The Production of Denial Aesthetics
On the floor of the U.S. Senate in Washington D.C., only two Februarys ago, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe held the proof against global warming in his hand. “This is a snowball,” he proudly asserted, “taken from just outside here. It is very, very cold out.” He then tossed it off camera and waited a moment to let the revelation unfold in silence. We do not see if or how it was caught, but we can assume by the curl of Inhofe's smile that it was received favorably.
But before commenting on this event, I would like to first bring up an exhibition from 50 years prior.
The World’s Fair House, completed for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, was surfaced from ceiling fan to floor tile in Formica, a plastic synthetic laminate often disguised as wood and marble. As visitors walked through its outfitted kitchen and bathrooms, knocking on walls and sitting at tables for closer inspections, visitors were handed pamphlets emphasizing the innovations afoot and out of sight. An accompanying promotional video playing in the background claimed that quote, “you’d have to touch the siding to be convinced it is laminated plastic.”
Advertised as a “miracle surface,” the laminate presented at the World’s Fair House had three productive layers: the wear layer on top, engineered to withstand intense pressure and abuse; the decorative layer in the middle, whose only function is to be visible; and the core layer below, that acts as a support for the other two. In its general assembly - sandwiched in no more than a sixteenth of an inch - it remains the basic recipe for imitative laminates to this day.
Since the World’s Fair House exhibition, nearly every conceivable method has been applied to make laminates more persuasive in their simulation of familiar materials over time. In 1968, the Formica Corporation filed for a patent that would improve the verisimilitude of laminates by replicating the grooves and valleys implied by its decorative layer and embossing their textures onto the transparent wear layer above.
“For those who want a piece of furniture or a wall panel with a truly wooden appearing surface,” the patent reads, “a certain measure of texturing needs to be accomplished in order to achieve this end.”
A final patent was established in 2012 by the Faus Group, described as the ‘embossed-in-register’ technique. Though this has been applied to several laminates currently available on the market, its method of production has not yet been made public.
“Science and industry are increasingly interwoven, with research and design pursued under cloaks of privacy to maintain some business advantage. Science, even in the best of circumstances, is “open” only under highly ritualized constraints.”
Though they are far away from each other on the assembly line, the many stages of the process are conjoined to perform the illusion of a single surface. The clues of deceit are buried deep within the distillations of oils and their cooling periods, soon to be made credible to every knowable sensory apparatus, from our retinas to our nerve endings. What was initially designed to be purely visual soon became complimented by the tactile, and in the near future might be followed by the audial, the olfactory, and the generally sensible. Formica’s original claim that “you’d have to touch the siding to be convinced it is laminated plastic” will soon have to be updated, to include a countless number of additional sensory investigations.
Pouring through the countless patents for laminates and other imitative products currently on the market, I have begun to categorize them under the label “Denial Aesthetics.” The objects of denial aesthetics strive to be invisible by design and thinner than paper-thin. They prey on our indifference towards them and our constant state of distraction in the spaces that house them. If you found the description of laminate production boring, it is because its manufacturers don’t want you to find it interesting.
The objects of denial aesthetics are objects in denial. Their spells are broken only by the cracks and splinters of their otherwise ageless surfaces. They take great strides to first perform under budget and intense physical pressure, then again to misdirect from the very obsession of those principles. What unites all objects of denial aesthetics is ultimately their desire to be mistaken for something more culturally valuable than themselves. Plastic for wood, stucco for stalactites, acrylic for marble, and every cheap, replenishable thing for everything expensive and scarce.
“Because our life environment has become so abstract, there is an understandable desire for that which is not mediated through digital media or conceived as readily transferable information; for something uncorrupted by flows of bits, money and images, something that the shadows of the real can fall upon.”
Given the climate of things strange and new, the desire for authenticity and naturalism is perfectly reasonable. What has been unexpected in the last century, however, is the increasing promotion of environments designed to belong both to an imagined past and an eternal present. “We experience a crisis of ‘ongoingness’ that is both the cause and effect of our species’ inability to pay its ecological and financial debts.”
In an effort to reject the pace of the contemporary, we have only successfully rejected its signifiers. We deny the false communication of these objects - or more commonly express indifference towards them - because it is much easier to do so than to confront their strangeness in all its dimensions.
These objects and their evolving sophistication widen the gap between two groups: those that are aware of and are involved in their production, and those that are not - producers and consumers. And because every producer of one object is inevitably the consumer of another, the aesthetics of the built environment are at the whim of a collective public that has consistently subscribed to the concepts of expediency, durability, and always the illusions of Nature.
Prior to the 20th century, when the methods of object production were more relatively straightforward, it was fair for anyone to assume that a table with a wooden appearance, for example, was in fact sourced from a wooded forest nearby and constructed with saws and hammers. The accurate discernment of built objects, in other words, was never too far from intuition. Today, however, within the overwhelming duplicity that defines the built environment, few correct assumptions can be made about that same table without close inspection of its edges and purveyors.
Two charts developed by the material scientist David Kingery outline the properties of materials beyond information given by the naked eye. The left catalogs the feedback between the material object, its production, and its use, while the right reveals the levels of that object’s material structure. With the proper tools, any object can be recognized in as large a scope as its global distribution and as infinitesimally as its chemical structure. “Material science,” Kingery explained, “is part of an interconnected system. Feedback from artifact use, performance, and meaning affects design and production to develop new properties.” Though this knowledge is essential to those that aid in the advancement of object production, it is almost entirely unbeknownst to their consumers.
Because “[they are] rarely familiar with the details of the internal structure, design process, or specific methods of manufacture,” consumers engage objects only at the level of their materiality, without any of the material science that gives them scalar complexity.
“The physical world lost its stability at the beginning of the twentieth century, with research into the microworld of atoms, quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, where material becomes energy levels. Yet materiality, as conceptualized by science, only appears to us in elaborate experimental settings.”
Materiality has always been deceptive; the practice of material science was born in an effort to combat that deception. But the sheer volume of what most consumers don’t know about material structures compels them to fall for a more sinister material science in the form of quote-unquote “Nature:” objects cloaked in earth tones, within imitative laminate houses, on streets named Elm Drive and Forest Avenue.
The feedback loop between producers and consumers should become clear at this point: consumers buy inexpensive products sold by producers, while producers sell expedient products bought by consumers. Denial aesthetics misdirect and miscommunicate; they tell us what we want to hear. Progress moves at incredible speeds and appears perfectly still. The prayers for convention are answered in the form of denial aesthetics.
“The Anthropocene has meant not a new image of the world, but rather a radical change in the conditions of visuality and the subsequent transformation of the world into images.”
The objects of denial aesthetics encourage materiality as their one and only method of inquiry. Though this is “the most widespread misapplication of material science [today],” it has also been the least disquieting.” As long as the feedback loop between producers and consumers continues unabated, the objects of denial aesthetics will become more sophisticated in the promotion of a hollow materiality against a complex material science.
“In the absence of depth, everything [will become] endlessly complex.”
But will it ever be possible for those external to the loop of denial aesthetic production to enter the conversation? How can critical conditions, such as global warming and material scarcity, be made perceivable to an audience playing detective with the wrong tools? Who will believe in a time-sensitive crisis within a forest of ageless plastic?
Back to Senator Inhofe. A senator among senators, on the subject of global warming, holding a snowball. It is unlikely that Senator Inhofe holds a degree in material science, and it is just as unlikely that he shifts his opinion based on what presents itself under a microscope. It is important to note that his stance is not a pseudoscience based on mysticism or conspiracy theory, but rather something more like a knee-jerk reaction, based on only the very first moments of the perception of an object and its symbolic character, with all the subsequent analysis withdrawn.
Senator Inhofe feigned the language and authority of a material scientist. Only to those that saw through his performance did he reveal himself to be speaking as a materialist. To many others, he received a certain kind of power from at least appealing to a scientific language in his reasoning, however thin it might have been. Senator Inhofe was performing that day as both a consumer and producer of denial aesthetics, with the language of the naked eye replacing satellite view, microscope, and regular trips to the Antarctic.
“Speech is a spell, and words, once ejected into the air, warp the weave of worlds.”
And though it had everything between a chemical composition and a provenance to support the case for global warming in itself, the snowball was, on the senate floor and to many viewers at home, only perceived on the level of objecthood.
“Announced by all the trumpets of the sky, / Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields, / Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air / Hides hill and woods, the river, and the heaven, / And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.”
The speed of the Earth’s collapse is transfixed in the silence of snow and the fog that envelops it. Senator Inhofe is not alone in his reasoning, and culprits lie on either side of the debate. Many of those that agree with the science, after all, still do not believe in the urgency of its conclusions.
In his performance, therefore, we discover that language, and even an ordinary snowball, can be appropriated as denial aesthetics. Considering the sophistication of denial aesthetics and the comfort found in their distribution, the majority of people have typically been left with two options: to either abide by the most recently credible scientific claims, despite what their own immediate environments tell them, or ignore these claims to instead gather the few, often misleading clues presented by the snowballs in their hands and the laminates beneath their feet.
But a third option may have opened up in their undoing. Like a laminate beginning to crack at the seams, the hollowness of Senator Inhofe’s performance had the unintended effect of making a wide audience reflect on their interpretations of evidence in a new light. It is most likely in noticeable failure that the thinness of denial aesthetics can be widely rejected in the search for a deeper material science. “Today, access to truth is by way of the profane.”
The confusion between material science and materiality, after all, recapitulates those that have played out in the past, pitting the intelligible against the sensible, the cognitive against the visceral, and the true against the false. A rejection of materiality, as one’s sole method of inquiry, could therefore become the first step towards wider applications - to become a rejection of the sensible, of the visceral and of the false.
The producers of denial aesthetics benefit from the public’s general inability to neatly define ‘nature’ and ‘progress’ today, so it is therefore up to this public to question their deeply held beliefs concerning these terms and recognize the consequences of their desire for denial aesthetic production. Until they are widely rejected, in favor of an aesthetic more openly communicative and progressive, the built environment will continue to say the same thing on the surface while performing an increasing number of operations just beneath it.
I imagine that if Senator Inhofe went on vacation in the Middle East, he might pay a visit to the Emirates Indoor Ski Resort. One of the larger artifacts of denial aesthetics, it is a multi-acre, stand-alone interior among blistering sand dunes, snow-kissed every day of the year under a low-slung painting of blue sky divided by a grid of lights.
I wonder if, during his visit, Senator Inhofe would be curious about how the snow beneath his feet came to be there. Would he like to know the efforts made to replicate a phenomenon taking place deep within the Earth’s atmosphere?
Or would he collect a small sampling, ball it up in his hands, and announce to the press on his way to the parking lot: “This is a snowball. It was taken from just inside. It is very, very cold in there.”