the all-encompassing moment: time, violence and the aesthetics of trauma

If you don't know who this is, sorry, but fuck you.

“Don’t listen to people who tell you that life is short and that you should do something reckless. You know better. Life is only short when you’re in agony. Otherwise, life is very damn long.”

– Daniel Goldstine, psychotherapist and author

Let’s start with Karl von Clausewitz. Here’s a picture, just so you have something to imagine.

Carl von Clausewitz, by Wilhelm von Wach, 1830

Carl von Clausewitz, by Wilhelm von Wach, 1830

As anyone who has spent any time around anything military will tell you, whenever a monstrously huge organizational structure like a modern army or navy (or for that matter a even sufficiently large corporation) tries to accomplish even very simple things, particularly when it is composed primarily of a bunch of variously educated males between the ages of 18 and 40 like the military is, it is just not going to be a very efficient process. In fact, it has always, historically, been so horridly inefficient that soldiers and officers standing around in one or another of the endless lines that military people are always standing in eventually invented a fairly powerful and generally adaptable philosophical concept to explain just how, as a friend once put it, “goddamn long everything takes” and why “no one knows where shit is“. Friction and the fog of war are von Clausewitz’s two big concepts that explain, to put it bluntly, why it is (respectively) that everything takes so goddamn long and why no one knows where shit is.

Friction is the idea that no matter how well you plan, no matter how elegant and powerful a theory, no matter how exactly you’ve thought of every last detail… it’s going to take longer than you thought and it’s not going to go how you thought. The fog of war concept is the spatial symptom of friction – it’s simply not knowing what’s there or what’s going on. Watts (2004) cites Michael Paret, whose book on Clausewitz I’ve inexplicably misplaced or given away, and who identifies von Clausewitzian source of friction as follows:

  • insufficient knowledge of the enemy
  • rumors (information gained by remote observation or spies)
  • uncertainty about one’s own strength and position
  • the uncertainties that cause friendly troops to tend to exaggerate their own difficulties
  • differences between expectations and reality
  • the fact that one’s own army is never as strong as it appears on paper
  • the difficulties in keeping an army supplied
  • the tendency to change or abandon well-thought-out plans when confronted with the vivid physical images and perceptions of the battlefield.

Notice the concepts of perceptions and expectations as distinct from reality appear in here. Keep in mind von Clausewitz is writing less than a century after Leibniz even described perception and apperception (holding a perception in your mind) – again, to put it bluntly, we’re talking the 1700s here and as with today, most people were just not that smart. People are bleeding each other in barber shops to cure illness and banging holes in each others’ heads to cure madness. So you might imagine how it was, in modern terms, idiotically fascinating and new that there might be more to the world than you perceived it with your eyes – for instance, by looking through a microscope that was just being invented, or through a telescope that was still limited to observatories, or thinking about it with philosophy that was still essentially an outgrowth of religion. Von Clausewitz was examining war through writing during a time when his country, Prussia, was essentially getting its ass kicked on the battlefield (at the battles of Jena and Auerstadt).

So put it all together – not like some academic trying to write a paper on time, but try to imagine the basic facts as a person with some actual empathy and a sense of history. You’re this frankly rather sensitive-looking Prussian officer, your country is either barely avoiding or actually at war on two fronts simultaneously and your king happens to be an innovator in a new practice called a standing army, where a nation (also a new concept) will actually hire people to be professional soldiers as a job instead of just conscripting them and letting them go again. You’re seeing men get shot, exploded and stabbed with hideously barbaric 18th-century musket-balls, cannons, mortar bombs and pikes even when officers make good military decisions, and no one will listen to the advice you’re giving about how to have less of them shot, exploded and stabbed, or at least shot exploded and stabbed for better strategic reasons.

It is perhaps a testament to the civility of the Prussian intellectual elite that von Clausewitz had a name for this phenomenon as value-neutral and professional-sounding as “friction” and not “general fuckwaddery” or “people just not knowing jackshit”, which would probably even be a compact and repeatable single word in German.)

Violence is sudden, swift and unexpected, and without any expectation, you might think that violence is some momentary thing that’s over as quickly as it began. In fact, this kind of thinking is fairly inaccurate as well as commonplace. The concept of friction shows that violence, particularly large-scale violence like armies commit, is disorganized, hard to keep track of and nearly impossible to plan precisely. Violence lasts a lot longer than you think and it is harder to commit than the victims of violence might imagine. It is not some brief thing: violence is a protracted act, a series of moments telescoped into a single memory or concept or, to be true to the original German spirit of things, a single perception.

The temporality of violence is embedded into the very language we use to think about it. The etymology of the term “violence” should be a gerund like “service” – a verb made into a noun, instead of a quality made into a noun. The gerund or present-continuous term would actually be more apt though incorrect – violencing, like servicing, not violentness like wetness. Violence is an act with independent qualities attached to it, like service is; it is not a quality of things like goodness, badness, wetness or even just existing-ness (or, again, as the enviably economical Germans might put it, sachlichkeit).

Our culture – and by that I mean popular, Western culture, as in Breaking Bad and The Daily Show and reading fiction from Barnes and Noble and magazines as elevated as The New Yorker and as dumb as The National Enquirer, all of it – has only recently had to develop a real sense of violence.

Before the broadcasting of the first Gulf War by CNN and the “embedding” of reporters in the Afghanistan and Second Iraq Wars, no one outside of the military was being given any real sense of what actual modern people shooting at other modern people even looked like. Similarly, the rise of “mixed martial arts” has begun to show people what actual physical fights look like. Prior to the early 2000s, tradition-bound, highly formalized boxing was the only real full-exertion violent spectacle available. Most people – myself included – who had never been in a real fight simply did not know what to expect when two fully grown people of similar size decided to fight each other. And of course the elephant in the room, the World Trade Center attacks of September 11 2001 showed a vast number of people what other people actually dying looked and sounded like – the rumble of falling stone, the sound of people screaming and above all, the incredulous looks of people who minutes earlier had been living in a safe, secure world with only distant prospects of violence. The look on their faces is the look of someone entering a dizzyingly wide, dangerous new world.

The art of the last decade has struggled to come to grips with the contours of this new world. The art that has retreated from this realization has tended to fall back into what is quite frankly, a lot of academic navel-gazing formalist bullshit. Consider Tauba Auerbach or Mark Bradford, two abstract artists who have come into prominence in the past ten years with major shows at the Whitney or sponsorship by Saatchi & Saatchi.

Tabia Auerbach at the Luggage Store next to a few of her paintings. Image credit:

Black Venus, Mark Bradford, 2012

Black Venus, Mark Bradford, 2012

Let me put this bluntly: When you look at either of these paintings, do you give a fuck? Can you imagine anyone you know – I’m not talking one of the 10% of people who know and discuss high art culture just for the fuck of it because they believe that not everything good is popular and who in fact seek out unpopular good things, no screw them – can you imagine anyone actual and real that you know and care about giving a fuck? (Besides me, goddammit.)

I’m an art history major. I studied art and abstract paintings – in particular Pollock, de Kooning and the Abstract Expressionists of the 1960s, which was sadly probably the last major culturally relevant painting trend that anyone can remember. And so here I could discourse at length about the top-down view of the urban grid and panoptic viewpoint offered by a Bradford, or about the interposition of space and how lines and colors coordinate to create a single visual point in an Auerbach, but to 90% of the people in the world, probably more it does not fucking matter. It’s not even that interesting to them. If you’re an adult who participates in modern culture as a consumer or produce and you are, let’s say 18 – 40 today, you’ve seen on television and maybe even in person if you live in New York a very public and real reminder of why you, me, and the rest of the 90% does not give a solid fuck about some stupid abstract painting.

The growth of modernity and the removal of violent crime, physical discomfort and even inconvenience from the lives of the citizens of modern industrialized countries has worked over the decades, particularly in America, to isolate people from the real world in which violence and unpleasant and incomprehensible things happen. The past decade, however, has seen the return of violence to the forefront of American culture – we know what people look like when they die (having seen 9/11 on television), we know how messy and awkward and difficult actual fights are thanks to MMA and as if to perpetually remind us how dangerous the world is, a series of major media organizations constantly publicize and warn us of remote and wildly improbable yet horrifyingly familiar and plausible acts of violence. Within the past two years, we’ve even had to encompass the idea that we live in a world where, say, 28 children can die at once out of sheer malice and insanity.

To put it dramatically, if not entirely inaccurately, time itself shattered on 9/11. History ruptured and with it, our common sense of time began to unravel.

Actually, come to think of it, it's a lot like the Kurt Vonnegut novel.

Actually, come to think of it, it’s a lot like the Kurt Vonnegut novel.

Scroll up for a second. Think about all the crazy things you’ve seen in the past two years. If it is possible, I suspect you will give even less of a fuck about some pretty little decorative painting. Contrary to what academia and prevailing critics of this period think, I believe that there is a reason why you, me, and most everyone does not give a fuck, and it has a lot to do with why academia and famous prevailing critics don’t matter much anymore either.

Simply put, art of this time is doing a pretty fucking terrible job of being at all relevant.

It’s a necessary and even laudable goal to provide people with some aspect of reality that removes them from reality. People and humanity need things like abstract paintings and novels and pretend-universes, sometimes for comfort, sometimes just to experience something new.

However, this need has been fulfilled with increasingly immersive outgrowths of spectacle culture. Society offers you a spectacle to look at that promises to pull you out of yourself and let you escape reality. I am speaking here of the immersive expanded universes of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones or even for that matter Battlestar Galactica or Avatar. The escapist spectacle positions you outside time and space, in some kind of realistically frayed-at-the-edges yet clockwork-orderly narrative world – and in doing so marginalizes you, since we reserve the term “nerd” or “geek” for people who favor life in such escapist realms.

Cultural trauma is the kind of trauma that is inflicted upon an entire culture, as with 9/11 or smaller events like Daniel Pearl’s beheading, the Sandy Hook shooting or the Columbine shooting of the late 1990s. The effect of America’s cultural trauma has been a kind of compression of time and a subtle re-writing of values. We live in Clausewitz time, now – we know how awkward and terrible and difficult violence is, how short life can seem when once it seemed to stretch on forever. This causes an escapist tendency in some – witness the rise of the television mini-serial as a kind of monolithic “binge-watched” visual spectacle, for instance. In others it creates a kind of spurious preoccupation – the need to constantly check one’s smart phone, for instance, keeping up to date on a stream of unceasingly banal pictures of other people’s kids and pets and kids with pets, as if gazing upon stupid little reminders of people we love will in some measure stop or slow the cruel relentless flow of time that separates people by distance and death.

“Love is only possible during times of revolutionary struggle,” the Situationist Michele Bernstein is reported to have said in one of her rarer and more lucidly poetic moments. She was basically Guy Debord’s girlfriend as well as chain-smoking beret-wearing no-shit-for-real early-militant feminist-in-residence. And, like him, she was out there on street corners in Paris in 1968 when a wildcat strike brought lawlessness to the city for an entire summer. In less Frenchy and romantic terms, unpacked of its burdensome Situationist insistence on awareness of history, what Bernstein is saying is essentially that real people worth knowing only exist during periods of real struggle – and she’s not half-wrong.

Michele Bernstein in 1956

Bernstein was wrong in thinking that being worth interesting and worth knowing was some kind of magical state, like some status that you could have that would forever be Your Card Into The Awesome Situationist Club For Cool Frenchies Only. People change; they become less or more interesting, they pass into and out of our lives, and essentially the only people who talk about the eternal nature of people being interesting or not are priests, psychologists, philosophers and other basically useless motherfuckers who do not clothe, shod, feed or entertain a single person. Certainly that’s what happened to Guy Debord, living out his final years drunk, fat, irrelevant rip-shit stoned on Moroccan hash and alone before committing suicide by shooting himself (in the heart, of course, since keeping that John Hodgman look into the grave was apparently important to him to mess up with a bullet hole). Things lasted too long for Guy Debord. Time went too slowly and went on for too long.

There are few artists in the world today and fewer art theorists and historians who understand the type of moment that we’re at, culturally, historically and psychologically. Off the top of my head, I can think of only one, actually, and he deserves an essay all by himself.

If you don't know who this is, sorry, but fuck you.

If you don’t know who this is, sorry, but fuck you.

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