A Few Words About the Cover
(Excerpted from Art After Metaphysics)
by John David Ebert
For this book’s cover illustration I have chosen a work by contemporary British artist Chris Boyd, entitled The Book of Darecebu. It is a strange and enigmatic book which Boyd says was inspired by his witnessing of the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Phillipines where he spent a good deal of his childhood growing up. (“Cebu” is located there). The book has a central gaping hole that appears to be crackling with lavic energies that might erupt at any moment. It is a perfect metaphor for Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity,” the age in which we now find ourselves living, in which all the cultural forms (or what Cornelius Castoriadis called “imaginary significations”) are melting down into a kind of slag heap of broken models, discarded signifiers and retro-fitted artifacts that might characterize the denizen of a Mad Max landscape who constructs his own world out of the debris of the previous civilization like a bricoleur.
But what struck me about the image is its evocation of the great Medieval book-as-work-of-art from the time of Charlemagne’s court library at Aix-la-Chapelle, when huge manuscripts were transformed into twelve pound books with ivory plaques on their covers that were surrounded by expensive gold and various kinds of gems (example shown below). These books were made by the monks at Charlemagne’s court, some of whom were survivors of the various Viking raids of the Irish monasteries – Alcuin was one such individual, for instance – who carried with them to Charlemagne’s court the knowledge of the making of illuminated manuscripts.
Aix-la-Chapelle (which Spengler once compared, brilliantly, to a sort of Mycenaean fortress stronghold like Pylos which borrowed its culture forms from the southern and more cosmopolitan civilization of Minoan Crete, just as Charlemagne’s palace borrowed culture forms, such as the candy-striping on the architecture, from the more cosmopolitan civilization of the Spanish-Islamic Moors of Cordoba) was then a sort of cultural refuge that gathered together the knowledge of the time and began the painful and intricate process of reconstructing Western civilization. (Whereas, today the opposite is taking place, in which the Western tradition reconstructed by Charlemagne’s monks is now being taken apart piece by piece by deconstructionists).
The covers of these books as artworks unto themselves were often ivory-carved images replete with Christian iconotypes such as the Crucifixion or the Assumption of Mary to Heaven, or to one or another of the four Evangelists, which served as a common iconography of the time. The Gospel Book of Charlemagne, or the Epernay Gospel or the Book of Pericopes date from about this time, and the iconotypes lovingly carved into their covers served as the basic structural forms of the entire age. They were transcendental signifieds that anchored all meaning in a concrete system of references that prevented truth from sliding around into semiotic chaos.
But today, all the transcendental signifieds are gone. For the signifiers of contemporary art all refer back to a series of semiotic vacancies like scars on the walls of Being that once used to organize the Western mind, but which do so no longer. Boyd’s Book of Darecebu, with its central rupture where, once upon a time there used to be such grand signifieds as the Apocalypse or the Crucifixion, now features only a semiotic vacancy at the ontological center of Western Being.
Being has been gutted. Its transcendental signifieds have all melted down, and now exist in a magmatic flow of laval forms that are failing to crystallize into any perceivable shape. Boyd’s Book of Darecebu thus points out what the current task amounts to for today’s contemporary artist: namely, to construct new signifieds from out of the melted slag heap of the West’s discarded pile of signifiers.
It is an intimidating task, but we currently have men, and women, on the job, working to fashion new signifiers for the dawning Age of Uncertainty and Anxiety that is now looming over the horizon upon us.
The volcanic reference on Boyd’s book cover, furthermore, suggests the possibility of imminent catastrophe that our age now finds itself currently under (just as the Vikings of Charlemagne’s time constituted a looming threat): a sort of permanent state of emergency in which floods, famines, fires, tsunamis and explosions have surrounded us on all sides.
What catastrophe will take place next and where will it happen?
–Art After Metaphysics will be available for purchase on Amazon in November.