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His Rock Is His Thing

His Rock is His Thing

Playing with the Myth of Sisyphus, One Interactive Button, and the Flicker of the Baroque

"His rock is his thing." [1]

On a leisurely rereading "The Myth of Sisyphus" I was struck by how Camus uses the myth as a story of meaning after god. Camus imagines the moments when Sisyphus is free to reflect as he walks back down the hill behind his rolling rock. His meaning and his happiness are his rock. There is no escaping that rock because without the time of push work there would be no time left between for reflection. In the pivotal turn back and the re-turn down, there is time to reflect on your fate in the middle, again, of business. Such is life up and down in the underworld.

"Sisyphus returning towards his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which becomes his fate ..."

In the play of translations where a word like "rock" brought from English to translate "rocher" from French brings unintended meanings (into play), "rock" reminds me of play, in its simple sense of repetitive movement, as in "playing with a button". Not that Sisyphus is playing condemned, it is after all his fate. Sisyphus is not playing because he can't escape the absurd pushing and returning, even if absurd repetition, when voluntary can be play. The myth of Sisyphus is instead the image of the relationship between work and play - the pushing work uphill and then the evening respite of return when you have the leisure to think again.

"I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again."

I want to push this myth further along to become the story of interactivity. If the age of enlightenment was under the gaze of vision, the present neoBaroque epoch is under the push of the button. The button, whether it is the On button on your iPod or the stylized simularcra on the screen, is the simplest sign of interactivity. If the "flaneur" was the modern wastrel looking at the arcades lit up by his taste, the neoBaroque surfer-slacker is a clicker and masher of buttons. It was flaneurs and tourists up to the age of rock; now is the age when our ironic liquid crystal vision flickers and we feel the hard pulsing sound of subwoofers, a sound that pounds us into participation.

This neoBaroque age is really one specific type of the many post-modernisms that follow a classical or modern age. Just as all the previous baroques, this age is particular in its spectacular excess. It is also baroque in its playful repetition, and that is where the rock of Sisyphus returns - this age comes down and goes back up. It is pushed away by serious work and rolls back when we turn. It is not an age with clean edges that can be said to have started then with Camus because it is fated to repeatedly play hide-and-seek with modernity. What is different about each returning baroque is the acceleration of return and repetition. Like a cheap neon light this age has begun to flicker as we alternate faster. Sisyphus took his time rolling rocks up and had (some) time for reflection on the way down. With our ubiquitous twittering technology we flip between work and leisure so fast there is no reflection, just flicker. I'm afraid we will fool ourselves into thinking this flicker is animation - the giving of life - that faster rocking is better life.

Vision is a paradigm for an age aware of distance which hopes that there is progress over the horizon. Vision is the first way to collapse distance by seeing more and more through theory. Rocking is how we respond to the possibility that all is repetition, that distance has been erased and that there is no better or worse just alternation. Rocking is in repetition including the repetition we all know from everyday life between the pushing chores and the bits of quiet in between when you can turn, look back (because there is no forward to look forward to) and walk down your fate of a life, the one thing you made while rocking and rolling.

For readers of Walter Benjamin's discussion of art the photograph is the image of how modernity is reproduced; the image is the culmination of all those enlightenment metaphors. For us and for interactivity we can't use the photograph - it is too visual, though it does always look back nostalgically as Barthes has pointed out. Instead we substitute a gesture and propose the click of the button as the move of the neoBaroque because it is a gesture repeated everywhere in the night light of computing. It is the clicking of keys as I type. It is the virtual buttons on my iPod Touch. It is the clicking of links on web page - the mouseDown that shows you have the button's attention and the mouseUp that triggers the "message" that intercepted by the object script runs the appropriate machine process. Clicking is the interface between our gesture and that coded behind the button to interact with us. We are not reflected in view but in process.

For artists the shift from modern to neoBaroque is the shift from catching a gaze in a photograph to now grasping of a process in code, something inaugurated when Turning showed us how algorithms can be quantized and machined. Movement, play, action, and interactivity have all become tractable, and therefore repeatable, in our retooled baroque age and the clicking is the simplest way of poking someone or turning something on (or off) - that rocking back and forth of states of the digital age. We think with interactivity we have freedom, but as Lev Manovich reminds us, we have the interactivity of buttons which just rock us back and forth between pre-determined states like flashing neon lights. Our interactivity is machined to be rolled up and down, repeated over and over, from level to level, and that's what we do until we die. For Camus there is still a way to imagine happiness by finding our freedom not in the absurdity of the repetitive act, but in the returning turn.

Sisyphus is the myth of our night age the way Narcissus was the myth of reflected modernity. His rock is his thing ... not just in the sense of that boulder he rolls again and again, but also in our mistranslated sense of the rocking back and forth that can be play or work (or alternate between play and work). The freedom turned, such as it is, is only ours. It is the play in the system in the sense of the looseness of buttons you can fiddle, the turn of handles before the lock engages, or the mouseDown without the triggering mouseUp; these moments of play that don't yet change their states. It is the play of words that don't translate the way functions do.

"Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."

Camus had this right, we don't need anything more than the struggle up and rock down. There may be nothing more until death, but that alternation is still something. In the wiggle room between clicking down and letting go to the machine there is moment of imagination.

"One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

An in that imagining we volunteer to play even if we had no choice.

Note 1: All the quotes are from the last page of "The Myth of Sisyphus", page 91.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida': Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.

Benjamin, Walter. "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". Trans. Andy Blunden.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus & Other Essays. Trans. Justin O'Brien. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.

Manoich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001.

Ndalianis, Angela. Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005.



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