Urgent tasks and a serene gaze
In the era before the internet and digital cameras and kindle art books we lived in finite worlds, and distinguished here from elsewhere, the familiar from the unfamiliar. When we encountered Capa and the Spanish Civil War we were able to be astonished precisely because we had a sense of the ordinary, a here with which to contrast elsewhere.
Now most of us live not in the old bounded worlds of the pre-digital era but in what Dyer calls 'no-places'. We may confine our movements to a small piece of the earth - we may never leave the city where we live and work, for instance - but we nevertheless view, almost every hour of our waking lives, images drawn from other places, and from other times. We see the beaches and bays of distant tropical archipelagos, on a billboard we pass on our way to work; we watch Japanese nuclear disasters or American elections on television; we study the decor of a room on the other side of the world as we talk to a relative on skype. Art can no longer bring farness near, because the contrast between far and near, here and else, the familiar and the strange, no longer holds. Dyer's argument reminded me of Don De Lillo's novel The Names, where the members of a cult make their home in a cave on a Greek island, and later in a set of old grain silos on the edge of the Rajastani desert. De Lillo's cultists believe that the proliferation and elaboration of human languages, with their machineries of jargon and their conceptual distinctions, has somehow deprived the world of its corporeality. Horrified by their inability to apprehend a pre-linguistic, primordial reality, the cultists crouch in their passageways and grottoes and, for reasons that De Lillo doesn't quite make clear, study Sanskrit and ancient Greek and other dead or dormant languages. The cultists reverse Plato's parable of the Cave: for them, truth lies in the shadows, not the light. Is their sensory deprivation the only adequate response to the exhaustion of images, in the era of late modernity? I hope not, because caves make me claustrophobic.
In the one of the pieces in Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, Geoff Dyer suggests that the photographs of Michael Ackerman are a response to the crisis of visual art. Tired of the relentless cataloguing of the exterior world by CCTV camera systems, documentary film makers, and reality TV shows, Ackerman has decided to adjust his lenses and filters until they shoot wraiths and auras and radioactive clouds, and show humans with multiple heads and no necks, and fingers as long as their legs. Ackermann's grotesqueries might remind us of the Expressionist painters at work a century ago, but where Munch and Kokoschka were externalising feelings of confusion and angst, Ackermann is turning inwards, in an attempt to discover a reality that has not been photographed and filmed and uploaded to Facebook. If I don't quite agree with Geoff Dyer's apparent pessimism about the visual arts, it is because I still sometimes encounter images which astonish and thrill me, and because I often find these images not in the beige rooms of art galleries or on the glossy pages of photographers' books, but amidst the chaos and mediocrity of the internet. I wanted to mention an image which has fascinated me ever since I found it a couple of years ago at an obscure online political archive. You're looking at the cover of the Summer 1978 issue of Urgent Tasks, the theoretical journal of the Sojourner Truth Organisation, a small Chicago-based Maoist political party. The STO was founded in 1970 by ten white students who had decided that working class African Americans would be the vanguard of America's upcoming socialist revolution. The cadres quickly made a 'turn to industry', dropping their social science courses and taking up jobs in auto factories with large black workforces.
In a 1972 report on its progress, the Sojourner Truth Organisation revealed that it had tripled its membership to thirty, but regretfully added that it was still to recruit its first black comrade. The authors of the report were nonetheless hopeful: the revolution which had conquered China must inevitably spread to America, the world's largest and most decadent capitalist power. Every demonstration against the Vietnam conflict or wildcat strike was a door through which history might force its way. Like many ostensibly Marxist groups of its era, the Sojourner Truth Organisation combined a grandiose vision of history with a maniacal attention to local, small-scale events. Party members' time was dominated by the minutiae of day-to-day, week-to-week political organising, as they attended union and United Front meetings, sold newspapers and pasted posters, marched and picketed. But this unceasing activity, with all the sacrifices it implied, was legitimised by a 'scientific' account of human history. The five thousand texts of Marx, with their contradictions and equivocations and their self-conscious provisionality, were regarded by the STO as a single eschatological statement. The whole hundred thousand years of human history led inevitably to the STO and its revolutionary task. History was an arrow aimed at 1970s Chicago.
Because of its claim to wield a universal science, the STO was obliged to complement its newspaper Insurgent Worker, which was full of talk about demonstrations and strikes, with the bulkier Urgent Tasks. Despite its name, Urgent Tasks considered some abstruse and exotic subjects, like the philosophy of Louis Althusser and the meaning of ancient Egyptian civilisation.
What fascinates me about the cover of the Summer 1978 issue of Urgent Tasks is the contrast between journal's title, with its intimations of world-historical crisis and furious activism, and the serene death-mask of Tutankhamun, the boy-king who reigned for a decade in Egypt three thousand and three hundred years ago.
Since it was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, Tutankhamun's gold and lapis lazuli likeness has symbolised the depth and strangeness of human history. Egypt was one of the world's great ancient civilisations, but its religion, its art, and its literature were forgotten for thousands of years, until they became the enthusiasms of European gentleman-scholars. Unlike ancient Greece, which gave many ideas and institutions to subsequent European civilisations, ancient Egypt was a society with no heirs, and therefore an example of how history can be an erratic and destructive rather than teleological and progressive process.
Like Shelley's Ozymandias, Tutankhamun was a once-mighty monarch who was forgotten by history. But where Ozymandias was a vainglorious tyrant, who could or would not foresee his fate, Tutankhamun's golden face appears devoid of hubris. The boy-king stares calmly into eternity. His eyes are wide, but not so wide that they suggest alarm or anger; his mouth is closed, but not closed so tightly as to suggest either pain or resolve. Most photographs of Tutankhamun show him gazing directly at the camera, but the shot used by Urgent Tasks has him eluding our stares, and looking away into the distance. The boy-pharaoh's aloofness and imperturbability are emphasised. Tutankhamun seems to accept not only his own early death but also his long disappearance from human consciousness.
Tutankhamun's expression is so serene that many of the people who saw him in the 1920s and '30s decided that Howard Carter ought to return him to the obscurity of his tomb in the Valley of the Kings. For daring to disturb the blissfully sleeping young man, Carter and his colleagues were supposed to suffer a curse.
I am, of course, imposing my own preconceptions on Tutankhamun when I talk about him serenely greeting obscurity. With their cyclical view of time, the Egyptians would perhaps not even understand talk about historical obscurity or oblivion. As he lay dying of malaria and a broken leg, Tutankhamun would probably have been preoccupied with the afterlife of his soul, or rather souls, and not with the posthumous memory of his reign.
I find it impossible, though, not to see Tutankhamun as a serene and precociously wise figure. And I find, in his face and in his fate, a mockery of the Sojourner Truth Organisation's claims about history and destiny. The STO disintegrated in the mid-'80s, and now exists only as an online archive, a sort of digital sarcophagus where old articles and sorrowful reminiscences are kept. But Tutankhamun doesn't just mock a defunct Maoist organisation: he mocks all of us, for the supposedly urgent tasks we devote ourselves to, and for our spurious belief that we have some control over our futures. The cover of the Summer 1978 issue of the STO's theoretical journal is an accidental masterpiece which says something important about the follies and tragedies of all modern humans.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]