I am so sick of this life, sir. I do dread the winter so. I've stood up to the ankles in snow till after midnight, and till I've wished that I was snow myself, and could melt like it and have an end.
Henry Mayhew, interview with a ham sandwich seller1
We had an affair with modernity. It came into the room wearing its underwear. It started dancing. We became aroused, enchanted by modernity’s illuminated body. We wanted the enchantment to last a little longer. But the magic of it wore off. Maybe the magic itself was forestalling modernity’s fortunes, our fortunes. Because modernity’s magic is finite right?
In this vision modernity is a woman. And she enters the stage through a black curtain. She is the modern promise, foreign and beautiful, her white skin illuminated in the glowing heat of the stage lights. The modern promise is one of progress and development, of illumination that can carry us out of the darkness, out of our own barbarity into a world where a life of pleasure and contentment is a technologically achievable aspiration. She is capitalist progression. And she is stripping down slowly in front of a scant audience, who are all waiting for the moment when modernity will run away with them, for the final and total enchantment of body and spirit, fused back together again. But here is the catch. Under this promise we will never actually become the masters of our own time or space. Instead we wait in anticipation for the modern promise to visit us, and for progress to wreak its havoc.
In his inaugural speech in January 1949, the newly elected American president Harry S. Truman spoke to a cold and enchanted crowd about humanity’s oldest enemies: misery, hunger and despair. These enemies were born in darkness, out of a stagnant and thus impoverished life. Poverty became a threat to stability and to the modern promise of progress and development. This was a threat that the civilised and developed world had a duty to fight. Truman was talking about communism, and thus he laid down the ideological framework of the Cold War. The discourse of development was born linear and stayed that way. The term 'underdeveloped' implies that there is some progressive line to lead us into a fully 'developed' future. You are just further down the line. I am simply behind (but always behind). It also implies a lack, a systemic lack that works against the linearity of technological advancement. Without a belief in linear progress, where would we be left? Behind, in a life of permanent lacking.
And what is at the end of the line? Stability. Made widely available through technological advancement, which embodies linear progress (or maybe it’s the other way around: linear progress embodies technological advancement). Anyway it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t work this way. At best what happens is a little appropriation, some surface images are conjured to keep the viewer enticed and the spirit appeased. These surface images vary in strength. Sometimes no one is convinced - like the new and very empty escalators in Medellín, leading up to the new and empty cable cars (which go up past the slums), bathed in new green florescent light, as if someone might ride them. But no one does because it’s night time in Medellín and an escalator isn’t going to change this.2 You see, stability was meant to be a contagion, infecting the hearts and minds of those living in the darkness. This was a modern stability but above all it was not to be owned or controlled by the people. This was the first sacrifice.
But back to the lady in the underwear. In Francis Alys’ video ‘The Politics of Rehearsal’ the magic breaks every time the music stops and the sequence is repeated. Modernity puts her dress back over her breasts and we feel embarrassed, caught guilty in our enchantment. The rehearsal ends the metaphor. Because the woman is actually a stripper, brought to Mexico as part of a globalised economy that trades in bodies for capital. While she represents the modern promise within the context of Mexico, she also represents the broader consequences of Truman’s speech-craft. (Why are there now Asian strippers in Mexico City? Does this also come with development? And with progress?)
The system demands that individual spirits sell their bodies as commodities. Wage labour implies a separation of body and mind; the mind/spirit is first sold the myth of progress, then the alienated body is put to work. Michael Taussig writes in The Magic of The State about a sugarcane mill next to a dark mountain. The owner of the mill has a contract that requires the sacrifice of one labourer per week to appease the Spirit Queen who lives on the mountain.3 Your spirit, faith, and body: this is what the capitalist state needs to be fed at night. The Spirit Queen knows - as the mill worker knows - that Progress needs, as Progress breeds, a whole sacrificial society. That’s what Progress takes.
Two doctrines we reject: firstly, the dualism that separates mind from body; secondly, the liberal illusion that grants the mind – and by extension the body – autonomy from the forces of capital.
Ratso, in John Schlesinger’s 1969 film Midnight Cowboy, harbours no such illusions. When he wonders about these doctrines they take the form of a reincarnation fantasy. “Some people believe you can come back in another body,” says Ratso. “You can come back as anything. You can come back as a dog or a president.” “If I had my choice between a dog and the president,” replies Joe Buck, “I’d come back as the president”: a point-blank acknowledgement that minds are better off in some bodies than in others.
Ratso is a petty con-man with a limp, who squats in a building on the point of being demolished and steals to survive. Joe Buck is a fresh-faced Texan desperately trying to sell his body on the streets. They are an unlikely pair – ‘stud’ and ‘cripple’, desirable and undesirable – joined at first by the need for a roof overhead, and then by their roaming spirit. Joe Buck models himself on a cowboy: “I like the way I look. Makes me feel good.” Ratso imagines what life would be like without his limp, and if only people would stop calling him Ratso. When their thoughts roam, they usually reach as far as a mythical American city. Joe Buck used to dream of New York, where his dreams fell apart and where he met Ratso, who dreams of Miami.
The film is a story of two minds and two bodies sucked into the dark vortex of the American dream. What strikes us first about it, and stays with us longest, is its texture: beads of sweat on jaundiced skin, blackened creases in matte-brown leather, holes worn in clothing. But this texture – the texture of hardship and mortality, of the friction between dreams and reality – is also the texture of Joe Buck and Ratso’s friendship. It is the texture of resilience, and in the end redemption: a rough texture, the true texture of human souls.
Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote that “[t]he human body is the best picture of the human soul”.4 In the shape and line of a body, we can read the condition of a soul. We can read its joy or despair, awareness or unawareness, its sense of possibility. The dragging of feet and the drooping of shoulders immediately tell us that, for the inmates in Vincent Van Gogh’s late painting Prisoners’ Round, life’s possibilities have contracted, barely stretching further than the next few paces.5 They trudge in a circle round the prison yard. Their legs have the molten folds of stalactites. Not a single foot is lifted from the floor.
The future seems to be shut out of this space. The prisoners take up only a third of the image. The rest describes a catastrophic visual universe: an ocean of bricks up above rendering the horizon a distant memory, and below a lurid patchwork of shadows on paving stones. The yard seems tilted up towards the picture plane, constricting the figures in a turgid wedge of air. There is a momentary sense of expectation, at the front of the circle, where the figures are more individuated. One holds his hands behind his back, almost as though he is striking out on a stroll around town. Yet as they turn the corner, their bodies come into line and their individuality is obliterated. The stack of seven shoulders running along the wall, we feel, contains the seed of a line stretching to eternity: the spectre of mass incarceration, the deepest recesses of the modern state.
But again, as the line crosses the back of the yard and bends towards us, the figures become less uniform and begin to jostle. They seem to press forward, eyes turned up, heads peering over shoulders. In a brief passage of compacted shapes we can make out the cacophony of the crowd. The circle, whilst binding and crushing the figures, contains a rise and fall, an individuation and de-individuation of figures. It projects a succession of incomplete possibilities – a soul in its uniqueness, absolute discipline, a clamouring mass – each cascading into the next.
You could say that a human figure, whether walking, sleeping, dancing or resting, describes two forces: one overarching it and bearing down on it, the other emanating from inside it. The force above, which affects not just this body but millions of others, can be read in the hunch of the shoulders, the spreading of the belly, the angle of the head and the fall of the limbs. In fact, this force flows downwards through the body and fills every part of it. Likewise, the inner force immediately vacates its invisible point of origin and flows outwards through every limb.
Hence in every nerve ending and every motion two forces run into one. This is why the balance of internal and external determination, of power and powerlessness, of enchantment and disenchantment, can seem to be decided in a gesture, as though the movements of limbs reflect tiny pressure imbalances in the cosmos, as though the chin and toes touch the edges of giant weighing scales, as though the fingertips are the mouths of mighty rivers.
1. Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 57.
2. At one point, the escalator was actually shut down because too many people were getting mugged, or worse.
3. Michael Taussig, The Magic of The State (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 27-28. “He said he first heard of the spirit queen when he was twenty-two, working as a laborer for the Department of Public Works. People told him her contract with the Cuban owner of the sugar mill required one dead worker a week! That was 1940.”
4. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Malden, MT: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), p. 152e.
5. After Gustav Doré’s illustration from 1872 of the exercise yard at Newgate Prison, London.