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Superconversations Day 7: Tom McGlynn responds to Jimmie Durham, "Apocalypsis, or The Dragon in Her Cave"


A Grain of Sand in the Salad Bowl of the Imagination

Jimmie Durham begins his text with a deconstruction of a fragment of advertising copy for a financial trading platform. He then presents what appears to be a scientific analysis of cannabinoids on lab mice. In the first part, he isolates words such as “Cross Asset”, “Risk” and “Management” in the second, he highlghts “Article” and “Satiety”. Between these two, he seems simply illuminates linguistic relations between the science of exchanges and the exchanges of science. He follows this with an interjection of a non sequitur concerning the “statistical illusion” of movie box office exchanges. Durham then introduces a personal soliloquy of a visit to a physiotherapist, which morphs into a universal poem “everything is light years away” that ponders the persistent materiality of a grain of sand in a salad bowl.

In its hybrid construction, Durham’s piece is mimetic of how our organic “random access memory” presents information for synthesis, as fragments from differing categories that get processed by the mind and the body simultaneously. His choice of the trading system Calypso and the piece’s title refer directly to the Odyssey, specifically the point where it’s hero gets detained from his quest to rejoin his wife and home by a nymph’s enchantment. Calypso wants to set up Odysseus as her immortal husband. Hers is a charming simulation of a wife who transforms her unwilling suitor into a prisoner.

The metaphor can be read as the ideologically infinite supplanting mortal finitude. For Durham it seems the symbolism is also apropos of the systematized fluidity of global commodity trading and how its extensions can constrain and supplant actual physical cause and effect on the ground. The “Apocalypsis” of the title makes Durham’s attitude toward this phenomenon unambiguous. By following this with scientific language relevant to the pain relief afforded by administering cannabinoids in laboratory mice, Durham juxtaposes the syntax of science with the body in pain. This again presents a dialectical relation between the abstract and the real, between the high and the low, the exalted and the abject. His ending with a poem that moves from the personal to the universal reverses this abstract/real order to present a personal/ideological opposition that then ends with the real “ a grain of sand” upsetting the ideal “salad bowl” of memory and its abstract conflation of terms in memory.

Durham’s word piece suspends categorical distinctions to metaphorically cross boundaries between typically compartmentalized disciplines in order to form a poème concret which contains these differences in an ontological bricolage , one that erases being as difference with the intent of making radically present both affective thought and the neural effects of material being.

How might his contribution be relevant to the 56th Venice Biennale? One way might be to point out the conceit of formal, categorical differences (and the granular partitions of the vectoral class) and how these tend to hamper a more emancipated picture of the poetics of thought; a poetics that might lead to real consequence: an imaginary toad in a real garden or the crunching of a grain of sand in the salad bowl of the imagination. Is this humble poetic form and its suggestion of a transcendent meta-consciousness still an adequate mode in which to address and critique a present in which the speculative is becoming the realist ontology du jour?

Tom McGlynn is a New York based artist, critic, and independent curator whose work is represented in MoMA and the Whitney Museum.


This response, along with the piece it engages with, recalls for me Walter Benjamin’s statement about the superiority of advertising to criticism, and presumably, to critical art and writing as well:

What, in the end makes advertisements so superior to criticism? Not what the moving neon red sign says – but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt

Here we encounter the non-decelerationist, perhaps quasi-accelerationist Benjamin, who would agree with @tommcglynn’s assertion that, while “Jimmie Durham begins his text with a deconstruction of a fragment of advertising copy for a financial trading platform”, and thereafter “point[s] out the conceit of formal, categorical differences (and the granular partitions of the vectoral class) and how these tend to hamper a more emancipated picture of the poetics of thought; a poetics that might lead to real consequence”, that, nevertheless, “this humble poetic form and its suggestion of a transcendent meta-consciousness” may not really constitute, in our time, “an adequate mode in which to address and critique a present in which the speculative is becoming the realist ontology du jour”.

In short, I am left wondering, is Durham’s deconstruction of advertising copy for a financial trading platform not suggesting the reverse case - that criticism, and critical art and writing, is “obviously” and always already superior to advertising? To argue that advertising is superior to criticism may seem on first glance, precisely the reverse of a critical disposition, let alone a Marxist one (heterodox or not), yet all advertising draws upon desire that in many respects, is properly understood as a desire for the common/s. As suggested in @TheNewCentre’s commentary on Day 1 of the Supercommunity:

While… technological [and thus, advertising-oriented forms of] mediation can… be easily reduced to money, without the allure of non-instrumental usefulness, no community would ever succeed. People don’t join Facebook or Twitter simply to accumulate cultural or economic capital: they also join because they are not free-floating individuals, but rather singularities that emerge from conditions of collectivity. Supercommunity begins from this assumption.

How then, might we speculate upon this real desire (usually from otherly-situated bodies from our own), rather than simply dismissing it out-of-hand, as reducible to money?


@PERCEPTICON I appreciate your focus here on the function of the critical voice vs. that of advertising. Benjamin draws one’s attention the the phenomenal experience of the sign’s reflection, thereby decellerating the shallow fascination of the technologically animated neon into its “fiery” reflection. He enacts a alchemical transformation of the simulated noumenon of the sign into the phenomenal experience of the sign’s devolution into its indistinct reflection. Interesting that he simply implies a mirroring surface in his construction by referring to a man-made, synthetic material. There is no mirror of nature allegorized here, no representation or shadow of the real but a synthetic matrix of asphalt. In his seamless jumping from one rhetorically overdetermined category to the next (commerce, science,poiesis, autobiography) Durham constructs a similarly synthetic matrix (his salad) in which to offset the abrasive phenomenology of the sand grain. Both Benjamin and Durham share a similar belief in the transcendent potentialities of indistinct reflection rather that a 1:1 ratio of sign with signification. The connotative function of advertising trumps the denotative function of criticism in this fashion. Both create synthetic, abstract matrices that support speculative projections that hold the carrot of economic or aesthetic consummation perpetually suspended out of reach. Advertising serves the function of stoking the engine of virtual desire in order to extract real profits. Real profits today can be extracted by offering consumers (including social net- workers) the virtual product of their virtually inculcated desires. My original question had to do with whether or not Durham’s quasi-aesthetic is intended as an effective critique of simulated desire or simply a parallel, aestheticized, microcosm of simulated desire. Is he basically advertising a fragmentary aesthetics in order to critique the contemporary fragmentation of aesthetics by advertising?


I often feel that contemporary art, through its phenomenological claims (one could almost say that today, phenomenology might just be contemporary art’s raison d’etre) is permanently trying to reflect the red neon into a puddle, often without making the neon.

It often becomes really apparent how contemporary art works precisely like advertising and marketing. The permanent strategies required to succeed in it: from monochrome outfits to curated instagram or facebook pages. This form of artist lifestyle porn turned art becomes the symbolic commercialization of an aestheticized microcosm of simulated desire.


What I find extremely clever in the Benjamin quote is that he dematerializes the actual sign into a reflection of its effect. His rhetorical construction is basically a critical allegory of the exchange between two abstractions: advertising (the spectacular) and its effect (pure speculation).

“I often feel that contemporary art, through its phenomenological claims (one could almost say that today, phenomenology might just be contemporary art’s raison d’etre) is permanently trying to reflect the red neon into a puddle, often without making the neon.”

I like this Manuel. You point here to the purely symbolic capital of “art”. Perhaps there really never was a “primary object” of art. This being the case is has the potential to be the perfect vehicle of non-representation. The issue you seem to address here is that the critical task of non-representation (by aesthetics, art) has swallowed its own numinous tail and has become assimilated into contemporary capitalist subsumption of critique. The Durham word piece adopts a schizoid voice , seemingly in an attempt to evade entering the (ouroboros) dragon in order to maintain a resilient critical ontology. He is demonstrating a way that an aesthetic strategy (the cut-up) can still actualize as critique rather than simply as an advertisement for another critique.

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@ManuelCorrea There is nothing wrong with art being phenomenologically oriented so long as this is only a matter of platforming. our embodied experience can and should be the basis of something more significant other than only an experience. Art either online or #offline can and should play its part in helping us get out of the whimsey of our own experience.


@tommcglynn It might sound very cynical, but I believe the only kind of critique available to us right now is -no critique-. Ever since Relational Aesthetics we learned it for a fact that the sum total of potentialities encompassed by our critical modus operandi is permanently being extinguished and paralyzed by the love institutions and professionals have on newness or critical oriented discourse. I really do believe that there was never a primary object of art.

@DADABASE While I agree that there is nothing wrong with art being phenomenologically based, it has become very evident that having art be solely reliant on naive phenomenological claims (as is the case with most artists) is incredibly boring, and produces a stagnation. As we have previously discussed, you, Ben Woodard and Reza Negarestani think art is at a standstill. Two assumptions of mine to feed into this:
1.) Art is at a standstill because an overderermination of a naive form of phenomenology. EXAMPLE: You have to see my 3 meter by 2 meter tableaux lightbox photograph in a dim light space, and if you see it in your computer, you don’t get anything from it.
**2.)**The refusal to accept cognition as a form of mediation confers it with claims that attempt to transcend the technological, generating a resistance to non-naturalized mediation (a pencil is naturalized through a long process of co-evolution (Alex Galloway), but computers or the internet are not yet, and might need centuries).

I’m not sure I would use the term “decelerating” - I would say rather that he is accelerating our capacity understand what critical perception is and can be, via the “bad new things”. Recall from the Work of Art essay and elsewhere, the notion of reception in a state of distraction, which he says cinema provides in ways that other arts are less capable since they are all about absorbing the work into oneself rather than being absorbed by the work, which is how advertising tends to try to work.

@ManuelCorrea: to my reading Benjamin’s approach is not that of a return to the experiencing, individual subject but quite the reverse - as Deleuze puts it with respect to the functioning of cinema, “instead of going from the acentered state of things to centered perception…[it goes] back up toward the acentered state of things”, or, one might say, back up to acentered objects or noumena. If anything, both are noumenologists rather than phenomenologists, and the material production and circulation of the neon (or whatever) is absolutely central to this approach, rather than something that is only reflected upon personally and individually after it has been experienced. What I found lacking and also overly-typical is the immediate, almost moralist critique of advertising as “not real” in the original piece, when in fact it is totally real, and not morally suspect in the slightest: people really do desire connectivity, collectivity, innovation, and so on, it’s just that at present, this desire is captured and restrained by capital, made to serve some ends rather than others. @tommcglynn: For that reason, the reflection is not really about an individual reflecting subject, as I understand it, but more about how a neon sign is just one part of an overall abstract machine. We can’t forget here, I don’t think, that he really does say “advertising is superior to criticism”. I think he means it.

@percepticon I didn’t intend my characterization of Benjamin as decellerating (by focusing on the sign’s reflection rather than its materiality) to mean that he was anti-accellerationist, but rather that he was pointing to a base, pre-modern, fascination with the fiery effect (rather than say a futurist, scientific appreciation of the neon gases circulating in the glass tubes of the sign, in other words: technology- in- itself). It’s an unsophisticated response derived from a sophisticated prompt-exactly how advertising functions. Durham does the same thing with his partitions of technical languages, naturalizing them to some extent to make up a fragmented, somewhat disembodied reflecting subject. My original response was to question whether or not this poetic, lyrical, intervention (as I believe Benjamin’s is also) is up to the task of critique of the “abstract machine”. Another question arises is, "Advertising.Superior for what? " If one considers advertising as the cutting edge of his epoch’s contemporary theories of perception as opposed to criticism’s old-fashioned connection to Enlightenment reason, then yes, Benjamin’s statement is one of an accelerationist/modernist. If one considers his statement another way it can be read as cynically- driven and highlighting a poverty of critique in the fascinating, primitive effect of the sign’s fiery reflection. Durham’s title conjures a dragon in its cave , perhaps a fire- breathing monster ready to consume all who would dare to access its spectacular treasure via a critical intervention.

Yes, and this is a development to be lauded. Don’t waste time in useless critique, focus energy on the selective affirmation of the new. The only no that matters is the one that allows us to really say Yes. As for phenomenology, it’s high time to start only using the term noumenology as the sole alternative instead, as DARPA has already materialized over a decade ago, with Combat Zones That See - which is not something that won’t benefit the user on the computer, but in fact benefits them there all the more. Really great comments Manuel, I can see that we share many resonantly machinic visions…

@PERCEPTICON Even if we can assume that Benjamin’s embracing of technology, via the work of art essay is contrary to his later position in the Theses, I still would like to know, given his misunderstanding of the mathematical and algorithmic nature of all images and reducing their essence to their reproducibility and as mechanical products of a factory, what is the use value of references him in the context of this post or anything that has to do with our 21st century post cybernetic world?

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@DADABASE I tend to agree with you that @PERCEPTICON invoking Benjamin, while relevant to the first part of Durham’s appropriative strategy, does not completely address the total “detournement salad” of the piece or its present context. Durham goes from advertising, to science, to the diaristic and ultimately to literary aesthetics in his bricolage. I wouldn’t characterize his tactic as an anti-critique. It seems more a meta-critique, yet one ending phenomenally, full-stop, with the countervalent literary device of the grain of sand. The real toad in an imaginary garden croaks a fundamentalist, phenomenalist, protest across its virtual, rhizomically propagating expanse. Whether or not Benjamin would have an adequate response to this is the kind of speculation he himself might have declined.

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How do I also make this a topic of its own relating to the apocalypsis writers and discussions in general?

Why are the ‘eco-extremist tendency’ so fucked?
To be clear I condemn them. Product of A low period of class war wins? Despair? Demographic make up?
Nihilism, egoism, political-philosophical pessimism are colonial and civilisational tendencies anyway? They are incompatible, antithetical to indigenous cosmovisions/’animism’, have no allegory in indigenous politics ‘then’ or now ?
Lot of this ‘Eco-extremist stuff’ also replays ideas about pure dead indigenous groups who can’t be spoken with or talk back and then blend it with first year uni stirnerite-egoism, nihilism, pessimism’. It’s patronising at best to the living indigenous cultures that exist and efforts to invoke dead indigenous people - to make them fit - is no better than some of the anarchist movements poor efforts really to engage with indigenous people.

This is better … ?

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