PRINT January 1990

Split Infinities

1. Modernization and Its Discontents

Automobiles, bombs, and movies keep the whole thing together.
—Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment

Modernization, as Trent Schroyer puts it in The Critique of Domination, is "a permanent revolution of scientific and technological innovation.”1 Modernization is the up-front efficient production of knowledge, and the seemingly unlimited capacity for the virtual interchangeability of technology. . . .

The motor of Modernization is communications. Modernization is the very magnitudes, extensions, and accelerated tempos of information networks and codes of knowledge. The media simultaneously issues from and issues progress reports on the Modernization process: rapid circulation of world events, financial data, political information, military developments, etc. Also art news! Speeded-up dissemination of (too much) information doesn’t preclude disinformation. In fact, disinformation is a key component in information dispersal. Ferocious regimes of control depend upon communication systems, developed social strategies, and new means of containment (frequently torture)—all of which are “improved” through Modernization. The “bureaucratic society of controlled consumption” easily diverts to the consumption of human beings: the carnage has been estimated at 100 million in this century. . . .

Modernization—infinitely flexible, reinforcing, and recuperating—is the great equalizer. Modernization multiplies efficient quantified units of whatever, a gloss of status items, seemingly to neutralize class differences, national differences, etc. Modernization investigates open movement, subjective experience, provides free-floating signs and significations, all manner of excitations. But with only the smallest shift of recognition, Modernization reveals itself as the administration of technology and information for global control. . . .

2. Information Amok
Information permeates, infects, enters into all aspects of existence: immediate, direct, extensive, intensive, implosive, abrupt, atomized, discontinuous, dispersed, invasive, naturalized. To contrast a period in the not-that-distant past, let’s say French North Africa about the time of Delacroix, just before photography erupted on the world scene: how does the news get to metropolitan France? To Paris? There are no satellites, no photographs, no TV, no fax machines, no fiber optics. News gets to Paris, shall we say, by slow boat. It arrives, perhaps a week later, more likely several weeks. News takes the form of more or less hearsay reports, and of reproductions of artists’ drawings and engravings of sites and objects, reproductions produced in Paris, far from their original location. . . .

How about today? Today. we are bombarded in rapid time, in which the rapidity itself increasingly becomes part of the message—and not in a sequential transmission, but in an overlapping (countering, corrupting, distorting, dissembling) network, which, in turn, is retransmitted or further dissembled or distorted. We’re constructed and continuously reconstructed out of all the photographs and all the bits and pieces of atomized information that pass through us like neutrinos! It is increasingly difficult to totalize this information—too much, too fast, too conflicted, too banal, too esoteric—too many generalized or specialized theories of relativity. . . .

Theorization inflates as rapidly as information, theory being, obviously enough, information that explains information. And theories jostle, or play substitution games, sequentially or abruptly or distortingly or disruptively, or accumulatively, or maybe subversively. Theories collide, blow up, dessicate, or just hang around, looking for some new developments to juice up their action. . . .

3. Radical Objectivity/Radical Subjectivity
. . . Telecommunication, in its sensorial impact, disintegrates the boundaries between subjectivity and objectivity.

The objective, which supposedly distinguishes straightforward differentials, empirical facts, or pragmatic choices, is randomized. The subjective, which infers the range of projected or visualized choices (regardless of causality or scientifically derived process) is separated from its contingent psychic circumstances and is systematized as part of the discontinuous ranges of impulse and ego gratification. . . .

Such “subjective” experiences as rage or political hostility are given discrete phenomenological locations while such “objective” phenomena as the technology of information acquisition and distribution are invested with free-floating subjective input. . . . Radical objectivity and radical subjectivity become like quarks of consciousness, bits or quanta of information, inert or spontaneously reactive, the speeded-up assimilation and indigestibility of the bits and quanta of modern experience. . . .

To conflate radical objectivity and radical subjectivity is to undermine the general epistemological underpinnings by which art is associated with contextual conditions, selective social controls, broad cultural directives, etc. Working and not working, functioning and dysfunctioning, hanging between possibilities that are relatively possible, half possible, and near impossible; just as the item, the possibility, the action occurs, its antiappearance, antipossibility, is manifest (jumps up).

Modernization, by undermining or destroying the difference between objectivity and subjectivity, between supposed causal/rational choice and intuition/chance, seemingly offers “everything” as potentially available. The “demand” for liberated life-styles and art styles is satisfied by the production of “satisfying” spectacle. The artist satisfies demand, the circulation of art and global (art-world) expectation, while conspicuously and publicly ratifying his/her subjective freedom. This is Modernist expectation submerged in post-Modernist surfeit.

4. Sci-Fi and Then Some
The determining analysis of the modern world has seen economic interests as the motive power for social organization (capitalist. Marxist, many competing versions or subsystems). A more bizarre explanation is that of science fiction—unparalleled extrapolations of possibility and variation. The early 20th-century fairly bristled with sci-fi fantasy—remarkably being brought into real time today by the pace of up-front queries into computers, artificial intelligence, biogenetics, robots, cyborgs, etc. No area of developmental logic is exempt from the accelerated visions and technologies of science, exhaustive macro/microprobes. . . .

The science pages of the New York Times recently discussed sensors now in developmental stages that are part electronic and part organic. The “Technology” lead in the business section of the Times had an article as far back as 1982 reporting that researchers

envision the day when computers will be made out of proteins or other chemicals. . . . In what would be a merging of two glamour fields—electronics and genetic engineering—they say that bacteria could he manipulated to produce computer components in the same way they are now being engineered to turn out insulin and other chemicals. . . . They say genetically manipulated bacteria would produce a protein. . . to which the various molecular components would adhere, enabling the computer to assemble itself, much as nature assembles biological substances.
—Andrew Pollack, “Computers front Bacteria,” The New York Times, 18 February 1982

This is truly recombinant possibility as the sci-fi impossible becomes imminent. Recombinant possibility is all over the place:

Some advanced music samplers can mimic and reconfigure a person’s voice, thus generating statements that were never really uttered—which makes these machines a perfect gift for the latter-day inquisitor who has everything except a confession. . . .
—Jeremiah Creedon, “Stolen Moments,” In These Times, 13–19 May 1987

The same seamless splicing or elimination can be achieved in photography. No more crude cutting out of Trotsky or Bukharin, etc., from photos, leaving crude edges. In seamless recombinant touch-up, no traces of altering human agency will be recognizable or traceable. A new world of free-associative recombinant possibility!

The Sciences, the publication of the New York Academy of Sciences, in May/June 1986 published a visionary article on science and nature based on the theories of John Platt:

As computers and machines come together in the new field of robotics, so robotics and bacteria may ultimately he united in “biochips”. . . . Like plants performing photosynthesis, these manufactured molecules would exchange energy with their surroundings. But rather than turn it into cell material, they would turn it into information. The possibilities inherent in such a development are awesome. It might, for instance, open the doors to ”cybersymbiosis,“ the commingling of human and manufactured parts in new life-forms. . . . Homo sapiens might survive only as a rudimentary organ, a delicately dissected nervous system attached to electronically driven plastic arms.
—Lynn Margolis and Dorion Sagan, ”Strange Fruit on the Tree of Life," The Sciences, May/June 1986

While we are waiting for new recombinant destinies, we might amuse ourselves with virtual realities—not in real time but in virtual time, simulated lime, but so real that when we participate in it, we don’t know the difference:

If you’re wearing something called a DataGlove, you can reach down and pick up the apparent hat and flip it over, and see not only the hat turning over but also your hand—or, at least, a rendition of it—doing the turning. The DataGlove has sensors stretched along each finger and across the palm, so that it can report the ever changing location and configuration of your hand to the computer, which then reconciles virtual reality with the data. . . . Thus, virtual environments may. before long, he peopled by seemingly autonomous representatives of real or imagined species. And progress in artificial intelligence may well, by the early part of the next century, permit virtual humans to respond to your virtual presence—including your conversation—like plain folks.
—Robert Wright, “The Information Age: Virtual Reality,” The Sciences, November/December 1987

Is all this a bit frightening? Dystopian? . . . To "invent the future”—the great dream of Modernization and Modernism—well, the future is developing the capacity to invent itself. The appeal is haunted by the specter of these developments taking a hand (a quantum leap) in their own development—getting out of control! Even if coming up fast—these are future fears and are largely circumscribed within the relatively protected and prosperous enclaves of the West and Japan. Yet some statistics on third world countries:

One out of four boys, and one out of five girls, reaches secondary school. As for higher education, the number who have had access to this rare opportunity is so small as to be statistically insignificant. The generation of those under 15—the vast majority horn in underprivileged countries—is functionally illiterate by the hundreds of millions. . . . On the average, these countries have an unemployment rate of 40 percent—a total of about 450 million men and women with no jobs at all, or who are employed only sporadically. . . . The number of job seekers will double within 20 years.
—Sheldon J. Segal and W. Parker Mauldin, “To Help 1.3 Billion,” The New York Times, 23 February 1981

These people are not worried about futurist possibilities of recombinant biomachine annexation but about who’s running the show and how it’s being handled. . . .

The Chilean National Directorate of Intelligence (DINA) was created in 1974:

Its prime directive, in the words of its creator, Col. Manuel Contreras, was “the management of silence”. . . . Operation Condor was . . . this multinational undertaking . . . a consortium of Latin American intelligence services . . . [that engaged in] exchanges of intelligence and international surveillance of exiles . . . [and involved] jointly constituted killer teams. . . .
—Jorge Nef, ”Importing State Terrorism," The Nation, 12 July 1980

This is not sci-fi but real-time political events. So what has this got to do with art?! Nothing and everything!

5. Crisscross
What is the nature of representation under Modernization? How does the artist as subject enter the historical moment, the subjective circumstances and “concrete” facts of the modern world, actualized and objectified in practice and event? Perhaps to formulate it this way—historical moments, concrete facts—is to grant these circumstances a clarity, a time slot, that at least as regards art is no longer logically graspable.

Ideas about advanced industrial technological society have been part of the artist’s baggage (and bad conscience) since the 19th-century. Modernization administers, offers heteronomous means, how the world is interrogated, the production of the individual, how the subject enters/changes the Modern/post-Modern world, the telescoping of roles, even to the projection of the hero artist (the mad scientist of visualization) onto the world stage—but in collapsed circumstances. . . .

Out of the black hole of Modernism/post-Modernism collapsing into itself, a science fiction world is perhaps reconstitutable, on the verge of manifestation/existence. And no one is more adept at climbing out of black holes (or falling into them) than that mime of Modernism, the artist!

The projective vertigos of artmaking in the 20th-century seemingly veer at the edges, or the risk-taking, of sci-fi. As in sci-fi, the artist is situated in an “as if” location—special worlds of his/her devising that he or she goes skipping between, a rakish raking figure disclaiming or appropriating facts at will. Sporting various esthetic guises, a skeptic outsider/insider, the artist is a distant figure up front, a confidence man/woman you can trust! The artist as smart aleck of Modernism, hyped but really serious, lucked up but onto something—this is not strict sci-fi but it permits crossing boundaries, transmigrating subversions, ransacking or sacking whatever is around.

Items/experiences cut into Modernism and the Modern world, jumble, pile up, discontinuous, asymmetrical, discursive, replicant, mutated, fey, polemic, manic, scientistic, etc. It is an art world always on edge, eager for excitation or provocation, proud to represent Modernism, ready to take off at all times. The fact that it is collapsing in on itself (an infinite process) deters no one, bothers no one (almost), including the author of this text !

Art’s nonconformist stance is a comfort to everyone in the art world, a user-friendly world. It preserves the sense of a special, more brightly lit enclave where Modernism can play out its drama. Art assuages middle-class hesitancy—tempers existence—reinforces the hope that the world is safe—gives back a sense that one is in control. Post-Modernism, for all its break-out claims, is safely anchored in the security business. To do this right, however, a lot of entrepreneurial boldness, managerial finesse, critical substantiation—not to mention avant-garde strategies—are called for!

Contemporary art comes tip against to what extent or how one operates under what controls. Who is making the determinations? How are these determinations made? We’re not talking about the mere recognitions of who’s selling the art, but of the much more pervasive, extended, or marginalized recognitions as to the nature of the kind of world it is and what the hell is going on. The doctrine that art must only serve art, that art is loyal to art, is a brave (or is it a desperate?) attempt to isolate art from the forces of history and science, from the unremitting pressure of events and possibilities, many if not most of which are near unbearable or irredeemable.

Art must inevitably contend with (when it is not stroking!) bureaucratic or force structures, where power resides. Artists put themselves in the middle of what’s going on—often claiming privilege—and pride themselves on knowing when and how to interrupt, subvert, appropriate, or jump the links that are the connecting bonds that society implies are indispensable. Insistence on autonomy is evasive or coy in regard to authority that partially distinguishes artistic from scientific derivation. The cross-pollinations of artists, as distinct from those of scientists, lend to he infinitely more quixotic. So when and if it comes to transcending the strictures of possibility, although artists, of course, do not ordinarily have the technical means or knowledge of scientists, watch out for the artist as a neuromancer of the possible, a magus of Modernism, the artist as a master collagist, a mixmaster, an esthetic splicing genius, great al crisscrossing and cross-fertilization. He or she enters the sci-fi lists with little reservation or regret.

Watch out. Will artists vie with genetic engineers and artificial-intelligence types in heading toward and devising new life/art forms?! Think of the possibilities!



1. Trent Schroyer, The Critique of Domination. Boston: Beacon Press, 1975, p. 27.