Fwd: <nettime> Book of the Undead

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Tue Jan 11 21:58:46 PST 2000

[From nettime. This guy is something of an intellectual celebrity, for some thoroughly obscure reason, close to the Australian Labour Party. He's funnier than Buddy Hackett.]

Date: Wed, 12 Jan 2000 10:46:16 +1100 (EST) From: McKenzie Wark <mwark at laurel.ocs.mq.edu.au>

Book of the Undead McKenzie Wark Tuesday, 11th January, 2000

It was a peculiar ritual to perform to bring a personal end to the twentieth century. A journey through the snow to visit Egypt, at the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan. I took two books, the latest New Yorker and the New York Times to keep me company.

Ancient Egyptian funeral art fascinates me. How unreadable it is. Perhaps it isn't meant to be read. If it is addressed to anyone, or anything, it isn't human. It is addressed to otherness itself, to eternity, facing nothingness. A reminder of how little a decade, or a century matters, even a millennium, compared to these fragments of monuments that could stare down handfuls of years in their thousands -- and still not blink.

As Paul Valery wrote: "We later civilisations... we too now know we are mortal. We had long heard tell of whole worlds that had vanished, of empires sunk without a trace, gone down with all their men and all their machines into the unexplorable depths of the centuries...". Our ancestors may have conquered space, spread ourselves thin across the bread of the earth, but Egypt conquered time. Their empires of the dead will probably still be living when the last of ours are rat food.

I sought refuge in Egypt. The "millennium" still bugs me. For no particularly good reason, New Year's Eve 1999 turned out to be a big excuse for media networks everywhere to show off their chops. Not content to merely continue service in the face of the millennium bug, the networks went all out, prolonging the moment via endless satellite feeds.

Thanks to universal standard time, everyone could know where they stood in relation to the planet's movement. Thanks to geopositioning, everyone could know the coordinates upon the map that corresponded to the patch of earth under foot. As the world turned, an arc of humans from one latitude to another could experience the arbitrary yet somehow convincing sensation of leaving the twentieth century. As the New Yorker reported: "In a daring act of multiculturalism, the good people of Tonga rose at midnight to sing the 'Hallelujah Chorus' from Handel's Messiah."

Even after it's passing, Y2K kept bothering me. I tried to ignore it, to think about Egypt. I thought that if I closed my eyes to the world's turning, it would go away. It won't go away. Not any more. There is nowhere left to hide. At twilight, in the desert, your satellite phone rings. It's a telemarketer.

Egypt is exhausting, even at the Met. I'd brought a book or two, so I could pause for coffee and make some notes. The books were be Harold Innis, that quirky old communication theorist. Innis writes: "A medium of communication may be better suited to the dissemination of knowledge over time than space, particularly if the medium is heavy and durable and not suited to transportation, or to the dissemination of knowledge over space than over time, particularly if the medium is light and easily transported."

A simple observation. Consider what it makes it possible to think: "Empires must be considered from the standpoint of two dimensions, those of space and time, and persist by overcoming the bias of media which over-emphasise either dimension. They have tended to flourish under conditions in which civilisation reflects the influence of more than one medium and in which the bias of one medium toward decentralisation is offset by the bias of another toward centralisation."

Consider Egypt, where: "A concern with problems of space and time appears to have marked the beginnings of civilisation... A change from a pre-dynastic to dynastic society, or a precise recognition of time... appears to have coincided with writing, monumental architecture and sculpture." Kings and priests colonised time. "The permanence of death became a basis of continuity through the development of the idea of immortality, preservation of the body, and development of writing in the tombs by which the magical power of the spoken word was perpetuated in pictorial representation of the funeral ritual."

"The pyramids were an index to power over time." But, "by escaping from the heavy medium of stone, thought gained lightness." The papyrus document became the means for scribes and soldiers to colonise space. These different media, with their different properties, were the basis of a flexible continuity and integrity for the empire, but also a source of conflict within it. "The profound disturbances in Egyptian civilisation involved in the shift from absolute monarchy to a more democratic organisation coincides with a shift in emphasis on stone as a medium of communicating or as a basis of prestige, as shown in the pyramids, to an emphasis on papyrus. It didn't last. Egypt "failed to establish a stable compromise between a bias dependent on stone in the pyramids and a bias dependent on papyrus and hieroglyphics."

Failed, and yet succeeded, in replicating itself by virtue of the fascination those of us who, like Valery, see something strikingly different in the shape of this ancient space and time. There's some irony in monuments to eternity being themselves preserved at the Met. "The emphasis of a civilisation on means of extending its duration as in Egypt accompanied by reliance on permanence gives that civilisation a prominent position in periods such as the present when time is of little significance."

What can you say about a civilisation that gives itself an early mark and toddles into its second millennia a year early? One in which global empires grow and merge and collapse each weekon the lone and level sands of the market. Or where Danny Hillis, Silicon Valley magus, is making a monument to last out the centuries -- and it's a clock. What is to become of it all?

Consider Innis, on what became of Egypt: "We can perhaps assume that the use of a medium of communication over a long period will to some extent determine the character of knowledge to be communicated and suggest that its pervasive influence will eventually create a civilisation in which life and flexibility will become exceedingly difficult to maintain and that the advantages of a new medium will become such as to lead to the emergence of a new civilisation." The scribes and the priests, between them, ran things, and for centuries kept control of the skills to do so. This very facility became a limit, making the empire vulnerable to stagnation and conquest from without.

Consider how this might work out in more recent times, when monopolies guard their source code and battle against open source technologies. Innis writes that "a simple flexible system of writing admits of adaptation to the vernacular but slowness of adaptation facilitates monopoly of knowledge and hierarchies." Microsoft write twentieth century hieroglyphics. It is an empire with an Egyptian approach to source code intended to perpetuate itself through time, even at the risk of arresting flexible and adaptive approaches to creating communication tools anywhere else.

Or take the lead story that greeted me over coffee in the Met's cafe: AMERICA ONLINE AGREES TO BUY TIME WARNER FOR $165 BILLION; MEDIA DEAL IS RICHEST MERGER. This is the way of things now. Vigorous new empires annex old Egypts in a burst of press release fireworks. Empires that straddle continents but are not built to last much longer than London's Millennium Dome, structures held aloft by tensed steel cables, built to be seen on television by distant cousins by not by any descendants.

We may have left the twentieth century, but has it left us? Its ruins lie about us, persisting, insisting. Its miniature monuments lie in the landfill of memory. So many new ways that were discovered, during the century, for impressing the century on memory. Perhaps that's why so little of it's architecture is built to last. The great pyramid of Las Vegas is an image preserved in a million snapshots.

The monument has become something miniature, even molecular. Exotic pesticide residues now shop up in Antarctic penguins. Perhaps Innis is wrong about this civilisation. It looks like its bias is towards the colonising of space, but in its own way it has colonised time, too. It communicates its chaos, its blind will to creative destruction, through the pulverising of every last particle of the earth. The twentieth century's answer to the pyramids, it's ongoing contributions to civilisation, are the death factories of the Holocaust and the negative architecture of the bombing of Hiroshima.

And yet, those memories aside, it was also the century in which for the first time one glimpses a possible life outside the monopoly of knowledge by priests and scribes, where no matter how hard they try, empires can no longer control for millennia the flows information that allow them to colonise space and time. I'm tempted to say that if Egypt lives on in the Book of the Dead, our time will live on as a Book of the Undead. It left its mark by mumifying nothing except change itself. But the book is one of the things the twentieth century changed too. The scribes and priests and scholars who monopolised knowledge and prestige through mastery of textual codes are going the way of their Egyptian precursors, into the museums.

McKenzie Wark is currently a guest scholar at New York University. He lectures in media studies at Macquarie University. mw35 at is6.nyu.edu


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