Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq

In fact, on the morning of 31 October, Jed received an e-mail accompanied by an untitled text of about fifty pages, which he immediately forwarded to Marylin and Franz, although he was a bit concerned: wasn’t it too long? Marylin assured him immediately: on the contrary, she said, it was always preferable “to go big”.

Even if today it is considered an historical curiosity, Houellebecq’s text – the first of this size devoted to Martin’s work – nonetheless contains some interesting intuitions, Beyond the variations of themes and techniques, he asserts for the first time the unity of the artist’s work, and discovers a deep logic in the fact that having devoted his formative years to hunting for the essence of the world’s manufactured products, he is interested, during the second half of his life, in their producers.

Jed Martin’s view of the society of his time, Houellebecq stresses, is that of an ethnologist much more than that of a political commentator. Martin, he insists, is in no way a committed artist, and even if The Stock Exchange Flotation of Shares in Beate Uhse , one of the rare crowd scenes, is reminiscent of the expressionist period, we are very far from the scathing, caustic treatment of a George Grosz or an Otto Dix. His traders in running shoes and hooded sweatshirts, who acclaim with blasé world weariness the great German porn businesswoman, are the direct descendants of the suited bourgeois who meet endlessly in the receptions directed by Fritz Lang in the Mabuse films; they are treated with the same detachment, the same objective coldness. In his titles as in his painting itself, Martin is always simple and direct: he describes the world, rarely allowing himself a poetic notation or a subtitle serving as commentary. He does this, however, in one of his most successful works, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology, which he chose to subtitle The Conversation at Palo Alto.

Sunk in a wicker chair, Bill Gates was spreading his arms out wide while smiling at his interlocutor. He was dressed in canvas trousers and a khaki short-sleeved shirt; his bare feet were in flip-flops. It was no longer the Bill Gates in a sea-blue suit at the time when Microsoft was consolidating its global dominion, as when he himself, dethroning the Sultan of Brunei, became the world’s richest man. Nor was it yet the concerned, sorrowful Bill Gates, visiting Sri Lankan orphanages or calling on the international community to be vigilant about the outbreak of smallpox in West Africa. It was an intermediary Bill Gates, relaxed, manifestly happy about retiring from his post as chairman of the planet’s biggest software business; in short, a Bill Gates on holiday. Only his metal-framed glasses, with their strongly magnifying lenses, recalled his past as a nerd.

In front of him, Steve Jobs, although sitting cross-legged on the while leather sofa, seemed paradoxically an embodiment of austerity, of the Sorge traditionally associated with Protestant capitalism. There was nothing Californian in the way his hand clutched his jaw as if to help him in some difficult reflection, nothing in the look full of uncertainty which he sent his interlocutor; and even the Hawaiian shirt that Martin had decked him out in did nothing to dispel the impression of a general sadness produced by his slightly slumped position, and by the expression of disarray that could be read in his features.

The encounter, quite obviously, took place in Steve Jobs’s home. A mixture of coolly designed white furniture and brightly colored ethnic draperies, everything in the room recalled the aesthetic universe of the founder of Apple, the polar opposite of the profusion of high-tech gadgets, at the limit of science fiction, which, legend would have it, characterized the home of the founder of Microsoft had built in the Seattle suburbs. Between the two men, a chessboard with handcrafted wooden pieces sat on a coffee table; they had just interrupted the game in a stage unfavorable to the blacks – namely to Jobs.

In certain pages of his autobiography, The Road Ahead, Bill Gates occasionally lets slip what could be considered total cynicism – particularly in the passage where he confesses quite plainly that it is not necessarily advantageous for a business to offer the most innovative products. More often it is preferable to observe what the competitors are doing (and there he clearly refers, without using the name, to Apple), to let them bring out their products, confront the difficulties inherent in any innovation, and, in a way, surmount the initial problems; then, in a second phase, to flood the market by offering low-price copies of the competing products. This apparent cynicism is not, however, as Houellebecq stresses, the true nature of Gates; this is expressed instead in the surprising, almost touching passages in which he reasserts his faith in capitalism, in the mysterious “invisible hand”; his absolute, unshakable conviction that whatever the vicissitudes and apparent counter-examples, the market is always identical to the general good. It is then that the fundamental truth about Bill Gates appears, as a creature of faith, and it is this faith, this candor of the sincere capitalist, that Jed Martin was able to render by portraying him, arms wide open, warm and friendly, his glasses gleaming in the last rays of the sun setting on the Pacific Ocean. Jobs, however, made thin by illness, his face careworn and dotted with stubble, sorrowfully leaning on his right hand, is reminiscent of one of those traveling evangelists who, on finding himself preaching for perhaps the tenth time to a small and indifferent audience, is suddenly filled with doubt.

And yet it was Jobs, motionless, weakened, in a losing position, who gave the impression of being the aster of the game; such was, according to Houellebecq’s text, the profound paradox of the canvas. In his eyes stilled burned that flame common not only to preachers and prophets but also to the inventors so often described by Jules Verne. By looking more closely at the position of Job’s chess pieces as portrayed by Martin, you realized that it was not necessarily a losing one; and that Jobs could, by sacrificing his queen, conclude in three moves with an audacious bishop-knight checkmate. Similarly, you had the sense that he could, through the brilliant intuition of a new product, suddenly impose new norms on the market. Through the bay window behind them could be made out a landscape of meadows, of an almost surreal emerald green, gently descending to the line of cliffs, where they joined a forest of conifers. Farther away , the Pacific Ocean unfurled its endless golden-brown waves. On the lawn, some young girls had started a game of Frisbee. Evening was falling, magnificently, in the explosion of a sun that Martin had wanted to be almost improbable in its orangey magnificence, setting on northern California, and the evening was falling on the most advanced part of the world; it was that too, that indefinite sadness of farewells, which could be read in Jobs’s eyes.

Two convinced supporters of the market economy; to resolute supporters of the Democratic Party’ and yet two opposing facets of capitalism, as different as a banker in Balzac could be from Verne’s engineer. The Conversation in Palo Alto, Houellebecq stressed in his conclusion, was far too modest a subtitle; instead, Jed Martin could have entitled his painting A Brief History of Capitalism, for that, indeed, is what it was.

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