Cicero in Junktime: Hito Steyerl’s Lorem Ipsum

A while ago, when researching the use of Latin by contemporary artists, I came across three works that used the dummy Latin, design proxy text known as Lorem ipsum. It is a repeating section of Latin that was been taken from Cicero’s De finibus bonorum et malorum.

It begins:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit.

Whereas the original text reads:

neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit

(“There is no one who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain”).

Andrea Zittel’s Tellus Interdum, 2011, is an issue of the local newspaper, printed in Yucca Valley near the artist’s house in Joshua Tree, California, in which all of the content has been replace by Lorem ipsum.

This is how the artist describes Lorem Ipsum:

[It is] a placeholder text used by graphic designers – It is generated using Latin phrases with words that have been altered, added or removed, in order to make it nonsensical in meaning, but allow the structure to supersede it.

While Zittel turns to Lorem ipsum to reflect on the tension between structure and meaning at a general level, transforming a whole text into this Latin placeholder, Ryan Gander’s A Future Lorem Ipsum, 2006, examines this tension at the level of the single word. The work is a black and white photograph depicting someone with a mirror attempting to show how an invented word Mitim is a physical palindrome. The word is MITIM and is an acronym for The Man with the Iron Mask. At the same time, this word/acronym could also be the mirroring of the word MIT, whereby Gander replaces the manipulated Latin of Lorem ipsum with the German word.

The artist who has, as far as I know, shown the most sustained engagement with and use of Lorem ipsum in her work is Hito Steyerl. When I was doing my research on this topic, I found her piece ‘Lorem Ipsum’ in the volume Intersubjectivity Vol. 1: Language and Misunderstanding. (I wrote about Alain Badiou’s essay in this volume in a previous post, see here).

The two-page text comprises a body of Lorem ipsum with a commentary in the margins. The commentary written as the ‘we’ of the editors, refers to Steyerl in the third person. Nonetheless, since no other contributions in the volume have an editorial commentary or introduction, and the project is about language and subjectivity, there is every possibility that Steyerl, not the editors, wrote this text. Here is how the commentary begins:

Hito Steyerl’s consistent practice of using the placeholder text known as “Lorem ipsum” in instances where she is asked for a piece of writing touches on a number of important aspects of the way language and subjectivity interact. When we first became acquainted with Steyerl’s obfuscatory gesture, we were interested in the way in which her use of “Lorem ipsum” mirrored concerns in concrete poetry.

But this comparison leads the ‘editors’ to reflect on how, unlike concrete poems, like John Hollander’s “Swan and Shadow”, in which ‘the lexical content is only one means by which the writer communicates with an audience”, also using the visual means of the placement of the words on the page, Steyerl’s use of Lorem ipsum creates a ‘second-order concretism’. This is done, they claim, by the redirecting of the visual structure of words on the page (e.g. as a swan and its shadow) into ‘the visual properties of the letters and punctuation marks themselves’. In this way, Steyerl or the editors note:

“Lorem ipsum” becomes  a sophisticated intersubjective device, a battlefront in a struggle to relocate the properties of meaning and significance away from their historic linguistic and lexical loci onto the materialized glyphs by which these properties of cognitive processes are represented in documents.

(But has Steyerl completely abandoned the visual structure of the text completely? If you look at the two-page piece from a distance, can you make out an image? My partner, Rebeka, said she saw two combs, while my son, Eneko, told me that he could make out the letters IEEI. For me, when I look at Lorem Ipsum’s mutilated jumble in the center and the commentary on the edges, I cannot help thinking of Cicero’s hands cut off and ending up being nailed to the rostra on the Forum Romanum following his assassination. But that’s just me.

Elsewhere, Steyerl does not completely forget the origin of “Lorem ipsum” in Cicero’s De finibus. In an online article, that I just found, called The Terror of Total Dasein: Economies of Presence in the Art Field (which was first delivered as a lecture n 2015), Steyerl returns to Cicero in several intriguing ways. Rather than write a commentary on Steyerl’s Cicero, below I have merely inserted her text, with accompanying images and footnotes. The next voice you here is that of Hito Steyerl.

 

A stand-in or proxy is a very interesting device. It could be a body double or a stunt double. A scan or a scam. An intermediary in a network. A bot or a decoy. Inflatable tanks or text dummies. A militia deployed in proxy warfare. A template. A readymade. A vectorized bit of stock imagery. All these devices have just one thing in common: they help out with classic dilemmas arising from an economy of presence.

Here is an example of such a device. It is one of the simplest examples of desktop proxy and quite widespread. Everyone has seen this generic sample text:

“Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.”

Developed as a printer’s font sample, design proxy Lorem Ipsum was integrated into standard desktop publishing software as a random text dummy. It became a cornerstone of text-based digital industries and their forms of ADHD occupation.

Image by Caroline Ballegaard.

 

Why is it used? Because maybe there is no copy. Perhaps the text has not yet been written or aggregated. Or there is no time or money to fill the space at all. Perhaps the writer is dead or asleep or busy on a different tab. In the meantime the space has to be designed. Advertisements have been sold already. The deadline swiftly rolls near. This is when „Lorem ipsum“ swings into action. It is a dummy providing yet another extension, catering to a demand for eternal and relentless presence.

But Lorem Ipsum is not only a dummy. One can also understand it as a text. It is a fragment of a treatise on ethics by Cicero4 called „On the Ends of Good and Evil“. In this treatise, different definitions or goods and evils are compared. And the precise fragment deals with pain: or rather a shortened down version of it namely „(pa-)in itself“.

Lets focus on the original sentence’s meaning. It reads: „Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet consectetur adipisci velit.“ It means: “Neither is there anyone who loves, pursues or desires pain itself because it is pain, but there can be cases where labour and pain can procure some great pleasure.“ So basically it is about sucking up for some greater good to arrive later. It is a classical case of deferred gratification, which would later constitute one of the moral pillars of the protestant work ethic of capitalism.

But what actually does the Lorem Ipsum version mean? It has been cut up to take away the gratification altogether.

It translates: in of itself, because it is pain, but circumstances occur in which labor and pain can procure him some great (…)

The Lorem Ipsum version has blithely cut off pleasure or reward from Cicero’s sentence. There is no more gratification. So now you are not enduring pain for some greater good or thereafter but just enduring it without actually knowing why. There may just as well be no outcome, no product, no pay, no end. In Lorem Ipsum pain is not means to an end but it just so happens.

Xavier Cha, Body Drama, 2011, Installation view.

 

Junktime, the fragmented time of networked occupation is to continuous time as “Lorem ipsum“ is to it´s original. It´s fragments are scrambled, cut up, shut up and confused in their sequence, spoiling the glow of uninterrupted flow of text and meaning. And every time I read Lorem Ipsums mutilated jumble, I cannot help thinking of Cicero’s head and hands cut off and ending up being nailed to the rostra on the Forum Romanum following his assassination.

There is an interesting variation of Lorem Ipsum on the website of Berghain gay sexclub laboratory. It shows some interesting differences to standard Lorem Ispum. First of all, it is on the rules of conduct site of the club, so that the Lorem Ispum sentences actually become the code of conduct.5

There are quite a few differences to the standard Cicero mash up. The word pleasure, or a variation thereof has been reintroduced in this version. It also goes on praising the virtues of physical exercise, which makes total sense in a place which has an athlete fetish party on offer. This version loops back between pain, toil as pleasure and physical exercise or sports.

The rules of conduct of the sexclub become an extremely stressful sounding set of instructions in which the pursuit of pleasure, labor and physical exercise forms an endless loop: you have to find pleasure through work, then work out and have sex in this order and without any break. Then repeat. It sounds like the junktime version of Churchill’s famous quip: If are are going through hell just keep going. Just now there is no more exit and if you keep going it just means there will be more hell ahead.

But the Lorem Ipsum set of rules of engagement could also be read differently. In the sense that the mix of pleasure, sports and pain is so exhausting, that one would rather send a proxy or dummy or Lorem Ipsum itself -, to have all the sex, pain, toil and sports on one’s behalf. Because frankly, to keep going in this mode is just too time consuming, and additionally, it might become slightly cumbersome to check your emails while you are doing it. So just leave it to Lorem Ipsum to take care of it on your behalf and manage your absenteeism.

Perhaps the preoccupation with stock footage, serialised stock photography of commodities, all sorts of templates for creative labour, copy and paste, aggregation but also the fascination with corporate aesthetics and the corporation as proxy could be seen as potentially responding to the need to be absent. All these are proxys that one can use on behalf of oneself or ones work. Is this some sort of applied absenteeism? A sneaky boycott of constant presence? Using stock footage and templates is kind of the equivalent of periodically saying “awesome” to pretend one is listening to an annoying conversation, while one has left behind laser cut stand-up displays to fake participation and attendance in actually several places.

The point is: people use proxies in order to deal with the Terror of Total Dasein or an economy of presence based on the technologically amplified scarcity of human attention and physical presence. Even Strike organiser Djordjevic started pursuing a form of proxy politics after the failed art strike.

He stopped making art under his name. Years later he remerged as technical assistant for a certain Walter Benjamin’s recent lecture tours and kind of has represented him ever since. Whether Benjamin himself is on strike is not known.

Guillaume Desanges, A History of Performance in Twenty Minutes, June 10, 2010, performance-lecture, Guillaume Desanges with Hélène Miesel

 

4. (derived from sections 1.10.32–3 of De finibus bonorum et malorum (On the Ends of Goods and Evils, or alternatively [About] The Purposes of Good and Evil).[2]

5. http://www.lab-oratory.de/info/ This is the translation: „-in of itself, because it is pain, but at times circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise. In of itself, because it is pain, but at times circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, -in of itself, because it is pain, but at times circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise,“ Thank you to Paul Feigelfeld for actually managing to translate this mess and to Mikk Madisson for pointing this out.

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