In 1961, artist and activist Gustav Metzger earned his fame before a London audience as he applied to his canvas not paint but hydrochloric acid. By then, he’d written several manifestos on “auto-destructive art.” Later, Metzger created “several large-scale self-destructive works, such as a sculpture of five walls, each consisting of 10,000 geometrical forms, that would disappear as a computer randomly ejected the forms, one by one, over a period of ten years,” according to the New York Times. In his largest project, “The Years without Art—1977–1980,” Metzger asked artists throughout the world to stop making art, galleries to stop exhibiting, and magazines to cease their art coverage. Nobody joined him. He died in 2017.
An art of self destruction comes naturally on the heels of the mid-twentieth-century avant-garde. Metzger, Yoko Ono, John Latham, Chris Burden, and others: their early works are a consequence of Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning, of Cage’s 4'33", of Duchamp’s Fountain. This chain of influence is what critic Boris Groys calls “the speed of art.” Retrospectively, Duchamp’s urinal is the Trinity Test of conceptual art, at which point the time between what is thought and what is said begins rapidly to diminish toward total collapse. “Today,” Groys observes, “it is enough for an artist to look at and name any chosen fragment of reality in order to transform it into a work of art. In this case, art production has virtually achieved the speed of light.” To have arrived here as a young artist in the 1960s would have meant despair. As Jed Perl writes in New Art City, a study of downtown Manhattan’s avant-garde, “This fast-forward attitude was part of a deeper malaise,” a kind of “history sickness, for there no longer seemed any possibility of considering art except in terms of historical development or evolution.” It’s understandable, then, to look at what you’ve been taught is art and wish to destroy it. The speed of light is not the speed of life.
In 1970, Bas Jan Ader created Light Vulnerable Objects Threatened by Eight Cement Blocks—threats Ader himself carried out by cutting the ropes that suspended these blocks, crushing a vase of yellow flowers, a carton of eggs, a birthday cake, and so on. Largely, art is about time. The majority of artworks are a distortion, stretch, diminution, or reversal of time, if not simply a meditation or reflection on time. Traditionally, Western artworks are supposed to outlive their creators: they are our secular souls, lingering after the body dies. Conceptual art thrives on this expectation, shortening art’s lifespan until it dies right there in the room. Destruction is a refutation of art’s immortality, its sacredness. Silence is a refutation of art’s presumed ability to instruct. To self-destruct or fall silent is to re-up Nietzsche’s ante: art too is dead.
Silence has always hidden a pearl of destruction. It carries a wish, as Susan Sontag writes, “for a perceptual and cultural clean slate.” Like art and its “history sickness,” language “is experienced not only as something shared but as something corrupted, weighed down by historical accumulation.” Virginia Woolf called words “full of echoes, memories, associations.” As if caught in spider silk, one word sends itself trembling to others caught alongside it, ensnared by centuries of speaking.
Language, Sontag wrote in “The Aesthetics of Silence,” is “the most impure, the most contaminated, the most exhausted of all the materials out of which art is made.” If an artist can’t dispense with language, silence can present itself as an absence of meaning, a frame without content. Having hit the “light speed” of Duchamp’s Fountain and the critical mass, say, of Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s Search, artistic methods of “impoverishment and reduction indicate the most exalted ambition art could adopt.” Here is hidden “an energetic secular blasphemy: the wish to attain the unfettered, unselective, total consciousness of ‘God.’” If speech is kinetic, silence is potential: “Unmoored from the body, speech deteriorates. It becomes false, inane, ignoble, weightless. Silence can inhibit or counteract this tendency.” Speech seems mortal; silence, with its mystery, offers renewed faith in eternity. Artworks of silence and destruction create absence. They tear open negative spaces where breath can hang between our words.
While it doesn’t help me feel like an artist, using social media is an exercise in authorial control. With embellishments and exclusions, careful modulations, and precisely applied filters, these ongoing projects are selves not quite ourselves. My Twitter persona is not an accurate representation of my personhood. My Instagram account is a curated offering of the rare moments I find myself or my life to be glamorous. Mistaking one’s persona for their personhood is to mistake the narrator of a roman à clef for its author.
As artists are accountable for what their art says, users of social media are accountable for their content—for their statements. But content is largely irrelevant to the form of social media. As a style, these platforms offer a near total divorce between form and content. Apart from deciding to use Twitter, the form is beyond our control: it’s a tweet, or a series of tweets, posted to a timeline of other tweets. So, while Twitter can seem like a creative outlet, what its users really provide is content. To tweet, then, is to participate in someone else’s—something else’s—project. What social media platforms have done is create an ongoing work of rigid form in which content continuously creates itself; and rather than do so via randomized algorithms, like Metzger’s sculptures, these platforms use human beings. Twitter, Inc. owns “our” tweets. To use Twitter is to be its self-creating content. It is to be restricted and driven by the form of this project: inexhaustible engagement with advertisements. As its content, our individual meanings are irrelevant and discordant. Together, we resemble not so much a symphony as unbearable noise. We are the babble before which one stands transfixed: an ideal condition for creating anxiety, which every American knows can be relieved by spending money.
Amid noise, silence is a form of resistance. Sontag describes an eerily familiar 1960s:
In an overpopulated world being connected by global electronic communication and jet travel at a pace too rapid and violent for an organically sound person to assimilate without shock, people are also suffering from a revulsion at any further proliferation of speech and images. Such different factors as the unlimited “technological reproduction” and near universal diffusion of printed language and speech as well as images (from “news” to “art objects”), and the degeneration of public language within the realms of politics and advertising and entertainment, have produced, especially among the better-educated inhabitants of modern mass society, a devaluation of language . . . And as the prestige of language falls, that of silence rises.
A cliché is that silence speaks louder than words, which is true only when the “prestige” of silence outgrows words—of which social media create a surfeit. Like avant-garde art-making in the 1960s, posting a tweet or a photograph in the twenty-first century can seem a humiliating act of superfluity.
Like anyone, I don’t want to be superfluous. Physically, psychically, socially: I don’t want to see myself as insignificant or small or forgotten. That would be the rust at the metal’s edge—and what then?
To call oneself tired amid this politics is to echo an old meme, but I am so tired. In all the communities I’ve found via social media, what used to stimulate me—what used to make me feel like part of these communities—is harder and harder to pick out from the punditry. As news events beyond one’s control provide opportunities for personas to define and refine themselves—to situate themselves along axes of compassion and intelligence—the more these personas conform to what a project like Twitter or Facebook encourages a persona to be, and the less of the original person one hears through the static. Being oneself on these platforms seems increasingly impossible, so rigid is the form that restricts its living content. While social media are not the art market, it’s easy to feel its echo: existing in this perpetual now, trying simultaneously to understand it, predict it, and shape it, one loses autonomy. In a neoliberal society, social media transform what should be one’s own, private capital—an authored persona or “brand” used to further one’s career or social standing—into capital of its own. It grows its capital by controlling how it behaves and by monitoring which investments generate the most profit.
Art itself has ever been vulnerable to this. Writing of kitsch and the avant-garde in the 1930s, Clement Greenberg observed that, despite its subversiveness, “the avant-garde remained attached to bourgeois society precisely because it needed its money . . . The true and most important function of the avant-garde was not to ‘experiment,’ but to find a path along which it would be possible to keep culture moving in the midst of ideological confusion and violence.” Like the expensive arms race that followed Oppenheimer’s Trinity Test, the avant-garde embarked upon a path of increasingly shocking and ideologically powerful detonations at enormous profit to gallery owners, art collectors, museums, and even, on occasion, artists. Hence, later, a trend toward resistance via silence, withdrawal, negation, and asceticism.
Lately, I’ve found it satisfying to delete what I call myself. Over the last several months, I’ve deleted the majority of my tweets, the most vulnerable being those that express joy, despair, frustration, or excitement. In the noisy depersonalization of social media, anything that sounds too much like me feels humiliating not only to post but to have posted, to have expressed at some point in the past. It feels humiliating to have wanted to express positive feelings about my face or my body by sharing images. It feels humiliating to have tweeted “I’m proud of my novel” on a platform where one is supposed to tweet something scathing about the president. These platforms—tailored toward distilling an ideal, fictional self from the messiness of the “real” self—make it easy to delete images, ideas, opinions, and desires. Pictorial representations of significant moments in our lives—as well as any comments or reactions associated with those moments, which remind us how the images of our friends felt about our image-lives at that time—can be thrown away, without the option for recovery. As with silence, there’s an ineffable sacredness in deletion, a kind of euphoria that’s unlike any euphoria I’ve received from followers or friends paying attention to what I’ve decided to express.
I’ve since realized it’s the same euphoria I felt as a teenager, when I cut myself.
As I said: the rust at the metal’s edge. The pleasure I’ve found in deletion is to delight in hurting some part of myself, even if only a persona. These new scars, too, are as visible as those on my arms: the severed @’s and broken threads, dead links, blank profiles, comments that reply to a void, and other digital detritus. But this means I wasn’t alone. There were other people who commented, who interacted, which means they carry memories of how they experienced me or my personas in time, even if they’re no longer able to verify that history. Enacting as we do so much of our lives online—living as we do at least in part through a curio of personas—one’s self blends so seamlessly with a consciousness of branding that these images, interactions, and information-events now constitute a substantial part of who we are, online and off. Let me show you this tweet, you say to your friend over dinner, or Earlier today, on Instagram. . ., and so on. Deleting these parts of my life, I am enacting a conscious pattern of self-harm; and as with self-harm, my goal is simple. I want someone to notice. I want to be missed. I want you to say sorrowfully, Where did you go? because it’s your sorrow I’m after. It’s your grief I’m trying to create.
No, I don’t want to be superfluous, which is terrible because everyone, ultimately, is superfluous. It’s one of the human intellect’s many cruelties to have deduced this—to see so clearly, and long prior to death, that one day none of this will matter, none of us will matter. But then we have memory: “a substitute,” in Joseph Brodsky’s words, “for the tail that we lost for good in the happy process of evolution. It directs our movements.” Memory can be a defense against suicide: one has already made it this far—just look at all this proof behind us! Cantilevered as we are over the mirrored waters of death, the past’s weight provides our balance; we can drink right from despair, and memory holds us back. At least until we forget, and in we go with scarcely a splash.
Targeting memories can be a precursor to suicide, a giving of permission. Common to suicidal ideation is the imagination of grief, of people missing you. Common to borderline personality disorder is an indignation that people around you seem happy. Where is your pain? the sufferer wants to know, and will often create that pain in those closest via cruelty or self-harm. These are attempts to communicate from someone who cannot articulate, but only replicate, their pain. These are reactions of traumatized persons.
Indignation and resentment are modes of social media, both of which amplify users’ anxiety. “If you’re not upset about X, then you’re not paying attention” is a common rebuke. Choosing to express joy or excitement while a tragic meme is unfolding—a shooting, say, or anything the president says—can leave you ignored, muted, or shamed. In moments like these, the sheer noise of contemporary life is unbearable, and a traumatized individual concludes, If I can’t contribute by being or speaking, I will contribute by erasing, by deleting.
To be fair, the indignant person is right. One should be upset, and not only about X but variables A through Z. One should be upset that a terrorist group of white male supremacists calling itself a political party has seized the largest military and economic power on the planet, and that they are using that power to commit climate genocide against those doomed to be incinerated or drowned once global temperatures rise beyond repair, and that, in advance of this, they are slamming the gates shut to the refugees these disasters will create. The most powerful person on the planet is a vicious, cruel idiot with a heavily armed cult of supporters who’d happily take to the streets and murder people, should he drop a hint. Language itself is demeaned daily, and not only by political terrorists but by their opponents and by journalists, who parrot the vocabulary coined by these terrorists. Every day is traumatically noisier, and individual voices grow indecipherable. Social media timelines begin to resemble a scene in Sarah Kane’s Crave:
C: (Emits a short one syllable scream.)
C: (Emits a short one syllable scream.)
B: (Emits a short one syllable scream.)
M: (Emits a short one syllable scream.)
B: (Emits a short one syllable scream.)
A: (Emits a short one syllable scream.)
M: (Emits a short one syllable scream.)
I wish it were funny, but the pain and trauma in her work undoes that. As in the first half of the twentieth century—among the increasing “ideological confusion and violence” Greenberg describes—a new iteration of the avant-garde is seeking a way forward, a continuity. As before, acts of withdrawal, refusal, silence, destruction, and deletion offer themselves as meaningful forms of expression; and as before, it’s difficult to draw the line between what these forms say in our art and what they say in our lives. As before, this is a spiritual crisis. It’s easy to forget, or to lose faith, that art can still mean anything. That one’s life can still mean anything.
Sarah Kane committed suicide on February 20, 1999.
In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus writes of the human mind’s craving for meaning: “To understand is, above all, to unify. The mind’s deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feeling in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity.” Suicide, in a chaotically violent world, can be a confession—“that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it.” Trauma is the scratch in life’s record that keeps skipping, looping its victims back to that moment; the temptation to lift the needle and go quiet altogether often seems more reconciliatory, more complete, than that little shove one needs to keep playing. When we don’t sound how we want—when we can’t say what we want—it’s easy to believe that silencing ourselves forever will be more meaningful than trying to speak. Speech itself becomes vulgar, even polluting, and to say I feel lonely—to say, I’m afraid of what’s going to happen to us—can sound laughable, pedestrian, or even a violence in and of itself. Of course you’re lonely. Of course you’re afraid. Who isn’t?
Camus—like Sartre, like Adorno, like Arendt and even Sontag—wrote from a place of extraordinary societal trauma. But he did write, and so did countless others who saw the unseeable, who witnessed the unbearable. After fascism and the Holocaust, another spectacular horror, as Sontag observed, pushed human life and language to a new absurdity: the known threat of “collective incineration and extinction which could come at any time, virtually without warning.” After such trauma, yes, the latter half of the twentieth century has its suicides, silences, abstentions, and self-mutilations, but so too is there speech: its art and literature, its sciences and humanities, and the laughter, the love and language, of its families, its individual lives.
Trauma—that scratch that halts the music—is a wound of the spirit. It violates meaning. It humiliates it. The pollution of language is particularly hurtful, as language is the winged breath between one person and another that proves connection is possible. The ancient Greeks imagined that words traveled, on air, from my soul into yours, and to demean language is to mutilate and hobble it. It is to punish the god in each word, the Zeus in daylight and journal, the Persephone in every person still searching for flowers.
Human spirituality is a kinetic adventure. The OED adds approximately a thousand new words every year. These are the creations of individual human beings, who have always sought God and re-alchemized the love of being alive. This is and has ever been the province of art, of worship, of philosophy. Each, Camus writes, “always lay[s] claim to the eternal, and it is solely in this that they take the leap.” What I feel, being alive in a time of such shattering trauma, is a grief so immense I can’t articulate it. I feel alone in this, but I know I am not. Foolishly, I overlooked the grief in others, and sought to create harm by amplifying a grief they already felt. To do this, I used my personhood as a weapon of communication, rather than my art as a style of communication. Like language, art is made of gods, not mortals; and it is there, in art, that silence and deletion can truly speak, that the imagination of grief can offer a glimpse of meaning. I, like everyone I know and love, am mortal, and to use my body and its images—to use my personhood and its variations—in the replication of grief is a violence done to me and felt by others. It mistakes life, which is linear and precious, for art, which is endlessly repeatable. To do this is to internalize and perpetuate trauma, to let the needle scratch, and scratch, and scratch, and scratch. I’d rather hear the music, or what it meant to hear it before it fell silent. My grief is real. Your grief is real. We owe it to one another to say, This hurts, in a way each of us can understand, to offer our condolence—or, as the gods hidden in the word inform us, com+ dolore: an invitation to grieve together.