tumblr as library of babel.

Erik Desmazières, The Library of Babel (above.)

The feeling of being misspent, dispersed.

Much has been said already of the labor-element of maintaining one’s YouTube, Blogger, and Facebook accounts, of seeking artwork or pornographic images or humorous gifs online. It becomes a secondary job, a sequence of action one becomes locked into against one’s will. It becomes an addiction, an automatism. And this type of addiction or automatism is the opposite of hedonism: the pursuit of desire not to enjoy it, but to exterminate it. Instead of sating desire whenever it arises, it seeks out desire wherever it may hide – and then eradicates it. But its method of eradication is such that it eliminates the original desire and replaces it with symbolic phantasms of desire that proliferate rather than disappear. What starts as “I’ll just check out a couple of the latest pages on this tumblr,” becomes “Well, I guess I have time to go all the way back to September’s archive.”

As Baudrillard says of pornography, this automatism becomes enjoyment haunted by its own disappearance. This, some would say, is the dominion of the Super-ego. Culture becomes a vortex which winds us ever inward into its depths.

Most of these instances of cultural labor operate in this simple way: the content creator is the click generator, and everyone else is meat for advertising. Social networks like Facebook, by giving personal information to advertisers, circumvent this process so that everyone is both click generator and meat at the same time.

Tumblr, however, does not functionally turn all of its users into “stinking spambots.” That function is only incidental, in the same way that it is incidental to all activity on the internet. Yet the job-like automatism remains.

To be a consumer of cultural material on Tumblr is to strap oneself to a mountain like Prometheus and be consumed by an eagle; except, unlike Prometheus, we are not renewed the next day. And the joke is, of course, that we are our own eagles; the creatures digging inside our abdomens are our own selves. The cultural vortex beckons, with the hounds of advertisement in dutiful attendance. Like traditional ghosts, before the the presence of the vortex we are frozen and cannot move until we are seduced into performing labor for it. The labor it asks of us is to look at it, and not incidentally, give it information about ourselves which it will use to enhance its halting gaze. The monitor monitors.

The vortex’s gaze is a sorcery like the gazes of Sphinx, and it transforms lively and virile conversations into dead and inert stage bits that crackle with the hiss of old records. It taxidermies everything, it de-culturizes culture. One of its main effects is that objects, with a wave of a wand and a tawdry flourish of smoke, become merely objects that do not interact in a social space, which cannot be analyzed,  or even spoken to or about in tones other than rhapsodic, or in vocabulary other than lifeless. They are not even embedded in time. They are just there. Everything is equivalent.

A thing that is spoken can never be parsed or sifted for meaning because it is only an object, and to speak to an object is as pointless as poking through offal for omens of weather. For this reason, a thing that is spoken or sung or manipulated does not exist on the level of communication, nor does it convey information. Removed from a social space which reveals and betrays attitudes and politics, culture becomes white noise. This blockbuster (so this attitude suggests) has nothing to say to us about colonialism or gender or whatever else, because it is just a film. This is what some call the “political evacuation” of culture.

The cultural vortex which finds its penultimate expression in Tumblr is The-Past-That-Isn’t-Past, which deadens and nullifies the present.

But the vortex is not just a gaze. The cultural vortex is also a sort of library of Alexandria, extended in every direction beyond conception and strewn with swelling waves of lambently burning garbage. These waves beckon with the call of sirens, they crash through and roll over themselves, they glow from massive distances like nova. Maybe a better way to put it is to say that they form a library of Babel.

In the vortex, history is voided of itself and turned into a mummified husk. Chronology is mugged and thrown into the swill. Different periods co-exist with each other. Cultural movements morph into one another as if by hack surgery, or in the manner that different limbs entangle one another in the drawings of Hans Bellmer. Bellmer once said: “The body resembles a sentence that seems to invite us to dismantle it into its component letters, so that its true meanings may be revealed anew through an endless stream of anagrams.” But in these cultural vortices, the past and its history are dismantled into their components so that their true meanings may be obscured. The sentence becomes a glossolalia, an unintelligible logorrhea.

We believe, as guileless librarians swindled into laboring in Babel, that we are the ones doing the reading. Yet the reality is the opposite: we are the ones being read. It is like the “Chief Bromden” character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest says of his alcoholic father: “Every time he put the bottle to his mouth, he didn’t suck out of it, it sucked out of him, until he shrunk so wrinkled and yellow even the dogs didn’t know him.” It is as if Prometheus became convinced that the gods cursed him to eat a platter of broiled eagle every day. Yet we are not renewed the next day like Prometheus. We are not reimbursed for our lost time, for what Junot Diaz describes as the “collapsed spaces of deliberation.”

It seems that many tumblrs enact something Mark Fisher describes in regards to the dystopian film Children of Men – artifacts of culture are unmoored from their contexts, floating listlessly and pointlessly, often unnamed, “assembled as if on the deck of some Predator spacecraft.” Reading these sorts of tumblrs, one does not get the sense of taste at all, but rather an indiscriminate slathering of culture, smooshed together into a paradoxical, dissimilarly-homogenous goop. Everything bleeds together, and context and stylistic difference are drained to a peaked and feeble whiteness.

This does not mean that nothing positive comes out of tumblr’s library of Babel, or out of some of these other, spectacular, cultural vortexes. But we should remain skeptical of how beneficial they are to us, and not in the basic sense of whether they are fulfilling or not, but whether we truly enjoy them or are merely acting out an automatic role, a pseudo-job. And even if we enjoy them (and I often do), we have to consider if, as Jonathan Beller states a la Debord, the assembly-line has been abstracted from its industrial context and brought “into the visual realm, such that spectators’ practice of connecting a montage of images moving in front of them [is] not just analogous but homologous to workers in a factory assembly line producing a commodity.”

(Main image courtesy of Érik Desmazières.)

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