Reading the Internet with Joan Jonas:
The Task of the Cultural Critic in the Ambient Age

Kristi McGuire is an artist, writer, and editor living in Chicago, Illinois. She is coeditor of The Contemporary Visual Studies Reader, forthcoming from Routledge this fall. She can be reached at postmenlikedoctors [at] gmail.com

Stock image photograph produced by Google image-search for “stock photography.”

I once thought that I could summon the ambient act of reading on the Internet as part of a singular project of prognostication: using those noisy images (stock photographs, Google image-searches, self-portraits uploaded to social networks) and polyvocal chatter as the agents and conduit of a new kind of meaning-making within language. Cassandra the soothsayer, her ear turned to the imaginary cracklings of Alexander Graham Bell’s phonautograph[1]—and why not? Cassandra is long dead and unreal herself, and now, many epochs after her myth rose to prominence, the metaphorical snakes are no longer licking anyone’s ears clean.

But truth be told, or soothsaid: the ambient isn’t a space that exists in the realm of the falsely prophetic or within other concurrent delays with real time (nostalgia, the future imperfect and conditional tenses). Instead, conveniently in line with its etymological origins (ambient, adj. “turning round, resolving”), the ambient works quite literally with units of time as we’ve come to experience them in the twenty-first century—minutes, seconds, the fraction of a fraction-of-a-moment it takes to follow a plot line on the flickering screen: we’re barely able to enunciate the word “Drake” before we’ve seen Twitter feed Drizzy saturated with the banal and disembodied static of the everyday (what Ben Lerner appropriates from John Ashbery in Leaving the Atocha Station as “life’s white machine”):

Screengrab of Aubrey Drake Graham's (aka Drake's) Twitter feed, March 26, 2012.

For writer Tan Lin, boredom is the threshold of the ambient, the place where a work is “born out of our mutual dis-interest”[2] and where “anyone who has ever read a painting will tell you [like Ed Ruscha], paintings, like poems, are most beautiful [and least egotistical] . . . at the exact moment in which they are forgotten, like disco.”[3]

Ed Ruscha, "Pay Nothing Until April," 2003, acrylic on canvas, 1527 x 1525 x 40 mm. Collection of the Tate, Britain .

For the critic and translator Jennifer Scappettone, in her essay on Tan Lin’s ambient poetics, “Versus Seamlessness,”[4] the turn to late capitalism’s panache for the stupefied landscape supersedes what Rem Koolhaas terms Junkspace and what other theorists, designers and cultural critics—from Venturi, Scott Brown to Frederic Jameson to Ernest Mandel—have mined in the hopes of locating modernism’s flawed moment alongside the disjointed landscape remaindered by modernization. What’s missing here? We’ve left Las Vegas and Learned from It—it’s not that kind of spectacle. In fact, it’s not spectacle at all. We’re so saturated by the multiplicities and disjointments of this remaindered landscape in which we dwell—where James Cameron plummets in a yellow submarine to document “IMAGES UNEXPERIENCED” while we read reviews of Mad Men episodes, interchanging accordion-playing Joan with Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as a Lute Player—that we can’t pause to separate a reading on slow death and self-sovereignty from a back-issue of Critical Inquiry from the animated GIF of a deceased professional wrestler on our screen. Or can we? Would we want to?

L: Screengrab of Christina Hendricks as Joan Holloway in the Mad Men episode "My Old Kentucky Home," 2009. R: Artemisia Gentileschi, "Self-Portrait as Lute Player," 1615-17, oil on canvas, 30 x 28. Collection of the Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, Minnesota.


“Autopsychography” is a poem by the Portuguese poet/critic/madman Fernando Pessoa (1888−1935). I think my intention is to continually refer to it but never offer it up. It’s quite short—4 stanzas, 16 lines total—and its message is especially direct: the loss involved in performing one’s identity soon becomes its greatest measure of success. Its repeated line? “The poet is a faker.”

Fernando Pessoa, date and photographer unknown.

Pessoa was someone who, in his own lifetime, created over eighty alter-egos—including, of course, “Fernando Pessoa”—while leaving behind an archive of 27,000+ “items,” ranging in form from prose to poems to letters. Each of Pessoa’s heteronyms – especially the five most favored by the author (Alberto Caeiro, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, Bernando Soares—with whom he self-identified—and Fernando Pessoa) had complex writing styles, visions, life philosophies, and temperaments. Beyond the textbook tenets of polyvocality (or varied interpretations of multiple personality disorder) here, Pessoa pursued in these personas an interest in acts of forgery and theories of materialism. Pessoa the flâneur; Pessoa the mystic nationalist; Pessoa, the student of Hawthorne, Whitman, and Poe, all coincided in Pessoa—these writer(s) of [Pessoa’s] lifetime. The poet is a faker.

Pessoa read Arthur Schopenhauer, Henri Bergson, and Nicolas Malebranche, ultimately arriving at a place he called “the terminal system”—the limit and summit of metaphysics, a system the author was interested in contradicting. Pessoa tried to find the ‘thing’ that could encompass everything and—despite this encompassing—somehow exceed or transcend the very notion of wholeness. He saw excess as a peculiar kind of preservation. His cultural paradigm? Systems theory. How objects and ideas related to each other and formed (with as much noise as possible) a cohered experience was, for Pessoa, an oddly embodied science-fair project: his ultimate construction of time passing.


I try to understand the spam feed that litters my blog:

Screengrab of pending comments for a WordPress blog, March 26, 2012.

I read articles about the cyber-robots and scanning machines that now compose more than 51 percent of the Internet. I recognize in my desire to extract meaning from a spammer’s quick gloss of the lines I write a flickering glimmer of a modernist credo. I think of what it will mean when the Internet has exhausted itself—when a closed system collapses, when the entropy that marks the novels of William Gaddis inflects Ashbery’s “white machine” and even all the Pessoas can’t serve as a kind of embodiment for the rounds of Tweets and comment threads performed by indistinguishably distinguished cyber-specters. Will I still read another art review on the computer? By then, I will have become a cyber-spectator of a different kind. I’ll no longer be overwhelmed by the ambient fireworks of relationality—high and low, all forms, all kinds—but instead find myself disfigured by nameless, faceless “sentiment-aggregators” that perform the experience formerly known as my own. When their dancing Randy Savage glares over the margins of that Lauren Berlant PDF two tabs over and they perfectly execute the banal sense of quotidian displacement this triggers, I’ll be hidden away somewhere with a copy of Joan Jonas’s Double Lunar Dogs, preparing to paint their portrait.

Joan Jonas, stills from Double Lunar Dogs (based on a 1941 Robert Heinlin short story), 1984. Video (color, sound), 24 min. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

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[1] Bell’s phonautograph, an improvisation of the machine patented by Scott de Martinville in the spring of 1857, was a product twice removed from the device that ultimately became the telephone. Simply put, it transcribed sound to a visible medium, often drawing lines in pen on smoked glass in order to produce phonautographic images. In 2005, through an act of inverse translation, the phonautographs were finally able to be ‘heard’ after the Library of Congress scanned the etched paper recordings into a computer program.

[2] Lin, Tan. BlipSoak01. San Francisco, CA: Atelos, 2003 (15).

[3] Ibid. Seven Controlled Vocabularies and an Obituary. CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009 (41).

[4] boundary 2 2009: 36(3): 63–76.