Why is it that everyone remembers his punishment but no one remembers his crime?
After violating the goddess Xenia’s laws of hospitality, Sisyphus seduced his niece Tyro, only for Tyro to slay the children she bore by him when she discovered that Sisyphus was planning on eventually using them to dethrone her father, Sisyphus’ brother and rival. The implacable Zeus then ordered the god of death, Thanatos, to take Sisyphus to the underworld, but Sisyphus tricked Thanatos and chained him up, resulting in disaster on land because nobody could die. When Sisyphus was finally sentenced to execution, he tricked his wife by demanding that upon his death she throw his naked body in the city square to prove her love for him. He then used this as a sign of her disrespect for him, in order to be granted access to the upper world again – ostensibly in order to publicly scold her for not giving him a proper funeral, as a loving wife should.
He was a scandal!
Finally condemned to push an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll straight back down, ad infinitum, Sisyphus would famously become Albert Camus’s absurdist hero, whose “whole being is exerted towards accomplishing nothing”, and whom we “must imagine as happy.”[i] Emphasising the notion of repetition for its own sake, Camus was in fact repeating ideas expressed previously by the Japanese philosopher Kuki Shūzō. Fourteen years before the publication of Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, Kuki had given a lecture in France, wherein he declared that we should imagine Sisyphus, with his “firm and certain will of always beginning again,” as happy. “He perpetually renews his effort. Is there suffering, is there punishment, in this act? I do not understand,” said Kuki, “Sisyphus should be happy, being capable of a perpetual repetition of dissatisfaction.”[ii]
A (happy?) slinky on a treadmill. A single gesture, dispossessed of its capacity to move forward, repeated for three and a half minutes, and viewed on YouTube three and a half million times (as of October 2012). Unlike the Fordist conveyor belt that divided up time and labour into achievable units, each completion here folds back on itself. The immediately anthropomorphised slinky is propelled onwards by its own momentum, but each motion is cancelled out by the reiteration of the same. This is the paradox of the Modernist notion of ‘progress’: with the indefinite postponement of closure, it demands that we strive for it but never reach it.
Moishe Postone has described what she terms the “treadmill effect”[iii] that occurs under capitalism, paradoxically, with its demand for accumulation. Because there is always more to acquire, the arrow of time loops back on itself. The treadmill makes us run in place, so step-by-step becomes step-on-top-of-step. But can self-consciously redundant gestures of replication also work to resist processes of objectification, commodification and accumulation?
Bea Fremderman’s two-minute-thirteen-second video loop, Kafka Office (2012), presents us with a generic grey space of regulated and enforced productivity, where nothing passes besides time itself – with the cyclical passage of day to night, on repeat. This sort of exaggerated, staged inefficacy asks if we can find a way to proceed without progressing; if we can use tautology to resist teleology. This sort of exaggerated, staged inefficacy asks if we can find a way to proceed without progressing; if we can use tautology to resist teleology.
“Meaningless work is obviously the most important and significant art form today.” (Walter de Maria, 1960)
Before he was punished, Sisyphus had fought progression. He attempted to disrupt the linear transferral of the throne, he halted the human passage from life to death, and he rapaciously refused his own divinely dictated fate. As the only possible retribution his existence would be condemned to eternal redundancy, where he can never be done with what he has nevertheless already finished. Refusing to meet his end, he was to be punished with endlessness – action without purpose, perpetually unconsummated process where achievement would be impossible, since the completion of each gesture would roll back to its own beginning. But perhaps this punishment only amounted to the highest reward, and purposive purposelessness is an ideal towards which we can all aspire? Kuki Shūzō in 1928: “it is the enterprise that interests us, not the goal.”
This text appears in the parallel publication for Reality Considerations (for the sake of), curated by Eleanor Ivory Weber. Exhibition continues until December 2 2012 at 55 Sydenham Rd in Sydney. On November 24 at 4pm in the gallery Eleanor and I will hold a counter-productive conversation on fashion.
[i] Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien, Penguin Books – Great Ideas, 2005
[ii] Kuki, Shūzō. “The Idea of Time and the Repossession of Time in the Orient” in Sourcebook For Modern Japanese Philosophy: Selected Documents trans. and ed. David A. Dilworth, Valdo H. Viglielmo, Agustin Jacinto Zavala, Greenwood Press, 1998
[iii] Postone, Moishe. Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory, Cambridge University Press, 2003