The End of Capitalism[?]: Kata Geibl Feature
Author ········· Taylor Dorrell
Published ······ April 2, 2020



From the series Uncanny Valley
From the series Uncanny Valley (2017) by Kata Geibl

   
As the spread of COVID-19 leaves millions of Americans unemployed and companies lining up for government bailouts, we’re unsure how to react effectively. It’s unlike any apocalyptic movie we’ve seen. There’s no zombies or soviet spies invading, we’re told to sit at home and relax. The trillions of dollars being thrown at the economy seems to be doing little to help, so what are we to do?

    The popularized and overused phrase by Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” perhaps accurately describes the culture that framed our reality up to today. Dystopian movies are a key genre in the movie industry and it’s essentially unheard of for a movie to focus on the end of capitalism exclusively. However capitalism has been the main cause of the dystopia or apocalypse in many story lines - as Mark Fisher has pointed out, Wall-E is a perfect example. But with this culture of apocalyptic movies as a foundation, our automatic response to the virus has been to doomsday prep as if each of us are the only smart characters in the apocalyptic films. The stocking up of toilet paper marked our confused unconscious response to the threat of such an odd virus (odd in the sense it’s a slightly more dangerous version of the flu, not living up to the expected zombie apocalypse virus we’ve been prepping for). We’ve been prepped for the end of the world, but it seems this virus has something different in mind. Perhaps more relevant is the full quote Jameson uses in the origin of this popular phrase:

“For it is the end of the world that is in question here; and that could be exhilarating if apocalypse were the only way of imagining that world’s disappearance (whether we have to do here with the bang or the whimper is not the interesting question)... Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world….”  Fredric Jameson, Future Cities. (2003)

   Jameson points out that capitalism must maintain the same ‘just around the corner’ threat of the end of the world as the ‘just around the corner’ promise of wealth and fulfilled desire. If the production of food and commodities has eliminated scarcity then artificial scarcity must be manufactured to maintain this anxiety. In the case of this virus, we see maybe we were never that far from a real scarcity under the current system.

    Maybe in our confused state, not knowing what to do, but nonetheless doing something, we illuminate in our actions our unconscious desires. Not toilet paper, but perhaps we are realising that we’ve been living in a dystopian utopia the whole time and this is it. This is the end of the continuous ending. Maybe the responses of the government to this virus and our response to them is the illumination of our true desires. Maybe this quickly spreading virus will quickly bring into reality our unconscious desire similar to Tarkovsky’s Solaris. Solidifying in front of us our unconscious desires before we were even aware it was what we desired. We’ve constantly felt we’re living in the end times, but now it feels too real. Maybe what we’re witnessing the end of is the very notion of living in end times.

    This is precisely what Netherlands based photographer Kata Geibl proposes in her series Uncanny Valley. What happens when we are confronted with our dystopian reality for what it is, our present? Perhaps the process of being exposed to our unconscious desire, what comes to light in our response to COVID-19, is not an experience of total enjoyment. If a new system blossoms out of this, it’s unlikely to feel utopian. What if it’s as unsettling as it was for those on Tarkovsky’s Solaris space station?

“...the point is to reflect upon a sad fact that we need a catastrophe to make us able to rethink the very basic features of the society in which we live.” Slavoj Zizek, Coronavirus is ‘Kill Bill’-esque blow to capitalism and could lead to reinvention of communism. (2020)



I


Uncanny Valley: Living in Images of Our Desire, Images of the Future 




From the series Uncanny Valley (2017) by Kata Geibl

   Geibl’s photographs on the Gulf of Finland in her project Uncanny Valley give us a Tarkavskian view of the post-industrial landscape with all its textures, objects, and architecture. We see reality framed in the same vein as films taking place in the future, with the focus on aspects of daily life that give the image of progress and the downsides that come with it (environmental damage, inequality, etc.).

    As Jameson has said of Postmodern architecture (it exists to be photographed), the same could be said of daily life in its desirability - we need to see our reality through images to desire it. Apartment buildings photographed at daybreak on medium format film generate a desire for the present - we desire images of images, images of the future, today.

    Even as we face economic crisis, climate disaster, etc. we nonetheless are extremely attached to these symptoms, to images. There’s nothing more romantic than a dystopian film showing the city you live in. As Mark Fisher observed, our reaction to Wall-E (a film where a company, ‘BUY-N-LARGE’, destroys the planet then creates a space cruise ship for the last of humanity) was in no way a spark to change our ways. If anything, all it did was make us wonder when we’re going to get some of those floating reclining chairs. Jameson describes this phenomenon of romanticized dystopian movies as:

“a Utopian wish fulfillment wrapped in dystopian wolf's clothing, and think it is only fair and prudent, as far as the nastier sides of human nature are concerned, to vigilantly scrutinize apparent nightmares of this kind for traces of that different and more egotistical drive toward individual and collective self-gratification that Freud found living on insatiably in our Unconscious.” Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (1989)





From the series Uncanny Valley (2017) by Kata Geibl

    Outside of the strikes that are starting to rise up, is not the reality of the COVID-19 crisis (for the privileged population in the US) one of nihilistic memes and surplus enjoyment, filled with video games and a complete non-interrupted stream to our social media and technology? A kind of cruise spaceship from Wall-E or Solaris where we experience the apocalypse as an embodiment of our desires (reclining chairs, virtual golf, etc.). Our after-work at-home lives become the full day and one would think this would expose the emptiness. By taking off the limit to our enjoyment of instagram scrolling, one would think this would eventually eat away at the enjoyment like an extra large caffeinated soda - after guzzling down half on a summer day as the ice flattens the taste and the sugar floods the bloodstream, there’s a point where the drink is poured out and thrown on the car floor. But like Solaris, Kris Kelvin’s wife comes back everyday. We keep getting another soda.

    Geibl understandably uses the film Solaris as an inspiration for her project Uncanny Valley. Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi film is about a space station orbiting the fictional planet Solaris. The planet is covered by a mysterious substance, which appears to produce a living being for each person on the space station. The main character, Kris Kelvin, is sent to investigate after multiple crew members are found dead. On his first morning on the space station, Kelvin is met by his wife who had died on earth years prior. Solaris, however, provides, not the real person desired in the unconscious, but an image, a “MECHANICAL REPRODUCTION” as Doctor Sartorius put it. When we are faced with our true desires, we discover that there’s something missing. We’re perhaps a little too close for comfort (maybe we should social distance ourselves from our desires). When Kelvin is met with this empty version of his dead wife, he can’t see her as she was and she can’t stand to exist as a physical embodiment of his unconscious desire (she kills herself and constantly tries to leave only to reappear the next morning). Stuck isolated on the ship he is confronted with this daily, given the full soda, drinking half, and realizing the image was better.

   It would appear for now that we are stuck circling the drive thru for another soda, but perhaps this illuminates our conscious desire while lurking in the background is our unconscious desire illuminated in our fight or flight response to this mass unemployment with the spread of the virus. The unconsciousness of toilet paper, democratic socialist policies, and local initiatives hang idly overhead as strikes, talks of free healthcare, and rent cancelation continue. Perhaps our unconscious is utopian.

“But I think it would be better to characterize all this in terms of History, a History that we cannot imagine except as ending, and whose future seems to be nothing but a monotonous repetition of what is already here.” Fredric Jameson, Future Cities. (2003)



From the series Uncanny Valley (2017) by Kata Geibl




II


There is Nothing New Under the Sun: Religion and Capital



From the series There is Nothing New Under the Sun (2019) by Kata Geibl


  “For a nation to create art. It must have its ideal, its god. America’s god is the dollar: so its architecture has produced skyscrapers, its sculpture produces machines, its pictorial art is the cinema.” Harold Loeb, editor of Broom. Found in El Lissitzky’s ‘Amerikanizm’ in European Architecture. (1925)


  In Geibl’s series, There is Nothing New Under the Sun, we’re exposed to the images that fuel our Western individualist culture. This isn’t a romanticization of the ‘normal’, but a visualization of the ideology that dangles excess and wealth in front of the ‘normal’ everyday person. The skyscrapers stand next to images of mountains and a lion’s head, all blending as an image for the winners. But their message, their fantasy, is ‘all of you can have this too!’. Media, which has been analyzed by every cultural theorist of the late 20th and early 21st century, finds this ‘dangling’ to be essential in sustaining a system which allows for such inequalities. Geibl utilizes the warm colors, the nostalgic reds, blues, and greens that are exploited in advertising today to generate a nostalgia for the present. Not in a feteshistic way, photographing ‘young creatives’ for Nike/branded ads, but as if they were advertisements, or propaganda, for the elite.

    The pink mountains sway our psyche towards a comfort in the potential of the individual. Like the palm tree beaches displayed in the waiting room of the old Polish dentist’s office in Brooklyn, we laugh at the attempt to coax us, but nonetheless work everyday as if we could obtain and fulfill all our earthly desires that’ve been manufactured by the Big Other (companies, culture, etc.). Is this stage of capitalism a new form of religion itself, with the promise of a life that will come later, or the abolition of the possibility for religion to exist?


“It would be abusive or sentimental to account for such new "religious" formations by way of an appeal to some universal human appetite for the spiritual, in a situation in which spirituality virtually by definition no longer exists: the definition in question is in fact that of Postmodernism itself... Marvin Harris has devoted part of an incongruously passionate indictment of postmodern times to a denunciation of the emphasis of the new fundamentalisms on success of whatever type (life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness -- mostly financial), reminding us that no previous human religion on earth has ever valorized such things, let alone promised them.” Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (1989)





From the series There is Nothing New Under the Sun (2019) by Kata Geibl


  In acknowledging the absurdity of our current times, yet acting as if the acknowledgement didn’t take place, we are following what Zizek calls the fetishistic disavowal. We admit that there is still a Big Other that we personally cannot have access to (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, God, etc.) and we live our belief through the Others that believe. Sure, nobody I know makes more than $50,000, but those people do exist so maybe I’ll be one of them one day. This place of the Big Other is perhaps one of the connections between Capitalism and Religion (among others - for example Walter Benjamin argues that both produce the same anxieties). But Jameson points out that no major religion would go as far to guarantee the things that capitalism seeks to guarantee.

    It’s promises are utopian. It’s as if capitalism is the utopian ideology and not that great of one. A utopia for the thousands at the top and poverty for the billions at the bottom. It is, not even utopian, but by definition, impossible to picture capitalism in its current form as anymore than what it is today. There is, after all, no claim to anything more than the pursuit of happiness (wealth). It’s as if the dystopian movies were never really about the future at all, but a shifting of perspective on today.


“...the imagination of catastrophe still retains the forms of a near and a far future category; if the atomic exchange has grown distant, the greenhouse effect and ecological pollution are, by way of compensation, ever more vivid. What we need to ask is whether such anxieties and the narratives in which they are invested really "intend" the future (in Husserl's technical sense of posing a genuine object), or somehow convolute and return to feed on our own moment of time.” Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (1989)


    Underneath Geibl’s photographs is a cold response from the viewer, we want to know what’s really going on here. Lacan calls this “Che vuoi?”, or “Ok, yes, but what do you really want?” What is Geibl really saying? These photographs are a little too nice. We feel like we’re in the Truman Show, it’s a little too much. This darkness that only finds its way into the images through the lack of visualizing this darkness traps us, we know what these excesses produce. In photographing today’s capitalism as a utopia, we are exposed to our lack of historicity in contemporary times. We are shown the best of today, while acknowledging the dark underside (“... the underside of culture is blood, torture, death, and terror.” Jameson), but having nothing to fight it with. As, who some would call, the father of American neoliberalism, Milton Friedman, once said: “Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” This illuminates Jameson’s Postmodern cycle we’re trapped in, unable to construct a vision of the future.


“Perhaps, however, what is implied is simply an ultimate historicist breakdown in which we can no longer imagine the future at all, under any form -- Utopian or catastrophic. Under those circumstances, where a formerly futurological science fiction (such as so-called cyberpunk today) turns into mere "realism" and an outright representation of the present...” Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (1989)



From the series There is Nothing New Under the Sun (2019) by Kata Geibl


  The problem for Jameson then is for us to find a future. We can then utilize catastrophe as a tool, or a spark, for a new vision. Both in our stories of doomsday culture and in actual catastrophes. To utilize this moment as a way of breaking empty time.


    “The problem is then how to locate radical difference; how to jumpstart the sense of history so that it begins again to transmit feeble signals of time, of otherness, of change, of Utopia. The problem to be solved is that of breaking out of the windless present of the postmodern back into real historical time, and a history made by human beings.” Fredric Jameson, Future Cities. (2003)


    Today there are no Ayn Rands who really try to formulate a faith in individualistic deregulated capitalism. We believe in capitalism like we believe in WWE wrestling - we all know it’s fake, but it’s only entertaining if everyone thinks that others think it’s real. The ideology is one that nobody believes in, but we work to sustain everyday. It’s no longer about ‘freedom’, but excess, no longer entertainment, but maximizing stimulation. Everything has been grinded to its core.


“It replaces hierarchy with accumulation, composition with addition. More and more, more is more.” Rem Koolhaas, Junkspace. (2001)

   
    For Jameson, our fears of catastrophe and apocalypses are less of a fear of dying and more of a fear of losing our ‘earned’ place in the pursuit of wealth and acquisition of commodities. We’re exposed to how close we are to sliding down away from our entrepreneurial fantasies.


“In the same way, yesterday's terror of the overcrowded conurbations of the immediate future could just as easily be read as a pretext for complacency with our own historical present, in which we do not yet have to live like that. In both cases, at any rate, the fear is that of proletarianization, of slipping down the ladder, of losing a comfort and a set of privileges which we tend increasingly to think of in spatial terms: privacy, empty rooms, silence, walling other people out, protection against crowds and other bodies.” Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (1989)


    Today we’re forced to acknowledge that maybe our system isn’t as ‘great’ as we’ve been led to believe. COVID-19 has breached the gates and exposed that we can no longer disavow the inadequacies of our system anymore. Any attempt to save what’s inside (Bezos and members of congress sold off millions in stocks before COVID-19 crashed everything) will only make things worse. As we continue to get help from nations we saw as inferior superpowers (Russia and China sending us massive amounts of medical equipment) and we all lose our jobs, there’s no more hiding behind our actions as they’re severely limited. We’ll be forced to try something new and potentially find a new sense of historicity in the process.



From the series There is Nothing New Under the Sun (2019) by Kata Geibl


See more of Geibl’s work on her website katageibl.com