Response to Barnett Newman's "The Sublime is Now"
Published in Arts Magazine, New York, Vol. 60 No. 7, March 1986.
The grid is without memory. On the grid, there is only numerically determined position and temporally calculated speed. Once an event is removed from the grid, the grid's relentless structure swallows it up, leaving no hint of its existence. On the grid, there are no monuments. Only the grid itself is a monument to its own endless circulatory nature. When modern New-York was planned out in the early nineteenth century, laws were enacted requiring landowners to level hills if they were beyond a certain height. Two purposes were thereby served: first, that no steep rise or hill should be permitted to impede circulation; secondly, that no feature of landscape should remain that might trigger memory. If there are no hills, there can be no places where such-and-such occured on such-and-such- a night: no Bunker Hills, no Montmartres. All natural referents had to be systematically removed from the landscape. (In a similar way, various streams and even the lake below Canal Street were eradicated).
On the grid, there is only the presentness of unending movement, the abstract flow of goods, capital, and information. Everything is exchangeable. Nothing can be remembered since everything can be replaced. Existence is defined only in terms of position. If position is lost, existence vanishes. Memory becomes information as it is pushed onto the grids of electronic and photo-chemical recording. Here, time-past and time-future are pulverized by the esoteric mechanisms of entertainment-culture. We gaze at a film still, made last year, of a 1932 movie depicting a future that is already past. The young actors are old or dead. The costumes of the future are old-fashioned. Past and future cancel each other out in this temporal equation, leaving only the present remaining.
Finally, death disappears. The bodies are whisked away. Definitions of life and death become blurred. Replacement parts prolong life, while media reproduction extends its visibility. But, simultaneously, life itself is replaced by the demands of the grid, of speed and circulation and exchange. This is the origin of Newman's Now. It is also the Now of Existentialism, and of the various American experimental psychologies of the '50s and '60s. It is the same Now of the chaotic presentness of Beat poetry and improvisational jazz. After Newman's death, Andy Warhol commented that Newman was the only person who went to more parties than he did. Warhol stated that he thought that since Newman painted so few lines, he had plenty of time to go to parties. Warhol is also trapped in presentness. He can't remember anything, so he takes endless constant photographs. Michel Foucault, as well, was involved in this separation from memory. His work constituted a memoryless history, a history of only the modem that depended in its methodology on the obscure archival recordings that replace memory in modernity. His work made a dramatic break with any past before the modern era. His history starts only with the Renaissance, when recorded information began to replace memory, and excludes any study of Eastern, tribal, or pre-modern cultures.
Only at the end did this change. Foucault rediscovered memory in his final meditation on sexuality in ancient Greece. The tortured ecstasy of presentness that had been dominant throughout his work is replaced by the ecstasy of the memory of ancient times, of the procession of organic life. Did Foucault turn away as he approached the abyss?