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[Nettime-bold] Juvenilia Ante Academia 2/4

Relativity, Processes, Objects, and Iconoclasm

[The following is adapted from a letter sent by the editors of Literary 
Change to Ray Suarez, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation, in response to his 
program discussing the Second Commandment.  
The First and Second Commandments in the Authorized Version read as follows:

"I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out 
of the house of bondage.  Thou shalt have no other gods before me.  

 "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any 
thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in 
the water under the earth.  

"Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them:  for I the Lord thy 
God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children 
unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; and showing mercy 
unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments."
    --Exodus 20:2-6]

Jan. 29, 1994

Dear Mr. Suarez:

Thank you for your unique program about the ten commandments.  We, the 
editors of Literary Change, tried to get through for the discussion of the 
second--Thou shalt not worship graven images--but couldn't, so thought we'd 
mention a few comments by mail.

You posed a two-part question to be applied to each commandment:  What does 
the commandment mean, and how does it relate to life in present-day America?  
The second commandment can be seen as an example of iconoclasm, a principle 
which has had a major impact--in different ways--in both ancient and modern 

Moses' iconoclasm had a fairly clear context and purpose.  There were a 
chaotic plethora of religions in that time and place, most of them 
polytheistic.  Moses' religion was monotheistic and thus implicitly sought to 
suppress the worship of multiple gods.  These gods were articulated as 
"idols" and worshiped in rituals based around these images, and to suppress 
them as ideas or ways of thinking required the suppression of their 
media--carved wood, stone, or metal.

The second commandment, in other words, is dealing with issues of mass 
communication and how media influence people's view of themselves, their 
community, and the world.  "Graven images" can be defined as intellectual 
objects, inanimate artifacts that are used to organize thought or expression. 
 By this definition the ten commandments are clearly a graven image in their 
own right, but in Moses' time language-objects--texts--were seen as the 
speech of God, not man-made or artificial at all but direct revelation from 
the divine.  This paradox of the ten commandments as graven image aside, 
Moses' iconoclasm is quite straightforward.  To alter people's beliefs, he 
suppressed the images and objects which organized and reinforced those 

Examples of iconoclasm can be found throughout human cultural history.  The 
beliefs of the Amish forbid photography on religious grounds; Luther 
questioned whether the visual and aural imagery of Catholicism were 
spiritually necessary; Hitler burned books and Mao imprisoned or tortured 
many writers and artists; Iran issued a death sentence on Rushdie for writing 
a book which blasphemed the Koran; Jesse Helms fights against art like Robert 

"Graven images" have always shaped human belief and behavior, and whenever 
society undergoes change the objects that articulate outworn ideas are 
rejected.  They are certainly smashed--"iconoclast" in ancient Greek means 
"image-breaker"--either literally or figuratively, if only by the creation of 
new and divergent images.  (The Bible, for example, is no longer functionally 
the same object it was three hundred or even fifty years ago).

What, then, does this iconoclastic commandment mean to us today?  In many 
ways it is the most intriguing of all ten commandments.  It set the stage, 
without doubt, for the literature-based or theopoetic religions that have 
been the bedrock of the West--Judaism and Christianity.  Moreover, as perhaps 
the earliest major attempt to assert the absolute authority of a particular 
mode of discourse, the second commandment prefigured the great cultural 
issues we face today--multi-culturalism, free speech, censorship, media 
violence, racism, and sexism, as well as "cyberspace" and post-structuralist 
literary and art theory.  Iconoclasm pervades these issues, manifesting 
itself as both the means and end of ideological conflict.  In a shrinking 
world, we tend to fight most often over slices of a smaller perceptual pie, 
new images competing with old ones for air time, NEA dollars, respectability, 
and university departments.

This apparent chaos and disarray does not mean that modern society is on the 
brink of disaster.  In America, for the most part, we carry out our 
intellectual disputes in the arena of free speech, and people do not die and 
kill for images.  Yet this reassuringly abstract playing field--liberal 
inquiry--is coming increasingly under fire as obscure, complacent, and 
ineffectual, and seems to embody our modern diffidence toward the ancient 
game of hardball that is iconoclasm.  Moses set out to exterminate bad 
thought; the second commandment is incredibly un-P.C.  It is ideologically 
convenient to make "diversity" our ideal, but the harm caused by our 
society's lack of a coherent, inclusive cultural fabric is unignorable when 
so many people resort to aggression and violence to compensate for a lack of 
social efficacy.  Our culture is unaccustomed to the process of rejecting 
images; and  though censorship is without question a degraded and dangerous 
intellectual mode, it becomes most attractive when people lack the ability to 
consciously and thoughtfully refine their beliefs. 

Our goal at Literary Change is to initiate a discussion of how to make a 
reasoned departure from the images that are preventing our society from 
reaching its potential.  Our thesis centers around the paradox mentioned 
earlier:  are the ten commandments also a "graven image?"  Is this letter 
one?  What differentiates an object from a "non-object" (many phenomena such 
as marriage, race relations, language, and atomic structure are better 
understood as processes)  are intangibles like spontanaiety vs. calculation, 
individuality vs. uniformity, constant regeneration vs. permanence, ubiquity 
and variety vs. temporal and spatial limits, the concrete vs. the abstract, 
nature vs. art.  

These dualities are vague and rather confusing, and nearly impossible to 
define precisely.  A more useful approach is never to assume that anything is 
essential or fundamental, but always to look for dynamic processes behind 
what appears to be a static object.  When applied to literature, this method 
yields useful observations about why America in 1994 doesn't seem to able to 
discuss its problems very productively.  Our thesis is definitely 
iconoclastic, but we hope it is also broad-minded enough to prevent its being 
just another object-orthodoxy.

Our theory might be summarized as the communication/relationship paradigm of 
literature, intended to replace our present great work/great author paradigm. 
 Because communication is the intellectual basis of democracy, literary 
concepts profoundly influence the formation of social contract and thus have 
a great impact on political life.  The enclosed article [see excerpts] 
examines how the building of literary canon involves the disruption of 
language relationships in order to create heroism; this pattern sheds light 
on our inadequate cultural dialogue and the "privatism" Tocqueville foresaw 
as the bane of democratic society.

Thanks again for presenting such an interesting program,


    The Editors of Literary Change  


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