Subtext /

MacArthur Park by Andrew Durbin / Nightboat Books

It skulked within the sky: deterioration. Lightning skewered our chat; every rupture lacerated the clouds in thunderclaps like disembodied, stroboscopic sniggers. The sky purred, tightening into sultry accumulations ceding to tremors. Rainfall plundered clarity like a blunted contour. Macerating matter became slushy in the gutters; plashes multiplied in the slurry of it all. Sopping, delight shivered over us; the privilege of stable observation afforded us the dumb pleasure of being mere witnesses to the sky dissevering itself.

This was only London; it blew over, largely traceless. The minor outbreak was only ever the whisper of jeopardy, an evanescent threat that allowed us to treat the storm as a novelty. Its impression demonstrates how the apocalyptic has become a blockbuster aesthetic, disaster as mere entertainment for those who have the luxury to purchase its ticket, disaster as a specious, probably italicized term among millennials. Andrew Durbin introduces the disaster imaginary in the beginning of his debut novel MacArthur Park, starting in 2012 with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy in New York, where the protagonist, Nick Fowler (a poet and writer), is housesitting for an art collector in the West Village. Its aftermath haunts Nick, who decides to visit the bedrock of ecological trauma: Miami. The essay functions as a preface to Nick’s larger project on the weather.

Nick soon returns to New York and his affectless milieu; he meets Simon, a lover who later becomes a cipher. Together they watch the sunrise over Lower Manhattan, but the weather lacks coherency: “It might have been snowing. All winter I kept thinking that it was snowing, though it was often too warm to stick or seemingly too cold to snow… The weather did not like to make itself understood.” Crisis, much like the weather, gives one shape, but its edges lack definition. MacArthur Park reads like an extraterritorial landscaping of this porous feeling: both eminently real and deceptive, realized in a meta-narrative that saunters and drifts with sleeper-like breadth. Crises challenge collective and individual memory, betraying Nick’s conviction as he recollects the first scene as mere fabrication: “Had my mind added that bit later, to place myself among accountable things since I was otherwise left in the abstract space of someone else’s apartment, just at the edge of disaster? I could have said anything about my past.” Durbin’s reiteration attempts to reinforce his place in the present — much like “everyone wants to be an artist because everyone wants to speak about the now” — but ultimately his precision lies with periphrasis.

This also lends Durbin’s tone a leisurely quality that quivers with subliminal anxiety: he analyzes his characters and interactions to extreme crystallinity even when Nick’s “untitled book thing” folder on his computer, and the travels made in pursuit of its realization, elude him. We get closer: “I wanted to write about what the weather made people do — and the weather of what people did. Weather as politics, weather as history.” The weather of places and psyches, of private and public histories, highlights the discrepancy between the representation of a place and the place itself. Such representations manifest desires for self-inscription, a catalogue of self-portraits, and can merely cruise the façade to pamper aspiration; Durbin’s research into fanatics such as Aleister Crowley and Aimee Semple McPherson, however, are rich accounts of other kinds of mythmaking, and here they serve as historical aids rather than propulsions for plot.

Nick travels to a troubled art commune, the Tom of Finland Foundation, the Madonna Inn, the Fire Island Pines, Hampstead Heath, California, Vienna, and New York. In his latter travels across Europe, a fresh social vulnerability surfaces, replacing disaster with the brutal organization of public spaces, and how private desires are negotiated in such spaces. Throughout, Durbin’s attention rests on the surface, swirling inward with Nick’s interior monologue. Information also arrives spontaneously, in block quotes and index-style lists. The research can be so digressive, its connection to the core narrative so subtle as to appear a blissful stray that dodges assessment of genuine narrative influence; when this research floats it incites the desire to return to Nick’s actual purview.

As for the novel’s namesake, Durbin conspicuously elides the actual palm-tree-bordered lake of downtown Los Angeles in favor of Donna Summer’s disco rework of Richard Harris’s saccharine ballad. “Disco performed travel for me,” Durbin writes, and Summer’s refrain takes him further:

MacArthur Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing, flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again.

In this liquid mode of metaphor I’m reminded of Durbin’s collection of poetry-cum-cultural-critique in Mature Themes and its extrovert glitter tactics, hot and feverish. MacArthur Park is smoother, attenuated to Nick’s persistent, self-reflexive welding of form and narrative arc. But it retains a glimmer of Mature Themes’ effervescence, that is, a recipe of frictions: destruction, disorientation, hallucination, criticism, its coalescence into a novel, a deckled bildungsroman, a recipe lacking template, the well malformed. In this way, Durbin’s approach to form and structure recalls the 1970’s New Narrative movement, as exemplified by Robert Glück. Durbin’s arc comes back to the park, to California, as “the end of an arc constructed over the dead who resisted it,” back to the molten baked blunderbuss: “As soft architecture, it isn’t built to last, rain comes through; the party forgets it as they head for shelter, and so it begins to break apart in the storm … The cake is a theory for cake that proves that cake doesn’t last.”

Nick: “The issue at hand was my own inarticulate desire to know a place I didn’t live in, the intimacy I wanted to produce out of visiting it, specifically in writing.” Admittedly cloistered, soft with glamour and dense with fascination, this issue nevertheless delivers slick exchange between reader and novel, even as his subject slips “out of sight, into my own spiraling digressions.” A carousel whose loops unfurl into hard-cut occult histories, to goofed attempts at astral projection, to impassioned delirium in The Spectrum, to organize the anxiety of the extremity while the cake continues to melt.

Subtext is a column by Alex Bennett exploring new and old books, art and ephemera.
Alex Bennett is a London-based writer, online editor at Novembre magazine and co-founder of Tinted Window publishing.
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Art Without Death: Conversations on Russian Cosmism / Sternberg Press

In Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin describes Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) moving backwards: “His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe.” Though the angel in Klee’s monoprint would like to “awaken the dead and piece together what had been smashed,” a storm drives him into a future to which his back is turned. Benjamin concludes: “This storm is what we call progress.”

Benjamin’s passage serves as a useful prelude to a larger discussion on Russian Cosmism, a philosophical movement propounded by nineteenth-century librarian and Orthodox philosopher Nikolai Fedorov. Whereas Benjamin perceived the past as a sublime, destructive spectacle, or “rubble on top of rubble,” Fedorov considered the dead, the victims of modernity’s progress, as pure potential. He believed that we share an ethical imperative to resurrect the dead via scientific and technological intervention. Because there were many Trotsky-supporting proponents of Cosmism, the movement suffered suppression by Stalin in the 1930s: numerous protagonists ended up in labor camps; artworks were taken out of circulation; manuscripts were confiscated and destroyed. Given this comprehensive destruction, Cosmism has suffered a considerable lapse in critical attention — something Art Without Death: Conversations on Russian Cosmism serves to restore.

Etymologically, “cosmos” means beauty, harmony, universal order. Cosmism’s goal was to achieve a cosmos on Earth. It is largely an argument that death constitutes a future, challenging how we preserve, historicize, and compose legacy, and questioning how we relate to a world in which everything is eternal. Given this interest in the administration of life, social organization, rejuvenation, and resurrection, Cosmism is an optimistic, wildly imaginative bedfellow to Foucault’s political-realist biopolitics. Picture, for instance, Fedorov’s vision to conquer outer space, realizing a planetary settlement for resurrected ages with each planet its own epoch, the stratosphere a constellated meta-museum. With its materialist, anti-capitalist stance, Cosmism can also be read as a precursor to the critique of accelerationism proposed by the likes of Benjamin Noys. Accelerationist thinking makes reference to Walter Benjamin’s view on history, in which technological progress is like a freight train speeding toward the abyss, which only the revolution can stop. As Arseny Zhilyaev says in the book’s section called “Cosmic Doubts,” “If we replace ‘revolution’ with ‘resurrection,’ then we arrive at Fedorov’s actual position.”

Rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky also believed in the radical and materialistic unity of “thinking creatures” and matter itself. As Zhilyaev notes, “according to Tsiolkovsky, humans should ultimately be transformed into immaterial organisms capable of acting on a universal level.” Though the Cosmist vision may appear arcane and eccentric in its mystical panpsychism, Art Without Death unpacks the technical and design-based proposals of the movement, including Alexander Bogdanov’s research into blood transfusion; Viktor Glushkov’s proposal for an interconnected computer network to regulate production and distribution; and Alexander Chizhevsky’s ionizer lamps, his “chandelier.”

In “Factories of Resurrection,” Anton Vidokle provides insightful accounts of the mergence of light and color to produce therapeutic effects in film. NASA, for instance, discovered that red LED lights accelerate the healing of skin. Cosmism arguably embraces such legacies, occupying a space shaped by failed plans, accidental resolutions, unrealized projects, and designs that produce something other than what was intended.

The reinsertion of Cosmism into Russian history from a European standpoint implies that Fedorov’s philosophy inevitably rubs against a Westernized intellectual context. Although one of the driving forces of the historical avant-gardes — Futurism, Dada, Surrealism — was the determination to fuse art with life, for Boris Groys in “Contemporary Art Is the Theology of the Museum,” Cosmism wants to corral and protect life, meaning immortalism bears some similarity to a “radical museumification of life.” Here, Russian Cosmism is used to affirm Groys’s long-held argument that the museum may be the most transformative place for art. It feels like an oblique reading given some of the fantastical ambitions of the Cosmists; without original excerpts or evocative quotes, the tone and texture of the Cosmist’s writings are laid to rest.

In “Cosmic Catwalk and the Production of Time,” Hito Steyerl highlights the misogynist contradictions of Cosmism, emphasizing that the maintenance and reproduction of life is a very gendered technological construct. “If the reproduction and maintenance of life is already a cosmist activity,” she says, “then one has to recognize its strong connection to reproductive labor and so-called domestic activities. Caretakers, parents, nurses, cooks, and cleaners are the first cosmists.” In “Cosmic Doubts,” Zhilyaev also highlights the central contradiction in Fedorov’s philosophy: that by insisting on mankind’s leading role in the transformation of the universe, by turns preserving his place as the crown in creation, he also denies the inevitability of a continued evolution that should eventually supplant anthropocentricism itself. Mankind asserts itself into subordination.

This is something technological singularity has facilitated. Art Without Death, too, considers the Cosmist echoes within the transhumanist movement now bankrolled by tech giants like PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel and Google’s head of engineering Ray Kurzweil, both staunch believers in immortalist possibilities. From data surveillance and biometric analytics to automated health care and AI, so much of what the Cosmists hoped for is now the stuff of Silicon Valley techno-utopian ideology and transitory next-gadget kitsch. In “Chaos and Cosmos,” Franco “Bifo” Berardi asserts the psychological and sensorial damage of such invention: “Web 2.0 enabled access to a boundless infosphere allowing interaction. Web 3.0 will likely be an accessible archive of stimulated experiences in full synaesthesis: immersion in perceptual universes.”

To consider Cosmism is to reckon with memory. Fedorov viewed the entire surface of our planet’s organic layer as an enormous cemetery. We have indexed its losses and rendered their histories searchable, failing, as Brian Kuan Wood writes, “to register the pain of losing something much larger than can be named — a deep relation to the world, to the cosmos.” Art Without Death is a timely examination of the cost of progress, questioning the motives for our desperate preservation. Cosmism intimates the progress we wanted may not be to index our losses, but to bring them back out of the rubble.

Subtext is a column by Alex Bennett exploring new and old books, art and ephemera.
Alex Bennett is a London-based writer, online editor at Novembre magazine and co-founder of Tinted Window publishing.
read more