Published in New Observations 35, 1985


Suddenly, in '60s art, images of circles began to appear. There were Noland's targets, the circular arrangements of Smithson, the ring-shaped configurations of Morris and Serra. The '60s assigned to this impetus to the circle the meaning of unity – the circle was held to be an orb, an image of completeness, a sign for unity. But the appearance of these circle motifs represented something more complex. In almost every instance, the center was empty. The character of these circle-images turns out to be not solid but linear. This art announced that, from that time on, line was to turn back in on itself, that the linear had ceased to cut its way through the undergrowth of Nature. The linear was complete, and that henceforth line would flow into line in endless circularity.

The Interstates. They wind majestically through the cities – elevated disinterestedly on pale concrete piers. They course through the open land, bridging chasms, leveling hills, skimming over swamps. Along these routes, advertising is prohibited and all buildings have been removed. The broad right-of-way is landscaped with well-kept lawns and orderly rows of trees, as befits a ceremonial site.

They span the nation along evenly spaced north-south and east-west routes. The north-south routes are labeled I-5 to I-95 in intervals of ten, while the east-west routes are numbered I-10 to I-90. A third digit prefix is added to the code to denote the interaction of the Interstate with a city (as a beltway, a by-pass, or a business-district extension). The system makes of the country an all-encompassing Cartesian grid. It is our greatest monument to the linear.
From the 1860s to the 1920s, art heralded the coming of the linear universe. First in Manet, then in Gauguin, then in Matisse, drawing was freed from the confines of chiaroscuro. Drawing was freed – and line was freed to become a pictorial force that demonstrated the role the linear was coming to play in the social. Then in Cubism and Neo-Plasticism, the linear universe was described as well-established: in Cubism the real gave way to the vector and was replaced by the diagrammatic. Neo-Plasticism then described the apotheosis of the linear in all its glory.

Behind the wheel. It is to be at the altar of the linear. Hands grasping the cool plastic of the linear made circular. Eyes on the road. Following not only the road, but the cool geometry of the lines that divide the roads into lanes. At nightfall, the landscape and even the road gradually disappear, and we are left only with this display of linear signs glowing in phosphorescent paint under the headlights.

On the road. It is said for us to be the greatest feeling of freedom. But the feeling is really that of oneness. On the road, behind the wheel, hurtling down the highway, there is a feeling of unity with the formal power of the linear. It is our theatre of the philosophic.

In the city, on the other hand, we feel overwhelmed by the complexity of these linear networks. The street, of course, is also an artery of circulation. Its efficiency is enhanced by the system of traffic lights that use colored signs to cause the stream of cars to ebb and flow. But the street is also a roof covering another massive network of circulation that runs below it. Below, there are pipes carrying water, sewerage, and gas. There are wires that carry electricity, telephone lines, and cable television. There are tunnels for subway trains and underpasses that carry still more automobiles. It is this bundling of the linear, this creation of parallel systems of circulation, that characterizes modernity.

There has developed a formal pattern universal to this system. It is the formalism of the cell and the conduit, the formalism of "plugging in." The 747 pulls up to the gate and immediately technicians appear with hoses, electric lines, and ramps connecting the plane to conduits from which
flow fuel, electricity, baggage, and passengers. The patient in the hospital is hooked up to oxygen and to an I.V., while the office worker is hooked up to a computer terminal. At home, we plug in for everything that used to be natural, be it wind, light, heat, or water.

The cell. Its ubiquity reflects the atrophy of the social and the rise of the interconnective. At the same time that the advent of piped-in "conveniences" has made it unnecessary to leave the cell, it has also made it impossible to leave the cell. One finds oneself stuck at home waiting for a phone call; instead of entering the social, one must stay within the cell to communicate with someone else. Or one stays at home to watch something on TV; in order to be entertained or informed by human beings on television one forgoes the presence and company of actual human beings. One enters another cell, the automobile, to travel from the cell – and the automobile too is increasingly being outfitted from communications equipment to make it a desirable place in which to remain.

The mechanism of cell and conduit, while universal, is hidden. The automobile travels from destination to destination along various routes of circulation, but only when it stops at a gas station does it plug in. Filling up, that minor task, is actually the essential part of the system. Similarly, in the home, the conduits are hidden, ignored, not noticed. Plumbing is sealed in the walls, electrical sockets are placed inconspicuously in base-boards, heating systems are in the basement.

This is a realm without absolutes. The linear networks contain cells, but the cells also contain linear networks in endless progression. The airliner is a cell, but it contains miles of wiring and tubing. The home is a cell, but within the home are to be found machines with their own networks of circuitry.

In the 1920s, the idea of linear abstraction was at its height. Linearity was still a goal, an ideal that could only be fully expressed in a work of art, whether painting, sculpture, or architecture. But today the closure of the linear universe has long since been achieved. Linearity has now abandoned abstraction and taken on the mantle of the diagrammatic. Today, linearity backtracks and seeks to appropriate for itself the trappings of the old reality of specificity. This is the impetus behind the diagrammatic representation of video games and computer graphics, airport signs, and the Smile-have-a-nice-day symbol of the '70s.

New York is the quintessential city of the heroic era of linear conquest. With its strictly gridded and numbered streets, New York insists constantly on the Cartesian quality of its plan. The lines of its great skyscrapers surge transcendentally into the air in defiance of gravity. The networks of conduits tunnel far underground, then rise giddily into the air. (The elevator, that vertical road, is a key element of this spatiality.) The ground line of the earth is ignored. The linear structures expand in three dimensions with Dionysian frenzy.

In Los Angeles, as well as in other cities of the suburban era, the linear no longer struggles defiantly against the forces of gravity and topography. The grid simply spreads horizontally, two-dimensionally, casually, almost naturally over the landscape-like Borges' ideal map that covers the landscape itself (as cited by Baudrillard).

The semiconductor chip conforms to this same model of two-dimensional planar circulation. Gradually, just as the social has been transferred onto this schema of highways and malls, so is memory and knowledge being transposed onto these miniature circuits.

The stimuli of the modem world – sounds and sights – are also reproduced and distributed through endless systems of linear technology. (The more intimate senses were long ago excluded from this order.) Stereo and video are recorded onto tape, that opaque blackish substance that symbolizes the intransigent linear time of this universe. Computers and record players use flat disks whose spiral roadways reflect the circularity of their contents. All visual and aural information – speech over the telephone, the television picture, computer data – is encoded into lines of electronic information. The linear be- comes language. The arcane discipline of electronic circulation now guards the gates of the senses.

The proliferation of the computer is the development that most insures the closure of this system. In the computer, we see physically affirmed, as if by an independent source, all the assumptions of linear thought. Conversely, the computer ignores all utterances not made according to the rules of its own linear code. With the advent of private computer use, the computer becomes an oracle of instruction in the structures of the linear. It gives instruction in how to write and how to conduct business – but according to its own linear rules. It is even deployed to indoctrinate children into the ways of the linear. Further, as greater and greater amounts of society's information (both financial and intellectual) are stored in computers, even the reluctant are coerced into dealing with the computer and its pattern of thought.

Color and drawing. They are the watchwords of a certain kind of formalism in the visual arts. The emphasis on drawing reflects the modem omnipresence of the linear, but the importance given to the role of color also has a meaning. Color in modernism is sometimes seen as a means of enacting an ideal of hedonistic release – of the freeing of the bourgeois sensibility from the constraints of morality and the symbolic. But this emphasis on color reflects the crucial role that color plays in the realm of the linear. In the planar universe, only color is capable of coding the linear with meaning: Colored lines on maps distinguish the character of highways. Wires are colored to mark their purpose. In hospitals, one can even follow colored bands on the floor through labyrinthine corridors to one's destination.

In the 1960’s, the astronauts' whole purpose was to orbit the earth, to inscribe a circle through the heavens around the planet. It was a great public spectacle and an event of great ritual significance. In their reflective silver suits and gleaming capsule (an archetypal cell with only the most limited maneuvering capacity and a tiny window), their epic flights announced the closure of the linear for all humanity to see (on television); the linear, and the abstract, would now circumscribe the natural. The speculative tradition of Descartes, Kant, and Hegel had remade the world. It was as if the magic of the shamans had been proven all-powerful, and the shamanistic recipes had banished the mysteries of Nature for good. The linear would now flow back into itself. The system had become closed, had become a massive machine for reproducing its own assumptions, had reached in the orbital model a condition of stasis.