"The only philosophy which can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. Knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption: all else is reconstruction, mere technique. Perpsectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will one day appear in the messianic light. To gain such perspectives without velleity or violence, entirely from felt contact with its objects -- this alone is the task of thought."
-Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. 247.
According to art historians, the vibrant and teeming city-scapes of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) are, in fact, pencil drawings filmed using a stop-motion camera technique. Thus, the impression of a city in motion was made by filming the subtle erasure and re-drawing of the lines of an urban landscape on paper without ever capturing the hand of the artist at work. Lang has therefore given us a truly utopian image of the metropolis. It is his genius to have conceived of cities and their inhabitants as works of art in the process of being unmade and remade, accounted for and erased. Here, the polis is literally figured as a Gesamtkunstwerk  without an artist. This is how the politics of our era would seem, if we could consider them from the standpoint of redemption.
. Gesamtkunstwerk -- Wagner uses this exact term only once in his long essay "The Artwork of the Future." The most literal translation is probably "total work of art," and refers to a genuinely utopian moment -- at some point in the not so distant future -- in which art will realize its oneness with life and seize hold of this possibility.
But it must also be noted that this standpoint is impossible and potentially escapist. The most utopian of thoughts risk being given over -- unconsciously and therefore calamitously, Adorno writes -- to the world as it actually exists, emancipated only to to be enslaved to necessity. This is the danger of all properly speaking utopian perspectives, all attempts to redeem this or that artifact of culture. Utopian thinking and works of art are not, for all that, worthless. On the contrary, as thought approaches the limit of its own impossibility, it discovers what is possible.
It is in the spirit of the above remarks that I would like to share my favorite work of art from Burningman 2010. It is not out of some attempt to promote or defend the event, or to convince you that Black Rock City is some sort of utopia, that I will offer a humble criticism of the brilliant installation, Ein Hammer. Rather, it is with something like the relish of a novice laboratory technician, who recorded his errant thoughts concerning some great mad scientist's experiment in a spiral-bound notebook, that I share some photos, video and thoughts about this project. As any good lab tech knows, the atmosphere and excitement of such a thing cannot be recreated in any sort of prose. You'll have to take my word for it when I claim that it was truly awesome.
First, a video introduction to give you the basic concept.
Taken on its most basic level, the installation is clearly only a modification of the ubiquitous "strongman" carnival game (also called "the high striker"). According to the traditions of this game, participants (usually male) line up to take turns smashing a hammer upon a spring loaded lever, which, if struck with enough force, propels a puck up a tube or grooved track. Participants strength is measured by the distance traveled by the puck up the length of a tower, the pinnacle of which being a bell that when rung ensures that the participant walks away with some cheap trinket like a big fluffy teddy bear. The game was usually attended by a huckster who goaded participants to prove their masculinity by testing their strength before an group of spectators. According to the social scripts surrounding this game and others like it, the victorious male participant would give the prize to his female date amidst a round of applause from spectators. In other words, as it is typically played, the game is nothing other than a pissing contest between men, who compete with one another to prove to their strength and masculinity to a crowd.
However, most carnival games -- and the high striker is no exception here -- were susceptible to slight mechanical modifications which could "rig" the game. A simple carnival game involving a huckster and player became a means of defrauding an individual or crowd through gaining their confidence. Hence, so-called "confidence games" with a confidence man (con man, con artist) and his "mark" (or sucker) who was so called because carnival men would mark any individual who they could successfully trick into playing a rigged game by patting him or her on the back with a chalk covered hand. Other con artists would then be able to recognize the mark and entice such individuals to play their rigged games.
I stumbled across an interesting description of the way in which the high striker was rigged in the Popular Mechanics archive from Febuary of 1935.
Ringing the bell of the “high striker” at the county fair appears to be easy when the operator, frequently a small man, tries it. On the other hand strong men find it difficult. The explanation is simple. At some fairs, the machine is “fixed” so that the operator controls the tension of the wire on which the counter block rides. If the wire is tight, the counter block slides freely to the top of the machine, but if the wire is slightly slack, it vibrates sufficiently to retard the progress of the block. The vibration is set up by the player’s mallet striking the trip arm. A trick lever, sometimes hidden under a loose board in the platform at the side of the machine, may be depressed by the operator by standing on the loose board. By depressing this lever, the showman forces a steel pin against the bottom bracket holding the guide wire. This causes the bracket to bend slightly and reduces some of the tension of the wire. Thus, the operator may control the play permitting the bell to be rung or preventing a strong man from ringing it.
Royce A. Nookes and William W. Gordon filed the first U.S. patent for a "striking-machine" in 1908. Their patent application references the pre-existence of other such devices, so we can reasonably assume that the strongman game was actually a late nineteenth century, fin-de-siècle invention. This historical point seems important to me for the following reason: the game can only function within a social world in which one's individual strength needs proving. It is sustained by a libidinal fantasy that strength is individual rather than collective. In this respect, the strongman game is truly an invention of the fin-de-siècle bourgeois subject, a fact which is in no way diminished by the popularity of carnivals among the working class. The spectacle provided by the machine also creates a crowd of spectators who are either impressed or disappointed by an individual's strength. The strongman game could only sustain the interest of spectators so long as there was an anxiety concerning the status of prospective participant's masculinity; otherwise, an angry crowd could demonstrate their collective might by tearing down a rigged machine and setting upon the con artist. This is the originary dramatic mis-en-scène of the high striker.
How does Ein Hammer, which I will assume most of you did not have the privilege of experiencing, displace or estrange the original social world of the strongman game? Does it reveal the cracks and crevices of that world -- which is to say those of our own world -- or expose it to be warped and impoverished? To ask these questions is to ask whether or not the installation opens up a standpoint of redemption for considering a century old carnival game. It is to ask whether or not people "played" with Ein Hammer as children play with disused objects and long forgotten games, not in order to restore the object or game to its cannonical use, but in order to free this game from that use for good.
To achieve this redemptive standpoint on an old carnival game, Ein Hammer would have to affect a radical process of unlearning the original rules and social scripts of the strongman game, and through this process of unlearning create new rules and social scripts. This process of unlearning and re-creation must also be fun because, after all, no one wants to play a rigged game or submit themselves, grim-faced, to some miserable social experiment.
Observe the magnificence of Ein Hammer in action and decide for yourself...
Observe the dancing fraulines...and the line to participate