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Computer Blues and Mars Reds

By Emmalea Russo.

“When the universe is weighing upon the back of a human creature, what is there to be surprised at if it hurts him?” – Simone Weil, “The Mysticism of Work”

“There must be something wrong with the machinery
Where is my love life?” -Prince, “Computer Blue”

Figure from Michelangelo Antonioni, Red Desert.

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Until the 1980s, Bethlehem Steel was one of the largest steel-producing companies in the world. Its empty structure haunts my childhood. Although or because it was uninhabited, it seemed at times animate. The words Bethlehem Steel hung in the air even as the steel stacks stood on land, heavy metal and almost utterly defunct.

Because it is earthlike, many earthlings hope for the planet Mars—the red place—to be inhabitable. Mars is our freezing-hot escape hatch, a fantasy. Mars is butterscotch up-close but reddish from afar because its dust, minerals, and surface colors are subject to atmospheric change. From faraway, Bethlehem Steel is a warm brown. Up close, it changes. Its stacks are absorptive, steely crevices eating light. 

In “How to Color” Lisa Robertson writes, “To experience change, we must submit ourselves to the affective potential of the surface. This is the phármakon: an indiscrete threshold where our bodies exchange information with an environment.” Work happened inside the mill and then it didn’t. Bodies constantly exchanging information with Bethlehem Steel, charged-air around its furnaces.

In our digital era, the phármakon is anxious with electronic hums mediating communications almost imperceptibly. Work is changing. Computers were once the size of a large room. Now we hold them in our pockets. There were once red-orange factory clouds and now there’s computer blue. Mars is Venus’s lover. Mars is the red blood of new birth, desire, war, and speed. Industry isn’t gone, it’s gone elsewhere. 

In the fifth episode of the Cosmos (1980) docuseries, Carl Sagan speaks about Mars. It may or may not be inhabitable. We’ve got “blues for the red planet.” 

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Stills from Antonioni, Red Desert.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) depicts a town in Northern Italy plagued by industrialization. The film opens with fuzzy shots of factory buildings melting into a grey sky. There is the sound of wind or factory furnaces under futuristic synths. A forecast. Smoke moves across the sky in wafts. The structures are there but we can’t quite see them, hazing into the natural world. Close-shots of labyrinthine pipes highlight a conflation of humans and machinery. Giuliana (Monica Vitti) and her son walk by a group of workers on strike as they approach the petrochemical plant managed by her husband. Suddenly, it’s the workers who are blurred-out.  The factory is foregrounded, clear, and mammoth next to indistinct human bodies.

Guiliana is anxious. Her husband, Ugo, walks confidently through the hallways of the factory and tells his co-worker that Giuliana was in a car accident. Though she wasn’t physically injured, she’s mentally off: “the gears still don’t quite mesh.” The language of capital is no longer industrial but digital and financial, bodies filtering Big Tech language under blue light. In Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism, John Patrick Leary calls this phenomenon “late capitalist body talk.” It’s a trick: corporations are ascribed human attributes (flexible, nimble, lean, head, heart) to give life to cold capital. Red and blue confusion, distinctions between bodies and corporations are fuzzed-out.

My dad would occasionally play Billy Joel’s The Nylon Curtain (1982) as we drove around town. The lead track, “Allentown,” recounts the death of industry in the area we lived. In 1982, the year The Nylon Curtain came out, Bethlehem Steel lost over a billion dollars and began the process of shutting down. “Allentown,” which opens with the sound of a rolling mill, became a blue-collar anthem with sad lyrics and a triumphant beat:

Well we’re living here in Allentown

and they’re closing all the factories down

out in Bethlehem they’re killing time

filling out forms

standing in line 

Joel was already a star when “Allentown” was released. The song was a hit and the city of Allentown was a stand-in for any formerly-industrial American metropolis. Joe Dadonna, the mayor of Allentown, invited Joel to perform there as part of his Nylon Curtain tour and asked that he set aside some royalties from the song for a scholarship for Allentown musicians. Joel performed in Bethlehem but declined to contribute to the scholarship fund.

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Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars invokes Mars as both metaphor and place, combining pop culture, science fiction, and elegies for her father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. The collection opens with “The Weather in Space,” which begins with a question: “Is God Being or pure force?” and ends with a frenzied aliveness: “When the storm / Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing / After all we’re certain to lose, so alive— / Faces radiant with panic.”

In 1995, Bethlehem Steel officially closed the steel-making plant in my hometown. In 2006, I dropped out of college and moved to an apartment on the southside of town across from the defunct mill. There were rumors about a big corporation opening a casino on the grounds. We’d hang around the empty plant at night walking the ghost streets and smoking at the ghost bus station in the shadow of the stacks. When the mill was in operation, the executives lived in the north and the workers lived in the south. 

I found a lover who was like Mars: easily angered and desirous. He wore a bright orange shirt and maroon sweaters, shocks of warm tones peeking out from behind his long black trench coat. The steely air felt electric with our own red desires, radiant with panic. Then later, blue.

In Crisis in Bethlehem, which recounts the rise and fall of Bethlehem Steel, John Strohmeyer writes of the Nisky Hill Cemetery in Bethlehem: “You can often guess the rank of the interred by the size of the gravestone. Dominating over all his colleagues in death, as he did in life, is Eugene G. Grace, who with founder Charles Schwab built Bethlehem Steel into the nation’s No. 2 steel producer.”

My friend and I would meet-up at Eugene G. Grace’s grave. See you at Grace, we’d say. This was not an ordinary grave but a behemoth marble bench in the shape of a crescent moon where ten people might comfortably sit. We’d lie on the bench and run our fingers over the word 

GRACE 

as we looked out over the southside of town. Grace is a divine phenomenon that Simone Weil wrote about often. She chose to spend a year working in a factory in order to understand the workers’ conditions firsthand. In Gravity and Grace, she writes, “To assume power over is to soil. To possess is to soil.” 

Here is an astronomer, lover, politician, worker, executive, politician, tree, poet, movie star, critic. They want to figure our futures. They surround us. Here’s the steel mill, glowing in moonlight, about to get an eerie rebirth. There’s a light coming from the north through fuzz: television, sun, or computer blue. They wonder, voices braiding, what just happened, what’s to come. 

Fuzzed-out.

Stills from Michelangelo Antonioni, Red Desert.

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Mars seems warm but it’s cold. The Martian landscape has no canals, though it’s filled with ridges and fault lines. There was a time when Mars was warmer. There is an arid valley named for another war god. There is the illusion of virgin soil. There is an error, marked in red. A line of shining gravestones ordered biggest to smallest. The steel mill doesn’t exactly shine, though as I zoom in on its parts, a photograph on my computer, it seems to. 

In 2007, the main Bethlehem Steel property was sold and plans were set in motion for a casino, hotel, mall, and arts building to be erected on the campus in the summer of 2008. The project was delayed by a year because the developers had trouble finding the 16,000 tons of steel required to build the 600 million dollar complex. Bethlehem Steel’s five giant blast furnaces still stand. A backdrop.

Tracy K. Smith’s “Willed in Autumn” is anticipatory and red—frantic magic charging the space and bodies. Hearts and clocks tick: “The room is red, like ourselves / On the inside. We enter / And my heart ticks out its tune.”

In 1976, Viking 1 and 2 landed on Mars. Can a space probe have fingers? A face? Feet? Viking’s first assignment was to take a picture of its foot planted in Martian soil and send it back to Earth. Mars rules the will and war, red-pink tint of tissue, a red line of anger shooting through pockets of inflammation and sweat into blue futures. 

In Bethlehem during the winter of 2009, my car freezes shut every night. In the mornings, I leave the red house to find my blue car covered in a hard sheet of glossy ice not yet ready to melt. I close my eyes and turn my face away and throw my weight behind the sharp end of the ice scraper as my red-hued lover sleeps upstairs. Something like photosynthesis, like breath or music or grace. Sure, there’s life all over. Life’s all over. Life’s over. 

Prince’s “Computer Blue” (1984) is the fourth track on Purple Rain. During a live performance of the song in 1985, neon blue-green flashes light up the stage. A blotch of painfully bright blue appears in front of a velvety black background. Then, it explodes. Blue spreads everywhere. The song begins with robotic voices, a computerized doom heating space. Something’s wrong with a love life but it’s hard to say what. Blue is evasive. In “Computer Blue,” love and machines get mixed-up: “There must be something wrong with the machinery / where is my love life?” From beeps and electronic whirs to a rock song. 

Stills from Prince, “Computer Blue.”

In his Theory of Colours, Goethe speaks of the peculiarity of the color: “As a hue it is powerful—but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.” Our lives and loves are lit by the blue light of screens. Goethe’s claim that the color blue is a contradiction between excitement and repose forecasts what’s happened to work and rest under late capitalism. If industrialization conflates humans and heavy machinery, capitalism’s current mutation fuses work and rest, friendship and networking, excitement and repose.

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Simone Weil and Leslie Kaplan both spent time working in factories. Leslie Kaplan tells of her experiences in Excess — The Factory (1982), which, like Dante’s hell, contains nine circles. It begins: “The great factory, the universe, the one that breathes for you.” In “The Mysticism of Work,” Simone Weil wrote: “When the universe is weighing upon the back of a human creature, what is there to be surprised at if it hurts him?” The universe might be defined as all that there is—the Cosmos. Under neoliberal capitalism, the weight of the universe might feel lighter for some of us, operating steel mills replaced by digital firmament, red to blue, industry to finance, earth to air, digitization softly capturing our breath. But, this levity is an illusion. Industrial red is not gone, it’s elsewhere.

The southside of Bethlehem is well-lit now, smoother. Recently, I walked around the neighborhood, lingering around my old apartment. Empty spaces are filled: a high-end condominium complex, Starbucks, new concrete. The air is different, though it’s hard to say how.  

The Challenger broke apart seventy-three seconds after it left the planet on a cold morning in 1986. The disaster was broadcast on live TV. Red blues, reddening scar tissue, looping roses or rubies against computer blue. Certain mushrooms, great red storms twirling around Jupiter, Bethlehem Steel, and Cadmium’s true red. Iron, blue and red veins, lover lit by blue light, Carl Sagan’s retro turtleneck, gears working then halted, steel-haunted childhoods, and a nuclear winter. 

Still from the Bonneville Crater, NASA.

 

SOURCES (order in which they appear)

Lisa Robertson, “How to Color” from Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Coach House Books, 2011.

Cosmos, dir. Adrian Malone. PBS, 1980.

Red Desert, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964.

Billy Joe, “Allentown,” from The Nylon Curtain, 1982.

Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars. Graywolf Press, 2011.

John Strohmeyer, Crisis in Bethlehem. University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994.

Simone Weil, “The Mysticism of Work” from Gravity and Grace. Routledge, 2002.

“Bethlehem Says Beam Me Up”: https://www.redorbit.com/news/business/977537/bethworks_says_beam_me_up_project_officials_scurrying_to_get/index.html

“Billy Joel and ‘Allentown’”: https://lflank.wordpress.com/2015/12/15/billy-joel-and-allentown/

Prince, “Computer Blue,” 1984 from Purple Rain, 1984. 

Prince, 1985 live performance of “Computer Blue”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jkrvELwqDWg

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Theory of Colors. The MIT Press, 1970.

Leslie Kaplan, Excess–The Factory. Commune Editions, 2018.

Photo by Carter Tanton.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Emmalea Russo is an independent writer, researcher, and educator. Her interdisciplinary work combines poetry, media, and philosophy. Her books are G (Futurepoem, 2018) and Wave Archive (Book*hug, 2019) and recent work has appeared in Artforum, BOMB, The Brooklyn Rail, Granta, Hyperallergic, Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Emmalea lives at the Jersey shore and on the Internet.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 12th, 2021.