the depths of blank signs: priceless.
The true democracy, where soul meets soul, in the open road. Democracy. American democracy where all journey down the open road, and where a soul is known at once in its going. Not by its clothes or appearance. …Not by its family name. Not even by its reputation. …Not by a progression of piety, or by works of Charity. Not by works at all. Not by anything, but just itself. The soul passing unenhanced, passing on foot and being no more than itself. And recognized, and passed by or greeted according to the soul’s dictate. If it be a great soul, it will be worshipped in the road.
— D.H. Lawrence, “Whitman,” in Studies in Classic American Literature
The giant billboards alongside the road announce the great (not just American) short circuit. They scream at the non-searcher: The gates of paradise lie just beyond the next exit.”
— Patrik Metzger, “Sign Out: Josef Schulz”
In his fine essay on Josef Schulz’s manipulated photographs of blank signs, Patrik Metzger claims that “these boards raised to the sky tell the tale of shattered dreams.” But the signs look anything but shattered. Instead, in their very blankness, they suggest the realization of dreams. Only the two dreams being realized are dialectically opposite.
On the one hand, the blank signs indicate total (and totalitarian) corporate branding, the achievement of utter associative conquest. Not even names, images, or iconic images are needed anymore to assert panoptic presence—colors themselves will do. Pigmentation itself has been stained utterly by consumer capitalism. Even seeing red has become the feeling of wanting to shop.
On the other hand, the minimalistic blankness of the signs proposes, in their very lack of representation, a kind of resistance to ownership and private property. They refuse meaning itself, and thus cannot be priced. They are, in some sense, “priceless.” They are so blank, inscrutable, nonreferential, and pure as to be the quintessence of open souls on the democratic road, at least as Whitman via D.H. Lawrence would have it. They have been liberated from all outside manipulation, they are naked and uncommodified and free.
Of course their very “pricelessness” is exactly what draws the forces of consumer capitalism to their blankness. Like magnets, the signs pull souls toward the “gates of paradise…just beyond the next exit,” but so too, they attract the very commodification that they resist.
Think of the Mastercard advertisements that seek to associate the purchase of goods and awareness of brands with the desire for life-experiences that transcend the marketplace. First you must run the gauntlet of consumption to attain the prize of pricelessness. You have to pay the cost to be bossless.
Schulz’s signs go straight there. They “sign out” from the logic of consumerism, which makes them invaluable, which is precisely their market value. They advertise dreams that remain forever unshattered, but also forever inaccessible. They stand poised, hovering over a crossroads between capitalism and a mode of social and economic organization beyond capitalism.
These signs beckon to utopian destinations, no-places that glow on the horizon, great forests of plastic poles, hues unhewn, reaching into endless sky, ceaselessly calling forward with a beautiful, repulsive resistance.