Canadian Journal of Communication
Vol 43 (2018) 315–338
©2018 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation
Adam Lauder, York University
Adam Lauder is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at York University. Email: email@example.com.
Background The author argues for a reconsideration of Robert Smithson’s relationship to the spatial discourse and proto-media studies of Wyndham Lewis and his Canadian protégé Marshall McLuhan.
Analysis Through a comparative reading of a lesser-known Lewis text and Smithson’s photo-essays and related earthworks, the article sets out to re-evaluate the American artist’s mock-Platonic “earth maps” as mobilizing cinematic and spatial metaphors deployed by Lewis’ satirical travel writings; in particular, Lewis’ exploration of Atlantean images of postnational space as an alternative to a time-obsessed modernity in Filibusters in Barbary (1932).
Conclusion and implications The cinematic geographies of Smithson, Lewis, and McLuhan emerge as allied responses to, and radical reworkings of, Bergson’s discourse on time and media that materialize a shared critical optics and quest for utopia propelled by the lingering spectre of global conflict.
Keywords Robert Smithson; Wyndham Lewis; Marshall McLuhan; Henri Bergson; Cinema; Film; Spatial theory
Contexte Contexte l’auteur propose que l’on reconsidère la relation de Robert Smithson avec les discours spatiaux et les études proto-médiatiques de Wyndham Lewis et de son protégé canadien Marshall McLuhan.
Analyse Au moyen d’une lecture comparative d’un texte relativement obscur de Lewis et d’essais photographiques de Smithson et de ses œuvres d’art qui s’y rapportent, l’auteur entreprend de réévaluer les « cartes terrestres » prétendument platoniques de cet artiste américain, y voyant la mobilisation de métaphores filmiques et spatiales empruntées aux récits de voyage satiriques de Lewis, particulièrement sonFilibusters in Barbary (1932) où ce dernier évoque, comme alternative à une modernité obsédée par le temps, des images puissantes d’un espace post-national.
Conclusion et implications Les géographies filmiques de Smithson, Lewis et McLuhan s’avèrent être des réponses complémentaires au discours sur le temps et les médias d’Henri Bergson ainsi que des remaniements radicaux de ce discours qui ensemble concrétisent une vision critique et une quête utopique partagées par les trois auteurs et suscitées par les conflits mondiaux dont l’impact se fait encore vivement ressentir à l’époque.
Mots clés Robert Smithson; Wyndham Lewis; Marshall McLuhan; Henri Bergson; Cinéma; Film; Théorie spatiale
This article re-situates the American transdisciplinary artist Robert Smithson as a participant in the shared spatial discourse of Wyndham Lewis, a Canadian-born precursor of the Toronto School of Communication (see Cavell, 2002; Lamberti, 2012), and his protégé, Marshall McLuhan.1 Although Smithson’s references to Lewis and McLuhan have been noted in passing by previous studies, this article advances the first systematic analysis of the postminimalist artist’s relationship to figures associated with the Toronto School of Communication. It thereby advances the project of redefining the Toronto School itself as a global “discourse network” characterized by shared concepts and tools as well as a community of speakers organized around persistent questions related to the co-shaping of bodies, media, and perception (Kittler, 1990, p. 4). The networked form of this discursive space disrupts linear chronologies of “influence”: what emerges from its partial re-tracing here is, rather, a winding map of intergenerational dialogue marked by striking redundancies as well as significant points of tension and disagreement. Inevitably, the spiralling structure of this network shapes the presentation of discourses that were propagated but also subtly transformed by its participants. Attending to nuances in the reception and dissemination of shared conceptual resources and vocabulary facilitates a mapping of relations between figures and arguments in their concrete specificity.
The film apparatus emerges as the improbable locus of a spatial turn embraced by participants in this network of thinkers and practitioners, who were united in their rejection of the durational metaphysics vaunted by a generation of avant-garde artists galvanized by various populist “Bergsonisms” (see Antliff, 1993, p. 6).2 A shared discourse on film was generative of para-cinematic spaces, proposed by Lewis, McLuhan, and Smithson alike, as cosmopolitan, global alternatives to nostalgic nationalisms fuelled by Bergsonian ideology. This article’s focus on film by no means purports to exhaust the Toronto School of Communication’s multivalent media explorations. It confines itself, rather, to but one of many possible paths of approach.
This reappraisal builds upon and extends revisionist studies of Smithson that have argued for the enduring relevance of Catholic iconography and source texts to the artist’s practice following his self-proclaimed abandonment of religious motifs in 1965 (see Roberts, 2004; Tsai, 1991). That year likewise marked Smithson’s purported break with his earlier efforts to reactivate the modernist program of Lewis and contemporaries, including T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Smithson’s childhood pediatrician, William Carlos Williams (see Reynolds, 2003; Sullivan, 2014). Yet echoes of Lewis in particular—to whom fellow artist Dan Graham recalls Smithson referring as his “favorite author”—continue to resound in the postminimalist’s subsequent projects (Graham quoted in Crow, 2004, p. 37). Nico Israel (2015) has interpreted Smithson’s 1965 sculpture Four-Sided Vortex (Figure 1) as projecting a “cool vorticism” derived from Lewis and his Futurist contemporary, Boccioni (p. 164). This article expands this analysis to encompass the artist’s post-1965 production, including the earth maps and the photo-essays that document them.
This reassessment in no way argues for a reductive reading of Smithson’s highly overdetermined practice. Previous studies have persuasively explored sources for Smithson’s earth maps and photo-essays ranging from the cybernetic art historiography of Yale Mesoamericanist George Kubler (see Lee, 2004) to the formalist art criticism of Michael Fried (see Linsley, 2000) and the colonial optics propagated by the nineteenth-century travel writer John Lloyd Stephens (1841) (see Roberts, 2004). While amplifying, if in some cases subtly revising, these readings, the present article teases out and adds further definition to a previously under-examined thread in the artist’s formation and practice. Key features of Smithson’s art and thought are materially connected to a distinctive discourse on the “metaphysics of media,” which Stephen Crocker’s (2013) illuminating study of McLuhan traced to the Catholic thought of Bergson. Kenneth R. Allan (2014) has similarly plotted McLuhan-inspired conceptualisms within a discursive vector extending back to Lewis and Bergson. This trajectory is extended here to include the anti-rationalist thought of the eighteenth-century philosopher George Berkeley and his critique of Cartesian optics: a shared point of departure for the cinematic commentaries of Bergson, Lewis, and McLuhan, but also a key site of tension in their respective approaches to shared topoi.
As a meditation on the co-constitution of technology, perception, and spatiotemporal relations, the discursive tradition excavated here can be likened to, and shares a number of features in common with, contemporaneous responses to the pervasive upheavals of modernity by a wide gamut of artists and thinkers (e.g., Ekstein, 1989; Kern, 1983; Thompson, 1995). And yet, specific and concrete relays between the figures discussed in this article define a networked space that effectively demarcates what has come to be known as the Toronto School of Communication as a distinct node in a larger force field of modernisms and modernity. The enduring relevance of Henri Bergson and George Berkeley to the specific debates highlighted by the present article distinguishes this network from parallel responses to modernization. The critical optics pursued by the figures examined here is more accurately characterized as what Bergson scholar Adi Efal (2013) has termed “a revision of the ‘rationalist’ tradition” (p. 47) than as a response to the accelerated pace of technological change under modernity tout court.
This article additionally sets out to unearth, and to contextualize, the Bergsonian sources and motifs thematized by the Lewisian and McLuhanite discourses on cinema brought into visibility by the iconic rocky gyre of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), and literalized by his filmic documentation of the project’s construction. In so doing, it re-situates Smithson’s earth maps as parallel manifestations of neo-Vorticist currents explored by Canadians in the post–World War II period, including Sheila and Wilfred Watson, recently categorized by Gregory Betts (2013) as examples of a “Canadian Vorticism” (p. 192). Neo-Vorticism is here conceptualized as a belated reception and reworking of Vorticism, the World War I–era avant-garde movement spearheaded by Lewis with poet Ezra Pound. Like the membership of the original Vorticist movement, neo-Vorticist artists performed a multimodal “internalization of inter-medial violence” (Murphet, 2009, p. 155). This approach, with its roots ultimately traceable to the non-rationalist thought of Bergson, ran counter to dominant—formalist and neo-Kantian—manifestations of late modernism. Recent scholarship has drawn attention to Canada as a focal point for neo-Vorticist activity. However, Smithson’s engagement with Lewis is evidence of the more widespread currency of Vorticist media discourse in the 1960s.
Filibusters in Barbary (1932) (Figure 2), a lesser-known work of self-conscious travel writing by Wyndham Lewis, suggests a new path of approach to Robert Smithson’s influential “earth-map[s]”: temporary installations of rocks or seashells materializing the conjectured contours of hypothetical continents at remote sites (Smithson, 1996e, p. 121). An excerpt of this pivotal, if relatively understudied, Lewis text was reprinted in a 1966 Signet anthology of Lewis’ writings owned by Smithson (currently residing with his papers and personal library at the Archives of American Art). This anthology, the only work of fiction by Smithson’s self-proclaimed favourite author that he owned, would have been key to Smithson’s reception of Lewis, whose books were mostly out-of-print in the United States by the 1960s.3 In particular, Smithson’s travel-themed projects resonate with the earlier satirical travelogues of Lewis.
Lewis’ account of a 1931 visit to French colonial Morocco explores Atlantean metaphors for postnational space as an alternative to a time-obsessed modernity (and a Bergson-mad modernism) that suggest a previously overlooked model (albeit one of several) for the neo-Platonic cartographies traced by Smithson’s subsequent, analogously antimodernist earth maps and related conceptual photo-essays. The compulsive referentiality of Smithson’s art encourages a comparative reading of Lewis’ travel writings and Smithson’s own signature travelogue “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan” (1996e). Smithson’s use of literary prototypes is well-known. The neologism that he employed to describe his distinctive earthworks was derived, for instance, from a titular work of science fiction by Brian Aldiss (1965). Likewise, the title of Smithson’s “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan” signals an interface with the nineteenth-century travel writer John Lloyd Stephens’ 1843 Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, an intertextual dialogue that Jennifer Roberts (2004) has fruitfully studied through the lens of postcolonial theory. Lewis’ satirical recycling of the generic conventions of travel literature sets an important precedent for Smithson’s facetious engagement with Stephens, and his mockery of academic and generic conventions more generally, that has been overlooked.
Smithson’s iconic earthwork Spiral Jetty(Figure 3) marks the culmination of the transmedial and transnational peregrinations documented by “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan.” The Atlantean referent of Spiral Jetty’s concentric rings gives shape to a geoaesthetic imaginary that, undoubtedly, was also inflected by the cosmopolitan rhetoric of Lewis’ Canadian disciple, McLuhan. Smithson’s writings make a number of direct and indirect references to McLuhan (e.g., Ursprung, 2000, p. 90). McLuhan’s (1962) “global village” (p. 21), a term derived from the Toronto School thinker’s reading of Lewis’ 1948 text American and Cosmic Man,4 meets Lewis’ earlier Atlantean musings in the concentric rings of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, his rocky intervention on the shores of Great Salt Lake. The cosmopolitan geographies of all three thinkers materialize a spatialized time that also propels their commentaries on film.
The first of this article’s three sections introduces parallels between the filmic discourses of Smithson, Lewis, and McLuhan traceable to Bergson’s foundational commentary on the film apparatus. The second section explores affinities between the mock travel writings of Smithson and Lewis and excavates the cosmopolitan politics motivating their shared quest for a utopian space, crystallized in McLuhan’s utopian metaphor of the postnational “global village.” The concluding section briefly traces this common discourse on cinema and space to the critique of Cartesian optics mounted by the eighteenth-century empiricist George Berkeley. Berkeley’s significance to Bergson, Lewis, and McLuhan is illuminated by the more recent thought of the French “non-philosopher” François Laruelle, which effects an allied mutation in both the rationalist tradition and perspectival optics.5
An unrealized proposal for an earth map to have been sited on Miami Islet, a tiny outcropping off the coast of Vancouver Island, forcefully materializes Spiral Jetty’s links to the networked space of the Toronto School of Communication. Vancouver Art Gallery curator Grant Arnold (2004) has convincingly argued that the better-known earthwork in Utah was an indirect outgrowth of the failed Island of Broken Glass (Figure 4), whose construction was halted by the combined protests of environmentalists and Canadian nationalists angered by its potential ecological impact as well as the neo-imperialist optics of the American artist’s projected intervention at the height of the Vietnam War. Calling for 100 tonnes of shattered industrial glass to be deposited on the rocky isle in the Strait of Georgia, Smithson’s proposed Island of Broken Glass would have temporarily given shape to McLuhan’s vision of an emergent global village of postnational, communicational interconnectivity. The utopian geography manifested by Island of Broken Glass also conjured the mythic Atlantis as well as the prehistoric Gondwanaland referenced by an earlier earthwork constructed by Smithson during his Yucatán travels. This overdetermined geography would have taken shape in the immediate vicinity of Vancouver, an influential early centre for the propagation of McLuhanisms.6
Smithson’s comments in a 1970 interview for Domus magazine trace a trajectory from the Yucatán earth maps to the Island of Broken Glass:
When I go back to the United States, I have planned to cover a whole island with broken glass. I … made a small version of that in the Yucatan, because the Yucatan, in a sense, is a very allusive place, a very ungraspable place to comprehend; that suggested to me the idea of, the memory of Atlantis: so I made a map of Atlantis out of broken glass. And then I built this map of glass in New Jersey; the Yucatan project stimulated this project. In Canada there are lots of uninhabited islands; so I plan now to cover a whole island with broken glass. And that is the result of the map of glass of Atlantis. (Smithson, 1969, p. 42)
Like Spiral Jetty, the Miami Islet proposal rehearsed filmic allusions redolent of both McLuhan’s (1964) discourse on the simulacral “reel world” (p. 286) screened by the cinematic medium (a pun recycled by Smithson [1996b, p. 91]), as well as Lewis’ earlier, extended critique of Bergson’s (1998) foundational commentary on the film apparatus in his popular 1907 text, Creative Evolution. Where previous commentators have read Spiral Jetty through the neo-Bergsonian lens of Deleuze’s (1986, 1989) books on cinema, Lewis’ (1966) polemical inversion of Bergson’s (1998) critique of the “cinematographical method” (p. 307) of discontinuous perception enforced by a pragmatic intellect to extract meaningful forms from the flux of lived experience suggests a more likely prototype for the concrete comedy staged by Smithson’s earthwork (see Baker, 2005; Colman, 2006, 2013; Uroskie, 2005). In its paradoxical stasis and obdurate materiality, Spiral Jetty’s cinematic discontents strongly recall Lewis’ contrarian practice of “non-moral satire”: his anti-humanist reworking of Bergson’s theorization of the comic as a mechanism of social regulation intended to disrupt, and thereby reform, the rigidities of habit (see Hokenson, 2013; Ophir, 2006; Stinson, 2012). What else is the still point at the centre of the “vortex” imaged by Lewis and Pound but the static frame of Bergson’s mental film reel?7
Lewis’ and McLuhan’s engagements with film were by no means restricted to their dialogue with Bergson. As Peter L. Caracciolo (2007), Scott W. Klein (2011), and Anthony Paraskeva (2007) have respectively documented, Charlie Chaplin and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) were early and enduring referents for Lewis. His familiarity with film and film theory was strengthened through his relationship with Iris Barry, a prominent film critic and co-founder of the London Film Society—later becoming the first curator of the film department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (see Paraskeva, 2007). Similarly, Glenn Willmott (1996) has excavated the importance of montage to McLuhan’s media poetics; in particular, the writings of the Russian formalist filmmakers Segei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin. At the same time, Willmott underlined the significance of Lewis’ art and writings to McLuhan as embodying a cinematic principle of “methodological montage” (p. 40).
In Understanding Media, McLuhan (1964) reiterated Lewis’ literalist reading of Bergson’s critique of the cinematic apparatus as, in McLuhan’s paraphrase, “the substitution of one static form for another, in sequence” (p. 284). But where Bergson influentially denounced cinematic perception as a deceptive construct of the intellect, it was precisely the hard-won illusion of mobility generated by film that was prized by Lewis and, subsequently, by McLuhan—the latter characteristically likening the medium’s sequential format to medieval models of change.8
The strategic illusionism of Lewis’ cinematic discourse, his embrace of the medium’s spatialization of temporal flow, reverberates in the postwar criticism of Michael Fried. Fried was a controversial figurehead of late modernism whose conservative writings were a persistent target of the heterodox Smithson, notably, as Robert Linsley (2000) has perceptively analyzed, in his “Mirror-Travel” essay. A paradox arises, however, as we discover Smithson turning to the renegade Lewis to bolster his anti-formalist riposte to Fried. Smithson invokes Lewis’ putatively anti-Bergsonian but, in fact, literalist reading of Bergson’s critique of cinematic illusionism to combat the pictorial illusionism championed by Fried (1998) in his controversial 1967 Artforum polemic “Art and Objecthood,” a touchstone and recurring target for a generation of Minimalist and conceptual artists. Consequently, cinema and illusion are deeply and at times inadvertently interdependent in Smithson’s fraught discursive framing of his ponderous, but metaphorically mobile, earthworks and their dialogue with Fried, his late-modernist foil.
The cinematic allusions of Spiral Jetty’s film reel–like rocky coil are reinforced by the artist’s 16 mm documentation of the work’s construction. He incorporated this footage into a stand-alone film (1970) of the same title, which, like the “Mirror-Travel” essay, can be read as intervening within the formalist polemic of Fried (1998), who upheld cinema as a “refuge” from the threat of mediatic miscegenation that he attributed to the “theatrical” qualities of Minimalist art (p. 164). Linsley (2000) has situated Smithson’s dialogue with Fried within a subterranean discourse on the persistence of the painterly paradigm legible in the planar surfaces documented by Smithson’s Yucatán Mirror Displacements. Attending to Fried’s and Smithson’s shared filmic referent reorients their exchange within period debates about the relinquishment of medium specificity and the dawning of what art historian Rosalind Krauss (1999) subsequently christened the “post-medium condition” (p. 20), of which McLuhan’s (1964) theses on the homogenizing effects of electronic media are equally symptomatic. If, for the McLuhan of Understanding Media, “information” is the harbinger of an imminent hybridization of the arts, the entropic analogies mined by Smithson’s cybernetically inflected earthwork similarly allegorize themes of looming mediatic convergence and its attendant potential for spectatorial narcosis. The Atlantean allusions of Spiral Jetty suggest that, for Smithson, Fried’s Platonic refuge was an illusory—if not delusional—space. Indeed, Spiral Jetty can be read as a Lewis- and McLuhan-inflected travesty of Fried’s phobic response to the intermedial condition heralded by contemporary art. The “nowhere” inhabited by Smithson’s (1996a) mock-Platonic “cinematic atopia” (p. 140) suggests, contra Fried, that there is no sanctuary from the levelling forces of contemporaneity.
This section explores the political urgency of the quest for a cinematic utopia motivating Lewis, McLuhan, and Smithson alike. Nico Israel (2015) has recently and persuasively argued that, far from the escapism initially attributed to Smithson’s earthworks by such activist peers as the critic and curator Lucy R. Lippard (1981), who interpreted their siting far from centres of social unrest as symptomatic of a romantic retreat from the pressing politics of their time, the artist’s interface with cinema must be read in dialogue with contemporaneous media coverage of the Vietnam War. The spectre of the helicopter haunting the aerial photography of the Spiral Jetty film’s climactic sequence alludes to one of the ubiquitous technologies of the conflict in Vietnam, and a widespread vehicle for its real-time documentation by Western media. This article proposes an alternative exegesis of Smithson’s film: one that seizes upon the black humour deployed by Lewis and McLuhan to turn Bergson’s influential gloss on the cinematic apparatus on its head, as a materialist critique of the transcendent aspirations of formalist illusionism.
Lewis’ (1966) disparaging portrait of the cast and crew of Rex Ingram’s 1931 film Love in Morocco, whom he observed while lodging at the aptly cinematic Grand Hotel in Fez during the writing of Filibusters in Barbary, suggests a compelling prototype for Smithson’s satirical, and comparably anti-Bergsonian, rejoinder to Fried’s (1998) paean to film as “a welcome and absorbing refuge to sensibilities at war” (p. 164). In painting Ingram’s motley crew as a collection of “sham sheiks” (Lewis, 1966, p. 434), he seized upon the exoticizing spectacle of this location shoot to extend the unlikely, and remarkably prescient, critique of orientalist tropes that propels his narrative as a whole; unlikely because penned by the then recent author of Hitler, Lewis’ (1931) disastrous report from Berlin, published the same year, which endorsed the National Socialist leader as a “man of peace” (p. 32). Improbably, Lewis’ embryonic critique of orientalism in Filibusters in Barbary was motivated by his search for a spatial archetype with which to combat dominant, time-based models of history and empire.
David Farley (2010) convincingly argues that Lewis’ voyage to colonial Morocco was motivated by his quest for a cosmopolitan alternative to the nostalgic, nationalist ideologies then threatening Europe with the spectre of fascism and, ultimately, the prospect of renewed global hostilities. Lewis’ (1966) facetious reports of the “first-class ‘Islamic sensations’” (p. 432) provoked by various points of interest on his Moroccan itinerary parodied the exoticizing conventions of travel literature with an eye to debunking the historical claims mobilized to justify racial discourses. Indeed, the book thereby advanced a wholesale reversal of historic colonized/colonizer relations, the “filibuster” of Lewis’ punning title referencing European empire builders, not the expected Berber nomads indigenous to Morocco. Instead, Filibusters in Barbary attempted to claim the Berbers as exemplars of a postnationalist and post-historical nomadism that Lewis viewed as both vindicating the “spatial” alternative to Bergsonian modernisms propounded by his cultural criticism of the 1920s, and as embodying a viable substitute for backward-looking nationalisms.9
David Farley draws attention to how Lewis (1983) strategically projects his nomadic alternative to European nationalisms onto the mirage-like “Sand-Wind” of the Sahara (p. 170): a suitably unstable, and conveniently elusive, utopian space. Yet Farley overlooks the more tangible Atlantean referent of Lewis’ imaginative cartography. Anticipating the mock scholarship of Smithson’s (1996e) “Mirror-Travel” essay, Lewis (1983) raids a specious bibliography of nineteenth-century literature for material evidence of a one-time “land-bridge” (p. 175) extending between the Moroccan coast and Central America, thereby attempting to build a scientific case for a historical Atlantis.
Lewis (1966) derisively likens Ingram’s “film cattle” (p. 437), as he labels the cast of Love in Morocco, to “another species” (p. 439). In a stark reversal of Bergson’s (1998) counter-cinematic ideology of “creative evolution,” he argues that Ingram’s retinue conform to an “evolutionary pattern” of “degeneration,” or progressive “lowering” (Lewis, 1966, pp. 439, 440, emphasis in the original). In place of Bergson’s (1998) “superman” (p. 266), which the French thinker envisioned as the future outcome of creative evolution, Lewis (1966) polemically substitutes the “Untermensch” (p. 440), as he uncharitably dubs the stereotyped denizens of Ingram’s Orientalist cinema.
Crucially, Lewis (1966) advanced this critique of Bergsonian progressivism through a straight application of the French thinker’s own analysis of the film apparatus. In likening cinema to a “photographic sausage machine” (p. 434), he implicitly accepted the premise of Bergson’s cinematographic illusion, only to undermine the French thinker’s evolutionary corrective. That is to say, Lewis agreed with Bergson’s criticism of the film medium as artificially dividing the organic flow of time, but seized upon this recognition to suspend Bergson’s transcendent aspirations in the interests of advancing a materialist satire of cinematic perception. Although arriving at very different conclusions, Lewis anticipated the influential counter-reading of Bergson’s theorization of film formulated by the Cinema books of Gilles Deleuze (1986, 1989). (In Deleuze’s hands, this reading against the grain was deployed to recuperate a durational alternative to mainstream film latent, he contended, in the apparatus itself.) Lewis’ rhetorical reversal of Bergson anticipated, and likely contributed to, Smithson’s influential deployment of the concept of entropy to visualize the ineluctable disintegration of physical and social systems, notwithstanding the cybernetic pedigree traced by Lee (2004). Both Lewis and Smithson redeployed Bergson’s claims about media and matter while utterly revising his conclusions.
Lewis’ anti-Bergsonian rhetoric resounds in Smithson’s Spiral Jetty film. Following establishing shots of solar flares and the dirt road leading to Rozel Point, the earthwork’s nondescript site on the shores of Utah’s Great Salt Lake, the film proceeds to a sequence of shots showing the torn pages of an atlas drifting across the Jetty’s arid, rocky terrain (Figure 5). Smithson’s (1970) voiceover intones: “The earth’s history seems at times like a story recorded in a book, each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing.” This invocation of bibliographic violence at once recalls the influential “non-book” format explored by McLuhan in collaboration with graphic designer Quentin Fiore (Michaels, 2012), whose exploded layout anticipated the unbinding effected by hypertext as well as the “mosaic” logic of Smithson’s own photo-essays (Lamberti, 2012, p. 60). McLuhan (1964) had himself underlined structural parallels between books and film in Understanding Media, noting “how close film is to book” (p. 286): another likely referent of the bibliographic imagery deployed by Smithson’s film. At the same time, Smithson’s deconstruction of the book as an allegorical critique of historicist models of linear and progressive time recalls Lewis’ earlier criticism of Bergson’s evolutionary paradigm in Filibusters in Barbary.
The fractalized and regressive temporality unfurled by Smithson’s film is in stark contrast to Fried’s (1998) description of the artwork, and cinema, as defined by their holistic “instantaneity” (p. 167). This dialectical intertextuality is reinforced by the film’s tautological concluding shot (Figure 6), which superimposes the reels of an editor’s table over a photo enlargement of a film still showing the Jetty earthwork. What emerges then from Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (both earthwork and film) is a McLuhanite travesty of Fried’s vision of cinema as a refuge from the pressures of contemporary conflict: an unreal space, like Lewis’ earlier Atlantean geography, irrevocably fractured by cataclysm (metaphorically rendered as a filmic “cut” or torn page). Tacitly rebutting Fried’s cinematic speculations in “Art and Objecthood,” Smithson’s (1996c) earlier photo-essay, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey,” had cautioned that “cinema offers an illusion of temporary escape” (p. 74). Contra Fried’s evocations of filmic immortality (and late-modernist hero-worship), Smithson pointedly cautioned that, “The false immortality of the film gives the viewer an illusion of control over eternity—but ‘the superstars’ are fading” (p. 74).
The alternatives to hegemonic spatiality proffered by the Atlantean cartographies of Smithson and Lewis are highly ambivalent; indeed, they are recognizably satirical in the Mennipean tradition within which McLuhan situated his own writings.10 Eric McLuhan (2015) has recently unearthed the foundations of Mennipean satire in ancient Cynic philosophers’ efforts to “renew readers’ percepts and sensibilities” through willfully disruptive techniques of imitation and ritual violations of decorum (p. 44). It was Lewis’ experiments in this, until recently marginal, genre—culminating in his masterwork, The Apes of God (1930)—that inspired McLuhan’s subsequent dialogue with Cynic strategies of perceptual interruption and retraining.11
Had it been realized, Smithson’s Island of Broken Glass would have forcefully dramatized the generative tensions between mobility and stasis, time and space, which are a persistent feature of Toronto School theory—a discursive tradition with which Smithson’s texts disclose a deep familiarity (specifically, with the writings of Lewis and McLuhan). Alluding to the stills of a film strip, the broken glass panes of Island of Broken Glass would have constituted a more literal materialization of the “logic of lineality” (McLuhan, 1964, p. 286) denounced by Bergson, but rehabilitated in different ways, and to different ends, by Lewis, Innis, and McLuhan alike, than the imperceptible crystal growth of Spiral Jetty. Furthermore, the environmental forces that would have gradually eroded the shards of Island of Broken Glass into a blinding mound of pulverized glass would have constituted a working demonstration of the physics of entropy, which was a sustaining interest of Smithson’s art and writing. Indeed, the unrealized Canadian earthwork can be understood as a variation on an experimental proof of entropy proposed by the American artist in the same section of “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” in which he refutes Fried’s representation of cinema as a refuge from modernity:
I should now like to prove the irreversibility of eternity by using a jejuneexperiment for proving entropy. Picture in your mind’s eye the sand box divided in half with black sand on one side and white sand on the other. We take a child and have him run hundreds of times clockwise in the box until the sand gets mixed and begins to turn grey; after that we have him run anti-clockwise, but the result will not be a restoration of the original division but a greater degree of greyness and an increase of entropy. (Smithson, 1996c, p. 74, emphasis in original)
Island of Broken Glass and its irreversible disintegration of film still-like glass panes, presents an alternate version of this cinematic sandbox. Pamela M. Lee’s (2004) exhaustive cybernetic genealogy of entropic motifs pervading the artist’s multidisciplinary production traced the sources of Smithson’s unidirectional figurations of temporality. Norbert Wiener (1961), whose monograph Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine publicly launched the term “cybernetics,” openly declared the Bergsonian origins of his computational model of temporality. Wiener improbably situated the automated temporality navigated by self-correcting servomechanisms such as anti-aircraft artillery within “the same sort of Bergsonian time as the living organism” (p. 44). Bergson’s (1998) pre-cybernetic formulation of temporality as an irreversible process of perpetual complexification—what he termed “duration” (p. 1)—is brought into lucid representation by his figure of the “cone” of memory (Bergson, 1991, p. 152) in Matter and Memory (Figure 7). In contrast to the linear time presupposed by post-Newtonian physics, Bergson’s diagram visualizes a virtual coexistence of past times contracted by the subject’s exercise of attention in the present. Although the virtual contents of memory can be recalled, Bergson’s (1998) temporality can never be reversed: like a snowball “rolling upon itself” (p. 2), duration is a ceaseless accumulation of past events. The reversible mechanism of the cinematograph thus presents a false analogy with the irrepressible progress of memory. As re-articulated by Gilles Deleuze (1988), Bergsonian temporality is always a movement “from the past to the present” (p. 63).
Smithson’s writings confirm the artist’s familiarity with Bergson (see Smithson, 1996d). Yet Lewis represents an additional conduit for the dissemination of the French thinker’s discourse overlooked by Lee (2004), whose cybernetic genealogy emphasizes the prototypical figures of Wiener and the Yale art historian George Kubler. Lewis’ (1966) satiric redeployment of Bergson’s critique of the film apparatus in the section of Filibusters in Barbary caricaturing Ingram’s Moroccan shoot of Love in Morocco was noted above. Lewis seized upon the comic possibilities of Bergson’s rendering of cinema as a mechanism of de-generation: a thematic that Smithson surely would have read, in turn, through the lens of cybernetic and thermodynamic theorizations of entropy as disintegration and decay. Island of Broken Glass proposed a contemporary reactivation of Lewis’ perverse reading of Bergsonian theory through resistant strategies of non-moral satire. Recalling Lewis’ (1966) “photographic sausage machine” (p. 434), the sandy residue that would have been the eventual product of Smithson’s crystalline intervention offers an absurd, indeed properly entropic, image of cinematic temporality as non-durational repetition or stasis. It also recalls the Moroccan sand-wind that Lewis associated with an Atlantean utopia. As a neo-Lewisian travesty of Bergsonian durée, had it been executed, Smithson’s proposed Island of Broken Glass would have materialized a highly ambivalent monument to the spatialized time that was the shared aspiration of Innis, Lewis, and McLuhan. Competing strains of Bergsonian utopianism and Lewisian irony delineate the unstable contours of Smithson’s unrealized hypothetical continent.
The politics motivating the utopian geographies of Lewis, McLuhan, and Smithson are highly ambivalent. While Lewis’ quest for the outlines of an emergent post-racial “cosmopolis” in 1940s America appears to have been motivated by a reassessment of his earlier fascist sympathies, there is no denying that the cosmopolitan turn in his later writings was, at a minimum, opportunistic. In effect, America and Cosmic Man (1948) performs a self-serving reversal of Lewis’ own previous satires of the touristic pursuit of an elusive authenticity in early short stories collected in the 1927 anthology The Wild Body. This unresolved tension between idealization and satire is most acute in the Atlantean cartography proposed by Filibusters in Barbary, a work that simultaneously extends The Wild Body’s critique of tourism and travel guides while setting in motion the urgent pursuit of utopia developed by America and Cosmic Man. The Saharan sand-wind suggesting the Platonic land-bridge between Morocco and Mexico that serves as the evasive resolution to Lewis’ quest was inspired, as David Farley (2010) notes, by the 1931 memoirs of French Aéropostale pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vol de nuit (Night Flight) (2007).
Another memoir of de Saint-Exupéry’s (1984) time as an Aéropostale pilot traversing Moroccan airspace, Terre des hommes (Man and His World), was later chosen as the organizing theme for Expo 67 in Montréal, which Donald Theall (2001) dubbed “McLuhan’s Fair” (p. 126) for the emergent ubiquity of electronic media dramatized by its state-of-the-art pavilions. Janine Marchessault (2007) has drawn attention to the pervasive presence of multiscreen cinema at Expo 67 as a physical manifestation of McLuhan’s media discourse. Many commentators view Expo 67, and its architecture of expanded cinema in particular, as temporarily embodying the utopic space of McLuhan’s global village—an extension and mutation of Lewis’ earlier cosmopolis. And yet, as the title of McLuhan and Fiore’s 1968 sequel to The Medium Is the Massage makes clear, the media thinker never lost sight of the global village as a site of war as well as peace.
Smithson’s earth maps reprise these constitutive tensions between utopia and conflict, celebration and satire, that gave shape to the cinematic utopias of Lewis and McLuhan. Spiral Jettyand Island of Broken Glass simultaneously operate as satirical send-ups of Fried’s conservative and formalist quest for a refuge from the crises of modernity and render visible utopian alternatives to the divisive ideology of the Vietnam War redolent of Lewis’ Atlantean manoeuvre.
The transparent panes of Smithson’s proposed earth map Island of Broken Glass recall the photographic imaginary conjured by his earlier essay “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey” (1996c). In particular, the glassy pile resonates with Smithson’s likening of his mock-antediluvian itinerary to “an enormous movie film that showed nothing but a continuous blank” (p. 70). Island of Broken Glassand Spiral Jetty are parallel manifestations of the paracinematic gaze mobilized by the earlier photo-essay, which documents an excursion to the postindustrial borderlands of the artist’s New Jersey hometown. The sources of Smithson’s sculptural paracinema are traceable to the mind-film analogies explored by Bergson and their re-presentation to 1960s readers by McLuhan (1964) in Understanding Media: “In 1911 Henri Bergson in Creative Evolution created a sensation by associating the thought process with the form of the movie” (p. 296). Yet the explicitly rationalist identity that Smithson attributed to hisInstamatic gaze is evidence of a Lewisian detour in this Bergsonian lineage. Lewis’ (1993) anti-Bergsonian polemics of the 1920s, culminating in the monumental Time and Western Man, were argued in counterpoint with his own idealist, and putatively rationalist, “philosophy of the eye” (p. 392, emphasis in the original). Lewis’ (1993) advocacy for a non-perspectival model of vision was derived, in turn, from the eighteenth-century immaterialism of the Anglo-Irish Catholic philosopher George Berkeley.
In “An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision,” Berkeley (2008) notoriously rejected Newton’s optics as an intellectual abstraction, arguing that “[w]hat we strictly see are not solids, nor yet planes variously coloured; they are only diversity of colours” (p. 66).12 Echoes of Berkeley’s inchoate vision resound in Smithson’s (1996c) photojournalistic tour of Passaic, whose documentary impulse is continually confounded by “unitary chaos” (p. 71). Like the “snapshot after snapshot” (p. 70) generated by the itinerant narrator of Smithson’s Passaic photo-essay, which yield only a strange blankness, the dazzling fragments (and eventual shimmering residue) of industrial glass comprising the Island of Broken Glass similarly address a neo-Berkelean gaze resistant to geometric capture. Theall (2001) noted McLuhan’s frequent mobilization of Berkelean optics in texts such as The Gutenberg Galaxy to articulate an allied resistance to geometric models of vision.
Lewis’ appeal to Berkeley instantiates what SueEllen Campbell (1983) has termed the “patterns of hidden oppositions” (p. 116) underlying his antagonistic relationship to Bergson: a rejection of the French thinker that amounts to little more than an inversion of his philosophy of flux. “Their difference …,” Campbell summarized, “is simply that Lewis embraces what Bergson has rejected” (p. 101). Similarly, Reed Way Dasenbrock (1985) has argued that “the critiques of Vorticism … are often most intense when they seek to conceal an indebtedness” (p. 29). In turning to Berkeley’s visual epistemology as an alternative to the auditory bias of Bergson’s (2001) durational metaphysics, which the French thinker famously analogized to the interpenetrating “notes of a tune” (p. 104), Lewis apparently overlooked the foundational importance of Berkeley to Bergson, another Catholic thinker (see Crocker, 2013). In the opening pages of Matter and Memory, Bergson (1991) contended that “[p]hilosophy made a great step forward on the day when Berkeley proved, as against the ‘mechanical philosophers,’ that the secondary qualities of matter [e.g., colour, touch] have at least as much reality as the primary qualities” (pp. 10–11).13 The equivocal status of Berkelean visual theory in Lewis’ ostensibly anti-Bergsonian criticism elucidates the generative tensions between instrumental rationality and subjective optics structuring Smithson’s “Passaic” essay and hypothetical continents. Indeed, Smithson exploited and exacerbated this unresolved antinomy to manifest the elusive “balance” between the competing poles of the space-time dualism pursued by Lewis and McLuhan.
In retrospect, Smithson’s (1996c) perpetually divided gaze, which paradoxically yields a “unitary chaos” (p. 71), is suggestive of the contemporary theorization of “vision-in-One” by the French non-philosopher François Laruelle (2013, p. 3). Like Laruelle’s (2011) more recent exploration of the photographer’s non-representational “stance” (p. 12), visuality is figured by Smithson through a strategic appropriation of the dualistic apparatus of Western metaphysics, whose ontological sufficiency he suspends, thereby bringing into visibility new, perplexing forms of realism. In Smithson’s case, it is the space-time polarities structuring the discourse of McLuhan and his mentor and Toronto School precursor Lewis that furnish “simple materials” for the artist’s immanent antimonies of geometry and entropy (Laruelle, 2013, p. 9). As in Laruelle’s (2011) speculations on “non-photography” (p. 4), Smithson’s strategic dualisms accede to a unified vision that, in turn, is subjected to an immanent fractalization: whether as the arrays of blank mirrors reproduced in the “Mirror-Travel” essay (Figure 8), or the grids of off-handed Polaroids documenting the monotonously “defeatured landscape” of Passaic (Watson, 2011, p. 263), or again the monolithic, but invariably fractal, form assumed by documentation of the earth maps for gallery presentation, such as the repeating aerial maps of A Nonsite, Pine Barrens (1968). The proto-Laruellian “vision-flux” (Laruelle, 2011, p. 20) screened by Smithson’s casual documents of his earth maps and Mirror Displacements in turn harken to Berkeley’s (2008) anti-Cartesian description of the optical field as “planes variously coloured” (p. 66) via Lewis’ neo-Berkelean visual philosophy. Bergson’s (1998) Berkeley-inflected description of duration as “a flux of fleeting shades merging into each other” (p. 3) bridges the optical speculations of the eighteenth-century philosopher and the antimodernist visual theory of Lewis. Smithson re-described this thematic utilizing the concept of “dedifferentiated” vision, which he derived from arts educator Anton Ehrenzeig (1967, p. 124) (see Roberts, 2004).
Only Felicity Colman (2013) has attended to the Bergsonian undercurrents of the films created by Smithson with his wife, artist Nancy Holt, likening their processual aesthetic to the “image-matter” (p. 120) of Bergson’s process philosophy. Significantly, the “cinematographic devolution” (p. 127) enacted by Holt and Smithson’s “mattering of the image” (p. 119) in Colman’s reading discovers a precedent in the anti-Bergsonian rhetoric of filmic devolution deployed by Lewis in Filibusters in Barbary.
Vancouver-based artist Christos Dikeakos has drawn attention to Smithson’s visits to the West Coast city in preparation for the unrealized Island of Broken Glass—in which Dikeakos was directly involved through his photo-documentation of the Glue Pour performance executed by Smithson on the University of British Columbia campus in January 1970—as foundational to the subsequent emergence of Vancouver photo-conceptualism (see Lauder, 2015). The foregoing reassessment of the Lewisian and McLuhanite sources of the cinematically derived “scanning” (Arnold, 2004, p. 22) methodology deployed by Smithson to scout and document his Vancouver projects (both realized and unrealized) underlines the influence of Toronto School theory—as well as Lewis’s anticipatory writings—on the Vancouver School. Whereas Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace have tended to stress French Theory as a shared point of departure, Smithson’s Lewisian realism instantiates an Anglo-American alternative to this investment in the cultural turn.
Smithson’s paracinematic earth maps and photo-conceptual essays draw attention to neglected parallels between the film commentaries of Lewis and McLuhan as well as their common source in Bergson’s foundational contribution to apparatus theory. Toronto School theory, and the proto-Toronto School speculations of Lewis, emerge from this reassessment as parallel manifestations of Deleuze’s “perverse” reading of Bergsonian mind-film analogies—namely, as an affirmation of the very spatialized time denounced by Bergson as an instrumental distortion of the primary experience of durée. Furthermore, Berkeley’s non-perspectival theorization of vision is the shared point of departure for the critical optics variously articulated by Bergson, Lewis, McLuhan, and Smithson, and upon which their respective claims about the alternately geometric and sequential, or fluid and processual, character of the cinematic medium is based. Unearthing the Berkelean foundations of the blank, fractalized gaze screened by Smithson’s photo-documentation of his earth maps and Mirror Displacements in turn opens up the possibility of a contemporary application of Laruelle’s theses on non-photography. Like Lewis before him, Smithson read the Western metaphysical tradition—including the critical metaphysics of Bergson—against the grain, suspending its ontological claims in order to liberate new possibilities for fiction in a fashion that is strongly anticipatory of the more recent scientific fabulations of Laruelle.
Retracing these linkages between Smithson’s influential practice and the writings of Lewis and McLuhan challenges parochial representations of the Toronto School as confined to a small group of professors centred on the University of Toronto campus and a limited group of (mostly Canadian) artist and practitioner acquaintances of those same academics. Smithson’s engagement with the ideas of McLuhan and his transdisciplinary and transnational mentor attests to the global sources, reception, and transformation of Toronto School theory. Above all, what emerges from this reassessment is a fresh picture of the Toronto School itself as inhabiting a networked space reminiscent of the Atlantean geographies brought into representation by Smithson: a discursive space crossing disciplinary and national borders. Through this reconsideration, Smithson joins the growing constellation of artists—including, but by no means limited to, Bertram Brooker, Glenn Gould, Harley Parker,and Sheila and Wilfred Watson—associated with the Toronto School, whether through affiliation, practice, or theory.
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