The Human Chameleon


robert in the box


Fordist modernism understood that inserting the individual into a larger, overarching plan—be it for a city or a corporation—would appear to give a logical rationale to the process of mass industrialization while providing a theological relief from the uncertainties of modernity, creating a sort of Hawthorne Effect in the public realm. If initially the plan forced individuals to look inward and discipline themselves, the need for constant adjustment and better guidance led Fordist modernism to more explicitly guide individuals from outside. Through the Stimulus Progression, Muzak was an early form of such human programming. Turning to the background condition instead of plans is a more contemporary approach that does away with the need to guide individuals directly.

For the contemporary world the plan, which addresses the individual as an individual, is too direct. We do not mean to suggest that Althusser’s idea that ideology interpellates the individual was wrong, only that individuals are increasingly dissolving and that interpellation is the last thing that power needs. On the contrary, both plan and ideology are obsolete. Instead, the background condition does away with the need to guide individuals directly. Background conditions are passively effective, they simply offer individuals the seductive freedom to join in and become a part of something greater instead of actively demanding allegiance.

In “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia,” Roger Caillois observes how the process of mimicry amongst animals and insects is not so much a defensive measure as an overwhelming drive. The Phyllia, for example, looks like a leaf so much that it is prone to eating its own kind. Mimicry is not necessary for many insects, who have other defenses or are otherwise inedible. Instead, Caillois observes what he calls an “instinct of renunciation” that leads creatures to a reduced form of existence in which the organism can lose its distinction from the world and consciousness and feeling can cease. Caillois points out that in our contemporary world space is far more complex. The subject is undermined within these spaces from the start.

With the Stimulus Progression abandoned for Atmospherics, and the plan replaced by the background, the individual becomes a human chameleon, lacking either strong sense of self or a guiding plan, but instead constantly looking outward for social cues, seeking an appropriate background condition to settle upon so as to comfortably lose distinction from the world.

Today, difference itself has attained its own level of banality and acceptance. Ever since Marlo Thomas and Steve Jobs, the media machine ritualistically admonishes us to “Be Yourself” and “Think Different” to the point that we cannot understand what is genuine difference and what is contrived for the sake of appearance. Such difference for its own sake is akin to Internet porn: an endless proliferation of images, each meant to arouse and titillate more than the others. Although in the early twentieth century the individual still feared reification, or being turned into a thing by the Fordist system, the human chameleon finds that identifying with the system of objects or images is easy. The human chameleon seeks cues from things as well as from other beings. If not a Mies chair or Karim Rashid, then perhaps something from Pier 1 imports or Pottery Barn will do.

Unable to find progress or direction, the human chameleon follows Freud’s Pleasure Principle, seeking to blend in to its surroundings but, when that gets to be too much, breaks with them and seeks out a new environment to identify with. This can happen at various scales. We can choose our citizenship, our religion, our career, our sexual practices, even our gender. We can identify with our diverse friends, family members, ad models, television actors, serial killers, porn stars, cartoon characters such as Dilbert, and Internet avatars at will. We find pleasure in the process of identification as we see others with the same desires we have. We are less and less distinct individuals and more and more surfers on a wave of mass subjectivities held by many people all at once. In order to function within the contemporary city, we have all become human chameleons without a sense of home. Beyond merely moving from place to place, we move from self to self according to the social conditions we find ourselves in.

As the most visible products of society that literally shaped our environment, buildings have always provided social cues. Architecture creates group relationships by articulating moods and milieus within the ubiquitous horizontality of the contemporary urban realm. In the continuous construction of the posturban realm, architecture now takes on the same role that Muzak played within the office block. It adds color to our lives. Sometimes it is fast, sometimes it is slow. On rare, special occasions, it is engaging, more often it is banal and background. Architectural gestures that signal “individuality,” such as those of Art Deco, postmodernism, or deconstructivism require difference or shock-value in order to be effective. None of these gestures can be sustained indefinitely. Instead, individual works of architecture now become examples of Atmospherics: a relationship between emotional forms whereby a sense of movement, from effect to effect, is generated for the multitude to experience. Stimulus Progression is replaced by Quantum Modulation. We no longer change to create growth and make progress, but to make one day progress differently than the others. The variation of stimuli within the built environment helps us to remain engaged with the world by adjusting to constant change.

Architecture first fully realizes its potential with the mirror glass curtain wall building, developed in the 1970s. The reflections of the structure’s surroundings in the surface creates a façade of infinite variation while the disappearance of clearly defined window openings replaces the bourgeois notion of the individual with a limitless free space. Transparency is replaced not with opacity but with the image of the city itself in perpetual flux. Just as Muzak ordered the background condition of the late modern office building, Muzak now makes possible the contemporary condition in which the city itself becomes a background condition, rendering the delirious vertical expressiveness of the skyscraper and signature object obsolete. Just as contemporary culture can absorb any content, the contemporary urban realm is capable of absorbing any amount of difference. Just as the horizontal office building made obsolete the skyscraper, new telecommunications technology—cell phones, email, and instant messaging—have made the horizontal world of office landscape obsolete. Physical boundaries no longer impede communication and open space no longer enables it.

Instead, office plans merely become infill, endlessly adapting to real estate footprints. Previously a marker of difference and visibility, architecture is now a background condition. But architecture does not merely go away, it is transformed instead as every gesture and emotion produced through architectural form becomes a variation along a stimulus progression deployed throughout the city. Minimalism, the Blob, and the Spanish Revival seamlessly coexist in the city without qualities.

In the absence of real public spaces and collective icons, empty visual markers are developed to signify the presence of culture within a city. A tacit agreement has been reached between developers and urban planners: cutting edge concert halls and museums, McMansions, historic districts, and limitless sprawl co-exist merrily in the contemporary city. This urban condition makes possible the necessary illusion that individuation and autonomy remain options even as society continues to move toward an immaterial culture. Recent advertisements for downtown living verify this, suggesting that if one lives high up enough, one can dispense with curtains and clothes. In 1977 Jacques Attali wrote: “No organizing society can exist without structuring differences at its core. No market economy can develop without erasing those differences in mass-production. The self-destruction of capitalism lies in this contradiction, in the fact that music leads a deafening life: an instrument of differentiation, it has become a locus of repetition." Twenty years later, we are deep in the “crisis of proliferation” he predicted. As the lessons of industrial psychology and Muzak suggest, even meaningless change and variation makes us feel like someone or something is responding to us, filling the deadly silence of the city with a form of simulated interaction. Likewise, contemporary architecture creates a catalogue of prefigured affective conditions that allow for variation while accepting that mass difference is a fundamental requirement for living with total universalization. Deleuze’s idea of difference in repetition now becomes the prime operating principle for capital.