Purple Magazine
— F/W 2016 issue 26

Michel Houellebecq

Art is not simply a backdrop for the renowned French author Michel Houellebecq, but rather a constant preoccupation that allows him to precisely define his unique aesthetic. What other contemporary author has brought art into his novels to such an extent? In this way, he pursues a generalized aesthetic theory, whose philosophical ambition was displayed in his extraordinary essay on H. P. Lovecraft (1991), as well as his brilliant essay on contemporary society, “Approaches to Disarray” (1993), which we republish here in its entirety along with a few pictures from his exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo, “Rester Vivant” (“To Stay Alive”). Many have been amazed at the rigor and irony of Houellebecq’s novels, but he is also a critic, filmmaker, singer, poet, performer, actor, and photographer. Few are aware that he discreetly yet systematically shot photographs as part of his writing process, and how his photographs have evolved to become significant artistic statements in themselves. I invited Michel Houellebecq to present his first major solo show in a public institution because to me he’s a complete artist, one for whom, as he wrote in The Possibility of an Island: “Art is the presentiment of something new, dangerous, and probably fatal, from a domain where there was — a bit like in love — almost nothing to win and almost everything to lose.” — Jean De Loisy

Michel Houellebecq exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, “Rester Vivant (To Stay Alive)”, until September 11, 2016, curated by Jean de Loisy

All photos courtesy of the artist and Air de Paris, Paris

 

APPROACHES TO DISARRAY
by MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ
1993

“I’m fighting ideas I’m not sure even exist.” 
– Antoine Waechter [ecologist]

CONTEMPORARY ARCHITECTURE AS VECTOR FOR THE ACCELERATION OF MOVEMENTS

As we know, the general public does not like contemporary art. This trivial observation encompasses, in fact, two opposing attitudes. Passing by chance through a place where pieces of contemporary painting or sculpture are on show, the ordinary person will stop in front of the exhibits, if only to mock them. His attitude will oscillate between ironic amusement and sniggering pure and simple; in all cases, he will be sensitive to a certain dimension of derision; the very insignificance of what is presented to him will be for him a reassuring guarantee of innocuousness; he will certainly have wasted some time, but in a way which is, fundamentally, not so unpleasant.

Now standing amid some contemporary architecture, the same passerby will feel much less like laughing. In favorable conditions (late in the evening, or against the background of police sirens), one will observe a phenomenon clearly characterized by anguish, with an acceleration of all organic secretions. In every case, the functional whole constituted by the organs of vision and locomotive limbs will increase greatly in activity.

This is what happens when a tourist bus, led astray by a maze of exotic signposting, sets down its load in the banking district of Segovia, or the business center of Barcelona. Plunged into their familiar universe of steel, glass, and signs, the visitors immediately rediscover the rapid pace and functional, oriented way of seeing which correspond to the environment on offer. Progressing between pictograms and written signposts, they soon reach the cathedral district, the historic heart of the city. Straight away, they slow down; the movement of their eyes becomes something random, almost erratic. A sort of numb stupefaction can be read on their faces (phenomenon of gaping mouth, typical among Americans). Quite obviously they feel themselves in the presence of visual objects that are unusual, complex, and difficult
to decode. Very quickly, however, messages appear on the walls, thanks to the tourist office, and historicalcultural landmarks fall into place; our travelers can then take out their camcorders to register the memory of their movements on an oriented cultural journey.

Contemporary architecture is a modest architecture; it only displays its autonomous presence, its presence as architecture, by discreet allusions — generally advertising micromessages on its own techniques of construction (it is, for example, customary to ensure very good visibility of elevator machinery, as well as the name of the firm responsible for its design).

Contemporary architecture is a functional architecture; the aesthetic issues concerning it have long since been eradicated by the concept: “What is functional is necessarily beautiful.” A surprising opinion, constantly contradicted by the spectacle of nature, which incites us rather to see beauty as a sort of revenge on reason. If nature’s forms please the eye, it is often because they serve no purpose and fulfill no perceptible criterion of efficiency. They reproduce with luxuriance and richness, apparently driven by an internal force that can be described as the pure desire to be, the simple desire to reproduce; a force which, it must be said, is difficult to understand (one needs only think of the burlesque and slightly repellent inventiveness of the animal world); a force which is no less oppressively obvious for this. Some forms of inanimate nature (crystals, clouds, hydrographic networks) do appear, it is true, to obey a criterion of thermodynamic optimality; but they are precisely the most complex, the most ramified. They do not resemble in any way the functioning of a rational machine, but rather the chaotic ferment of a process.

Reaching its own optimum in the construction of places so functional that they become invisible, contemporary architecture is a transparent architecture. Having to enable the rapid circulation of individuals and commodities, it tends to reduce space to its purely geometrical dimension. Destined to be crossed by an uninterrupted succession of textual, visual, and iconic messages, it must ensure them maximum readability (only a totally transparent place is able to ensure the total conductivity of information). Subject to the hard law of consensus, the only permanent messages allowed will be confined to a role of objective information. Thus, the content of those immense signs along highways have been preceded by in-depth study. Many opinion surveys have been done in order to avoid shocking one category or another of motorists; social psychologists have been consulted, as well as specialists in road safety; all of this to end up with directions such as “Auxerre,” or “The Lakes.”

The Montparnasse railway station develops a transparent and unmysterious architecture, establishes a necessary and sufficient distance between timetable information screens and electronic reservation machines, organizes with appropriate redundancy the signposting of the departure and arrival platforms; thus it allows the Western individual of average or higher intelligence to achieve his movement objective by minimizing friction, uncertainty, and lost time. More generally, all contemporary architecture must be considered to be one immense system for accelerating and rationalizing human movements; its ideal point, in this respect, would be the system of highway interchanges that can be observed close to Fontainebleau-Melun Sud.

It is also in this way that the architectural complex known as “La Défense” can be read as a pure productivist system, a system for increasing individual productivity. This paranoid vision may be locally accurate, but it is incapable of taking account of the uniformity of architectural responses proposed to the diversity of social needs (hypermarkets, nightclubs, office buildings, cultural and sports centers). Instead, one will make progress by considering that we are living not only in a market economy, but more generally in a market society, that is to say a space of civilization where all human relations, and similarly all mankind’s relations to the world, are mediated by a simple numerical calculation which brings to bear attractiveness, novelty, and value for money. In this logic, which encompasses erotic, loving, and professional relations as much as buying behavior itself, it is a question of facilitating the multiple establishment of rapidly renewed relationships (between consumers and products, between employees and businesses, between lovers), and therefore of promoting a consumerist fluidity based on
an ethics of responsibility, transparency, and free choice.

Femme #017, 2016, laminated photo, 20.8 x 29.5 inches Femme #017, 2016, laminated photo, 20.8 x 29.5 inches

BUILDING SHELVES

Contemporary architecture therefore implicitly adopts a simple program, which can be summed up as follows: building the shelves of the social hypermarket. It achieves this by, on the one hand, displaying total fidelity to the aesthetics of the shopping rack, and, on the other hand, by giving priority to the use of materials of weak or nonexistent grain size (metal, glass, plastics). What’s more, the use of reflective or transparent surfaces will allow an attractive multiplication of display shelves. In all cases, it is about creating polymorphous, indifferent, and multipurpose spaces (the same process is also at work in interior decorating: furnishing an apartment at the end of this century essentially means knocking down walls to replace them with mobile partitions — which will in fact be rarely moved, because there is no reason to move them, but the essential point is that the possibility of movement exists, that an extra degree of freedom has been created — and eliminate elements of fixed decoration: the walls will be white, the furniture translucent). It is about creating neutral spaces where the informative advertising messages generated by the social machine can freely spread, and which, besides, constitute it. For what do they actually produce, these employees and managers gathered at La Défense? Strictly speaking, nothing; the process of material production has even become totally opaque to them. Digital information on the objects of the world is sent to them. This information is the raw material of statistics and calculations; models are elaborated, decision graphs are produced; at the end of the chain, decisions are taken, and new information is re-injected into the social body. Thus, the flesh of the world is replaced by its digitized image; the being of things is supplanted by the graph of its variations. Polyvalent, neutral, and modular, modern places adapt to the infinity of messages of which they must serve as a support. They cannot allow themselves to offer an autonomous meaning, to evoke a particular atmosphere; they can therefore not have beauty, poetry, nor more generally their own character. Stripped of all individual and permanent character, and on this condition, they will be ready to welcome the indefinite pulse of the transitory.

Mobile, open to transformation, available, modern employees undergo a similar process of depersonalization. The learning to change techniques popularized by “New Age” workshops aims to create indefinitely mutable individuals, rid of all intellectual or emotional rigidity. Freed from the constraints that constituted forms of belonging, fidelities, and rigid codes of behavior, the modern individual is thus ready to take his place in a system of generalized transactions within which it has become possible to accord him, in an unequivocal and unambiguous way, an exchange value.

SIMPLYFYING CALCULATIONS

The progressive digitization of the microsociological machine, already well-advanced in the United States, had been notably delayed in Western Europe, as shown by the novels of Marcel Proust. It took several decades to purge completely the symbolic meanings added on to the various professions, be they laudatory (church, education) or disparaging (advertising, prostitution). At the end of this process of clarification, it became possible to establish a precise hierarchy between social statuses on the basis of two simple numerical criteria: annual income and the number of hours worked.

As far as love was concerned, the parameters for sexual exchange had also long remained dependent on a lyrical, impressionistic, and unreliable system of description. Yet again it was from the United States of America that came the first serious attempt at defining standards. Based on simple and objectively verifiable criteria (age – size – weight – hip-waist-bust measurements for women; age – size – weight – erect penis measurements for men), it was firstly popularized by the porn industry, and soon relayed by women’s magazines. If the simplified economic hierarchy was long the object of sporadic opposition (movements in favor of “social justice”), it must be noted that the erotic hierarchy, perceived as more natural, was rapidly internalized and straight away enjoyed a broad consensus. Henceforth able to define themselves by a brief collection of numerical parameters, freed from thoughts of Being which had long obstructed the fluidity of their mental movements, Western human beings — or at least the youngest — were thus in a position to adapt themselves to the technological mutations which swept through their societies, mutations which brought in their wake large-scale economic, psychological, and social transformations.

A SHORT HISTORY OF INFORMATION

Toward the end of the World War II, simulation of the trajectories of medium- and long-range missiles, like the modeling of fissile reactions inside the atomic core, showed the need for more powerful algorithmic and digital means of calculation. Thanks partly to the theoretical work of John von Neumann, the first computers saw
the light of day.

At this time, office work was characterized by a standardization and a rationalization that were much less advanced than those prevailing in industrial production. The application of the first computers to management tasks immediately translated into the disappearance of all freedom and flexibility in the implementation of procedures — in short, a brutal proletarianization of white-collar workers.

In these same years, with comical lateness, European literature found itself confronted with a new tool: the typewriter. The indefinite and multiple work on a manuscript (with its additions, cross-references, and apostils) disappeared in favor of a more linear and flat form of writing; there was, in fact, alignment with the norms of American crime novels and journalism (appearance of the Underwood myth — success of Hemingway). This degradation of the image of literature brought many
young people of “creative” temperament to turn to the more gratifying paths of cinema and song (eventually dead ends; in fact, soon afterward, the American entertainment industry would begin its work of destroying local entertainment industries — a job one sees completed today).

The sudden appearance of the microcomputer, at the beginning of the ’80s, can seem to be a sort of historical accident; corresponding to no economic necessity, it is, in fact, inexplicable outside considerations such as progress in the regulation of weak currents and the precision engraving of silicon. Unexpectedly, office workers and middle managers found themselves in possession of a powerful, easy-to-use tool which enabled them to take back control — in reality, if not by right — of the main elements of their work. A secret, little-known struggle was waged for several years between the IT departments and the “basic” users, sometimes aided by teams of enthusiastic microcomputer specialists. The most astonishing thing is that progressively, becoming aware of the cost and low efficiency of big computer systems, while large-scale production allowed the appearance of reliable and cheap office equipment and software, general managements joined the camp of microcomputing.

France #012, 2016, pigment print, Baryté paper mounted on aluminium, 28.8 x 19.6 inches France #012, 2016, pigment print, Baryté paper mounted on aluminium, 28.8 x 19.6 inches

For the writer, the microcomputer was a heaven-sent liberation: one did not truly rediscover the flexibility and pleasure of the manuscript, but it became possible again to do serious work on a text. In these same years, various indicators made one think that literature could take back part of its previous prestige — less, in fact, through its own merits than thanks to the withdrawal of rival activities. Rock and cinema, subject to the formidable leveling power of television, gradually lost their magic. Previous distinctions between films, music videos, current affairs, advertising, human stories, and reports tended to disappear, making way for a notion of generalized spectacle.

The appearance of fiber optics and industrial agreement on the TCP/ IP protocol allowed, from the beginning of the ’90s onwards, the appearance of intra- then inter-business networks. Having returned to being a simple workstation within now-reliable client-server systems, the microcomputer lost all its capacity for autonomous processing. There was, in fact, restandardization of procedures in more mobile, transverse, and efficient systems for processing information.

Omnipresent in businesses, microcomputers had failed on the domestic market for reasons clearly analyzed since (still high price, lack of real use, difficulties in using them lying down). The end of the ’90s saw the appearance of the first passive terminals for Internet access; themselves devoid of intelligence as well as memory and therefore of a very low unit production cost, they were designed to allow access to the huge databases created by the American entertainment industry. Equipped
at last with a secure (officially at least) credit card payment system, aesthetic and light, they would rapidly establish themselves as the standard, simultaneously replacing the mobile phone, the Minitel, and the remote control of classic television sets.

Unexpectedly, the book was to constitute a lively pole of resistance. Attempts at stocking works on Internet servers took place, but their success remained tiny, limited to encyclopedias and reference books. After a few years, the industry had to agree: more practical, attractive, and easy to handle, the book as object kept the public’s favor. Indeed, any book, once bought, became a formidable instrument for disconnection. In the intimate chemistry of the brain, literature had often been
able, in the past, to prevail over the real universe; it had nothing to fear from virtual universes. This was the beginning of a paradoxical period, which lasts to this day, where the globalization of entertainment and of exchanges — in which articulated language has a reduced place — exists alongside a reinforcement of vernacular languages and local cultures.

THE APPEARANCE OF WEARINESS

In the political sphere, opposition to globalist economic liberalism had in fact begun long before; in France, its founding act was in 1992 with the campaign for the No vote in the Maastricht referendum. This campaign drew its strength less from references to a national identity or a republican patriotism — both of which had disappeared in the carnage at Verdun in 1916-1917 — than from a genuine general weariness, a feeling of complete and utter rejection. Like all historicisms before it, liberalism played the intimidation card by presenting itself as inevitable historical becoming. Like all historicisms before it, liberalism posed as the assumption and surpassing of simple ethical feeling in the name of a long term vision of the historical becoming of mankind. Like all historicisms before it, liberalism promised effort and suffering for the time being, relegating to one or two generations later the arrival of the general good. Such reasoning had already caused enough damage,
throughout the 20 th century.

The perversion of the concept of progress regularly perpetrated by historicisms was unfortunately to favor the appearance of clownish thoughts, typical of epochs of disarray. Often inspired by Heraclitus or Nietzsche, well adapted to those of middle or high income, and sometimes aesthetically pleasing, they seemed to find their confirmation in the proliferation, among the less privileged layers of the population, of multiple, unpredictable, and violent identity reflexes. Some advances in
the mathematical theory of turbulence led, more and more frequently, to human history being portrayed as a chaotic system in which futurologists and media thinkers did their utmost to detect one or several “strange attractors.” Devoid of any methodological basis, this analogy was nevertheless to gain ground among the educated or semi-educated layers, constantly preventing the constitution of a new ontology.

THE WORLD AS SUPERMARKET AND AS DERISION

Arthur Schopenhauer did not believe in History. He therefore died convinced that the revelation he brought on the world, on the one hand existing as will (as desire,
as vital impulse), and on the other hand perceived as representation (in itself neutral, innocent, purely objective, and open as such to aesthetic reconstruction), would survive the succession of generations. Today we can say he is partially wrong. The concepts he put in place can still be recognized in the fabric of our lives, but they have undergone such metamorphoses that one can question what validity remains in them.

The word “will” seems to indicate a tension of long duration, a continual effort, conscious or not but coherent, toward an aim. Granted, birds still build nests, stags still fight for the possession of females, and in Schopenhauer’s sense one can very well say that it is the same stag that fights, and the same larva that roots about, ever since the difficult day of their first appearance on Earth. It is completely otherwise for men. The logic of the supermarket leads necessarily to a scattering of desires; supermarket man cannot organically be the man of a single will, of a single desire. Hence a certain depression of willpower in contemporary man: not that individuals desire less; on the contrary, they desire more and more, but their desires have acquired something slightly shrill and squealing: without being pure simulacra; they are largely the product of external determinations — we will say advertising determinations in the broad sense. Nothing in them resembles that organic and total force, obstinately turned toward its accomplishment, suggested by the word “will.” Hence a certain lack of personality, perceptible in every one of us.

Deeply infected by meaning, representation has lost all innocence. One can call innocent a representation which simply presents itself as such, which simply claims to be the image of an external world (real or imaginary, but external) in other terms; it does not include in itself its own critical commentary. The massive introduction of references, derision, irony, and humor into representations has rapidly undermined artistic and philosophical activity by transforming it into generalized rhetoric. All art, like all science, is a means of communication between men. It is obvious that the effectiveness and intensity of communications diminish and tend to cancel each other out the moment doubt arises on the veracity of what is said, on the sincerity of what is expressed (can one imagine, for example, an ironic science?). The ongoing disintegration of creativity in the arts is thus only another aspect of the most contemporary impossibility of conversation. In fact, everything happens in current conversation as if the direct expression of a feeling, of an emotion, of an idea had become impossible, because deemed too vulgar. Everything must pass through the distorting filter of humor, which of course ends up empty and turns into tragic muteness. Such is both the history of the famous “incommunicability” (it should be noted that the endless exploitation of this theme has in no way prevented incommunicability from extending in practice, and it remains relevant more than ever, even if one has become a bit weary of talking about it) and the tragic history of painting in the 20th century. The development of painting thus manages to represent, more, it is true, by analogy of atmosphere than by a direct approach, the development of human communication in the contemporary period. In both cases we slip into an atmosphere that is unhealthy, rigged, deeply derisory, and tragic precisely due to its derisory nature. Thus the average person passing through a picture gallery must not stop for too long if he wishes to preserve his attitude of ironic detachment. After a few minutes, he will, despite himself, be seized by a certain disarray; he will feel at least a numbness, a malaise, a worrying deceleration of his humor function.

Tourisme #003, 2016, pigment print, Baryté paper mounted on aluminium, 57.8 x 39.3 cm inches Tourisme #003, 2016, pigment print, Baryté paper mounted on aluminium, 57.8 x 39.3 cm inches

(The tragic intervenes exactly at this moment when derision can no longer be perceived as fun; it is a sort of brutal psychological inversion, which translates into the appearance in the individual of an indomitable desire for eternity. Advertising can only avoid this phenomenon so contrary to its objectives through an endless renewal of its simulacra, but painting keeps as its vocation the creation of permanent objects with their own character; it is this nostalgia for being which gives it its sorrowful halo, and makes of it, despite everything, a faithful reflection of the spiritual situation of Western man.)

In contrast, one will note the relatively good health of literature during the same period. This is very easy to explain. Literature is, profoundly, a conceptual art; it is even, strictly speaking, the only one. Words are concepts; clichés are concepts. Nothing can be asserted, denied, put into perspective, and mocked without the help of concepts and of words. Hence the astonishing robustness of literary activity, which can refuse itself, destroy itself, and decree itself impossible without ceasing to be itself. It resists all the mises en abyme, all the deconstructions, and all the accumulations of degrees, however subtle they may be. It simply lifts itself back up, shakes itself, and gets back on its paws, like a dog emerging from a pond.

Unlike music, unlike painting, and also unlike cinema, literature can thus absorb and digest limitless quantities of derision and humor. The dangers threatening it today are nothing like those which have threatened, and sometimes destroyed, the other arts; they are due much more to the acceleration of perceptions and sensations which characterize the logic of the hypermarket. A book can only be appreciated slowly; it implies reflection (not in the sense of intellectual effort, but in that of flashback); there is no reading without stopping, without reverse movement, without re-reading. This is an impossible or even absurd thing in a world where everything evolves and fluctuates, where nothing has permanent validity; neither rules, nor things, nor beings. With all its strength (which once was great), literature opposes the notion of permanent actuality, of perpetual present. Books call for readers, but these readers must have an individual and stable existence: they cannot be pure consumers, pure ghosts; they must also be, in some way or other, subjects.

Undermined by the cowardly haunting of the politically correct, dumbfounded by a flow of pseudo-information which gives them the illusion of a permanent modification of the categories of existence (one can no longer think what was thought ten, a hundred or a thousand years ago), contemporary Westerners can no longer manage to be readers; they can no longer satisfy that humble request from a book placed in front of them: to simply be human beings, thinking and feeling for themselves.

Even more so, they cannot play this role in the face of another being. But they would have to: for this dissolution of being is a tragic one; each of us continues, moved by a painful nostalgia, to ask of the other what he can no longer be; to seek, like a blinded ghost, that weight of being he no longer finds in himself. That resistance, that permanence, that depth. Of course, all of us fail, and the solitude is atrocious.

The death of God in the West constituted the prelude to a great metaphysical serial that has continued to this day. Any historian of mentalities would be able to reconstruct the detail of the stages; let’s say, to summarize, that Christianity pulled off the masterstroke of combining a fierce belief in the individual — compared to the Epistles of Saint Paul, the whole of ancient culture seems to us today to be curiously policed and dreary — with the promise of eternal participation in Absolute Being. Once this dream had vanished, various attempts were made to promise the individual a minimum of being, to reconcile the dream of being he had in him with the haunting omnipresence of becoming. All these attempts, until now, have failed, and the unhappiness has continued to spread.

Advertising constitutes the latest in these attempts. Although it aims to arouse, provoke, and be desire, its methods are basically quite close to those that characterized former morality. In effect, it puts in place a terrifying and hard Superego, which is much more pitiless than any previously existing imperative, and clings to the individual to whom it endlessly repeats: “You must desire. You must be desirable. You must participate in competition, struggle, the life of the world. If you stop, you stop existing. If you lag behind, you are dead.” Denying all notion of eternity, defining itself as a process of permanent renewal, advertising aims to vaporize the subject and turn him into an obedient ghost of becoming. And this skin-deep, superficial participation in the life of the world is supposed to take the place of the desire to be.

Advertising fails, depressions multiply, the disarray worsens; advertising continues, however, to build the infrastructures for the reception of its messages. It continues to perfect means of movement for beings who have nowhere to go, because they are nowhere at home; to develop means of communication for beings who have nothing left to say; to facilitate possibilities of interaction between beings who no longer wish to enter into relations with anyone.

THE POETRY OF HALTED MOVEMENT

In May 1968, I was 10. I played marbles, I read Pif le Chien; life was good. Of the “events of ’68” I have kept only one memory, but it is quite a vivid one. At the time, my cousin Jean-Pierre was in his second year at the lycée in Raincy. The lycée appeared to me then (the experience I had of it afterward was going to confirm this first intuition, while adding a painful sexual dimension) to be a vast and terrifying place where older boys studied hard at difficult subjects in order to have a successful professional future. One Friday afternoon, I don’t know why, I went with my aunt to wait for my cousin at the end of classes. That same day, the lycée in Raincy had gone on indefinite strike. The playground, which I expected to see filled with hundreds of busy adolescents, was deserted. A few teachers were hanging around, aimlessly, between the handball goal posts. I remember, while my aunt sought out some information, having walked for many minutes in this playground. The peace was total, the silence absolute. It was a marvellous moment.

In December 1986, I found myself in the railway station of Avignon, and the weather was mild. Due to some sentimental complications too tedious to narrate, I absolutely had to — at least that’s what I thought — take the TGV back to Paris. I did not know that a strike action had just begun on the whole SNCF network. Thus the operational succession of sexual exchange, adventure, and weariness was interrupted in one go. I spent two hours sitting on a bench facing the deserted railway
landscape. TGV carriages stood still on the tracks leading to the garage. One could have believed that they had been there for years, that they had never even moved. They were simply there, motionless. Some information was whispered among the travelers; the atmosphere was one of resignation, uncertainty. It could have been war, or the end of the Western world.

Some more direct witnesses of the “events of ’68” have since told me that it was a marvellous period, when people spoke to each other in the street, when everything seemed possible; I would like to believe this. Others just point out that the trains no longer ran, that gas could no longer be found; I have no difficulty accepting this. I find in all these accounts a common feature: magically, for a few days, a gigantic and oppressive machine had stopped turning. There was a wavering, an uncertainty; a suspension took place, a certain calm spread throughout the country. Of course, afterward, the social machine started up again, more rapidly, even more pitilessly (and May ’68 only served to break the few moral rules still obstructing its voraciousness). Nonetheless there was a moment of halt, of hesitation, a moment of metaphysical uncertainty.

It is undoubtedly for the same reasons that once the first sense of upset has been overcome, the public’s reaction to a sudden halt in the information transmission networks is far from being absolutely negative. One can observe the phenomenon each time a computer reservation system is out of order (which happens quite a lot): once the inconvenience has been accepted, and especially once the employees decide to use their phones, it is rather a secret joy which manifests itself in the travelers, as if fate gave them the opportunity to take sneaky revenge on technology. In the same way, to realize what the public thinks deep down about the architecture in which it is made to live, it is enough to observe its reactions when it is decided to blow up one of those residential tower blocks built in the suburbs during the 1960s: it is a moment of very pure and very violent joy, similar to the headiness of an unhoped for release from captivity. The spirit that inhabits these places is evil, inhuman, hostile; it is the spirit of an exhausting, cruel, and constantly accelerated machine; deep down everyone can sense this, and wishes for its destruction.

Literature makes do with everything, puts up with everything, rummages among the rubbish, licks the wounds of misfortune. A paradoxical poetry, one of anguish and
oppression, has therefore been able to emerge in the midst of the hypermarkets and office buildings. This poetry is not pretty; it cannot be. Modern poetry has no more the vocation of building a hypothetical “house of Being” than modern architecture has of building inhabitable places; that would be a very different task from the one which consists of multiplying infrastructures for the circulation and processing of information. A residual product of impermanence, information is opposed to meaning like plasma is to crystal; a society which has reached overheating does not necessarily implode, but it turns out to be incapable of producing meaning, all its energy being monopolized by the informative description of its random variations. Each individual is, however, capable of producing in himself a sort of cold revolution, by standing for an instant outside the advertising information flow. It is very easy to do; it has never been as easy as today to adopt, in relation to the world, an aesthetic position: it is enough to take a step aside. And this step itself, at the end of the day, is useless. It is enough to mark a pause, to switch off the radio, to unplug the television, to no longer buy anything, to no longer want to buy. It is enough to no longer participate, to no longer know, to suspend temporarily all mental activity. It is enough, quite literally, to stand still for a few seconds.

END

First published in Genius Loci (La Différence), 1993, republished in Interventions (Flammarion), 1998
Translated by Gavin Bowd

[Table of contents]

F/W 2016 issue 26

Table of contents

purple NEWS

purple BEST of the SEASON

purple INTERVIEW

purple FASHON WOMEN

purple FASHION MEN

purple DOCUMENT

purple BEAUTY

purple ARCHITECTURE

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