Monday, July 11, 2011

White Walls, The Gold Standard (Part 10)

The Fifth Element (1997); Satellite Photo of Earth at Night (2000)
William Gibson has observed that "The future is already here – it's just not evenly distributed." And indeed, high-technology can be mapped out as the very uneven distribution of urban light seen on the earth's night side, as the overlap of high pollution emissions and GDP, or as telecommunication traffic. All are expressions of modern wealth. Those of us who live in the brightly lit, heavily trafficked spots on the map enjoy a greater portion of the future, but still bear a full portion of the past. If he were still alive to answer Gibson, William Faulkner might have said that the past is very evenly distributed. To understand what hi-tech whiteness means, it is crucial to see not only that it is a prestige color. Like the conspicuous consumption of lighting the night sky, whiteness is a marker of wealth. Blackness is not its opposite number however; the two are equivalents. An actual alternative; a true foil, is one that belongs as completely to the past as whiteness belongs to the future: gold.

Historically gold has dressed the wealthy, and while today it remains a marker of prestige and the currency of last resort, it is a relic of the past a vestigial structure, that, if Faulkner is to be believed, will never be completely displaced. Hi-tech whiteness meanwhile is a totally modern way of signaling a entirely modern brand of wealth. Whiteness has subtly shifted meaning as technologies have shifted, but also as our understanding of nature of wealth has shifted. As economies of surplus have transformed into economies of abundance it is whiteness and not gold that has dressed the particularly modern embrace of the NEW.
Property is Crime: Goldfinger (1964); GDP per kilometer

Until recently wealth has been understood purely in terms of scarcity. The gold standard was an expression of wealth as something finite, which could only be shared by a limited few. Premodern economies were based on great masses of subsistence labor supporting a small elite on a fixed, finite proportion of surplus production. And although the predictions of Thomas Malthus have hung like the Sword of Damocles over modern economies of abundance for more than 200 years, the mechanisms of abundance have turned out to be very different, and more robust than Malthus, or other modern Cassandras, imagined them to be. In his book, What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly points out that Malthus was right to warn that things could not go on as they were, but Kelly explains that in economies of abundance  they never do:
Outside the reign of science and technology a growing population will collapse upon itself as it meets Malthusian limits. But inside the reign of science a growing population creates a positive feedback loop wherein more people participate in scientific innovation, which brings better nutrition, more surplus, and more population which feed the cycle further.
Golden Royal Coach (Dutch); White Cars (American I think...)

Abundance is not, as Malthus believed, simply more people living within the unchanging production of a surplus economy. Abundance is a entirely new kind of wealth, based on entirely new means of production - Henry Ford's real insight on mass production was not the assembly line, it was the feedback loop of abundance: that the more people with enough money to buy his cars, the more cars he could make, the cheaper the cars would become, the more people could afford to buy his cars... 

Gold was a fitting expression for those who violently controlled finite surpluses of the past. This new kind of wealth required an entirely new way to express itself. Looking back Corbusier's ideas about the moral value of whiteness seem naive, but he should be congratulated for recognizing that fact and whitewashing his building instead of gilding them. One imagines that if the Nazis had had a space program they would have painted their rockets gold (creeps). It is impossible to imagine NASA engineers doing that. The wonder is that Cold Warriors didn't insist on painting Atlas rockets with stars and stripes. Like Corbusier, the wealth and power of the moon shot was fashioned with a particularly plain modern dress.
Nazi V-2 Rocket launched by US (ca 1950); Goldar - the first, lamest, and my personal favorite transformer - (1967)

Consider that only 300 years ago a clean white undershirt was a luxury of the aristocracy. A possession that marked off a tiny elite of unbathed and perfumed ruling class from "the great unwashed."  The look of cleanness was a marker of hereditary privilege. By the time Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were writing the Communist Manifesto, the Industrial Revolution had made a clean white shirt one the most fundamental markers of the bourgeoisie - a marker of private wealth and personal virtue shred by a steadily expanding new class. When the Modernist built their speculative all white housing estate above Frankfurt, two years before Black Tuesday, Corbusier and his fellow architects could still dare to conceptualize entire cities as clean white shirts. Whiteness had become an expression of civic wealth and public virtue that could wrap all classes.

By the early 1950s, as the world recovered from the deprivations of the Great Depression and WWII, laundered white-collar shirts were affordable enough to be costume de regueure for those at the absolute bottom of the American social totem pole at the time - civil rights protesters. Today Americans on average spend less than 3% of their income on clothing and enjoy levels of material quality and craftsmanship that would have boggled the imaginations of seventeenth century monarchs. This is not to say that we dress better than kings, it's to say we dress in ways that kings could have hoped to imagine. 
Emporer Napolean Crowning Josephine in gold (1804); Martin and Coretta King dressed all in white (1953)

When the Modernist art critic Clement Greenberg wrote, in 1939 that, "Superior culture is one of the most artificial of all human creations," he was arguing that a enlightened elite is required to support "formal culture with its infinity of aspects, its luxuriance, its large comprehension." Greenberg acknowledged that historically the surplus that made this "luxuriance" possible for the few came at a cost for the many:
Unfortunately, until the machine age, culture was the exclusive prerogative of a society that lived by the labor of serfs or slaves. They were the real symbols of culture. For one man to spend time and energy creating or listening to poetry meant that another man had to produce enough to keep himself alive and the former in comfort. In Africa today we find that the culture of slave-owning tribes is generally much superior to that of the tribes that possess no slaves.
Those still new to the "machine age" struggled to understood that economies of abundance. In 1931, Montagu Norman, then the head of the Bank of England, had a nervous breakdown over the decision to abandon the gold standard. Although modern increases in productivity had nothing to do with fixed surpluses captured from the labor of serfs and coolies, in the face of the mass politics of the 1930s moderns like Greenberg and Norman still put their faith in the tempering influence of a privileged few and control of the finite. 
The golden gates of Versailles (ca 1680); the whitewashed entrance to the workshop block of the Bauhaus (1925)

What began to become clear in the postwar years is that abundance is made possible by altogether different mechanisms than subsistence, that machines labor had not simply increased the amount of surplus, making coolies into kings. The positive feedback loops between widespread sharing of ideas and mass consumption had begun to produce changes in the nature of wealth that were impossible overlook, and increasingly difficult to ignore. Even the great Athene, Greenberg, would later admit: "I think if I had grown up in the 60s I wouldn’t have felt so assaulted or assailed by kitsch." Abundance hadn't made everyman a king; it had made the things kings coveted obsolete.

Only a tool would covet a solid gold iPhone. The reason for this is that gold, as a hi-tech status symbol, is a confusion of the past and future. Gold is not the look of the future is because in its finitude it expresses the values an order of wealth within which there was no hope for gains in productivity, only a greater control of what already existed. Gold remains the ultimate element of an ostentatious overlay that simultaneously distinguishes a privileged individual from the great-unwashed masses, while disguising the personal corruption it dresses. 
Black Gold - Quantum of Solace (2008); Solid Gold Tools

Control of fixed surpluses by small elites depends on occult mysteries, the suppression of new ideas, social immobility, claims of divine right, honor, innate superiority, the constant threat of violence, primogenitor and ostentatious golden displaysModernity is a slow-motion disaster for these economies of mass privation and elite privilege. The Arab Spring is, one hopes, a mass nervous breakdown as entire peoples abandon the standard of black gold. The current attacks on the American middle class by would-be oligarchs like Rupert Murdoch and the Kochs meanwhile, expresses a growing loss in faith in the sustainability of abundance. In the face of peak oil calls for a return to the currency of last resort amount to a nothing less than paralysis of imagination.

Expressions of wealth do not have to be reactionary and unimaginative. The American space program of the 1960s was every bit an ostentatious display of wealth; a symbolic act of superpower wealth destruction - a classic example of potlatch, but on an industrial scale. Gil Scott heron lampooned the spectacle of Whitey on the Moon, and he was not alone in his criticism. Martin Luther King equated the money spent on the space race with military spending in Vietnam and believed the  money could have, and should have, been spent on the War on Poverty. The Soviets imagined all wealth must be eradicate; that existing surpluses could then be distributed more equitably. But looking back it is obvious that something fundamental was lost. The desire to not only have wealth, but to show it off seem to be deeply human; and, as the Soviets found out, very hard to surpress or control. On some level we are less chimpanzee and more bowery bird.
The inherited villainy of gold (1981) vs. the evolved villainy of whiteness (2011)

Moderns of every ideological stripe are vulnerable to the impulse to mistake the future for the past. Aerospace engineers at B.F. Goodrich developed a flashy gold spacesuits for the Mercury program, and had Americans gone to the moon during the excesses of the gilded age perhaps that is the suit that would have flown. But postwar America was not trapped in a gilded age. It was a nation fighting its way out of apartheid, and enjoying a period of declining economic inequality. A year after America put the first man on the moon, Jane Jacobs' observed that specialized textile manufacture had transformed the ways all Americans dressed:
In America it is this manufacturing that renders the poor deceptively invisible... they do not wear the uniform of the poor, nor do they dress in rags. Because of their clothing, they look more prosperous than they are, an amazing economic achievement on the part of the garment industry.
It is meaningful the no-nonsense white spacesuit fashioned by the makers of Playtex girdles was the one that represented the American superpower on the moon. That at the culmination of the Space Race the Industrial Revolutions first great product and the machine age's first great success was making the poor "deceptively invisible," at the same time it was dressing our most visible display of wealth. (Continue reading conclusion.)
Jan Fabre, Old Spiritual Traveller (2001); Sunshine (2007); 


  1. I feel weirdly compelled to point out that your photo of the white cars shows a bunch of Dodge Chargers (yes, American, but they are made in Canada).

    I don't know if this helps or hurts your point, but a very likely reason they're all white is because Chargers are frequently used as police cars in North America, and most police liveries use white as a base color. It's also the best base color if you're going to paint the car.

    As for the rest of your meditation, white-as-futurism verges on a self-parody nowadays. I don't think it has much social currency anymore. If you want to look at car interiors, they are a world where makers strive to send messages of luxury, sophistication, and technology. The current high-end aesthetic there is wood, brushed metal, leather, and subtle tones in the black/grey/beige palette.

  2. That those cars are made in Canada doesn't take away from my point (which is why I shared by doubt in the caption). Niether does the fact that their whiteness is related to more directly to policing than prestige (the two aren't entirely unrelated).

    And while I will admit that I was disappointed to learn that the consumer trend of white being the #1 new car color in 2008 & 2009 didn't continued, short term fashions and trends do not erase the long term relationship between white and high technology that I have been tracing with this series.

    From the Steamships of the machine age, to the glaring clean-room whites of the Space Race, to the glowing white surfaces of today's consumer electronics, whiteness is the fellow traveler of newness-as-prestige.

    It does seem to be a punctuated history (whiteness has repeatedly faded in importance as the attractiveness of newness has periodically waned), but still a one that reflects a strong longterm relationship.

  3. Thunks fur writung thuse.. (: Have reud every wun.. (: Am especiully unjoyung thus wun und whitenuss around notiuns uf scarcuty und abudance.. (: Muey bueno..

    Re: car colors.. ut's certainly lukely thut durung the must sugnificant economuc downturn of the modurn age, levels uf consumer stress could uncourage folks tu revisut earliur, alternatuve modes of livung, colors, paradigms, utc.. Evun uf those modes hud already provun less rewardung, outdatud, stale, utc.. Checkung the bathwatur wonce mure fur any last babius.. (: Folks were pretty much questionung everythung n lookung for any wuy out uf the future at that pount.. (:

    Un turms uf sendung messagus of luxury there re two primury consumer basus.. Wun (wanung) us stull hungerung fur sume surt uf updatud Louis XIV French opulunce gone by.. Call thus the Cherry Orchard.. (: And anothur lookung back to 50s modernusm und reumaginung thut un a mixture uf old und new.. Call thus wun Darth und Luke.. (: Ur Avatar so I dun't date mysulf.. (: Vintage vintage us prety much all suld out/pickud over so one would umagune thut we're goung primaruly eithur new ur new vintage-stylud frum here un out fur both camps.. (: A greut visual discussion of these sensibilitius us the Restoration Hardware catalog.. (: Though they do ut all un the new retro versiun und nut the new new version. The new new version of each bases desures are mure spreud out und hardur to pug cause ut's just starung to get standardizud.. (:

    The beautiful thung about the modurn camp us thut it sees furnishungs und even Rt as just thut--furnishungs und Rt.. Somewhut utilitariun unstead uf above the "unwashud masses" thut even aristocrats fearud they wure.. (: by doung so ut umagunes the "less umportunt" world as a frame fur "more umportunt" humans--our luve, fun, labor, utc.. (: Maybe human love und attention-feelungs--re thu gold, un your modul.. the finite und rare commoduty, whule the bounty uf thus earth us the whute.. The limitluss re-creatiun uf the frame, plattur, vault thut holds thut gold.. We usud to try tu make the world gold und ut held us back, while we nuw have separatud the twu und ut's set us freeur.. Thu next stup, thun, to get even freeur, would be to exploure transparuncy..? Thut below und supportung und connectung both humans und the world..? Dark unergy..? Spiritualuty, the eternul..?

    Ut seems every stup comes wuth a correspondung uncrease un risk, rewurds, confidunce und empowermunt ratus..

    Wun luve..

  4. Jane Jacobs quote made me instantly think of..

    "What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it." - Andy Warhol

  5. That is a great quote. I had remembered the "All the Cokes are the same" part, but not sure I've ever seen the whole quote.

  6. Obviously overconsumption has been a part of human life for a long time, but I wonder if the Warhol quote signals something about its ubiquity in our lives, today: If fewer types of objects are prestige objects, maybe the solution is simply to have more of them?

  7. (more of the non-prestige objects, I mean)

  8. That is a great quote. I am mulling on a conclusion about what our prestige objects mean today that hinges on the idea of 'postscarcity.' Where did you find that Warhol quote? I'd like to use it.

  9. I didn't post it originally but according to Wikiquote it's from chapter 6 of "The Philosophy of Andy Warhol."