[This text was originally published in the catalog Disappearing Things by Gwen MacGregor, published by Rodman Hall Arts Centre, Brock University.]
I’ve been making little lists in my head, in my spare moments, as I wait for the bus or for a coffee at the café, lists of all the things that might be disappearing in our rapidly accelerating world. The first things that pop into my head are always a bit too didactic: real winters, the effective left, the social safety net, hundreds of plant and animal species every year, a cultural belief in originality, the idea that art has an inherent, timeless value. But of course all of that strikes me as somehow too easy and my mind casually wanders on to subtler, more nuanced things we may or may not be losing.
Anything that disappears may, some day, also reappear. History works in cycles. The coelacanth was a prehistoric species of fish long assumed to be completely extinct until 1938 when one was discovered off the coast of South Africa. It was gone and came back (not literally but as far as we knew at the time). We of course cannot assume that everything we destroy will some day reappear, most likely most things will not, but neither can we be certain that any given thing is irretrievably lost forever.
Nonetheless, in the meantime there is an undeniable sense of loss, which in our current situation can often also feel like being lost: without direction, without a compass. This sensation of feeling lost is clearly the melancholic undertow behind these seemingly endless lists I’ve been making in my head, while waiting for my coffee, while waiting for the bus.
It’s a borderline science fiction premise, and therefore difficult to take seriously, but I often find myself wondering what life would be like if we simply never died. The fact that each of us is continuously getting older, and that any wisdom we accrue over the course of this process is offset by the pesky knowledge that each year brings us a little closer to the end, is so deeply interwoven into our understanding of what it means to be alive that it is difficult to imagine things otherwise.
This is also a particularly western problem. As Javier Marias writes [I will paraphrase since I am unable to find the exact quote at this juncture, it seems it has disappeared]: ‘Our culture’s relationship to old age is almost suicidal, since each of us will also some day grow old.’ In other cultures they speak with the spirits of their ancestors, and imagine the lives of their own progeny five generations into the future, perhaps giving them a sense that in some general manner they continue to live on. But in our current culture, more and more, there is the feeling that we will simply disappear.
What artist or writer today can reasonably imagine that anyone will still be looking at their work two or three hundred years down the line? Of all the thousands (or hundreds of thousands? or millions?) of artists and writers working today, who among us has the pure gall to assume it will be them who survives into posterity? And yet without the idea of art’s lasting value what is art exactly: something ephemeral? just for the moment? a passing trend? Perhaps we don’t think our own specific work will survive but don’t we assume, hope, suspect that something from our time will last into the future? Or has even that certainty – which I believe every generation of artists throughout history has felt fairly confident in – somehow gone missing?
Perhaps this work is a kind of melancholic detritus of things on the border between having already vanished and still in the process of vanishing. Or perhaps it is not melancholic at all. What might a joyous disappearing look like? Detritus exerts a deep, yet subtle, fascination. These are things created by accident, that we weren’t (especially) meant to see but find ourselves looking at anyway.
The theory of evolution, our culture’s creation myth, has a very striking relationship with accident. Every new mutation is an accident that survives for the almost tautological reason that it is helpful for the species’ survival. Without accident there would be no evolution, and this idea grants accident a kind of resonance: it is what made us, therefore it must be meaningful. Detritus represents that which is left over, the accidents that don’t survive. In this sense detritus feels somehow more intensely accidental, resonates with an interest in accident in a manner that is both ambiguous and precise. In looking at detritus (closely) we begin to bring it back into currency, re-consider the leftovers’ possibility of once again becoming part of the meal. What nutrition are we losing in the things we throw out? Looking at detritus allows us to think about what we choose to keep, as well as all of the many things that surround us and yet give no sense that we’ve ever chosen them.
There is another possibility in evolutionary theory that posits that not every trait a species possesses must be evolutionarily beneficial. Mutations that simply don’t get in the way are also welcome along for the ride. Evolution itself rests on constant cycles of disappearance, species fall away to make room for others, traits within species are pushed aside to make room for something better. The idea that an evolutionary trait can be of no particular benefit, but – if at the same time it is not detrimental, if it stays out of the way – can continue to remain alive within a species for many generations, perhaps indefinitely, is a notion I find deeply moving. There is still room for much which boasts no particular value. There is the detritus nature chooses to keep, unnecessary but not excluded.
We are well aware of the possibility that our species may also someday face extinction. That we too might disappear. It is a possibility that feels distant, unreal, beyond our control, and yet at the same time more significantly real than most of the other elements we call our reality. All the environmental sustainability we might some day be able to muster (and so far we have not managed to muster much) certainly does not ensure our species’ continuance. Walter Benjamin writes: “Mankind’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” And of course there is some truth to this. But far more prevalent in my experience of daily living is ‘the possibility of mankind’s destruction’ as a constant low-level anxiety, as industrial modernity’s original sin, as the painful subconscious inherent within any deeper consideration of the consequences of our actions.
Awareness that all things are impermanent is one of the tell-tale signs of wisdom. It is associated with Taoism, with Buddhism, with systems of thinking much older than Western culture and likely more solid. Nothing lasts forever, and to live with the strength the knowledge of impermanence provides us with is perhaps always to live more fully. It propels one away from clinging unnecessarily to things that won’t last and towards a greater sense of risk, which leads to the unexpected, towards unexpected connections, which in turn lead to a greater sense of feeling alive. Letting go of things that are no longer necessary makes room for new experiences the potentials of which we do not yet know. But then again, there are also the arguments for not letting go prematurely, for fully exploring the unexplored potential of those things already in our lives. When is the exact moment to let go? Are the things that have disappeared gone before their time?
I don’t particularly like The Verve, but I do really like that one song, the one that starts out: “All this talk of getting older, is getting me down, my love.” Actually, what I really like is mostly just that first line, but for me it’s enough. No one really talks much about The Verve any more. They had one minor hit (Bittersweet Symphony) in the mid-nineties and then more or less disappeared. I do often wonder what happens to all of the bands who have one or two hits and are gone: do the bass players become school teachers or yoga instructors? Are they playing their old hits in a smallish bar in Brighton somewhere at this very moment? Do they still cherish the faint possibility of a comeback? Or of making a little bit more cash when their old hit is used in some car commercial?
A friend of mine in Berlin has a theory that art today is far more like pop music than it is like anything else. He says that most individual works of art don’t really hold up to scrutiny but if you look at contemporary artistic output as a whole, taking into account all the trends and artists working along similar trajectories, you are in fact looking at something much more interesting. In his opinion, what this is most similar to is trends and genres within popular music. And that within pop music, if you focus on any one artist or song, it doesn’t necessarily seem to have much cultural value, but if you examine popular music as whole it obviously has an enormous accumulative effect.
I am not sure whether or not I agree with this analysis of contemporary art, but it does strongly resonate with a feeling I have that something has been lost. And at the same time I am intensely suspicious of my own false nostalgia. Would I actually have liked art, or life, any better had I been alive at some other time in history, past or future? Much has been lost but much new energy has also been gained. Jorge Luis Borges writes: “Like all men, he was simply given bad times in which to live.”
What might a ‘joyous disappearing’ actually look like? Why does this phrase feel like such a strange contradiction in terms? A disappearance might also be mysterious, evocative: suggesting the freedom to come and go as one pleases, a freedom to come and go with the potential to energize any given situation. There could certainly be joy in such freedom. E.M. Cioran even considered the possibility of suicide to be liberating, since it suggested that one could always take control of one’s life, could leave the house at any moment.
The flipside of this position is that suicide is the last ditch attempt of the ego to assert full control over this life, which in fact can never be fully controlled, always contingent, full of ironic paradoxes and reversals, showing up our meticulously made plans, revealing them as the presumptuous impostures they so often are. Things rarely turn out exactly as we hope or plan. And even when they do, our reactions, feelings and disappointments with such apparent successes can sometimes surprise us even more deeply. Yet isn’t joy also something that catches us off guard? That thrives on the element of surprise?
Of course our most intense, visceral experience of disappearing is human mortality itself. But, as has often been commented upon – within the considerable but still relative comfort of most western lifestyles – our actual, physical experiences of mortality aren’t particularly intense at all: few and far between, in hospitals that draw out life long past the point where it still seems worth living. Is there some connection between this relative lack of direct experience with the actual potency of dying and my inability to imagine what a joyous disappearing might be or feel like? Because mortality does not more regularly intervene with daily living, because it is felt mainly as an anxiety, as an absence, we are also deprived of the joyous flipside – the sense that we are truly and completely alive? – of this most real of all realities from which there is of course no escape, only ineffective and perpetual avoidance.
It sounds pretentious, even to me, but might a ‘joyous disappearing’ be akin to a world in which we are no longer afraid of death?
Then again, what art from our time might people still be looking at two hundred or three hundred years down the line? It’s not true what I wrote earlier: that nothing from our age will survive, or at least there’s no way we can know for certain. It’s not true what I wrote earlier: that humanity is on some kind of crash course with extinction. It is just as possible that human society, for better or worse, in one form or another, will continue to exist for a very long time. The things that are disappearing, within the process of their possible, eventual disappearance, are continuously filled with uncertainty, with moments of sudden optimism and periods of utter desperation. With what system or what thinking could one wander through contemporary exhibitions and contemporary museums – with what eyes might one see the work on display – in order to have some idea what might actually last?
Sometimes when I’m reading a particularly theoretical and opaque catalogue essay I feel like I’m reading words on the verge of syntactical nonsense. I can almost follow the line of reasoning, almost connect the philosophical citations to the works that are allegedly being written about. It is as if the thread connecting the words I am reading to anything I can fully understand or paraphrase is continually fraying but will never quite break. It charges up a certain insecurity within me: is the text poorly written or am I simply a poor, unsophisticated reader? Is this text doing the art in question a service (by attaching it to ideas that are apparently complex and mysterious) or a disservice (by flattening everything out into obscurantist nonsense.) And I now find myself trying to consider this less-than-perfect relation between art and text, this continuously fraying thread, as another kind of disappearance.
A solid, stable connection between comprehension and art is no longer strongly present in our lives. We try to understand each new thing the best we can. Our comprehension strains toward more and more theoretical formulations, or else we reject theory altogether and trust only what our eyes (and thinking) might tell us. There is a certain kind of overly theoretical writing that reads to me as pure insecurity: insecurity that we are not smart enough and therefore must overcompensate within the realm of language, insecurity that regular language is not rich enough to encompass the full complexity of what is possible within thought. In an art context, such language might also be the best publicity: this art is so dynamically potent its meaning cannot be conveyed without recourse to intricately specialized formulations.
Underneath such writing I sense a potential simplicity, and a desire for simplicity, that is in the process of being erased.
In the lipogrammatic novel La Disparition by Georges Perec, what has disappeared is the letter ‘e’. It is both a novel written entirely without using the letter ‘e’ (the most common letter in the French language) and a detective story about the search for someone who has gone missing: Anton Vowl. And yet even after Anton is found there is still a strange feeling that something remains absent, none of the characters quite able to identify just exactly what.
Perhaps what has gone missing from this text is any direct reference to the artistic works of Gwen MacGregor. Strange melting shapes out of snow that will certainly not be there the next morning, possibly suggesting future winters that will never quite suitably freeze. The colourful lint, rolled and scattered, suggesting the gradual disintegration of our clothing, as if we left our clothes in the dryer for long enough sooner or later there would be nothing left. Or the lint that speaks to the electricity that will someday (soon) no longer quite be at our fingertips, machines that might soon sit idle since we will no longer be able to afford to make them spin. Buildings falling down and being torn down: by gradual attrition, human hand or historical event. All things, in one sense or another, disappearing. All somehow remaining, in one sense or another, missing from this text.
As is well known, Perec’s parents were both lost to the concentration camps. This autobiographical event, far too large to be overlooked, runs subtly, substantially concealed, throughout all of his books. La Disparition is certainly no exception. As Warren Motte writes: “The absence of a sign is always the sign of an absence, and the absence of the ‘e’ in A Void [the English title of La Disparition] announces a broader, cannily coded discourse on loss, catastrophe, and mourning. Perec cannot say the words père [“father”], mère [“mother”], parents [“parents”], famille [“family”] in his novel, nor can he write the name Georges Perec.”
To write about art without ever (really) speaking about the art in question. Might such a strategy suggest and mirror some of the disappearances we are here attempting to grapple with?
A text ends. Each work of art will someday no longer be looked at or remembered. Each of us in turn will die. And someday humanity as a species will no longer exist. And of course the planet as well. Yet disappearing isn’t only, or even mainly, about ending. Like the coelacanth, each thing that disappears also may live on in some way, somewhere else, simply out of our sight or in some place or sense of which we are currently unaware. A text continues on in the mind of the writer or reader. Works of art inspire other works of art or other thoughts or paradigm shifts or generational rebellions against it. People live on in the memories of others or through reincarnation or in the spirit world. All matter is transformed into energy that, in some other form, might some day be transformed back into matter again. Each disappearance is also a transformation.
To disappear, perhaps above all else, is a kind of freedom: the freedom to reappear at any moment, to gain the upper hand of surprise. All the things that have disappeared are not really gone. Or they are gone but we don’t actually know what that means. We don’t know where we go when we die. And the, in some sense, absolute mystery of the predicament allows us to speculate indefinitely. If we say when we die we are gone and that is all there is to it, it does not really put the matter to rest. It only avoids fully meeting the true depth and breadth of the mystery. Materialism is not a solution to mysticism, only a road that runs alongside it.
Disappearances draw an infinite array of theories towards themselves. Where did things go, where do they go when they are gone? If there are no absolute answers we can continue to wonder indefinitely. They are gone but they might come back. No matter how unlikely, only the most stubborn materialist will claim a total lack of possibility in this respect. For the rest of us we can continue to imagine that other worlds exist, worlds where the things that have disappeared from this one might actually flourish. And where the melancholy of something disappearing from our world is matched by an equal sense of possibility. Not exactly heaven, just somewhere else. A somewhere else where things might go. The things that have disappeared.
I am straining towards a conclusion that is constantly disappearing. I am straining and yet the conclusion is already here. Disappearing like the last vague moments of true twilight. Disappearing like all the things we try to hold onto but that want only to change or to flee. Disappearing like a thought you want to write down but is gone before you have the chance. Disappearing like the little lists I’ve been making in my head, now that this text is done.