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Home | 2018 | January

The Base and the Superstructure

Posted by Richard on UTC 2018-01-14 14:37. Updated on UTC 2018-01-14

Karl Marx, visionary

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was one of the greatest thinkers of the nineteenth century.

There, I've said it. Not a few of the laissez-faire, free-market, libertarian right-wing thugs who feel at home in the ditto ditto ditto ditto ecosystem of Figures of Speech will now be fanning their flushed features with their mice or their tablets. Some are perhaps wondering whether the site has been pwned by a group of Russian hackers.

Doubling down, the phrase 'one of the greatest thinkers' would have been simply 'the greatest thinker' if so much of his work had not been influenced by Hegelian tosh. Hegel's influence on some of the scribblers of the nineteenth century was malign – but that is a subject we shall mention but leave unexamined on this occasion. You can relax…

… but not for long, for once we leave aside all the Hegelian rubbish, Marx's work still contains many deep insights that are still relevant after a century and a half of historical and scientific turmoil. One of the most important of these is Marx's theory of Basis und Überbau, 'Base and Superstructure' – theorising for the social media age, in other words.

Base and Superstructure, v1.0

According to Marx, society can be represented as consisting of two blocks, one above the other.

Karl Marx: Basis-Ueberbau v2.0

Karl Marx: schematic of the Basis-Überbau model, v2.0 (with feedbacks)

The top block he called 'der Überbau, 'the Superstructure'. The bottom block he called die Basis, 'the Base'.

The Superstructure contains the entire cultural life of a society. The word 'culture' is here used in the broad anthropological sense, not just what used to be called 'high culture', such as opera or the Booker prize. We could use the correct Marxist term 'ideology', but this term has been so misused over the ages that no one can reliably make any sense of it anymore.

We might call it the 'mental structure' of a society: religions, laws, sciences, politics, philosophies, education and 'general knowledge', art and structures of government. What you think, how you express yourself, what you wear, how you behave – your techniques for eating peas or soup, for example, or whether you consider it common to smoke in the street. The reader gets the idea – I don't need to bore us both with a long list of the components that constitute this mental life, but it is important that we realize how vast and all pervasive the Superstructure is. It is, in effect, the mental reality of our social existence.

We live in the everyday fiction that this mental structure is self-contained, autonomous, without external influences. Its development takes place entirely within itself, being derived from new ideas that we come up with from time to time. Some people might feel insulted at the suggestion that their thoughts, their assumptions, their points of view were somehow dependent on the material world in which they lived.

Marx rejects this fiction. He argues that this Superstructure is not an autonomous mental structure at all, but that it is dependent upon the thing he called the Base.

Whereas the Superstructure is a 'mental structure', the Base is a 'material structure'. 'What on earth is a "material structure"', you ask, 'A garden shed?' Have patience – whatever it is, Marx saw it as consisting of two levels.

The lower level of the Base he called Produktivkräfte, 'Forces of Production'. This level contains the technologies of production and related physical organizations: tools, machines, raw materials, factories and methods of production. It also contained the workers involved in production. As Dr Johnson would understand it, these are all things you can kick, potentially hurting your toe. The workers not so much nowadays, but in Marx's day that was also fine.

The upper level of the Base he called Produktionsverhältnisse, 'Relations of Production'. This level consists of the relationships between social groups, mainly the dominance of some groups (e.g. capitalists and feudal property owners) and the dependency of others (e.g. workers) as well as the distribution of goods within the society. In our modern world we might also include the union organization of workers.

This level has naturally been a particular preoccupation of Marxist theorists, but its dependency – at least to some extent – on the 'Forces of Production' block on which it rests is incontestable: workers in cottages spread across a region must be treated differently from those crammed together in mills and factories.

Thus the upper level of the Base sits on the lower level and its contents and structure are determined to a large extent by that lower level.

We moderns can start picking holes in Marx's model but he was living and thinking in a much simpler world. Let's bear with him for a moment: in his Base/Superstructure model there are conceptual babies which we must not throw out with the ideological bathwater, for there is indeed a dependency between the world of things and the world of ideas.

Shaping everyday culture

For example, once humans acquire the knowledge and expertise to till the land, grow crops and keep animals, their social organization changes accordingly. Farming societies have very different social organizations to hunter-gatherer or nomadic societies. This must be so – they wouldn't function otherwise. The change from nomadic to settled production required a different type of social organization.

The idea of property ownership became crucially important. These developments ultimately led to feudal societies based on settled agriculture, inheritance, property rights and obligations. The new clusters of people and property rights required laws, lawyers, administrations and scribblers. As societies become richer they begin to differentiate their members into various classes of serf, farmer, tradesman, artisan, educator etc.

The cuckoo in the feudal nest was the growth of manufacturing technology. Feudally organized societies hung on for quite some time but they were ultimately no longer able to survive. The majority of work was no longer land-based and social dominance was no longer property-based – the world had become more and more technology and money-based.

The historical events that marked the decline of the feudal order during the 19th century are merely the bubbles that appear on the surface as a result of the much deeper turmoil in the Base. The idea of 'historical inevitability' which so obsessed Marxist thinkers can be explained much more elegantly and without the Hegelian mumbo-jumbo by using Marx's own Basis-Überbau model.

Most of what we have said so far belongs in the category of 'statements of the bleedin' obvious': none of this is new and there is nothing that will have surprised the reader so far. The completely uncontroversial conclusion is that the way we live and the way we are organized are are not merely products of our own cultural lives and our own minds, but are deeply dependent on the Base, the social and economic foundation of social life.

Every historian is now aware of the way material and technological changes shape history. Lock any one of them up with a sheet of paper and a pencil for 30 minutes and when time is up you will be handed a thousand-word essay on some aspect of this theme.

We can go on and on with examples of the way that technologies changed human life. But we are saying that the changes to the Base did more than change the organization of human life, they changed the mental life of society and the ideas and ways of thinking that that encompassed. That is the point which Marx was making and it was the point that made the rediscovered Marx interesting for 20th century researchers in the field of the Sociology of Knowledge. That is a relationship that we shall just mention and move on. Life's too short.

Citizen, meet the cops

It is, for example, a commonplace that the invention of the internal combustion engine and the motor vehicle and the construction of extensive road networks revolutionised transport and personal mobility. But the revolution goes beyond that: it goes much more deeply into the the realm of ideas, knowledge and perceptions. The transport revolution changed the way people think of distance and time, their expectations of work and residence, their association with friends and relatives, the concept of 'commute', their relations with other road users and pedestrians and in particular their relationships with the legal system.

The web of legislation concerning motor vehicle possession and road use – whether moving or stationary – is one of the most extensive parts of the legal system and offers a high risk of entanglement for the road user. A time-traveller from a time before the widespread use of the motor vehicle would doubtless find the constant rule-following required of the modern motorist a very strange and oppressive state of affairs, particularly in respect of the automated administrative justice that is required to process the huge number of infractions that necessarily occur. In other words, changes in road transport brought about dramatic changes in the Superstructure that go far beyond increased personal mobility.

One day on this website we may go into the modern growth industry of 'binary crime'. No, that doesn't mean computer hacking, it means criminal offences in which the suspect is considered guilty, '1', or not-guilty, '0', on the evidence of some measured value – breath/blood alcohol (meter), speed (camera), possession of licence and insurance (database), drugs (weight) and so on. There is very little to argue about in such crimes, you are either guilty or you are not, according to the empirical evidence. No police statement can be challenged.

For the police forces of the world, dealing with binary crimes is wonderful compared with dealing with the messiness of traditional crime: no legal arguments about guilt or innocence, no hunting for evidence, no interviewing participants, no dubious procedures requiring human interpretation, such as walking along a kerb without falling over.

Their popularity in law enforcement is no surprise – they are an easy option for police officers – nor are we astounded at the resulting dramatic increase of resources for their implementation, since they reliably and cost-effectively bring in the convictions. Their existence depends on the creation of numerically defined crimes (Superstructure) and the development of equipment (Base) to measure and deliver the corresponding numbers. It is also noteworthy that the field with the greatest growth of binary crime has been the technologised field of transport.

Those who are still around and have enough brain cells in operation to allow them to remember a time before this technological shackling of the citizen should take a moment to think back and review the changes to Base and Superstructure that have got us to where we are today in just the space of our lifetimes.

Marx had got to this general point in 1845 in his work Die deutsche Ideologie, 'The German Ideology'. Unfortunately, this most intelligent insight was buried in the noisy clatter around the immensity of his other ideas. The work was only published in its entirety in 1932 and so Marx's insight was buried for nearly a century.

Once we lift up our eyes from Marx's restricted economist's view of most of the Base as being merely the means of production, we see the role that any technological innovation can have in shaping the Superstructure.

Base and Superstructure, v2.0

As a result of the ignorance of Marx's idea of Basis-Überbau the development of the theory came to a standstill, its weaknesses never explored or resolved.

For example, one weakness of Marx's original theory of Base and Superstructure was that it overlooked the feedback paths that there should be in the model. The development of printing led to the sharing of ideas among the classes of people with time to think and innovate. The ideas in the Superstructure lead to innovations in the Base, the means of production, which influence the Superstructure and so on.

Invention is an activity that takes place in the Superstructure. When someone invents the telephone or the camera or the steam engine or the internal combustion engine or electricity or radio or television, the act of invention – the mental activity – takes place in the Superstructure but the invention itself becomes part of the Base. That is, the flow of change is not simply upwards, there is a downward flow of knowledge, invention, innovation and change that affects the Base. The invention will, in turn, from its position in the Base have a subsequent effect on the Superstructure.

A further deficit of Marx's model is that it ignores the effects that events have on the Base and the Superstructure. The nuclear accident at the Fukushima power plant in 2011, caused by an earthquake and an associated tsunami, has changed the image of atomic power in the Superstructure and has led some nations to retreat from programmes of nuclear power altogether, thus changing their Base. The structure of the Base can therefore be affected by external, non-human factors: earthquakes, changes in weather patterns, shortages and surpluses of raw materials, the discovery and exploitation of new raw materials.

Marx's focus was that of an economist. He ignored the more general principle that all technological and material change affects the Superstructure, not just changes in the means of production. It is fair to say that every major aspect of our lives in the Superstructure is shaped in some way by the Base.

Marshall McLuhan

Our understanding of one particular aspect of the interdependency between Base and Superstructure was broadened a century after Marx by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) in the 1960s and 70s.

His work on the interrelationship between the technology of the medium and the message (and the form of the message) that it carries was most famously expressed in his phrase 'the medium is the message'. It was McLuhan who explored in his work The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) the changes that the invention of printing brought about in what we are calling here the Superstructure. His next book, Understanding Media (1964) explored the effects on the Superstructure of the unique characteristics of particular media.

Without wishing to diminish McLuhan's great insights, they were, in reality, just a special case and extended analysis of Marx's Base-Superstructure theory – although he never formulated it in this Marxist way. The medium – canvas and paint, film, radio, television, smartphone etc. – is part of the economic/technological Base; the message is part of the Superstructure and is shaped by the characteristics of the Base.


Let's allow ourselves a brief detour into a McLuhanite/Marxist look at another field of technologically driven cultural change: music. No one can deny, for example, that music is part of the Superstructure – its many styles, its appreciation and consumption are part of the mental life of the majority of people. Large books might be written on the interrelationship between genres of music and social structure – complexities we don't need to consider, fortunately. Let's focus strictly on the musical media (Base) and the musical message (Superstructure).

The technological changes in the Base over the last half-century or so have led to dramatic changes in the Superstructure in respect of music. 78 and 45-rpm records gave us music that lasted not more than a few minutes or so; the increased capacity of 331/3-rpm LP records allowed the distribution of 'albums' of music; music cassettes gave us more time as well as content that could also be copied. Radio gave us a broad choice of music for every taste, then video recording and replay brought us music videos. By 1978 The Buggles (who?) could inform us quite correctly that 'Video killed the radio star'. In the middle of all this, musicians also realised that the electronic technology in the Base allowed them to make music without musical instruments. Then came CDs, which had even greater capacity and which seemed indestructable, and then came MP3 players that allowed us to take a shelf-full of LPs with us in a shirt-pocket on a walk.

Going beyond music in the Superstructure, on that walk we now carry a small device with us that can take photographs, record sound, take videos and replay huge amounts of high-quality music – unlimited amounts if we consider music and video streaming services available online. A time traveller from 1950 would be stunned at today's easy and cheap access to unlimited music, not to mention carefree, unlimited and unrestricted digital photography and video recording.

Photography and video

Let's take another detour into a further field of astonishing technological and social change. Adults now over fifty years old will probably have only a very few poor quality photographs from their childhoods, the children of the working classes perhaps none – photography was an expensive activity. Adults younger than twenty-five from all classes may conceivably have thousands of images. We only have to contrast the faded memories of the childhood of the former, now almost disappeared, with those of the latter, forever documented in the minutest detail.

As far as only video recording technology is concerned, in addition to fixed CCTV installations, more and more motor vehicles, cyclists, public transport vehicles are equipped with video recording. Taking all this together, we get the impression that not much happens in the world these days without someone recording the event; conversely, we are also getting the impression that the only things that happen that are worthy of note are the events that have been captured on video.

We can leave it to the reader to work out in detail how these changes in the technology available in the Base have changed the Superstructure. The changes are not only very, very complex, they also penetrate very deeply into the Superstructure, the cultural world in which we live.

McLuhan was writing at the beginning of this series of changes in popular music and long before the internet, websites, email and social media. He was extremely far-sighted and predicted in general terms the revolution that was then almost upon us. The various internet phenomena have become the greatest exemplars of his insights and Marx's insights into the technological basis of culture.

Social media: the frat-house hothouse

Facebook was an internet implementation of the year-books so beloved of educational institutions in the USA. The technology of the year-book, with its photos and comments, was translated into its internet equivalent to become just as incestuous and clique-based as the original. But Facebook and its like have brought the whole world into the same frat-house: everyone has access to a year-book and behaves in just the way American teenagers behave in the frat-house situation – a Superstructure behaviour that is determined by the technology in the Base.

Messaging services such as Twitter are the manifestation of frat-house gossip and trivia and have extended that behaviour into all areas of life. The technology of 'following', 'grouping', 'liking', 'befriending', 'defriending' and 'blocking' has led to its own cultural manifestations. We are surprised at the way these sensitive spider-webs of shared opinion can be set into violent agitation by one of its entrapped flies vibrating in anger, but we shouldn't be.

It is in the nature of the technology: our Superstructure is determined by our Base. All these characteristics arise from the properties of the technology itself: to invoke our early terminology, the technology in the Base determines the cultural/mental life of the Superstructure.

We have to broaden Marx's original concept of the Base as encompassing simply the hardware of the means of production to something which also encompasses software. Software is immaterial – Dr Johnson cannot kick it – but the way it works, its functionality, determines the way the hardware works. The 'Spinning Jenny' worked in one way that was hard-wired, as we say nowadays. The desktop, laptop, tablet and smartphone are hardware that works in the way that the software tells it to. It is the software that adds a 'like' button to a software application that runs in a software browser in a software operating system on a piece of hardware.

The properties of social media

The technological properties of social media determine the nature of the interactions within it.

Social media messaging demands rapid and frequent responses to messages and especially to whatever is 'trending'. The user is drawn in to taking a position on incoming messages. If the social media user only sends a message once a week or once a month they clearly haven't got the message about their new medium. For many, the yawning emptiness of days and evenings and nights has now been filled with unceasing social interaction.

Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927

All she needs is a smartphone. A scene now made inconceivable by a dozen years of Base and Superstructure change. Edward Hopper (1882-1967), Automat, 1927. Image: Des Moines Art Center.

When otherwise sensible and educated young people, who have never experienced a Superstructure without social media, are prepared to end their lives because of some transient experience they have had in the bubble of social media, we can appreciate how all-encompassing the mental life in the new Superstructure can be. The seventy years of life yet-to-come count as nothing against the immediacy of the social reality of the Superstructure.

The short length of social media messages rules out considered reasoning or argument: it encourages reaction, the more emotional the better. Mockery, condemnation and contempt are the natural modes of such communication. It also encourages short, snappy, attention-catching remarks. Emoticons add the writer's feelings in a couple of characters. Since messages are typically written on a small keypad, the restriction of the message length is not felt to be a particular disadvantage. Language, vocabulary, grammar and style are all adapting to the short message format in complex ways that we cannot discuss here.

The technology of the printed year-book determined that the interaction with it came to an end on its publication, its scope limited to a small group of participants. In contrast, the social media year-book is a rolling publication accessed by potentially millions of other people: all those in this gigantic frat-house of users worldwide. The user's 'followers' and 'friends' will often be made up mostly of physical strangers.

The message or posting on social media, the comment on a website all have an immediacy and spontaneity that is missing in a written article. An article usually goes through several hands before it is published. The old British saying about today's news being tomorrow's fish-and-chip wrapper is still valid. In contrast, a web posting, a comment thread or a tweet series that is popular can claim paradoxically a much longer span of attention.

Unlike the mainstream media, the tweet, posting or comment has a short and direct connection with the personality of the tweeter. These objects have become personality proxies, through which the socially dominant can express and boost their own personalities and joust with the personalities of others. This is the reason why social media is not a good place for the sensitive or the weak to expose themselves.

The contemporary talk is of the need to suppress online bullying and trolling. They cannot be supressed because they are in the nature of the phenomenon – the encouragement for such behaviour in the Superstructure is designed in at the level of the Base. The design encourages the provocation needed to be sure of causing a reaction, a corresponding aggrandisement and a need for popularity. The pleasure of a stranger 'liking' a message constitutes a great psychological reward; the pain of being ignored, or of a stranger attacking a message should not be underestimated for sensitive personalities.

Anyone looking at a school yearbook or a school photo will easily spot who were the winners then and who will be the winners on a social media implementation of the same: the socially powerful, the popular, the 'followed' and the 'liked'. They were the winners then, but at least the losers could leave them behind in their subsequent journey through adult life. That option does not exist today, unless you renounce social media altogether. The losers, once condemned to silent hatred, can now get their revenge on the golden ones, the popular, the followed, the opinion makers.

One last factor of the Base of social media is that its existence depends on a continuous income stream. This statement is in need of qualification, however: Twitter, for example, has never made a profit throughout its history, but it still seems to float on, defying all financial logic. The customers of social media are the advertisers, the users are just required to generate as much traffic as possible. The need for constant excitement and frequent twitterstorms is part of the modality of social media – it is in their nature in the Base, which demands volatility and ever-increasing traffic.

The social media have changed the Superstructure of modern western societies dramatically. The technological changes of social media in the Base have had effects in the Superstructure that are comparable with the spread of printing. No one chose to make these changes: someone somewhere came up with a software idea, added a moneymaking component, found someone to finance its implementation and development and ultimately found people who liked it and used it. A lot of people found this frat-house behaviour enjoyable – addictive, even – most, now, don't seem to be able to imagine a time before it existed.

The bliss of forgetting, the hell of recall

One particularly remarkable Superstructure effect of social media technology is that it has removed the filter we once had that allowed us to 'jump over our own shadow'. In so doing it has changed the nature of our lives dramatically. 'Nobody's perfect' we say, and nobody's biography is flawless. In earlier days the stains of our errors would sooner or later fade or be bleached out. Your sticky-out ears and your goofy smile may be memorialised in a year-book or class photo somewhere, but really, who cared? That silly article you wrote, your participation in the student march to 'take the Danish jackboot of Greenland' and much, much worse will hopefully sooner rather than later fade from view.

In a more serious application of the bliss of forgetting, after the Second World War Germans could obtain the Persilschein that gave them closure from whatever had happened since 1933 and get on with their lives. Had they not been able to do that the rebirth of Germany as a state would have been much more difficult. We humans need to forget, because we are human, but social media allows no forgetting or closure.

Since the start of modern, invasive journalism the famous have had to get used to the fact that some compromising photograph, some unfortunate turn of phrase, some piece of slander would rise into the public consciousness and dog them for some time, possibly for the rest of their public lives. That's why modern politicians do their best to say nothing at all beyond platitudes. For them in the last half-century or so, there has been no forgetting. It is the media's fault that no politician these days will say anything substantive in unscripted television or radio interviews.

Often nowadays we hear shouts of 'hypocrisy' from the moral guardians when some tidbit from the past of a now-respected public figure surfaces into public view. Sometimes such a revelation reveals hypocrisy, but it can also just represent a personality in evolution, someone jumping over the shadows of a former life. Nowadays, as the reformed ascend, their past is always there for those with eyes to see.

Shadow jumping

Until quite recently members of the general public did not have this problem of exposure at all, except in one particular area: their employment record.

Nowadays, in most European countries, an employer is obliged to write a reference for a departing employee. Not only that, the reference must not damage the reputation or standing of the employee. However true the bad things might be, the employer must be able to make a fresh start with another employer.

As a result, the writing of references has become an art form. For an employee whose timekeeping was bad the employer cannot simply write 'turned up late at least twice a week'. This person may never get another responsible job in that case. So the employer writes nothing about timekeeping, but writes 'is good with people' instead. There is an unwritten checklist of things that employers are expected to write about their employees and timekeeping is one of them. If there is no remark about timekeeping in the reference then the subsequent employer – reading between the lines – will have a good idea of where this person's weaknesses lie.

But the employee will thus have at least a chance to 'jump over his or her shadow'. Human beings develop. Firing the bad timekeeper may have had a salutary effect on him or her. There has to be forgetting. The Calvinist religion that leaves the black stains on your soul for ever is tough on its adherents, whereas a Catholic can have the sins of omission and commission resolved – at least for the moment. The permanent self-examination and lasting guilt of Calvinism pushed many sensitive people over the edge into insanity. Humanity has to allow its members a chance for development and self-improvement. Time has to heal and the scars have to fade. But nowadays we have the internet and the internet does not forget.

The permanence of biography

Nowadays through social media the young person is permanently in contact with everyone from his or her entire biography. Someone, somewhere, will always remember. We note the recent spate of minor celebrities whose injudicious pasts from decades previously have surfaced to bite them. Lives and livelihoods have been ruined in this way.

We don't need to ponder for long on the popularity of aliases in modern web communications to understand why so many people feel the need to wear a mask in social media. Those who do declare themselves openly are running great risks.

In Switzerland there are currently plans to establish a 'Swiss-ID' which will identify the individual with all the characteristics of modern identification: full name, birthdate, address etc. etc. It will be able to be used to pay taxes, buy from online stores, sign up with websites and so on. Ultimately all the areas of life from cradle to grave will be networked together. There will be no forgetting, no fuzzy remembering.

If it is put into effect, this idea represents a change to the technological base that will have immense consequences for the Superstructure. Dim politicians think that with such a digital ID we are merely reverting to some golden period of straightforward interpersonal dealings. We are not. Just the opposite, in fact. That 'golden age' was an age of forgetting, the digital age will be marked by the hell of permanent recall.

Other changes in the technological Base have made this situation worse. CCTV surveillance is omnipresent in urban areas. Most of the population is now equipped with still and video cameras to record whatever may occur that might be worthy of notice to someone. There is very little private life left. Even the devoted lover will probably be taking pictures and recording videos that can spell doom.

Only this morning a 13 year-old girl is complaining to the media(!) that nude photos of her are now circulating on the internet. Is this yet one more effect that the digital photography in the Base now has on the Superstructure, that young girls are photographing themselves naked?

The modern Marxist technological Base and the properties of the McCluhan media determine a Superstructure in which we can no longer 'jump over our shadows'. If we are to remain sane we need some mechanism of forgetting, some statute of limitations on knowledge.

It is what it is

The social media encourage drama, mockery, cruelty, bullying and hounding; they serve the strong and the clever and torture the weak and the sensitive; even the sensible, mature user is ultimately turned into an adolescent. This behaviour cannot be changed: it is written on the social media tin as it is currently conceived. It is not the fault of the users in the Superstructure, who are behaving in ways that the Base demands. The social media genie has been out of the bottle for at least a decade and cannot be put back.

Nor can the social media be policed. Policing requires subtlety, judgement and language skills that can never be applied to the billions of communications chasing around the social media every day. The consequnce is that, just as the police replace messy real-life crime with clean, antiseptic binary crime, so the social media police will replace the search in the messy ambiguities of real-life communication with algorithms that respond to key words and trigger phrases. Just as the normal police focus on the usual suspects as a way of reducing the load, so the social media police will identify their own usual suspects.

Commanding the tide to retreat doesn't work, as everyone knows. Commanding social media to behave in certain ways that are contrary to their nature is equally pointless. The Base and the Superstructure have defined social media's characteristics, and thus it is what it is.

Update 14.01.2018

The reproduction of the Edward Hopper painting Automat was added shortly after initial publication.