- Parallel SeizureArt and Culture at the End of Days
There is a photograph from early on in the spread of coronavirus that shows the basement of a shopping mall somewhere in Asia, seen from above. The tiled floor, framed by two escalators, has been cleared of shoppers, the only vestiges of regular commerce a poster of a woman on a floor stand advertising a mobile network, and beside that, a vending machine. A grid of plastic chairs fills the space, each placed a fixed distance from the others surrounding it. There are men and women sitting upon these chairs, some in a black and green uniforms and some not, all wearing facemasks and most contemplating their smartphones. Several of them have evidently been sitting where they are for longer than the others, contorting themselves into awkward poses to cope with the discomfort of their seats. A lone cleaner moves among them carrying a spray bottle and a sponge.
According to its caption, the people on the chairs are cab drivers waiting to receive their instructions, but they look more like procrastinators in an antechamber of hell. Each of them is a microcosm, a sealed capsule separate from every other. Each is looped out of physical space by the device held up to the eyes, upon which attention is focused, as if the brains of these men and women had been flattened and externalized and placed in their hands with the recommendation that they cling on or die. The grid exerts a pictorial order which is also a socio-political order. It works here as a mechanism for the regulation of appropriate distance. In a world where Silicon Valley ideology has been universally internalized, we have forgotten that a network must first separate before it can connect. It sustains distance in order to simulate proximity. The grid in this image is what makes possible and legitimates the separation between individuals and it also ensures the inviolability of rationalized space. Within this structure, the people in the photograph have been barred from interacting with one another physically, while any subtler mode of communication is stymied by regulation headgear. A facemask not only dampens the voice and conceals the expression, [End Page 3] it also decouples the mouth and nose entirely from direct commerce with the atmosphere. It mediates the breath itself.
If the shopping mall as archetype was once the secular temple to consumerism, the particular instance in this photograph has been reconsecrated as something far stranger and even more sinister. The chairs might be considered a series of abstract isolation cells in which each individual contemplates his connection with elsewhere until the final summons. Our gaze is drawn to the holes in the image: the population is diminishing. Empty seats take on a mortuary significance. Certain individuals have been removed from the grid, struck out of existence entirely. To leave the network is to be called up for extermination.
If there is an allegory in this photograph, it pertains not to the present, but to the recent past. Before the arrival of coronavirus, the space of human life in many of the more affluent societies had already been cleared and reorganized over decades according to an early version of this strict tiling procedure. The model was to space members of a population at a precise distance from one another as nodes in a system defined by particularization. In Europe and America, where the procedure originated, its rhetoric claimed an objective opposite to its means: connection rather than separation. As this rhetoric was more amenable and convenient than its reality, upheld through billions of dollars spent recrafting public opinion, it was generally accepted as an accurate description of what was going on. Nowhere was the claim more thoroughly accepted than in the culture industry. Yet this exchange of reality for the comfort of illusion has led to general confusion now that outputs and channels for physical delivery have been obstructed.
Overnight, lockdown abolished the cultural event and the audience upon whom it could be inflicted. Panic was the first response: a void yawned. Resort was made to this originary rhetoric. Surely virtual space could simply supersede physical...