In retrospect, postmodernism was first and foremost a regressive movement. The discovery that modernism, with its voracious ambition, had literally usurped all the open space available, and had apparently left only the centre and the periphery to others, failed to inspire even a modicum of modesty in the postmodernists. With the architectural faction in particular, the discovery of the empty centre and the pleasant charm of the periphery mainly resulted in the discoverers filling up these spaces with much architectural aplomb, leaving them behind in a state of confusion.
Maurice Nio, the author of You have the right to remain silent, a compilation of essays written over the past few decades, is a film maker and writer, but first and foremost, an architect. At one time a partner at Nox Architects (with Lars Spuybroek), now, in a different connection, he is building towards the postmodern condition of contemporary man. In his essays he presents himself as the enlightened intellectual who, while speaking, would rather remain silent than surrender to the sham democracy reflected in the shows of Jerry Springer. There is no way around it, Nio is a traveller treading in the footsteps of Boornstein, in the early 1960s, and Baudrillard, in the 1980s, depicting the new postmodern world. He proves himself to be a historian who makes it clear that it is malicious intent rather than good intentions, and the mask rather than the real world, that the traveller should steer by. Politics, ideology and morality produce only hot air and chitchat. He would rather rely on advertising slogans as the starting point of a journey which makes him negotiate the familiar world as if it were unknown territory. And in particular, rather portray a world of which we are part, but have never quite understood.
Nio is neither political scientist nor sociologist, but has journeyed through our consumer society with his glance conditioned by the new media. He has visited many countries, has read books, and seen numerous films and music videos. And he has caught sight of a frighteningly fascinating chaos, of which he cannot get enough. His head spins with every successful metaphor or allegory. His amazement at the many surprises he encounters constantly sends him into raptures; a kind of contemporary equivalent to the fashionable swooning of upper-class ladies at the end of the 19th century, which was to become the ideal quarry for Freud. Time and time again, this amazement recurs, and it has to be said that he makes the most of it. But it also has to be asked whether this constantly recurring giddiness is real or sincerely feigned, considering that postmodern swooning is a mainly French rhetorical style ingredient from the 1980s. Because his essays read as a report on a bygone period. This is the travel report of a fanatical postmodern globetrotter, just before other reporters initiate us into the next phase. His subject matter is often rather 'safe', and, within the 'postmodern' context, most of it has been dealt with before, by other essayists, although his irony and sincerity are certainly distinctive. In the cheerless tropics of Brazil, he hints at the euphoria of this world, of the beach at Rio de Janeiro, of sambas and coffee, body odour and concrete blocks, the deadly traffic of Sao Paulo and the prefabricated city of Brasilia. That oozing lustfulness, the urge to pinch a girl; his story includes some exquisite observations, but in the end you are left to assimilate his Chinese/Dutch astonishment. His sometimes surprising travel reports are cleverly intermixed with his own subtle tone. But the sledgehammer blows with which, for example, Rem Koolhaas spices up his travel stories on the slapdash architecture of the new Chinese metropolises are apparently necessary for making a true impression as a contemporary Marco Polo. Nio does not always manage to convey the spectacles he perceives as breathtakingly as he sees them. I think I know why. It is noticeable that he usually already knows what he is going to find, and all too often, reality has to comply with his schemes. When he arrives somewhere, the world is torn open to reveal its secrets. And if Nio sometimes does not really know what is going on, the reader can predict it: what matters is not the crystalline, but the liminal, not the true nature of things, but rather the sham. Everything is different from what you think. Often enough it is a surprising experience to follow Nio in his unmaskings or masquerades (whatever), but you are not always spared from disappointment. Once he is out of the way, the world reverts to its old appearance. However efficiently Nio may write, you sometimes miss the magic that is the mark of a born essayist. A magic that occurs because it is not the findings on the spot that set the tone, but rather, their retrospective formulation.
Still, evidently Nio sometimes intentionally leaves us behind empty-handed. Indeed, time and again, his discourse revolves around the fact that the core of what is happening, or the place in which he finds himself, either has no centre at all, or is characterized by an empty centre. This is why so many remarkable things happen. Or not. Or why so many remarkable things should happen. Or yet again not. With Roland Barthes, he takes a conceptual trip to Tokyo, where the Imperial Palace set in the imperial gardens forms the empty centre; in his reading room he arrives at the palio in Sienna and complains about the poverty of the squares in his native country: We have never been able to design anything like the palio, something that ignores the function of the square, and allows it to metamorphose into a space of pageantry. For a square to come alive, it should be surprised and violated: ''they want no morality, no fidelity; they want adultery, the game with the empty symbols.
Nio's ideal self is someone who commits adultery, who does not comply with the concept of meaningful space, and takes sides with that anti-concept, that dizziness of space: the secret centre.'' Because, in spite of himself, he is a genuine moralist.
What is pleasurable but also slightly disconcerting about this book is that, between the lines, Nio constantly tries to unbalance the reader, but does not always expect this of himself. His poetic revelations have a rather limited repertoire. The world may often make him feel dizzy, but a moment later he is standing firmly on the ground. Many of the violations and astonishing spectacles therefore seem to be designed mainly to convince himself of the truth of his rightness as an essayist. He blindfolds himself, and lets the world in through a single, almost invisible, peephole. There, as in a psychological camera obscura, his metamorphoses are born. Ponderously and sparingly, the birth is always difficult. The light sparkling atmosphere of the classical metamorphosis is wasted on him.
Nio sees himself faced with the staggering panoramas of the modern world. And even though he is well armed, he does not really seek confrontation. He still seems to be caught up in the discovery of the first bit of freedom for metamorphosis allowed by postmodernism. So, no real juggling with empty symbols as was the case during the Baroque, but rather, a somewhat desperate postmodern version of this. And moreover, that constant emphasis on the, apparently, very recently discovered empty centre. As if the secret centre had not always been functioning in this way, precisely in the narrative structure, in psychology. As if the rediscovery of it, which was for Barthes the weapon to fight the fossilized modernism, had indeed not happened a long time ago.
Now the centre is lying open. And what did the postmodernists do with it? That is what I would have liked to learn from this book, and whether it is perhaps time to fill up this centre once again. Because, how much longer will the dizziness of the discovery remain topical, how much longer should we rapturously linger over it? Or had we better ignore this empty centre, leave it as it is, rather than once more filling it in with our interpretations? Back in 1983, Nio wrote an article on the film The Return of the Jedi, Star Wars iii, which is now used to conclude this book. The text is highly topical now that the new Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, is about to be released. The film will show how father Anthony Skywalker changes into the black-clad Garth Vader, his bitter rival. Nio speculates about the transparent face of Luke Skywalker, indeed, the actor who, after Star Wars, as good as disappeared from the film industry, and who, in these films, played the role of his life, Everyman. The face of this young hero is so undistinguished, so unpretentious and unalluring, so abnormally ordinary, that it seems as if all the features that usually turn someone into a personality, have been erased. Luke has nothing at all, and shows ''a face that is so ordinary because there is no trace of an identity in it, because it only radiates a terrible goodness. This is the perfect model of our present-day transparent faces. Interchangeable faces, without illusions, without shadows. Faces that are immediately forgotten.
This is a provocative text, which immediately sent me flying to my computer. Star Wars on the computer is a fantastic pastime, and, differently from Nio in 1983, we now know that we can actively identify with this transparent face. Luke is so transparent because we all have to (be able to) recognize ourselves in him, in order to give this drama eternal life. In 1983, Nio still looked up to this transparency, and thought that he had unravelled Luke's secret, and thereby that of George Lucas. The film is adorned with transparency. That is its enigma and success. The film is adorned with dizziness, as surfaces are adorned with depth, as Luke is adorned with goodness (as secrets are adorned with unravelment.)'' But this still leaves us with an observation on paper, no more than a description, albeit a very elegant one. Today, when we play Lucas' film-based game, the mystery behind Luke's enigma has been solved, we adorn ourselves with dizziness, with depth, with goodness, and we know that, most of all, this means an exciting struggle with the enemy. Fighting to find our way, we know that, as we progress, we will also find an answer to the most essential questions posed by postmodernism. The secret that makes the essays of Baudrillard, Barthes and Nio, so attractive, the secret that they described and cultivated, is gradually being revealed in this game.
Nio must have had a premonition about this imminent denouement. Why else would he conclude his book with his reflections on Luke Skywalker? And because in Star Wars, the computer game, you finally see through Luke's transparency, you know that George Lucas has done more than produce what is perhaps the most attractive computer game of today. For, with his computerized adventure series, Lucas has unscrupulously unmasked the postmodern essay, thereby forcing Maurice Nio, with his You have the right to remain silent, to put a definitive end to this genre.
translation olivier & wylie