MICHAEL ASHKIN

Notes Toward Desolation

(text without accompanying photographs)

(161) In south Jersey, just off Route 206, I stand in the center of a vast field cleared for
development.  Progress has stalled and the tangle of uprooted trees and wreckage is overgrown
with poison ivy.  Now, beneath the slow drift of contrails, little moves, and I am lulled by a silence
almost reassuring.  Yet this peaceful moment is misleading.  The violence inflicted here is endemic
and will return.  And, I suspect, my own presence, camera in hand, confirms this.

(159) This landscape, fractured, contradictory and administered, is the larger subject of which I
am a part.  The desolation of the landscape mirrors the desolation of my reason.

* * *

(87) Photography provokes the suspicion that it merely reproduces the world.  Roland Barthes
once called photography a "language without a code."  While photographing, I become aware of
the opposite problem: rather than the world, I reproduce the codes of my perception, habitual and
more vast than I can imagine. 

(87.1) I agree, however, that a photograph does not decisively indicate the reason for its
existence.  Once an object, the image means nothing in itself, and only context provides hints of
causal motivation.

(87.3) Still, the context is ever present, and it is no more possible for the photograph than for the
perceived world to mean nothing.  The photograph remains a fragment of many false wholes. 

(87.2) Impossibly, I seek the photograph that recognizes and reconciles the code with the world.
For me, photography's dialectic is the tension of these elements.

* * *

(10) Barthes calls the discordant and anomalous photographic detail the punctum, the accidental
that startles.  The punctum reveals the difference between what you were expecting and what, in
fact, you received.  The punctum is a negative dialectical moment.  Yet its infrequent appearance
is really a result of extensive visual programming; it reveals jaded expectations, boredom, and the
degree to which material reception has been lost.  Every grain of every picture is a punctum in
waiting.

(12) Yet if each grain fulfilled its anomalous potential, the image itself would disappear.  Through
long stretches of boredom I see only what I expect, for form is strictly anthropomorphic.  Habit
allows me to see.  Surprise on all fronts would remove all context and relational sense.  I need at
least one lie as my starting point.

(13) My will cannot discern the anomalous.  It remains available only through shock.  Perhaps the
punctum is the involuntary recollection of what I have forgotten, a connection with oblivion, a
long-lost correspondence.  Or perhaps the punctum is merely the glimpse of another level or
surface not that far below.

* * *

(14) The Buddhist writer Nagarjuna understood the falsity of cognition, but recognized that it
could be employed to defeat itself.  To initiate this process he constructed a dialectic vast enough
to overwhelm the cognitive mind, if only for brief moments.  Due to its infinite complexity one
could penetrate farther with each attempt yet remain assured that eventual defeat would arrive in
the form of transcendent incomprehension and oblivion.  Less important than the awareness of
dialectical infinity is its experience.

(15) A dyslectic tendency, a mild aphasia, or simply a low resistance to confusion may be
fortuitous.  I remember lectures in which all was clear and edifying for the first hour.  Suddenly, my
memory taxed, some previously stated polarity would reverse, initiating doubt, then confusion, and
at last eyes out the window over the treetops.  In the moment of surrender I recall a sense of
comfort and well-being.

* * *

(16) The loss of givens combined with informational overload deepens our sense of aporia.  To
avoid succumbing, we intensify analytic efforts that frequently yield, in lieu of clarity, the false
solace of cynicism.  But the experience of contradiction is a step toward acknowledging the irony
inherent in our separation from meaning.  This acknowledgement of irreconciliation is the first step
oward reconciliation.

(17) This is not to assert that the world is in and of itself relational.  To thus define the world
would imply some objective god-like point of observation and would imbed this point within our
language.  If, however, we recognize only our position as relative, the world regains its unknowable
dignity.  It is this dignity that a false humanism strives to defeat.

(19.3) Lao Tzu: "This imageless image cannot be grasped by mind or might; try to face it, in what
place will you stand?; try to follow it, to what place will you go?" 

* * * 

(20) Why do I again wander this abandoned lot?  I have been returning for years.  On discovering
the site, I experienced a sense of void.  Yet my photographs of "nothing" soon became
photographs of "something."  There are no vacant lots.  Still I return, in hopes of recapturing that
first feeling; sometimes I am fortunate, though mostly not. 

* * * 

(3) The Neo-Platonist Dionysius the Areopagite describes the Universal and the Particular as
emptiness and nothingness, two potentialities, two aspects of the creative impulse.  Only the
tension of their occasional intersection (the Universal advancing and the Particular circling through
it) provides our consciousness its unstable reality.  In other words, the existence of the world
owes itself to the dialectical tension of the ideal and the material—two negatives whose
trajectories do not resolve. 

(3.2) Today, we live in a world wherein this tension goes unrecognized.  Uncommunicative, the
Particular and the Universal deny each other their voices and stand alone and unreal.

* * *

(21) I once regarded fragmentation and decay as negatives toward utopian promise.  But as a
fragment assumes a previous whole, it is just a smaller lie, no more true by virtue of its size.
Perhaps fragmentation and entropy are merely the revenge the material world takes on a fixed
idea.  The relation of energy and entropy is but a restatement of the universal and the particular.

(21.1) Discussing the entropy in a system requires accurate determination of its borders.  What
are the true borders of the Meadowlands?

(21.2) In human activities entropy cannot be hypostatized as a natural force since it is often
energetically encouraged.  Energy withheld (or otherwise directed) leads to the death of ideas,
memory and historical time.  The natural component in the life and death of ideas is long past
detection.  The history of the desolate evaporates with its future.

(3.1) The question of energy and entropy, like universality and particularity, cannot be confined to
science, epistemology, ontology, or aesthetics.  It is equally an issue of politics.  For both energy
and entropy conceal their counterparts and are in all cases partisan.

* * *

(22) Still, fragmentation implies modesty, recognition of limits, and loss of permanence.  Between
being and becoming, a fragment acknowledges the artificiality of its name.  Though it includes
assumptions, what does not?  The best we can ask is the acknowledgement of assumptions.

(23) On any scale assumptions imply transcendence.  If but for a moment, a suspension of
disbelief is necessary.  For thoughts and hopes and taking a photograph are all built on givens at
both ends: of meaning and transparence to start with, of utopian possibility to end with.
Assumptions and utopias, born and dead within seconds.

(23.1) Yet from within what borders originate our transcendences?  Within whose garden do we
dwell?

* * *

(147) It would be better if the word "utopia" could be admitted without being used.  Every
evasion is necessary lest its sense become positive or concrete.  The same applies to verbs that
make it an object: to look for, search for, approach.  Yet to deny utopia would be to fossilize irony
as cynicism.

* * *

(24) At Exit 124 I leave the Parkway and enter Sayreville.  I wander a sulfuric lot that I tentatively
identify as the Horseshoe Road Superfund site.  I eat pizza at a small, dying mall, then try to
recapture the Parkway.  With no map, I find myself circling the hollow 20-acre construction pit at
the center of town (is there more than one?).  Signs lead nowhere.  Used car lots, service stations,
tract houses drift by.  Did I pass this auto parts store from the other direction?  Orientation by the
sun fails, as it is noon and the roads twist.  Finally, I look for any highway headed south: Routes
35, 1&9, 18; they must be nearby.  I find signs, but miss turns, and suddenly am overwhelmed.  I
cannot leave Sayreville.  Succumbing to frustration, I pull to the side and sink into my seat; my ego
dissolves.

* * *

(26) As I cross the wastelands of northern New Jersey I marvel that such disarray could emerge
from positive decisions.  But it seems that these ruined stretches could only be born of an idealist
world where reified thinking shields the eye from entropic discord.  What lacks an idea cannot be
seen, and more goes unseen each passing day.  The material of the world suffers.  A quickening
spiral toward virtual reality is not all innocence and fun.  Yet as false realities are reinforced, they
become more vulnerable to sudden, massive perforation.  The material of the world, unknown and
waiting, will have its revenge.

(140) Pascal: "Everything that is incomprehensible does not cease to exist."

* * *

(45) Guy Debord: "Capitalist production has unified space, which is no longer bounded by external
societies.  This unification is at the same time an extensive and intensive process of banalization.
The accumulation of commodities produced in mass for the abstract space of the market . . . had
to destroy the autonomy and quality of places.  This power of homogenization is the heavy
artillery which brought down all Chinese walls."

(47) Locations partially exempt from this "process of banalization" are those where the frenzy of
consumption has exhausted itself temporarily, leaving economic wasteland behind.  Until these
sites are refashioned for consumption, they assume a near invisible status (except to the tax
collector and security patrol).  Not only are such places overlooked, but they acquire an aspect of
inviolability.  Trespassing is prohibited, and one assumes that those who do trespass are exempt
from normal moral codes.  Lone men wandering these sites are liable to unpredictable behavior.

(48) When I cross the fence into these zones, I enter into the presence of the Other.  Every
perception takes on new ambiguity; normal rules no longer apply.  The clanging of sheet metal in
the wind could be some sort of sign.  There are endless unknowns here, accompanied by a wanton
freedom.  The occasional human coprolite far from privacy testifies to a certain sense of abandon.

(155) At the far end of the Sayreville lot my eyes burn from the rising fumes.  Sulfur is the
identifiable element, but as this is a Superfund site, sulfur is the least of my worries.  Moving with
my camera through the heat, I reflect that while the visuals of this site are domesticable, the
stench is not.  Yet months later, drawn back to the site, I experience a tense reassurance.  The
smell this time is familiar; standing on the baked yellow earth I feel that this zone is now mine
alone.

* * *

(49) In these environments I sense the paradoxical presence of loss and death gone unrecorded.
Perhaps this is the cumulative negative presence of forsaken moments, the negatives of a
thousand positive pictures: the ghosts of expended products, spent energies, lost hopes and
forgotten sufferings.  

(51) The totalizing reach of commodification obliterates history and materiality and establishes
progress as an eternal given.  Obsolescence remains inevitable, though now accompanied by
embarrassment and repulsion.  Obsolescence suggests the residue of the material and historic.
Beneath the landfill, the beach; beneath the pavement, the fear.

(52) Reality asserts itself as ageless, unblemished, cinematic and spectacular surface.  The stench
of mud carries the taboo of death.  It is no accident that plywood hoardings surround construction
sites, and that glimpses of the subsoil and rats below provide for voyeuristic fascination.  The
beginnings and endings of all products are messy, primordial, anti-social.

(52.1) The landfills of the New Jersey Meadowlands are zones of nocturnal lawlessness and ritual.
Beyond Snake Hill gangs drive stolen luxury cars into the grasses, smash and torch them as though
performing sacrifice to the neglected and jealous Hades.

* * *

(63) Today, daydreaming is a political act.  As the subjective further recedes, its rare occurrence
and even rarer acceptance become acts of resistance.

(64) In a break from literal representation, the daydream constitutes a space, previously
nonexistent, which defies predictable or practical motive.  The hyper-subjectivity of this space
suggests paradoxically that it points back to the object-in-itself.  Daydreaming creates a new
"other" out of the combined subject and object.

(68) Baudelaire: "the lyrical spirit takes strides that are as vast as synthesis while the novelist's
mind delights in analysis."  By imagining language or imagery as more than transparent media,
lyrical synthesis points toward reconciliation of subject and object.  Unlike the tautology of purely
logical analysis, it brings something new to the world.

(65) There are levels of daydreaming.  As in Proust's categorization of memory, there seem to be
voluntary and involuntary varieties.  Voluntary daydreaming is inseparable from bad art and
positivist politics. 

* * *

(143) The transparency of space as an ideal is now all the more remote.  This is evident in the
case of the modernist glass tower, originally built on the idea of lucidity, which today, rather than
reveal the workings of the corporations they contain, ironically highlight their secrecy.  As we
cross the landscape we encounter a proliferation of industrial parks and corporate complexes
gated, fenced, and surveilled against incursion and corporate espionage.  Whether military secrets
are involved or not, the level of paranoia is the same; the chemical plant and scrap yard are equally
defended.  Ever more pervasively, access to the landscape exists only on highways and service
roads.  By habit most drivers rarely consider wandering these areas, but any attempt to walk a
straight line between two reasonably distant locations would likely lead to arrest.  From a land like
this, what types of daydreams are born?

(1) All space has become militarized and privatized.  These terms coincide and together provide
the invisible but material ether that pervades the landscape.  Everything is simultaneously owned
and under threat of coercion and violence.  If we consider the landscape the greater subject in
which we participate, we find ourselves no better off.  The public has become the private.  With
the loss of the agora, the extent of our compromise is both complete and inconceivable.

* * *

(162) My sense of self and sense of space are inseparable in that they share the same overlapping
and contradictory philosophical, political and religious remnants.

(89.3) Little in what I see corresponds to innate physiological vision.  A commonplace observation
is that our internalization of perspectival rules has altered what we perceive as curved or straight.
For instance, the entasis of a column or the bend of an architrave is read today less as a corrective
than as an aesthetic enhancement.

(163) And while this example seems innocent enough, the adoption of linear perspective as a
model of truth has far-reaching consequences in regard to the subject's relation to physical and
social space.  For with linear perspective come the notions of homogeneous space, its consequent
infinity, and a sense of proper and eternal order.

(89.4) Yet I find that linear perspective does not fully account for how we perceive our landscape.
Perhaps this is due to the retained and contradictory presence of the Greek "space between
objects" or the Roman "space surrounding objects," neither of which asserts full dominance over
objects.  Often, comparing a photograph with my previous expectation of it, I observe how my
perception had enlarged objects of interest while reducing distractions and negative space.  Even
the most prolonged look through the viewfinder does not mitigate this.  In nearly every
photograph the false rationality of the camera reveals the false rationality of the eye.

(89.5) Formation of a mental picture involves quiet, unrecognized ideological struggles.  The
conflict between subjectivities in the name of objectivity plays itself out on a moment-by-moment
basis as new contradictions present themselves.  One moment we are free, the next enslaved, and
in both cases deceived.

* * *

(112) The sublime, especially as defined by Burke, emerges from the order of linear perspective
where infinite and homogeneous space overwhelms the lonely subject.  At the same time, the
sublime is dependent on the priority and position of this self-centered observer. 

(112.1) Thus linear perspective structures a world in which the freedom of the individual stands in
paradoxical contradistinction to the all-encompassing power of God.  The two sides of this dialectic
correspond to the two ends of the perspectival axis: the viewer's eye at one end, the vanishing
point at the other.

(113.1) Modern relativism breaks down both ends of the axis.  As God dissolves at the vanishing
point, so the subject's eye breaks into many.  The loss of both endpoints coincides with the
commodification of both subject and space.  As the subject's autonomy devolves into the
consumption of vantage points, space (including the sublime) becomes its playground.  We see
this in the manufactured daydreams and false catharsis of digitally enhanced action movies, video
games, and car ads.  Here the thwarted subject is promised release from the confines of
conventional space, as if that were what confined it.

* * *

(153.1) Increasingly, the spaces most desolate no longer seem desolate enough.  Ever more, they
fall prey to a reified domesticity, as reconciled backdrops of film and fashion shoots or televised
news.  As they are assigned meaning, they shed dialectical negativity and, to this extent, become
facets of the co-opted sublime.

(148) Yet these desolate zones, unfit for habitation—what parts of our environment are most
desolate?  More and more, in this administered world, the question is less whether a place has
been desolated than in what ways.

Michael Ashkin, 2003