I would prefer not to.
(Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street)

At the End of the Myth or beyond the Columns of Hercules

According to Greek mythology, Hercules, as a sign of his furthest journey during his labors, erected on Gibraltar two columns marking the end of the world of Antiquity.2 For the seafaring conquistadors and the enlightened philosophers of the Modern Age, the idea of sailing out beyond the Columns of Hercules symbolized setting off for new worlds, unknown spheres of knowledge, and exotic colonies as well as the expansion of political and economic power. With the curiosity that was inherent in seafaring, the old world order was subjected to a new cartography, and the craving for the new—for new knowledge, lands, resources, wares and treasures—advanced to the status of a virtue and value of an emerging globalized modernism. For the English philosopher and leading Enlightenment figure Francis Bacon, two of whose books feature engravings of the Columns of Hercules facing their title pages, 3 the ships returning to their home ports with goods and information of all sorts and thus playing the role of modern-day agents of knowledge personified a new epoch or, better said, a new paradigm that was characterized by an insatiable drive for insight and expansion and by a euphoric faith in technology and the future. The Columns of Hercules embodied the portal to a new international trade and globalization project at the disposal of which stood geography, religion, science, politics, economy and society. With the conquest of previously unknown worlds, the Columns of Hercules shifted to the west and, as a result of this occidentalization or westernization, gave rise to a new Herculean myth of the pioneer and techno culture that was supplanted by the American settler mythos in the form of *trail west* and *frontier spirit* as the "search for the Geryonean cattle," and that lives on among the cowboys of the prairie, the space-cowboys of the cosmos and the cyber-cowboys of the Internet.

To paraphrase this old metaphor, the idea that suggests itself is to identify the 20th century’s Columns of Hercules not as those of Gibraltar but rather as a sign of the take-off of the financial system and the reflux of the pecuniary booty yielded thereby in the form of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the US. Whereas the Columns of Hercules symbolized the *plus ultra*4 of occidental expansion in the Early Modern Period, the twin towers during the age of unbridled capitalism represented for many globalization skeptics the *non plus ultra* of transnational markets and suprastructures, as well as their systemic self-regulation by means of the law of "survival of the fittest." When airplanes were suddenly perverted into the "medium of their message" on September 11, 2001 in order to invert the system, it was an imperialistic Hercules and his economic and cultural hegemony over the rest of the world that were the target. The attack on the hegemonic order was an event of global significance, a declaration of war on globalization that demanded correction and redistribution, and a political and cultural remapping of global conditions. Did this seal once and for all the doom of enlightenment and humanism? Did apocalyptic ideas then begin to replace utopian ones? Did the periphery penetrate into the center to have its case heard? Or was it all just a welcome cooling-off for overheated markets and a way to infuse cultural fronts, economic spheres of influence and global strategies with new strength and vitality?

Between Scylla and Charybdis or from Enlightenment to Clarification

In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center, we no longer associate 9/11 with a fast sports car made by Porsche, nor with speed, fun and lifestyle, but rather with melancholy and horror. The mood has sunk to zero, and Ground Zero has come to symbolize the identity crisis of Western civilization. Symptomatic of this situation, this year’s Ars Electronica presents itself according to its title as "unplugged" in order to focus on the blind spots of globalization and to inquire into the political element of art. The festival that traditionally provides a forum for the artistic and technological avant-garde gives itself over this year—on the very anniversary of the catastrophe—to the hangover after the hyped-up e-commerce party and its failed hopes of unlimited growth.

In Medien und Politik, aber auch in Philosophie und Kunst feiert die alte Sehnsucht nach dem Realen, Notwendigen, nach Dogmen und Dualismen und damit verbunden die Forderung nach Abgrenzung und Sicherheit ihre Wiederauferstehung. Politiker, Manager, und Künstler üben sich in Betroffenheit und fordern die Erstarkung von Moral in Form einer neuen ethischen Front. Das Ende der Spaßgesellschaft wird proklamiert, und individuelle Unabhängigkeit, egoistische Selbstverwirklichung oder hedonistische Unterhaltungskultur werden Solidarität und Genügsamkeit gegenüber gestellt. Eine aufkommende Restauration von eindeutigen Zuschreibungskonzepten und Gut-böse-Dualismen ruft die Kunst zur Unterbrechung des "herrschenden Systems" auf und erwartet von ihr einen Einspruch und Einschnitt in ökonomische, soziale und politische Verhältnisse. Doch ist dieser Wunsch nicht Teil der Logik des Systems und wartet die hegemoniale Ordnung nicht dankbar auf jede Form von Kritik, um diese affirmativ zur Stabilisierung der eigenen Macht zu nutzen?

In the media and in politics as well as philosophy and art, the old longings for what is real and necessary, for dogmas and dualisms and, along with them, the demands for exclusion and security are celebrating their resurrection. Politicians, managers, and artists make a practice of expressing alarm and dismay, and call for the strengthening of morality in the form of a new ethical front. The end of the fun society is being proclaimed, as individual independence, egotistical self-realization or hedonistic entertainment culture are juxtaposed to solidarity and modesty. An emerging restoration of simplistic ascriptive concepts and good-versus-bad dualisms demands that art interrupt the "prevailing system" and makes it incumbent upon artists to take exception to and work to bring about a turnaround in economic, social and political conditions. But is this wish not a part of the very logic of the system, and is it not so that the hegemonic order waits thankfully for any form of critique in order to affirmatively utilize it to stabilize its own power?

We ought to keep in mind that the wish to critically thematicize the culture of art in order to thereby create a new consciousness and, in turn, conscience—its motif going beyond a disinterested, purely aesthetic aim to please—has recourse frequently and willingly to a didactic element. However, inherent in this substitution that puts political and ethical values in place of aesthetic ones is the risk of reductionism whereby art easily ends up as propaganda or, phrased in current parlance, as fashion and lifestyle. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of 9/11, artists are called upon more than ever to assume social functions and to act as catalysts of a social "transformation." The question of what is being transformed thereby in what direction or into what, however, seems to have become—while the USA has been wallowing sanctimoniously in the role of victim and mourner, and celebrating its national unity—a spot that is even darker than the blind spot of imperialistic globalization tactics ever was. The danger slumbering within this set of circumstances lies in the panic-stricken obsession with wanting to take social contingency (i.e. the possibility or the potency of a future that is open and can be shaped at will) hostage and to force it into the realization of a single unavoidable necessity. There are those who would destroy the network of that which is possible, conceivable and worthy of consideration, erect a new hierarchy of values, and thus cement the foundation of a Western community of values in order to diametrically oppose it to others.

Although it has not been just since 9/11 that the process of coping with contingency phenomena has become the greatest challenge facing a medially constituted world society, postcolonial core problems have been exacerbated thereby, and navigating a course *between* the dualisms has become as difficult as finding a path through a labyrinth. If, in the 1990s, the national society and the market regulated according to neo-liberal thinking stood side-by-side like the twin towers and, analogous to the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis, offered us the choice between two evils, then the fatal options have now melded into the emptiness of a catastrophic identity. The street battles of Seattle, Montreal, Genoa and other North American and European cities as well as the rioting in countries outside the so-called First World such as Argentina, Turkey and Nigeria as a reaction against the policies of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund bespeak the failure of neo-liberal ideology. In this sense, Ground Zero constitutes the "vanishing point of no return" from which the periphery has apparently intruded into the center in order to negotiate in this emptiness the ideological differences of global change.

It should certainly have become clear by now that the terrorist catastrophe was less a matter of the conquest of reality by images or, vice versa, the intrusion of the real into our world of images than yet another release of the symbolic that now, in turn, restrictively determines the way we experience reality. The towering pieces of the global chess game were indeed checkmated as both king and queen were brought down by a massive violation of the rules, but the struggle of the pawns on the street continues. What is at stake in this game is nothing less than the process of coming up with viable strategies in the face of unmanageably organized complexity summoned forth on one hand by an unsuccessful American and European economic policy of deregulation, liberalization and privatization and, on the other hand, by a general crisis of modernity. Global society as a system for the reproduction of social, political, economic, technological, and ecological inequalities cannot, in this connection, be reduced solely to a juxtaposition of subsidiarity versus solidarity; rather, it must be discussed as an extended cultural dispositive in the context of the values and consequences of the Modern Period and the Enlightenment as well as of their modernistic obsessions and promises.

From Postmodernism to Supramodernism

Just as architectural theoretician Charles Jencks once announced that the postmodern was inaugurated by the demolition of the principles of modernism as embodied by the Pruitt-Igoe high-rise public housing complex in St. Louis in the early ‘70s, much evidence now suggests that 9/11 could go down in history as the caesura leading up to postmodernism’s end. From the Counter-Reformation through romanticism to postmodernism, the project of modernism has undergone fluctuating crises; nevertheless, every critique and every swan song revitalized modernism anew and transformed it into another aggregate state. It is certainly the case that modernism has reached a relatively advanced age; nevertheless, this project nourishes itself since it operates accumulatively and irreversibly from its own history and anticipates self-reflexively its future in that it permanently transports the present into a futuristic dimension. Modernity means a life in science fiction, whereby the current utopia is an "atopia" of anywhere and anytime, the aim of which is the homogenization and synchronization of cultures in the form of globalization. Globalization as the central effect of the Modern Period now culminates in a model of medial and financial convergence for the establishment of the supranational compatibility and comparability of all competitive parameters including time, space, currency and production. This economically and medially synchronous world that defines the state of post-coloniality strives for a global matrix of "real time" to achieve the universal conversion of all information, goods and cultures. Since, however, conversion cannot ensue without losses, the expansive progression of this supramodern project leaves in its wake more and more losers who experience this global reformatting as a system of inequality and injustice.

Dividing up the past and the present into epochs and historical paradigms is usually linked to the task of establishing order and worldviews, and when these are disrupted or destroyed, there arises the need to get a new grip on things. Here, the process of historical classification can be punctuated by catastrophe or display continuity, whereby the explosive demolition of both Pruitt-Igoe and the World Trade Center can be subsumed under the heading of symbolic catastrophes that perpetuate continuity. As early as the 1980s, thinkers like Jürgen Habermas and Odo Marquard were already expressing doubts—though indeed for different reasons—about the end of modernism, and were conceptualizing postmodernism in continuity with it.5 And to be sure, more of the promises of modernism—at least those of a scientific nature—were being kept in times of postmodernism than in the entire Modern Period leading up to it. Modernization as futurization, artificialization and globalization accelerated to an unprecedented extent, and there emerged a potentiated aggregate state of modernity that can only be described as supramodernism in the sense of the metastasizing and hypertrophying of modernist concepts. Outside of the Western world, supramodernization is associated above all with Americanization (meaning the United States of America), which is why, regardless of US foreign policy, highly simplified takes on the values and images of Hollywood, the wasteful lifestyle that has come to be known as "The American Way of Life," the carelessness in dealing with natural resources and the ecosystem, and the naive "can-do" compulsion of the natural sciences are now the focus of attention. This system of an "image empire" and an "empire of empiricism" that guarantees in elitist fashion the availability of great surpluses of foodstuffs, energy, know-how etc. for a very few while parasitically exploiting the global ecosphere positively demands that large parts of the rest of the world instinctively rebel. The supremacy of the American model of modernism that can be characterized in short as the mania of the real or the realization of individual dreams on economic and technological levels evokes solidarity with the struggle that has only begun with the anti-globalization movement and unrest in Third World countries.

Among the errors and omissions of recent decades—and what ultimately led to the failure of the so-called postmodern project—were a shameful withdrawal from questions of politics and social welfare issues as well as excessive hesitancy in dealing with technology, media, the economy and the ecosystem under the premises of societal ethics. The perceived self-regulation by means of systems and processes, the idealization of neo-liberal ideology to the point of raising it to the status of a natural law, or the impression of complete powerlessness in the face of the mass media and the advertising and PR industries has resulted in a loss of subjective spheres of action and a simultaneous increase in ambiguity, complexity and the abundance of information and opinion. Postmodernism could contribute little to enable mankind to deal with the transformation of its living environments and its emotional and physical states that is being accelerated by the media, science and technology, and the feeling that becomes increasingly pervasive is of the "end of history" or of a static emptiness. The liberating promise of "anything goes" exhausted itself in a state in which nothing went anymore, a state of mind that was already bringing a whole wave of recruits to the New Right in the ‘80s. The longing for a simple process of complexity management that leaves all forms of contingency out of the picture and propagates the necessity of dualistic action arose and infected the Western world with arrogance and racism.

To return once again to the parallels between the Enlightenment project of the Modern Era and the adventures of Hercules in Antiquity mentioned at the outset: Western civilization has successfully completed numerous freebooting labors of a scientific and technological nature over the course of the 20th century. The Herculean civilization thus follows in the footsteps of its mythological hero in striving to attain everlasting life and eternal youth—i.e. a state made possible by computer science, biotechnology and genetic engineering in which human beings may escape the entropy of death in order to indulge in a scientifically purified life in technological Olympia. But if we follow the Herculean myth all the way to the end, we find that the hero, shortly before his apotheosis, suffered a tragic fate in a narrative that can be briefly told here. After completing his adventures, Hercules returns to Thebes but later moves to Trachis with his second wife, Deianeira, who inadvertently causes the horrible death of her husband. Out of jealousy, Hercules had killed Nessos the Centaur with a poisoned arrow. But shortly before his death, Nessos makes a bequest to Deianeira in the form of the blood running from his wound. He tells her to collect it and, when the opportunity presents itself, to use it to dye the undergarment of her beloved husband; thereafter, he will never love another woman besides her. When Hercules departs on a campaign, the misfortune runs its course. Unbeknownst to Hercules, Deianeira smears his undergarment with the blood. While he is sacrificing a steer, the potion eats through the material and burns the skin of his genitals. Deprived of the possibility of sexual reproduction, Hercules decides to escape the torturous pain through self-immolation. Lightening strikes the pyre and Hercules ascends in a cloud to Olympus. The myth ends with his installation by Athena into the circle of the Gods and his marriage to Hebe, the goddess of eternal youth, who bears him immortal children. If one wished to metaphorically update this myth, pathetically and fatalistically speaking, one might have it that the castration and apotheosis took place in a single act of the suicide squad that simultaneously turned the phallic potency of the World Trade Center’s towers into the pyre of modernity and set the seal on its elevation to supramodernity.

Even if art has long since ceased deriving its themes from classical myths or illustrating them allegorically, these—regardless of obvious parallels to the present situation—do give rise to questions of how art can position itself in a strategic field of tension and interplay between symbolic and/or real possibilities for action, between state of emergency, total refusal, free-floating communications facilitator, service provider, etc. Or to put this in other words: Is there an art that deals with morality without being moralizing?

The Artist as Contingency Researcher

An art that solipsistically generates ideas while remaining completely out of touch with social contexts now seems to have become obsolete. Art does not just occupy a place at the interface where traditional cultures and systems, natural sciences and the humanities, the social and the political confront one another; rather, it has gone beyond this to become an interface multiplier. Art is organized in heterogeneous and interdisciplinary fashion, based increasingly on teamwork, and its actions are far more open to social expectations, contentions and problems. Art thus proves itself to be more reflexive and exhibits a higher degree of social relevance, which gives rise to a new topology of art that exists not only within institutions of the art system and is not solely represented in the person of the artist, the curator, etc. Art forces its way into the world that seeks to think it artistically, and it is precisely on this boundary that it is called upon to negotiate and to act in order to exercise its resistance. The principle of unconditional resistance is a right that art should simultaneously invent, reflect and implement in order to thereby launch a counteroffensive in opposition to *sovereignty*. This would make it necessary for art to come out in opposition to a wide array of powers—the power of the state, the economic power of corporations and international capital, as well as medial, religious and ideological powers, and thus all those forms of power that restrict the project of an emerging art.

Since power is fundamentally foreign to art and it rejects art’s principles, art disposes over no power of its own. In a traditional sense, it is relegated to the field of fictions, simulacra and the modality of "as if." It has been enlisted into the service of the symbolic, and deals to differing extents and in varying shades of complexity with discursive ideality, whereby the "as if" can mean both a privilege with respect to the process of dealing with contingency as well as a mere deficiency of reality. The mixture and hybridization of art with life, politics, science, economics, etc. begins at precisely this point and practices the often-cited incursion of the real into the symbolic. If one takes this one step further, one arrives at an art that provokes the state of emergency and an infringement of the order of the "as if." Art playfully assumes the "quality" of power and of terror in order to inscribe itself into the real, to find a venue for its deed, and to *realize* itself there with all the consequences. Every act of terror, though—in contrast to a natural catastrophe—is a matter of the symbolic and not the real, so that in a culture which, for its part, remains out of touch with realities and packed within a wad of symbolic insulation while constituting its power in the realm of the virtual and de-territorial, the existing order can be torpedoed only in the mode and the logic of the "as if." An artistic act means work on the "as if" in order to prevent this from becoming the agreed-upon and legitimated context of convention and obedience, and instead goes about disrupting horizons of expectation and standards of reception beyond any form of control. The limits of the "as if" would be reached precisely at this point, where art becomes entwined with the powers of reality and lets itself be led by possibilities rather than necessities or takes up the cause of implementing the impossible.

What is called for on the part of art in order to achieve this are not merely accumulations of works and oeuvres, but rather performative processes that aim to bring about social outcomes. In contrast to power that is out to demolish the possible and reinforce the necessary, art is most *unnecessary* and pure potency. In art that is a matter of the construction of the experience of the possible as such, the focal point is occupied by the "as" that neither identity-endowing-ontologically (as such) nor mimetic-phenomenologically (as if) transports us into the state of the relation to the other as the possibility in the future of something that had not existed previously. And, consequently, this art would also be a dirty para-art, an art as science, as philosophy, as sociology etc., which allies itself with forces outside the domain of art and infiltrates foreign (immune) systems. This kind of art would be a form of possibility that can be simultaneous or something else or even not be. That means it would not be a legislative art that does away with styles, commandments and laws and enacts new ones—like the avant-gardes attempted, for example—and it would also not be an art that messianically redeems the world from something. Perhaps it would be an art that would corresponded to the attitude of the presumably most radical dissident in the history of literature, Hermann Melville’s scrivener Bartleby, in which the artist refrained from producing works as copies of originals and countered this bustling activity with a critique of production and consumption whereby the point is no longer to do but rather to negotiate contingency.

  1. The title’s "artist as Bartleby" refers to Hermann Melville’s story *Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street* (first published in *Putnam's Monthly*, vol. 2, Nov. 1853, New York). Online at:
  2. To achieve immortality, Hercules is sent by the Delphic Oracle on a mythic adventure game, whereby his tenth labor took him to the end of the known world, Gibraltar, where he stole the cattle of the three-bodied monster Geryon. As a sign of his furthest journey, he erected the eponymous "Columns of Hercules" there.
  3. The Columns of Hercules can be found as a frontispiece in Francis Bacon’s *Instauratio Magna* (1620) and *Sylva Sylvarum* (1627).
  4. Plus ultra ("there is more") was the motto under which the Spanish fleet of Charles V sailed the seas.
  5. See Jürgen Habermas, "Die Krise des Wohlfahrtsstaates und die Erschöpfung utopischer Energien". In: Habermas; *Die neue Unübersichtlichkeit. Kleine Politische Schriften V*, Frankfurt a. Main, pp. 141-163; also see Odo Marquard, "Nach der Moderne. Bemerkungen über die Futurisierung des Antimodernismus und die Usance Modernität." In: P. Koslowski, R. Spaemann, R. Löw (Eds.), *Moderne oder Postmoderne? Zur Signatur des gegenwärtigen Zeitalters*, Weinheim 1986, pp. 45-54.

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High Noon