The University of Western Australia
Once, we thought of "nature" and "culture" as an inevitable and unchanging category distinction. In this paper I wish to argue that in the cultural practices and ideological forms of late capitalism that opposition--and the series of oppositions it sponsors--has been reconfigured in a critical way, and that this reconfiguration can be understood in terms of a model of exclusion in which, paradoxically, aspects of both the natural and industrial are read as alien. The most compelling and pervasive metaphor for that model can be found, I suggest, in a certain imagined construction of the architectural form of the dome. It is my purpose here to suggest how the metaphorical logic of the dome ("dome-logic") works. While I move towards the articulation of a generalised account in which the dome is read as an exemplification of the information economy, the argument proceeds via a consideration of two cultural instances of dome formations which seem to bring into sharp relief the recurrent features of the trope. One is real, one--Carmel Bird's The Bluebird Café--fictitous. Although I cannot explore this in detail here, Bird's text is of additional interest, I think, for the way it reveals something of the first-world racism that seems to run with the way we now read (or, misread) nature, a process exemplified in the imagined dome itself. First, though, let me begin to illustrate the terms of the metaphor with a real one:
Visit the fountain, though, and the first, most striking thing is this: it is wholly encased in a transparent plastic dome. The medieval "heart" of the old city is wrapped in something decidedly new. How does one read this? One might begin by saying the dome effects a closure which insists that the monument is construed as monument. There is no chance of its accidental reintegration into the streetscape. Unlike the rebuilt Cattedrale of San Lorenzo to the north, or the looming Palazzo Comunale to the south, the fountain is now unambiguously detached from the traffic of everyday life: it can only be read as monument. And, it is tempting to say, thus all art-text: the putative ontological specificity of art-text is funded by closure, a measure of the distance between it and the endless exchanges of the quotidian. Art-text, we might say, resonates outside the pragmatic dialogue of everyday, and it is just that difference that informs and enables the opposition between it and the world of its consumption.
As a matter of fact, though, the purpose of the dome is to protect the "most lovely of all medieval fountains", not from the pragmatic dialogue of everyday, but from that which has become concomitant with it, atmospheric degradation. Acid-rain and toxic dust have begun to eat away at the monument to the point where only the barrier of a hermetically sealed dome can ensure its continuing survival. And so, we might say, the monument has become, not a monument to the skills of the craftsman, or the community of which it was the symbolic centre, but a monument to the end of the world. The dome tells us that ecological devastation is real, "here and now". The explanation erected nearby by the civil authorities does not put it like that, though, instead celebrating in text and stylish C.A.D.-like images the technological vision and design skill that has enabled the completion of the dome. For the authors of the piece there is no call to mention, let alone be in some way abashed by, the fact that industrially fuelled atmospheric change has caused, and would otherwise continue to cause, the decay of the fountain. Quite the contrary: the dome, happily, produces an "ambient climate". Nor is there any perception that the result, hideous though it be, is anything but an aesthetic event of the highest order. How can this be?
After all, there is no plastic that is good for the environment: the dome creates an "ambient climate" but is itself precisely a product of the petrochemical technology that plays a leading part in the destruction of all ambience. But, even as the dome in its small way contributes to the destruction of that which it seeks to preserve, the knowledge of that destruction is itself reconfigured within what I think we can identify as "dome-logic".
The logic of the dome is the logic of spatial definition and exclusion; geographical exclusion, social exclusion and, especially, climatic exclusion. How alluring the magic snow domes of one's childhood, the miniaturised scenes trapped in plastic which, when shaken, would produce glittering snowstorms, miracle micro-climates. Thus all domes. The bad climate--and that means now the polluted climate, the destroyed climate--is kept beyond its membrane, the controlled climate created within it. The dome shape itself, once the best surface for the depiction of a carefully reorganized, reassuringly deo-centric heaven, is now the natural shape of the pressurised, fabric skin of convention centres and sporting and exhibition venues world wide. Dome-logic, though, is more powerful, more prevalent than those literal instances of it, but if nothing else their air-filled form, a balloon of teflon coated fibreglass, is a reminder that at the heart of the metaphor of the dome is climate control, the articulation of atmospheric difference. The natural climate, the desert climate of the parking lot, is kept beyond its membrane and, I want to say, the "climate of codework" created within it. In the case of the Perugia dome, codework, the exchange work of everyday, takes place outside the dome, but in fact the tendency of all domes is to reverse this. The clean space of control becomes the space of codework, home of information economies in which the production and exchange of meaning defines work, while the excluded natural space becomes the space of climatic destruction. The seductive power of the dome is that while the destroyed space is the condition and result of those processes of production and exchange, its form enables the two to be (falsely) imagined as fundamentally detached.
From Italy, to Australia; here is a passage from Carmel Bird's novel The Bluebird Café:
The Bluebird Café is pieced together as an assemblage, where heterogeneous fragments--fictitious diaries, interviews, recipes, the essay of a Japanese high school student--reach back over the century to discover something of the strange history of the inhabitants of the Tasmanian town of Copperfield and its one café, and of the uneasy relation between them and the surrounding wilderness. Neither the past, nor the wilderness, settle into a fixed picture; each shifts, evasively, escaping conclusive textual form. The focal event itself is an absence, the ten year-old Lovelygod Mean who vanishes without trace, as if she had fallen "through the floor of the horizontal forest" (13). We never do find out just what it was that happened at the Bluebird Café. The giant dome of the "Historic Museum Village of Copperfield", by contrast, is depicted as the triumph of conclusive form. Like all pleasure domes, it is the product of a series of displacements. An artificial, constructed world replaces the world it represents: the museum/theme park is a faithful full-scale reproduction of Copperfield, itself left to decay beyond the closure of the dome. The material basis of the real town's existence, the extraction of a mineral resource, is displaced by the information economy of the dome-town, which remains buoyant only insofar as it can promote its commodities--information, memory, pleasure--to the tourists who visit it. The material connotation of the name 'Copperfield', the place where the copper was mined, becomes overtaken by a textual one, that of the novel David Copperfield. Finally, the alien Tasmanian wilderness is displaced by the completely accessible space of the dome: the unknowable by the planned, the inhospitable by the everywhere welcoming, the primitive by the technologically controlled, and decay and depletion by cleanliness and abundance. It is, as (the fictionalised) Time remarks, "the Disneyland of the Antarctic" (Bird, 4). The creation of such domes, I suggest, has become an act that we seem to need to repeat, endlessly: the most recent "real life" instance of this urge to encase an informational version of the real is the Greenwich Millennium Dome, a fantastic structure which sells the future itself. And, like the Copperfield dome, whatever may be the reality of industrial Britain, it is a future where economic imperatives, satisfying life choices, and ecological responsibility are--miraculously--at one: ticket-holders can visit exhibitions which exhort them to "choose how to protect your environment day to day," "find out how leisure can re-activate your life" and, of course, to purchase from more than 2,000 "world beating" British Millennium Products.
The Fly-By-Nite passage is especially suggestive in its registering of the fleeting memory of the oil refinery ("People who have seen an oil refinery at night always say Copperfield looks like an oil refinery trapped under glass"), and the suppressed recognition that, glass or plastic, the immense artifice of dome, however exhaustive the range of exhibits and attractions enclosed within it, excludes one kind of domain above all others, that of the industrial base that is the condition of its own construction. The "ultimate miracle of modern engineering" contains none of the actual practice--the energy production, resource exploitation and commodity manufacture--fundamental to it, an exclusion metaphorically registered in the endlessly reiterated work of the cleaning and ventilation system. Inside the dome is collected everything that might instruct and delight, everything except any trace of the material condition and consequence of its very being, the intricate system of production and pollution that might, in bitter truth, be described as "the ultimate miracle of modern engineering."
According to the logic of this metaphor, then: within the membrane controlled space, clean space, the countable, unified space of codework; outside the dome, natural space, the disparate, heterogeneous unordered space beyond codework, and, finally, the space of degeneration. One cannot help wonder if the authors of the Perugia dome-text did not know this, too; so naturally do we site ourselves within the domes of codework, within the domes of climate control, that to see a dome is to see a refuge, a cooling respite from the entropic dust of the everyday. The logic of the metaphor pushes aside knowledge of the dome's condition of production and invokes instead that which all fountains signify, the revivifying promise of fresh, clean water (and here one might well recall the "pleasure-dome" in Coleridge's "Kubla Khan": "That sunny dome! those caves of ice" in which "he on honey-dew hath fed/ And drunk the milk of paradise").
Further, in close association with the misrecognition the dome sponsors, it enables a revisionist history of racist politics, in which the genocide of indigenous Tasmanians becomes a condition and commodity resource for the Museum Village and, by extension, for the wider settler society. The point of a "museum village" is that its past is lost to us: the loss of aboriginal inhabitants and ecosystem alike is remembered, but in terms of natural extinction, and that drama of fatality then becomes a serendipitous resource which meets the needs of the museum itself. Artifacts recalling the last aborigines share exhibition space with the extinct thylacine and, by implication, a common narrative of evolutionary inevitability. Thus Phoenix Mean, patriarch of the Copperfield family, sees the last of the Tasmanian tigers:
What is surely most striking about the image of the ripple is the suggestion that the animal's imminent extinction is self-generated: far from being the consequence of colonisation, and thereby consequence and condition of the history that reaches its endpoint in the dome itself, the thylacine is read as the origin of that chain of events that includes its own destruction. In the same way the text suggests that from the first-world perspective of the dome, what is of interest about the "last" of the aborigines is not the (now unspeakable) mechanism that ensured that they were indeed the last, but the informational commodities they can now contribute in the form of exhibition capital to the success of the dome itself.
At this stage it is possible to step back and generate a more generalised conclusion. The logic of the metaphor of the dome is a displacement that erases knowledge of its own production: the promise of revivification overwrites the recognition of the material condition of its installation, and commodified display displaces the violent reality of colonisation. At its most general, then, it is a displacement of the ontological by the informational, the realm of being by the realm of codework and--to deploy the vocabulary of the postmodern-- as such anticipates what we might call the apotheosis of the economy of the circuit. Put that way, we can see a familiar thematic emerge. Thus Hakim Bey, developing a Baudrillardian theme, suggests that the drive from experience to information is best understood as an escape from the body. "Humanity has always invested heavily in any scheme that offers escape from the body. And why not? Material reality is such a mess". The escape, he goes on to argue, is now organized as an escape to the virtual reality of information exchange, a reality in which the media "serves a religious or priestly role, appearing to offer us a way out of the body by re-defining spirit as information." Or, as Ann Weinstone suggests, "code" acts as a late twentieth-century reinvention of the ideal world beyond Plato's cave: for us "the rhetorics of world-as-code, fully saturated with the idea that organisms are nothing but information, are conjoined with rhetorics of Platonic hierarchies", and our fate to endlessly, addictively, pursue code as a cure for the anxieties of the material. So, one plunges into the postmodern surf, referent-free in the waters of cyberspace, the mundane paraphernalia of corporeality left behind, high and dry on the beach. As Arthur Kroker and Michael Weinstein proclaim, "the twenty-first century will witness the triumphant ascendancy of the virtual class," and ascendancy where "technology, in the form of the will to virtuality, finally sheds its skin to become the pure sign-form that it always yearned to be".
There is a difficulty in this kind of account, though. It indeed seems the case that the postmodern has witnessed a trajectory from material to informational, from analogue to digital (and as if to illustrate the same, Bird's most recent novel, Red Shoes, is published as hypertext). Nonetheless, that trajectory is in fact neither an escape from the body or the referent: both are critical to the operation of late capital. We are obsessed with the potential signification of the body and what we might call the latent energy of the "designer referent". I think an analysis of the logic of the dome metaphor is useful here because it recognises that the distinction is not from embodied to disembodied, from real space to cyberspace; rather, it is an imaginary articulation of space in which the clean space of control, codework space, is enclosed within the dome, while uncodified, entropic space excluded by it. In dome-logic, in a movement parallel to the displacement of the chaos of natural space by controlled clean space, the clean body finds identity and personal vindication at precisely the point where it becomes aligned with the circuit of information, at the point, that is, where it becomes something to be read. Returning to the "Historical Museum Village", this transformational process finds exemplification in the entrepreneurial family that builds and controls the dome-city, Nancy, Bill and Oliver Best. From the outset teasingly textual courtesy of the Dickensian resonance of their first names, with the success of the dome they become, simply, the "Best People", a neat instance of the designer referent, or the recommodification of self as sign. Further, as the novel's "Reader's Guide" slyly reminds us, the name "Best People" itself contains within it a trace of a very different organisation--B.P.--the province of which is precisely the petrochemical industry that the dome (like its Perugian antecendent) both recalls and excludes. "People who have seen an oil refinery at night always say Copperfield looks like an oil refinery trapped under glass. Or is that plastic, they say."
The seductiveness of the dome, I would suggest, is in its promise of a site for the construction of a codework subject, its closure the desired closure of achieved subject identity. The possibility of becoming one of the "Best People", if you like, is the fuel that drives the metaphor. The body "finds" its self at the point where it becomes one with the business of codework, and hence the integrity of the subject becomes entangled with a vision of the integrity of the dome as a space of exchange. The body is not abandoned in the pursuit of the clean circuit, but reconfigured within it, an outcome that suggests a significantly different estimation of the postmodern trajectory than that which Baudrillard identifies. Dome-logic powers a translation into codework, certainly, but not as an escape from the material body. Rather, the material body, and indeed the material in general, is itself reconfigured by the dome, its membrane becoming the articulation of the opposition between the clean and the polluted. The paradoxical outcome of this is that the imperative to protect nature thus becomes always read as the imperative to enter the information circuit, and that becomes at one with the imperative to cleanliness, to exclude all "noise", all that which is not part of codework. It becomes, if you like, the imperative to leave the swamp behind. The Copperfield, Disney and Greenwich domes alike, the shopping mall dome, the utopian dome, the domes of the hotel foyer, of the suburban house, of the personal car, domes real and imagined, all produce a space where subjective coherence seems at one with the codework integrity of the dome, and the rejection of that which would pollute it.
We can say, then, that within the logic of the dome the idea of the clean, and the machinery of cleanliness, becomes the object of fetishistic attention. The pure information economy is an economy where all is coded, all readable and in this economy the unknown, the code-resistant, can only be dirt, to be endlessly banished. The information flow cannot abide real or symbolic dirt, and its relentless exclusion is of the essence of dome-logic. Visitors to Disneyworld almost always exclaim: but how clean it is, as if this itself were an attraction worthy of comment, and (in a way) so it is. The dirt has to go somewhere, but we treasure domes not for what they produce, but for what they enclose. The pleasure domes of the shopping malls are--of course--centres for the generation of garbage, but we read them as precisely the opposite, protected enclaves, clean, cool islands floating in a degenerating urban sea.
The fetish of the clean reads dirt as the problem, and its exclusion the answer: from the vantage of the impermeable membrane the disorder of nature is at one with its destruction, as if the uncoded and the polluted were the same, and the project of the dome becomes the exclusion of them both. From the dome, environmental concern is always construed as a concern with pollution, and the core issue the restoration and preservation of cleanliness, and the characterisation of dirt as other. Within dome-logic the self may find 'ecological' consciousness, but it is a consciousness that is driven by the rigorous opposition between self-creation within the informational and the uncoded and thus illegible world that lies behind it. The environment becomes inalienably other, of no account to the business of codework. If that is the case, though, dome-logic is the reading practice that, as it produces a particular and consoling technology of self, both enables the maintenance of an industrial order intrinsically inimical to the environment, and disables the possibility of the critique of that order.
. A. O. McIntyre. Medieval Tuscany and Umbria. London: Penguin Books, 1992, p.113.
. C. Bird. The Bluebird Café. Melbourne: McPhee Gribble, 1990, p.3.
. The sense that the dome articulates a transition from present to future is recurrent to its logic and, one might add, for that reason imagined accounts of evading the future often invoke the shelter of a dome like structure, too.
. S. T. Coleridge. Poetical Works. E. H. Coleridge (ed.). London: Oxford University Press, 1973, p.298.
. H. Bey. "The Information War". CTheory, 1995. Article 22 [electronic text].
. Ann Weinstone. "Welcome to the pharmacy: addiction, transcendence, and virtual reality". Diacritics 27.3.1997, p.84.
. A. Kroker and M. Weinstein. Data Trash. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, p.156.
 C. Bird. Red Shoes. Sydney: Vintage, 1998.
Dr Ian Saunders teaches critical and cultural theory in the Department of English at The University of Western Australia. His interests include ecocriticism and hypertext, and recent publications include "Richard Rorty and Star Wars" (Textual Practice), and an annual review of research on "Virtual Cultures" for The Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory.