Image Credit: Michelle Jia.
It's weird how in the "post-postmodern" era (as Jeffrey Nealon has a ruefully called it) what counts as modernity remains so attached to the styles of modernism, a formal signification of newness long after these styles could conceivably be thought of as new (that is, long after they became styles).1
The modernist aesthetics of Apple are well documented.
Aaron Betsky argued in 2012 that "the company that has already done more to bring the notion of clean lines, abstraction, white, and every other surface attribute of Modernism to the masses than any architect or architectural theoretician." (There's modernism as style again, or even simply as brand—a list of formal features or "surface attributes" to be checked off a list, rather than a philosophical or political engagement with historical modernity.)2 Gordon Bruce has similarly discussed modernist aesthetics not only in Apple's contemporary designs but in those of IBM in earlier decades, seeing in them echoes of Bauhaus design.
Lori Emerson notes that even Apple's "flagship store in New York City, which has been made to appear as if it’s within a glass cube (made of nonreflective glass to create an even more convincing illusion of a marvelous, even pure, reality) that sits above ground, when in fact the store is underneath."3 Talk about modernist autonomy—the very fact that it's a store is occluded by a vision of pure structure.
And in 2011 Blake Gopnik complained in Newsweek that "I may be in love with my new Air, but giving it a prize in 2011 is like giving a rave to contemporary paintings that rehash Mondrian’s grids. For me, Apple’s modern styling is like work by Chippendale and Tiffany: you may love it, but you know your love is stuck in the past."
The joke's on Gopnik, of course; he concludes that Apple's design endgame is pure featurelessness, a design so recessive that it appears as pure function—but there's nothing so modernist as a claim to stylelessness.4 Moreover, to point out that grids, smooth white and metal surfaces, and the refusal of ornament aren't new is to miss that they still mean newness.
The fantasies of purity that animate this style, now applied to the laptop I'm writing on, can certainly no longer be read as a resistance to the mass or to mass production, a sentiment that crops up in the Austrian modernist architect Adolf Loos's famous and weird repudiation of kitschy ornaments, "Ornament and Crime." (That resistance's reputation has taken a beating in the last several decades anyway.)5
Naomi Schor reads Loos as making a fundamentally economic, not aesthetic, judgment about frills and baubles: "it is a crime against the national economy that [in fashioning ornaments] human labour, money, and material should thereby be ruined."6 If modern people are beyond ornament, as Loos argues, it is because they know better than to waste their energies on it; plain things are cheaper and you save money on not buying what's unnecessary and, what's more, is junkily unnecessary, now that lace and color aren't the work of craftspeople but of tacky marketers looking to build obsolescence into what we buy.7
Unadorned aesthetics, here, are no more than an alibi for the supremacy of the economic principle. In that sense, the mass production (safely elsewhere, out of sight) of modernist Apple machines is an apotheosis of the version of modernism Loos seems to propose.8 "Modern man [sic]," Loos concludes, "uses the ornaments of earlier or alien cultures as he sees fit. He concentrates his own inventiveness on other things." Other things like startups, presumably! You can tell that if he could try Soylent, Loos totally would.
My comparison between Loos's "Ornament and Crime" and Rob Rinehart, the inventor-marketer of Soylent, is a bit gratuitous, but not just. Rinehart's minimalism shares with Loos what turns out to be not mere style, but a form of historical engagement after all—in the sense of a deep investment in one's own modernity and, indeed, futurity.9
It's the kind of futurity that depends on someone else being behind, as Loos discloses from his opening sentence: "The human embryo in the womb passes through all the evolutionary stages of the animal kingdom." He'll go on about development in babies and others for a good two paragraphs, concluding with the assertion that any modern person who self-ornaments by getting a tattoo is degenerate, out of phase with their developmental stage (and out of phase in a particular way—backward), and without question literally a criminal: "If someone who is tattooed dies at liberty, it means he has died a few years before committing a murder." (Hence "Ornament and Crime.")
The developmentalism here is thoroughgoing, but notice how Loos starts out with the human embryo as a sort of model system for every other kind of development (which is imagined as highly normative, teleological, and of course concluding with Loos himself). To begin with, Loos rehearses the popular (but basically wrong) notion that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny," but the parallel between human development and evolution soon spreads to a developmental theory of culture and, indeed, of race, which requires "the Papuan"—paralleled, again, to the child—as a figure of primitivism against whose perfectly natural tattoos he can hold up the degenerate, criminal tattoos of the (white) "modern adult."
In a course I teach, "Modernism and Childhood," we spend a good amount of time thinking through the ways that various early twentieth-century thinkers (Freud being a prime example) rely on these parallel developmentalisms, using each "primitive" exemplar (the child, the animal, the racially other) as figures and explanations for the others. That's what Loos is up to here. Beliefs about the child—whose relative disempowerment is profoundly naturalized—enable beliefs about many other kinds of processes.
It probably won't have escaped your attention that this modernity is actually less about time than about hierarchy; Adolf Loos hasn't been around any longer than "the Papuan" (nor is he any younger), but somehow he's ahead. Aesthetics—plain style—is his proxy for time rightly met (which is in turn, as Schor argues, a proxy for economic incentives rightly met).
Rinehart's technological futurism is equally about imposing hierarchy, peppered with oddly melancholic refusals of reproductive labor,10 which mark out what is feminized and outsourceable as worthless, unfit for conscious beings, and—as of Rinehart's self-retrofitting—temporally past: "I am all for self reliance but repeating the same labor over and over for the sake of existence is the realm of robots."11
Thoroughly infused by what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls "historicism," in the specific sense of the the temporalization "first the West, then the rest," Rinehart's narrative cleanly (so to speak) encapsulates the interarticulation of modernist plain style qua style and post-postmodern, just-in-time capitalism.12 "The new" is not actually about being new; it's about being ahead of somebody else. It's not much different from what we already knew about post-Fordist capital's love of "innovation," "revolution," and "disruption"; it just brings into relief that rhetoric's modernist antecedents and the developmentalist primitivism that makes it work.
This brings me to Google.
The original Google product, the search engine, has a famously minimal UI design. Here's how a writer for FastCoDesign described it in 2014:
Arguably, there's no better example of efficient web design than the Google homepage. Every little design tweak goes through rigorous A/B testing, and yet the homepage does not look fundamentally different than it did 10 years ago. In fact, it's so simple and iconic that, back in May, lead Google homepage designer Jon Wiley told us that he wasn't sure if the design would ever fundamentally change.
Efficient! Rigorous! Simple! Iconic! Timeless! So far so modernist. But Google's simplicity doesn't go for sophisticated (read: adult) simplicity in the way that Apple's design so openly does.14
Contrast this with the conscious citation of children's alphabet books in the title of Google's Alphabet announcement, "G Is for Google." With its logo in primary colors, the letters in a serif typeface as if on toy letter blocks, and of course a name that's nearly a gurgle and a corporate headquarters (the "Googleplex") that's a pun, Google has never exactly gone for the grown-up look. On the contrary, they are, like Facebook, famous for ping-pong tables in the workplace and Silicon Valley's "youth culture."
One of Google Search's most famous features, in fact, is an ornament: a fast-rotating (24-hour) decoration on the homepage, usually a drawing or an animated cartoon, or sometimes a game, always topical and never repeated, called a "doodle." Google itself describes the doodle feature as "the fun, surprising, and sometimes spontaneous changes that are made to the Google logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists, pioneers, and scientists," and, I am not making this up, the first one was made to mark Burning Man. Thus the "simple and iconic" Google Search page is frequently ornamented for amusement ("fun") in just the way that Loos describes in the child and the primitive.
That is not to say that Google's design strategy is antimodernist. Not at all. For the childishly-named doodles don't register as ornaments without the "simple and iconic" reputation of the default search page. More to the point, though, the performance of childishness is a key form of modernist primitivism, a way of superseding modern civilization's (supposed) hypercontrol, not by admitting to being decadent or regressive but rather by appropriating a position of genuine newness in the form of youth (which is also, of course, a proxy for other alleged developmental earlinesses—modernists like Gertrude Stein and William Carlos Williams freely appropriated African-American, Native American, and immigrant positions).15 Thus Loos is a key example for Anne Cheng, in her book on the modernist surface, of the ways that, mediated through racial discourses, ornament and nudity could come out to the same thing.16 In this way the impulse to decorate—to doodle—can signify, not decadence, but rather creativity and a return to the elementary ("primitive") processes of making art.
It's interesting that Google entrenches in this self-presentation as infantile and unthreatening precisely in the act of basically announcing itself to be en route to multiplying itself 26-fold, which is, let's face it, terrifying.17
This has something to do with what I've elsewhere called "puerility," although I don't think it's quite as complex in Google's case. (Soylent, on the other hand, I see as thoroughly partaking of a puerile politics, seemingly enthusiastically running headlong into utopianism while sipping on a food replacement literally named after one of those sci-fi morality tales that reveal the terrible cost of a popular, futuristic tech solution—in this case, famously, "Soylent Green is people.")
It's not that Google/Alphabet's design can be classed as "modernist" in the way that Apple's can; rather, their seemingly opposing design strategies draw on two sides of the same idea. For example, the names the two companies chose for their respective web browsers—Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari—temporarily reverses the polarity between shiny modern surface and primitivism that each brand usually evokes.
Sianne Ngai has brilliantly elaborated "the cuteness of the avant-garde," and perhaps that cuteness, with its violent undertows, helps explain what is happening in the transition from Google (the rounded letters, the repetitive bisyllable that pushes the mouth into a sucking motion) to Alphabet (the Greek word that literally starts you saying your ABCs).18
The danger with cuteness is to read it as a form, rather than as the formalization of a temporal concept, a transformation that the concept of "the child" routinely enables.19 As Ngai so persuasively details, to find something cute is to call up whole histories of its existence. Cuteness's closest relative is the Freudian uncanny, an even more explicit example of an aesthetic concept that formalizes a temporal one. The uncanny is Freud's (rather less repudiated) version of a tattoo, the atavistic return-out-of-time of some laid-to-rest part of oneself.
These temporal aesthetics, Google's included, tell us something about the repurposing of modernist style for post-Fordist capital. Modernist style still succeeds in evoking newnesses even when wholly "unoriginal" because it so successfully dehistoricizes.20 That it still totally works, and that it remains congenial to capital in the face of capital's transformations, hints that we have in modernist ideology a powerful actor.
Consequently, the study of early twentieth-century style can be understood as neither irrelevant nor innocent. The quasi-Darwinian, developmentalist ideologies of Silicon Valley have their correlates in styles that disguise their basic violence as design. Its results are, among other things, political transformations of the Bay Area that seek to do to San Francisco what Rob Rinehart did to his apartment—rely heavily on exploited labor that has been geographically displaced. It imagines people of the future living side by side with people who lag behind—but not literally side by side of course! because the laggards commute from Vallejo. Anyone who isn't on board with the spatial segregation of the temporally disparate is an "enemy of innovation." Again, this is actually less about time than about hierarchy. After all, the temporal difference between any two people in existence at the same time is completely made up: it's an effect of style, which is in turn (if we follow Loos's logic) a proxy for economic dominance. Time is, so to speak, money.
Loos (who was Austrian) wrote in 1908:
The speed of cultural evolution is reduced by the stragglers. I perhaps am living in 1908, but my neighbour is living in 1900 and the man across the way in 1880. ... Happy the land that has no such stragglers and marauders! Happy America!
How will Alphaville look?
This is, as usual, crossposted from my blog. Please do not reproduce without permission.
- 1. Jeffrey T. Nealon, Post-Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2012).
- 2. I am not, for the record, suggesting that this is any more debased than historical modernism.
- 3. Lori Emerson, Reading Writing Interfaces: From the Digital to the Bookbound, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014) 188n29.
- 4. Andrew Goldstone, Fictions of Autonomy: Modernism from Wilde to de Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
- 5. For example: Kevin J. H Dettmar, and Stephen Watt, eds. Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, Rereading (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).
- 6. Loos 21, qtd. in Naomi Schor, Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine (New York: Routledge, 2007): 61.
- 7. Perhaps Apple's modernist aesthetics aim to give off the impression that they aren't building planned obsolescence into their machines, even though anyone who's ever owned an Apple product knows that they totally are.
By the way, Loos definitely isn't arguing for an Arts-and-Crafts-style return to artisan decoration; rather, he argues that mass production liberates us from the laboriousness of ornament and thereby lets us see how superfluous ornament is.
- 8. That much of this labor famously occurs in China—long an avatar for a hypertrophied capitalist modernity, as Colleen Lye has pointed out—only adds another layer beneath the sleek cladding of Apple's image. See also Alexander Galloway's critique, in the context of the "Chinese gold farmer" trope in gaming, of displacing the apprehension of global labor exploitation onto an abjected racial-geographic other as if it were a property of the racial-geographic others themselves, as well as Andrew Ross's reading of the tight interlacing of western precaritization and globalized hyperexploitation. See Colleen Lye, America’s Asia: Racial Form and American Literature, 1893-1945 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2005); Alexander R. Galloway, The Interface Effect. Cambridge: Polity, 2012): 120-143; Andrew Ross, "In Search of the Lost Paycheck," in Trebor Scholz, ed., Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory (New York: Routledge, 2013): 13-32.
- 9. Rinehart's minimalism bears a striking resemblance to Marie Kondo minimalism in its enthusiasm for externalizing disorder—a sort of hybrid, that is, between the lifestyle outsourcing that Kondo advocates and the literal labor outsourcing represented by the global supply chains that make our hardware.
By the way, I'm very persuaded by Aaron Bady's reading of "How I Gave Up Alternating Current" as science fiction, and not at all the less for Rinehart's apparent sincerity.
- 10. "Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears." Compare this with Loos in 1908: "The show dishes of past centuries, which display all kinds of ornaments to make the peacocks, pheasants, and lobsters look more tasty, have exactly the opposite effect on me. I am horrified when I go through a cookery exhibition and think that I am meant to eat these stuffed carcasses. I eat roast beef." Told you Loos would have tried Soylent.
- 11. I'm taking it for granted here some Marxist feminist accounts of reproductive labor and that, furthermore, you'll have caught the historical resonances between feminized and robotic labor, both of which are devalued under current conditions. See e.g. Silvia Federici, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle (Oakland: PM Press, 2012); Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Second Shift (New York: Penguin, 2003).
- 12. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2000).
- 13. At least one Twitter joke about Alphabet pointed out the modernism of this move.
- 14. When Anne Cheng reads Josephine Baker's skin—so often draped with gold cloth or lit as if to reflect light—as metallic cladding, it makes me wonder what she might say about Apple's attachment to brushed metal finishes: armor as nakedness, nakedness as armor.
- 15. Lest there be any confusion: this was racist.
- 16. I know I cite this book constantly, but: Anne Anlin Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
- 17. I don't take "infantile" to be a pejorative because I reject the model of development as hierarchy. For more on the practice of calling adults infantile, see the ever-brilliant Tyler Bickford.
- 18. Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012). Ngai, following Lori Merish, reads cuteness as an aesthetic of the commodity, emphasizing the plasticity and thingness of the cute object. Perhaps one reason cuteness is a good branding strategy for Google is that its "products" are so much more confusing and elusive than Apple's. Apple can design a sleek metal machine; Google is selling search, targeted advertising, email, and a variety of other less material goods, often for no obvious money. Often, further, it's not clear who the customer is. They can use a little reification.
- 19. What is "a child" but the remaking of an unmanageable temporal concept of earliness as a set of physical forms? Parents of infants sling biometrics like it's nothing.
- 20. I don't even really need to trot this out, but I will: Rosalind E. Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985).