PRINT Summer 1989


WHAT LEAD TO THE STOCK market’s sudden depression of prices on October 19, 1987? Was Black Monday a glimpse into final chaos and collapse: a financial nova—or something else?

In the monographs, textbooks, and long analytic articles that would be written about it, many invoking the panic and mania of similar traumas—the bursting of the South Sea and Mississippi bubbles in the 18th century, the crash of 1873, Black Thursday of 1907, and, of course, the apocalypse of ’29—two major schools of analysts emerged. The ecotastrophists (who based their thought on chaos and catastrophe theory) maintained that the computer was not the culprit, only an inevitable factor in the increasing subdivision of the world’s markets, and thus subject to classical economic laws, albeit much speeded up. As far as they were concerned, the warning signs were clear long before the debacle. The only question was which little micro-moment would set off the panic. The telefisconicians (also known as the “glitchniks”) proffered that computers and linked markets had chained mass-psychological reactions all over the world, transforming substructural environment into real-time environment. Once the synapse between quantity and quality of programmed trading had become unhitched, the “glitchniks” argued, it would leave, of that insubstantial pageant of the old economy, in which people exchanged things for things, only a wrack of signals behind. Even Marxists tended to fall into one or the other of these two camps, talking of capitalism’s final phase, dielectrical immaterialism, and so forth.

Yet perhaps another story will someday be added to these, that of the role of the organization Digitized Byzantine Mosesaics (DBM), founded in 1984 by three former freelance programmers. DBM’s conceptual breakthrough: a source code for the ultimate operating system. Rather than marketing this one, DBM proceeded to hack their way into a thousand different systems (including the world’s intelligence, military, scientific, and financial networks) to plant their command virus. It took them six days to alter the world’s computer-run infratechnosphere, and on the seventh day, they rested.

On the eighth day, casting around for a marketable product, DBM invented an art program, a program that would supplant all art. It could generate two-, three-, or n-dimensional (in Hilbert Space) variations on any grand and phantasmagoric theme, an everchanging multidimensional light tapestry. The program would work, so to speak, by assembling “artists” out of the truest, deepest, and rawest of materials: symbols stolen from gene-libraries; metaelectro-phoreised protein; free-floating signs and signifieds from the editing programs of mass-market and trade art publications, and, voilà, “the artist.” These “artists” could then summon up the “brushes,” the “chisels,” the “welding tools,” the concepts, the know-how to assemble and generate the expertise of living, dead, and virtual artists.

All this cost a fortune to develop, which the principals in DBM did not have. They began to raid financial institutions. They wrote a brochure:

The programming geniuses at DBM have assembled vast and unending complexities out of their menu-palette. These works, their techniques, their forms, have been linked into an evolutionary sequence . . . an algorithm beginning with the primitives of primitive works—cave-scratchings, feather, wood, bone, and clay work—evolving to anticipate every possible future trend, or make variations on the works past artists might have made. . . . To create this multimedia event, the Father of all events, DBM has deployed randomization techniques, fractals, morphisms, fibers, bundles, twistors, transformers, knots, strings, and super-strings. . . . Millions of frames (a.k.a. “contexts”) are being created even as you read this brochure, queuing up to be summoned in their inevitable time and order. . . . For example, you’ll see works by Rembrandt that he might have painted if he had lived ten years longer, or those works he might have painted between his other paintings.

Art as it used to be is over. Abstract Expressionism? Dead. Geometric Expressionism, Assemblage, Pop? Deceased. Environmental, Color-Field, Op, Kineticism, Minimalism, Post-Minimalism? Interred. Dada, Conceptual, Super-Realism, New Image, Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Geo, you name it, is art done, so to speak, in high-level “languages.” Departed. Deconstructed. Modernism est morte. Post-Modernism is past-Post-Modernism. DBM has gotten down to the fundamental, deep-structure level . . . art processing using the brain’s syntax in real time. Our code represents the final victory of cerebrals over the cartoonists, the graffiticians, the schmearers, the cobblers, the assemblers . . . all amateurs. DBM (using a library of every possible psychological program) has built angst and passion into the process itself. Also, of course, irony, for those who care enough to pretend that they don’t; and critique, for those who pretend that they do. The old marketplace is gone, devalued . . . the star-system is kaput and krapiert.

There were no takers. For who, aside from a few brave artists who had already staked their fragile careers on it, wanted something that could reproduce endless copies, driving prices down, when any singular item is the most valuable?

On April 19, 1987, this message mysteriously invaded the computers of many of the world’s collectors of art: “For sale: world’s rarest and most beautiful object. Starting price, $100 million in constant dollars.” The Annunciation lasted for 30 tantalizing seconds, then disappeared. Actually, the message was delivered in pure machine code, readable only by other machines. What could it be?

Two weeks later, the message appeared again. But this time the “words” were accompanied by a fragment of a “sketch”: a cylindrical section, a dark and almond eye, and a fragment of a breast, recognizable by the cognoscenti as Tintorettoesque in technique.

A week later, and following in more and more frequent intervals, more and more information was revealed. When a month was gone, everyone, or at least everyone’s machine, knew what it was: the womb of the Virgin Mary. Or to be more precise, the petrified womb of above-mentioned item. For in fact, rumors of the existence of this sacred relic had circulated through the religious and art worlds for centuries. Collections of digitized art-slides in computerized archives in universities were queried. Yes, the records revealed; the only question was as to this particular manifestation’s authenticity. It began to be debated in art journals. If it was a relic, was it art? If it was art, could it be a relic, sculpted by subartistic processes?

So much discussion, debate, argumentation, and media coverage ensued that people began to believe that not only did they know all about this item, but that they always had. The legendary relic was said to have been taken out of the Holy Land by a heretical sect of Crusaders who worshiped the sacred ossifact. The sect had been destroyed in a crusade by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300, the very year that Dante was taking his trip to Paradiso. Since then, the petrosanct object was said to have passed through the hands of many owners: popes, secret religious societies—such as the Knights Templars, Masons, Opus Dei, P-2, Tradition-Property-Family, and St. Simonian bankers—and so forth. In spite of all this discussion, there were those who insisted that they had never heard of such a thing before 1987. Such people were accused of operating under a delusion.

If the womb was authentic, who had sent the message announcing its existence, and why had they chosen this mode of announcing its presence? When would it appear on the auction block? There was nothing to do but wait for the egg to drop, so to speak.

THE OWNERS OF DBM HIRED the international law firm of Derrida, Lacan & Gnostag to represent the latest, but secret, owner or owners. So prestigious and secret was this law firm that they only telecommunicated. By fax, Derrida, Lacan & Gnostag appointed Dotheboy’s International, the great art gallery and auction house—using the very latest in high-tech equipment, with branches in London, Paris, Berlin, Zurich, and Rome—to conduct the sale. The scramble to purchase and possess began.

Departing from its usual procedure of holding auctions in its own rooms, Dotheboy’s rented New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur wing, recently become the prime exotic and magical arena in which to hold elaborate corporate public relations press parties as well as—with the proviso that such events be conducted in exquisite taste—weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, christenings, and confirmations. And how much more appropriate could such a venue have been, considering that the temple had been sacred to Egyptian goddesses of fertility and reproduction, and the reproduction not 109 only of children, but of dreams, legends, myths, and histories? Indeed, it was rumored that Norman Mailer had once rented the wing. Sleeping beneath the temple, he had been vouchsafed a dream out of which his novel Ancient Evenings emerged.

An evening, October the 18th, was chosen. Invitations were sent out.

The Holy See, apprised of the auction, denounced the petrified womb as a blasphemous and subversive fraud. After all, hadn’t the market in sacred relics crashed once and for all during the Counter-Reformation? Strongly worded rebukes demanding scientific testing began to flood the computers of Dotheboy’s, from whence they were spirited away, before Dotheboys managers could even look at their E-mail, to the offices of DBM in their far-flung and world-wide branches.

And yet after these tests (including carbon dating) took place, conducted by a team of respected archaeo-forensic experts, Dotheboy’s could safely tell anyone interested that the womb was not an ingenious piece of trompe l’oeil sculpture, that it had once been a living part of a living woman living somewhere between 20 B.C. and 20 A.D. Furthermore, strange markings conclusively indicated that the womb had been the object of mysterious gnostic, pagan, or early Christian rites. More precise the experts could not be. Nevertheless, whether or not it was the original Madonna’s, or some other Madonna’s, it had clearly been subjected to a lost yet sophisticated process of preservation and petrification. This hinted at a profound and ancient knowledge of the laws of reproduction and incarnamitosis. Had the ancients achieved so high a degree of science? If so, history had to be entirely rethought.

Beginning on October 10, a small army of technicians began moving equipment into the Temple of Dendur wing—laser holographic processors, all to be run by a Cray supercomputer. Throughout the next week, a gondola was constructed up against the glass ceiling and a huge console moved in. Screens, upon which the bids from purchasers would be displayed, were set up along the periphery of the wing. A series of cameras would record the event; the tapes had been presold to Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, Paris Match, L’Espresso, Der Spiegel, Asahi Shinbun, The Manchester Guardian, Institutional Investor, Artforum, Art in America, Business Week, The Wall Street Journal, Details, and even The New Criterion. (At least funds from these institutions were withdrawn from their accounts and made payable to Derrida, Lacan & Gnostag.)

The evening of the auction, a glittering throng of the rich, famous, and near-famous showed up at the museum, filling it with an excited murmur. It was the social event of the season and everyone in the world who counted was there, some fifty thousand movers and shakers. Yet curiously, the drive in front of the museum was conspicuously empty of stretch limousines. There was nothing out there: the Metropolitan Museum looked dark and empty. But inside, the throng continued to wend its way to the Dendur wing, passing in stately procession by the loot of Greece, Etruria, Rome, Egypt, Latin America, holding glasses of champagne in their hands, meandering through exhibits, whole wings, known and unknown, invented and actual, of arts and antiquities from hundreds of thousands of primitive cultures, some still existent, others no longer on earth, and others as they might have been, except for some quirk of fate.

And if one had chosen to circulate among the invited, one would have been startled to be able to pass through them, while they, in turn, passed through one another, just as names seem to pass through one another, dissolving into one another, as one scrolls through the lists and images of celebrity services, gossip-columnist directories for Spy, The New Yorker, society columns, New York magazine, Vanity Fair, and Quest, the surveillance files of the world’s intelligence agencies and of the Internal Revenue Service, as well as the data screens listing the transactions of these personages’ bank accounts—all of which are, of course, open books to such wizards as those of Digitized Byzantine Mosesaics. Indeed, the images of these personages had been improved upon, their imperfections leached out, until they had become veritable gods and goddesses, now waiting patiently yet regally, after they had taken their seats, for the auctioneer, behind his table, to raise his hand. Three technicians seated high in the gondola began to key, roll rotary controls, and flip toggle switches. The crowd leaned forward, trancelike expressions on their faces, while all over the world, evanescent and ghostly fingers reached out with the most feathery of electro-touches into a variety of properties, sucking up capital, converting it back to energy, and then combining it to make nucleic acids, beginning to produce genes, and—

—Streams of laser beams shot out! Ruby reds, emerald greens, royal purples, and arctic whites! The beams joined. High above the worn, worshiper-trodden paving stones in the courtyard of the Temple of Dendur, a bulging, multicolored, ever-shifting, three-mouthed sac appeared. The translucent, sacrosanct petrosac pulsated, emanating its own light. And within, dimly seen, many, many ever-changing things—nuclear particles, genetic codes, creatures of all sorts in their embryonic forms, stock and currency quotations, minarets of temples and museums, corridors, recursive corporate structures, vast halls, museums, and museums within museums, paintings and statues, primogenal culture-elements of societies still unknown to anthropologists, variations on the Big Bang.

The audience ooohed and aaahed. Then, with another flash, an apparition formed itself around the numinolith, bedecked in blue robes with white and red trimming, her head encircled by a glowing, swirling halo of supergalaxies; her hand raised as if to confer benedictions and benefices benevolently on the crowd. The audience gasped in awe.

Moving among the audience, an interviewer—a young, stylish black woman—was followed by a video cameraman. “What are the implications of the encroachment of technology into the world of art?” she asked the critic representing the prestigious periodical Novo Homo Faber and Faber.

“Post-Modernist garbage . . . it can never replace the artist."

But others, more trendy, true Initiates, were more enthusiastic. “Ah, yes, technology has finally transcended the flesh and now there is pure trope, syntagm, code, a machine to produce and meld all discourse. . . ."

“The ultimate subtext,” someone said.

“Esthetically aggressive. . . .”

“ . . . metacosmic anxiety, menace, and wit.”

“. . . educated semiotics of the surface. . . .”

“Pre-proto-sub-Modernism. . . .”

“If you ask me,” a voice hissed, “it’s another one of your typical, left-wing, ideological assaults on eternal values.”

“It’s brilliant. One sees in it the complete dictionary of forms metamorphosing evolutionarily upward in to human and then angelic shapes, devolving downward into the Barthesian-Benjaminian-Borgesian interstices."

“. . . the program-spirit infertilizes the genatrixing hardware. . . .”

There was a round of applause.

“Ahh,” someone said, “that’s what’s behind it all. Out of the hermorphroditic hermeneutic comes a new-age Aphrodite. . . .”

The lights suddenly went black. A woman’s sad voice was singing, “Lover, come back to me. . . .”

“Oh wow; fab . . . totalizingly awesome,” a girl’s high voice said.

The auctioneer’s pitch began. Everyone was curious to see who would bid.

IT HAD BEEN RUMORED that agents of the Vatican were present. But no one in ecclesiastical vestments was to be seen. Had some nuncio infiltrated, disguised as a bland, tuxedoed bidder? Or would the “voice” of the Vatican annunciate itself on the screen? Since the Church had denounced the womb as spurious, why would it want to buy? Perhaps that mystery would be answered in time. Yet in the far right corner of the room, a band of fundamentalist Christians, including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, huddled together, and started the bidding at $150 million. They were determined to purchase the sacred object and thus to deprive the “Scarlet Whore of Babylon”—as they called the Catholic Church—of its power. Beside them, a Muslim consortium (Shiites, Sunni, and Alawites) laid aside their differences in their commitment to retrieve what they claimed had been stolen from them during the Crusades; one tugged at his ear discreetly, and the laserboard flashed $225 million. Israeli combines in the back row asserted that after all, Mary had been a Jew, and so it belonged to them. The laserboard glittered $350 million. Representatives of Disney Productions, standing by the bar, announced their plan to build a theme park around the relic. The laserboard blinked $500 million. And of course the inevitable Japanese, neatly suited in the center of the room, kicked in, taking advantage of their strong yen position. The laser-board zipped to $950 million. The crowd gasped.

That’s when the Iranians leapt in, matching the Japanese offer, but also promising a year’s supply of free oil to the West for the object. But that was only a promise, and the price of oil was too volatile, and anyway OPEC was not in total agreement. The Muslims dropped out.

Nevertheless, the bidding continued. That’s when the representative of the Vatican revealed himself. The Vatican, being in a temporary cash crunch because of the depredations of P-2, tried to up the Japanese offer by asking permission to put up, as collateral, treasures from its own long-secreted collection, acquired over the ages. They offered a Michelangelo Annunciation, never seen before. This Annunciation was once slated to be destroyed because of the sacrilegious presentation of its subject: an angel with an enormous horn-of-plenty-like penis, its end stuck in its own mouth, was depicted coming down from heaven to tell the Virgin (and at the same time to inseminate her) of the great honor that had been bestowed upon her. . . . the conceptio Christi. For that self-indulgence, the Church had made Michelangelo do penance by painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, threatening to chisel his good parts away to reveal the devil lurking inside. . . . The Vatican also offered to throw in an unknown Caravaggio called The Money Changers Driving Jesus from the Temple, not to be found in any catalogue in the world. The Church was prepared to sweeten the pot further with 450 marble penises that had been hacked away from statuary through the ages.

The Vatican’s offer was rejected. It would take too long to evaluate the worth of these objects. Only cash was acceptable. Besides, it was no longer an age of representations, but of representations of representations. Fairly soon, the only contenders left for the womb were the Disney Organization and, of course, still riding on top of the financial crest, the Japanese. When they offered $1.2 billion, the Disneyites dropped out. The Japanese had won.

There was a great “whoosh” as the womb disappeared, drawn into primal hyperspace, the matrix of all mothering forms. In its place two shadowy digits, 1.2—which had traveled through a myriad of mutational spaces—appeared in a field resembling a computerized draft sheet from that great international bank, the Rōichi Ginko. A great and sad moan went up from the crowd. In terms of the great, cosmic accounting sheet, a Land of the Rising Sun is only possible when it is balanced by a Land of the Setting Sun: what would this mean? Already, while the crowd gathered their minks and top hats, strange transfigurations were beginning to take place on the world’s financial markets. Ordered time—which is equivalent to space, to matter, to money, to energy, to words, that is to say to evolution itself—began to recode. A curious diminution of power worldwide, and odd hitches appeared in the financial markets. Many orders did not reach their destination. Many unordered shipments did. Currency transfers in the SWIFT (the Society for World Interbank Financial Transfers) network were suddenly rerouting in odd ways. An explicable depletion of value on the Japanese market, and Hoechst, the great German chemical and biological firm, seemed hexed; its monitors were suddenly registering unauthorized surges in its computer-run gene-stringing machines. Citibank, in its turn, started experiencing spontaneous, narcoleptic down-time lapses. Banco dello Spirito del Valore e Lavoro, in its turn, registered a peculiar trembling in its assets. In the meantime, digitized art-slides in university computer banks were beginning to reevolve. Weird waves were sweeping through museums, altering time-honored works, even as throngs watched them. And Jesus, in all his artistic representations, as child, as boy, as man, was devolving and disappearing, giving his mother something new to cry about.

Dawn of the 19th of October rose. The stock market, already roiled and troubled, opened at 2047. In the first hour it climbed to 2179. Good times rolling. But the weather-predicion computers showed an eerie, gold and green sunset enfolding America; some were astonished to note is resemblance to the sky in Titian’s The Virgin with the Rabbit. Meteorologists were astonished. Astronomers, too, were stunned by the sudden evaporation whole galaxies in their telescopic scanners. Had the third world war, the atomic war, broken out? he markets began to dip in the second hour. The general slide was slow, going down to 2041 by 11:05 By coffee-break time, the moon had started rising over inky western skies. A sudden surge, a flare-up, a strobe effect, an electromagnetic pulse; and the• market rebounded to 2124 by 11:30, generating a collective sigh of relief. But by 12:00 it was down to 210 and, except for some false tremblings, the great slide had begun.

The great shock-wave surge rebounded through the telecommunications system to reach the womb, now in Japan, in Kyoto, to be exact, in the Nijo palace. The uterus, clearly the West’s uItimate source of power, a holy one-time-pad enscribed with God’s mutational urjaculation, was now securely in the hands of the Japanese, who were determined to find out what it was that gave it its magic. It as being bombarded with sonar, bathed in X-rays, crystallographied, insulted by ultraviolet and infrared light, CAT scanned and depth sounded, magnetic resonated, theogrammed and radared; there were even sensors planted in it to pick up any background amniotic radiation left over from the Great Event.

THE WESTERN POWERS, THE OLD Allies, resurrected the spirit that had generated e Crusades. Determined to recover the most sacred formed an alliance. With somewhat veiled threats, they insisted the Japanese must sell back the womb. Negotiations began. But knowing the Japanese, it would take years, if not centuries. The Japanese promised, as always,to be open to a “reasonable” bid. Would anything ever come of it?

Yet unknown to one and all, the Japanese were making plans for the womb to be interred inside the body of Hirohito when he died, any decay arrested by the newest techniques of embalmment. Within the elaborate catafalque, the body of the emperor would be encircled by a nuclear magnetic resonator, the resonator in turn hooked up to a complex of sensors, wired by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, just on the off-chance that some cells might come to life again and have “words” to communicate. . . . In MITI (the Ministry of International Trade), two Shinto attendants now sit in venerable attention before a screen, waiting for the slightest sign, the slightest sign. . . .

Sol Yurick is a novelist who lives in Brooklyn. “The Auction” is adapted from his new novel-in-progress, The King of Malaputa.