To be on the winning side of manipulation does not mean that one has chosen the right strategic perspective. Tactical successes can thus lead great powers down dangerous roads.
—Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of Spectacle
The man who picks up the pieces and gets a new cycle going again is rather a cycle himself.
—Robert M. Adams, James Joyce: Common Sense and Beyond
It was clear from the beginning that what Cem and I wanted to do was produce a historical narrative of the past ten years. We chose a panorama, for its ability to eliminate the horizon of the audience, and drew up a rough diagram of our major areas of interest. It was only after our first full-scale test, in which we hung a large sheet of paper on a circular track from the ceiling and made our first marks, that we fully grasped the double nature of what we had embarked on. To see the drawing, we had to light the center; doing so caused the drawing to bleed through to the piece's dimly lit outside, and it was the unintended consequences of this that structured the next two years' work. It was a reminder that words and images can mean many things. Theoretically, we could stand both inside and outside the narrative; as much as we were there to write it, we were also there to disrupt it, to turn it on its head.0001
The political narrative in the United States was being rewritten as we discussed the project. By the time George W. Bush had been elected for a second term, the political climate in America was increasingly monochrome—a black-and-white world of Old Testament values and the struggle between good and evil. Critics of this rhetoric were pointing to the influence of Leo Strauss and neoconservative thinking on the creation (or reawakening) of a new American myth—the United States' role as God's anointed savior. Everything pointed at the use and abuse of philosophy to justify American colonial ambitions; there could be no better place to start.
Two books helped give a timely perspective: the Retort group's Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War (2005) and John Gray's Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007). But it was America's last struggle with an “evil empire” that gave us our beginning. I think it was at our first meeting that we discussed using an old Russian joke:
Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev are all traveling together in a railway carriage. Unexpectedly, the train stops. Lenin suggests, “Perhaps, we should call a subbotnik [in the Soviet Union, a volunteer workday falling on a Saturday], so that workers and peasants can fix the problem.” Stalin says, “We should execute the driver as a wrecker.” But the train doesn't start moving. Khrushchev then suggests, “Let's take the rails behind the train and use them to construct the tracks in the front.” But it still doesn't move. Brezhnev then says, “Comrades, Comrades, let's draw the curtains, turn on the gramophone, and pretend we're moving!”
Murat Cem Mengüç
Between 2003 and 2007, each time Dominic and I met, we spoke about constructing a panorama, a drawing that can eliminate the horizon. At the same time, we continually discussed what everyone else was discussing, that is, the neoconservatives in the US government. The neoconservative vision also resembled an enclosed panorama, built on the debunked theories of scholars like Francis Fukuyama, Bernard Lewis, and Samuel Huntington. These thinkers both fed neoconservatives' absolutism and helped them sound literate, if not erudite.0003
While discussing the neoconservatives, we began to focus on the general relationship between culture and ideology.1 In this context certain authors, like Peter Berger, Benedict Anderson, and Karl Marx, became relevant. Slowly, we began to refer to our panorama using phrases like “social construction of reality,” “centralization of cognition,” and “world building and maintenance” (Berger 1990; Anderson 1991; Marx and Engels 1967). Soon afterward, antiestablishment and anarchist philosophers such as Paul Virilio became our central thinkers.2 Virilio initiated the first graphite marks on Muqaddimah, with the upside-down castle, drawn at the center, shooting cannons around and at itself.
In my lectures, I used this image to explain the relationship between collective consciousness and military might. The castle shoots cannons farther and farther away until the last one reaches around the earth and destroys the castle itself. In our piece, drawn upside down and accompanied with the Virilio-esque phrase “Globalization is the speed of light,” the castle became a metaphor for the subjective relativism of the military industrial complex, which transforms our planet into a war zone and reiterates its philosophical significance.0004
Paths of drawing started to emerge from this center. One cannon shoots to the right, for example, and blows a group of books beneath a chimp. These books represent the crowns of Ivy League universities and, along with them, the crown of Al-Azhar University of Cairo. The chimp is a morphed version of the University of Cambridge's crown. The central phrase (from Walter Benjamin) reads, “The dialectical thinking is the organ of historical awakening,” while the lower part of the same shot states, “I have chosen not to be modern” (W. H. Auden). These two statements depict our concern, as an artist and as a historian, respectively, about being members of an elite intellectual community in an era of totalitarian ideologies.
In Muqaddimah, we wanted to avoid a central story line. We wanted to expose cultural subplots that opposed each other but joined together in terms of their logic (Said 1972). This decision was directly related to our discussions regarding modernity and James Joyce's work. It was remarkable to discover later that Edward Said's earlier study of Michel Foucault also opened with direct references to Joyce. Connections were already there; we were just tracing them.
Perhaps the best example of what happened as we tried to avoid a central plot was the Russian joke, which we opened in four directions. Ronald Reagan's and Lenin's hands are united with the saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” because we believe that both ideologies emerged and failed owing to misapprehensions of modernity. Toward the bottom, Margaret Thatcher's utopia rides a punk toward the same joke as well. The quotation on the punk's arm depicts his reactionary vision and also mocks its present-day commercialization. The quotation on Thatcher's back speaks of her utopia. But for me, the key quotation here is written within the punk's hair and reads, “I would have wanted to be born in a country where the sovereign and the people could have but one and the same interest, so that all the movements of the machine always tended only to the common happiness” (Rousseau 1987: 26). Coming from a book titled Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality among Men and written before the French Revolution, this quotation from Jean-Jacques Rousseau embodies all naive and utopian conceptions of the modern state. To our knowledge, this statement is the earliest reference to the state as a machine.
Toward the right, we carried the ideals and contradictions of the modern state to the Middle Eastern context. The previously mentioned chimp gases out the phrase “Only a Muslim could have imagined history as a continuous collective movement, a real inevitable development in time.” This phrase is drawn from Muhammad Iqbal, who was both a student at the University of Cambridge and a founding father of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. In his much-praised book The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Iqbal attempted to reestablish the Hegelian theory of history, which he interpreted as a uniform phenomenon that strives toward an ultimate goal. His endless and heroic desire to understand metaphysics takes us to the realm of ultimate otherness. Toward the top of Iqbal's flight, the otherworldly realm is represented with an endless loop that reads the “Nonbelievers” chapter from the Qur'an.3 Toward the bottom, the physical and daily misapprehension of the same otherness is represented by the great folly called the clash of civilizations.
Our interpretation of the clash of civilizations uses Israel as a metaphor for all modern states obsessed with surveillance. The Dome of the Rock is surrounded with a barbed-wire maze and stands connected to the Israeli utopia under its own siege. Watchtowers of this utopia air antitotalitarian slogans, while a McDonald's sign on the Dome of the Rock mocks the idea that democratization and globalization create conflict-free zones.4
Such are the paths, and they inevitably lead the viewer toward the two ends of the drawing. Because we designed Muqaddimah as an enclosed environment, its exit became a relevant part of the piece from the very beginning. Here we relied on the most obvious metaphor we had, Plato's cave. Plato had argued that an eternal unity bound all creation, and he described common people as slaves of a tangible reality, living inside an environment of illusions. Beyond this cave, he argued, there existed a higher truth, a realm of metaphysics, to which only the true philosophers knew the exit. So we decided to design Muqaddimah's exit as a globular thumb, dedicated to knowledge and history, to the memory of that tangible past. A phrase on the left, drawn from Marx, reads, “The dead weighs like a nightmare in the minds of the living.” Another on the right states, “Man must grow better and more evil. This do I teach, the most evil is necessary for the superman's best” (from Nietzsche). Clearly, this exit does not lead the audience to a metaphysical realm. We do not see Muqaddimah as a final step toward a higher learning. It is a muqaddimah, meaning an “introduction.”
Editor's note: The phrases, sayings, and quotations that McGill has appropriated and incorporated in the creation of his Muqaddimah are often loose, misremembered, and misquoted; they have been turned into graphic objects.
1. A key author was Immanuel Todd (2002), but we also focused on Edward Said (1994).
3. “Say (O Prophet): O ye who reject faith! I worship not that which ye worship. Nor worship ye that which I worship. And I shall not worship that which ye worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (Wikipedia 2011).
4. Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg's essay “Civilization Envy: On Muslims, Israel, and McDonald's” was our key here. He had interpreted the presence of McDonald's stores as evidence of higher civilization and written that “Israel may just be like a giant McDonald's franchise in the Middle East—an infuriating reminder of the fact the Islamic world won't be calling the shots for a long time to come” (Goldberg 2001).