Collapse Without a Big Bang – An Online Conversation Regarding Culture, Crisis and Collapse


Los Angeles, California
April – July, 2012

One “radical” aspect of a new cosmology is the merging of the subjective and the objective, a collapse of the macro and microcosm around a hybrid dialogue of art and science. Technologies and scientific methodologies have enabled us to observe and measure distant parts of our outer universe and the inner nano spaces of body and mind. Contemporary artists have reached out to science and technology for new ways of articulating this new ontological moment. The conversation between Tom Leeser and Norman Klein emerges from this moment residing not in a fixed universe, but in a transient multiverse of expanding cultures and forms. A multiverse that defines flux and collapse as fundamental components of an unstable ephemeral system. A system that is composed of a combined view of subject and object that articulates our current cultural and political condition in verse and prose, between fact and fiction.



TL:: The point of collapse is the defining moment of rupture. It’s said that in 2012 we are living through a time of crisis, a moment of collapse. Collapse by definition infers total systemic failure, but the precursor to a natural state of failure is one of constant decay. Can we even discuss any beginning to this (or any) crisis since all of existence resides in a constant state of decay and flux?

NK:: How many ways are there for a civilization to collapse without a big bang? That is, to collapse without total war, revolution, or earthquake. Suppose collapse arrived like a cat during the night. Apparently, in 1917, many Americans at the YMCA in Moscow actually slept through the Bolshevik Revolution. Earlier that evening, at the opera, many in the audience assumed that distant cannon fire was somehow an elegant statement in the musical score.

Suppose this neutralized version of collapse were us, in some way. Obviously the real price is horrendous. But what if it were absolutely necessary to ignore all that. We must pretend that nothing truly hopeless has taken place. This problem will blow over, market experts tell us; it is part of a cycle. Don’t start getting too depressed. Gloomy thinking can lower consumer confidence. Then your credit score goes down. Just stand pat. Don’t sell yet. We’ll tell you when, the way we did last time.

The next day, we find ourselves at an event, in someone’s living room, inside a Buñuel movie. We have to catch up on things. We are picking over a tray of sliders and hand rolls, a sign of budget cutbacks. Someone leans over and whispers to us that the curtains are on fire. Everyone stops. We decide as a collective action to move to the kitchen. An hour later, the house burns down.

Then begins an era of recrimination. Someone arrests the person who told us the curtains were on fire. None of the facts add up, because the facts are assembled by the same ruthless people who brought about the collapse.

That is apparently how crazy we are as a civilization, myself included.

TL:: You’re saying we’re experiencing a neutralized version of collapse, is this evidence of the boom and bust cycles of capitalism over the last two hundred years? Aren’t these cycles part of capitalism itself?

NK:: When did this crisis that led to this collapse—the prologue to the end—actually take place? We need a fiercer sense of our historical genealogy. We clearly have a problem locating a true measure of where we are. The labor statistics are pathetic. Then, after experts announce that they cannot read them precisely—the oatmeal about labor that arrives once a month—when it becomes clear that we, in fact, are ignoring the problem, the next month arrives.

After five years of research, I can say with certainty that the crisis began much earlier than I thought. By the early eighties, it was already getting late. However, the problem of “de-industrialization” was widely discussed in 1982—only to be sidetracked somehow by the banking catastrophe of 1986, and the Stock Market Crash of 1987. By 1990, it was surely late. Almost all of the banker’s tricks that led to the Crash of 2008 were in play—for example, derivatives. Thus, our collapse has not been sudden; it has been ongoing for thirty years or more. And the prologue to this collapse took place in the seventies, before the arrival of Thatcher and Reagan—with the development of container ships, the end of Fair Use laws, the digitization of the banking industry, the origins of right-wing think tanks.

One might even go back earlier than the seventies, to the Janus face of high modernism, to its ruinous aspects in the sixties, its willingness to scrap infrastructure for the sake of urban progress—then give up progress to join the rise of oligarchy. Nothing collapses suddenly; and often, the public has already adapted to living after the collapse long before it formally occurs.

TL:: But how do we pick up the pieces to this particular crisis? Or can we ?

NK:: It has often been said that memento mori enriches a culture; a sense of mortality heightens its forms. We must leave a place for how this might be a part of our cultural future, in the midst of these entropic adaptations. We also have challenges unlike any other culture that ever existed, particularly the cross-embedding of one software upon another, the erasure of cultural forms, and criss-crossing of technologies. Most art has evolved grammars through its unique forms, not by endlessly erasing its modes of expression and delivery. A few tools have been developed to collect the footprints, the traces of lost forms, in order to capture the mortality of our civilization. There is a new cultural alliance that has attempted to organize these into art after social networks. But most of all, the nano intuitive quality of software has long since made the inside and the outside of human experience, the public and the intimate, almost impossible to keep separate from each other.

TL:: Memento mori, or “remember you will die,” was a means that we used to ground ourselves in the “mortality of our civilization.” The movement of ideas from birth to obsolescence to re-emergence, framed by a new reality of time and space, is accelerated by what you call “the nano intuitive quality of software.” History is loaded with examples of this movement. The telegraph is a good example of a Victorian technology that altered time and space and “collected the footprints, the traces of lost forms.” The recording of sound and image first developed in the 19th century became accelerated mechanisms of culture in the following century. Digital technologies have now formed the basis of our current century’s social network. We are now recording, archiving and dissolving at such a rate that latency and reflection can only happen within a real-time tyranny of a commodified present. In many ways we have created a zombie culture from the ashes of our past. Rather than follow the script and continue our affinity with neophilia, we sample, rip and datamosh our way not to “a new tomorrow” but a re-mix of “be here now” that sounds more like “buy here now.” We have disrupted our natural system of latency and have constructed a realtime experience of constant collapse and re-formation.

A recourse may be found in a line from an Allen Ginsburg poem, ironically from 1984, called “Empire Air.” Ginsburg says in the poem that we should “conquer all space by giving it away, conquer the universe by giving it away.” In other words, should we revive the memento mori as a tool to “re-liberate” the present?

NK::  I often talk about slowing down vision, in order to move quickly. What sort of institutions or policies would do that in a polyglot that is so feudalistic? For example, in urban planning, there are new terms like “parklets,” microparks that merely take out a few traffic lanes to create a pause for sitting on the street. There is interest in the lost creeks and streams and mini-aquifers of Los Angeles, so many of them blocked off by engineers. Now there are potential plans to “daylight” some of these.

These are all laboratory experiments of a kind, to incubate, almost like political seminars, what will be needed on a large scale, through alliances of all kinds. We must invent places and institutions within our depleted infrastructure. These are like firewalls that can become authored places for ludic, shared play, for something more than simply an extension of your privacy. But what? Are they like little medieval carnival feasts? We have to operate on a small scale, in order to engineer a more human scale—and from there, move quickly to address land and water issues, etc. An authored experience that is not simply an extension of yourself.