in visual culture was the process by which the optical unconscious was produced, experienced and identified as a space for personal identification, social organization and commodification.

Benjamin, Walter (1968), Illuminations, trans. Harry Zorn, New York: Schocken. Heidegger, Martin (1977), "The Question Concerning Technology," trans. William Lovitt, in Basic Writings, New York: Harper and Row.
Marx, Karl ([1867] 1977), Capital, trans. Ben Fowkes, London: Penguin. Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels ([18481 1948), The Communist Manifesto, Moscow: International Publishers.

In: An Introduction to Visual Culture. London, Routledge, 1999. pp. 133-118

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