January 14, 2019 - e-flux journal - e-flux journal issue 96
January 14, 2019

e-flux journal

Maria Sibylla Merian, Common or Spectacled Caiman with South American False Coral Snake, c. 1705–10.
Watercolor and bodycolor with gum arabic on vellum.

e-flux journal issue 96

with Yuk Hui, Oraib Toukan, Tom Holert, Sven Lütticken, Xiao Liu, Joan Kee, and Irmgard Emmelhainz


e-flux journal issue 96

with Yuk Hui, Oraib Toukan, Tom Holert, Sven Lütticken, Xiao Liu, Joan Kee, and Irmgard Emmelhainz


The seventy-two dimensions of the universe are represented in a single vertebrate body: a snake coiled in a continuous circle, biting its own tail. This symbol was etched within The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld, on the second shrine of a young king, Amen-tut-ankh, who, before he ascended, was once called Tutankhaten—the living image of Aten, the sun. The circled snakes (one rings around an etching of the mummified pharaoh’s head, the other around the feet) depict a confluence of the gods Ra and Osiris, light and death eternally returning, swallowed and reborn and always encircling night into day.

Some historians say that the ouroboros in Egypt also symbolized the yearly flooding of the Nile, replenishing crops—life and death, rebirth. Maybe our human bodies, in addition to being part of a universe of feedback upon feedback, are also receiving and transmitting signals—sometimes through the use of the unlikeliest information tools. Amidst media, our bodies and cells can lead to endless consuming and potentially self-consuming cycles, but also with the strange possibility of immortal persistence.

As the legend goes, some sixteen centuries later the symbol appeared in the chemist August Kekulé’s daydream, based on a murdered neighbor’s serpent ring, allowing Kekulé, former architect, now chemist, to identify the chemical compound for one of the more ubiquitous and quietly deadly substances in the centuries to come: benzene. Allegedly, in a delirious state he envisioned a series of snakes chasing and eating their own tails, illustrating how benzene’s sequence of carbon atoms each holds its own hydrogen atom, forming a circle of eternal return. This for a substance present in many recurring processes of disruption and extraction—some more accelerated and coerced by humans than others: volcanoes, earthquakes, gasoline, and crude oil.

Computer screens and digital cameras that use LCDs may be comprised of various families of liquid crystal. There are a couple of constants in the composition of these crystals: the molecules within must exhibit mutual attraction. Often, polarizable rod-shaped molecules fit this bill. Oddly, this way of seeing—this portal through which many of us experience and interact, perhaps halfway between the sun and the underworld—is something of a continuation of Kekulé’s daydream, of The Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld. One common chemical composition of the liquid crystals used in our screens is a pair of benzene rings.

We may live in a time of endless, warring feedback loops, and amidst piles of discarded digital traces and ghosts of image persistence. Many of the persistent realities are cruel, or are violent photographs—and careful photographs of violence.

In various installations, certain images—whether timid or sudden or endless, or exquisite in their healing or sorrow—have remained present in multiple landscapes in an ongoing cycle of sleep-death-life; present in various forms of address, felt and hovering as in image persistence, but not fully etched as in screen-burn.

The actual phenomenon of snakes eating their own tails is known to be caused by rapid temperature change; stress; false hunger brought on by living in a glass container; from mistaking their own tail for prey during molting or shedding. Because snakes’ muscles are designed to trap and guide food into their belly, their mouths have a very hard time letting go, even when the prey is their own body. Once this tail-eating position is assumed, it can be fatal for the snake. So it is usually best for the snake, or perhaps all seventy-two dimensions of the universe, to seek refuge quickly and cool down, submerge, let it go.

The third-century alchemist known as Cleopatra drew and wrote a compact sheet of symbols on the transmutation of gold. Her Chrysopoeia [Gold-Making] of Cleopatra features a drawing of an upright, dual-toned serpent with its tail in its mouth, accompanied by an inscription that is often remembered only by a small segment: hen to pān (ἓν τὸ πᾶν), “the all is one.” The full inscription, however, reads in two lines: “One is the Serpent which has its poison according to two compositions,” and “One is All and through it is All, and by it is All, and if you have not All, All is Nothing.”


Yuk Hui—What Begins After the End of the Enlightenment?
On the other hand, we may understand Kissinger’s end-of-Enlightenment claim as marking the full realization of a single global axis of time in which all historical times converge into the synchronizing metric of European modernity. It is the moment of disorientation—a loss of direction as well as of the Orient in relation to the Occident. The unhappy consciousness of fascism and xenophobia arises from this inability to orient: as a response, it offers an easy identity politics and an aestheticized politics of technology. More broadly, such a disorientation can be seen as a desirable and necessary deterritorialization of contemporary capitalism, which facilitates accumulation beyond temporal and spatial constraints. War is the technique of disruption par excellence, vastly more effective than Uber and Airbnb.

Oraib Toukan—Cruel Images
Wars have evolved to many more frames per second in the years since the war on Iraq began (and have indeed accelerated because of that war), and we continue to participate in them no matter how undecided, baffled, or distant we are towards them—and no matter who “we” are (just yet). We participate in war because we consume its cruel images, and often at a mediated distance. The Lebanese writer and translator Lina Mounzer profoundly wrote in 2015: “I have buried seven husbands, three fiancés, fifteen sons, and a two-week-old daughter ... I have watched my city, Maarrat al-Numan, burn, I have watched my city, Raqqa, burn, I have fled Aleppo ... All this I have watched from my living room in Beirut.”

Tom Holert—Epistemic Violence and the Careful Photograph
Photographic images could be considered particular forms of violence spurred by a given power/knowledge that is responsible for “general violence.” Conceived in this way, images could be performative as they enact ideology, as they exemplify, codify, and translate written and unwritten laws and social hierarchies, as they bestow or remove citizenship, and as they exert epistemic violence. Images do all these things in a particular mode and manner depending on the specificities of their respective medium and form. Visual activism, or the realm where images are put to militant use, like in the cases of Akhter and Ferdous, is one of the customarily invoked strands of practice that supposedly enables the production of visualities that oppose and contradict the “general violence” in which photography arguably takes part. So what exactly is the place of violence in activist image journalism and in modes of visual protest? And what may be the limit of such violence with regard to the violences of the (neo)colonial order?

Sven Lütticken—Shattered Matter, Transformed Forms: Notes on Nuclear Aesthetics, Part 2
While there are notable exceptions, especially in literature and the cinema, on the whole the art of the “first responders” of the late 1940s and ’50s tended to stage the postwar nuclear age as existential tragedy rather than as a political issue. In his conclusion, Newman asks and asserts: “Shall we artists make the same error as the Greek sculptors and play with an art of overrefinement, an art of quality, of sensibility, of beauty? Let us rather, like the Greek writers, tear the tragedy to shreds.” In much 1950s art, the possibility of a total and remainderless destruction of culture and of life is evoked, yet at the same time symbolically conquered through the proliferation of tattered, ravaged, or starkly simplified and thereby sublime and existential forms. In 1958, during an antinuclear conference in Tokyo, the philosopher and antinuclear activist Günther Anders visited the memorial of the nuclear bombardment in Hiroshima. Its abstract arch, which only appeared symbolic “because the non-functional always suggests symbolism,” reminded him of American abstract expressionism and its endorsement by the US, even by the War Department itself.

Xiao Liu—Information Fantasies
The human body as a medium is not a new phenomenon. Traditional Chinese philosophy and religious practices, as well as spiritualism in the nineteenth century, had featured different versions of the body-as-a-medium within different epistemological modes. The increasingly pervasive computational environments bring the human body to the center of current media studies, especially in the new media scholarship on digitization and networks. But the emergence of an “information body”—the body as a medium for information processing—in China in the 1980s, on the one hand, registered the ways in which contemporary media technologies transform the perceptions and interactions of the human body with the world, and, on the other hand, was a discursive construction deeply entrenched in the politics of the postsocialist world, accompanying the production and unleashing of consumer desire in the process of marketization, and concurrent with the privilege of “information workers” over factory workers and peasants, who were once valorized as socialist subjects. This “information body,” however, is not merely a passive receiver or transmitter of information.

Joan Kee—Nobody Owns Me
“How can we talk about private events,” Gonzalez-Torres asked, “when our bodies have been legislated by the state? We can perhaps talk about private property.” Among the most pervasive idioms for describing Americannness, private property held further implications for artists whose national and ethnic origin, racial background, and sexual orientation compromised their acceptance as Americans. As one of the few domains where cooperation occurred regardless of political preference or personal identity, the market held untapped potential as a political site. Deeply aware of how precarious life was for an openly gay, nonwhite artist living with AIDS, yet adamantly unwilling to capitalize upon his identity by wearing a metaphorical “grass skirt,” Gonzalez-Torres stated it was “more threatening” that “people like me operate as part of the market.” Through certificates that embodied rather than represented ownership by metabolizing elements of copyright and contract, he navigated market conditions and art-world protocol. Eventually shifting his works away from the metrics of supply, Gonzalez-Torres recast them as dynamic sources of doubt according to the legal frameworks to which he and they were unavoidably subject.

Irmgard Emmelhainz—Shattering and Healing
But what does vulnerability actually mean? Is it being able to acknowledge a state of pain or insecurity, embracing the feeling of coming undone? I feel that it’s something I’ve tried to hide from others and from myself. At the cost of headaches, a bloated stomach, the inability to articulate a sentence. A mental-physical feeling of paralysis. I now suspect that people spend a lot of time and effort hiding in this way. Could I overcome my terror of falling apart if I allowed myself to rely on others, on you? Or should I be a “cruel optimist” and create hopeful and positive attachments, in full awareness that they will not work out?

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