Design for an Entrance to the Internet;
Design for an entrance to London — Design for an entrance to the Internet
Kristian Vistrup Madsen, RCA MA Critical Writing in Art and Design
Around the year 1805, the highly revered and eccentric architect Sir John Soane proposed a design for an entrance to London. Like many of Soane's designs, it was fantastic, even utopian, in its grandeur, and was never actually built. It would have formed part of a royal processional route from Windsor to central London, and would have marked the beginning of the city, even then somewhat tenuously, at its western border in Kensington. Of course London didn't need an entrance, it lay, as it does today, sprawling and open onto the land. Soane's design with its corinthian columns, lavish draperies and spires and statues — his own special brand of baroque neo-classicism – figures a nostalgia for borders; the aesthetic manifestation of order that steps in as the old order inside-outside is undermined. In fact London had once, in Roman and medieval times, been both walled and gated, and had real, practical entrances that defined its limits and protected them. We see the remains of the wall today around the Barbican, and the ghosts of its entrances as arbitrary signifiers, street names, and new kinds of openings through which we enter like tube stations: Moorgate, Aldgate, Bishopsgate. These gates — much less grand than Soane's, much more functional – although they had long been violated by the sprawl of the city, were only finally demolished around 1760, little over forty years before Soane sought to redeem what they had brought to the definition of borders, but with added draperies.
An entrance to London might constitute what Jacques Derrida calls a 'parergon'. It is an ornament, like the colonnade of a building, the golden frame of a painting, or the plinth of a sculpture: the thing that distinguishes the object from the ground, yet belongs neither wholly to object nor ground, in this case, neither city nor country, but the very manifestation of the boundary. The nature of the parergon, Derrida says, is self-obliteration, it constitutes the definition of inside and outside, yet although it has a 'thickness, a surface', is nothing in itself. 'The Parergon', he advises: 'give it up for lost.' In the original French, faire son deuil, deuil means both loss and bereavement; the parergon has a relationship to mourning. Mourning the a priori loss of the essence of an object (this loss is self-evident in deconstruction) while at the same time constituting that object – that is, only if we let ourselves be seduced by the parergon. Soane's entrance to London may in its redundancy be degraded to what Derrida calls 'seductive finery' — it's beautiful! But it is also, as parergon, at once 'pure productivity' and 'lack'; insofar as it exists, what it produces is power. A monument for the royal procession, what is Soane's entrance if not authority carved in marble?
In the context of the internet, and the proposition of a design for an entrance to the internet, another text by Derrida becomes relevant. In Archive Fever he outlines a theory of the 'patriarchive', the archive, any archive, as a manifestation of power, an inside-outside guarded by the archivist who has the authority to decide, and thereby to define. Engaging with the internet is not a benign exercise, but rather an interaction with conglomerates for which you pay with your privacy, and the imperative to construct your subjectivity in accordance with hyper-normative templates, which ensure your legibility in the face of authorities. It is not always clear when we are online and when we are not. We do not sit down to the hum of a dial-up router and look at an hourglass until the browser appears. Rather, dozens of apps follow us around whether we use them or not; the entrance has exploded and fragments have attached themselves to our fingertips, our wristwatches, our glasses. The internet as archive, what belongs to it and what doesn't, that line which would constitute its parergon, and which continues to constitute the internet itself, is becoming invisible.
This is not self-obliteration but rather, like a police officer without uniform, a concealment of authority, the complete integration of power. The archive is an ambivalent entity, Derrida says, because in order to classify it 'disassures order by having to deconstruct it'. In other words, by tracing the borders and limits of the archive, borders and limits unravel — the making of the archive itself contains its unmaking. This, Derrida argues, is the death drive, not a principle, but anarchiviolithic: 'it will always have been archive-destroying by vocation.' As inheritance it leaves only its erotic simulacrum, its mask of seduction, memories of death, he writes. Here is the connection of the archive to the parergon: self-obliteration, seductive finery, mourning. The parergon too is a challenge to the limits of objects, it should never become, by distinguishing itself, the principal subject: 'parerga should not be allowed to take precedence over the essential.' This is the point Derrida is making: Why not? A study of the parergon is a study of how things are defined and by whom, it means paying attention to what is lost in this process. He makes the same argument in Archive Fever, calling for a 'theatricalisation of the archive', a self-conscious archive, a staged archive, or a contra-archive. Precisely in its redundancy, Soane's entrance to London, in contrast to the earlier iterations of the concept, can be read against its grain as a theatricalisation of the archive, of the city, of power; almost desperate, kind of camp, in baroque quotation marks: “Welcome To London”.
Although Soane's entrance looks like a nostalgic fantasy of absolute power – power because Soane was a big fan of the architecture of Napoleonic Paris, and nostalgic because he always already imagined his buildings as washed over by time, belonging to an idealised past – this too is an act of reading. Theatricalisation needn't be nostalgic. Again, let's call it camp, and attribute to it that set of subversive potentials; let's call it parergon and make it the subject of our study. To theatricalise an entrance to the internet is not a mournful longing for the hum of dial-up, but an awareness of the potential of the entrance as parergon, as that which 'plays with, rubs against, presses against the limits of' the inside-outside that the parergon itself has constructed. In discussing the arrival of what was broadly called the 'post-internet', the artist Zach Blas chose a different prefix. We have not 'lost' the internet, as the aesthetic of the 'post' with its nostalgic use of Windows 98 meta-design seemed to suggest, was the core of his reasoning, rather we know that its potentials were fundamentally fraught by power to begin with. 'The parergon' Derrida writes, 'intervenes internally only insofar as the inside is missing.' What Blas calls the 'Contra-Internet' is a strategy for abandoning and subverting the internet by uniting a queer-feminist political position with a hacker ethos, to invert the internet by constituting an outside of it. To design an entrance to the Contra-Internet is an act of deconstruction, dismantling, even; an entrance with that contradictory message of self-obliteration and constitution: “Welcome To The End Of The Internet”.
Blas, Zach, 'Contra-Internet' at DIS Magazine [Accessed: 22.05.2016].
Derrida, Jacques, (with Craig Owens) 'The Parergon' in October, Vol. 9 (Summer, 1979), pp. 3-41, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press). (with Eric Prenowitz) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Chicago: University of Chicago)