A new era has arrived! All around, I often hear it said: ‘I don’t understand what is going on, I don’t understand why things are going this way.’ I believe that, at the Chair of Architecture, we do understand what is going on and why, but let us be honest – it is hard to believe.
It is hard to believe that a new era is at hand, especially since we are accustomed to the old era. Naturally, every era boasts, through the voices of the people within it, that a new era is at hand, yet now it seems that it has indeed arrived. What allows me to believe this sentence? I would like to share some memories and assumptions with you:
First memory. 1986. Moscow. I am visiting friends and we are drinking tea. A recent emigrant to Holland has come to visit. It is the first time he has been permitted to return to visit his homeland. Along with everything else, he describes the wonders of the Western world to the people gathered around the table and everyone listens in amazement. Somebody asks what will happen next. The visitor thinks for a moment and then grabs a bottle of cognac from the table, saying: I wouldn’t be surprised if soon this bottle will have a keypad and the bottle cork will fly off when you punch in the right code. Everyone laughs. Personal computers are just starting to appear in Russia.
Second memory. 1996. Defence of diploma theses at the Estonian State Institute of Art. The computer is no marvel, yet Rasmus Tamme’s thesis is one of the first diploma theses that attempts to create a virtual space and to interlink spaces. ‘Linking’ is a new word. Relatively little of the thesis itself is visible, especially that which we customarily refer to as being architectural. I am a reviewer and I present an apology for the new era that is just about to arrive. I am an optimist and I believe, in ten years, a new era will be at hand, yet, deep down, I think that it could actually take more time.
The year is 2007. We have trouble believing, but we become convinced again every day, that a new era has indeed arrived. Like the Toyota commercial on Euronews, this day is today.
How can this new era be described? It needs a name. How can it be found?
The following come to mind as emotional strokes that create a whole, in an alla prima manner:
- Populist politics
- Advertising covering everything
- A world that is evil and does not manage to make ends meet
- Global flows of goods and media
- Digital matrix.
How can these be tied together into the universal pattern? Naturally, every entity that has lost its separate details impoverishes reality, yet also offers opportunities to think of it understandably and abstractly. Two of the more general crystallisations in this nebulous, yet universal, picture of experience are: evil and image. Yet they do not seem to fit together! Nevertheless, they both stand in their places without being ashamed of me.
I consider the word image with great interest. We find in the Lexicon of Antiquity:
Ima:gines – Representations of ancestors. In the case of Romans, portraits molded from wax as death masks. An actor carried such a portrait at the funerals of higher officials. Representations of ancestors were also carried in the funeral processions of deceased relatives. They were kept in the closet the remainder of the time. Their preparation was closely connected to the making of death masks and has become known as one of the roots of naturalism in Roman portrait art (Lexicon of Antiquity 1983, 142).
We find in a Latin dictionary concerning the word imago:
Figure, image, picture, representation, portrait, bust/…/ imagines maiorum wax figures or masks of ancestors/…/phantom, figure from dreams, vision, apparition, semblance/…/
But also: reverberation, allegorical picture, metaphor, view, manifestation (Latin-Estonian Dictionary 2002, 538).
The words imagino, imaginatum, imaginare also derive from this – to depict, to express, to reproduce.
While Latin culture uses the word imago, it is not found in Greek culture, which enriched Latin culture to a great extent. Picture, pictorialness and depiction nevertheless do exist.
Let us at this point consider words such as:
Εικόνα – eikona – picture, icon, reflection and imagination – μεταφ
Εικονικός – eikonikos – pictorial
Εικόνισμα – eikonisma – icon
Εικονογραφημένος – eikonografemenos – illustrated
Εικονοκλάστης – eikonoklastes – destroyers of icons, iconoclasts
Εικονοστάσι – eikonostasi – iconostasis – sacred wall
Unlike Roman culture, the concept of imago was not de-sacralised in Greece and it continued to bear its sacred or magic meaning. More precisely, Greek culture transmitted Egyptian tradition, where, during Ptolemy’s era, embalming disappeared and the icon appeared in its place – a portrait drawn on a wooden tablet. Early Christianity did not know either icons or the symbol of the cross. Icons are nothing more than pictures of the mortals Mary and the baby Jesus, or of saints. These pictures have become or been made sacred through martyrdom. It was precisely in evolving Byzantium that iconodulism – the worshipping of pictures – spread, and developed into iconoclasm. Later, the Protestant Reformation also went through a similar process. Nevertheless, icons and iconics have been preserved up to the present in Eastern European orthodox tradition. We see the tradition, extending back to Egypt, of honouring the portraits of the deceased in Orthodox and Russian cemeteries.
The function of the icon, however, is entirely different from the image or imago. The icon is a gateway to the magical and sacred world that is opened up by prayer or meditation. The meanings of generations that have prayed to icons can be experienced directly as religious ecstasy and their semantic field is relatively narrowly defined.
The imago and the imagosphere only marginally bear this kind of essence of the didactics of cognition. The archetypical meanings of the imagosphere are hidden deep between the modern, alienated surface layer and the nature of phenomena. These meanings remain mostly hidden from the creators and cultivators of imagos.
It seems to me that the ima:gospheric world is an appropriate name for the new age. Just as we are surrounded by the atmosphere, or as the lithosphere gives us support, so the difficult-to-penetrate and difficult-to-uncrypt imagosphere surrounds us here and now.
Not imagosphere, but rather ima:gosphere, swollen and sensual like the cover photo of Kroonika (Chronicle) magazine. This sense of contemporary time contains all that the old Latin word carries with it: the fictitiousness of the world, its subjection to the current of pictorial media, its abandonment of science and rationality. And even the sun has departed into an entirely new sign of the zodiac – Aquarius – after remaining in the Pisces zodiacal constellation for 2000 years.
EMPIRICAL ESTABLISHMENT OF IMAGOSPHERE
Nowadays, the global economy, culture, politics and advertising have amalgamated. If we see the origin of the public sphere, as defined by Jürgen Habermas, as an important attribute of the modern era, then this is something entirely new.
If we consider how the world has changed – take the early Middle Ages for example – we see a situation where public and private were completely compressed. Kings or nobles, their families, power, their bodies and presence were an indivisible whole. This lasted until the late Renaissance. The bank of the Medicis, which was also the municipal treasury of Florence, can be mentioned as an example of the interweaving that took place later on. On the one hand, it was a bank that was personal property, and on the other hand, it was a public municipal treasury. These two were intertwined.
Or the family of the medieval master craftsman is another example: the room of the master was his workshop, living room and reception room all in one. His public and intimate matters existed in the same time and space simultaneously. They were united into a complete environment. They could not be separated. The fortunes of his family and his business were one. These two sides began to diverge in the late Renaissance, until the public and private worlds split into two completely, clearly different worlds at the height of modernism.
This was the moment that Habermas described as the origin of the public sphere. This was a change in the structure of what was considered public. New journals appeared – initially letters of merchants, news bulletins that disseminated public information. The invention of the printing press during the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance made a new layer possible: the appearance of public media. Among other things, this changed architecture beyond recognition. It is suspected that if Lord Burlington had not published catalogues and journals, some aspects of neoclassicism would not have taken place.
The origin of the bourgeois republic, and the separation of the public and the private, accompanied the triumphal progress of the public print media. Some private drawbacks that unpleasantly forced their way into public view were buried out of sight of society in jails or insane asylums as described by Michel Foucault.
Nowadays, a new amalgamation of public and private has come about – its attributes are all manner of tracking systems, including systems for tracking terrorists, which are, in turn, evolving into new information systems. These kinds of systems bring us to the point where soon there will no longer be an intimate sphere. The intimate sphere has become public by nature. Big Brother is the artificial laboratory of this intimacy, from which this type of media has already broken out. The tabloids inform the public of the most intimate facts of private life. The bodies of athletes, for example, are public, since the nation and consequently the people are paying for them. This is observable from the public knowledge of Kristiina Smigun’s menstrual cycle and urine sample to the anal nuances of Fazekas’s doping sample.
The truth about public bodies must be asserted.
Post-modernist society has thus done away with the gap between the public and the private. Tracking systems can be extended to each individual so that every person can be identified in detail. I recently saw a documentary film about the identification of goods. Each package has its own individual identification code. It is always possible to ascertain where goods are being transported in the world at any given moment using GPS.
Nowadays, if one goes from the Academy of Arts to the Town Hall Square (Raekoja plats), several cameras observe that route. This environment is already active in terms of observation. Somebody is watching us and we are happy, in the naïve hope that Big Brother is protecting us from evil.
In some sense, we have crossed the threshold of a new era. New digital-technological systems are the foundation for this new era amalgamation of the private and the public. I would refer to this as a digital platform. Whatever phenomena of life we may study, in close up they are subordinated to the digital platform. The analogical–causal, where the relationship between cause and effect is at least theoretically open to the observer, is losing its primary essence. The result of this is a decrease in the sphere of direct experience of existential life.
As Hans Georg Gadamer describes:
Being present does not simply mean being there along with something else that is there at the same time. To be present means to participate. If someone was present at something, he knows all about how it really was. … Thus watching something is a genuine mode of participating. Here we can recall the concept of sacral communion that lie behind the original Greek concept of theoria. Theoros means someone who takes part in a delegation to a festival. … Theoria is a true participation, not something active but something passive (pathos), namely being totally involved in and carried away by what one sees. (Gadamer 1997, 124-125)
The prevalent function of the digital platform and the dependence of the world on the screen dehumanises the human existence. We communicate a great deal with our friends online, but through a screen. I could write this lecture on paper but I choose to write it on a screen. We communicate with the people close to us by telephone, which involves the disassembling of language into electronic particles and putting them back together again. Photographs of gatherings are again only on the screen. The contents of our evening shopping cart are digitally stored somewhere and become an imago if I connect them with a discount card that bears my name and other data. It is funny that the card functions even though I present false data on it.
For a couple of months now, a mellow and low male voice has invited me to Sampo Bank to discuss my bank contracts. This is not a man, as I discovered in conversation with a young bank teller; rather, it is the ‘bank’s contact centre’. As if some anonymous character has lent his voice to a machine. The answer to my question of why I had to physically come to the bank (I naturally went out of curiosity in preparing this lecture) was more than strange. ‘Yes, and you can change everything personally on the bank’s homepage in “e-life”’. Even my signature is no longer mine, but rather it is digital – and soon that digital signature that is identifiable by a number and a card will indeed be much more real than me and the letters I have formed with ink.
The word ‘letter’ takes us to the next subject – the written word. The Estonian word for letter ‘pookstav’ is directly derived from book stav – a book mark, a cut – probably an old Germanic word. Marshall McLuhan deduced the changes brought about by the printing press, which he fondly referred to as Gutenberg’s galaxy, when he considered the birth of the new era in the book he wrote in 1962.
He wrote: “When technology extends one of our senses, a new translation of culture occurs as swiftly as the new technology is interiorised” (McLuhan 1995, 40).
This sense is the sense of sight, in which the verbal context of language, or that based on hearing, is alienated from its original form – the living word. This takes place mostly in Western Europe and North America. The first alienation takes place through the adoption of written letters as replacements of phonetics. This impoverishes and destroys the variety and multi-valency of language.
The alphabet is an aggressive and militant absorber and transformer of cultures (McLuhan 1995, 48).
The increase of visual stress among the Greeks alienated them from the primitive art that the electronic age now reinvents after interiorizing the unified field of electric all-at-onceness. (McLuhan 1995, 63)
A wonderful word – all-at-onceness. In 1962, nobody knew what online meant. Yet the simultaneous appearance of everything and the universe is also in this online condition nowadays in the sense of didactic cognition.
Nevertheless, tactile and personal self-expression still remain in manuscripts. Writing and existence are inseparable. Cultural identification still survived in both antiquity and the Middle Ages. The manuscript had a tactile and existential composition. Holding a manuscript in one’s hands was a solemn and sacred act. The author’s hands had touched it, or at least the writer’s hands, who had to be the author’s researcher, interpreter, editor and publisher.
Manuscript culture is conversational if only because the writer and his audience are physically related by the form of publication as performance (McLuhan 1995, 84).
The printing press brings ultimate seclusion with it: The invention of typography confirmed and expanded the new visual stress of applied knowledge, providing the first uniformly repeatable commodity, the first assembly-line, and the first mass-production (McLuhan 1995, 124)
Thus Gutenberg’s galaxy created an entirely new situation – the synthetic mode of cognition that had evolved primarily in the context of language and in the natural landscape in traditional cultures was replaced initially by a literate, and thereafter, a literary way of cognition, from which a new media evolved over time – journalism, which combined unified records, pictures and advertising. Radio and television compressed this into a completely amalgamated new environment – the environment of the mass media.
Thus the essential parts of the imagosphere have been built up. The apparent and illusive method of depiction is gradually attaining a more prominent position. Transition to the digital platform and its new applications is only a question of time. The digital platform allows the existing parts of the imagosphere to amalgamate into a synthetic whole. Quantity grows into a new quality.
A perfect little cell of the imagosphere accompanies us everywhere – a small instrument that makes telephone calls, takes photographs, sends e-mails, plays music and does a host of other things. The screen accompanies us everywhere – a membrane or filter through which we communicate with the world. The city, its houses, billboards, monitors and so on have also formed this kind of filter.
In terms of learning cognition, though, a new and very interesting situation is developing. The speed of contact of the media is making the message ever shorter. Jeffrey Olick wrote in a recent issue of the weekly cultural newspaper Sirp:
If you visit a good library and peruse the lists of loaned books, you can see that most of the books have not been taken out by anyone for years because there are simply too many books. As Paul Valery wrote: modern man is interested only in what can be shortened into a summary. Yet we also simply have a practical need for brief summaries, so that now there are already registries of textual registries (Olick 2007, 13).
Simultaneously with the shortening and simplification of the message, it overlaps with an entirely new phenomenon – advertising. When man learned to speak, he learned to lie because words are only representations – imagos. When man learned to write, he also learned to falsify.
Information, messages and advertising are indistinguishably placed on top of each other in the imagospheric world. The weekly newspaper Eesti Ekspress, which immediately set about inculcating and discovering the new world in 1989, was undoubtedly present at the birth of this imagospheric era.
The constitution of the imagospheric world is also good news: it was announced on 1 August 2007 that well-known media mogul Rupert Murdoch had bought the Dow Jones publisher that published the Wall Street Journal. Naturally, the mogul gave assurances that the newspaper would remain independent in the future as well.
The imagosphere has become a separate living organism that spreads out in all directions.
Thus a complete reality has come about, where imagos replace processes, phenomena, people, things and everything else. This imagosphere is established everywhere that the digital media network reaches. It is eager to go along with you even on vacation. It is vigilant and awaits the moment that your gaze happens to rest on a computer, telephone, newspaper or television. Advertising becomes personal. It does not matter that your personal data is secret. Personal advertising searches for and finds the preferences of your Internet browser, rummages through your key words, and starts threatening and sending junk mail.
The individuality of the digital platform inevitably leads to the individualisation of the imagosphere as well. Its central institution is a new media phenomenon – blogs. The quicker and more skilled politicians have their own blogs. This is a new way to make yourself visible.
As is customarily said, they communicate at the grassroots level. Edgar Savisaar has written:
Political blogs became popular in Estonia prior to the last election. Then they were somehow in fashion. Nowadays the initial enthusiasm has cooled off, but I believe that blogs will remain in politics as a direct means of communication. The Internet has changed political communication altogether. This has been a revolution in the field of communications. As a result of this, discussion and the exchange of ideas are continually speeding up. /…/
Blogs are like online memoirs. Professor Leo Gens used to warn us that the memoir is the most dubious literary genre of all. Who would want to create a disagreeable or foolish impression of themselves? This impression must always be good and personal. Savisaar:
I have promised the readers of my blog that I will try, to the best of my ability, to write about animals and people, cultural phenomena and sciences, something besides politics. The message below is a step in this direction.
The news is that my German shepherd Othello took his first steps yesterday on the difficult path of education, similarly to many Estonian children, who in just over a week’s time will also set out on the path of education on 1 September – some for the first time, some for yet another in a succession of many years (http://savisaar.blogspot.com/ ).
A good friend of mine, who writes a regular blog and uses it to administer his school, believes that soon people will not even be able to get work if they do not have their own blog.
IMAGOSPHERE’S THEORETICAL CONSTITUTION
Simulacrums and hyper-reality
After my first attempt to cognitively describe the imagosphere, I began in earnest to seek authors who had previously considered these kinds of phenomena. I found an excellent endorsement from Jean Baudrillard, who, in 1981, had already, with great foresight, written about events visible today back when only visionary optimists dared dream of a market economy in Estonia (Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacres et Simulation. Paris 1981).
I was fascinated by five themes in Baudrillard’s writings that, to some degree, help us to progress in describing the nature of the imagosphere and also explain its continuous evolution:
- The simulacrum as a crystallisation of a representation or imago and a way of acting in contemporary society.
- The alteration of new media.
- The identity of advertising and politics.
- The new reality of goods and department stores.
- The replacement of science fiction with hyper-reality.
First of all, there is an escalating destructive power of imago, which draws its energy from the relationship of meaning between the representation and the original:
Thus the destructive power of the representation, the power that destroys reality, the power that destroys its own original has always been at stake, just as the icons of Byzantium could destroy divine identity. This destructive power is countered by the dialectic power of the representation, the power of Reality to convey the visible and comprehensive. All Western religions and beliefs are engrossed in this bet of depiction: could the sign refer to the depths of meaning, could the sign replace meaning, and could something – God, of course – be the security deposit for this exchange? Yet what if God himself could also be simulated, that is reduced to signs that bear witness to him? Then the entire system would lose its footing and it would, itself, also be nothing more than a gigantic simulacrum – not unreal, but a simulacrum. This means that it would never be possible to exchange it for reality. It would change itself only into itself in an endless chain, which has no fixed points or boundaries anywhere (Baudrillard 1999, 14).
Baudrillard’s typology for learning cognition of representations describes quite well the ever-growing proportion and universality of imago. If depiction attempts to swallow up the simulation into itself, interpreting it as a false depiction, then the simulation surrounds the entire building of depiction as if it were a simulacrum itself. In Baudrillard’s opinion, the phases of depiction may be as follows:
- it reflects deep reality
- it disguises and distorts deep reality
- it disguises the absence of deep reality
- it lacks any kind of connection to any kind of reality: it is its own genuine simulacrum.
Baudrillard briefly characterises the result of this kind of partition as follows: In the first instance, the depiction is a good semblance – the depiction belongs to the sphere of sanctity. In the second instance, it is a bad semblance – from the sphere of evil. In the third instance, it pretends to be a semblance – it belongs to the sphere of sorcery. In the fourth instance, it no longer belongs to the sphere of semblance at all; rather, it belongs to the sphere of simulation (Baudrillard 1999, 14-15).
Precisely the latter condition best describes the situation of saturated imagosphere. Chat rooms, ‘second lifes’, and ‘rate mes’ also definitely belong to the same category. Here we do not know if we are holding a conversation or flirting with our neighbour, or even with his hundred year old mother-in-law. The individual becomes Avatar, which often lives a much more real life than the person does. All of this is accompanied by the establishment of rules by the webmaster or host. In this kind of life, thrills take the place of experiences. Historicity is permanent only in the logs of spy computers. Culture founded on language gives way to primitive Anglo-America-based computer language. Broader associations based on culture split up into ever-smaller interest groups. The simulacrum has created a completely new reality. The imago of the latter again starts to demolish the new reality reflected by it.
Baudrillard also describes the dissolution of media into everyday life. The digital platform has now given it awe-inspiring dimensions:
We no longer live in a society of spectacles, which situationalists speak of, or in the particular kind of alienation and suppression that goes with it. The media itself is no longer recognisable, and the intermixing of the medium with the message (MacLuhan) is the first important formula of this new age. There is no longer media in the direct sense of the word: it is now intangible, dissipated into reality and broken, and even the assertion that actuality has been changed by it can no longer be made.
This kind of intrusion, this kind of viral, endemic, chronic, frightening media presence without the possibility of avoiding its consequences /…/ (Baudrillard 1999, 50-51)
Information devours its own content. It gobbles down communication and society, and does so for two reasons. 1. Instead of transmitting something, it uses up its strength on staging transmission. Instead of creating meaning, it uses up its strength on staging meaning. /…/ 2. In the shadow of this sharpened staging of communication, means of mass information and forced information continue to disintegrate society with irresistible force (Baudrillard 1999,121-122).
Thus the media does not carry out collectivisation on the digital platform, but rather the complete opposite is true: society dissolves into atomic parts, each of which has its own personalised, custom-made news and entertainment portal. The idea is that all states of meaning have been swallowed into a single dominant form of media. The media alone create events – regardless of what the content of the message is, whether conformist or horrifying. The media contain meaning and counter-meaning within themselves. They manipulate society in every direction. Nobody is capable of controlling this process, /…/. (Baudrillard 1999, 123; 127)
There is yet one more historical attribute of the establishment of an imagosphere under the all-embracing quality of the media digital platform, and this is advertising. It follows a path of temporal evolution. We live in a period that is characterised by the absorption of all virtual means of expression by the advertising means of expression. All original forms of culture, all defined languages are absorbed by it because it lacks depth. It is momentary and forgotten after a moment. This is the triumph of superficial form, the lowest common denominator of all meanings, the ground elevation of meaning. It is the triumph of entropy over all possible tropes. The lowest form of the energy of signs. (Baudrillard 1999, 131)
Advertising and propaganda really intensified, in Baudrillard’s opinion, beginning with the October Revolution and the global crisis of 1929. Both were mass languages that were derived from the mass production of either ideas or goods. Their initially separated registers gradually converged with each other, and they bore within themselves the stamp of imago becoming empty of meaning. Propaganda becomes a means for marketing and selling guiding principles, politicians and parties containing their own certain ‘image signs’. Propaganda converges with advertising as the only model for starting a great and real guiding principle in this competitive society: goods and trademarks (Baudrillard 1999, 132).
The global, and at the same time individual, power of the imagosphere to command attention has changed modernist representative democracy without bringing about new forms of participatory democracy. People nowadays cannot be bothered to listen to the debates of politicians. They cannot be bothered to delve deeply into the platforms of the parties, and politicians are grateful – the only question is how and where to get money for advertising.
Instead of the political face, we have the grotesque imago, where the kind of glasses worn is sometimes more important than the message, or the colour green is more important than the object. And while Plato scornfully noted that democracy brings the most skilled liar to power, nowadays the one who buys the best advertising made by the most skilled liar comes to power. Unfortunately, this is ordinarily also dependent on the amount of money available. Money can be used to buy a suitable imago, which is separated from reality by an impenetrable PR wall. Everyone can afford to obtain the body of a politician as long as they have enough money to pay for their actual double – their imago.
The society that is present everywhere, absolute society, which has finally materialised in absolute advertising – this means that society itself is also completely dissolved. Society as a spectral trace on all walls in the simplified form of social demand, which is immediately satisfied by the echo of advertising. Society as a screenplay and we as its frenzied audience (Baudrillard 1999, 133).
In this manner, all of society and its social life is devalued into a commercial-monetary relationship. The old saying is quickly transformed: tell me what you buy and I will tell you who you are. Buying and selling become the central means of existing in the imagospheric world.
It is no coincidence that advertising, after being the instigator for a long time of the implicit economic type of ultimatum that tirelessly proclaimed and repeated: ‘I buy, I consume, I enjoy’, nowadays repeats in all manner of forms: ‘I vote, I participate, I am present, I am involved’ – a paradoxical mirror of ridiculousness, a mirror of the insignificance of all manner of public meaning (Baudrillard 1999, 136).
Commercialisation has grown to such a scale that goods also define the emerging spatial structure:
Signposts within a radius of thirty kilometres point you in the direction of those large distribution stations that hyper-department stores serve as, in the direction of the hyperspace of goods, where a new kind of sociality evolves in various senses of the word. The hyper-department store is already a model at a higher level than factories and traditional institutions of capital. It is a model of all future forms of controlled socialisation: the reunification of all dispersed functions (work, leisure time, eating, health care, transportation and media culture) of the body and social life into one homogenous space-time; /…/ (Baudrillard 1999, 113; 115)
The hyper-department store as a nucleus. The city, and not even a modern city, can no longer swallow it into itself. The hyper-department store establishes an orbit in which agglomerations move. It is an implant in new formations, as a university or factory sometimes is – no longer a 19th century factory, but rather a decentralised factory that settles in the suburbs without disrupting the orbit of the city, /…/ (Baudrillard 1999, 116).
Toward the end of his book, Baudrillard also discusses science fiction as a change in literary genre. He considers James Ballard’s book Crash. In Baudrillard’s opinion, Crash is no longer fiction or reality. Imagospheric hyper-reality destroys both (Baudrillard 1999, 181). Ballard published a new book entitled Kingdom Come in 2006. It is much like an homage and proclamation after Baudrillard’s conceptual revelation concerning hyper-department stores. Ballard’s dystopia in his writing acquires a threatening tonality in its possibility and depiction of the colours of the times – a hyper-realistic depiction has become a script of likely future developments. The action takes place in a suburban hyper-department store called the Metro Centre. In its description, it is almost identical to the suburbs of the globalising world and its retail village.
A terrace of small houses appeared, hiding in the shadow of a reservoir embankment, linked to any sense of community only by the used-car lots that surrounded it. Moving towards a national south, I passed a Chinese takeaway, a discount furniture warehouse, an attack-dog kennels and a grim housing estate like a partly rehabilitated prison camp. /…/ “But they feel differen.” Carradine’s eyes seemed to glow. “That’s why our customers come here. The Metro-Centre creates a new climate, Mr. Pearson. We succeeded where the Greenwich Dome failed. This isn´t just a shopping mall. It’s more like…” “Religious experience?” “Exactly! It’s like going to church. And you can go every day and you get something to take home.” (Ballard 2007, 6; 40)
Yet Ballard’s story does not end with descriptions of the contemporary spatial structure and cult of consumer goods. He shows how the mass media becomes a mass movement, which in turn becomes mass violence. The mall marshals and football players become members of the people’s militia, and they in turn become storm troopers. Whoever is not with us is against us. ‘Us’ and ‘them’.
The suburbs dream of violence. Asleep in their drowsy villas sheltered by benevolent shopping malls they patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world…I had seen the flag as I drove into the town, the cross of St George on its white field, flying above housing estates and business parks. The red crusader´s cross was everywhere, unfurling from flagstaffs in front gardens, giving the anonymous town a festive air. (Ballard 2007, 3. 8)
PRACTICAL REALISATION OF THE IMAGOSPHERE
It is, of course, a coincidence that Ballard’s mass-hypnotised mob resembles Russia’s semi-state youth organisation Nashi in terms of the colours of their flag. Ballard’s plot is precise in everything else. While, in the case of Estonia, we see the establishment of a quietly settling imagosphere, the building up of Russia as a major power is a systematic and deliberate plan.
Sergei Kovaljov (Kovaljov 2007) provides a convincing overview of the functioning and transformation of the imagosphere that interests us in Russia at the beginning of the 21st century. His main question is: why has Putin and his manner of governing achieved such widespread popularity, against the background of which he was re-elected?
Kovaljov points out the three most widespread fundamental reasons. First, Putin’s first election was not a vote in favour of him but rather against his opponent. People voted against the disorder and ‘democracy’ of the Yeltsin era. Secondly, the president’s advisors carefully left the impression that this was a democratic president trusted by the people. Thirdly, Kovaljov also considers nostalgia for the Soviet past to be the reason for Putin’s popularity.
Kovaljov examines this last reason thoroughly, revealing the nature of new and old myths and their establishment as a populist and all-encompassing mystery that I would describe as an imagosphere. These myths can be brought forth as follows: the myth of the enemy, the myth of victory, and the myth of imperial might.
Let us, first of all, consider the myth of the enemy. This is an age-old way of achieving internal unity and identity. The nucleus of the myth lies in contrasting us against others. If everyone wants to destroy us, then we forget our differences and injustices, and confront the enemy. Secret police services, known by various names, have been this uniting, and at the same time hidden and mysterious, force in Russia. Putin is their representative in terms of his career and education. Kovaljov writes:
Thus, guided by nostalgia, they chose a KGB colonel as their leader. He, in turn, restored the myths that the Soviet secret police have propagated ever since the times of the Cheka: the country ‘is besieged by enemies’ and has been infiltrated by a ‘fifth column’. This role has currently been attributed to nongovernmental organisations, especially those that have dealings with journalism and human rights /…/(Kovaljov 2007).
One of the most striking examples of the myth of the enemy has been Russia’s campaign of hostility against Estonia, where ‘us’ and ‘them’ are differentiated by all possible means. One of the forces carrying out the campaign of hostility was the ‘nongovernmental’ youth organisation Nashi – Our Own Kind in direct translation.
The new generation that has grown up under the influence of Putin’s mythology is altogether frightening. In my view, gangs of youths that rush wildly through subway stations chanting ‘ROS-SI-JA! ROS-SI-JA! (RUS-S-IA! RUS-S-IA!)’ on Victory Day (9 May), when Russia celebrates the end of the Second World War, symbolise this. They do not realise that they behave the same way as fascists – on the contrary, they consider themselves the grandchildren of Hitler’s conquerors. /…/(Kovaljov 2007).
Next, let us consider the myth of victory. When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, the central idea of unity was the exceptionality of Russians as the chosen people – right here is where the workers’ revolution was won and this is where the new was to begin – the worldwide revolution. Lenin wrote a long justification of this, how revolution could win in a separate, backward country that differed significantly from what its European comrades imagined. In order to consolidate Stalin’s power, it was clear that political realities did not make it possible to keep up the myth of worldwide revolution any longer, and thus mass repressions began to find and destroy the internal enemy. The final phase of this, prior to the beginning of the Second World War, became a true theatre of the absurd, of which a great deal has been written. This continued after the war in occupied territories with the killing and deportation of enemies of the people and saboteurs, in the spirit of class purity. Yet in the course of these repressions, the foundation was laid for a new myth of unity – ‘the new, historic union of peoples – the Soviet people’. This was marked by the new Russian constitution of 1936, yet developed conclusively after the war. Stalin began the fusion of the Communist Party and officials of the state apparatus into a ruling ‘nomenclature’. This grew to ultimate completion in the era of Khruschev and Brezhnev. While the myth of the ‘Soviet people’ was pointed toward the future (new cities, new land, new field crops and so on) during Khruschev’s thaw, we must agree with Kovaljov that, during the Brezhnev era, this myth was legitimised mainly by the past.
The answer to the question, ‘Who are we?’ was as follows: ‘We are a people who have had to endure inhuman suffering in the twentieth century, but nevertheless have managed to vigorously march on from victory to victory. We suffered unprecedented losses during the war, yet under the leadership of the Communist Party, we saved the world from the clutches of Nazism. And thereafter, we found the strength within ourselves to create a superstate, to be the first to put a man in space, and to achieve nuclear balance with the other superstate, the USA. (Kovaljov 2007)
The foundation of this myth was war and the commemoration of the victims that perished in it. Stalin’s repressions were diminished or concealed from Soviet history. Collectivisation and famines, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the violence involved in the formation of the Soviet Union and the socialist block of countries was removed from this history.
The myth of the ‘Soviet people’ collapsed with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. While the former socialist nation-states and republics of the union could draw upon their history and oppose communist ideology, ‘the citizens of Russia, the largest remnant of the superstate, were left up in the air, as it were. Their national identity was confused’ (Kovaljov 2007). Putin modernised the national identity by shifting the idea of victory into the forefront. The sufferings of the Soviet people, communistic phraseology and tragic notes were removed. Thus a powerful myth of victory came about, accompanied by a communistic imagosphere: former Soviet symbols were restored: the Stalinist anthem, the red victory flag with the hammer and sickle, and so on. The helmet and greatcoat of the Soviet soldier became part of Nashi symbolism. This gave rise to the characteristic painful attitude towards the mentioning of the Tartu Peace Treaty and the removal of the Bronze Soldier Monument – the historical treatment of two occupations disrupted the myth of victory when it was written in the Tartu Peace Treaty that Russia guaranteed the independence of Estonia forever.
The third myth is comparable to the myth of victory but is more like a vector pointed to the future – the myth of imperial might. The Chechnya wars, unexplained acts of terrorism, and political murders have been put to use in order to establish this myth. The murders of Zelimhan Jandarbiyev and Aleksandr Litvinenko clearly took place with the knowledge of Russia’s special services. The actual perpetrators of other murders and acts of terror are not even very important from the point of view of our lecture. In the opinion of Kovaljov, the authorities did not even try, by way of investigation, to refute these suspicions that were spreading about them. The public expressions by Putin himself about ‘flushing the privy toilet’ and the ‘circumcision’ of foreign journalists only confirm the proclamation of the fetish of raw force.
By 2004, the idea of ‘absolute power’ and ‘special services’ had essentially amalgamated with the two-headed eagle of the monarchy and the Soviet anthem. /…/ Putin’s team quickly carried out the most important task, namely taking over control of television. When this was accomplished, the entire country was flooded with constant, all-encompassing propaganda, which was much more skilful, effective and satisfactory to everyone than Soviet propaganda had ever been. The mass media constantly hurls ideas into the air connected with Putin as a charismatic ruler who leads the people to rebirth, and of Putinism as the guarantee of stability and order. Thus imperialistic values have been hammered into social thought (Kovaljov 2007).
Analysis of Putin’s Russia allows us to see, in simplified form, how the imagosphere takes shape. First of all, suitable core myths that partially conceal the past and promise the future are created. Thereafter, they are clothed in popular or nostalgic ‘liturgy’ and ‘iconostasis’, and finally, means for their massive implementation are found.
As a person who has seen a great deal, Kovaljov’s conclusive view of this process is thoroughly pessimistic. He believes that the young people of Russia are under the influence of Putin’s propaganda, and that the ultimate objective of the political establishment presently in power is the complete uprooting of European mechanisms for the transfer of power and the strengthening of the Byzantine model of succession. He ends his overview with the following words:
I am afraid that there are few among us who will live long enough to see the re-germination of freedom and democracy in Russia. Yet it is nevertheless worth bearing in mind that the ‘mole of history’ digs his tunnels outwardly without being noticed (Kovaljov 2007).
The article is based on the lecture course Contemporary Problems in Urban Construction, held at the Estonian Academy of Art in the autumn semester of 2007)
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