Between You and Me: A Provisional Theory of the Cairn
The illusion of genius, sui generis, has never been more difficult to pull off than it is today. What many who operate in the forums of cultural production quietly acknowledge, yet rarely voice, has in the early years of this century become crystalline: the Modern ideal of a lone operator producing work of great novelty out of whole-cloth can only be viewed as a quaint notion from an era now past. Michel de Certeau noted more than three decades ago that “we never write on a blank page, but always on one that has already been written on,” but it’s doubtful that even he would have anticipated Virgil Abloh’s 3% rule—the idea that altering an existing thing by 3% is adequate to call that thing something new.1
And yet, the impulse to search and suffer for a form to call one’s own remains cunningly embedded in the contemporary post-age, which insists on visibility and the production of novelty as cornerstones of a life well-lived: the more likes, the more life, and vice versa. How, then, can this desire for self-realization and individuation be reconciled with the reality laid bare by the mass digital indexing and imaging of our life-world: that all creative production employs a combinatorial, in-formal process of “teleiopoetic” citation, appropriation, remixing, and bricolage?
The term employed is less important than the idea toward which each points: the new is never completely new, but is always already produced in relation to existing concepts, models, and examples. There is no ground-zero in the process of creative engagement. One always begins in the middle of things—as with the construction of a cairn. One rock does not make a cairn; even two will appear ambiguous. Only when a pile gets going does a concept begin to take shape and produce effects, broadcasting a symbolic, metaphorical dimension through connections with other acts, factors, and figures. What the cairn so elegantly makes apparent is that creative projects are not solo achievements enabling radical breaks with the past; rather, they contribute to the production of an effect, to a mood or atmosphere, by modifying what already exists in a way that allows the world to show up more brightly.2
Deleuze makes this process explicit, writing that art or creative production is “an impersonal process in which the work is composed somewhat like a cairn, with stones carried in by different voyages and beings in becoming.”3 The potential of any work to inhabit a nexus of meaning intensifies through a series of acts and authors, who may or may not work in awareness of or agreement with each other. Borges describes this networked production of meaning by noting that “every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.”4 This movement is not unilateral: stones placed in years past remain critical to framing the gestures topping out a stack today, while moves made in years to come will alter our perception of the value of a cairn in ways as yet unknown.
A cairn is an entity to which one might contribute a few stones—providing some structure, or strengthening an ability to send out signals—but an individual can never lay claim to shaping its totality. A cairn always remains open to change and to the contributions of others to come. This structural feature of the cairn insures that it resists the calcifying effect of the monumental—the desire for an unchanging statement affixed to a single name—and instead allows for the performance of a hodological function: suggesting a route or marking a node on a map of interconnecting paths.
1 de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, 43. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. Abloh’s 3-percent approach is discussed in his 2017 lecture given at the Harvard GSD titled “Insert Complex Title Here.”
2 I’m paraphrasing Lee Ufan, who captures this idea with poetic grace: “The highest level of expression is not to create something from nothing, but rather to nudge something [that] already exists so that the world shows up more vividly.” Quoted in Rawlings,Ashley. Art Asia Pacific, Mar/Apr 2009.
3 Deleuze, Gilles. “What Children Say.” In Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Daniel Smith and Michael Greco,67. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
4 Borges, Jorge-Luis. “Kafka and His Precursors.”Labyrinths, 201. New York: New Directions, 1964.