Benedict Seymour on Wed, 13 Feb 2002 17:17:01 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Re: <nettime> Memo Mori

Your piece reminded me of another writer's comments on the interoffice
memo. Adorno in his memento mori for the subject, Minima Moralia:
'that, instead of letters, they send each other inter-office
communications without address or signature, are random symptoms of a
sickness of contact.'

The real poignancy of the WTC (ie the one going on before its
destruction made it a news item) lies not in the fragile scraps of paper
and their evidence of obliterated lives but rather in the papers' bald
testimony to lives already not lived. Confetti for the 'decay of

I enjoyed your piece and the apposite connections it made but I have to
say I always thought the plastic bag scene in American Beauty is the
film's nadir, its symptomatically failed attempt at a utopian image.
This failure is perhaps linked to the slightly false note that 9-11
elegies in general seem to strike, honouring the dead but failing to
denounce the living death and its structural exploitation. The image of
the empty bag is intended by the writer to stand in opposition to the
'official' beauty of American consumer capitalism, a poor thing filled
with transient life, worthless yet more valuable than official,
objectified beauty. However, its just as good an image for the mad dance
of capital as it is for what escapes it, yet another animated thing in a
society reduced to objects. In this respect the aura of the antic bag is
merely a continuation of the object-worship the film addresses, a
sidechapel. The bag epiphany is bogus because the bag's emptiness ends
up as affirmative as the destruction of the WTC, another, if convoluted,
proof of the ultimate rightness and superiority of the American way of
life. The plastic bag may suggest the horror vacui of consumerism but it
also consoles with a spectral presence, its beauty becomes an elite
commodity (art) of value to the discerning, stylishly alienated consumer
who yearns for spirituality in a world of things. As the image of a
consoling 'magic-in the-ordinary', a numinous intervention untrammelled
by a sense of the ordinary's mystified horrors, it's really just a
gentrified piece of new age kitsch, albeit an arte povera one.

In this image the strategies of evanescence and ephemerality earlier
pursued by Duchamp and Warhol, not to mention their conceptualist
progeny, are finally reified, subsumed under Hollywood's relentless
drive to create affirmative representations of consumer society. The
fleeting beauty of the bag indicates that this margin of freedom is now
also property, just like other forms of intangible creativity colonised
in the last decade. Jameson says somewhere that 'in postmodernism all
beauty is meretricious' and AB's plastic bag seems to be the very
epitome of this sublimity-gone-twee. Nothing is now really something;
too too solid, like a museum of WTC relics (as you imply, only in the
minds eye or in the actual encounter can the fragments have their pathos
and keep their dignity).

Yours with (email) address and the closest I can get to a signature,
Ben Seymour

----- Original Message -----
From: Mark Dery <>
To: <>
Sent: Thursday, February 07, 2002 8:26 PM
Subject: <nettime> Memo Mori

> A belated Elegy in a Corporate Graveyard, along with some musings on
> invisible literature...
>  Memo Mori
>  Long before the premature End of the World As We Know It and the
> resultant Death (not again!) of Irony, the SF novelist and master
> J.G. Ballard predicted (with tongue only partly in cheek) that "one
day in
> the near future.anthologies of 20th century inter-office memos" would
> day be "as treasured as the correspondence of Virginia Woolf and T.S.
> Eliot."1
> Ballard is a constant reader of what he calls "invisible
> paper trail of the Information Age, which comprises "market research
> reports, pharmaceutical company house magazines, the promotional copy
> a new high-energy breakfast food, journals such as Psychological
> and the Italian automobile magazine Style Auto, the internal memoranda
> TV company planning departments, sex manuals, [and] medical textbooks
> as the extraordinary Crash Injuries."2
> Of course, Ballard's inventory is hardly exhaustive. To his mental
> library, we might add press releases, chain letters, religious tracts,
> self-help books, psychological tests (such as the Minnesota
> Personality Index), government publications (for example, the Warren,
> Meese, and Starr reports), lunatic-fringe manifestoes (Industrial
> and Its Future by the Unabomber, S.C.U.M. by Valerie Solanas), trial
> transcripts, cockpit voice recordings, technical manuals, mail-order
> catalogues, mission statements, and annual reports. In the decades
> Ballard coined the term, around 1970, the flood of invisible lit has
> swollen to biblical proportions, gushing through the burst bulkheads
> our lives in the form of faxes, spam, blog, and personal e-mail, not
> mention the old-fashioned dead-tree stuff.
>  For Ballard, the literary productions of executives, scientific
> researchers, and the stage managers of consumer psychology
> marketers, public-relations firms), properly read, are an
> fund of insights and inspiration, perfectly attuned to the neuroses
> psychoses of everyday life in the 21st century---unlike the mainstream
> novel, still suffering from a humanist hangover that blinds it to our
> increasingly posthuman reality of designer babies and intelligent
> interfaces, computers that run on bacteria and heart valves made of
> engineered tissue. Like DeLillo and Pynchon, Ballard reads the
> output of corporate America as a collective dream journal, extracting
> its eerie banalities and arcane data the true mythology of the 21st
> century. Crash Injuries, the Warren Report, and the Hollywood Yellow
> are his Kraft-Ebbing, his Interpretation of Dreams, his Man and His
> Symbols---and his Great American Novels, too. As for traditional
> well, "the great majority of English and American novelists.have
> of interest to say whatever, and an hour spent in not reading them is
> hour gained forever."3 Hence, his arch prediction that, when the
> electronic cottage and the free-agent economy make the corporate
> obsolete, the prosaic communications of today's companies will become
> precious things, transformed by their obsolescence from memos into
> mementos.
> "[W]hen the last corporate headquarters has been torn down," is how he
> puts it, but that's just a blind; his future tense, borrowed from the
> room of pulp SF, is purely ironic. In truth, Ballard is using the
> elevation of inter-office memos to literary status to make the
> equal parts Warhol and Duchamp, that the individual voice is giving
way to
> the collective hum of the corporate hive (see Warhol's use of hired
> to do the gruntwork of actually making his art, or his famous
> that he wanted to be a robot; see also Duchamp's use of mechanical
> and professional signpainters to expunge all traces of "the artist's
> from his work). Ever the wag, Ballard is also saying that scientific
> journals, industry studies, government white papers---hell, even
> advertising copy---offer a more relevant vocabulary for delving the
> of our info-b litzed, hyper-mediated psyches than the serious novels
> beloved of the New York Review of Books crowd, an assertion calculated
> give Dame Sontag a fit of the vapors.
>  But Ballard's "one day in the near future" has arrived ahead of
> on the wings of a horror unimaginable to him or anyone, burying his
> prediction under an irony heavy as death. The corporate HQ isn't an
> archaeological site just yet, but the world's best-known office
> the World Trade Center, has been reduced to a smoldering hellpit, and
> inter-office memos of its former occupants, many of them now dead,
> been filed under a mountain of debris or scattered to the winds.
> A snowfall of them joined the choking white grit already blanketing
> Liberty Plaza, near the debris field that was the WTC. In a photo in
> September 23 issue of The New York Times Magazine, waves of paper lap
> twisted metal, drunkenly leaning trees, and J. Seward Johnson Jr.'s
> superrealist sculpture of a corporate footsoldier, Double Check
> The pall of lunar dust---soot, pulverized concrete, and god knows
> what---lends the scene a ghastly beauty. It resonates at the same
> aesthetic frequency as those hauntingly poetic human shadows frozen on
> Hiroshima walls by the atomic flashbulb. And like those indelible
> some of these papers may be all that remains of some blue-, pink-, or
> white-collar Twin Tower worker who will never be found.
>  That thought is never far from the minds of Times writers Jane
> and David Rohde, whose story "Trade Center's Past In a Sad Paper
Trail" is
> an exercise in forensic trashpicking, sleuthing out the fates of the
> workers whose lives entwine with the "mangled, singed and occasionally
> pristine" papers blown out of the building and lofted, in some cases,
> the southeasterly wind that carried them as far as Brooklyn.5 The
> reporters find the year-old resume of someone who wanted a job at a
> with offices in the Trade Center (she didn't get the job, a twist of
> that now seems portentous); the credit union statement of a man who
> on the north tower's 88th floor (he made it down); the cell-phone bill
> a woman whose number, when called, triggers a recording that says her
> voicemailbox is full, an everyday message that suddenly sounds
>  Intimations of mortality came to rest at the novelist Jonathan
> feet, as well. On Henry Street, in Brooklyn, he watched "crisped
> papers.twinkling to the ground," among them a computer printout with
> coded I.D. "7WTC 034" and the name "Kirshenbaum, Joan." The document
> admonishes, "For any report change complete this section and return to
> support, data centre." Lethem adds, "Joan Kirshenbaum, if you're
> this, I've got your scrap of paper."6 Lethem is whistling past the
> graveyard, but the wry note he's reaching for turns sour when we
> that Joan Kirshenbaum may not be reading this, Joan Kirshenbaum may
not be
> reading anything, Joan Kirshenbaum may never read anything again. To
> someone, somewhere, Lethem's found object may be all that's left of
> somebody they love: the inter-office memo as ashes in an urn.
>  Indeed, some New Yorkers seemed not to know what to do with the
> melancholy fallout of crumpled, charred or burning documents. Throw
> out? Save them as pieces of history or morbid souvenirs? Enshrine them
> some sort of secular reliquary? To the writer Kurt Andersen, who lives
> Brooklyn, the papers that drift down, into his backyard, seem like
> "instant archaeological objects retroactively charged with meaning,
> sad and strange to keep but too sad and strange to throw away."7
>  Why not preserve them in a memorial anthology, to be read well into
> 21st century, "as treasured as the correspondence of Virginia Woolf
> T.S. Eliot"? Then again, if they ever build a museum to the tragedy of
> Twin Towers, perhaps the papers that fell from the sky could be sent
> again, freed to flap and flutter like disembodied things in a giant,
> multistory version of one of those Plexiglas columns that you see in
> science museums, where a jet of air keeps a ball afloat. In the mind's
> eye, at least, there's a mute poetry to the image of all those papers
> arcing up, up, into the clouds, across the East River, over Governors
> Island, and down, into Brooklyn. Somehow, it seems like an elegy, more
> eloquent than words. It reminds me of the sweet, sublimely sad little
> pirouette of the plastic bag in the movie-within-a-movie in American
> Beauty. Only a minute in length, that slow-motion dance of a scrap of
> trash, brought to life by a gust of wind, said things about the
> that gnaws around the edges of our lives, lives that are over in an
> eyeblink, and the fleeting glimpses we catch, in the least likely
> of the sublime.
>  Alan Ball, who wrote the screenplay to American Beauty, based that
> on a memory. One Sunday in spring, in the early '90s, he was walking,
> alone, through Manhattan's deserted financial district. "It was a
> beautiful day," he told an interviewer, "very still, kind of overcast,
> the light had that perfect, kind of flat quality."8 Suddenly, he
> "this plastic bag in the wind, this white plastic bag. And it circled
> it literally circled me, like, 10 or 15 times. And after about the
> or fourth time I felt very, um, I started to feel weird.I really did
> like I was in the presence of something."9 That he was standing in
> of the World Trade Center at the time is one of the uncanny
> that mean everything---and nothing. Like life itself.
> -Mark Dery is a cultural critic. His most recent book is the essay
> collection, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the
> <>.
> (This essay originally appeared, in shorter form, as my "Invisible
> column in the Winter 2001 issue of Bookforum.)
> 1 J.G. Ballard, A User's Guide to the Millennium (New York: Picador
> 1996), p. 76.
> 2 J.G. Ballard, quoted in J.G. Ballard: Re/Search 8/9, ed. Vale,
Andrea Juno
> (San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984), p. 156.
> 3 J.G. Ballard, quoted in J.G. Ballard: Re/Search 8/9, ed. Vale,
Andrea Juno
> (San Francisco: Re/Search Publishing, 1984), p. 156.
> 4 Jeff Mermelstein, "Windows on the World," The New York Times
> September 23, 2001, pps. 64-65.
> 5 Jane Fritsch and David Rohde, "Trade Center's Past In a Sad Paper
> The New York Times, September 14, 2001, p. A1.
> 6 Jonathan Lethem, "9 Failures of the Imagination," The New York Times
> Magazine, September 23, 2001, p. 62. Happily, Joan Kirshenbaum is
alive and
> well, as Lethem informed me by e-mail. "Because of the clue you
> inadvertently reproduced in your piece -- "7WTC" -- I wrote my piece
> that Joan Kirshenbaum would have had to be sensationally unlucky to
die that
> day," he wrote. "WTC# Seven didn't collapse until five o'clock p.m. In
> she's been in touch, and her scrap of paper is back in her posession.
> think she's making a collage with it."
> 7 Kurt Andersen, "Fallout," The New York Times Magazine, September 23,
> p. 78.
> 8 Quentin Curtis, "The Man Behind American Beauty," The Age, February
> 2000.
> 9 Russ Spencer, Salon, "In a Culture of Detritus, American Beauty
> Screenwriter Alan Ball Discovers Heartbreaking Beauty in Garbage,"
March 25,
> 2000.
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