The end of the world: reflections on the last year

me at the ocean

“This then is life,/Here is what has come to the surface after so many throes and convulsions/How curious! how real!/Underfoot the divine soil, overhead the sun.”

– Walt Whitman

One year ago it was Easter week and Chris and I were vacationing in southern Spain. I remember waking up there on my thirtieth birthday and looking out over the Strait of Gibraltar toward Africa in the distance. I watched the sky turned from purple to pink and finally blue.

People had lived in this area since antiquity and yet it seemed lush and wild, able to withstand the force of thousands of years of human inhabitation without notice or complaint. The rocky cliffs registered our presence with ruins that were already half subsumed. We were only a few of so many waves that would simply rise and fall in an endless pulsing rhythm on the shore.

It was once thought that this spot marked the end of the world, that passing through the strait would lead a traveler off the edge of the earth and into mythical realms, to Purgatory or Atlantis. And in some sense, for me, it was a jumping off point. I felt a swell there in my chest compelling me to live to finally let go of fears and anxieties that I had about work and the future and to simply let myself be.

Now at 31 I can look back over the year and recognize the creative energy that took root that morning at the edge of the world. Since then, I have moved three times, from Berlin to St. Louis to Austin, written two chapters of my fledgling dissertation, and, the biggest jump of all, I had a daughter who is transforming me into someone quite unexpectedly real, the mother I once doubted I could be.

You have probably had similar moments when the world seemed to suddenly offer you support and insight. When and where did they occur for you?

How Kracauer speaks to my concerns (and hopes) about technology

Human destinies quietly interlink and everywhere dead earthly things mix silently in. — Siegfried Kracauer


If you’re like me you often find yourself lamenting the inevitable distractions provided by your smart phone, or wondering if texts and tweets are beginning to erode our ability to form real-life connections. When I heard about that baby-bouncer with the slot for an ipad, I wanted to take all monitors out of our house and fill my living room with wooden blocks for my three month old to play with. But that didn’t stop me from letting her watch youtube clips of musical nursery rhymes on my iphone. We watched together and I sang along with her. Predictably, she loved it. An all-or-nothing approach to technology isn’t really viable, and I’m pretty sure for most of us it’s not preferable either.

Even though I often belly-ache about the way technology is changing society, I actually think this is a lazy way to react to its influence. My dissertation research on early 20th century visual culture constantly reminds me that these anxieties about technology have a long history and, let’s face it, they’re getting kind of old.

I’m not suggesting that the dangers technology presents are not real, but we need to stop believing that technology has the upper hand in our relationship to it. We are the ones with all of the creative power here. We determine how to use these new tools. We shape how they are made and decide how they alter our experiences.

Art and design can serve to remind us that technology is the product of our own creative genius.

I was reminded of this when revisiting German theories on the death of Expressionism. I came across a (fairly) recently translated article by critical theorist Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966) called “A Turn in Art’s Destiny” from 1920. I love this guy because although he’s critical of many aspects of modern society, you can often find little nuggets of idealistic hope in his writing. (Adorno wrote him off for this thinking, but oh well). These moments of desperate optimism are more compelling to me that the wealth of cynical criticism that abounds among his contemporaries.

Kracauer argues that the abstraction of Expressionism has taken artists too far away from the real world, and that what is needed are artists who are willing to work with the physical world around them. Doing so allows us to shape our own destinies. He writes that “Art sets no boundaries for the creative will and because of this it can provide that fulfillment that our mortal existence is likely long to withhold from us still.”

At its best, art allows us to imagine and experiment in alternate futures. It can serve as a model for how we take control of our own technological present. (Anthony Dunne’s new book on design and fiction also explores this great creative potential.) Most importantly, however, I think we need to acknowledge that we all have a hand in this endeavor. As active users of our new techno-infused reality we should take every opportunity to understand and alter it toward the best ‘destiny’ we can imagine.

What new art pieces or technological objects inspire you to create and change your surroundings? your habits? your life?