Landscapes of Capital


[Talk given at the Johann Jacobs Museum, 28.2.15, at a conference on the occasion of the exhibition and launch of Allan Sekula’s Ship of Fools / The Dockers’ Museum.]


In the context of the widespread conviction that we now inhabit the Anthropocene, an epoch in which mankind has risen to the dubious stature of ‘geological agent’, some earth scientists have cut through the periodising controversy – Did the Anthropocene begin with the human discovery of fire? With the industrial revolution? – by dating the onset of man’s geological maturity with disconcerting precision: July 16, 1945, the first test-denotation of an atomic bomb. The (unconsciously) political character of periodization as an act of representation and totalization could not be more clearly illustrated. The ‘end of nature’ (as autonomous from human agency) here coincides with the ‘end of history’ (as the inability to articulate that agency as a common project of emancipation), and postmodernity receives a kind of geological imprimatur, by the same token losing its own temporal contours. ‘We’ make nature, but recognizing this we also confront our inability to make history, as natural processes inextricable from ‘our’ historical agency threaten to make and unmake the present and the future in the absence of our agency. This is the backdrop of ongoing attempts to represent in the medium of photographic landscape a world wholly made over by capital accumulation, not so much an Anthropocene as a Capitalocene, to use the term proposed by Jason W. Moore.


This is a predicament arguably crystallized in the very title of a landmark exhibition from 1975, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered landscape.That show, bringing together photographic series by Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, Joe Deal, and others, continues to inform a photographic vocabulary which tries to picture humanity’s footprint in the terrains, built forms, logistical infrastructures, energy complexes and sheer waste which simply are the landscape of an increasingly urbanized species – witness the work of the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, but also Thomas Struth or Mitchell Epstein. There is a rich, critical literature on New Topographics and its aftermath. What I wish to ask here is a disarmingly simple question: why are photographs of manufactured landscapes so often depopulated?


This question was polemically advanced by Allan Sekula, in his militant scepticism about the aesthetics of what he termed the ‘neutron-bomb school of photography’ (‘killing people but leaving the real estate standing’, he quipped). In his postscript to his photo essay ‘School is a Factory’, Sekula dwelled on an image by Lewis Baltz, taken in the same ‘landscapes’ of the ‘industrial park’ which Sekula took as the occasion to reflect on the corporatisation of minds and bodies, to question the ‘ambiguity’ of images that were poised between documentary and abstraction. The waning of reference often ascribed to a late-modernist or postmodern aesthetic is here taken to task for combining a complaisant representation of late-capitalist logistical post-urbanism with a compulsion to repeat, to imitate the coordinates of modernist abstraction. ‘Reference’ is here seen to slip from social space to aesthetics itself, as the photography performs a kind of nostalgia for pictoriality, an affiliation or aspiration to painterly abstraction. Sekula’s critique of this depoliticising modernist haunting, present in much of his critical writing on photography’s history, is powerful, but it also includes a more sympathetic caveat, as he credits Baltz’s ambiguity with the capacity to echo ‘an ambiguity and loss of referentiality already present in the built environment’. This built environment, this logistical landscape of business parks, this abode (both hidden and ubiquitous) of capitalist reproduction – in which as Walter Hopps noted you do not know whether one is manufacturing pantyhose or megadeath, or, we could add, anything at all – is itself ambiguous in the sense that it is a really abstract space, shaped to an unprecedented extent by imperatives of accumulation and standardised integration which strip it of discernible singularity. A dialectical reading of Sekula’s twofold critique of capitalist and (late) modernist abstraction, which takes Baltz’s new topographic photography as its occasion, could in turn be the object of a further dialectical twist, as we come to recognize that to a large extent the ‘falsity’ of Baltz’s representation is a falsity ‘in the things themselves’. That much, together with a specific anchoring in the atomic inception of the Anthropocene, is present in Baltz’s own writings. In a review of the fellow new topographics photographer Robert Adams influential The New West, Baltz noted how the serried sprawl of tract houses which are the subject-matter of much of Adams’s work are no longer the kind of structures we experience and perceive as true homes or shelters, but rather resemble ‘the test structures built at ground zero’.

The work of the new topographics photographers, and of their many contemporary epigones, can be usefully framed as an answer – irrespective of the artists’ and curators’ motives – to the question of how capitalism is to be represented. It is in this light that Sekula’s comment about the ‘ambiguity’ – between documentation and abstraction – that pervades Baltz’s photographs gains its full meaning. Yet this world in which ‘man’ (that imposing if precarious abstraction here standing in for a congeries of profit imperatives, legal apparatuses, settler-colonial dispositions, etc.) has altered ‘men’ out of the picture is a representation of capital that appears to block the path to anything like the aesthetic of cognitive mapping that Jameson called for in the 1980s to provide an answer – at once political, artistic and ideological – to a predicament in which a ‘situational representation’ of one’s place within the totality of capital was no longer available.

Though its concern with the representation of capital is not articulated in explicitly aesthetic terms, Jameson’s recent commentary on the first volume of Das Kapital contains what is arguably his most articulated theoretical answer to the problem of cognitive mapping, conceived as a product of the temporalizing and spatializing logic of capital. It also harbours a possible solution to the riddle posed by the persistence of depopulation as a trope in images which explicitly thematize our man-altered world, our Anthropocene without an anthropos. In a suitably dialectical twist this illumination of the infrastructures of capital, and their representations, comes in a chapter devoted to the time of Capital (and capital). Earlier in his commentary Jameson sets the stage for this investigation, by bringing our attention to the crucial role that living labour-power plays in ‘resurrecting’ the dead labour sunk or congealed in fixed capital, in a duality between resurrection-production and extinction-destruction that he posits as fundamental to capital itself (and, a fortiori, to its representations and representability).


The quantitative past represents past labour precisely by erasing its very traces. And yet this drive to extinction is also behind the overpowering of our praxis and our imaginations by dead labour – or capital spatialized and experienced as the absence of labour, the absence of ‘us’. In Jameson’s reading of Capital Volume One, this dynamic pivots around the Marxian verb auslöschen – to extinguish – identified as the linchpin of capitalist temporality, and revealing ‘the present of production’ as a restless negativity which ‘immediately converts [its] objectal result into the raw material of some other production’ in what appears as an ‘apocalyptic process’. This dialectic of extinction directly concerns the question of how, or indeed if, capital as a movement can be represented – since the capitalist process, as Marx famously notes, appears to disappear in its product. The matrix for the periodising or figural search after the problem of cognitive mapping, and its multiple aesthetic answers, is thus anchored in a simple if momentous observation of Marx, which will spawn multiple visual inquiries, from Eisenstein to Kluge, and prefigures Brecht’s famous remark on photographic realism: ‘The taste of the porridge does not tell us who grew the oats, and the process we have presented does not reveal the conditions under which it takes place, whether under the slave-owner’s brutal lash or the anxious eye of the capitalist’.

Stepping into the ‘hidden abode’ itself, contrary to a widespread realist instinct, will not break the spell of this violently endless present, since when products of past labour enter a new production process (as means of production or processed ‘raw’ materials), the fact that they are indeed products of past labour is, in Marx’s colourfully crude metaphor, ‘as irrelevant, as, in the case of the digestive system, the fact that the bread is the product of the previous labour of the farmer, the miller and the baker’. When living labour seizes these products, these ‘things’, and ‘awaken[s] them from the dead’, as Marx declares, it is not as past, but as present use-values within a labour-process over-determined by the empty, homogenizing time of exchange value. As Jameson notes the pastness, which is to say the thingness of these products, is only revealed when they break. Otherwise the labour of resurrection, labour as resurrection (itself extinguished in the product, extinguished in and by resurrection), exists in a ‘supreme present of time’. This is the time of labour as a paradoxically ‘extinguishing fire’, as (productive) consumption, which, when it comes to constant capital fixed in machines and raw materials, must (in a twofold process and temporality) both preserve and transfer the value that will retroactively be shown to have ‘slumbered’ within them, ‘raising them from the dead’. As the organic composition of capital shifts ever higher ratios toward constant rather than variable capital, machines pressing down on bodies, though the dialectic of labour’s extinguishing fire is not terminated, it is in a sense overwhelmed by ‘the immense quantity of […] part labour now deployed’.


As the individual labourer becomes but an adjunct, a supervisor (when not simply superfluous), dead labour takes center stage, or rather it becomes the stage, the man-altered landscape in which men and women increasingly appear as supplements, extras or surplus. In a crucial, and arresting passage, Jameson advances what I think is the nucleus of a powerful and far more precise (if not exhaustive) updating of the problem of cognitive mapping, which links the spatializing dynamics of constant capital directly to the collapse of time as experienced individually and historically, thus neutralizing the widespread temptation to treat cognitive mapping as a primarily spatial problem.

At the same time the dead labor embodied in machinery suddenly swells to inhuman proportions (and is properly compared to a monster or a Cyclopean machine). It is as though the reservoir, or as Heidegger would call it, the ‘standing reserve’ (Gestell), of past or dead labor was immensely increased and offered ever huger storage facilities for these quantities of dead hours, which the merely life-sized human machine-minder is nonetheless to bring back to life, on the pattern of the older production. The quantities of the past have been rendered invisible by the production process outlined above, and yet they now surround the worker in a proportion hitherto unthinkable.

I wish to pause on that ‘quantities of the past’ which so pithily encapsulates the collapsing of time into space that belongs to this dynamic. In this light, the manufactured landscapes of contemporary photography can be seen to make visible these quantities, but not as past. In this sense they accompany, rather than reveal or orient, that vast spatio-temporal estrangement that Jameson thinks in line with Sartre’s vision of an anti-praxis: man altered, alienated by man-altered landscapes, in which all praxis seems to be snuffed out, abstracted, extinguished. The disappearance of the past is an objective appearance, but it is also the form of its massive if unconscious presence. Manufactured-landscapes – and inversely the ‘ruin porn’ photography that so fascinates the contemporary imagination – thus stand revealed as ciphers of this conjuncture of the hypertrophy of the material past with the seeming vanishing of the historical past.


I want to conclude by revisiting a work by Allan Sekula, Geography Lesson: Canadian Notes, which to my mind constitutes a remarkably nuanced and incisive intervention into the question of how to represent the relationship between the rise of dead labour and the suppression from the visual and economic fields of living labour and working bodies. Geography Lesson (which follows an earlier Sketch for a Geography Lesson dwelling on the projection of America’s cold war geography onto the borderlands of West Germany, and anticipates the method and practice of Fish Story) is concerned with articulating the symptomatic practices of abstraction in the architectural design of the Bank of Canada in Ottawa with the histories of extraction, dispossession, and exploitation (but also communist union struggle) in the nickel mines of Sudbury, Ontario. The book carries as an epigram a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes on the stereograph and the possibility to create an entire ‘system of exchanges’ and equivalences out of images, which could become so many notes drawn from the ‘great Bank of Nature’.

This quote is at the centre of Sekula’s discussion of the traffic in photographs and it clearly accompanied his wrestling with the question of commodity-abstraction as both theme and content, internal determinant and external object of photographic practice. It is all the more significant then that Sekula anchors his social-geographic investigation into Canadian capitalism in the dialectic of the abstract and the concrete that defines money, and in the way this dialectic is allegorised, mystified and occluded in a physical space of capital, the Bank of Canada building, whose attempt to resolve the contradictions of the Canadian political economy in an ‘imaginary geography’ – to acknowledge and disavow settler-colonialism, to give the impression of endurance while mimicking the financial volatility of value, to hide its subalternity to the US – is the starting point of Sekula’s photo-sequence and his brief essay, both acerbic and acute examples of practical ideology critique. The questions that organise Sekula’s research are ones that the proliferating images ‘of’ finance and capital in contemporary art and photography rarely articulate, content as they often are with a registering or mimesis of the exchange-abstraction, where, to quote John Roberts’s illuminating essay on real abstraction and photographic landscape in Photography and its Violations, ‘repetition in the photograph is a metonym for abstraction in the commodity-form’, where ‘the violations of social abstraction and real abstraction become the terrain upon which a number of [contemporary] photographic practices defines their own spatial “fixing” and “unfixing”’. Sekula asks, spurred by the ironic ‘exoticism’ of Canadian currency, by the seemingly minimal difference of the northern neighbour:

If money is peculiar, simultaneously abstract and concrete, what is especially peculiar about Canadian money? What mysteries lurk in these innocent and optimistic engravings depicting a productive, industrialized Nature? How is this imagery repeated in an official architecture of Canadian finance, and within the productive (and not so productive) “landscape” itself?

It is interesting to note that Sekula muses about originally wanting to approach Arthur Erickson’s building (‘this turd in a vitrine’, he calls it) in a ‘film about money, about the circulation of commodities, and at the same time, a film about architecture, about the ideological work done by architecture’. The question of landscape is thus mediated by the work of a built form which tries to simultaneously to materialise and spiritualise the powers of currency (which in turn represents landscape on its banknotes), such that when the photo-sequence moves to the everyday life of Sudbury – the location of the nickel mines – we are not exactly provided with the ‘hidden abode’ from which to revisit the financial operations of the Canadian state, but with a powerful reminder of everything that materially, historically and physically resists the sentimental and instrumental abstractions performed by the ‘architecture of money’. The bodily metaphor is both crass and crucial:

How better to help question the metropolitan ambitions of the Canadian bourgeoisie than by approaching the Bank of Canada from its “own” peripheries, from Sudbury, a place secretly regarded by many respectable and even ecologically sensitive North Americans as the asshole of Canada? Realizing that all physiological metaphors are suspect, I’ll propose a provisional anatomy of the Canadian body politic: The brain, in Ottawa, is worrying about its asshole, forgetting its asshole, thinking about warming and fattening its ass in the tropics. This brain could be American. But perhaps the asshole has a mind of its own.

The monumental pretenses of the Bank are undermined by this antagonistic political anatomy, at the same time as the shaping pressures of abstraction and extraction on the lives and spaces of Sudbury – where years of defoliation by roasting nickel lead a local to tell Sekula: ‘Sudbury is not a landscape’, and where the struggles of communist miners were subject to Cold War suppression – mean that the periphery is not in any unproblematic sense the visible, tangible source of value.

The ‘landscape of capital’ of this geography lesson is anything but the mimesis of real abstraction that Sekula objected to in Baltz, or that collapsing of the forensic and the cosmetic (to cite what Sekula presented as two tendencies of documentation in late capitalist conditions) which haunts today’s images of fixed capital, logistics and extraction. It is instead a uniquely, even idiosyncratically dialectical reality, always populated – even if the precariously so: the maintenance workers descending into a trap in the Bank’s floor, or the tellers going through a security gate; families in the mining community in shopping centres or arcades, miners at the union local displaying pictures of past accidents, or gazing at pictures from the heyday of pit struggles. The landscapes themselves – and there are some striking ones which extracted from the sequence would have a very different standing – are redoubled by the romantic Canadian paintings hanging inside both the union local and the mining company’s offices. And the desecrating humour insists throughout, as another tool in the dialectical toolbox, no more so than in a picture of a construction worker in Ottawa besides a graffito declaiming: ‘Needed: More Banks / More Flintstones Reruns’.


As the Dockers’ Museum so thoroughly demonstrates Sekula could make visible and ‘totalise’ the abstract powers that dominate our reified lives like few others, but his critique of capital’s abstractions neither simply repeated them nor comforted us with liberal-humanist homilies about the ‘good victims’ of abstraction. The totalising imperative of a critical Marxism was always threaded through a Instead, in deep affinity with the best of Brecht, it drew on and gathered in the many resources of a kind of plebeian humour, as well as on that attention to objects, to use-values wrested from the abstractions of exchange that the German poet celebrated in ‘Weigel’s Props’. It’s a poem that provides its own commentary on The Dockers’ Museum and on what I’d like to call Sekula’s craft of communist collecting.

She selects the objects to accompany
Her characters across the stage. The pewter spoon
Which Courage sticks
In the lapel of her Mongolian jacket, the party card
For warm-hearted Vlassova and the fishing net
For the other, Spanish mother or the bronze bowl
For dust-gathering Antigone. Impossible to confuse
The split bag which the working woman carries
For her son’s leaflets, with the moneybag
Of the keen tradeswoman. Each item
In her stock is hand picked

Selected for age, function and beauty
By the eyes of the knowing
The hands of the bread-baking, net weaving
Soup-cooking connoisseur
Of reality.

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One Response to Landscapes of Capital

  1. Pingback: Anthropocene and Landscape of Debris | The Not So Solid Earth

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