“For every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense and incoherency”. Jorges Luis Borges, The Library of Babel.

“There was less to know in preceding centuries, and you’ll notice paradoxically, knowledge then aimed at certainty and totality. The more knowledge grew the greater the unknown grew, we might conclude, or rather, the more information flashes by the more aware we are of its incomplete fragmentary nature[1]”

In Aesthetics of Disappearance Paul Virilio describes a condition he calls picnolepsy. Characterized as sudden and interruptive moments of unconsciousness, they leave the sufferer with gaps or lacunae in their memory. Virilio argues that we all suffer from this condition, which momentarily shuts us off from an image saturated reality.

With the pervasiveness of contemporary media, it is not difficult to understand why our consciousness will intermittently throw a switch and cast itself into an amnesiac fugue. Perhaps the mind retains a body memory of pastoral silence and it is this archaic refuge the mind seeks in its willed picnoleptic state. But this fall from legibility into cognitive absence is not perhaps limited to only the operations of the mind. What if objects shared the same faltering and flickering trajectory?

At Modern Art Oxford a video projection by Roman Ondák records a room gradually filling and emptying with people. Shot in grainy black and white that is reminiscent of CCTV footage, the projection is only legible from a certain distance. When you first enter the gallery you see a pattern of light and shadow on the wall, as you walk towards it the image comes into focus, and then as you move closer it dissolves into the formlessness of flickering pixels.

This video projection, like x-rays, light, radio-waves and gamma radiation, is only legible or detectable within specific parameters, move outside of them and its legibility decays.

The legibility of the projection relies on an assumption that the act of interpretation only begins when the image comes into ‘focus’. On either side of that space of clarity, there is only the aesthetic appreciation of random patterns “that arise and decay ceaselessly”[2] – an appreciation of potential forms and thus of potential meanings.

In the 1970 Andy Warhol project, Raid the Icebox[3], disregarded or stored objects were brought into ‘focus’, or placed before the gaze, through the mechanism of an exhibition. A museum presents material within a physical and conceptual setting, which partially constructs how the displayed objects are perceived and valued. Meaning, in this particular arrangement exists as contingent relations between the space of viewing, the perception of the viewer and the materiality of that which is being viewed. But if the objects are removed from visibility does their legibility or meaning vanish? Is Andy Warhol’s approach to working with objects from the basement of the museum a desire to foreground the potential meaning embedded in them? Can the hatboxes, chiars, collections of stored paintings be equated with a metaphysical ‘primordial matter’, which contains all possible forms, histories and meaning?

A primal, base matter which contains latent within itself all possible forms is central to the metaphysics of a pre-Socratic philosopher Anaximander.

Aristotle in Metaphyiscs, writes that Pre-Socratic philosophers had sought the one element that made all things. For Anaximander this element was the Apeiron. He described the Apeiron as an infinite primordial mass that is not subject to time and thus does not age or decay and it is from the Apeiron that everything we perceive is derived. Anaximander was the first person to publish a map of the world, this paradoxical totality of an unlimited primal mass and a world map enclosed by a boundary, opens up a route between a picnolepsy of objects and the metaphor of mothballed objects as a primordial matter.

In The antinomies of Postmodernity the theorist Frederic Jameson describes the Postmodern as a “churning pseudo-temporality of matter ceaselessly mutating”[4]. In this vivid description, the Postmodern exists as a condition that cannot be resolved or focused. It has no point of optical resolution. From any angle or position this “matter ceaselessly mutating” resists coming into focus, and by this resistance or inability to attain form, clarity or sharpness the Postmodern stages a retreat from being known, except as a ceaseless random pattern.

In 2002 the Dutch architect and urbanist Rem Koolhaas echoed Jameson’s depiction of the Postmodern in his seminal article for October magazine JunkSpace. Describing contemporary shopping malls, airports and public space Koolhaas argues that they are Junkspace; a “kindergarten grotesque”[5], a “seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed”[6]. In this “kingdom of morphing”[7] in which “toilet groups mutate into Disney stores then morph to become meditation centers”[8] temporality and form flux and buckle and refuse the coherence of cause and effect. Entropy accelerates from a process to a random interruptive ‘event’; “aging in Junkspace is nonexistent or catastrophic; sometimes an entire Junkspace – a department store, a nightclub, a bachelor pad – turns into a slum overnight without warning”, this temporal acceleration unshackles cause and effect, leaving behind an uncertain “pseudo-temporality” without apparent resolutions or legible chronologies. These sudden moments of entropy that affect specific modules of Junkspace create irregular and orphaned spaces, each of which stands at different points on the arc of construction, use and dereliction, the joints between these “transitional moments are defined by stapling and taping”.

The Junkspace fusing of disparate materials and different moments is reflected in language which finds itself subject to “transient couplings, waiting to be undone, unscrewed”[9]. There is a “new language that straddles unbridgeable divides”[10], “new oxymorons to suspend former incompatibility: life/style, reality/TV, world/music, museum/store, food/court.”[11] “Language is no longer used to explore, define, express, or to confront but to fudge, blur obfuscate”[12].

In Junkspace the purpose of language is to bewilder. “Narrative reflexes that have enabled us from the beginning of time to connect dots, fill in blanks, are now turned against us.”[13] Koolhaas plots the progression of Junkspace from its ruination of architecture to its “retrofitting of language”. “Our most creative hypotheses will never be formulated, discoveries will remain unmade, concepts unlaunched, philosophies muffled, nuances miscarried.”[14]

Language, under the blind fingers of Junkspace, actively impedes cognition. The practice of thought itself slips out of focus, syntax and grammar decay.

Speech becomes noise.

Common to these descriptions of Junkspace and the Postmodern, is a question of temporality, specifically the contraction of process, of duration into single events. Koolhaas describes aging as “catastrophic”, inferring that the process of decay is no longer gradual; it is instead a sudden interruptive moment. Jameson refers to time and duration in the Postmodern as a “pseudo-temporality”. This pretense of time is grounded in an argument that the Postmodern is a constantly changing space “in which appearances arise and decay ceaselessly”. This frenzy of change for Jameson generates a “gleaming science fictional stasis”, leading to the paradox in which constant change becomes changelessness.

In the “momentous spell bound totality of everything that is”[15] language, objects, feelings and space become modular and unitary. Koolhaas points out “at the exact moment that our culture has abandoned repetition and regularity as repressive, building materials have become more and more modular, unitary and standardized”. A consequence of modularity is that a momentum of constant change can be maintained and accelerated. Jameson states that there is“equivalence between an unparalleled rate of change on all the levels of social life and an unparalleled standardization of everything – feelings along with consumer goods, language along with built space.”[16]

Inside Junkspace and by extension the Postmodern, the drive towards modularity compresses time and matter together into multi-purpose “crypto-pixels”[17]. These “orphaned particles in search of a framework or pattern”[18] oscillate as energetically as the pixels of a video projection when seen too close. Yet each “performs its task in negotiated isolation”[19] capable of only a “temporary embrace with a high probability of separation”[20]. The ‘apeironic’ natures of Junkspace and the Postmodern are revealed in this reading of materiality, in which they sprawl and mutate within a collapsed time that flattens cause and effect and in their resistance to coherent and persistent form.

This curious and speculative equating of the contemporary with a Pre-Socratic metaphysics redefines the nature of objects that have been removed from the perceptual world. In the basement Warhol’s hatboxes and stacked paintings were deprived of their legibility, of their meaning. They, to use the metaphor of the video projection, had gone out of focus; they had retreated into a fuzzy or blurred condition. The act of retrieving them from storage brought them back into focus, where they could take part in relationships with other objects; the museum, the gaze of the viewer etc. But in the process of establishing a relationship between a picnolepsy of objects and the cultural moment in which we are conscious (the Postmodern), the characteristics assigned to mothballed objects are also the primary features of the Postmodern and its obvious physical manifestation; Junkspace. The mapping of the illegibility of the mothballed object onto the cultural space situates the Postmodern as a discourse founded on the ontology of obsolete or withdrawn objects.

The obsolete object is the backfill of late capitalism. Backfill, the spoil heap used to re-fill an excavated void constitutes the base matter of the contemporary moment. In this loose earth of “crypto-pixels”, meaning collapses to a vestigial characteristic, it becomes an atrophied formal quality of pixilated matter, which never comes into focus.

[1] Paul Virilio, The Aesthetics of Disappearance. Los Angeles, Semiotext(e) 2009. P45

[2] Frederic Jameson, The Cultural Turn. London, Verso Books, 2009. P59

[3] Raid the Icebox, Exhibition at the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, April 23 – June 30, 1970

[4]Frederic Jameson, Future city. New Left Review 21, May–June 2003. P11.

[5] Rem Koolhaas, Junkspace, October Magazine, MIT Press, 2002. P177

[6] Ibid P176

[7] Ibid P177

[8] Ibid P182

[9] Ibid P178

[10] Ibid P183

[11] Ibid P183

[12] Ibid P186

[13] Rem Koolhaas, Junkspace, October Magazine, MIT Press, 2002. P188

[14] Ibid P186

[15] Frederic Jameson, The Cultural Turn. London, Verso Books, 2009. P59

[16] Ibid P57

[17] Rem Koolhaas, Junkspace, October Magazine, MIT Press, 2002. P178

[18] Ibid

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid