On the Destruction of Doggerland

Image of the Doggerbank
source: wikipedia

In 1422, the long decline of the Kingdom of Doggerland came to an end with the drowning of the vast island once found in the North Sea between England, Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries. Roughly 40,000 km2 (15,500 sq mi) in size, for over a thousand years, Doggerland remained a European Kingdom even as rising sea levels led to large areas being abandoned and depopulated in the later Middle Ages.

With the island destroyed by the tsunami (“the Great Drowning”) caused when an earthquake dislodged vast portions of the undersea continental shelf off Norway, the extinguishing of an entire European kingdom was a critical event, perhaps the critical event, in the history of Early Modern Europe, demonstrating the frailty of mere mortals and the insufficiency of human faith against the wrath of nature.

The island was first referred to in the 4th century BC by the Greek geographer Pythaes of Massalia as “the Kingdom of the Fishes,” and would be dubbed “Ictis” by Diodorus Siculus during the 1st century BC:

The inhabitants of that part of Britain which is called Belerion are very fond of strangers and from their intercourse with foreign merchants are civilized in their manner of life. They prepare the tin, working very carefully the earth in which it is produced. The ground is rocky but it contains earthy veins, the produce of which is ground down, smelted and purified. They beat the metal into masses shaped like knuckle-bones and carry it off to a certain island off Britain called Iktis. During the ebb of the tide the intervening space is left dry and they carry over to the island the tin in abundance in their wagons … Here then the merchants buy the tin from the natives and carry it over to Gaul, and after travelling overland for about thirty days, they finally bring their loads on horses to the mouth of the Rhone.

Pliny referred to Doggerland as “Mictis,” describing it as “lying inwards six days’ sail from Britain, where tin is found, and to which the Britons cross in boats of wickerwork covered with stitched hides.” A century later, Doggerland became the northernmost land conquered by Caesar during the Gallic Wars of 54 and 55AD and remained under Roman rule until the Attacotti tribes threw out the Romans in the Dogger Risings of the 364-365 and, in 367, crossed the Dogger Channel to Britain to participate in the widespread risings called the Great Conspiracy.

7th century gold Dogger mask, discovered on the seabed, 1984.
British Museum.
Seal of the United Kingdoms of Denmark and FIskeland, c. 1025.

In the early 10th century, the semi-legendary Harthacnut I became the first King of both Denmark and Fiskeland (Doggerland). Cnut the Great (c. 990-1035) united Denmark and Fiskeland with England and Norway in the brief but effective North Sea Empire. Even so, the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, which began in 950 and lasted until 1250, wreaked havoc with Fiskeland as water levels rose and some of the more low-lying farmland and the fish farms (vivaria) that the Fiske peoples had pioneered were inundated.

King Cnut on his throne as the waters rise, Unknown artist from Doggerland, c 1365

No matter how mighty he was in politics and war, Cnut himself understood the futility of the rising of the waters (the Stigendevand) and, as Henry of Huntingdon later recounted in his Historia Anglorum:

When he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, “You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.” But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and the sea obey eternal laws.”

Fishing Monks, a painting on a wood panel from Fiskeland, mid 14th century.

Inhabitants slowly began to drift away, to Britain, Denmark and Norway, but also Iceland, Greenland, and other points west. By the thirteenth century, the country was dominated by a court whose strength was primarily nautical—the powerful Dogger ships that controlled the North Sea—and by the monastic orders that alternately served, and competed with, the court. Although Doggerland (the new common name of the country after 1360) had been largely spared the Plague, by the time of Cnut VI, also known as Saint Cnut the Drowned (1394-1422), the stigendevand had become acute and a sizable portion of the remaining population inhabited floating vessels at all times.

Still, Doggerland’s Court was widely known for its accomplishments in art, music, and literature. Clockworks and complicated mechanisms were a noted specialty. With the end of Doggerland long prophesied, time-keeping had been an obsession in Doggerland—a common Doggerish saying is “Hours are a greater treasure than gold”—and spring driven clocks were developed in the first years of the fourteenth century. The precursor to the piano—the clavichord—was invented in Doggerland in the early 14th century and primitive forms of printing with carved plates had begun to be employed.

Idesbald of Drounen, Cnut VI’s Lament, 1424

On 21 April 1422, Ugo, Abbot of Drounen wrote,

Late in the morning, when the markets were full, a shudder came upon the land and the sea retreated. The waves rolled back over the horizon and the Dogger ships were left on dry land, revealing monstrous creatures that normally dwelt under the water. The good monks of the Abbey prayed for salvation from this horror, but to no avail as the sea came rushing back and we were forced to climb into the row boats I had commanded the monks to build in the case of the Flood, which God had now thrust upon us again. Thousands were swept past us and those we could haul aboard were saved, but most were drowned under the waves. To our dismay, we saw the King sitting on the rocks but the waves rose and covered him.

Exodus from Doggerland, Painting by the “Master of Doggerland,” c. 1425
Drowning of Doggerland, Unknown Painter, 1520

The exodus from Doggerland led to an influx of refugees to the continent precisely at a point in which post-plague Europe itself lay in wait for a stimulus that would trigger the Renaissance. Although chiefly seen today as a Flemish painter, Jan van Eyck was Doggerish and brought the previously closely-held secrets of oil painting to the rest of Europe while Rogier van der Weyden apprenticed there in his youth. Exiled scholars helped found the Universitas Lovaniensis (Old University of Leuven) while other experts in Latin, astronomy, alchemy, and the culinary sciences became teachers throughout Europe. For example, Henry of Drouen, a tutor for Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici. Francesco Colonna was the son of Dogger refugees in Venice—a natural destination for many—and in his famed Hypnerotomachia Poliphili conjures a dreamscape that scholars see as a description of his parents’ lost homeland.

Jan van Eyck, the Royal Court of Doggerland in Exile, 1433

The first extant spring-wound clock wound up in the court of Burgundy after the Drowning. As is well known by now, Johannes Gutenberg worked with survivors from Doggerland to develop the printing press, a fact that the famed printer Aldus Manutius would memorialize in his logo for the Aldine press.

A picture of a dolphin wrapped around an anchor, which was Manutius's imprint.

Laments for Doggerland were common in the Low Countries for centuries after. The Drowning of Doggerland or “de Doyer Overstroming” was a cautionary tale memorialized and returned to again and again by poets, painters, and musicians. A pastoral land of sheep and fish that escaped the ravages of Plague and war but was lost forever due to the vengeance of the sea could hardly be far from the imagination of the creative mind. In the late 17th century, in particular, there was a revival of interest in the Dogger pastoral as Flemish artists rejected the excesses of the Spanish Baroque and their wealthy mercantilist clients sought to surrounded themselves with visible reminders of their—often imagined—past as descendants of the Court of Doggerland.

Jan van Goyen, the Cathedral city of Aleyen, Doggerland, c. 1640
Jan Vermeer van Haarlem the Elder, Doggerland Landscape, c. 1689
Pieter Bout, Dogger Fisherman returning from the Sea, c. 1705

Such laments would dissipate over the course of the eighteenth century as a modernizing Europe increasingly abandoned the lost pastoral land for a eudaemonic narrative of growth and newfound wealth. With the colonization of North America by Europeans, a new and much larger land was—they thought—given to them by God to replace the lost land under the sea. In particular, early settlers to Newfoundland initially called it “New Dagger Land” or “Nieuwe Doyer Land” and Governor William de Doyer had pronounced “It a free land, to be inhabited by all brothers of the land beneath the sea, be they English, French, or Dutch,” a dream wiped out after his death in a storm at sea in 1686 and the subsequent events of King William’s War (1688-1697) even though the ideal was referred to, somewhat cynically, during the British development of the Canadian colonies after the seizure of New France less than a century later.

Light blue indicates areas of Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Denmark that will flood with 1.7C of global warming, salmon color indicates flooding with 4.0C of temperature rise.
Credit:Climate Central

For us, the drowning of Doggerland has a different meaning. Rather than a lost past to lament, it is a cautionary tale of the Anthropocene near future. The impact of climate change on the environment forces us to consider that rising seas will likely drown substantial areas of the world, including the coasts of Denmark, eastern Britain, Belgium, and much of the Netherlands (and of course, much, much more of the world). Unlike the inhabitants of Doggerland, we have a choice, but will we take it?

On the Lost Canals of Vilnius


​​​​​​Vilniaus Dinge Kanalai ​​​​​​​​
​​​​​​​​
Jau mes senai užmiršome kad XVI-XVIII amžiam, Vilnius buvo vadintas „Šiaures Venecija“ ne tik dėl to kad miestu architektūra būvu panaši bet gi ir Vilnius buvo kanalų miestas lyg kaip Venecija. Po Didžiojo Vilniaus gaisro 1610 metais, Kristupas Radvila Jaunasis liepė rekonstruoti miestą su Venecijos-tipo kanalais kad vėl tokio įvykio nebūtu. Vanduo buvo paimtas iš Vilneles upes. Šitas etapas baigėsi kai Rusai užėmė Vilnių ir bijant choleros, reikalavo gatves atgal atstatyti. Praėjusia savaite buvo malonu užtikti senus paveikslus senai užmirštame muziejaus fonde. ​​​​​​​​Žinoma, tas viskas užtruko daug laiko ir užmirštose kampose kanalai dar egzistavo iki pat pirmojo pasaulinio karo.

The Lost Canals of Vilnius

We have already forgotten that in the XVI-XVIII centuries, Vilnius was called “Venice of the North” not only because the architecture was similar but also because Vilnius was a city of canals, just like Venice. After the Great Fire of 1610, Prince Krzysztof Radziwiłł ordered the city be rebuilt with canals like Venice so that such an event would never happen again. Water was taken from the Vilnele river. This phase of the city’s history ended when Russia took over the city and, fearing cholera, demanded that the streets be put back. Of course, this took quite some time and the infill was not complete until the eve of World War I. The previous week in Vilnius, it was nice to run across old paintings from long-ago forgotten museum storage spaces.


Or so the story goes.

I’ve spent a bit of time this spring exploring Artificial Intelligence-driven image generators like Nightcafe Studio, Midjourney, and most recently Dall-E 2. These engines allow anyone to produce remarkably complicated and realistic (or surrealistic) images easily. These are the early days of image generators and the developments have been rapid. Clearly, the handwriting is on the wall for a variety of practices. Why use stock photography if any image you can want can be yours, royalty free, for a few dollars? Will we ever trust an image again? What will happen to pornography when physical bodies aren’t necessary anymore? Will video game environments be produced by Artificial Intelligences, based on prompts from developers, or will they be dynamically created on the fly? Figurative painting, in particular, seems all too easy to simulate and simulate well, but then I haven’t really understood the purpose of figurative painting for some time now. The sort of fan art and sci-fi fantasy scenes commonly found on DeviantArt and in Hot Topic stores are easily made by Dall-E 2 and its ilk. But quite obviously art, in its highest form—for example, conceptual art—can’t be made by such applications. Or can it?

If we see art as a constant research process exploring the boundaries of the human condition (and I am likely to argue such a thing in the second part of my post on Art and the Universal), we might begin with the observation that although image generators can’t purposefully do anything new conceptually, we can use them in conceptual ways. Returning from a week in Vilnius, I saw a friend tweet an image of London by Canaletto. This got me thinking about Canaletto’s famed capricci, fantastic images of Venice in which many of Andrea Palladio’s works from Vicenza (a town considerably inland from Venice) mysteriously appeared in Venice. Canaletto spent ten years in London, but his student and nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, who was also a painter and—confusingly enough—was also known as Canaletto, was even more itinerant, spending time painting in Dresden, Vienna, Turin, and Warsaw where he was appointed court painter to Stanislaw August Poniatowski, the last King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. After the massive destruction visited upon Warsaw by the Luftwaffe, Bellotto’s 26 panoramic vedute of the old city were used to help reconstruct the city center as a matter of “national honour.” The socialist government of the Polish People’s Republic argued that by turning back to the eighteenth century, they were reconstructing a pre-capitalist state, hence the reconstruction was not a bourgeois project and could proceed under the regime. By the 1960s, the city historian would claim that “the old town now looks as it used to long ago.” But, like his uncle, the second Canaletto enjoyed taking significant artistic license with his paintings and, compounding this, the authorities made decisions to depart from any previous epoch in Warsaw’s history. The resulting Warsaw center has itself become a built capriccio, a city that never was. In enshrining it in its World Heritage list in 1980, UNESCO called it an “outstanding example of a near-total reconstruction of a span of history covering the 13th to the 20th century.” (see more on Warsaw’s reconstruction here).

Over the thirty years that I have been visiting Vilnius, I have observed the city doing the same thing, albeit in a more piecemeal fashion. One day there is a ruin, a few years later a baroque building appears to have risen on the spot, although behind the façade is a hotel or an Internet startup. Most notable of these is the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania which had been demolished in 1801 but was rebuilt out of reinforced concrete from 2002 to 2018. In fact, Vilnius—like virtually all cities—is hardly static, but rather exists in a constant state of flux. Even now, there are threats to incorporate the city’s main icon—the Gediminas Tower—into a reconstruction of the long gone upper castle. The architect involved claims that since the original tower was only there stories tall, the current structure—rebuilt in 1933—is so inauthentic as to demand the long-gone structure be rebuilt.

Having often heard Vilnius compared to an Italian city and thinking of the nature of the Canalettian capriccio, I decided to produce the lost canals of Vilnius (perhaps also referring to the filled-in canals of Venice, California, or the missing canals of the planet Mars) in Dall-E 2. Hundreds of image generations later, I have a small selection of images for you of a city that only exists in the imagination, but that, given the propensity of cities to be remade to look like images, may yet one day come to pass.

On Art and the Universal, I

In his Theory of the Avant-Garde, Peter Bürger concluded that the avant-garde’s purpose is for art to sublate(assimilate) into life. In opposition to nineteenth century aestheticism that aimed to emphasize the autonomy of art from life, Bürger’s reading of the historical avant-garde—be it Dada, Surrealism, Productivism, Constructivism, or the Bauhaus—was that it aimed to break down the barrier between art and life, allowing the fullness of artistic expression to pass into all aspects of life.

For a large group of people in the developed world, this is now an everyday condition. Members of the creative class curate their lives around aesthetic choices, work and life are inseparable. Our lives are filled with intentional choices that express our individuality: we aspire to cook modernist cuisine, clean up with Marie Kondo, and obsess over the right boots and hat to go gardening in. STEM and maker culture are not opposed but inseparable: who doesn’t make their own jewelry or design their own body art these days, often using 3D modeling software and printers? Tens of thousands of people worldwide sit on Philippe-Starck-designed toilets every day. The workplace is a playground. Even after the recent plague, design festivals and biennales are a dime a dozen now. Go glamping in Marfa, spend an evening at the local sip ‘n paint, bring your friends to the immersive van Gogh. This curated life is thoroughly documented, to be posted on Instagram for the world to see.

In fairness, Bürger believed that by the 1950s, when avant-garde techniques from Dada and Surrealism had been incorporated into advertising and television (think Ernie Kovacs or Ray and Charles Eames’s films here), the aestheticization of everyday life had been complete and the avant-garde had been dealt a fatal blow. For Bürger, this is a false sublation, but I’m twice as old and jaded as I was when I first read the Theory of the Avant Garde and I don’t see how Bürger’s historical avant-garde could have ever been anything but a temporary reconciliation with an ultimate tragic end. The avant-garde was always a historically delimited moment. And if it’s fair to say that contemporary culture is thoroughly spectacularized, you would be right, but when a book on Constant Nieuwenhuys sells for $1,892 on Amazon, what is the spectacle anymore? Writing about Situationism has earned more than one professor tenure at a top university. Pinot Gallizio’s works, once sold by the yard, now sell for tens of thousands of Euros. The practices of Situationism have long since been absorbed by the spectacle. What is Dîner en Blanc® if not a Situationist practice? What is Situationism if not an excellent guerrilla marketing project?

That the Situationists or Fluxus chose to continue on with the neo-avant-garde was merely an after-effect. No doubt there is much truth there. The historical avant-garde is long dead and with it too the promise of art sublating into life.

Much of the art world has long abandoned any pretense of avant-gardism, embracing instead the idea of self-validation and value. Take NFTs, the realm of garish cartoon apes that have escaped from a Hot Topic store to scream “I am rich.” This is no different from the art at the very top of the market, touted as an investment vehicle that cuts out the vicissitudes of corporate ups and downs, skipping price/earnings ratios and dividends for an unabashed belief in inflation and the greater fool theory, but in reality act primarily as a signifier for extreme wealth and good taste (and often a front for money laundering).

Other forms of art and architecture use politics as a form of branding, taking a page from Debord’s idea of the Spectacle. Take the hyper-branded architecture of Rem Koolhaas, Bjarke Ingels, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro and their ilk, often presented by academic “critics” as somehow serving to liberate people (which I suppose means from architectural convention) or progressive (which is just baffling). 

These two positions—the idea of self-validation and branding—come together in art that espouses a political position or identity politics. Now key strategy of the avant-garde had been to communicate political ideas and, especially after the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements, there has been a burst of interest in the art world in such art. Yet, nobody has ever gone to an art gallery and come out a communist. Hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb collects art by Jean-Michael Basquait, Richard Prince, Mike Kelley, and Cindy Sherman, all of whom have been political art darlings of Leftist art critics and yet is a major donor to Right-wing causes as well as a supporter of the neo-fascist menace that occupied the White House from 2017 to 2021. He is merely one egregious illustration; ultimately one’s political position hardly matters. What does it mean to have an El Lissitzky on one wall and a Frida Kahlo on another? It signifies wealth and aesthetic appreciation, not political allegiance. What does it mean to demonstrate solidarity with an identity group? Why is one lauded for affirming one’s sexuality loudly in art, even if Mapplethorpean transgression can no longer demonstrate the shock of the new? All this merely demonstrates one’s virtue.

Many members of the bourgeoisie, unable to escape the deeply engrained notions of Protestantism, but questioning its superstitions, have replaced the delusion of original sin with the notion of “privilege.” Surrounding oneself with art that trumpets the identity of its maker is a way of assuaging this guilt, even if—as the notorious Whitney “Collective Actions” show demonstrated—political art’s functional purpose isn’t to change the structural condition that it critiques but rather to underscore and cement those very structural conditions. Nor is this new, notwithstanding the newness of the phrase “virtue signaling,” virtue and art have long been linked, initially through religion, later on through connoiseurship. And, of course, for many artists, the idea that art needs to be socially relevant assuages their own guilty consciousnesses for producing useless things for the rich.

And yet, as Peter Sloterdijk explained in his Critique of Cynical Reason, it’s the habit of such guilty consciousnesses to turn to cynical. The cynic (in the sense that Sloterdijk and I always speak of) is someone with an enlightened false consciousness, someone who knows that something is wrong but goes on doing it anyway. Having read critical theory in university, the modern cynic knows that what she or he is doing is wrong, but they do it anyway. Sloterdijk writes that this makes them “borderline melancholics, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and can remain more or less able to work.” For Sloterdijk, once an individual has become cynical, his or her hope has been lost, abandoned for expediency. Take for example, the Marxist professor (a figure I met all too often in the university) who realizes that with Revolution endlessly deferred, the best thing they can do is to defend their academic position at all costs so they can continue preaching Adorno and Benjamin, even if that defense comes at the cost of cutting down rising faculty, avoiding any political activities outside the university, or looking upon staff as human beings worthy of consideration. Fascism—both interwar and present-day American and European fascism—is the ultimate result, of course, a politics based on brutal expediency, in which democracy must ultimately give way to a “politics of pure violence.”

There is, however, a choice that avoids the cynical, the choice of embracing the most degraded of all ideas in art today, that of “the universal,” and it may not be what many of you will think or find acceptable (although in private conversations, many of you have said that this is precisely what is necessary…). That possibility is the subject of Part II, which will come next week, after an interregnum in which I get some work out there.

Modernism in Montclair

I will be speaking about the modern architecture in Montclair, New Jersey and the surrounding areas tonight for the Montclair History Center, 2 June at 7pm. The talk will be recorded and shown on Youtube a few weeks from now at the Montclair History Center’s channel. I will be covering the period from 1900 to 1985, including “the Hollywood Hills of New Jersey” (Highland Avenue) and will briefly talk about the Deck House corporation.

https://us06web.zoom.us/j/92938168537?pwd=T0pGbVgxVUMwVjV0WDBMZlFkbUI0Zz09
Meeting ID: 929 3816 8537
Passcode: 818319

On the Wastelands of Northern New Jersey

My photographic essay, Wastelands: An Analysis of the Early Anthropocene Swamps of Glacial Lake Passaic is now up on this site. The photographs were exhibited at El Palacio de la Madraza in Granada, Spain as part of the show Vernacular. Diálogos entre micropolíticas del paisaje, curated by Carlos Gor Gómez. A brief abstract below:

In his 1961 book, Megalopolis: the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, geographer Jean Gottman adopted the Greek term “megalopolis” to refer to vast conurbations such as the northeastern seaboard of the United States, from Washington DC to Boston. This megalopolis, he observed, would not have a uniform population density but rather would be composed of multiple urban centers and the interstitial spaces between them.

Even as megalopolitan territories have developed across the globe and the price of land in their boundaries has skyrocketed, interstitial spaces within them persist in terms of what Ignasi de Sola-Morarles called terrain vague, leftover spaces that have been abandoned for some reason. Understanding the potential of such sites—not to develop them, as is the vogue for too many architects, but to leave them as is or to allow damaged ecological systems to be restored—is a critical task for urban researchers today.

In this photo essay, I look at a group of such areas in Essex County, New Jersey, the densest and most urbanized county of the densest and most urbanist state in the United States, specifically at huge swamps remaining from the draining of Glacial Lake Passaic that comprise roughly ¼ of the county’s acreage. My interest is in both the history and conflicts over these areas and the tenuous relationship individuals have with the borders of such areas, especially now that extreme weather events have become annual occurrences.

Wastelands on Exhibit

 

I have put up a gallery of images from a photographic project that I did this spring and summer: Wastelands: An Analysis of the Early Anthropocene Swamps of Glacial Lake Passaic

 

Photographs from this project are on display in Carlos Gor’s exhibit “Vernacular. Diálogos Entre Micropolíticas Del Paisaje” at La Madraza, Centro de Cultura Contemporanea in Granada, Spain. There are many more images at the gallery above and I will eventually put up the full text of the essay as it going into the accompanying catalog.

 

In his 1961 book, Megalopolis: the Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, geographer Jean Gottman adopted the Greek term “megalopolis” to refer to vast conurbations such as the northeastern seaboard of the United States, from Washington DC to Boston. This megalopolis, he observed, would not have a uniform population density but rather would be composed of multiple urban centers and the interstitial spaces between them.

Even as megalopolitan territories have developed across the globe and the price of land in their boundaries has skyrocketed, interstitial spaces within them persist in terms of what Ignasi de Sola-Morarles called terrain vague, leftover spaces that have been abandoned for some reason. Understanding the potential of such sites—not to develop them, as is the vogue for too many architects, but to leave them as is or to allow damaged ecological systems to be restored—is a critical task for urban researchers today.

In this photo essay, I look at a group of such areas in Essex County, New Jersey, the densest and most urbanized county of the densest and most urbanist state in the United States, specifically at huge swamps remaining from the draining of Glacial Lake Passaic that comprise roughly ¼ of the county’s acreage. My interest is in both the history and conflicts over these areas and the tenuous relationship individuals have with the borders of such areas, especially now that extreme weather events have become annual occurrences.

Against Facebook

Perhaps you are here because Facebook is down. Good. This site isn’t. Stay here, then visit some other web sites and don’t go back.

This is going to be an unpopular post. If this makes you upset or hurts your feelings, sorry, it’s said with love and concern for my dearest friends and family. If you aren’t on Facebook, good for you!  Pat yourself on the back and convince anyone you can to follow your example.

Facebook is a terrible company and awful thing for democracy. It pretends to offer belonging when all it really is out to do is to exploit it’s members. I am thoroughly disappointed by my friends who use it all the time and should know better (ahem, if you are an academic, this means YOU… ). By 2016, the average Facebook user spent a staggering fifty minutes a day on that site chock full ‘o nuts. Want to find out how crazy it is? Go visit r/hermancainaward on Reddit and ask yourself what site are the contributors posting excerpts from? No, it’s not Twitter. Facebook is toxic. Get off it.

I’ve spent about the same time on Facebook over the last few years as off and I periodically shut down my account. The only two reasons I’m still on Facebook are that (most of you) people are too lazy to visit this site without it being spoon fed to you via a post on Facebook. I can see this clearly in my logs and, frankly, it’s pathetic. Facebook is not ok. Have we not learned anything yet? Just yesterday, Frances Haughen the brave Facebook whistleblower on 60 Minutes revealed just how bad things were. An internal Facebook document baldly stated: “We have evidence from a variety of sources that hate speech, divisive political speech and misinformation on Facebook and the family of apps are affecting societies around the world.” The company, Haughen explains, is hiding this information from the public. Facebook is like Purdue Pharma, which heavily marketed its opiods even though they knew how addictive they are. Facebook is no different. Walk away from it. If you can’t visit people in real life, get an RSS reader, visit Reddit, go to Twitter. Stay away from Facebook, it’s evil.

Facebook was created by wealthy Harvard undergraduates whose goal was to find young women to sexually exploit, as the film the Social Network makes amply clear. If that wasn’t enough, Russian oligarchs with close ties to Vladimir Putin (as well as Jared Kushner) have invested heavily in Facebook (I have heard rumors that Putin himself heavily invested in it)and speaking of Kushner, Facebook was happy to work with Cambridge Analytica to get the most divisive and incompetent President in US history elected. The January 6 insurrection was organized, in large part, on Facebook. Facebook livestreamed a massacre in New Zealand. A recent study identified over 20 million cases of “child sexual abuse material” on Facebook. According to an undercover investigation by the BBC, women are sold on Facebook as slaves. Lynchings in Sri Lanka, Mexico, and Indonesia have all been traced directly back to Facebook. Perhaps worst of all, genocide in Myanmar was organized onFacebook.

People claim that Facebook brings people closer together. No, it does not. It replaces lived relationships with relationships mediated by clicks and likes. Facebook’s algorithms choose what you see. Facebook monitors your communications for keywords so that it can market to you. People over 40 may remember the days when we used to call each other for an hour on the phone or write letters to each other, even emails. What happened to that? There was genuine communication there. Think of all of the books of letters that have been published over the years. Nobody wants to see their shitty Facebook posts.

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve watched as social interaction has died out and formerly lively internet forums have died while Facebook has taken over their purposes. If you maintain a forum on Facebook, shut it down. It’s bad for everyone involved. Read a book or a magazine, listen to some music, visit the Internet if you must, don’t visit Facebook. When Facebook is back (I hope never), I will be reducing my presence there still further. Do your part. Don’t promote Facebook, fight it tooth and nail.

 

On Tourism Today

This is a personal reflection. I’m not sure anybody else on Earth feels this way, but if you do, or if you have found ways to keep travel alive for yourself, do leave me a note.

I don’t understand the point of tourism anymore.

Call it the existential problem of tourism. Whether Mickey Mouse hat and fanny pack wearing tourist or avant-garde academic, we would leave home to find stimulus in the unfamiliar. But how does that apply today anymore?

Overtourism together with the migration of merchandising and social behavior to online venues has undone difference between places. Will an Irish pub in Ireland be better than an Irish pub in a random town in the US? I’ve been to dozens upon dozens of Irish pubs in Ireland on my many Hibernian trips and quite a few in the US and it’s not clear. If I go into a random restaurant in Rome, will the person next to me be a Roman, an American, or a German?

Residents of city centers worldwide have left in favor of short term rentals and with them, stores have left to be replaced by tourist restaurants and tsotchke vendors. Rents have generally skyrocketed as well. I have observed that the quality of restaurants peaked around 2000, maybe a little after that. It may that when one is young the world is new, but just as much, I suspect, rising rents have priced out quality. If you have to spend your money on rent, how much is there to spend on good labor or on good ingredients? Rising rents have squashed not only innovation, but also old classics. Ideally, a city would have a balance of both. Energetic young bars and restaurants are easy to admire, and it’s easy to say that old bars and restaurants are stuffy and boring, but old they also have distinct character, full of the memories of the city, often providing an experience of going back in time like in Madrid’s La Venencia. That’s hard to do now and La Venencia is one of the few places to guard its status carefully.*

I suppose I was lucky when I travelled in my academic career. As a historian of architecture and network culture, I usually had an excuse to go somewhere: Istanbul, Rotterdam, Valparaiso (Chile), Stockholm, Knoxville, Berlin, Madrid, Auckland, Munich, New Orleans and on and on. Generally, I’d be going somewhere because I’d be delivering a lecture or teaching a course. This would often result in less than ideal conditions for tourism since it’d inevitably take place in the academic year and I’d only have a day or two before I had to head back to teach, sometimes less (I once went to Vancouver for 90 minutes, although in fairness I had already been there for a few days before). Sometimes I’d have specific works of architecture or urban conditions to see. But that too would bring up the central problem of tourism, which is that it is voyeuristic.

As my followers well know, unlike many contemporary academics, I don’t subscribe to the naïve notion that cultural appropriation is inherently bad. On the contrary, it’s at the very heart of the human condition and without it, we would not only be much poorer, much more xenophobic and racist, less likely to see the other side. That said, I find it uncomfortable to walk into a church these days, even the Vatican or the Duomo in Florence. Who are these people? Why are they practicing these strange, superstitious customs? It’s 2021. I went to a Catholic elementary school for a few years but my parents always stressed that they were European Catholics and didn’t practice. As time has worn on, I simply don’t understand them. A stone circle or a sacred altar from pagan Lithuania makes infinitely more sense. Similarly, I couldn’t bring myself to visit the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and I doubt I’ll go back to the Hagia Sofia when it becomes a mosque again. Going to see Buddhist temples only reinforces that most forms of Buddhism are incomprehensible to the largely twentieth century practice of Western Buddhism. It all seems very voyeuristic and as a practice voyeurism is only acceptable when it is a game played with an exhibitionist aware of their practices. Otherwise, it is uncomfortable at best and a form of violence at worst.

And what else does one do when abroad besides look at buildings? You can go see some museums, but a corollary to overtourism is that one has seen too much. There are too many museums today and most are disappointing. Even the storied ones in wealthy cities frequently disappoint. The lighting of Las Meninas at the Prado is a great example. It’s impossible to take in the painting because of the reflections on the surface. I’ve been to many museums in wealthy European cities and been really disappointed. American museums are no different. Going to MoMA is a horrible experience. The new Whitney is deeply unpleasant. These are not good places to see art. The modern and contemporary sections at the Art Institute of Chicago are tragic, victims of short-sighted decisions (notably the third-rate Edlis/Neeson collection which is inexplicably in public display for a stunning fifty years, at which point the whole thing can be properly binned). Dia: Beacon, which used to be one of the best museums in the world, has stumbled dramatically under recent curatorship: two shows of Charlotte Posenske’s oeuvre? One is by far enough. Sometimes I get lucky, the show of Constant’s work that I stumbled upon at the Reina Sofia was a stunning surprise. The Akron Museum of Art has a remarkable collection of postwar art, much more interesting that than at the Art Institute of Chicago. But I find such experiences rarer these days as museums pander to the woke and their similarly privileged friends, oligarchs seeking to launder money.

So why tourism? Modern tourism dates itself back to the 18th century practice of the Grand Tour, when nobles and wealthy British men would go abroad to France and Italy as a rite of passage during which they would radically unsettle their sensorium by seeing cultures quite unlike theirs, together with the great works from the Roman era to the Baroque. The idea was that embodied knowledge was even more important than book knowledge. But what to make of it now? Can one really be invigorated by travel in such a manner except maybe by, as has become the vogue lately, flying into orbit around the Earth? There is no question I would do that, but the cost of space travel is still ridiculously high.

Visiting natural areas is no different. The “wild” places that provided the antidote to civilization have now been thoroughly trampled. Our state parks are full of botanical escapees from home gardens. The selfie stick is as hard to avoid in front of Yosemite Falls as it is in the Colosseum. I suppose that gardens and botanical centers are still worth going to, but I am not terribly interested in formal ones or ones driven by landscaper architecture as they remind me of the damage we have done to the environment.

Can one undo this with alternative spatial practices? I don’t think they are so productive anymore. Debord’s dérive, the “technique of urban passage through spatial ambiances” was meant as an antidote to both urban boredom and to the planned, scheduled tourism of the day, but take a dérive through the city today. Will you really feel that different in Brooklyn or Manhattan? In Queens? I don’t think so. It’s all more of the same. Behind the windows are people watching the same Netflix shows you are.

Mind you, there are places of genuine difference these days, but should we really travel to them? I mean COVID aside, which makes it virtually impossible to travel to Asia these days, do the Japanese really want Americans or Europeans there anymore? They are much less interested in studying abroad these days. Do the Chinese? Rates of English language instruction are falling there. Afghanistan is certainly different, but it’s definitely not a good idea to go there.

COVID may change the nature of tourism. I dearly hope it does. The migration of jobs out of the city may free up space for residents to flock back in, or for more Airbnbs. Cities such as Venice, Amsterdam, and Rome are actively looking for more sustainable ways forward, culturally and ecologically. I certainly hope so. We all need it if we are to find actual meaning in travel again.

*The last time I was at La Venencia a tourist was literally shown the door for trying to order a beer. You’ll also be shown the door if you are dumb enough to try to take a selfie (there are signs on the wall about this), although this is as much resistance to tourism as it is a holdover from the Franco days when it was a Communist hangout and photos could mean the death of patrons.

Signal Culture Residency

In February 2020 I had the opportunity to spend a week in Owego, New York for a residency at Signal:Culture. This was a purely research-based residency working on a software tool. For my 2016 project Perkūnas, I developed a Python back end for indexing the number of smartphones (and other WiFi-operated devices) on Eurorack modular synthesis equipment with reasonable precision. During this residency, I refined this back end, optimizing it for video synthesis with LZX modules. There was never any goal of producing anything finished that could be displayed in an art gallery, but the following coarse feedback video displays an instance of how this worked. During one of the many dinners we enjoyed together, I talked to my colleague Martin Back about many things, and during one, we discussed the new plague emerging in China. In one of the dumbest statements I ever made, I said that I thought the Chinese would contain it and it would blow over quickly.