Yet I, a Corpse, Drive
May 18 – June 22, 2019
The Great Material Continuum
The first image in Brian Aldiss’ novel Earthworks is by far the book’s best. It is of a corpse suspended in an anti-gravity walking apparatus strolling over the ocean, drifting just over the surface of the waves. The wearer died of a heart attack (or similar, I don’t remember) and his automated walking gear floated him off of land entirely to wander the endless seas. This anonymous corpse covering Jesus’ two greatest hits (walking on water and rising from the dead) is uncovered by the crew of a gigantic automated boat, basically a ghost ship, piloted by a minuscule crew. From this point on Earthworks glides rudderlessly into a disappointing adventure story; the most notable thing about the book, to a wider audience, is that apparently Robert Smithson had picked up a copy while in transit and had named the genre of mega-sculpture he was then formulating after it.
Still, the image of the automated corpse, animated, active and yet unknowing – both with and without agency – presses on the mind. The image morphs into an autonomous Tesla carrying it’s dead driver on an endless road trip, Weekend at Bernie’s written by J.G. Ballard. I can imagine the road gliding by underneath, the automation in the car bringing it to a stop at lights alongside the living. Look over from your car and see the driver’s mouth hanging open in a rictus, the eyes sunken into their sockets, a fly, untroubled and oblivious, moving between nose and dry mouth. Inside, the car stereo continues to play the same NPR podcast over and over, warning that should the Democrats move too far to the left they risk alienating a tiny pod of super-wealthy voters, that a wealth tax would go too far. The air conditioning slowly desiccates the flesh like a contemporary Chinchorro mummy, the white faux-leather interior stands in for the Atacama desert. Like Earthworks I’m not sure where this could end up.
Perhaps the real fantasy is to still consume resources even after dying? To somehow animate a shadow of our will to exceed even our own physical capacity to be greedy. Despite not being able to take it with us, we want to keep using and using the world, to fix it so the world can’t get rid of us, even in death. We gasp at the strangeness of the Inca continuing to house and consult the mummies of deceased nobility, yet no one bats an eye when mysteriously the hand of a decaying robber baron, deceased for decades, magically restores a Renaissance painting or acquires a collection of artists’ video work from the 1970s. In a way, the Incan insistence on tracing the activities of the powerful dead back to their own bodies at least provides a measure of accountability. Imagine if John Paul Getty were wheeled out to survey his travertine palace on the hill? If he had to be shown the art works that his proxies had acquired for him? If every fundraising gala culminated in the veneration of his mummified corpse?
Maybe the absence of Getty himself from the proceedings of his museum and research institute can be seen as the fallout from the faulty narrative of dynamism and energy told to justify the obscene wealth that industrialists like Getty managed to amass. Nothing about the myth of a self-made capitalist conditions us to live in a world governed by the economic power of corpses. In the early years of the cold-war did Soviet citizens trudge through Lenin’s tomb and think, from this preserved corpse emanates our planned economy?
Which is to say that maybe the problem lies not at the moment when we allegedly expire but with the moment when the narrative implies that we come into being. What if the cognitive dissonance comes not from a broken understanding of death, but a failure to come to grips with birth? When we imagine mutation and hybridity, we generally position those blends as occurring in the space when the organism is being composed, in utero so to speak. We reserve our most sincere feelings of revulsion for hybridity initiated after we, as entities, are supposed to have been fully articulated: think of Human Centipede (2009), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896, 1933, 1977 & 1996) or The U-Men (the adversaries of the X-Men, not the proto-grunge Seattle band). If we embrace post-natal hybridization, if only to the extent that we engage with our becoming-corpse, then we open the door to befriending our object-selves. We are cyborgs already, the shielding shells we hide inside, our own dead cells, pounds of living and dead bacteria, all of these are part of our ongoing hybridization with the object-world around us. If we accept our selves as part of our expanded material continuum then it no longer seems paradoxical to say “Somebody hit me” when you get in a car accident. The car actually is your body.
This is the way in which we are all cyborgs, a blend of living and dead, of technology and flesh. In many ways I am just an animated biological framework for a collection of plastic microbeads, embedded inside my organism since birth and enriched through years of exposure to skin cleaners, sunscreen and polyesters. Subconsciously, we distrust our own aliveness. We loathe being reminded that in all likelihood we’re here more for the benefit of the plastics than the plastics are for us. The value proposition tilts in their favor: we get to use a straw once and discard it, they get to be released from their subterranean petrochemical tombs and are allowed to blanket the entire surface of the world. We get Rayon and they get a tour of the entire planet, including the insides of our bodies. We may sound the alarm now, but it is we who released them from their aeons-long slumber underground, not only have we awoken Cthulhu but we sold him our entire world for a polar-fleece jacket. Judas, at least, got paid in silver.
This is why we hate holograms. We hate holograms because by showing us three dimensions flattened into two they remind us that we are probably only partially as alive as we think we are. This is why the only enduring cultural application of the hologram is to appear on credit cards, so that we can be reminded of how much we loathe the companies that use our debt like dog owners use a leash. We hate holograms because we’re afraid that the dove on the Visa card believes that it is flying, and that somewhere outside our own seemingly real existence some other entity, some petrochemical Genii, is looking in on us, flattened, suspended, lifelike but not truly alive.
Earlier this year, the crypt above Los Angeles opened up, a bloom of sepulchral dust wafted upwards and a stray bat escaped. Trailing his shroud and wrappings the mummy of John Paul Getty struggled into the light to receive a new donation to his vault: 105 holograms. The archivists, who had prepared the donation, knew the drill well and lay prostrate, face to the ground with arms extended. It is forbidden for the help to look directly at Mr. Getty. As the stone cooled their foreheads they listened for the soft scuttling sound of the Mummy’s light steps to retreat into the darkness and for the stone portal to groan shut. Standing, dusting themselves off and feeling the cool breeze from the Pacific temper the warmth of the California sun they saw that the altar where the sacrifice had been placed was empty, except for a faint oily residue and the faint smell of gasoline. The plutocrat had claimed his prize and could enjoy his holograms in total darkness.