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Communities of Sense

Duke University Press Durham e'::r London 2009

© 2009 Duke University Press
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Acknowledgments vii

PART 0 N E Rethinking Aesthetics

Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics 31

The Romantic Work of Art 51
From Classical to Postclassical Beauty: Institutional Critique and
Aesthetic Enigma in Louise Lawler's Photography 79
Technologies of Belonging: Sensus Communis, Disidentification 111

PART TWO Partitioning the Sensible

Dada's Event: Paris, 1921 135

Citizen Cursor 153
Mass Customization: Corporate Architecture
and the "End" of Politics 172

PART THR E E The Limits of Community

Experimental Communities 197

Precarite, Auto rite, Autonomie 215
Neo-Dada 1951-54: Between the Aesthetics of Persecution
and the Politics of Identity 238
Post-Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 267
Thinking Red: Ethical Militance and the Group Subject 294

I N TERV I E W with Etienne Balibar 317

Bibliography 337
Contributors 355
Index 359

This volume has its origins in a conference of the same name presented at
Columbia University in April 2003. The editors would like to thank the
participants in this conference: Susan Buck-Morss, T. J. Demos, Tom
Gunning, Branden Joseph, Ewa Lajer-Burcharth, Pamela Lee, Reinhold
Martin, Stephen Melville, Molly Nesbit, Alexander Potts, Arvind Rajaga­
pol, and keny ote
sors, John Rajchman, Rosalind Krauss, Benjamin Buchloh, and Jonathan
Crary. We would also like to thank Barry Bergdoll and Hillary Ballon and
the Department ofArt History and Archaeology, the Graduate School of
Arts and Sciences, and the Institute for Comparative Literature and
Society at Columbia University for supporting the conference. Thanks
go to Ken Wissoker and Mandy Earley at Duke University Press for their
editorial help. Finally, we would like to give a special thanks to John
Rajchman for bringing our editorial group together and for providing
crucial encouragement during the early stages of this project.







The essays collected in Communities of Sense: Rethinking Aesthetics and

Politics are grounded in recent theoretical thinking on aesthetics, poli­
tics, and the problem of community within globalization. Over the last
several decades, cultural production has often been described using
terms such as postcritical and postideological. These terms suggest that
the ways in which the relationship between aesthetics and politics has
been formulated since the 1960S are no longer viable in the current
political climate. At the same time, they foreclose the investigation
of the immanence of aesthetics and politics to each other. Following
Jacques Ranciere's theorization of democratic politics, the contributors
here argue for a new understanding of the relations between politics and
aesthetics by suggesting that aesthetics, traditionally defined as the
"science of the sensible;' is not a depoliticized discourse or theory of art,
but a factor of a specific historical organization of social roles and
communality. Rather than formulating aesthetics as the Other to poli­
tics, the essays that follow show that aesthetics and politics are im­
bricated in the constitution of specific orders of visibility and sense
through which the political division into assigned roles and defined
parts manifests itself.
This collection seeks to locate Ranciere's relevance to contemporary
art theory and practice in what might be called the hidden vanishing
point of both avant-garde art and Ranciere's political philosophy:
namely, the problem of community and collectivism. In particular, the
continuing dependence of avant-garde artistic practice and theory on
collectivist models is more problematic than ever today, as the collapse
of socialist politics and the violent recrudescence of various nationalist
or fundamentalist forms of communitarian politics require that these
models be critiqued and actively challenged. For this reason, we place
Ranciere's contributions to contemporary debates on politics and aes­
thetics into dialogue with Jean-Luc Nancy's analysis of the concept
of community. Against the backdrop of other post-Marxist accounts
of community, Nancy's work supplies a notion of contingent being­
together that complements Ranciere's description of temporary soli­
darities that are constantly renegotiated through disagreement.
By proposing the term communities of sense, the contributors to this
volume seek to open the possibility of a politics of collectivity beyond
collectivism or identity politics, on the one hand, and postcritical plural­
ism, on the other. To use the term community of sense is thus to par­
ticularize the meaning of community, to envision what community
might mean after the fall of communism and the rethinking of democ­
racy. It is to recognize a contingent and nonessential manner of being­
together in a community whose coherence is no more than a fiction or a
potentiality. Such a concept of community acknowledges politics to
contain a sensuous or aesthetic aspect that is irreducible to ideology and
idealization. This is the paradoxical core of the community of sense:
that it works toward being-together only through a consistent disman­
tling of any idealized common ground, form, or figure. This paradox
forms historical, political, and aesthetic conditions within which a crit­
ical engagement with contemporary cultural and artistic production
needs to take place. While the stimulus for this project comes from
Ranciere's reconsideration of the conjuncture of aesthetics and politics,
which opposes the concept of "the people" to all forms of collective
belonging based on common characteristics or values (social, ethnic,
religious), the authors here seek to dismantle the typical post-Marxian
opposition between "the people" and "community:' That is, they aim to
reconsider and reopen the problem of community and collectivity as a
crucial aporia of the historical avant-garde that has reemerged today,
as contemporary artistic practices engage with the realities of global­
Therefore, we must also acknowledge that a community of sense can
be a reactionary formation that seeks to overcome politics by recourse
to the shared experience of an organic communitJj like the nostalgic
community of Walter Benjamin's storyteller or the "aesthetic state" of
political romanticism. In the place of a dissensual politics of community,
these formations substitute a mythic or pseudoScientific notion of com­
mon sense. Examples of this common sense include eugenics, the ro­
mantic populism of agrarian and third-world communism, or the statis­
tical fiction of consensus. Such formations haunt every conceptual or
practical proposition of a community of sense. Yet rather than un­
critically adopting or rejecting concepts and practices of community in
toto, the authors here aim to open them up to renegotiation and produc­
tive debate.

The Aesthetic Turn

Throughout much of the twentieth century, aesthetic theory was dis­

missed by artists and critics alike as a relic of bourgeoiS ideology and
Western metaphysics. The significance of artistic and cultural produc­
tion was increasingly located in its relationship to structures of repre­
sentation and its dismantling of aesthetic conventions. The anti-art
strategies of the historical avant-garde, from Soviet constructivism to
Dada and surrealism, scandalized traditional artistic norms and institu­
tions. These strategies were taken up again by the postwar avant-garde,
whose anti�art practices became associated with forms of critical theory
exemplified by the 1983 anthology edited by Hal Foster, The Anti­
Aesthetic.l Such postmodernist art criticism of the 1980s, influenced by
the reception of deconstruction and Frankfurt school critical theory,
attacked post-Kantian aesthetics as the hidden link connecting the sup­
posed autonomy of modernist formalism with capitalist ideology.2 Aes­
thetics then became a code word for the elitist ideology of high versus
low taste. Classical aesthetic standards of beauty were equally subject to
skepticism. Beauty was exposed as an ideological construction whose
norms varied historically and across cultures.
However, with the Internet boom ( and concomitant stock-market
bubble ) of the 1990S, popular art criticism rode the wave of "irrational
exuberance:' This period witnessed the revival of the traditional termi­
nology of normative aesthetics, particularly in the celebratory use of the
term beauty. The critic Dave Hickey was among the first of those who
began to proselytize for a recovery of an aesthetics of beauty in the early
1990S. Hickey defines beauty simply as the visual pleasure found in the

affect of images, but to this he adds a certain ethical tone, itself mobi­
lized against right-wing moralizers. Discussing the work of Robert Map­
plethorpe, he notes that it was so threatening to religious conservatives
and their ilk because it made gay subcultural practices appear beautiful,
by which he means that they somehow were "good" to behold because
they were aestheticized. While bracketing the programmatic or norma­
tive implications of the term good, Hickey nevertheless suggests a uni­
versally understood value linking the good to the beautiful, which is
inherent in the viewer's apprehension of the work.4 More recently,
Arthur Danto and Elaine Scarry have radicalized Hickey's argument by
absolutizing the connection between beauty and ethics. For Danto and
Scarry the case is clear-cut: that which is beautiful is that which is
morally good. Danto states that while beauty may not be part of art's
essence and accordingly does not have to belong to an object for it to be
considered art, those works that possess beauty generate a sense of well­
being in the viewer, who automatically registers this beauty as morally
good. Danto argues that judgments of beauty are universal, in fact.
"There are;' he writes, "descriptions of states of affairs that would be
acceptable as beautiful and as ugly by pretty much anyone:'s Rather
than regarding them as separate but related spheres of influence, Scarry
goes even further than Danto by defining beauty as the condition of
possibility for ethics. For Scarry, the beautiful automatically produces a
feeling of "lateral regard" in which the beholder comes to care for non­
beautiful things because they also care for those that are beautifuL The
unbeautiful is cared for only because of the proximate contagion of the
beautifuL6 Danto also famously argues that the "end of art" has arrived,
insofar as aesthetics itself has been made to accord completely with
everyday life. Nothing remains of art except the conceptual force of its
propositions, and therefore the modern aesthetic project is brought to
an end through its dissolution into philosophy.
Despite the seemingly wide divergence between the critical positions
represented by "the return to beauty;' on the one hand, and the "anti­
aesthetic;' on the other, both perspectives share a reductive definition of
aesthetics as normative and apoliticaL Aesthetics is thus celebrated as
the basis for a new cosmopolitan universalism by the exponents of

"beauty;' or condemned as a bourgeois mystification by the adherents of

the "anti-aesthetic:' Aesthetics is here defined in two opposing ways, yet
with the same conclusions as to its critical viability. In both cases, the
immediately political aspects of aesthetics are denied.
In opposition to these formulations, Ranciere points out in the open­
ing essay of this collection that aesthetics encompasses both a histor­
ically specific mode of identification of art and the forms of visibility
and speech in which politics is necessarily staged. That is, for Ranciere,
aesthetics participates in the historical configuration of social and per­
ceptual experience. At the same time, aesthetics does not simply repli­
cate or structure political systems of power, but reconfigures them in
ways that suggest a different division of social roles and forms of subjec­
Looking back over the trajectory of the arts in the West, Ranciere
finds three major regimes of identification of art, each of which has
passed on, imperfectly and over the course of time, into the next. The
arts of the modern era belong to what he calls the "aesthetic regime;'
which he differentiates from the "ethical regime" that originated with
Plato and the "poetiC regime" allied with Aristotle and his legacy. Under
the ethical regime, there was no Art as such, because the arts had not
been designated as separate spheres with their own linked competen­
cies. In the subsequent poetic regime, the fine arts were separated from
other means of making at the same time that they were differentiated
among themselves according to social hierarchies of medium, genre,
and style.
Within this genealogy, "aesthetics" marks a specific regime of art in
which the identification of art is no longer based on an academic hier­
archy of genres, subjects, and mediums but on the recognition of a
sensible mode of being that gives art its specificity. With the advent of
the Enlightenment, the fine arts became Art in general as philosophers
such as Baumgarten and Kant sought to grasp the character of all the
arts by linking them to problems associated with the production of
sense. Yet Ranciere points out that by asserting its autonomy from
imitation and the hierarchies it implies, art also demolished its indepen­
dence from other ways of doing and making. This exposes an underlin­
ing paradox in the aesthetic regime of art: at the same time in which
sensibility constitutes the singularity of art, it also destroys any criteria
upon which this Singularity can be delimited.7
This paradox indicates, for Ranciere, the way in which the philosophi­
cal problem of sense is always also a political problem. The effort to
isolate a specific realm of experience and a mode of thought that is
inherently foreign to thought, namely "sense;' not only subverts the
autonomy of reason: it also undermines the social distribution of roles
and political forms of authority. Ranciere bases this argument on his
reading of Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man.S For
Schiller, the autonomy of aesthetic experience consists precisely in the
freedom the mind acquires from the dictates of reason. Aesthetic experi­
ence allows for "free play;' that is, for the suspension of oppositions
between sensation and meaning, form and matter, activity and passivity.
This means that aesthetic experience is grounded not in the reversal of
the hierarchical opposition between "active" understanding and "pas­
sive" sensibility, but in a new division of sense, one that is based on
equality rather than on domination. Aesthetics thus delimits a space in
which thought and sense coexist in a way that points to new ways of
sharing. By conceptualizing aesthetics in this manner, Schiller exposed
the political potential of aesthetics as a site of harmony and at the same
time as a site of disagreement that challenges the hierarchical and exclu­
sive distribution of roles between those that rule and those that are
ruled. For Schiller, aesthetic exp erience opens the possibility to envision
a new form of universality and a new kind of emancipated humanity.9
Following Schiller, Ranciere argues that the autonomy of the aesthetic
was constituted through the identification of an inherently hetero­
geneous sensory experience and not through the opposition between
the autonomy of reason and the heteronomy of ethics, as for Lyotard, or
between art's autonomy and the heteronomous conditions of its social
production, as formulated by Adorno. By the same token, for Ranciere
the aesthetic regime does not manifest an exclusive opposition between
the avant-garde's demand for the integration of art into life and the
modernist insistence on formal autonomy. Instead, it offers a paradox:
neither autonomy nor heteronomy, but rather the politically effective
negotiation of this opposition.
By describing the historical breaks and self-contradictions that con­
stituted the aesthetic regime, Ranciere counters the tendency to essen­
tialize Art ( or "art as such" ) by historicizing aesthetics as a specifically
modern project. At the same time, he corrects for the distortions of
historicism by stressing the contingency of the historical forms of organi-
zation and identification of art, including the aesthetic regime of the arts.
This grasp of the contingency and self-contradictions of modern aes­
thetics enables Ranciere to critique the false historical distinction be­
tween modern and so-called postmodern art. Such periodization, as he
shows, is governed by terms that can be assigned with equal justification
to either side of an ostensible postmodern break: political versus non­
political, aesthetic versus anti-aesthetic. The concept of the aesthetic
regime also furnishes the basis for Ranciere's critique of teleological nar­
ratives of the end of art or end of politics. Since art is already circum­
scribed by its chiasmatic relation with life and non-art at the moment of
its historical inception as a concept and a practice, its sublation has the
character of an advent rather than a goal-oriented process: not the end of
art, but rather its continuous restarting or false start.

Politics and the Appearance of the People

For Ranciere, the instantiation of politics is an exceptional occurrence. 10

Politics is fundamentally the particularized, and particularizing, enact­
ment of a drive toward equality. The political therefore lies in the
endless renegotiation of the terms in which politics is staged and its
subjects are determined. As Ranciere writes, the question of who is
aSSigned a place in a given order of policy is determined through a
specific partitioning of the sensible as the commonly given, as "an order
of bodies that defines the allocation of ways of doing, ways of being, and
ways of saying, and sees that those bodies are assigned by name to a
particular place and task; it is an order of the visible and of the sayable
that sees that a particular activity is visible and another is not, that this
speech is understood as discourse and another as noise:'l l Politics exists
when this order is disrupted by those who have no part: for example
when workers, who take no part in the community of knowledge be­
cause they are defined as those who have no time for anything other
than work, invalidate this order of time and its divisions into work and
rest, labor, and leisure.I2 It is an act of repartitioning defined parts and
assigned roles, disputing the inscription of equality within a space that is
defined as common, of staging a clash between politics as usual ("pol­
icy" or "the police" for Ranciere) and a truly egalitarian politics (a defi­
nition that bears comparison with Etienne Balibar's concept of "equa-
liberty") . 13 Politics is aesthetic in principle because it reconfigures the
common field of what is seeable and sayable.
Ranciere's notion of the partitioning of the sensible suggests a possi­
ble redefinition of what constitutes political artistic practice under pres­
ent historical conditions. The inseparability of aesthetics from politics
necessitates a different set of artistic strategies than the ones that were
instrumental to political artistic practices in the seventies and eighties.
By identifying artistic strategies through which new identities and com­
munities are formed, and developing a framework in which these strat­
egies can be productively discussed, Communities of Sense aims to show
that aesthetics is not antinomic to politics.
One such framework is offered by Ranciere's redefinition of "ap­
pearance:' In Dis-agreement: Politics and Philosophy, he shows that poli­
tics is a stage on which the people appear as divided and where equality
is enacted as both present and absent. Politics designates subjects that
do not coincide with the parties of the state of society: it is therefore a
site of disidentification, of a miscount in which the sum of parts never
equals the whole. Rather than identification, politics enables processes
of subjectivization. Political subjectivization consists in the enactment
of equality-or the handling of; a wrong-by people who have no part in
the social whole. Politics, for Ranciere, has a theatrical aspect in that it is
always a matter of fictions, of a "poetic framing" of specific appearances.
In this conceptualization of politics, "appearance is not an illusion that
is opposed to the real. It is the introduction of a visible into the field of
experience, which then modifies the regime of the visible . . . . It splits
reality and reconfigures it as double:'14
Ranciere thus differentiates his concept of politics from the one pre­
sented within Marxist discourse, in which politics is criticized as that
which conceals the reality of the social. This discourse locates the truth
of politics precisely in what politics is meant to conceal. Thus the main
function of this discourse, designated by Ranciere as metapolitics, is
always to detect signs of untruth in every political practice by pointing
to a gap between names and things, or between appearances and real­
ities. Metapolitics constitutes itself as a "symptomology;' since it can
only demonstrate that the truth of any phenomenon consists precisely
in its falseness. In this regard, the term ideology is not only a new word
for illusion but a term that marks a new status for the true: "the true as
the truth of the false."ls Within this new epistemology, the political
I N T RO D U C T I O N 9

appearance of the people in democracy is also interpreted as an illusion

concealing the reality of a conflict between man and citizen, the labor­
ing people and the sovereign people.
Yet what if the fact that people are divided is not a "scandal to be
deplored;' but the very condition for politics? For Ranciere, this is
precisely the case, since "there is politics from the moment there exists
the sphere of appearance of a subject, 'the people; whose particular
attribute is to be different from itself, internally divided:'16 Thus, con­
trary to the claims of ideology critique, proclamations of equality like
the Declaration of the Rights of Man are not "appearances" that conceal
reality, but rather an effective mode for the appearance of the people.
The problem in politics is thus not to contradict appearances but to
confirm them, to maximize the powers of faint inscriptions and the
spheres of their materialization.17
What happens in our contemporary age of consensus is the erasure of
divisions among the people. Consensus eliminates the splintering mech­
anism of appearance in favor of an approach that erases internal differ­
ence. The removal of the people's sphere of appearance means that the
"people are always both totally present and totally absent at once. They
are entirely caught in a structure of the visible where everything is on
show and where there is thus no longer any place for appearance:'lS
According to Ranciere, the problem in our age is not the "loss of the
real;' but the loss of appearance as mechanism for producing difference.
This enables the political constitution of nonidentary subjects who
disturb a specific division of the perceptible by linking together separate
worlds and organizing spaces where new communities can be formed.
What are the stakes for artistic practices in the face of the loss of
appearance? What are the implications of Ranciere's almost counterin­
tuitive emphasis on the importance of appearance to our understanding
of the political viability of contemporary artistic practices? How does his
unique conceptualization of politics offer a way to rethink the historical
shift from what are often described as the politicized art practices of the
sixties, seventies, and eighties to the apolitical and conciliatory artistic
projects of the nineties and the new millennium, whether beauty-based
or community-based?
Ranciere's reconsideration of appearance suggests that the difference
between current artistic production and earlier, ostensibly more political
artistic practices lies in the models of criticality they invoke. Models of
10 I NT RO D U C T I O N
seventies institutional critique, for example, were embedded in a Marxian
discourse of politics and therefore conceived themselves in terms of a
critical negation of institutional and art-world politics. For artists such as
Hans Haacke, Daniel Buren, and Michael Asher, the focus of critique was
most often the museum, which was criticized for its presentation of
artworks as universal and autonomous objects devoid of any social,
political, and economic values. By presenting itself as the guardian of a
separate realm of aesthetic experience, a neutral space for the disin­
terested contemplation of art, the museum supposedly conceals its status
as a political institution whose main function is to reproduce a repressive
organization of power and an unjust distribution of capital.
The seventies strategy of exposing contradictions was thus not only
meant to uncover appearances but also to bring back "the real" in the
form of facts. In the eighties, in response to the influential work of Jean
Baudrillard, saving the real in political art through "communicative
action" and "external referents" became as urgent as dismantling ap­
pearances.19 Yet in our contemporary information age, opacity is often
not the outcome of a gap between political appearances and social
realities, but the result of the ceaseless proliferation of information. It is
the persistent emphasis on information and the "facticity" of knowledge
that leads to a particular economy of power and visibility in which, as
Etienne Balibar argues, the dominant powers do not practice "secrecy"
any longer, since the "crucial determinants of6ur own action remain
invisible in the very forms of (tele )visibility:'20 Factographicstrategies of
institutional critique become complicit in the elimination of dispute by
substituting the objectification of problems for the enactment of equal­
ity and the manifestation of wrong. The demarcation of "real" facts
simply replicates the same forms of partition that enable the identifica­
tion of parts and the distribution of roles, a division of the population
into sociologically defined groups (capitalists and workers, oppressors
and oppressed) whose conflicting interests can be resolved through laws
and bureaucratic expertise.
If politics is a form of aesthetics, then the problem is not how to
uncover appearances and bring back the "real;' but how to create a
sphere in which equality is enacted by the divided subject of the people.
Disagreement is not simply the confrontation between interests, but the
opening of forms of subjectivization for those who are in between
names, groups, and classes. The goal of this type of politics is to stage a
I N T RO D U C T I O N 11
gap that does not reveal a secret by exposing contradictions, but that
repartitions a particular order of the sensible through the splintering
mechanism of appearance. The task of art today is not to make the
invisible visible through the recontextualization of given information,
but to reconfigure the visible and its spectacular economies in a way
that reconfigures society's current division into parties and disrupts the
distribution of social roles. This form of operation necessitates a dif.­
ferent model of criticality, one that is not based on symptomology and a
negative form of critique. Such a model of criticality produces difference
from within and enables processes of disidentification. For many con­
temporary artists, the museum is no longer merely an institution but a
form of organization for possible social and cultural operations. The
main challenge facing contemporary artistic practices today is thus not
the critique of institutions, but the creation of what Balibar calls "places
of fiction" and describes in terms of "the production of the real on the
basis of experience itself'21 This concern is inseparable from the ques­
tion of how to create a stage upon which the people can appear, and
furthermore, appear as inherently multiple.

Communities of Sense

Historically, artistic practices have addressed the issue of community

through problems of address, reception, and distribution. The avant­
gardes of the twenties, for instance, founded their formal practices on
the hopes of speaking to a collective audience, and in turn transforming
that audience in the service of new structures of social and political
organization. These avant-gardes attempted to imagine new modes of
address in order to articulate a newly understood spectatorship in re­
sponse to the changing conditions of modernity. The realization that
traditional forms of viewing based on individual experience were no
longer relevant made the question of collectivity urgent. Yet, it could be
argued that the people, as an expression of community, are precisely
who or what is overlooked in the utopian practices of the early twentieth
century, even though these practices claimed to speak to and mobilize a
The question of "the people" must be related to, and differentiated
from, the avant-garde's conceptualization of this collective in terms of
12 I N T RO D U C T I O N
"the masses:' The avant-garde repeatedly confronted, yet never man­
aged to theorize, the problem of the constitution of a mass audience.
Walter Benjamin developed the phase "simultaneous collective recep­
tion" to address the possibility of cultural production that could activate
collective spectatorship, a possibility that Benjamin Buchloh has ad­
dressed with reference to the work of EI Lissitzky and the Soviet avant­
garde.22 The concept of simultaneous collective reception fails by pre­
supposing that there exists a body capable of some form of common
sense or commonality in the act of reception. To the extent that the
utopian projects of the avant-garde were compromised by their mobili­
zation under fascist and totalitarian regimes, those compromises hinged
not on the fact of the work's politicization, but rather on the assumption
of a shared and common reception by a collective. This assumption
neglects to conceptualize what this collective is, or, more significantly,
could be.
The historical avant-gardes aspired to create the conditions for a
shared reception of cultural production through practices that would
transform viewers' cognitive and perceptual outlook and mobilize them
as a political force. Yet while the avant-gardes experimented with ways
to transform perception in the interest of an ultimate transformation of
everyday life, they frequently took their audiences to be an already
constituted unity. They did not attempt to find ways to approach the
addressee as a member of multiple and disparate populations, or of an
audience that was itself internally differentiated. As a result, their aspira­
tions were neutralized by the enforced identifications that this concept
of a pregiven commonality or collectivity necessarily entailed. The co­
optation of avant-garde art practices by totalitarian modes of identifica­
tion followed directly from their problematic embrace of the concept of
the common as a form of identity. This need not be understood as a
failure of the avant-garde project of "art into life:' Rather, it opens the
possibility of rethinking the avant-garde project in terms of an internally
plural collectivity.23
After the decline of utopian thinking characteristic of cultural and
theoretical production in the first half of the twentieth century, critics in
the postwar period voiced skepticism concerning not only the viability of
collectivity, but even its deSirability. Communities of Sense is motivated, in
part, by the debates over community and a politics of the people that
I N T RO D U C T I O N 13
have emerged in the waning decades of state socialism. Together with
Ranciere's work, other theorists, including Etienne Balibar and Jean-Luc
Nancy, have proposed new ways to address the problem of community
beyond identitarian politics.24
In the eighties, a new wave of discourses on community gained mo­
mentum and relevance by critiquing definitions of community built
around identity. Benedict Anderson's well known Imagined Communities
asserted that all communities based on the concept of identity are
productive fictions mobilized to the service of ideological power in the
form of nationalism. As an imaginary formation, community lacks any
natural basis in geographical territory, language, culture, or ethnicity.
The principal problem that Anderson sets out to address is the seeming
paradox of nationalism and socialism. The centrality of this issue, in
turn, reflects the limits of Marxist critical thinking. The questions An­
derson asks are, in part, the product of his ideological premise that
socialism entailed the dissolution of atavistic forms of collectivity, as
well as the preemption of community based on imagined identities. He
puzzles over the fact that the fall of the Soviet republics, still an embodi­
ment of twentieth-century Marxism, left nothing in its wake but re­
publics, each at war over territory and sovereignty.24 Within the Marxist
logic of Imagined Communities, the critique of community and the cri­
tique of ideology appear to be antithetical. Despite the crucial questions
it raised, Anderson's book offered no positive or prescriptive strategy for
socialist politics. Instead, it marked a disillusionment with leftist models
of collectivity that had become widespread by the eighties.
From the other side of the spectrum, the concept of community came
under duress from situationist critiques of the commodity form. In The
Society of the Spectacle (1967), Debord claimed that the spectacle tends
to foreclose the possibility of community in its colonization of every
aspect of everyday life. Under capitalism, which divides and arbitrates
all sense, "the Spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social
relation among people, mediated by images:'25 Yet Debord wavered
between his description of the total banishment of community from
modern life and his faith in the capacities of small groups to reroute or
reverse the effects of spectacle through play tactics that opposed the
reification and commodification of everyday life.
Like Anderson and Debord, Jean-Luc Nancy addresses the possible
14 I N T RO D U C T I O N
sense of the term community after the collapse of the utopian ideals of
socialism and the historical avant-gardes. In The Inoperative Community,
Nancy begins with Sartre's assertion that "communism is the unsurpass­
able horizon of our time" to demonstrate the limits of the thinking
against which community had come to be defined. These limits were
bound by the regulative concepts of individuality and totality, a para­
digm that depended on the acceptance of modernity as a process of
atomization. Moreover, these regulative concepts rested on a set of
presuppositions, among them the traditional philosophical category of
the self, which not only establishes a related notion of community as a
collection of identified selves, but also determines it a priori as a form of
totality. This is to say that the metaphysical concept of the self as
absolute subject makes thinking the plurality of community impossible.
At the same time, paradoxically, it sets community up as a problem, as
another kind of self mimetically linked to the individual self in the form
of a unified body politic. Historicall)lj this was expressed by the figure of
a leader, such as a king, who metonymically stood in for the people. For
Nancy, the absolutist logic of metaphysics casts itself into relation with
its other, with that which undoes absoluteness, precisely because as
absolutes, both individuality and totality exclude the possibility of their
mediation. In this sense, to the degree that community is permitted to
exist, to be thought, it is represented to thought as nothing other than
that which dissolves what Nancy calls "the autarchy of absolute imma­
nence;' the irrational fixity of absolutes.26 In other words, community
could be rethought, insofar as it can be expressed as a single phenome­
non, as a form of relation rather than as self or being.
Relationality is a function of the distribution and organization of
sense, what Nancy calls "spacing:' This approach to the issue of collec­
tivity posits it as internally multiple and dynamic. Being is constituted
only in relation to others: one's being is a function of the way in which
sense is distributed, or rather, spaced. This spacing not only sets the
condition of relationality among beings but also of each singular being's
relation to itself. Instead of an alterity founded on the originary aliena­
tion of the individual, spacing makes singular beings other, both for one
another and for themselves, just as it conditions the possibility of con­
nection and exchange among beings. Spacing introduces an interrup­
tion, an element of disjunction such that community itself becomes the
enactment of a dislocation.27
I N T RO D U C T I O N 15
In this way, Nancy redefines community as the being-in-common of
sociality. The potentiality of both cultural and political activity is predi­
cated upon a new understanding of the way in which community is not
a grouping of individuals already consumed in the reproduction of a
static totality based on identityj rather, community is enacted through
contingent modalities of spacing. Nancy thus forecloses the possibility
that his idea of the "being-in-common of sociality" could be understood
as a form of essentialism. In "Of Being-ln··Common," he argues that­
because of the internally plural nature of being, which is always a func­
tion of process and enactment-there is no such thing as a common
being, and therefore no such thing as fixed communion. By contrast,
there is being-in-common. In other words, while being is not common,
being-in-common is the condition for the possibility of meaning. Exis­
tence is only materialized through being partitioned and shared.28 While
there is no essence of being, the relationships, however dissonant,
among singularities form the foundations of communication, which in
turn produces community. An implication of this logic is that the sense
of community is born of neither morality nor the institution of a tran­
scendental law. Rather, this sense precedes those categories. It is sense
produced in common, through the division and distribution of sensa­
tion and Signification.
Nancy takes care to differentiate his concept of community from
formulations of collectivity and community developed by the historical
avant-garde. As a point of departure for his argument, he critiques
Georges Bataille's understanding of community as the alternative to
social atomism. For Bataille, Nancy claims, community was based on,
and ultimately could not supersede, the "community of lovers:'29 Ac­
cordingly, Bataille despaired of any possible political form of commu­
nity. Unlike Bataille, Nancy Signals his investment in community as a
problem of social and political vicissitudes, rather than a question of the
collectivization of private experience. 30 In fact, private experience is a
category made impossible by Nancy's thinking, wherein sense is under­
stood as the spacing of relationships among a plurality of terms.
Critical as he is of Bataille's emphasis on eros and eroticism as a
privileged site of opposition to the empty atomism of modernity, Nancy
shares Bataille's drive to situate community as a form of resistance. The
word communism, for Nancy, articulates the desire to recover commu­
nity from identitarian politics, on the one hand, and from what Nancy
16 I N T RO D U C T I O N
terms the "techno-political dominion" of rational secular capitalism} on
the other.31 VVhile socialist utopias faltered in part because of their
eventual subordination to technocratic theocracies and totalitarian ide­
ologies} the desire that once motivated those utopias remains relevant to
the present. Moreover} as Nancy's analysis suggests} the extent to which
they became compromised through historical events also partially re­
sults from the way that collectivity was conceptualized as a form of
social unity, a shared identity founded on a plurality of subjects made
one through the very concept of identity. This logic led} circularly, back
to atomism: the many composing the one in the absence of shared}
enacted relationships.
The forging of relationships between groupings that are contingent}
rather than rigidly composed by either a formalist logic or a unified
ideological program} emerges as a central question of the essays col­
lected here. Our redefinition of aesthetics and politics addresses the
complexity of new social formations wrought by globalization and is
founded on an understanding of sociality and community as historically
contingent forms of organization and distribution. This becomes all the
more urgent in the face of the many turbulent outbreaks of ethnic
violence} racism} and religious fundamentalism since 1989} in reaction
against the increasing grip of globalization and its forms of enforced
consensus. In responding to these developments} many contemporary
art practices attempt to articulate new relations between the social and
the common. The recent rethinking of issues of community in art
projects that consider themselves community based or community ori­
ented has had to negotiate the ambiguous legacy of the historical avant­
garde's utopian projects} as well as the ways in which these projects tend
to fail under the foreclosure of social bonds by capitalism.

Contemporary Art and the Problem of Community

In contemporary practices} the debate about community-based art fo­

cuses on the larger question of what a community is and whether it of­
fers a desirable model for art or for politics. VVhile advocates of commu­
nity-based art such as Grant Kester have proposed consensual models of
"politically coherent" community building practices} Miwon Kwon} in
turn} has critiqued the ideal of community because it assumes the
I N T RO D U C T I O N 17
transparency of unified concepts of subjectivity and identity and re­
duces differences to homogeneous collectives. In her book One Place
After Another: Site-Spec�fic Art and Locational Identity, Kwon warns
against the dangers of art falling into the trap of offering essentialist
representations of group identity. Instead, following Jean-Luc Nancy,
she affirms the possibility of a collective artistic praxis that can "un­
work" community and thereby render it "inoperable:'
For Kester however, community-based art has transformative potential
in its ability to provide a consensual ground for public acts of political
speech and resistance. Here, consensus and collectivity are valued posi­
tively as instantiations of democratic relations between the artist, the
viewer, and the artwork. Collaborative strategies are deemed to resist the
authority of a single artist's voice and instead create "politically coherent
communities:'32 Kester is interested in collaborative works such as those
by the Austrian collective WochenKlauser (whose projects facilitate
dialogues among unlikely constituents and create "interventions in com­
munity development"), which he holds up as facilitating ethical projects
building solidarit)'j consensus, and binding intersubjective relations.33
Such an approach comes out of identity politics' location of race and class
solidarity as a precondition for collective consciousness formation and
political action, an approach that extrapolates the coherence of the individ­
ual political subject and projects it onto the agency of a community.
This contest of community versus being-in-common rehearses earlier
struggles to negotiate the viability of critique under the onslaught of the
administered world. If Marxist art criticism in the fifties and sixties
seemed to have come to rest on strategies of negative critique, there was,
on the other hand, a tendency to outright celebration and affirmation of
design culture and its homogenizing of difference throughout the eigh­
ties and nineties. This reaction against Marxist models of critique has
lead to a contemporary situation in which criticalit)'j narrowly defined
as an increasingly isolated and divisive irritant, is contrasted to the
social, which is heralded as the real world out there beyond ideology.
From this point of view, Nicolas Bourriaud has advocated the project
of contemporary art as a struggle to make new social connections in the
present, rather than an avant-gardist striving to prepare for an imminent
future. His Relational Aesthetics, published after he curated a number of
exhibitions in the nineties, such as Traffic at cAPc-Bordeaux (1996),
proposed the replacement of the subversive and critical function of art
18 I N T RO D U C T I O N
by moments of sociability and areas of conviviality. However in this
contrast of the critical to the social, the social is first collapsed to
sociability, and finally and foremost to conviviality.
Bourriaud asks, in Relational Aesthetics, if it is still possible to generate
relationships and not just spectacular representations. He asserts that in
a world of increasing mass-media saturation, communications now di­
vide the social sphere, whereas art strives to achieve connections among
viewers. Art thus becomes a kind of social agent whose employment is
all the more necessary as social governmental policies were dismantled
across the board by Thatcherism, Reaganomics, and the authoritarian
liberalism of post-Soviet countries. There is a danger, here, of tenden­
cies to present art as a compensatory activity, as "communitarian" art
practices increase proportionately to the decline in leftist governmental
agendas after the fall of Communism.
This is the model of art as public service put forward in an exhibi­
tion like Public Service, shown at Sparwasser HQgallery in Berlin in
the summer of 2006. VVhile curator Tadej Pogacar's claims for "new
public service models based on participation, exchange, solidarity" can
and should be distinguished from the works presented there, a question
nonetheless presents itself regarding how collaborative practices con­
stitute a public and avoid cooptation or commodification by a global
service-based lifestyle economy. As Miwon Kwon has argued, art that
considers itself in the service of the public interest unproblematically
assumes community as a whole and the public good as a transparent
ideal, and it leads to situations in which the artist may inadvertently
aid in the colonization of difference. Art in the public interest often
presents the public good as consensus and replaces the disagreement of
politics with a conciliatory and unproblematic approach to ideas of the
VVhile Bourriaud has claimed that relational art is political art, his
approach has been criticized for its monolithic approach to commonal­
ity. Claire Bishop has objected to the ways in which the relationships set
up in "relational" works rest on an ideal of subjectivity as a whole and
community as immanent togetherness, rather than allowing the antag­
onistic confrontations that she sees as provocative of a democratic pub­
lic sphere.34 While Bishop's antagonistic model challenges the convivial
bonhomie of Bourriaud's approach, her model of critique attempts to
I N T RO D U C T I O N 19
reclaim art from the indistinction of social praxis by asserting the
spheres of the aesthetic and the social to be "mutually exclusive:'
Aesthetics, in this case, remains caught between the rock of "political
formalism;' as Claire Bishop charges, and the hard place of convivial
sociality and compensatory public-service activity. Far from being a
fundamentally apolitical smoke screen or distraction ( spectacle or sim­
ulacrum, as Baudrillard and Debord argued) or a coded form of ideol­
ogy ( the role that it served throughout much of the history of social art) ,
aesthetics can be taken as the space in which the limits of the political
itself are susceptible of being retraced or redrawn. It is within this space
that the decision on what counts as politics can itself be submitted to
political contestation and debate. Art borrows or contests the authority
to determine where, or in what, politics begins and ends, but only
insofar as it also redefines the limits, quite simply, of art "itself'

Overview of Contributors

The essays included in this collection pose challenging but necessary

questions, while avoiding the temptation to provide definitive, program­
matic answers. The first section, "Rethinking Aesthetics;' includes au­
thors who are engaged in a reconsideration of aesthetics since the
Enlightenment by examining its links with social and political experi­
ence. They insist on rethinking the link between aesthetics and politics
today, both for a historical understanding of modern art, as well as for
the continuing production of viable critical art practices. They explore
the ways in which aesthetics frames the sensible and possibilities for
being-in-common. Aesthetics is not taken as grounds for, but as a means
to construct the possibility of, shared meaning.
Jacques Ranciere examines the seemingly opposed but historically
intertwined logics of aesthetic autonomy and "art into life;' from the
Enlightenment to the present day. Building on his previous work on
disagreement in politics, this essay posits art as a key locus where
disagreement can be staged in order to produce new communities of
sense. He proposes the possibility of a positive/ constructive strategy,
one that exchanges the negative/ critical dimension of sixties leftist poli­
tics for the staging of new subjectivities and communities. In the move
20 I NT RO D U C T I O N
from denunciation to staging, the contingency of the political-as­
enacted confronts traditional notions of politics-and of community
and subjectiVity-that were entirely predetermined. Undermining the
separation, in theories of modernism, between aesthetic autonomy and
heteronomy, he offers new possibilities for understanding the dilemmas
inherent in both the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of
aesthetics. To this end, Ranciere analyzes contemporary artistic strat­
egies such as the joke, the collection, the invitation, and mystery in
order to challenge the ways in which recent work is or is not effectively
Alexander Potts places theoretical arguments for the "end of art" in
context, showing how the aporias and anti-aesthetic tendencies com­
monly associated with postmodernism's supposed break with modern­
ism can be traced back to romantic aesthetic theories and practices of
the nineteenth century. Through a close analysiS of individual works of
art, Potts extends Ranciere's historical critique of the concept of post­
modernism and Agamben's anti-historicist critique of modern concepts
of the artwork to a critical examination of anti-aesthetic qualities in the
paintings of Turner and Delacroix, from the use of irony and textual
supplements to strategies of narrative fragmentation. yet unlike Agam­
ben, Potts stresses the critical and ethical significance of the "negative
dialectics" of romantic aesthetics, suggesting that whether elitist or
democratic, a modern "community of sense;' unlike the classical ideal
represented by Hegel's ancient Greece, "can only be substantiated by
way of a conceptual, discursive supplement" to the contingency and
subjectivity of aesthetic experience. Anti-aesthetic strategies were there­
fore fundamental to the politics of the romantic aesthetic project from
its historical inception. By locating the origins of Ranciere's "aesthetic
regime" in Hegel rather than in the revolutionary republicanism of
Schiller, moreover, Potts suggests that a certain model of the anti-aes­
thetic may have been historically mobilized against democratic forms of
Toni Ross argues that the postmodernist or anti-aesthetic reception of
conceptual art and institutional critique represses the ethical and politi­
cal implications of these practices' adherence to a specifically aesthetic
model of critical autonomy. Contrary to recent claims that have been
made for relational aesthetics and for the ethical and social value of
classical norms of beauty, however, Ross shows that the substitution of
I N T RO D U C T I O N 21
idealized forms of democratic sociality for modernist aesthetic princi­
ples actually subordinates politics to a model of harmony and symmetry
that serves to stifle dissent and difference. In place of the sterile oppo si­
tion between anti-aesthetic criticism and postcritical celebrations of a
"return to beauty," Ro ss propo ses a psychoanalytic ethics o f aesthetics in
which Kantian aesthetic autonomy is understood as the ungovernable
excess and alterity of sensate experience within the symbolic order of
pregiven subjective and institutional identities. She considers the rele­
vance of this model o f aesthetics to institutional critique, developing a
reading of Louise Lawler's photographic work that complicates the
pro grammatic assumptions o f postmodernist art criticism while dif­
ferentiating the enigmatic beauty of Lawler's work from classical models
of artistic and communal harmony.
Ranjana Khanna reexamines a differing history of "common sense"
than its well-known metaphorical definition stemming from Kant's third
Critique. Looking back to the Earl of Shaftesbury and to Vico, Khanna
suggests that their usage o f sensus communis presents disidentification
formulated in demetaphorization. Commonality can o nly be sensed as
coming undone through nonidentification, demetaphorization, un­
working, and the sense of the liminal. Disidentification furthermore
points to a means of understanding the altered conditions of contempo­
rary art production that is no longer framed through the modernist
logic o f exile, but rather through a concept of asylum. Khanna sees
Mona Hatoum's work as emblematic o f such a shift, using the senses to
break down concepts of wholeness and metaphors of unity in order to
formulate different notions of the subject, community, and the human.
Hatoum's works resist thinking diaspora and displacement in terms o f a
metaphysics of presence, identity, identification, o r even ontology.
Rather, presence is constantly fractured and broken down, presenting
instead a sensual labor o f non-belonging and disidentification.
The second section, "Partitioning the Sensible," investigates the ways
in which sense has been constructed in the historical avant-garde, as
well as mobilized in today's global visual and political culture. The
authors in this section analyze the evocation of SOCiality in terms of the
economies o f visibility and patterns o f intelligibility that structure sen­
sorial experience. While models of subjectivity and community often
contribute to homogenizing agendas of social control and ritualized
forms of violence, they also open po ssibilities of a politics of dissent.
22 I N T RO D U C T I O N
T. J. Demos locates the Dada event, including the infamous Barf(�s
trial, as a site of disagreement in which the relationship between politics
and aesthetics is negotiated anew. The event, in the context of Dada, is
understood as a model of the "heterogeneous sensible;' or what Ran­
ci(:�re claims to be art's irreducible state as a form of aesthetics and
politics. Demos thus positions the Dada event as an opportunity to
redefine autonomy as "an autonomous form of social experience" rather
than as an ideal realm of contemplation separated from the social and
political. Dada practices, as Demos situates them, become a significant
model for rethinking the relationship between aesthetics and politics
today, in ways critical of the conciliatory aspects of " relational aes­
David Joselit examines the role of community formation in contem­
porary social spaces that include screen-based images as an integral part
of their construction. He contrasts two examples of suburban spaces
whose residents have become caught in a mediated public sphere that
turns them into what he calls "citizen cursors:' The first is a house
designed by Bill Gates that surrounds the viewer with images, turning
them into a living cursor that navigates its . way through a half-actual,
half-virtual living environment. The second is an installation by Pierre
Huyghe, Streamside Day Follies, which uses video to frame temporary

but vital connections between the members of a suburban community.

He discusses both proj ects in an exploration of how spaces, turned into
hypermedia, apportion the senses through the adaptation to a virtual
world where one can jump continuously from one picture to another.
He considers the kinds of resistance possible in these spaces and the
kinds of complicity they demand.
Reinhold Martin relates technologies of mass customization to histor­
ical developments within corporate architecture. He traces the geneal­
ogy of this architecture and its recent emphasis on "people;' as opposed
to "human resources;' through a critical case study of architecture de­
signed for Union Carbide. By comparing two headquarters designed for
the company twenty-five years apart, he finds continuity in the rhetoric
of mass customization, as it papers over the contempt it has for the
people it proclaims to support and brazenly reduces those it doesn't
support to a state of what Giorgio Agamben has called "bare life:'
The third section, "The Limits of Community," considers the viability
of modern and contemporary models of artistic and political critique in
I N T RO D U C T I O N 23
the context of globalization. The essays in this section suggest a shift
from utopianism toward an investigation of processes of identification
and disidentification. Community is taken as a continual process of
negotiation, one that can open up to new social relations but is often
troubled by conflict, both internally and externally.
Carlos Basualdo and Reinaldo Laddaga analyze current artistic proj­
ects that focus on social change through the formation of temporary
experimental communities. These communities are defined in their es­
say as "boundary organizations" that allow for collaboration between
individuals and groups with different professional backgrounds and
skills (artists, architects, environmentalists, political activists) and often
incompatible interests. Artists such as Marjetica Potre and art collec­
tives like Sarai pursue projects that facilitate the creation of communica­
tion networks between these groups in order to actively intervene in the
ecological, cultural, and social reformation of urban spaces, while at the
same time developing new representational forms to display these proj­
ects in art institutions. Basualdo and Laddaga differentiate these proj­
ects from the historical project of the avant-garde and artistic practices
of the seventies, as well as from the homogeneous communities that
came to be formed under recent community-based projects. They point
to the need to develop an interdisciplinary critical model that will
address the complex nature of these projects, in which artistic actions
are inseparable from, among others, urban planning, media studies, and
social activism.
Rachel Haidu addresses Thomas Hirschhorn's Musee Precaire Albinet
(2004) to question the viabilities of the political and art historical
category of "institutional critique" in the contemporary context of the
contingenc.:y and impermanence of identity resulting from capitalism's
enforced migrations. Haidu argues that Hirschhorn's strategy rests on
imitation, rather than the critical methods characteristic of the institu­
tional critique of the sixties and seventies. This imitative approach, in
turn, both participates in dominant forms of institutional subjectiviza­
tion and simultaneously produces different relations of exchange and
interaction, in resistance to traditional forms of institutional dominance.
Haidu thus suggests that artists engaging with the problem of institutions
and the frame of the museum have more to do than simply expose the
hidden dynamics of institutional power. They also may choose to at­
tempt to reconfigure the social relations governed by the frame.
24 I N T RO D U C T I O N
Seth McCormick's essay, "Neo-Dada 1951-54: Between the Aesthetics
of Persecution and the Politics of Identity," analyzes aesthetic factors o f
identification and political subj ectivizatio n in a work whose significance
has been universally repressed in histories of the postwar period: the
1954 painting Star, commissio ned by the artist Rachel Rosenthal from
Jasper Johns and inspired, in part, by the early monochrome paintings
of Robert Rauschenberg. Against the asso ciation of the latter two artists
with a neo-Dada aesthetic o f political indifference or homosexual si­
lence, McCormick argues for a more complex interpretation of the
politics of homosexual identity under McCarthyism. Examining the
stakes of homo sexual activism in the early fifties, when a political iden­
tity for homo sexuals could be established solely through their identifica­
tio n with what Agamben calls the "bare life" of Jews under Nazism,
McCormick locates a parallel in the influence of the Nazi-persecuted
artist Kurt Schwitters o n Rauschenberg, Rosenthal, andJohns during this
period. Although the model o f Schwitters's "degenerate art" enabled
artists to give form to the total expropriation and politicization of homo­
sexuality under McCarthyism, Star reveals how a politics of subjectiviza­
tion and an aesthetics of bare life remain inextricably linked.
In "Post Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills;' Yates McKee
performs a close structural and historical reading of key stills from
Verto v's Man with a Movie Camera according to the Benj aminian model
of a "dialectics of standstill;' which renegotiates the sense of continuity
between historical past and present. McKee situates those stills as inter­
ruptions of the "operative" time ofVerto v's productivist project. By locat­
ing the limitations o f Vertov's progressive politics in his films' inability to
come to terms with the Islamic other, McKee provokes a reflection not
only o n Russian constructivism and its legacy, but on the present-day
fallout of global communism. Through performative historical readings,
the essay attempts to enact a political intervention in this field.
Emily Apter's essay "Thinking Red: Ethical Militance and the Group
Subj ect" aims to disentangle responsible and necessary militance fro m
the discourse of terror and militarization that has eclipsed rigorous
political activism since the late seventies. As denunciations of terrorism
have veered into dismissals of leftist ideo logy and, worse still, authoriza­
tions of imperialist war, it is crucial now to revisit the origins of radical
thought and its formulations of subj ectivity. In order to reveal the
disturbingly clo se tension between militance and militarization, Apter
focuses on key moments of art and politics of the last thirty years.
Through critical analyses of Gorin's and Godard's film lci et ailleurs,
Guyotat's novel Eden, Eden, Eden, Richter's October 18, 1977 painting
series, as well as such political groups as the Red Brigade and the
Weather Underground, Apter evokes a dangerous slide of "this becomes
that;' as vigilant civic activism freefalls into paramilitary terror.
The collection concludes with a speCial interview with Etienne Balibar,
who, like Ranciere, was a student of Louis Althusser and is one of the
main representatives of "the political turn" in Marxist thought. His recent
work asks whether the globalization of politics also means a politics of
globalization. By formulating this question he points to the ways in
which politics today is defined less as a practice of emancipation or
transformation and more as a contingent set of actions and forces that
counteract the cycle of violence and counterviolence that underlies
political conflicts under globalization. For Balibar, violence is now intro­
duced as an integral part of the concept and practice of politics, and the
politics of violence can only be compromised, but never negated, by what
he terms the "politics of civility:' Political transformation, he writes, is
now "a question of the art of politics-and perhaps simply of art, since
the only means civility has at its disposal are statements, signs, and roles:'
One of the central projects of the art of politics, he argues, is the
invention of transnational models of citizenship that will recognize the
complex and dynamic processes through which cultural, national, and
ethnic identities are constituted today. These models are necessary for
the construction of a global public sphere in which translation, Balibar
suggests, becomes a crucial social and institutional instrument for the
regulation of conflicts that are not only about borders and territories, but
also about modes of communication and representation. In the inter­
view, we asked Balibar to elaborate on the possibilities of a politics of
civility and community, and specifically on the role of cultural and
artistic practices in the creation of political spaces and institutions that
work against consensus and exclusion.
26 I N T RO D U C T I O N


1. Foster, Anti-Aesthetic.
2. Walter Benjamin's The Origin of German Tragic Drama, a materialist cri­
tique of the Hegelian aesthetics of the symbol, was translated into English in
1978. This work exercised a decisive impact on the theorization of postmodern­
ism by many scholars, including Craig Owens, Benj amin Buchloh, and Douglas
Crimp. See Owens, "The Allegorical Impulse;' and Buchloh, "Marcel Brood­
thaers:' Douglas Crimp's definition of postmodernism in "On the Museum's
Ruins;' was framed in similar terms.
3. At the time, he suggested that beauty would be the most important issue of
the nineties. He went on to raise the topic ofbeauty repeatedly, throughout the
decade, at any given opportunity. Hickey, The Invisible Dragon, 11-12.
4. Ibid., 22-23·
S. Danto, The Abuse of Beauty, 29, 32.
6. Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, 80- 81. What she really seems to describe
is love, not beauty.
7. Ranciere, The Politics ofAesthetics, 23.
8. See Ranciere's "The Sublime from Lyotard to Schiller:'
9. Ibid., 12-13·
10. This position came to define itself, in part, against the Platonizing con­
ception of "the political" espoused by the Paris Centre de Recherches Phi­
losophiques sur la Politique, opened by Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean­
Luc Nancy in 1980. Their inaugural address spoke of a "re-treating" of the
political in terms of its essencej for them, the questioning of the essence of
politics also marked a "retreat" from the radical contingency of the formulation
"everything is political:' Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, "Opening Address to the
Center for Philosophical Research on the Political:' On the activities of the
center, see also Frazer, "The French Derrideans;' and Critchley, "Lacoue­
Labarthe and Nancy:'
11. Ranciere, Dis-agreement, 29.
12. This is the subject of Ranciere's book The Nights of Labor.
13. Balibar, "What Is a Politics of the Rights of Man?" in Masses, Classes, Ideas.
14· Ranciere, Dis-agreement, 99.
15. Ibid., 85.
16. Ibid., 87, emphasis in original.
17. Ibid., 88.
18. Ibid., 103. As we argue in the next section, this understanding of "the
people" as a problem, rather than as the "always already there;' has important
implications for a reconsideration of the historical artistic practices of the
I N T RO D U C T I O N 27
avant-garde, which erred by identifying "the people" with the pregiven form of
"the collective:'
19. Ibid., 220.
20. Balibar, Politics and the Other Scene, xii-xiii.
21. Balibar, preface to Droit de cite, 4, translation by Kristin Ross.
22. Benjamin, "The Work ofArt in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction;' 211.
See also Benjamin Buchloh's essay "From Faktura to Factography:'
23. In this regard, the present analysis of rethinking community does not
support the thesis of Boris Groys, who claims, in The Total Art of Stalinism:
Avant-garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship and Beyond, that the avant-garde was com­
plicit in the eventual totalitarian logic of Soviet Communism. Groys insists on a
will to totalitarian power on the part of the constructivists. The present text, by
contrast, does not intend to suggest a chain of causal inevitability between
avant-garde activity and totalitarian politics. Our claim is that the avant-garde
was characterized by the utopian desire for collectivity that is no longer tenable
and has given way to thinking about plurality and difference.
24. Anderson, Imagined Communities, xi.
25. Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 2.
26. Nancy, Inoperative Community, 4.
27. Ibid., 25.
28. Nancy, "Of Being-In-Common;' s.
29. Nancy, Inoperative Community, 36.
30. In this regard, Nancy differs significantly from Maurice Blanchot, who
responded to Nancy's text with Unavowable Community, in which he departs
from Nancy's inquiry into the organization of human sense. Instead, through a
defense of his friend Georges Bataille, whom he believes to be misunderstood
in Nancy's account, he focuses on the communities that emerge through liter­
ary modes of production and reception of text, through writing and reading.
He uses this examination of the community of text to consider the ways in
which those communities confront and question, if not inscribe themselves
within and thereby redefine, the very possibility of community understood as a
social and political category.
31. Nancy, Inoperative Community, !.
32. Kester, Conversation Pieces, 150-51.
33. Arguing against a recent "ethical turn" in contemporary art criticism,
Claire Bishop demands the reimplementation of artistic standards and values
such that all collaborative practices are not leveled as equally important artistic
gestures of resistance. Thus, while she describes the mutual imbrication of
politics and aesthetics as an important aspect of some contemporary practices
("The best art will show the contradictory pull between autonomy and social
28 I N T RO D U C T I O N
intervention"), she nonetheless reverts to formalist traditions of value judg­
ments, elevating the name of art to the modernist project of disinterested
autonomy. Some artists, she laments, wear the mantle of activism as if it were a
veritable hair shirt, flagellating themselves in a destructive tradition of Chris­
tian self�effacement. If Bishop here seems to offer a Kleinian strategy of ego
strengthening as a cultural therapeutic, Kester responds to her criticism with
similar psychologization, attacking her version of negative critique as paranoia.
Bishop, "The Social Turn;' 178, and Kester, ''Another Turn."
34. In her essay ''Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics;' Bishop contrasts
artworks that she sees as affirmative and nonpolitical to the art of Thomas
Hirschhorn and Santiago Sierra, which she describes as productive of the kinds
of antagonistic conflict that Mouffe and Laclau have invoked as the motor of
radical democracy. Liam Gillick has opposed the ways in which the artists
included in Bourriaud's exhibitions have not been differentiated from Bour­
riaud's own project, and has objected to what he sees as Bishop's facile imple­
mentation of the concept of antagonism: "Just because Hirschhorn and Sierra
upset more people than Tiravanija and I do, doesn't mean that they are closer
to Mouffe's notion of antagonism:' Gillick, "Contingent Factors;' 102. In other
words, the question is whether antagonism alone is sufficient to create political
intervals of dissensus.
PA RT O N E Rethinking Aesthetics

Contemporary Art and

the Politics of Aesthetics

I do not take the phrase "community of sense" to mean a collectivity

shaped by some common feeling. I understand it as a frame of visibility
and intelligibility that puts things or practices together under the same
meaning, which shapes thereby a certain sense of community. A com­
munity of sense is a certain cutting out of space and time that binds
together practices, forms of visibilityj and patterns of intelligibility. I call
this cutting out and this linkage a partition of the sensible.
There is art insofar as the products of a number of techniques, such as
painting, performing, dancing, playing music, and so on are grasped in
a specific form of visibility that puts them in common and frames, out

of their linkage, a specific sense of community. Humanity has known

sculptors, dancers, or musicians for thousands of years. It has only
known Art as such-in the singular and with a capital-for two cen­
turies. It has known it as a certain partitioning of space. First off, Art is
not made of paintings, poems, or melodies. Above all, it is made of some
spatial setting, such as the theater, the monument, or the museum.
Discussions on contemporary art are not about the comparative value
of works. They are all about matters of spatialization: about having
video monitors standing in for sculptures or motley collections of items
scattered on the floor instead of having paintings hanging on the wall.
They are about the sense of presence conveyed by the pictorial frame
and the sense of absence conveyed by the screen that takes its place.
This discussion deals with distributions of things on a wall or on a floor,
in a frame or on a screen. It deals with the sense of the common that is at
stake in those shifts between one spatial setting and another, or between
presence and absence.
A material partition is always at the same time a symbolic partition.
The theater or the museum shapes forms of coexistence and com­
patibility between something that is given and something that is not
given. They shape forms of community between the visible and the
intelligible or between presences and absences that are also forms of
community, between the inside and the outside, and also between the
sense of community built in their space and other senses of community
framed in other spheres of experience. The relationship between art and
politics is a relationship between two communities of sense. This means
that art and politics are not two permanent realities about which we
would have to discuss whether they must be interconnected or not. Art
and politics, in fact, are contingent configurations of the common that
may or may not exist. Just as there is not always art (though there is
always music, sculpture, dance, and so on), there is not always politics
(though there are always forms of power and consent). Politics exists in
specific communities of sense. It exists as a dissensual supplement to the
other forms of human gathering, as a polemical redistribution of objects
and subjects, places and identities, spaces and times, visibilities and
meanings. In this respect we can call it an "aesthetic activity" in a sense
that has nothing to do with that incorporation of state power into a
collective work of art, which Walter Benjamin named the aestheticiza­
tion of politics.
Therefore, a relation between art and politics is a relation between two
partitions of the sensible. It supposes that both terms are identified as
such. In order to exist as such, art must be identified within a specific
regime of identification binding together practices, forms of visibility,
and patterns of intelligibility. The regime of identification under which
art exists for us has a name. For two centuries it has been called aesthetics.
The relationship between art and politics is more precisely a relationship
between the aesthetics of politics and the politics of aesthetics. How can
we understand this notion of the politics of aesthetics? This question
hinges on a previous one: what do we understand by the name aesthetics?
What kind of community of sense does this term define?
There is a well-known master narrative on this topic. According to
Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics 33
that master narrative, known as the modernist paradigm, aesthetics
means the constitution of a sphere of autonomy. It means that works of
art are isolated in a world of their own, heterogeneous to the other
spheres of experience. In this world, they are evaluated by inner norms
of validity: through criteria of form, beauty, or truth to medium. From
this, various conclusions could be drawn about the politicalness of art.
First, artworks shape a world of pure beauty, which has no political
relevance. Second, they frame a kind of ideal community, fostering
fanciful dreams of communities of sense posited beyond political con­
flict. Third, they achieve in their own sphere the same autonomy that is
at the core of the modern project and is pursued in democratic or
revolutionary politics.
According to this narrative, the identification between art, autonomy,
and modernity collapsed in the last decades of the twentieth century. It
collapsed because new forms of social life and commodity culture, alpng
with new techniques of production, reproduction, and communication,
made it impossible to maintain the boundary between artistic produc­
tion and technological reproduction, autonomous artworks and forms
of commodity culture, high art and low art. Such a blurring of the
boundaries should have amounted to the "end of aesthetics:' That end
was strongly argued in the eighties, for instance, in a book edited by Hal
Foster and called The Anti-Aesthetic. Among the most significant essays
collected in that book was an essay written by Douglas Crimp, "On the
Museum's Ruins:' The ruined "museum" was Andre Malraux's "museum
without walls:' Crimp's demonstration rested on the analysis of the
double use of photography in Malraux's museum. On the one hand, the
"museum without walls" was made possible only by photographic re­
production. Photography alone allowed a cameo to take up residence
on the page next to a painted tondo and a sculpted relief, or allowed
Malraux to compare a detail of a Rubens in Antwerp to a detail of a
Michelangelo in Rome. It enabled the author to replace the empirical­
ness of the works by the presence of the "spirit of art:' Unfortunately,
Crimp argued, Malraux made a fatal error. At the end of his volume, he
admitted photographs no longer as reproductions of artworks but as
artworks themselves. By so doing, he threw the homogenizing device
that constituted the homogeneity of the museum back to its hetero­
geneity. Heterogeneity was reestablished at the core of the museum.
Thereby, the hidden secret of the museum could be displayed in the
open. This is what Robert Rauschenberg would do a few years later by
silk-screening Diego Velazquez's Rokeby Venus onto the surface of a
canvas containing pictures of mosquitoes and a tnlck, or in the company
of helicopters or water towers, or even atop a statue of George Wash­
ington and a car key. Through photography, the museum was spread
across the surface of every work by Rauschenberg. Malraux's dream had
become Rauschenberg's joke. Just a bit disturbing was the fact that
Rauschenberg himself apparently did not get the joke and affirmed, in
turn, Malraux's old-fashioned faith in the treasury of the conscience
of Man.
I think that we can make more of the disturbance if we ask the
question: what did the demonstration demonstrate, exactly? If Mal­
raux's dream could become Rauschenberg's joke, why not the reverse:
could Rauschenberg's joke become Malraux's dream in turn? Indeed,
this turnaround would appear a few years later: at the end of the eigh­
ties, the celebrated iconoclast filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, praised as
the archetype of postmodern practice, mixed everything with anything
as he implemented his Histoire(s) du cinema, the exact equivalent of
Malraux's paper museum.
Let us make the point: there is a contradiction in the "imaginary
museum;' and that contradiction is testimony to a postmodern break
only if you assume first that the museum equals homogeneity, that it is
the temple devoted to the uniqueness of the work of artj second, that
photography, on the contrary, means heterogeneity, that it means the
triviality of infinite reproductionj third, that it is photography alone
which allows us both to put cameos, Scythian plaques, and Michelangelo
on the same pages and to put the Rokeby Venus on a canvas along with a
car key or a water tower. If those three statements are proven true, you
can conclude that the realization of the imaginary museum through the
photographic means the collapse of the museum as well, that it marks the
triumph of a heterogeneity that shatters aesthetic homogeneity.
But how do we know that these pOints are all true? How do we know,
first, that the museum means homogeneity and that it is devoted to the
uniqueness and auratic solitude of the work of art? How do we know
that this auratic solitude was fostered in nineteenth- and twentieth­
century views of art? Let us trace the issue back to the time of the
highest celebration of high Art, around 1830. At that time, G. W. F.
Hegel's disciples published his Lessons on Aesthetics. At the same time,
Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics 35 ,
popular magazines such as the Magasin Pittoresque in France began to
use lithographic reproductions in order to offer the treasures of world
art to a broad readership. It is also at the same time that Honore de
Balzac published the first novel that he signed with his name, The Wild
Ass's Skin. At the beginning of the novel, Raphael, the hero, enters the
showrooms of a curiosity shop, and this is what he sees:
Crocodiles, apes and stuffed boas grinned at stained glass-windows, seemed
to be about to snap at carved busts, to be running after lacquer-ware or to be
clambering up chandeliers. A Sevres vase on which Madame Jaquetot had
painted Napoleon was standing next to a sphinx dedicated to Sesostris . . . .
Madame du Barry painted by Latour, with a star on her head, nude and
enveloped in cloud, seemed to be concupiscently contemplating an Indian
chibouk. . . . A pneumatic machine was poking out the eye of the Emperor
Augustus, who remained majestic and unmoved. Several portraits of alder­
men and Dutch burgomasters, insensible now as during their life-time, rose
above this chaos of antiques and cast a cold and disapproving glance
at them.1

The description looks like a perfect anticipation of Rauschenberg's

Combine paintings. It frames a space of indistinction between the shop
and the museum, the ethnographic museum and the art museum, works
of art and everyday materials. No postmodern break is necessary in
order to blur all those boundaries. Far from being shattered by it,
aesthetics means precisely this blurring. If photography could help liter­
ature to achieve the imaginary museum, it is because literature had
already blended on its pages what photography would later blend on
canvas. It is this "literary past" of photography that appears when
the combination of photography and painting turns the canvas into
a "print:'
This is the second point: how do we know that photography equals
heterogeneity, infinite reproducibility, and the loss of the aura? The
same year that Crimp published his essay, a significant essay on pho­
tography was published: Roland Barthes's Camera Lucida. In that essay,
Barthes openly overturned the mainstream argument on photography.
He made photography a testimony to uniqueness. And in the following
years, photography, after having been taken as the artifact best fitted for
postmodern collage, would be viewed as a sort of symbol of Saint
Veronica, an icon of pure and unique presence.
This means that the argument could be overturned. The museum
means homogeneity and heterogeneity at once. Photography means
reproducibility and uniqueness as well. Photographic reproducibility
does not make for a new community of sense by its own power. It has to
be grasped within a wider form of visibility and a wider plot of intel­
ligibility. It has to lend its possibilities to the enhancement or debase­
ment of a form of presence, or a procedure of meaning. Rauschenberg's
use of photography does not open a new age of art. It only gives
additional evidence against the modernist identification of "flatness"
with autonomous art and the self-containment of painting. It highlights
what a reader of Stephane Mallarme's "pure" poetry already knows:
flatness does not mean the specificity of a medium; it means a surface of
exchange; exchange between the time of the poem and the drawing of a
line in the space; between act and form; text and drawing or dance; pure
art and decorative art; works of art and objects or performances belong­
ing to individual or collective life.
Ifthe production of new evidence against the Greenbergian paradigm
of flatness could be viewed as the closure of an era, it is obviously for
another reason. It is because there was a definite politics of aesthetics at
work in that "formal" paradigm: that politics entrusted the autonomous
work with a promise of political freedom and equality, compromised by
another politics of aesthetics, the one which gave to art the task of
suppressing itself in the creation of new forms of collective life.
The point is that the radicality of "artistic autonomy" is part of a
wider plot linking aesthetic autonomy with some sort of political-or
rather metapolitical-implementation of community. Aesthetics-I
mean the aesthetic regime of the identification of Art-entails a politics
of its own. But that politics divides itself into two competing possi­
bilities, two politics of aesthetics, which also means two communities
of sense.
As is well known, aesthetics was born at the time of the French
Revolution, and it was bound up with equality from the very beginning.
But the point is that it was bound up with two competing forms of
equality. On the one hand, aesthetics meant the collapse of the system
of constraints and hierarchies that constituted the representational re­
gime of art. It meant the dismissal of the hierarchies of subject matters,
genres, and forms of expression separating objects worthy or unworthy
of entering in the realm of art or of separating high genres and low
Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics 37
genres. It implied the infinite openness of the field of art, which ul­
timately meant the erasure of the frontier between art and non-art,
between artistic creation and anonymous life. The aesthetic regime of
art did not begin-as many theorists still have it-with the glorification
of the unique genius producing the unique work of art. On the contrary,
it began, in the eighteenth century, with the assertion that the arche­
typal poet, Homer, had never existed, that his poems were not a work of
art, not the fulflllment of any artistic canon, but a patchwork of collected
tales that expressed the way of feeling and thinking of a still-infant
On the one hand, therefore, aesthetics meant that kind of equality
that went along with the beheading of the King of France and the
sovereignty of the people. Now, that kind of equality ultimately meant
the indiscernibility of art and life. On the other hand, aesthetics meant
that works of art were grasped, as such, in a specific sphere of experience
where-in Kantian terms-they were free from the forms of sensory
connection proper either to the objects of knowledge or to the objects
of desire. They were merely "free appearance" responding to a free play,
meaning a nonhierarchical relation between the intellectual and the
sensory faculties. In his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Frie­
drich Schiller drew the political consequence of that dehierarchization.
The "aesthetic state" defined a sphere of sensory equality where the
supremacy of active understanding over passive sensibility was no
longer valid. This meant that it dismissed the partition of the sensible
that traditionally gave its legitimacy to domination by separating two
humanities. The power of the high classes was supposed to be the power
of activity over passivity, of understanding over sensation, of the edu­
cated senses over the raw senses, and so on. By relinquishing that power,
aesthetic experience framed an equality that would be a reversal of
domination. Schiller opposed that sensory revolution to political revolu­
tion as implemented in the French Revolution. The latter had failed
precisely because the revolutionary power had played the traditional
part of the understanding-.meaning the state-imposing its law upon
the matter of sensations-meaning the masses. The only true revolution
would be a revolution overthrowing the power of active understanding
over passive sensibility, the power of a class of intelligence and activity
over a class of passivity and inchoateness.
So aesthetics meant equality because it meant the suppression of the
boundaries of art. And it meant equality because it meant the constitu­
tion ofArt as a separate form Ofll1;lman experience. These two equalities
are opposed, but they are also tied together. In Schiller's Letters, the
statue of the Greek goddess promises a future of emancipation because
the goddess is "idle" and "self contained:' It promises this owing to its
very separateness and unavailability to our knowledge and desires. But
at the same time, the statue promises this because its "freedom" -or
"indifference" -embodies another freedom or indifference, the freedom
of the Greek people who created it.2 Now, this freedom means the
opposite of the first one. It is the freedom of a life that, according to
Schiller, does not rend itself into separate, differentiated forms of exis­
tence, the freedom of a people for whom art is the same as religion,
which is the same as politics, which is the same as ethics: a way of being
together. As a consequence, artwork's separateness promises the op­
posite: a life that will not know art as a separate practice and field of
experience. The politics of aesthetics rests on this originary paradox.
That paradoxical linkage of two opposite equalities could make, and did
historically make, for two main forms of politics.
The first form aims at connecting the two equalities. "Community of
sense" thus means that the kind of equality and freedom that is experi­
enced in aesthetic experience has to be turned into the community's
very form of existence: a form of a collective existence that will no
longer be a matter of form and appearance but will rather be embodied
in living attitudes, in the materiality of everyday sensory experience.
The common of the community will thus be woven into the fabric of the
lived world. This means that the separateness of aesthetic equality and
freedom has to be achieved by its self-suppression. It has to be achieved
in an inseparate form of common life where art and politics, work and
leisure, public and private life are the same. Such is the program of the
aesthetic revolution, achieving in real life what both political dissensus
and aesthetic enjoyment can only achieve in appearance. This program
was first stated two centuries ago in "The Oldest Systematic Program of
German Idealism;' proposing to replace the dead mechanism of state
power with the living body of a people animated by a philosophy turned
into mythology. It was continuously revived, in the projects of both a
revolution conceived as a "human revolution" (meaning the self-sup­
pression of politics) and an art suppressing itself as a separate practice,
identifying itself with the elaboration of new forms of life. It animated
Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics 39
the gothic dreams of Arts and Crafts in nineteenth-century England, as
well as the technological achievements of the Werkbund or the Bauhaus
in twentieth-century Germany, the Mallarmean dream of a poetry "pre­
paring the festivals of the future;' as well as the concrete participation of
the suprematist, futurist, and constructivist artists in the Soviet revolu­
tion. It animated the projects of situationist architecture, as well as Guy
Debord's derive or Joseph Beuys's "social plastic:' I think that it is still
alive in Michael Hardt's and Antonio Negri's contemporary visions of
the Franciscan communism of the multitudes, implemented through
the irresistible power of the global network exploding the boundaries of
Empire. In all these cases, politics and art must achieve their self-sup­
pression to the benefit of a new form of inseparate life.
The second form, on the contrary, disconnects the two equalities. It
disconnects the free and equal space of aesthetic experience from the
infinite field of equivalence of art and life. It stages the issue of commu­
nities of sense as an irreducible opposition between two communities of
sense, both of which are communities of connection and disconnection.
On the one side there is the community of lived experience, meaning
the community of alienated life. This community is based on the origin­
ary separation of sense ( sensation ) and sense ( meaning) . In Max Hork­
heimer and Theodor Adorno's narrative, this is the separation of Ulys­
ses's reason from both the songs of the sirens and the work of sailing.3
That community of alienated life is achieved in the deceptive appear­
ance of its opposite. It is achieved in the homogeneous appearance of
aestheticized life and commodity culture. In contrast to that faked
. equality and faked community of sense stands the community framed
by the autonomy of aesthetic exp erience, by its heterogeneity to all
other forms of experience. The standard modernist paradigm is only a
partial and superficial interpretation of that community, forgetful of its
political content. The political act of art is to save the heterogeneous
sensible that is the heart of the autonomy of art and its power of eman­
cipation. The community of sense at work in that politics of aesthetics
is a community based on both the connection and disconnection of
sense and sense. Its separateness "makes sense" to the extent that it is
not the refuge of pure form. Instead, it stages the very relationship of
separateness and inseparateness. The autonomous perfection of the
work has to disclose its own contradiction, to make the mark of aliena­
tion appear in the appearance of reconciliation. It reconciles the reason
of Ulysses with the song of the sirens, and it keeps them irreconcilable at
the same time.
"What is at stake in this politics is not so much preserving the boundary
between high art and low or popular art as it is preserving the hetero­
geneity of two worlds of "sense" as such. This is why postmodernist
polemicists miss the target if they think that the modernist paradigm of
"politicity" collapsed when Rauschenberg put together a copy of Velaz­
quez and a car key on the same canvas. The paradigm is threatened only if
the boundary separating the two worlds of sense collapses. Adorno once
made the tremendous assertion that we can no more hear-no more
stand-some chords of nineteenth-century salon music, unless, he said,
everything is trickery. Jean-Fran�oise Lyotard would say, in turn, that you
cannot blend figurative and abstract motifs on a canvas; that the taste
that feels and appreciates this mix-up is no taste. As we know, it some­
times appears that those chords can still be heard, that you can still see
figurative and abstract motifs blended on the same canvas, and even
make art by merely borrowing artifacts from everyday life and reexhibit­
ing them. But this marks no radical shift from modernity to postmod­
ernity. The paradigm is not shattered by that revelation. It is led into a
kind of headlong flight. It has to reassert the radical heterogeneity of
sensory experience, at the cost not only of precluding any political
community of sense but also of suppressing the autonomy of art itself, of
transforming it into sheer ethical testimony. This shift is most clear in the
French aesthetic thought of the eighties. Roland Barthes opposes the
uniqueness of the photograph of the dead mother not only to the inter­
pretive practice of the semiologist but also to the artistic pretension of
photography itself. Godard emphasizes the iconic power of the image or
the rhythm of the phrase at the cost of dismantling not only the old
narrative plot but also the autonomy of the artwork itself. In Lyotard, the
brush stroke or the timbre becomes sheer testimony to the mind's
enslavement by the power of the other. The first name of the other is the
aistheton. The second is the law. Ultimately, both politics and aesthetics
vanish in ethics. This reversal of the modernist paradigm of the politicity
of art is in keeping with a whole trend of thought that dissolves political
dissensuality in an archipolitics of exception and terror from which only a
Heideggerian God can save us.
I quite hastily sketched these two communities of sense in order to
remind us ofthe following: the proj ect of politicizing art-for instance, in
Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics 41
the form of a critical art-is always anticipated by the forms of politicity
entailed in the forms ofvisibility and intelligibility that make art identifia­
ble as such. We identify art in the interplay of the two forms of equality
attached to its separateness and to its inseparateness. We identify it
through the dialectic of its autonomy and its heteronomy. What does it
mean, subsequently, to do political or critical art, or to take a political
view of art? It means locating its power in a specific negotiation of the
relation between the two aesthetical forms of equality. A critical art is, in
fact, a sort of third way between the two politics of aesthetics.
This negotiation must keep something of the tension that pushes
aesthetic experience toward the reconfiguration of collective life and
something of the tension that withdraws the power of aesthetic sensori­
ality from the other spheres of experience. From the zones of indistinc­
tion between art and life it must borrow the connections that provoke
political intelligibility. And from the separateness of artworks it must
borrow the sense of sensory foreignness that enhances political energies.
Political art must be some sort of collage of these opposites. Collage, in
the widest sense of the term, is the major procedure of critical art, of
that "third politics" that has to weave its way between the two politics
of aesthetics. Before blending Velazquez and car keys, collage blends
alternative politics of aesthetics and offers the product of that negotia­
tion to wavering forms of intelligibility, fostering wavering forms of
politicity. It frames little communities of sense, little communities of
elements borrowed from heterogeneous spheres. It sets up specific
forms of heterogeneity, by taking up elements from different spheres of
experience and forms of montage from different arts or techniques. If
Brecht remained a kind of archetype for political art in the twentieth
century, it was due not so much to his enduring communist commit­
ment as to the way he negotiated the relation between these opposites,
blending the scholastic forms of political teaching with the enjoyments
of the musical or the cabaret or discussing allegories of Nazi power in
verse about cauliflowers. The main procedure of political or critical art
consists in setting out the encounter, and possibly the clash, of hetero­
geneous elements. The clash of these heterogeneous elements is sup­
posed to provoke a break in our perception, to disclose some secret
connection of things hidden behind everyday reality. This hidden reality
may be the absolute power of dream and desire concealed by the prose
of bourgeois life, as it is in the surrealist poetics. It may be the violence
of capitalist power and class war hidden behind great ideals, as it is in
the militant practices of John Heartfield's photomontage, showing us
for instance the capitalist gold caught in Adolf Hitler's throat.
Political art thus means creating those forms of dialectical collision or
dissensus that put together not only heterogeneous elements but also
two politics of sensoriality. The heterogeneous elements are put to­
gether in order to provoke a clash. Now, the clash is two things at once.
On the one hand, it is the flash that enlightens. The connection of the
heterogeneous elements speaks out of its legibility. It points to some
secret of power and violence. The connection of vegetables and high
rhetorics in Brecht's Arturo Vi conveys a political message. But on the
other hand, the clash is produced insofar as the heterogeneity of the
elements resists the homogeneity of meaning. Cauliflowers remain cau­
liflowers, juxtaposed to high rhetorics. They carry no message. They are
supposed to enhance political energy out of their very opaqueness.
Ultimately, the mere juxtaposition of heteroclite elements is endowed
with a political power. In Godard's film Made in USA the hero says, "I
get the impression of being in a film of Walt Disney, played by Hum­
phrey Bogart, therefore in a political film:' The mere relationship of
heteroclite elements appears, thus, as a dialectical clash playing witness
to a political reality of conflict.
Political art is a kind of negotiation, not between politics and art, but
between the two politics of aesthetics. This third way is made possible
by continuously playing on the boundary and the absence of boundary
between art and non-art. The Brechtian identity of allegory and of the
debunking of allegory supposes that you can play on the connection
and the disconnection between art and cauliflowers, politics and cau­
liflowers. Such a play supposes that vegetables themselves have a double
existence: one in which they bear no relation to art and politics and
another where they already bear a strong relation to both of them. The
relations of polities, art, and vegetables existed before Brecht, not only
in impressionist still lifes, reviving the Dutch tradition, but also in
literature. One novel by Emile Zola, Le ventre de Paris, had notably used
them as both political and artistic symbols. The novel is based on the
polarity of two characters. On the one hand, there is the poor old
revolutionary who comes back from deportation to the new Paris of Les
HaIles, where he is overcome by the flood of cabbages-meaning the
flood of consumption. On the other hand, there is the impressionist
Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics 43
painter, singing the epics of the cabbages, the epic of modernity, the
glass and iron architecture of Les HaIles, and the piles of vegetables that
allegorized modern beauty in contrast to the old pathetic beauty sym­
bolized by the Gothic church nearby. The political allegory of the cau­
liflowers was possible because the connection of art, politics, and vege­
tables-the connection of art, politics, and consumption-already
existed as set of moving borders, enabling artists to both cross the
border and make sense of the connection of the heterogeneous ele­
ments and play on the sensory power of their heterogeneity.
This means that the mixing of high art and low art, or the mixing of
art and commodity, is not a discovery of the sixties, which would have
both realized and undermined modern art and its political potential. On
the contrary, political art had already been made possible by that mix­
ing, by a continuous process of border crossings between high and low
art, art and non-art, art and the commodity. This process reaches back
far in the past of the aesthetic regime of art. You cannot oppose an
epoch of the celebration of high art to an epoch of the trivialization or
parody of high art. As soon as art was constituted as a specific sphere of
existence, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, its products began
to fall into the triviality of reproduction, commerce, and commodity.
But as soon as they did so, commodities themselves began to travel in
opposite directions-to enter the realm of art. Their power was directly
identified with the overwhelming power and beauty of modern life, as
happened in Zola's epics of cabbages. They could also fall into the realm
of art by becoming obsolete, unavailable for consumption, and thereby
turned into objects of aesthetic-disinterested-pleasure or uncanny
excitement. Surrealist poetics, as well as Benjamin's theory of allegory or
Brecht's epic theater, thrived on this border crossing. And so too did all
the forms of critical art that played on the ambiguous relationship of art
and commerce, right through to many contemporary installations. They
blend heterogeneous materials borrowed from artistic tradition, politi­
cal rhetoric, commodity culture, commercial ads, and so on, in order to
disclose the connections of high art or politics with capitalist domina­
tion. But they could do so owing to the ongoing processes that had
already erased these borders. Critical art thrived on this continuous
border crossing, this two-way process of prosaicization of the poetical
and of poeticization of the prosaic.
If this makes sense, it may be possible to reframe, hopefully on a
firmer footing) the political issues involved in the discussion about mod­
ernism and postmodernism. What is at stake in contemporary art is not
the fate of the modernist paradigm. Its validity is neither weaker nor
stronger than before. In my view) it always was a very restrictive inter­
pretation of the dialectic of the aesthetic regime of art. What is at stake
is the fate of the third politics of aesthetics. The question is not: are we
still modern) already postmodern) or even post-postmodern? The ques­
tion is: What exactly happened to the dialectical clash? What happened
to the formula of critical art? I shall propose some elements for a
possible answer with reference to exhibitions which) in the last few
years) offered points of comparison with the art of the sixties or seven­
ties) and thereby some Significant markers of the shift.
First example: three years ago) the National Center for Photography
in Paris presented an exhibition called Bruit de fond. The exhibition
juxtaposed recent works and works from the seventies. Among the latter
you could see Martha RosIer's series "Bringing the War Home;' photo­
montages that bring together advertising images of American domestic
happiness and images of the war in Vietnam. Nearb)lj there was another
work related to American politics) taking the same form of a confronta­
tion of two elements. The work Les temps du monde) made by Wang Du)
consisted of two objects. On the left) there was the Clinton couple)
represented in the pop manner) as a pair of wax-museum figures. On the
right) there was a huge sculpture of Courbet's Origine du monde) which)
as is well known) represents a woman's sex. So in both cases an image of
American happiness was juxtaposed with its hidden secret: war and
economical violence in Martha RosIer) sex and profanity in Wang Du.
But in Wang Du's case) both political conflictuality and the sense of
strangeness had vanished. What remained was an automatic effect of
delegitimization: sexual profanity delegitimizing politics) the wax figure
delegitimizing high art. But there was no longer anything to delegiti­
mize. The mechanism spun around itself. It played) in fact) a double
play: on the automaticness of the delegitimizing effect and on the
awareness of its spinning around itself.
Second example: another exhibition shown in Paris three years ago
was called Voila: Le monde dans la tete. It proposed to document a
century through different installations) among them Christian Boltan­
ski's installation Les abonnes du telephone. The principle of this installa­
tion is Simple: there are two shelves on either side of the gallery with
Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics 4S
phone directories from all over the world, and two tables between them
where you can sit down and peruse whatever directory you like. This
installation could remind us of another political work of the nineties,
Chris Burden's piece The Other Vietnam Memorial. That "other memo­
rial" is, of course, the memorial for the anonymous Vietnamese victims.
Chris Burden had chosen the names written on the memorial by ran­
domly picking out Vietnamese names in a phone directory. Boltanski's
installation still deals with a matter of anonymity. But that anonymity is
not further embedded in a controversial plot. It is no longer a matter of
giving names to those that the winners had left unnamed. The names of
the anonymous become, as Boltanski puts it, "specimens of humanity:'
Third example: in 2003, the Guggenheim Museum in New York pre­
sented an exhibition called Moving Pictures. The purpose was to illus­
trate how the extensive use of reproducible media in contemporary art
was rooted in the critical art practices of the sixties and the seventies,
questioning both mainstream social or sexual stereotypes and artistic
autonomy. Nevertheless, the works exhibited around the rotunda illus­
trated a significant shift away from that straight line. For instance,
Vanessa Beecroft's video showing nude women standing in the setting of
the museum was still put forward as a critique of feminine stereotypes in
art. But obviously those nude and mute bodies followed another direc­
tion, escaping any signification or conflict of significations, evoking
Giorgio de Chirico's metaphysical painting much more than any kind of
feminist critique. As you climbed up the round ramp of the Guggen­
heim, many videos, photographs, installations, and video installations
enhanced, instead of critiqued, a new kind of strangeness, a sense of the
mystery entailed in the trivial representation of everyday life. You sensed
it in Rineke Dijkstra's photographs of ambiguous teenagers, as well as in
Gregory Crewdson's movielike representations of the strangeness of
everyday events, or in the Christian Boltanski installation included
there, one composed of photographs, electric fixtures, and bulbs, which
may symbolize-according to the piece-either the dead of the Holo­
caust or the fleetingness of childhood. At the top of the exhibition there
was a kind of backtrack from the dialectical art of the clash to the
symbolist art of mystery as it culminated in the video installation made
by Bill Viola, Going Forth by Day, composed as a cycle of frescoes,
embracing the cycles of birth, life, death, and resurrection, as well as the
cycle of fire, air, earth, and water.
Out of those three examples, chosen among many possible others, we
can sketch out an answer to the question of the politics of aesthetics
today: what happened to the dissensual forms of critical art? I would say
that the dialectical form of the aesthetic dissensus has split up into four
main forms.
The first one would be the joke. In the joke, the conjunction of the
heterogeneous elements is still staged as a tension or polarity, pointing
to some secret, but there is no more secret. The dialectical tension is
brought back as a game, played on the very indiscernability between
procedures that unveil secrets of power, on the one hand, and the
ordinary procedures of delegitimization that are parts of the new forms
of domination, on the other: the procedures of delegitimization pro­
duced by power itself, by the media, commercial entertainment, or
advertising. Such was the case of the work ofWang Du that I mentioned
earlier. Many exhibitions today play on the same undecidability. For
instance, an exhibition was presented at Minneapolis under the pop­
esque title Let's Entertain before being recycled in Paris under the
situationist title Beyond the Spectacle. This exhibition played on three
levels: the pop art derision of high art, the critical denunciation of
capitalist entertainment, and the Debordian idea of play as the opposite
of spectacle.
The second one would be the collection. In the collection, hetero­
geneous elements are still lumped together, but they are no longer
gathered in order to provoke a critical clash, nor even to play on the
undecidability of their critical power. They become a positive attempt at
collecting the traces and testimonies of a common world and a common
history. The collection is a recollection as well. The equality of all
items-works of art, private photographs, objects of use, ads, commer­
cial videos-is thereby made into the equality of the archivistic traces of
the life of a community. I mentioned the exhibition Voila: Le monde
dans la tete, which sought to recollect a century. When you left Boltan­
ski's room, you could see, for instance, one hundred photographs made
by Hans-Peter Feldmann, representing one person of each age from one
to one hundred, and many other installations likewise documenting a
common history. We could find many other examples of this trend. It is
obviously in tune with a motto that increaSingly can be heard today:
that we have "lost our world;' that the "social bond" is being broken, and
that the artists must take part in the struggle to mend the social bond or
Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics 47
the social fabric by bringing to the fore all the traces bearing witnessing
to a shared humanity.
The third form would be the invitation. I mentioned how Les abonnes
du telephone invited the visitors to take a directory on a shelf and open it
randomly. Elsewhere in the same exhibition they were invited to take a
book from a pile and sit down on a carpet, representing some sort of
child's fairy island. In other exhibitions, visitors were invited to have
some soup and get in touch with each other, to engage in new forms of
relationships. Such attempts had previously been systematized through
Nicolas Bourriaud's concept of relational aesthetics: an art creating no
more works or objects, but rather ephemeral situations prompting new
forms of relationships. As he puts it, by giving some small services, the
artist contributes to the task of plugging the gaps in the social bonds.4
The fourth form would be mystery. Mystery does not mean enigma,
nor does it mean mysticness. Since the age of Mallarme, it means a
specific way of putting heterogeneous elements together: for instance,
in the case of Mallarme, the thought of the poet, the steps of the dancer,
the unfolding of a fan, or the smoke of a cigarette. In opposition to the
dialectical clash that stresses the heterogeneity of the elements in order
to show a reality framed by antagonisms, mystery sets forth an analogy
-a familiarity of the strange, witnessing to a common world-where
heterogeneous realities are woven in the same fabric and can always be
related to one another by the fraternity of a metaphor.
"Mystery" and the "fraternity of metaphors" are two terms used by
Jean-Luc Godard in his Histoires du cinema. This work is an interesting
case in point because Godard uses collages of heterogeneous elements
as he has always done, but he makes them produce exactly the contrary
meaning of what they did twenty years before. For instance, in a striking
passage in the Histoires du cinema, Godard fuses together three images:
first, shots from George Stevens's film A Place in the Sun showing the
happiness of the young and rich lover played by Elizabeth Taylor, bath­
ing in the sun, beside her beloved Montgomery Clift; second, images of
the dead in Ravensbruck, filmed some years before by the same George
Stevens; and third, a Mary Magdalene taken from Giotto's frescoes in
Padua. If it had been made twenty years ago, this collage could only have
been understood as a dialectical clash, denouncing the secret of death
hidden behind both high art and American happiness. But in the Histo­
ires du cinema, the image of denunciation is turned into an image of
48 J A C (�UE S RAN C I E RE
redemption. The conjunction of the images of Nazi extermination,
American happiness, and Giotto's "ahistorical" art bears witness to the
redeeming power of images, which gives to the living and the dead "a
place in the world." The dialectic dash has become a mystery of co­
presence. Mystery was the key concept of symbolism. The return of
symbolism is obviously on the agenda. "When I use this term, I am not
referring to the spectacular forms of revival of symbolist mythology and
the dream of the Gesamtkunstwerk, as in the work of Matthew Barney.
Nor do I refer only to the effective uses of symbolism such as the work
by Viola that I mentioned earlier. I am referring to the more modest,
almost imperceptible way in which the collections of objects, images,
and signs gathered in our museums and galleries are increasingly shift­
ing from the logic of dissensus to the logic of the mystery, to a testimony
of co-presence.
The shift from dialectics to symbolism is obviously linked to the
contemporary shift in what I called the aesthetics of politics, meaning
the way politics frames a common stage. This shift has a name. Its name
is consensus. Consensus does not simply mean the agreement of the
political parties or of social partners on the common interests of the
community. It means a reconfiguration of the visibility of the common.
It means that the givens of any collective situation are objectified in such
a way that they can no longer lend themselves to a dispute, to the
polemical framing of a controversial world within the given world. In
such a way, consensus properly means the dismissal of the "aesthetics
of politics:'
Such an erasure or a weakening of the political stage and of the
political invention of dissensus has a contradictory effect on the politics
of aesthetics. On the one hand, it gives a new visibility to the practices
of art as political practices-I mean practices of the redistribution of
spaces and times, of forms of visibility of the common, forms of connec­
tions between things, images, and meanings. Artistic performances may
appear, and sometimes do appear, thereby as the substitutes of politics
in the construction of dissensual stages. But consensus does not merely
leave the political place empty. It reframes, in its own way, the field of its
objects. It also shapes, in its own wa}'j the space and tasks of artistic
practice. For instance, by replacing matters of class conflict with matters
of inclusion and exclusion, it puts worries about the "loss of the social
Contemporary Art and the Politics of Aesthetics 49
bond;' concerns with "bare humanity;' or tasks of empowering threat­
ened identities in the place of political concerns. Art is summoned thus
to put its political potentials to work in reframing a sense of community
and mending the social bond. In my view, the shift from the critical
paradigm onto the forms of the joke, the collection, the invitation, and
the mystery testify to that reconfiguration of the political in the form of
the ethical.
Against the substitution, in art, of ethics for politicS, certain projects
today do seek a political role for art. These address matters of the
distribution of spaces and issues of redescriptions of situations. It is
more and more about matters that traditionally belonged to politics.
This situation has lead to new attempts to make art directly political. In
recent years many artists have set out to revive the project of an art that
makes real objects instead of producing or recycling images, or that
undertakes real actions in the real world rather than merely "artistic"
installations. Political commitment thus is equated with the search for
the real. But the political is not the "outside" of a "real" that art would
have to reach. The "outward" is always the other side of an "inward:'
What produces their difference is the topography in whose frame the
relation of in and out is negotiated. The real as such simply does not
exist. What does exist is a framing or a fiction of reality. Art does not do
politics by reaching the real. It does it by inventing fictions that chal­
lenge the existing distribution of the real and the fictional.
Making fictions does not mean telling stories. It means undOing and
rearticulating the connections between signs and images, images and
times, or signs and space that frame the existing sense of reality. Fiction
invents new communities of sense: that is to say, new trajectories be­
tween what can be seen, what can be said, and what can be done. It blurs
over the distribution of places and competences, which also means that
it blurs over the very borders defining its own activityj doing art means
displacing the borders of art, just as doing politics means displacing the
borders of what is recognized as the sphere of the political. It is no
coincidence that some of the most interesting artworks today engage
with matters of territories and borders. What could be the ultimate
paradox of the politics of aesthetics is that perhaps by inventing new
forms of aesthetic distance or indifference, art today can help frame,
against the consensus, new political communities of sense. Art cannot
merely occupy the space left by the weakening of political conflict. It has
to reshape it, at the risk of testing the limits of its own politics.


1. Balzac, The Wild Ass's Skin, 15.

2. Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education ofMan, 109.
3. Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic oj Enlightenment.
4. Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics.

The Romantic Work of Art

In this article I examine the longer-term history of a dialectical tension

between the aesthetic and the anti-aesthetic characteristic of modern
thinking about the arts, with a view to reframing our understanding of
the anti-aesthetic imperatives operating in the late modern or postmod­
ern artistic imaginary. I focus on the early nineteenth century, the
romantic period, when anxiety about the impossibility of contemporary
art ever realizing the aesthetic values associated with the whole or
complete work first became a significant issue. This anxiety began to
shape the context within which contemporary artists were practicing. In
this moment, urgent questions began to be posed about how a signifi­
cant art might be sustained in circumstances where a split seemed be
opening up between what art (and the experience of art) promised to
deliver and the actual condition of the artwork in the modern world.
These questions emerge particularly clearly in Hegel's theories on the
aesthetic dating from the 1820S, and his thinking on the subject is
particularly pertinent to the present-day context in light of the reaffir­
mation, in the past few decades, of his supposed proclamation of the
end of art.l This article, though, does not highlight the Hegel who
envisaged art's larger significance in the modern world as superseded by
philosophical reflection on the aesthetic. Rather, I focus on the Hegel
who speculated, often very suggestively, on the forms in which art
actively persisted in his own time. These were forms that he saw as
compelling to a modern subjectivity precisely because they represented
the antithesis of the ideal forms of art in earlier cultures, most notably
those of ancient Greece, that had functioned to embody the "eternal,
divine, and what is true in and of itself'2
Hegel's diagnosis offers some suggestive insights into how, in the
particular context of the early nineteenth century, an anti-classical, or in
his terms anti-aesthetic, distinctively modern art might be conceptual­
ized, an art that persisted by negating certain core values of a truly
aesthetic art. In his writing we see an emerging idea of an art that was
serious not because it embodied an abstract ideal, but because it pro­
jected a modern awareness of the contingent particularities of the mate­
rial world. Hegel's modern work of art was also one in which a split had
opened up between the object as perceptible to the senses and its non­
physical or mental significance-in contrast with the classical work of
art, which was the very embodiment of the ideas or ideals it sought to
represent. If there was a larger significance to which modern art might
aspire, in Hegel's view, this was inherently at odds with the idea of a fully
realized and whole work of art. Any sense of totality that modern art
could convey was like the totality that Adorno identified in Hegel's
thinking, existing only as the "quintessence of the partial moments, that
always point beyond themselves and are generated from one another:'3
This reexamination of the tensions between aesthetic and anti-aes­
thetic irriperatives operating in Hegelian thinking and in the practices of
major romantic artists such as Turner and Delacroix serves to demon­
strate that the postmodern or late modern arudety over, and yet fascina­
tion with, the idea of the "end of art" hardly constitutes a radically new
economy of the anti-aesthetic.4 Moreover, the real issue is not the end of
art, but rather the persistence of art in circumstances where a negation
of the aesthetic becomes the very condition of an art that continues to
yield a distinctive kind of truth or awareness. The early nineteenth
century casts light on issues raised by the concomitance of art's per­
sistence and negativity in a way that is not necessarily framed by the
reactions against the high modernist cult of the autonomous artwork
that have dominated thinking about visual art in the late twentieth
century, from radical conceptualism to anti-aesthetic postmodernism.
If we look to the work of certain artists of the romantic period, such as
Turner and Delacroix, we can see that Hegel's conception of a self­
negating modern art takes on two distinctive aspects that have con­
tinued to play an important role to this day. The narrative or allegorical
work of these artists, the work that they saw as their most ambitious,
The Romantic Work of Art S3
effected a dispersal of any culminating significance intimated by the
scene being represented, through an often pointed negation of the
aesthetic of the pregnant moment. Theirs was a narrative that to a large
degree fell apart into variegated and almost contingent details of often
relatively disparate significance. This dispersal of aesthetic wholeness
was sometimes played out in the comic mode, or as humor, a mode
Hegel saw as characteristic of modern self-awareness that was always at
some level alienated from the realities with which it was engaging and
that momentarily fascinated it. Romantic sensibility, as much as the
modernist one, is often envisaged as being essentially ironic. However,
this misses the extent to which there was also an undercurrent of comic
awareness-a sharp sense of the ludicrousness of situations acted out
with great seriousness and of the curious seriousness of situations that
were at many levels patently ludicrous-that nonetheless did not resolve
itself as irony. Several of Turner's works are particularly evocative of
such a comic mode of awareness in a way that carries very significant
political implications.
Further evidence that Hegel's conception of a distinctively modern,
nonaesthetic art had a bearing on the practice ofromantic artists such as
Turner and Delacroix is their recognition, evident in the way they
presented their art to their public, that the aesthetic impact made by
their work could not, on its own, carry the larger significance they
wished it to convey. The extensive textual supplements they created for
their paintings indicates they were aware that in the context of the
modern art world, symbolic meaning could not be made to inhere in a
painting. A split had opened up between what was aesthetically compel­
ling and what was compelling as idea, between the particularities and
contingencies of the material world that fascinated the modern sen­
sibility and a sense of what the larger significance of this world might be.
The idea that "beauty is truth, truth beauty" may have been a powerful
myth for the romantic imaginary, but it was one that could not be
reconciled with the complexities and disparities of modern reality, any
more than it could with the politically charged tensions between aliena­
tion and fascination that characterized modern awareness of this reality.
Though both Turner and Delacroix were later singled out, in the high
moment of optical formalism in the late nineteenth century, as being
Singularly visual and painterly, narrative was central to their work-so
much so that they would usually exhibit their more ambitious works
with quite elaborate narrative o r poetic text in an accompanying cata­
logue. A formalist misconception of their painting, based on an exclu­
sively visual orientation, still persists in some of the more sophisticated
and critically self-conscious recent discussions of their art. 5 Such anal­
ysis fails to recognize the extent to which these artists' ambitions were
realized through narratives and iconographical details that interrupted a
purely visual experience of the painterly effects in which they excelled.
Turner took this further perhaps than any artist of his time, presenting
his art as running in parallel with a larger epic poem he was supposedly
writing, "Fallacies of Hope:' Fragments from this were regularly ap­
pended to his exhibited works.
Delacroix may have insisted that visual art was different from litera­
ture, in that it could convey its essence and touch the soul of the
spectator with an immediacy that the narrative unfolding of a text could
never achieve.6 However, he wrote obsessively about this in his journal,
as if it were only through the entanglements of language that the pecu­
liar immediacy of visual art could assert itself.7 His project as an artist
was based on his negotiating a recurring tension between the aesthetics
of the visual and the conceptual resources of language, just as his more
ambitious narrative paintings acquired much of their sense, as well as
their deeper aesthetic resonance, in reference to a supplementary text
that articulated the bare bones of a narrative and meaning that their
visual effects could not convey on their own. Turner and Delacroix
worked during a historical moment that created the romantic myth of
the classic artwork that achieved, in its self-sufficient wholeness, the full
visual embodiment of an idea. But it was equally a moment that en­
visaged, in the negation of this ideal, the possibility for creating a truly
compelling modern art. 8

The Negative Dialectics of Aesthetic Theory

In the late Enlightenment and early romantic period there emerged a

modern understanding of art as embodying a relatively autonomous
and self-sustaining engagement between the self and the sensuous quali­
ties of the material world. This ran in parallel with a growing concern
that the actual conditions of the modern world tended to block any such
freely self-constituting activity and hence made the realization of an
The Romantic Work of Art ss

authentic and significant art deeply problematic. At this point, thinking

about art had become a basis for thinking about the post-Enlightenment
and postrevolutionary ideal of a truly free subject-both the possibili­
ties open to it and the limitations that circumscribed it.9 While art
provided a model for imagining the possibility of a subject's freely
sustained self-realization, the present-day condition of art, by contrast,
made manifest the actual unfreedom and alienation that afflicted the
modern subject. Art could be imagined as figuring a utopian world that
would be shaped in accord with a subject's inner convictions and ra­
tional purposes, at the same time that the current practices of art were
recognized as caught up in the abstracted and alienated realities of the
modern world, and as having to deal with objects that were largely
devoid of resonance rather than richly present in their symbolic fullness.
Hegel pursued the consequences of this dialectic more fully than any of
his contemporaries. This should be understood both in a theoretical
sense ( in that his philosophy was centrally concerned with the mind's
engagement with reality) and in a more concrete one ( in that his
lectures on aesthetics offered an unusually full discussion of the actual
forms taken by works of art, both modern and ancient ) .
Hegel never claimed that art had literally come to an end, but rather
that art on its own, without the supplement of abstract philosophical
reflection, could no longer be a vehicle for embodying the central values
of modern culture and its highest levels of self-consciousness. A modern
subjectivity, in his view, could not be fully realized in artistic form, and a
work of art would always be inadequate to the modern subject's drive to
comprehend itself and the reality it inhabited. Like most German writ­
ers of his time speculating about the nature of art, Hegel viewed classical
Greek art as the ideal of a perfectly realized art, as fully embodying the
sense of self and the ethical values realized within ancient Greek culture.
Many of his contemporaries envisaged this art as a transhistorical norm,
representing the apparently seamless self-constitution achieved in the
ideal forms of classical Greek art as a human ideal that modern society's
corruption, arid rationality, or constraints on freedom had made impos­
sible. Hegel's view was more interesting and much more complex than
this. If Greek art stood, for him, as the model of perfectly achieved
symbolic embodiment, an art in which the material form was fully fused
with the spiritual or mental content, it did so only as the exception. In all
previous art, and in all subsequent art, he detected a split between form
and significance, between the materiality o f the artwork-materiality
here embracing both the literal sensuous form of the work and the
cultural materials that made up its first-order content or subject matter
-and the self-awareness or higher symbolic meaning it sought to sym­
bolize.lO In postclassical modern art, which bore within it an awareness
of its loss of the fully integrated symbolization achieved in classical
Greece, this insufficiency of the artistic symbol resulted in a constitutive
alienation, occurring both within the work itself and in the subject's
apprehension of it.
In his writing on aesthetics, Hegel stages something very central to
the romantic artistic imaginary: namely, a dialectic in which the image
of perfect embodiment achieved by an ideal artwork-set in the past as
the ideal of the ancient Greeks unrecoverable in the disenchanted world
of the moderns-produces a sense of the actual artwork possible in the
present as inadequate, as failing to achieve symbolic fullness. However,
this negativity and inner alienation of the modern artwork corresponds,
in his view, more fully to a modern sense of self and reality than any
ideal artwork. In a way, for Hegel, the true (in the sense of the actually
existing) artistic symbol is the one in which there is a disparity between
what the artwork is, as phenomenon, and the larger significance it
aspires to evoke. Greek art is one notable historical exception that
throws into relief the negativities inherent in the constitution of the
artistic symbol in both the preclassical and in the medieval and modern
world. Hegel made it clear that the dissolution of the classical ideal must
be understood not as a
fortuitous calamityj to which art was subjected from the outside through the
extremities of the times, prosaic mentality, lack of interest, etc., but rather is
the effect and the continuation of art itself, which, in so much as it proceeds to
make the substance that dwells within it manifest to concrete perception,
contributes in this way, with every step it makes, to free itselfofits represented
contents. Where art or thought presents an object so fully to our physical or
spiritual eyes that its contents are exhausted, that everything is externalized
and nothing obscure or inward is left, then absolute interest disappears. For
interest only occurs as a result of fresh activity. Spirit or mind will only work
away on an object so long as it still contains something hidden, not manifest. I I

When Hegel sought to define the underlying parameters of art in the

modern world, the question he posed was as follows. What viable form
The Romantic Work of Art S7
could art take in a situation where subjectivity was no longer at one with
objective reality and where, in art's attempts to move beyond the real­
ities it apprehended with the senses, it found these alien to it?12 The
logic of his system led him to assert that the mind had to move on from
art to find its fullest satisfaction in the realm of pure speculative think­
ing. Nevertheless, he not only devoted considerable effort to an analysis
of art and the aestheticj he also speculated at length on the forms taken
by art in its present conditions of negativity. He saw painting as having
achieved its charac t eristically most modern form in Dutch genre paint­
ing. He highlighted the latter's freewheeling engagement with ordinary,
seemingly trivial realities and its genuine humor that registered a de­
tachment-and hence subjective freedom-from the mundane par­
ticularities of everyday existence.13 However, his richest diagnosis of the
larger logic of art in the modern world comes in his discussion of
modern poetry and drama.
Hegel argues that in a situation where subjectivity had become alien­
ated from reality as apprehensible in sensuous form, art became the
vehicle for an unstable engagement between the subject and the actu­
alities of the world, which alternated between close and distant. This
parallels Adorno's characterization of a mindset he suggested was appro­
priate for coming to terms with Hegel's own writing: "painstaking im­
mersion in detail, amid free detachment:'14 According to Hegel, modern
art is split between a focus on free, incessantly active inner subjectivity
and a preoccupation with the contingencies and particularities of an
essentially alien external reality. The more compelling artworks repre­
sent the subject as ranging freely over this world by virtue of feeling
detached from it and then engaging momentarily with certain features
of it that strike it as compelling. Central to this process was humor and
true comedy. In comedy, art's search to manifest the "true" and the
"eternal" in "real appearance and form for outer apprehension" was
effected negatively, through the "self-destruction" of any identity be­
tween material actuality and higher truth. I S
A passage in the section of Hegel's lectures on aesthetics titled "The
End of the Romantic Artwork" (end here being both the coming to an
end and the end as destiny or inner logic) is worth quoting at some
length to show how these ideas are played out explicitly in his thinking.
In the "romantic apprehension of things;' he explains (and here he is
referring to the whole postdassical rather than just the modern world),
the key point was the rending asunder of inner meaning and outer form, a
separation which was partially revoked through the subjective activity of the
artist . . . [iJ Romantic art was of its very nature the deep splitting of
inwardness taldng satisfaction in itself, which, because the objective world
was not in conformity with spirit's inward being, remained broken apart
from or indifferent to this world. The contradiction developed over the
course of Romantic art to the point where we were compelled to arrive at an
exclusive interest in fortuitous externality or a similarly fortuitous subjec­
tivity. But if this pleasure taken in externality as much as in subjective
representation in accord with the principle of Romanticism is enhanced to
the point of being a deepening of feeling for the object, and if on the other
hand humor concerns itself both with the object and to its formation within
subjective reflection, then we acquire through this an intimacy with the
object and, as it were, an objective humor. Such an intimacy, however, can
only be partial and perhaps expresses itself only within the bounds of a song
or only as part of a larger whole.l6

Humor, then, was for Hegel the vehicle for a characteristically mod­
ern, contingent engagement with the alien fabric of social existence as
this presented itself to a freely active subject. A kind of ironic humor is
widely seen as characterizing aspects of romantic literature. In romantic
painting, too, one can detect signs of an objective humor, of a distanced
but sustained engagement with the world in its negativity that needs to
be distinguished from conventional comedy, mostly strikingly perhaps
in the work of Turner. In 1841, the year after Napoleon's ashes were
brought back to Paris from the Isle of Saint Helena, where Napoleon
had been banished after his defeat at battle of Waterloo, Turner ex­
hibited a painting at the Royal Academy that represented Napoleon in
exile, titled War: The Exile and the Rock Limpet ( fig. 1). In this, he both
dramatized and undercut the traditional romanticizing image of the
great general contemplating his isolation and the tragic reversals of his
destiny. The picture was able to evoke the complex realities of Napo­
leon's situation in exile-both its larger seriousness and its prosaic indi­
viduality-through juxtaposing an image suggestive of the bloody dev­
astations of the Napoleonic wars with a seemingly ludicrous detail.
Napoleon looks out, guarded by an armed soldier standing bolt up ..,
right a little behind him, surrounded by the blood-red effects of a sunset
reflecting on the water. He is contemplating not the wide expanse of the
The Romantic Work of Art S9

1. J. M. W Turner, War: The Exile and the Rock Limpet, exhibited in 1842. Oil on
canvas, 79.4 X 79.4 cm. Tate Gallery, London. Photo © Tate, London 2008.

sea, nor the momentary intimations of the horrors of war created by the
blood-red sunset, but a tiny rock limpet just visible in the pool directly
in front of him. The catalogue carried a fragment of verse from Turner's
purported epic "Fallacies of Hope;' in which Napoleon gives voice to
the eccentric but totally absorbing association that had seized him:
Ah! Thy tent-formed shell is like
A soldier's mighty bivouac, alone
Amidst a sea of blood-
-but you can join your comradesP

The humor here has the effect of giving concrete resonance to the painting
and undercuts any overly self-absorbed tragic depth. In a similar way, in
Rain Steam and Speed (1844) Turner gave an almost comic everyday
particularity to his brilliantly atmospheric vision of a steam train, ema­
nating fire and smoke, hurtling toward the viewer through a violent rain
storm. Here he included a diminutive hare running flat out in front of the
oncoming train. The painting becomes a compelling image of the hetero­
geneous realities of its time by Simultaneously offering up an almost
sublime vision of modern technological and natural power and a comic
Aesopian tale of the race between the hare and the steam engine.18
According to Hegel, the subjective engagement with the material
world elicited by art is distinct from the sensuous desiring of particular
things, as well as from philosophical thought. In practice, however, and
above all in any consideration of modern art, the aesthetic for him
becomes enmeshed in both-a surrender to contingent particularity
and an abstract philosophical sense of distance. Indeed, for Hegel, in a
modern world where subjectivity sees itself as alienated from the exist­
ing symbolic motifs that might lay claim to carrying a higher value and
meaning, a work of art can only gain a shared ethical significance by way
of abstract philosophical speculation. Inasmuch as the experience of art
is able to constitute a community of sense for Hegel, this is achieved by
way of an anti-aesthetic, conceptual consideration of the momentary,
aesthetically compelling engagements we might have with works of art.
This is clearly an overtly elitist take on the part played by the anti­
aesthetic in any shared significance that might be attributed to the
artistic in the modern world. At the same time, Hegel's analYSis, and in
particular his point that art cannot, on its own, lay claim to a larger
significance, points to something that is central to the broader condition
of modern art. The aspiration, implicit in modern conceptions of art, to
an un-Hegelian, democratic, openly conceived immediacy can only be
substantiated by way of a conceptual, discursive supplement. The lat­
ter's abstraction may be at odds with the vivid particularity of aesthetic
experience, but it is also the medium through which such experience is
recognized as having any universal value.

D elacroix: "The People . . . Rushed in to See the Corpse"

Hegel's idea of the insufficiency of the modern artwork, its curious anti­
autonomous autonomy, has important implications for our understand-
The Romantic Work of Art 61
ing of the painting of the romantic period-particularly at the moment
in the early nineteenth century when a neoclassical, and at times revolu­
tionary, aspiration to revive the integrated wholeness of classical art­
work began to lose credibility as a working ideal. The texts that artists
such as Delacroix and Turner appended to their work may often have
been poetic rather than philosophical. However, they did introduce an
overtly discursive, conceptual dimension to a viewer's apprehension of
their work that is no less integral to the significance to which it laid
claim, and no less integral to the constitution of any full "aesthetic"
engagement with their art, than are the texts in more overtly conceptual
twentieth-century works. There is also, in their painting, an evident
fascination with seemingly incidental particularity. The apparent con­
tingency of the motifs and situations frustrates any universal sense we
might attribute to their work. Their paintings' narratives, which often
seem awkward, also negate classical ideas of wholeness and, above all,
the integrative logic of the pregnant moment. The viewer's compulsion
to see something significant taking place in the painting that will yield a
larger social, political, or ethical truth is both blocked and provoked.
The traditional, classical understanding of an integrated pictorial nar­
rative, as exemplified in the work of an artist such as Raphael, was one in
which a clearly emphasized central incident defined the core meaning of
the painted scenario. This would then be elaborated by responses to the
main event by figures deployed around it. The idea was given further
refinement in Lessing's theory of the pregnant moment, developed in a
discussion of how a nonnarrative form such as painting might render
narrative, contained in his influential treatise Loacoon: An Essay on
the Limits of Painting and Poetry (1766) . In Lessing's view, the painter
needed to choose a moment in which the action represented not only
enabled the viewer to see clearly what was happening at the time but
also to infer what took place immediately before and after. This preg­
nant moment would be one prior to the climactic event of a narrative so
it could represent the unfolding of an event rather than its completion.
The ideal pictorial narrative was thus characterized by both spatial and
temporal unity: spatial in that all the figures directed themselves to, and
hence were integrated into, the central drama; and temp oral in that the
preceding and following moments of the drama were integrated into the
moment depicted.
A work such as Delacroix's Marino Faliero ( fig. 2 ) , an early painting of
relatively modest scale dating from 1825-26, very pointedly displaces
such integration. At the center of the painting is the blank of a white
marble staircase, not a dramatic incident, and around it are dispersed
figures or groups of figures who are each acting quite independently of
one another.19 The prone corpse of the beheaded doge lies at the bottom
of the staircase. To its left, the executioner, standing impassively without
his sword, projects a strikingly silhouetted profile that is mirrored by the
almost equally striking figure of an armed guard standing to the left of the
corpse, facing off the populace we can just see streaming up the stairs that
descend to the bottom right. On the upper level, shunted off to one side
and behind the balustrade on the top right, a member of the Council of
Ten gathered to oversee the execution holds up the sword with which the
doge had been beheaded. Mirroring this group of dignitaries is a more
SOcially variegated group on the other side of the blank staircase; two of
them display the doge's resplendent yellow robe, which had been re­
moved prior to the execution. Sometimes wrongly titled The Execution of
Doge Marino Faliero, this painting pOintedly does not represent the
execution; indeed, the doge's body, his costume of state, the executioner,
and the sword with which the beheading was carried out, as well as the
various groups of people witnessing or taking an active part in the event,'
have become quite separated from one another. The painting looks a
little like a collage made up of several distinct, relatively flattened motifs.
These are not integrated pictorially, and the links we make between them
have to be constituted in our mind.
It would be nigh well impossible to decipher the meaning of this
pictorial scenario without the accompanying text printed in the cata­
logue, and even with it, this takes a little time. It does not represent any
one moment in the story as told in Byron's drama, which Delacroix cites
in the catalogue, but a concatenation of disparate moments. Their tem­
poral succession cannot be inferred from the pictorial linking of the
scenes represented in the painting. The drama seems in some way
absent, and certainly uncentered; there is a disparity between what the
picture foregrounds and one's sense of what the drama of a major public
execution might be. This enigmatic inadequacy of the immediately
visible pictorial drama to what it purportedly represents means that the
painting is not saturated by clearly specifiable meanings. This opens up
the possibility for it to evoke, albeit allusively, a number of contempo­
rary political realities that viewers in Restoration France might have had
2. Eugene Delacroix} The Execution of the Doge Marino Faliero} 1825-26.
Oil on canvas} 145.6 X 113.8 em. By kind permission of the Trustees of
The Wallace Collection.
on their minds-such as postrevolutionary anxiety about the possibility
of political betrayal and conspiracy against the state, perhaps intensified
by uncertainties over the stability of the Bourbon succession after Louis
XVIII's death the previous year; vague unease about the crude violence
of public executions carried out against those judged to be traitors to
the state; and partially suppressed fears about the possibility of an
uncontrollable upsurge of activity by the populace threatening the es­
tablished order of things from below.
Delacroix's text amplifies the sense of events that have not so much
unfolded as have been simply concatenated. In its comparative dryness
it also makes clear that the meaning of the picture lies not just in what
one can see in it, but in a complex situation that is never made fully
present, either by the text or the painting-despite Delacroix's repeated
insistence, in his journal, that painting made things "instantaneously
accessible to its spectators" and that it was not subject to the disjunc­
tions between successive parts to which one's attention was directed in
verbal narrative.20 The prosaic terseness of Delacroix's verbal summary
-which would be quite disembodied, and hence lacking in significance,
without the painting, just as the vivid and intriguingly undecipherable
visual spectacle of the painting would be relatively meaningless without
the textual accompaniment-echoes the negation of integrating narra­
tive in the painting.
Marino Faliero. The Doge of Venice Marino Faliero, having at more than 80
years of age conspired against the republic, had been condemned to death by
the Senate. Conducted to the stone staircase where the doges took their oath
upon entering office, he was beheaded, after being stripped of his doge's
bonnet and ducal mantle. A member of the Council of Ten took the sword
that had served for the execution, and said, holding it on high: Justice had
punished the traitor. Immediately following the death of the doge, the doors
had opened, and the people had rushed in to contemplate the corpse of the
unfortunate Marino Faliero. ( see the tragedy by Byron. ) 21

If we were to pursue the suggestion to "see the tragedy by Byron;'

would this mean that we should be able to delve further into the mean­
ing of the painting, as if making sense of it were a never-ending process?
But Byron's play presents a rather different kind of drama, and turning
to it as a guide would mean locking our understanding of the painted
scenario into the more manageable story of the fate of one man, whose
The Romantic Work of Art 65
presence in the painting is almost incidental to the substance of what is
b eing represented.
By contrast, both the large scale and the destination of Delacroix's
later Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople ( fig. 3) might seem to
make it into something of a conventional history painting. It was com­
missioned by Louis Philippe for the Galeries Historiques de Versailles in
1838 and exhibited at the 1841 Salon under the title The Taking of Con­
stantinople by the Crusaders-1204. This time the dramatic incident is
fairly dearly articulated: a group of crusader leaders, momentarily
halted in their marauding progress through the city by three inhabitants
imploring mercy, fills the center of the canvas. Pictorially, though, this is
a curious scene. Once we attend to it closely, the mounted crusaders are
visually displaced by the vividly painted groups of victims and scenes of
assault and slaughter around them ( several quite unconnected with the
seemingly central incident ) and by the theatrical sweep of the view over
the city and the sea behind them. Critics at the time described the
composition as "strangled and confused:' They also were distracted by
the difficulty of deciphering the precise meaning of the seemingly signif­
icant but subsidiary scene on the far left, in which an old, possibly blind,
man, is being violently dragged away by a crusader.22
In this work, the dispersal of narrative is not as immediately evident at
a purely pictorial level as it is in Marino Faliero. Such an effect is
constituted to a considerable degree through the interplay between the
accompanying text and the image, and between what one knows of the
historical events informing the scene and what is depicted in the paint­
ing. In 1204, a group of crusaders had been diverted from their supposed
mission to the Holy Land by the prospects of the substantial material
gains to be had from intervening in a struggle over the succession to the
Byzantine throne; they ended up capturing and sacking the Christian
city of Constantinople and dividing up the spoils of the Byzantine
Empire among themselves.
What we see in the painting does not correspond to the events spec­
ified in either of the titles by which the painting is known. It represents
neither the entry of the crusaders into Constantinople nor their act of
taking the city-both in any case being less-than-glorio�s events on any
reckoning. The crusaders clearly have already entered the conquered city
some time ago and are well into massacring and looting, while a few have
just climbed up to one of the city's higher reaches. The text underlies this

3 . Eugene Delacroix, The Entty of the Crusaders into Constantinople, 1840. O il on canvas,
410 X 498 cm. Musee du Louvre, Paris. Photo credit: Reunion des Musees
Nationaux/ Art Resource, New York.

decentering of defining dramatic incident even further, partly through a

destabilizing shift between past and present tenses that represents the
key event of conquest as happening prior to the scene depicted. The text
states that "Badouin, count of Flanders;' the mounted crusader in the
very center, looking down on the imploring elderly man, "commanded
the French who had unleashed their assault by land, while the old Doge
Dandolo, at the head of the Venetians, with their fleet, had attacked by
sea. The principal leaders overrun the different quarters of the city, and
desperate families meet them on their way to beg them for mercy:'23
vVhat we have, then, is not the scene of entry, or a scene of triumph, or
some central defining moment in the occupation of the city-but rather a
group of crusaders wandering aimlessly through the city, after the efforts
The Romantic Work of Art 67
of their inglorious military assault are over. They just happen momen­
tarily to have been caught short by the sight of a particularly distraught
group of victims of their rampaging soldiers. The semiotic and narrative
confusion is underlined by the way that the mounted soldiers at the
center are presented almost as if they were gathered in some triumphal
procession, or taking part in some ceremonially significant event, as if
they had just scaled the heights of a fortress at the center of the city, or
were dispensing charity to the defeated. But we see no such significant
moment. The spectacle has no larger public significance-they are sim­
ply drawn up short aCcidentally by some dim but unfocused awareness.of
the effects of the carnage they have unleashed. Their staging at the center
of the picture is both brilliant spectacle and sham illusion of command­
ing order, unraveling from within the logic of the pregnant moment that
the scene might at first might seem to represent.
Represented here is neither the triumphal leader nor the merciful
leader, nor even for that matter the barbarically vicious leader, that a
traditional history painting might have featured. The dispersal of larger
Significance initially suggested by the rich visual spectacle is the real
Significance here, the dissolution of any underlying ethical or political
sense of purpose-good or evil-that might be expected to permeate
and hold together the rich array of vividly portrayed and richly painted
incidents that is the substantive reality of the scene. Hegel's conception
of a modern art, in which intimate engagement with the contingencies
and particularities of a situation is embedded in disengagement and
alienation from it, is almost literally enacted here, both in the person of
the central figure and in the peculiar interplay between threadbare
verbal narrative and vivid visual spectacle.

Turner: "Fair Shines the Morn . . . in Grim Repose"

Turner's famous Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps
(fig. 4), a relatively large-scale work exhibited at the Royal Academy in
1812, would seem by contrast to be a very direct dramatic rend:ring of a
significant historical moment-a turning point in ancient history when
Hannibal threatened the Roman Empire by unexpectedly leading his
army across the Alps into Italy. At first it seems that the larger symbolic
resonance of the event is directly amplified by Turner's vivid painterly
rendering o f a sublimely atmospheric landscape. But what precisely is
the event we see? Once we look at all closely, the situation depicted
becomes less immediately clear. It certainly is not just the struggles of an
army threatened by natural forces-savage mountain conditions exacer­
bated by a dramatic snow storm, even if the latter, as Turner makes clear
in his title, is integral to the subject of the painting.24 The center of the
canvas is a gaping void; there is no Hannibal to be discerned-the one
figure in the army who stands out is the unmounted, slightly threaten­
ing, anonymous standing figure seen from the back holding up a torch
on the bottom right. Indeed, Hannibal's army is only dimly present in
the lower reaches of the painting, one cluster on the bottom right, and
another again in the far distance, below the burst of sunlight. The most
visible figures are the local tribesmen on the rocky heights in the fore­
ground, shown helping themselves to the spoils of the Carthaginian
soldiers they have slaughtered and trying to push boulders down onto
the army in the valley below.
That what is presented here is far from being a single integrated
pregnant moment, but is rather several quite distinct scenarios spread
out over a space and time, is made even more clearly evident in the text
Turner supplied in the catalogue. This is the first of his texts he identi­
fied as being from his pseudo-epic, "Fallacies of Hope":
Craft, treachery, and fraud-Salassian force,
Hung on the fainting rear! Then Plunder seiz'd
The victor and the captive,-Saguntum's spoil,
Alike, became their preYi still the chief advanc'd,
Look'd on the sun with hopei-low, broad, and wani
While the fierce archer of the downward year
Stain Italy's blanch'd barrier with storms.
In vain each pass, ensanguin'd deep with dead,
Or rock fragments, wide destruction roll'd.
Still on Campania's fertile plans-he thought,
But the loud breeze sob'd, "Capua's joys beware:'2s

In the poetic fragment, Saguntum refers to the Roman-controlled city

in Spain that Hannibal sacked prior to leading his army into Italy
through what is now southern France and over the Alps. "Salassian
force" identifies the tribesmen harassing Hannibal's army in the Val
d'Aosta, the valley in the Italian Alps that fed into the route over the St.
The Romantic Work of Art 69

4. J. M. W Turner} Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps}
exhibited in 1812. Oil on canvas} 146 X 237.5 cm. Tate Gallery} London.
Photo © Tate} London 2008.

Bernard Pass that Turner assumed Hannibal took crossing the Alps. The
reference to Capua} the city in Campania in southern Italy that Hanni­
bal was to later make his base once he settled into his unsuccessful war
of attrition with Rome} points forward to a sunny but uncertain future.
Turner's text invites us to see the scene shown in the painting as both
looking back to the plundering of Saguntum and forward to the sunny
plains of Campania} where Hannibal slowly lost the advantage he gained
by his bold assault on the center of Roman power. Its cultural} poetical}
and political complexities are very much at odds with the simple sce­
nario of man's struggle against the elements that the painting is often
assumed to represent. It can only be interpreted in this way by ignoring
not only the poetic fragment through which Turner invites one to
envision the larger significance of the scene but also the details within
the painting that disturb a purely aesthetic immersion in so �e single}
vague} all-encompassing drama. Even at the level of visual spectacle}
there is} once one looks closel)lJ a multiplicity of effects. There is both
storm and blazing sun} both hostile rocky landscape and spoils of plun-
der, both the massed phalanx o f a huge army and isolated scenes of
pillaging and massacre, and finally a multiplicity of different lights: the
white light reflected off the snow, the yellow burst of sunlight, and the
duskier orange glow of artificial light emanating from the army's torches.
In addition to these details, the painting presents us with a turbulent
void against which we can project our changing apprehension of the
human dramas and political scenarios being evoked.
The geographical particularities of place in which the scene is an­
chored open it up to some very urgent, contemporary political realities.
St. Bernard Pass was where Napoleon had crossed into Italy at the
outset of his spectacularly successful European conquests, an event
commemorated in Jacques-Louis David's much more traditional image
of a general's heroic daring-inscribed with a reminder of Hannibal's
crossing-that Turner had seen when he visited Paris in 1802. Almost
certainly COincidentally, Turner's painting was exhibited at the Royal
Academy at a peculiarly opportune historical moment, the summer of
1812, when Napoleon's fatal attack on Russia led to the decimation of his
army during the winter of that year under conditions that were every bit
as dire as Turner's vision of a snowstorm and a hostile populace assailing
Hannibal's army.
In the light of Hegel's singling out the importance of the comic mode
in modern art, it is appropriate to end with a very different late work by
Turner, The Sun of Venice Going to Sea (fig. 5), which was exhibited at the
Royal Academy in 1843. It is a fairly small scale easel p.ainting, quite
divested of the pictOrial rhetoric conventionally associated with the
representation of a significant event or natural phenomenon. At first it
might seem to be a relatively straightforward, low-key seascape depict­
ing a small sailing boat taking to sea in the morning light, with the
skyline of Venice hovering in the distance. It could perhaps be experi­
enced in purely visual terms, whether as a vividly painterly rendering of
an illuminating moment of natural beauty or as a more postmodern
vision of a world dissolving in sensations oflight and color. However, to
do so one has to turn a blind eye to the punning details Turner point­
edly introduced. At one level, the "sun of Venice" in the title is repre­
sented in a relatively conventional aesthetic-pictorial way, as the sun
shining on the city, its light reflected back to the viewer from the
shimmering white buildings in the distance and from the yellow- and
orange-stained clouds in the sky above. However, it is also present in the
The Romantic Work of Art 71

s. J. M. W. Turneli The Sun of Venice Going to Sea, exhibited in 1843. Oil on canvas,
61.6 X 92.1 em. Tate Gallery, London. Photo © Tate, London 2008.

picture as a painted sign. In the shaded foreground, the relative absence

of real sunlight is compensated by the artificial image of a sun, set in
a Venetian cityscape, painted onto the main sail of the central boat.
Clearly labeled "Sol de Venezia" ( the "de" is rather ambiguous and
should really be "di" ) the motif reads both as a second-order depiction
of the sun hovering over Venice and as the name of the boat emblazoned
on its sail.
Once we become aware of this seemingly trivial play of pictorial and
textual detail, it seems vital to turn to the poetic fragment with which
Turner accompanied the painting, which he again designated as being
from the "Fallacies of Hope:' This is not to find a key to the supposed
meaning of the work, but rather to discover some basis on which to
speculate about the possible significance of the seemingly unexceptional
but curiously labeled scene.26
The entry in the catalogue suggests in no uncertain terms that the
work be seen as having a larger poetic meaning, but it does not make it
clear how such meaning might b e related to the details of the painted
Fair shines the morn, and soft the zephyrs blow,
Venezia's fisher spreads his painted sail so gay,
Nor heeds the demon that in grim repose
Expects his evening prey.
-Fallacies of Hope, M.SP

Are we to interpret the painting as a relatively trivial poetic medita­

tion on the precarious voyage of the "barque of human life" that cheer­
fully sets out in the morn but is beset on its return by the threat of death
lurking in the dark? We might perhaps think so once our attention is
directed to a passage from a poem, well known to Turner's contempo­
raries, Thomas Gray's "The Bard: A Pindaric Ode;' on which Turner
clearly drew for his poetic fragment. Gray's poem evokes the fate of a
succession of medieval English kings whose rule was interrupted by
disastrous turns of fate. The following lines refer to Richard II, who was
deposed and, according to Gray, starved to death:
Fair laughs the morn, and soft the zephyr blows,
VVhile proudly riding o'er the azure realm
In gallant trim the gilded vessel goesj
Youth on the proW} and Pleasure at the helm;
Regardless of the sweeping whirlwind's sway,
That, hushed in grim repose, expects his evening-prey.28

The actual scene represented in Turner's work, however, gets in the

way of any such easy poetic resolution. There is a disparity between the
image of a regal ship setting forth and the mere fisherman's boat we see
here. The latter hardly seems an appropriate vehicle for meditating on
the transient destiny and reversals suffered by famous rulers and their
kingdoms, or on the decline of states such as Venice, if we transfer the
allegory from Britain at the beginning of the Wars of the Roses to
contemporary Venice. Laments over the decline of Venice and its loss of
freedom following its capture by Napoleon were a dime a dozen in
British writing of the romantic period. However, if we follow this asso­
ciation, what precise meaning can we assign to Turner's image of a
"demon in grim repose" lying in wait for its "evening prey"?
It has been suggested by John Gage that Turner's poetic fragment
The Romantic Work of Art 73
makes reference to a passage specifically about Venice in Shelley's fa­
mous poem "Lines Written among the Euganean Hills:'29 In this poem,
Shelley conjures up a vision of the distant future when Venice has gone
into complete decline and disappeared under the sea. At the end of day,
a fisherman hastens by the site of the submerged city "Till he pass the
gloomy shore, / Lest thy dead should from their sleep / . . Lead a rapid

masque of death / O'er the waters of his path:' Shelley then returns to
the present with an image, very suggestive for the one envisioned in
Turner's painting, contrasting the distant spectacle presented by Ven­
ice's towers "quivering through the Aeriel gold" and what, in the decline
and loss of the city's freedom, its buildings now hold within-"Sepul­
chers, where human forms, / Like pollution-nourished worms, / to the
corpse of greatness cling, / Murdered, and now mouldering:'3o
Gage argues compellingly that Turner's painting and poetic fragment
have much more in common with the complexities of Shelley's romantic
political meditation on the state of Venice than with Gray's somewhat
banal metaphors about the morning and the dusk of life's voyage. Tur­
ner's poetic fragment directs us to ponder the possible meaning of the
muted contrast in the painting between the brilliant, ethereal skyline
and shimmering water in the distance, and the green-tinged, oily, possi­
bly polluted water in the foreground, where wavelets suggest the pres­
ence of shallows on which the boat could run aground. The sky, too, has
a dual character, with the transparent blue and white light of its lower
reaches giving way to patches of red- and yellow-stained cloud above.
The boat is a curious combination of modest ordinariness and almost
gaudy richness, with its colored banners and painted sail, the effect of
which is amplified by the large, patterned sail of a second boat just
behind it. The glow on the more clearly visible woman and man seated
in the boat makes it doubtful whether they are just fishers (and why
would a woman be setting out with a fishing boat at dawn?) or people in
more fancy garb. They certainly possess more "splendor" than the faded
aristocrat looking at them from the boat on the far right. The painting
clearly invites the viewer to engage in a freewheeling pondering of the
meaning that might be attributed to the interplay between the rich and
iridescent splendor and calm of morning and the darker, more opaque
duskiness of the foreground.
At the same time, the absence of some Single allegory that would
make consistent sense of the scene depicted, the eccentric labeling of a
fisherman's boat as the "Sun of Venice;' blocks the viewer from becom­
ing too immersed in poetically resonant visions of the decline of Venice
or in conventional melancholy meditations on the fate of a once-glori­
ous city and how this might prefigure a decline of Britain's maritime
power.31 There is also a certain detachment inherent in what is, after all,
a relatively calm sea scene. The result is a Hegelian splitting that is not
found in the poetry to which Turner's work alludes, operating between
the vivid particularities of the painting and the unstable array of ready­
made allusions it can evoke for the viewer, which are as banal as they are
evocative-the morning and dusk of life, the threat of decline or even
destruction lurking behind the precarious splendor of the city and the
unreal calm of everyday life taking its ordinary course.
The "objective" humor and detachment, combined with a responsive­
ness to the banal yet charged imagery floating around in the period's
poetic imaginary, and with a passionate commitment to his artistic
project, enabled Turner to give real meaning to the captivating but also
baffling and at times nonsensical worlds he conjured up in his painterly­
poetic work. His eclectic engagement with disparate levels and fields of
meaning, all jostling with one another and often sowing confusion, was
possibly one way in which an art such as his could constitute a provi­
sional community of sense amid the devalued symbols and cliched
aesthetic exp eriences current at the time. The latter formed the basic
materials of his art, as much as it did for any of his fellow artists and
writers. In a Britain where the spectacular but precarious proliferation
of wealth proceeded in an uneasy political calm shadowed by indetermi­
nate threat, one appropriate response might well be Turner's incongru­
ous vision of a maritime city where "fair shines the morn . . . in grim
repose" even as its "sun" is "going to sea:'32


1. Hegel's lectures were first published posthumously in IS35, the text based
on notes made by his students and surviving notes he prepared for his lectures.
While he had begun lecturing on aesthetics before he took up the chair of
philosophy in Berlin in ISIS, his ideas on the subject were most fully elaborated
in the lectures he gave there in the IS2os-see Hegel, Vorlesungen iiber die
Asthetik, 3:575. In the more philosophically based recent discussions of the
The Romantic Work of Art 7S
condition of contemporary art, present-day art is often envisaged as being
situated historically "after the end of art." This end is usually located some­
where in the latter part of the previous century and associated with the radical
critique of the nature and status of the art object and with the breakup of
modernism and a modernist perspective on the history of art that got under­
way in the 1960s. See, for example, Danto's After the End ofArt and Belting's Art
History after Modernism. The end of art became a central preoccupation with
the takeoff of postmodern theory in the early eighties, this being the moment
when Belting and Danto launched their ideas on the subject. Both D anto's and
Belting's discussions of the subject demonstrate how this end of art can as
easily be envisioned as a welcome entry into a world of postmodern pluralism
as it can as some kind of terminus to the serious pursuit of art.
2. Hegel, Asthetik, 3 :S73.
3. Adorno, Hegel, 4.
4. Jacques Ranciere's critique of postmodern meditations, whether on the
demise of art after modernism or on a new era of j oyful artistic license this
might allow (Le Partage du Sensible), suggestively indicates how the mindset
involved does not represent some major historical rupture but rather is bound
into contradictory pressures already operating within earlier thinking about
art. In particular, he argues that the postmodern sense of a structural break with
modernism, variously envisaged as "the crisis of art" or "the end of art;' repli­
cates, in inverted form, certain ideas central to the modernism against which it
was reacting. Its disillusionment, he argues, was shaped by aporias that had
been internal to the condition of art for some time; far from marking a radical
new departure, postmodern art is best understood within the larger historical
context of the "aesthetic regime" of art that established itself in the late eigh­
teenth and early nineteenth centuries. The essay has been translated as The
Politics of Aesthetics-see particularly the section '�tistic Regimes and the
Shortcomings of the Notion of Modernity;' 20-30.
S. See, for example, D amisch, La peinture en echarpe, llS- 19; and Jonathan
Crary, The Techniques of the Observer, 138 -- 43.
6. Hannoosh, Painting and the Journal of Eugene Delacraix, 3S- 4l.
7. D amisch, La peinture en &harpe, 46- 6l.
8. On the romantic understandings of the symbol, see Paul D e Man, "Inten­
tional Structure of the Romantic Image" in The Rhetoric of Romanticism.
9. Discussion of German aesthetic theory in the late Enlightenment and the
romantic periods, in particular of how understandings of modern subjectivity
were played out in this early speculation about art and the aesthetic theofYj has
featured prominently in the marked revival of interest in the aesthetic in recent
years. See, for example, Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic; Bowie, Aesthetics
and SubjectivitYi and J. M. Bernstein, The Fate of Art. In line with the Anglo­
American philosophical preoccupation with Kantian critique rather than
Hegel's dialectics, the latter two books assign a much more central role to Kant
than they do to Hegel. The anthology edited by Bernstein, Classical and Roman­
tic German Aesthetics, in fact includes no representation at all ofHegel's writings
on the subject. Hegel features rather more prominently in Bowie's study. Bowie,
however, takes Hegel's verdict about philosophy superseding art rather at face
value and argues that Hegel, in contrast with his romantic contemporaries such
as Schelling and S chleiermacher, failed to recognize the significance of art as a
medium for attaining forms of critical self-awareness that were unavailable to
philosophical analysiS. His critique of Hegel for neglecting to recognize the full
significance of art and the aesthetic, however, does not engage Hegel's suggestive
analysis of the negativities inherent in the forms of art that perSisted in the
modern world, possibly because Bowie is unsympathetic to the powerful anti­
aesthetic current that has sustained much of the radical discussion of art since
the romantic period. Ranciere's recent essay on the politics of aesthetics (see
note 4) identifies Schiller as the key figure in his very illuminating genealogy of
modern and postmodern conceptions of art and the aesthetic.
Most directly relevant to the present study's discussion of Hegel is Giorgio
Agamben's The Man without Content. In this important analysis of the split that
opened up in modern understandings of art between the practice of aesthetic
judgment and artistic praxis as the expression of the pure creative principle (35-
37) Hegel plays a crucial rule. Agamben sees Hegel's aesthetics as highlighting an
equivalent split faced by the modern artist between her or his artistic subjec­
tivity and "free" inner creativity and the inert, resistant world of prosaic objec­
tivity, of which an artwork becomes part once it is made into an object of
aesthetic judgment. For Agamben, the condition of modern art as envisaged in
Hegel's aesthetic theory is one in which pure creative formal principle annihi­
lates and dissolves all content in the effort to transcend and actualize itsel£ with
art becoming a "self-annihilating nothing" and the artist the "man without
content" (54 ) . For him, the end of art as defined by Hegel is thus not to be
understood in the straightforward sense of an ending ( or even of a superseding),
but rather as an end, never actually reached, toward which the processes internal
to the constitution of art in the modern world are constantly directed. Invalu­
able as a companion to reading Hegel is Adorno's Hegel. Adorno offers a
compelling characterization of the Hegelian absolute, the "end" of the Hegelian
system toward which all speculative thought strives and in which all nonidentity
would be overcome: "As if in a gigantic credit system, every individual piece is to
be indebted to the other-nonidentical-and yet the whole is to be free of debt,
identical" (147 ) .
The Romantic Work of Art 77
10. This discussion of symbolic embodiment in Hegel is indebted to Paul De
Man's "Sign and Symbol in Hegel's 'Aesthetics: "
11. Hegel} Asthetik} 2:234.
12. See particularly ibid.} 2:19S - 97} 220 - 42, 3 : 11- 16, 123 - 33, 569 - 74.
13. Ibid., 2:129.
14. Adorno, Hegel, 95.
15. Hegel, Asthetik, 3 : 573.
16. Ibid., 2:230-40.
17. Butlin and Joll, The Painting of]. M. W. Turner, 249.
18. See Gage, Rain Steam and Speed. Gage ( 19 ) quotes a comment by a
contemporary of Turner's indicating that the more perceptive critics of his
work were well aware of the artist's liking for humorous, seemingly trivial detail
and contingent association: "This hare} and not the train, I have no doubt he
intended to represent the 'Speed' of his titlej the word must have been in his
mind when he was painting the hare, for close to it, on the plain below the
viaduct, he introduced the figure of a man ploughing, 'Speed the plough' ( the
name of an old country dance ) probably passing through his brain:'
19. For a discussion of the way blanks of this kind were deployed in French
painting of the later nineteenth century} see Kemp, "Death at Work:'
20. Hanoosh, Delacroix, 22, 95.
21. Brooks, History, Painting and Narrative, 25. In his extremely suggestive
study, Brooks drew attention to the significance of the texts that Delacroix
provided to accompany his more ambitious narrative paintings and showed
how his paintings often brought together multiple moments from the stories on
which they were based. However, he ended up arguing that Delacroix somehow
fused these moments pictorially, striving to render "a privileged situation and
make of it a p erfect moment, defined as the moment which perfectly serves a
riarrative significance" ( 30 ) . While Delacroix's paintings-in presenting them­
selves as} and adopting some of the pictorial rhetoric of, history paintings-do
raise viewer expectations that they will offer up a single} fully present, pregnant
moment, they then almost always disperse or negate this expectation. In so
dOing, they enable the drama represented to gain a wider, if necessarily provi­
sional and contingent} array of meanings. For a very valuable analysis of how
Delacroix's more ambitious narrative paintings, in bringing together several
quite separate moments from a drama and often excluding any direct represen­
tation of the key action that defines the situation depicted, radically break with
the integrative logic of the pregnant moment that dominated earlier neoclassi­
cal painting, see Allard, Dante et Virgil aux Enfers d'Eugene Delacroix, 53, 61- 64.
The translations of the supplementary texts Delacroix prepared for the two
paintings discussed here are both taken from Brooks.
22. Johnson, The Paintings of Eugene Delacroix, 3 :98.
23. Brooks, History, Painting and Narrative, 8. Brooks does comment on the
odd shift of tense in Delacroix's text but nevertheless sees the picture as fusing
in one integrated image the larger significance of the different events, past and
present, being narrated.
24. This was possibly even more the case with the original title of the
painting recorded in the Royal Academy catalogue, which read Snow Storm:
Hannibal and His Army, leaving out Crossing the Alps. The effect of this was to
downplay even further the sense of some Single defining narrative event and to
suspend the suggestions of narrative flow implicit in the longer title by which
the painter was later known.
25. Butlin and Joll, Turner, 89.
26. Here we are brought face to face with what John Gage, in J. M. W. Turner,
characterized as Turner's "approach, to introduce by means of verses more than
the image could reveal" ( 187 ) .
27. Butlin and Joll, Turner, 251.
28. Quoted from the online Thomas Gray archive, http: //www.thomasgray
.org, lines 71-76 .
2 9 . Gage, Colour in Turner, 146. The discussion of Turner developed here
owes a great deal to Gage's two groundbreaking studies.
30. Qyoted from http: //www.english.upenn.edu/ Project /knark/ Pshelley /
eugeanean.html, lines 135 - 49.
31. To be fair, Shelley does not rest with this meditative vision of Venice in
decay but-in line with his radical political convictions--speculates that Venice
might, if it were able to shake off its chains, yet again be able to "adorn this
sunny land" or could, if spared by nature from sinking into the sea, crumble
away to provide the ground from which new, truly free nations might spring.
This alternative vision has a nice Turnerian touch, with the sun of truth dissolv­
ing the clouds emanating from the decaying city: "Clouds which stain truth's
rising day / By her sun consumed away" (lines 161-62 ) .
32. In Britain, the years leading up to 1843 when Turner's painting was
exhibited were marked by severe economic recession, first in 1837, and then
again in 1841 -42, the latter being one of the gloomiest years of the century for
the British economy. See Briggs, The Age of Improvement, 295.

From Classical

to Postclassical Beauty



In his survey of artistic trends of the eighties and nineties, Hal Foster
describes the art of Louise Lawler as questioning modernist "myths of
artistic autonomy and aesthetic disinterest:'l These terms, of course,
invoke Immanuel Kant's contribution to aesthetic philosophy, the in­
ference being that Lawler's art negates the Kantian legacy, and with it
the central values of modernist aesthetics. Lawler's practice is usually
located within a counterlineage of artistic production that includes
the institutionally focused conceptual art of Hans Haacke and Marcel
Broodthaers, as well as postmodern anti-aesthetic tendencies of the
eighties. As examples of institutional critique, Lawler's photographic
"arrangements" document artworks in a variety of settings, including
private collector's homes, galleries, museums, corporations, and art­
wo rld businesses. As many critics have affirmed, the pictures draw atten­
tion to contextual and sociological factors that undermine the idea of
"disinterested" aesthetic reception that Kant proposed. Yet despite this
emphasis on art's institutional determination, a handful of critics have
noted that the photographs also exceed institutional analysis and anti­
aesthetic polemic.
80 T O N I RO S S
This excess was registered by a number of contributors to the cata­
logue for the first major retrospective of the artist's work organized by
the Kunstmuseum) Basle) in 2004. Each commentator gestures to ele­
ments of "indeterminacy" registered within the institutional framing of
artworks made salient by Lawler's photographic documents. Birgit Pel­
zer asserts) "Lawler's oeuvre) however) cannot be reduced to a mere
contextual act. There is more to her than just institutional critique. For a
touch of indeterminacy remains:'2 The critic George Baker and the
artist Andrea Fraser also contribute to the catalogue with a fascinating
conversation that ranges across Lawler's work of the last twenty or more
years. Their dialogue concludes with Fraser) a member of the latest
generation of institutional critics) responding to Lawler's photograph
"How Many Pictures" (1989) ( fig. 1 ) . This cibachrome image transforms
the graphic precision of a Frank Stella protractor painting into floating
colors and forms reflected on the highly polished floorboards of a mu­
seum space. But what catches Fraser's eye is an electrical outlet sta­
tioned at the base of the gallery wall. This prosaic museum fixture
obtrudes in an image dominated by the spectacular sweep of wood­
patterned floor and evanescent late-modernist painting. Prompted by
Baker to give the electrical socket significance) Fraser replies) eM outlet?
An opening? Art? The Aesthetic?"3 As this reply suggests) the aesthetic
here) bizarrely signaled by a functional object) suspends the institutional
analysis that typically motivates Lawler's art. At once discovered and
magnified within art's museum habitat) the electrical outlet operates) to
use Baker's term) as a signifier of "redemption" out of step with art's full
surrender to institutional mediation.
In his recent book On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life) Eric L.
Santner describes institutions as "all sites that endow us with social
recognition and intelligibility, that produce and regulate symbolic iden­
tities:'4 While Lawler's photographs impart a similar view of art's institu­
tional regulation) they just as perSistently register an outlet) an opening,
in excess of institutional captivation. Tracing how this surfeit of institu­
tional recognition emerges within the texture of the works bears directly
on their aesthetic salience. Therefore, despite the prominence of Law­
lees practice within anti-aesthetic critical frameworks, I wish to ap­
proach her photographs from the perspective of beauty. Taking this path
will effect another view of the artist's oeuvre, one that questions the
widely held assumption that the axiom of aesthetic autonomy has been
From Classical to Postclassical Beauty 81

1. Louise Lawler} "How Many Pictures;' 1989. Cibachrome (image)} 157.2 X 122.1 cm.
Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.

dispelled in contemporary art. At the same time} bringing Lawler's

version of institutional critique in connection with beauty will allow an
interrogation of recent efforts in art theory and philosophy to revivify
the aesthetic.
Those seeking to rehabilitate beauty typically reproach conceptualist
and postmodern tendencies for their denigration of aesthetics in favor of
art's political or moral utility.s With hindsight, it seems obvious that
postmodern anti-aesthetic doctrine simplistically reduced the aesthetic
to visually seductive, critically anodyne modes of artistic production.
Alexander Alberro has recently reendorsed this argument by casting
beauty and critical engagement in art as fundamentally incompatible.6
While rejecting Alberro's contention, I also wish to question the concep­
tion of beauty proposed by its contemporary advocates. Many are guided
82 T O N I RO S S
by classical standards! where the beautiful denotes aesthetic unification!
as well as objective properties of harmony, symmetry! and proportion.
The alternative thinking of beauty I propose draws on the legacy of
Kantian aesthetics! while being inflected by the psychoanalytic approach
to beauty Santner postulates in On the Psychotheology oj Everyday Life.
This text brings Freudian theory alongside the Jewish theology of
Franz Rosenzweig in order to amplify the ethical dimension of both
thinkers' projects. Santner's primary aim is to reconceive communal
bonds and ethical responsibility as answerable to an internal alterity
akin to the Freudian unconscious! which functions as an excess pressure
or "surplus vitality" within psychic life? Drawing on Rosenzweig's psy­
choanalytically inclined theology! Santner proposes an ethics premised
on our responsiveness to others who! like ourselves! are inhabited by an
unconscious: "an enigmatic denSity of desire calling for response be­
yond any rule governed reciprocity:'8 The postclassical conception of
beauty ventured by Santner is allied to the psychoanalytic ethics of
alterity he proposes. As a consequence! beauty is no longer conceived in
classical terms as "a harmonization ofparts within an ordered whole but
rather as the representation of an interrupted whole! or better! a self
interrupting whole! one animated by a 'too much' pressure in its midsf'9
Put simply! I want to make a distinction between two conceptions of
beauty interpreted in ethical and political terms. The first has devolved
from classical and idealist aesthetic frameworks and has recently resur­
faced in Elaine Scarry's book On Beauty and Being Just! where beauty is
associated with moral justice and democratic communal bonds. The
alternative! psychoanalytic account of beauty proposed by Santner takes
issue with the classical formula. It questions the applicability of the
classical system to the traditions of modernist and avant-garde art! while
also challenging the claim that classical beauty offers an appropriate
model of community and morality.
The following discussion of aesthetics! ethics! and politics divides into
three sections. The first presents an extended critical analysis of recent
contributions to aesthetic theory by Scarry and critic/ curator Nicolas
Bourriaud. I argue that both authors politicize the aesthetic by recourse
to a classical formula of beauty. The second section considers the ethical
implications of the psychoanalytic thinking of beauty proposed by Sant­
nero The final section addresses Lawler's photographic works by way of a
postclassical rubric of beauty.
From Classical to Postclassical Beauty 83

The Return of Classical Beauty

Elaine Scarry's book On Beauty and Being Just seeks to advance beauty's
moral and political relevance for contemporary times. In his collection
of essays Relational Aesthetics, Nicolas Bourriaud presents another re­
cent rapprochement with aesthetic theory. Coined by Bourriaud to
describe an emergent art trend of the nineties, the term relational aes­
thetics has subsequently attained widespread currency in art-world con­
texts. Although Bourriaud makes no explicit link between beauty and
relational aesthetics, I shall argue that the analogy he draws between
relational art and democratic social bonds echoes key suppositions of
Scarry's thesis.
On Beauty and Being Just draws an analogy between a classical formula
of beauty and a liberal image of democratic social arrangements.lO Here,
beauty, whether manifested by natural objects or those of human man­
ufacture, deSignates an organic ensemble where different parts are recon­
ciled within the whole. Invoking the composition of the perfect cube, the
four petals of the mother-of-pearl poppy, and the trireme ships of ancient
Greece, Scarry describes beauty as the malting visible of a symmetrical,
balanced, and harmonious whole, equal in all of its parts. I 1 Moreover,
because of their exemplification of figural symmetry, "beautiful things
give rise to the notion of distribution, to a lifesaving reciprocity, to
fairness not just in the sense ofloveliness of aspect but in the sense of the
'symmetry of everyone's relation to one another: "12 Scarry derives this
idea of intersubjective symmetry from political theorist John Rawls's
liberal conception of democracy, which interprets the democratic ideals
of equality and justice in terms of the "symmetry of everyone's relation to
each other:'13 Thus, according to Scarry, the figural equipoise of beautiful
things acts as a symbolic catalyst that compels us to strive toward the
creation of fair and just social arrangements.I4 Beauty here symbolizes a
moral ideal, where selfish interests are suspended in favor of a "lateral
regard" for others and a social demand for distributional equality among
people. Scarry suggests, however, that in a world full of inequities and
injustices, this quasi ideal may only be realized through the contingencies
of political action. As Joan Copjec has observed, for Scarry, beautiful
form does not simply function as a "passive analogy" for political fairness;
rather, it requires (political) acts to make good the alliance between
aesthetic beauty and moral justice. I S
84 T O N I RO S S
The fact that Scarry makes the visual manifestation of proportion and
balance the beautiful object's most significant and pleasing attributes
prompts Copjec to remark on her "disappointingly conservative notion
of the aesthetic object" j significantly few examples of modern art are ref­
erenced in On Beauty and BeingJust. But Copjec also queries the thinking
of a just society proffered by liberal political theory) where balance and
symmetry reign supreme. The problem with such an image of democ­
racy) reflects Copjec} is that it presupposes a utopian future where
political dissent is ultimately dissolved in a state of social equilibrium.I6
Copjec's doubts about the analogy between a beauty of proportional
balance and democratic formations might also be directed to Nicolas
Bourriaud's account of the relational aesthetic of contemporary art.
At first glance Bourriaud's assessment of recent trends in art appears
to have little to do with beauty. Indeed} he rejects as regressive Dave
Hickey's endorsement of visually seductive art as an antidote to overtly
political artistic programs. 17 Bourriaud} on the other hand} stakes a great
deal on the ethical and political consequences of the relational aesthetic
of contemporary art. His key proposition is that a number of artists who
gained notice in the nineties seek to produce alternative "models of
sociability" to those mandated by the monological directives and media
spectacle of global capitalism. IS For Bourriaud} artists such as Liam
Gillick} Felix Gonzalez-Torres} Rirkrit Tiravanija} Angela Bullock} and
Dominique Gonzalez� Foerster have no interest in creating refined ob­
jects for individualized aesthetic contemplation. Rather} employing mix­
tures of installation and performance} their art choreographs participa­
tory situations and intersubjective encounters based on a democratic
model of reciprocal dialogue and exchange. An obvious question arising
from this claim concerns Bourriaud's conception of democratic social
relationships. His assessment of the works of now deceased} Cuban­
born artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres provides an indication.
Bourriaud observes that despite the "tragic and militant content" of
Gonzalez-Torres's art} a content arising from the artist's personal preoc­
cupation with AID S deaths and gay activism} its formal repertoire and
mode of audience address imparts an insistent "demand for harmony
and cohabitation:'19 This "life model" is allegOrized by the "immense
delicateness" and formal harmonies of works regularly composed of two
identical or "contrastless" figures. Bourriaud lists Gonzalez-Torres's
works made of "two clocks with their hands stopped at the same time
From Classical to Postdassical Beauty 8s
( Untitled [Perfect Lovers], 1991)j two pillows on a crumpled bed, still
bearing the signs of a body (24 Posters, 1991) j two bare lightbulbs fixed
to the wall with intertwined wires ( Untitled [March 5th] # 2, 1991) j two
mirrors set side by side ( Untitled [March 5th] # 1, 1991):'20 A structuring
logic of "harmonious parity" also applies, as Bourriaud suggests, to the
way art audiences are addressed by Gonzalez-Torres's paper-stack and
candy-pour installations. These works reach out generously to gallery
visitors, inviting them to take pieces of the work away, while being left
with the responsibility of deciding how much of this gift from the artist
to appropriate and how much to leave behind for others to enjoy. As
Bourriaud puts it, these works speak to "our sense of moderation and
the nature of our relationship to the work of art:'21 Accordingly,
the social relation enacted by Gonzalez-Torres's art endorses a "criterion
of co-existence" or a mutual complementarity between the artist, au­
dience participants who help to "complete" the work, and the work of
art itself.22
A subsequent publication by Bourriaud summates the democratic
significance of the " criterion of co-existence" purveyed by relational art.
In the catalogue Contemporary Art: From Studio to Situation, he com­
ments that two central assumptions inform relational aesthetics: first,
that "social reality is the production of negotiation" rather than disputa­
tionj and second, that "democracy is a montage of forms:'23 Democracy
is thus conceived as a structure where disparate elements are stitched
together to form a larger whole, and where social exchanges are based
on the consensual negotiation of differences. For Bourriaud, this under­
standing of democracy distinguishes the art he champions from earlier
avant-gardes, with their dissenting attitude toward the dominant cul­
ture. He contends that while the "imaginary of modernism was based on
conflict, the imaginary of our day and age is concerned with negotia­
tions, bonds and co-existences:'24 In a cogent critical response to this
claim, Claire Bishop has observed that relational aesthetics makes an
"empathetic connectivity" between people the foundation of demo­
cratic community.25 I shall return to the alternative conception of de­
mocracy that Bishop introduces, but not before addressing the aesthetic
plane of Bourriaud's argument.
Bourriaud forthrightly distinguishes relational aesthetics from classi­
cal beauty, which he identifies with the coercive and inflexible social
relations of totalitarian states. "The forms produced by the art of total-
86 T O N I RO S S
itarian regimes are peremptory and closed in on themselves (particu­
larly through their stress on symmetry) . Otherwise put, they do not give
the viewer a chance to complement them:'26 Yet despite this assertion,
Bourriaud's articulation of the democratic inclination of relational aes­
thetics echoes aspects of Scarry's political interpretation of classical
beauty. Recall that for Scarry, the formal concord of beautiful objects
symbolizes a utopian faith in distributive justice and social equality,
understood as the "symmetry of everyone's relation to each other:' To
be sure, Bourriaud downplays the internal formal relationships of art
objects, accenting instead the social relations that artworks choreograph
with their audiences. These are described as "microtopias" where inter­
subjective hierarchies are dissolved and equality between participants
may be momentarily realized. Yet, this shift of focus simply transposes
figural equipoise from the internal structure of the work of art to the
structure of external relationships that artworks cultivate with behold­
ers. The rhetoric Bourriaud employs to define the quality of these
relationships-intersubjective co existences, cohabitation, and harmo­
nious parity-recalls Scarry's account of beautiful form as a balanced
distribution of part to whole relationships. Importantly, however, for
Scarry, the fulfillment of beauty's purely formal promise of social equal­
ity requires acts of political dissent to complete it. Bourriaud, on the
other hand, decants dissent from the adaptive and pragmatic sociability
of relational aesthetics. Consequently, rather than offering an especially
novel conception of democratic arrangements, relational aesthetics sim­
ply mirrors the assumptions of liberal consensus politics. According to
the political theorist Jacques Ranciere, this philosophy has become the
dominant discourse on democracy in recent decades.27
Ranciere associates consensus with the democratic state's efforts to
minimize or proscribe political dissent. The promise and presupposi­
tion of the consensual paradigm is that different parts of a population,
along with their divergent interests and desires can, through negotia­
tion, be incorporated and adjusted to the preexisting political order.28 In
a number of publications, including Dis-agreement: Politics and Philoso­
phy, Ranciere questions consensus politics from a neo-Marxist and psy­
choanalytic perspective that differs substantially from the premises of
Bourriaud and Scarry.
Ranciere relates consensus politics to what he calls archip olitics, a
political philosophy traceable to Plato's account of the republic. Dis-
From Classical to Postclassical Beauty 87
agreement identifies a dual dimension to the Platonic articulation of
political community. On the one hand, it entails an arithmetical ac­
counting of the capabilities, duties, and differing interests of each sector
of the community. On the other hand, it speaks of the submission of
these different parts of the social body to the common good. Ranciere
further observes that archipolitics represents the reign of the common
good over and above sectional interests in a highly determined way: ''As
the submission of arithmetical equality, which presides over commercial
exchanges and over juridical sentences, to that geometric equality re­
sponsible for proportion, for common harmony, submission of the
shares of the common held by each party in the community to the share
that party brings to the common good:'29
Ranciere takes issue with this conception of politics on at least two
fronts. He questions the pretension expressed by liberal and consensual
political philosophies to make good a "full count;' or full inclusion of all
sectors within the social totality. But he also rejects the dream of a state
capable of ordering social subdivisions and frictions according to the
"beautiful harmony" of geometrical proportion.3D Despite a difference
of attitude toward the socially disruptive gestures of political dissent,
Bourriaud and Scarry simply take for granted the guiding principles of
archipolitics identified by Ranciere.
Unlike Bourriaud, Ranciere views dissent as a constitutive, rather than
dischargeable, condition of democratic politics. Attending to the mar­
gins of the founding texts of classical Greek democracy, he focuses on
references to the poor and "the people;' those sectors of the Athenian
state who had no share in the wealth, power, or governance of that
society. Politics emerges, asserts Ranciere, when the people, as "the part
that has no part;' identifies itself with the egalitarian idea, but not the
fact, of the equality and liberty of all citizens. This means that politics
devolves from the ongoing possibility of previously excluded segments
of society demanding social recognition and thereby drawing attention
to a "miscount" of the parts taken to make up the community as it is
currently perceived. Thus, according to Ranciere, "politics exists wher­
ever the count of parts and parties of society is disturbed by the inscrip­
tion of a part of those who have no part. . . . Politics ceases wherever this
gap no longer has any place, wherever the whole of the community is
reduced to the sum of its parts with nothing left over:'31 Rather than
conceiving political community as a formation able to rationalize, incor-
88 T O N I RO S S
porate} and account for each o f its parts} Ranciere speaks of communal
identity as constituted by an ongoing potential for internal torsion} a
communal whole that never quite coincides with itself. This account of
political community as immanently divided} as subject to disruption by
societal parts repressed or excluded by prevailing communal arrange­
ments} resonates with aspects of psychoanalytic theory. It recalls} for
example} the dynamic of the Freudian unconscious as a force of inter­
ruption secreted within the normal operations of consciousness. More
specific ally} Ranciere's contention that "political intervals are created
by dividing a condition from itself" suggests an affinity with Jacques
Lacan's postulates regarding the subject of psychoanalysis. 32
Since I shall have cause to return to the split subject of psychoanalysis
when addressing postclassical beauty, it is worth briefly rehearsing
Lacan's formulations on this matter. Lacan describes the subj ect of the
unconscious as lacking in being} since it only attains a social identity by
way of induction into a pregiven field of language} inherited knowledge}
and social custom} a process that divides the subject from its innermost
self.33 In Ranciere's writings} this split subject coincides with those parts
of society that have no part} that have no symbolic recognition or status
until they demand or enact the acquisition of both as speaking beings.
But an important counterpart of Lacan's theory of subjectivization also
applies to Ranciere's refiguring of political community. For Lacan} the
desire of the subject of the unconscious is split between its representa­
tion by identities supplied by the signifying order} and language's in­
ability to articulate being directly or authentically. Conceived in struc­
turalist terms as diacritical} reflexive} and nonreferential} the signifying
network is inherently inconsistent} unable to sustain or ground itself as a
complete order of truth. Additionally} the subject's induction into the
social (the field of castration) introduces a psychic memory of lack} a
fantasy of a piece of being (or) a piece of the Real) foreclosed with the
subject's entry into the symbolic universe. According to Lacan} the
subject's desire is} in turn} caused and haunted by this loss of some
portion of the "real" entailed by the symbolic construction of reality.34
Ranciere locates the socially fissuring affects of political dissent in the
tension between these two logics} whether located on the terrain of
subjectivity or community. He therefore articulates a double sense of
communal belonging: an acknowledgement of the subject's interpola­
tion within the part-whole relations of given social properties and iden-
From Classical to Postclassical Beauty 89
tities} and a subjective (or communal) receptivity to those political
fractures that testify to the impossibility of communal (or subjective)
identity ultimately constituting itself as a stable and invariant whole.35
Such formulations diverge from Scarry's proposal that the sensory
manifestation of beautiful form prefigures the perfected democratic
state} where manifold parts of the social body are incorporated and
adjusted to an aesthetic design of harmonious coexistence. As Ranciere
infers} the realization of such a goal} which reduces the whole of the
community to the sum of its parts} would mark the end of the politics.
This is because the potential for societal change suffers diminution
rather than enhancement when political dissent is disavowed by a con­
sensual ideology of "negotiations} bonds and co-existences;' to recall the
democratic values endorsed by Bourriaud. According to Ranciere's for­
mulation} without the disruptive gestures of political dispute} engen­
dered by the inevitable exclusions and inequities of any social order} the
prevailing consensus remains closed to contestation and reorganization.
In her essay ''Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics;' Claire Bishop
similarly counters the consensual ethos endorsed by Bourriaud with a
conception of democratic society as one where "relations of conflict are
sustained} not erased:'36 Bishop derives this argument from the writings
of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe} who} like Ranciere} interweave
neo-Marxist political philosophy with psychoanalytic theory. Following
Laclau and Mouffe} Bishop concludes} "The relations set up by rela­
tional aesthetics are not intrinsically democratic} as Bourriaud suggests}
since they rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as whole
and of community as immanent togetherness:'37 Seeking examples of
contemporary art that counteract this consensual ethos} Bishop turns to
the art of Santiago Sierra and Thomas Hirschhorn. She emphasizes that
both artists contrive relations with art audiences "marked by sensations
of unease and discomfort rather than belonging} because the work
acknowledges the impossibility of 'microtopias' and instead sustains
tensions} among viewers} participants} and context:'38
While a strong kinship exists between Bishop's exposition and my own
regarding the shortcomings of relational aesthetics as a political theory
of art} I want to expand on two areas} ethics and aesthetics} that her
essay broaches but does not elaborate. In her desire to dislodge the
consensual harmonics of Bourriaud's theory} Bishop ultimately pri:v­
ileges the dislocations of social antagonism over subjective inscription
90 T O N I RO S S
within the sOcio-symbolic field. VVhile prioritizing what Mouffe and
Laclau deem "the constitutive character of social division and antago­
nism" may be apposite to the political sphere, it doesn't translate too
well as a guide for ethical relations with others.39
On the matter of aesthetics, Bishop provides an acute insight into
Hirschhorn's art that has significance for my account to follow of a
postclassical modality of beauty. Bishop notes approvingly that against
the current of much contemporary art and criticism, Hirschhorn re­
affirms the modernist value of aesthetic autonomy, insisting on a gap
between art and everyday life. Hirschhorn's attribution of a level of
independence to the aesthetic sphere also presupposes, according to
Bishop, a subject of "independent thought;' as "the essential prerequi­
site for political action:'40 A subject endowed with a desire in excess of
prevailing systems of societal reproduction and cultural authority is
largely absent from the Platonic formula of beauty directly endorsed by
Scarry, and indirectly by Bourriaud. I now wish to turn to a postclassi­
cal, psychoanalytic conception of beauty that addresses this absence.

Beauty as "Remnant"

Kantian aesthetic theory provides one of the most influential philosoph­

ical elaborations of the modernist maxim of aesthetic autonomy, and it
may, as Bishop intuits, be making a comeback in some sectors of con­
temporary art and theory. The following remarks amplify a number of
overlaps between Kant's aesthetic formulations and the postclassical
conception of beauty referenced by Eric Santner. Based on a logic of the
"remnant;' postclassical beauty departs from the goal of aesthetic uni­
fication that orients the classical system. For the purposes of the present
discussion, I shall address two aspects of Kant's account of aesthetic
autonomy. The first concerns the cognitive indeterminacy that Kant
affords judgments of beauty, and the second evolves from his remarks
about aesthetic ideas.
In Kant's Critique ofJudgment, judgments of beauty involve subjective
reflection upon the feelings fostered by sensory phenomena, a reflection
that brackets determinate judgment and its subsumption of singularities
under pregiven concepts or criteria. As Kant puts it, "We regard the
beautiful as the exhibition of an indeterminate concept of the under-
From Classical to Postclassical Beauty 91
standing:'41 The "disinterested;' conceptually undetermined attitude to­
ward sensory particulars recommended by Kant forestalls the categor­
izing and schematizing impulses of conceptual reasoning. Aesthetic
judgment thus responds to the sensual} material} and prec:onceptual
structures of experience that cognitive activity tends to repress in its
search for generalizing laws and concepts. Cnlcially} therefore} Kant
aligns the autonomy of aesthetic experience with an abrogation of the
subject's reasoning power to appropriate and tame the anarchy of sen­
sate experience.
Considering my previous remarks concerning the concordant and
unifying impetus of classical beauty} it should be acknowledged that
Kant's account of the subjective pleasure associated with beauty does
contain a conciliatory tenor. He asserts that judgments of beauty re­
spond to a pleasure derived from a harmony or play of sensory forms
apprehended as bounded wholes. Furthermore} as numerous commen­
tators have discerned} Kantian beauty ultimately promises an empa­
thetic accommodation between predicative consciousness and the chao,
otic manifold of sensory phenomena. Yet} as Jay Bernstein has recently
reminded us} Kant's anticipation of modernism lies most notably in how
he situates the aesthetic as a corrective to rational thought's repression
of a sensate and affective dimension of human experience. Kantian
aesthetic experience foregrounds the material and experiential condi­
tions of conceptualizing procedures by disrupting cognition's mastery
over the material world. In Bernstein's words} "Most broadly. and with­
out qualifications} we call this disruption 'beauty: "42
Beauty's resistance to the mind's conceptualizing powers is reaffirmed
when the third Critique moves from the "free" beauties of the natural
world to what Kant describes as the "accessory" beauty of fine art.43
Notably, Kant's reflections on artistic genius and art} unlike those on
natural beauty} do not wholly annex aesthetic judgment from concep­
tual operations. Since artworks} for Kant} are manifestations of cultural
and intentional production} their making and reception typically pre­
supposes some concept of what the object is meant to be.44 On the
other hand} when speaking of fine art as the expression of aesthetic ideas
Kant asserts that the inventive fecundity of the imagination overruns the
cognitive operations of the understanding. "When the imagination is
used for cognition} then it is under the constraint of the understanding
and is subject to the restriction of adequacy to the understanding's
92 T O N I RO S S
concept. But when the aim is aesthetic, then the imagination is free, so
that over and above the harmony with the concept, it [the imagination]
may supply, in an unstudied way a wealth of undeveloped material for
the understanding, which the latter disregarded in its concept:'4S
This passage suggests that aesthetic ideas present a superabundance
of sensory, formal, or symbolic material in excess of those determinate
conceptual schema that also orient the production and reception of
works of art. The aesthetic here denotes not art's unification of material
reality and conceptual content but its activation of an overload of sym-,
bolization, what Kant calls "supplementary presentations" that exceed
conceptual validation. As Robert Kaufman has observed, such formula­
tions may be taken to situate the critical value of the aesthetic in its
capacity "to offer the formal means for allowing new perceptions and
concepts to come into view:'46
The particular and admittedly partial elements of Kant's aesthetic
theory previously summarized echo something of Santner's account of
postclassical beauty as the aesthetic figuration of "an interrupted or self­
interrupted whole:' Santner introduces this definition of beauty against
the background of Franz Rosenzweig's religious philosophy and the
latter's effort to reinterpret the Judeo-Christian tradition in nonmeta­
physical terms. Following Rosenzweig, Santner associates art's social
function with its capacity to encourage communities and subjects to
remain alive to a "logic of the remnant:'47 A beauty of remnants, re­
mainders, and leftovers applies to works of art whose compositional
structure and procedures activate a surplus of symbolic address in ex­
cess of conceptual verification. More broadly, as Slavoj Zizek has sum­
marized it, postdassical beauty pertains to the artwork's indexing of
repressed details that a given sociohistorical order of meaning was un­
able to incorporate within its prevailing narratives.48 A beauty of the
remnant thus generates elements of conceptual and formal superabun­
dance that prevent the whole of the work from coalescing into a harmo­
nized totality. At the same time, Santner stresses that the commonplace
(Kantian) affirmation of the interpretive inexhaustibility of aesthetic
artifacts should not be "reduced to the unfolding of the inner logic of
the work:'49 A responsibility for energizing the aesthetic remnant also
resides on the side of reception, where interpretive acts are required to
make visible those details that may shift the work's previous history of
From Classical to Postclassical Beauty 93
The internally differentiated structure that Santner makes a feature of
postclassical beauty extends his commentary on Rosenzweig's "psycho­
theological" theory of ethics. According to Santner's interpretation, the
ethics of psychoanalysis recommends a subjective responsiveness to the
claims of others, and to one's communal or social context, which pre­
supposes that both are inhabited by an unconscious vitality or surplus
energy.so Santner's project therefore intersects with that of other post­
Lacanian theorists, including Zizek, Copjec, and Jean Laplanche, who
understand the unconscious as an enigmatic otherness immanent to the
formation of subjective or institutional identities. As a consequence, the
theological side of Santner's argument should not be mistak�n for a
nostalgic retreat to the certainties of premodern religious doctrine or
morality. Rather, Santner approaches Freud and Rosenzweig as avow­
edly post-Nietzschean thinkers. This means that for both, the idea of a
"spiritual" or transcendental surplus of human life no longer refers to a
place beyond everyday life, a sublime zone outside of life where human
happiness and freedom will finally be realized. Rather, as Santner puts it,
the "death of God" implies that "the entire problematic of transcen­
dence actually exerts its force in a far more powerful way in the very
fabric of everyday life. What is more than life turns out to be, from the
post-Nietzschean perspective, immanent to and constitutive of life it­
self'sl Santner therefore contrasts Rosenzweig's ethical philosophy,
based on a subjective openness to the "midst or middle of life;' with
metaphysical programs that seek either truth or redemption beyond the
rituals of meaningful life.s2
. The Nietzschean emphasis on an ethical injunction to speak and act
from the "middle of life" carries a double connotation, however. It
supposes a subject inducted into the relational networks of symbolic
exchanges and social custom, just as Lacan refers to the psychoanalytic
subject's being-dividing inscription within symbolic law. Santner de­
scribes the subject's assumption of a socially recognized identity as a
process of "relational surrender" to the part-whole linkages that typ­
ically sustain communal bonds. Yet actively inhabiting the middle of life
demands something more than relational surrender from the subject. It
also requires openness to encounters with others who, like ourselves, are
subject to unconscious passions and desires.
Following Freud, Santner understands the unconscious dimension of
the subject as inveterately out of step with the ordinances of social law
94 T O N I RO S S
and rational consciousness. As such, the psychoanalytic subject is not
simply known or knowable according to social definitions but is also, as
Santner puts it, "a stranger, and not only to me but also to him- or herself"
and "is the bearer of an internal alterity, an enigmatic density of desire
calling for response beyond any rule-governed reciprocity:'53 The ethical
here relates to the degree to which subjects and communities are open
to or defend against the pleasures and anxieties that arise from encoun­
ters with the enigmatic (unconscious) dimension of the other's desire.
This includes an attitude toward other subjects that does not reduce
their singularity to identities supplied by the symbolic order of social
intelligibility. 54 Rather, Santner speaks of the unconscious or unknown
"part" of subjective and communal identities as surplus to the "very
forms of identification that normally sustain the psychic bonds of com­
munity:'55 As he acknowledges, this thinking of community is consonant
with Ranciere's account of the interruptive event of politics as an imped­
iment to the reduction of communal identity to a consensual harmoni­
zation of societal parts. On the subjective plane, this leftover of social
integration attests to a dimension of the subject's desire not captured by
the mechanisms of symbolic law. In Lacanian terms, this surfeit of social
inscription designates the subject's psychic attachment to a surplus of
the "real" within the symbolic articulation of reality. Importantly, how­
ever, the Lacanian real does not refer to either symbolically constructed
reality, or to some extradiscursive ground that lies behind the screen of
symbolization. Rather, the real pertains to a failure or dysfunction
within the symbolic order that attests to its internal division, its falling
short of full ontological consistency. Reflecting something of Lacan's
formulations regarding artistic sublimation, a beauty of the remnant
invoked by Santner situates art as one means of keeping open the gap
( of the real) that separates symbolically constructed reality from itself.
A fidelity to this gap keeps faith with the possibility that something
other than the current consensus may emerge in the world.
Clearly a beauty attenuated to the real differs from the aesthetic
anticipation of an ideal of subjective or communal wholeness that sub­
tends classical beauty. Rather, the object of postclassical beauty ampli­
fies that which disrupts ( compositionally or conceptually) the organic
self-enclosure of the work of art, as well as the sociohistorical context
that forms its horizon. The immanently differentiated structure of this
object is analogous to the subjective principle of the ethics of psycho-
From Classical to Postclassical Beauty 9S
analysis. This principle acknowledges the subject's inscription within a
particular sociohistorical order, while also endorsing a subjective recep­
tivity to the unknown part of the other's desire. As Santner suggests,
postclassical beauty implies an "Other dis orientated in the world, di­
vested of an identity that firmly locates it in a delimited context of some
sort:'56 This assertion contradicts the certainty regarding art's contex­
tual delimitation central to practices of institutional critique, especially
those informed by postmodern anti-aesthetic doctrine. Louise Lawler's
photographic works are undoubtedly part of this artistic tendencYj yet,
as I shall argue, they also activate a beauty of the remnant that broaches
the limits of institutional theories of art.

The Antinomy of Institutional Identity

and Aesthetic Enigma in Lawler's Photographs

Although a cluster of critics have noted that Lawler regularly interposes

signifiers of indeterminacy within her documentation of art's institu­
tional environments, the aesthetic and ethical consequences of this
tendency have received limited elaboration. Following from the atten­
tion that Bourriaud and Bishop devote to the quality of social relation­
ships presupposed by works of art, I want to focus on the paradoxical
mode of audience address that characterizes Lawler's photographic ar­
rangements. Bishop contrasts the art of Hirschhorn and Sierra with
relational aesthetics by emphasizing their "tougher, more disruptive"
strategies of audience engagement and estrangement.57 Lawler brings a
different sensibility to the inscription of friction and disturbance within
her work's allocution to spectators. The disruptions of identification
and recognition registered by the photographs are usually subtle and
unassuming, rarely marked by a corrosive critical attitude. Despite these
differences of authorial tone, Lawler's photographic works also address
a psychoanalytic subject, one divided between being a precipitate of the
relational systems of the symbolic order and a libidinal attachment to
the unknown or unconscious dimension of symbolic exchanges. But
before focusing on this aspect of the works, their theoretical aims con­
toured by institutional critique and anti-aesthetic postmodernism de­
mands acknowledgement.
As a form of social or ethnographic research, Lawler's photographs
96 T O N I RO S S
document the institutional lives of works o f art, emphasizing the objec­
tive conditions that coordinate aesthetic production and reception. On
a rare occasion when she has overcome her usual reticence about giving
instructions regarding her work's interpretation, Lawler asserts, in the
catalogue for her show, Louise Lawler-A Spot on the Wall, that her
pictures "present information about the reception of artworks."s8 This
laconic assertion affirms that the photographs chronicle preexisting sit­
uations where artworks are installed, stored, or arranged by parties
other than the artist in order to expose how different contexts mediate
our responses to works of art. Lawler's professional career began in the
late seventies, at a time when many artists were still preoccupied with
what had been repressed by the central values of modernism. In di­
alogue with an earlier history of modern art, the photographs offer a
sidelong view of artworks that discloses how vested social and institu­
tional interests compromise the autonomy of the aesthetic as an excep­
tion to everyday patterns of experience. Thus, while the Kantian current
of modernist aesthetics asserted art's resistance to external determina­
tion, Lawler's photographs accent art's dependence upon institutional
systems and structures.
One of Lawler's early photographs shows the extent to which she
amplifies overlooked presentational devices and supplementary textual
materials that support and facilitate art's institutional existence. Pro,.
duced in the early eighties, the black-and-white image "Board of Direc­
tors" adopts the style and technique of documentary photography.
Whether working with black and white or color, Lawler often uses low­
speed, high-resolution film that enables the precise transcription of
details. This ensures that prosaic incidents within the settings actively
compete with artworks that would normally take center stage. "Board of
Directors" shows an intrusively cropped segment ofJasper Johns's White
Flag painting, hung on the heavy-duty carpet of a wall in Christie's New
York auction house. Alongside the slice of painting, a shabby, finger­
stained card authenticates the work's provenance and lists its selling
points: "previously part of the Tremaine collection, signed, inscribed
with title and dated 1955-58. Auction estimate price 'on request: " Be­
cause the camera's focus activates the space between disparate elements,
signs of commercial interest and the painting's dense, corrugated sur­
face are interrelated, rather than set apart. In exhibition contexts, an
oversized mat printed with the names of Christie's board members
From Classical to Postclassical Beauty 97
frames the image. Listed below the picture, these corporate representa­
tives replace the artist's signature as owners of the artwork and the
setting photographed. Such devices diminish the artist's creative pre­
rogatives, suggesting that art and artist are functions of the exchange
mechanisms of the market.
Lawler has produced numerous photographs that, with little sign of
outrage or censure, reveal icons of modern art to be as expendable and
exchangeable as any other commodity for sale. In the case of "Blue Nail"
(1990) a close-up reveals a corner of the tactile blue and white over­
painted surface of a Miro abstraction, framed by the mushroom-colored
pile of the carpeted wall. But just as prominent are the auction house lot
number stuck to the painting's frame and a metallic blue nail that
supports the canvas on the walL Another memorable Lawler photo­
graph, titled '�ligator" (1985), also contracts the gap that modernist
aesthetics sought to maintain between art and the commodity. '�liga­
tor" documents a tightly framed corner of a room in a private collector's
home, which is suffused in a shadowy blue-green light. The image has
been cropped to reveal the upper portions of two domestic chairs, as
well as architectural features and home-decorating paraphernalia. One
of the chairs, prominently branded with the Lacoste alligator logo,
provides the source of the image's caption. Behind the Lacoste chair,
two wood-paneled doors appear to have been permanently closed to
support a Donald Judd wall sculpture in brass. In the muted light of the
room the sculpture seems to float in the space above the furniture, while
its polished surface carries anamorphic reflections of window shutters
and curtains. Once again, the devices of camera focus and cropping are
mobilized to activate linkages between artworks and objects of common
culture, a procedure that deflates art's identification with a sublime
otherness located outside normal symbolic or economic exchanges. S9
Each of the aforementioned pictures may be situated within the dis­
course of cultural criticism that motivated postmodern anti-aesthetic
discourse to cast a disenchanted eye upon the aesthetic. Perhaps the
most telling displacement of modernist aesthetics established by this
discourse was an insistence on the institutional, symbolic, or conceptual
mediation of the nonverbal and affective transmissions of art.60 By dis­
connecting art from the subjective, the singular, and the sensory, post­
modern mannerism tended to imply that all of life was reducible to the
generic narratives and identities produced by the symbolic order. Law-
98 T O N I RO S S
ler's black-and-white photograph titled "Once there was a little boy
and everything turned out Alright. The End" (1985) ( fig. 2) might be
broached in these terms. One of many documentations by the artist of
private collectors' homes} this image discloses the living room of a
casually elegant French apartment with various examples of fifties ab­
straction adorning the walls. Three paintings share space with a pedestal
television and a pair of reproduction antique chairs. Not unusually, the
artworks are treated as unremarkable incidents within signs of home
decoration and human habitation that divert our attention from the
paintings. A branch of mistletoe hanging from a ceiling fixture breaks
across our view of one of the pictures} and occupying the center of the
image are two half-full wine glasses} pieces of china} and a glass jug} all
arrayed across a fireplace mantle. This documentation of artworks in the
midst of social or institutional contexts suggests that the subjective basis
of aesthetic feeling can make no claim to be undetermined or "disinter­
ested;' but invariably passes by way of the rituals of the symbolic field.
It has often been noted that Lawler pictures artworks according to
structuralist premises} not as entities that contain inherent qualities or
significance} but as incidents that only acquire meaning and value within
a network of differential signs. Andrea Fraser was perhaps one of the first
critics to notice how this aspect of Lawler's art distinguished it from the
earlier institutional critique of Daniel Buren and Michael Asher. Recap­
ping an essay she wrote for Art in America ill 1985} Fraser argues that
Lawler's work presents the functioning of institutional power: "not in
architecture} or in the museum as a building} or even in an elite class} but
in a set of structures and systems that are discursive and also relational. I
see Louise's work as part of a step from a substantive to a relational
understanding of institutions as well as of critical practice:'61
This passage suggests a view of institutions similar to that expressed
by Santner} as sites that produce and regulate symbolic identities. Fraser
has elsewhere described recent developments in institutional critique as
based on the assumption that the museum functions as "a network of
social and economic relationships between spaces} places} people and
things:'62 The argument that institutions comprise not just physical sites
but discursive or symbolic fields has become cornmonplace within ap­
proaches to site-specific and institutionally critical art in recent decades.
But the passage from a substantive to a relational conception of art
conveyed by Lawler's photographs has been taken up much more widely
From Classical to Postclassical Beauty 99

2. Louise Lawler, "Once there was a little boy and everything turned out
Alright. The End;' 1985. B /w photo, transfer type on mat (image), 39.4 X 58.4 em.
Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.

in art and criticism of recent decades. Bourriaud's account of relational

aesthetics could be viewed as extending the consequences of a struc­
turalist relativization of art's identity, which has been central to the
postmodern critique of aesthetic autonomy. This is the idea that the
experience of art does not exist outside or before the relational logic of
linguistic or semiotic nomination. In privileging the collaborative and
reciprocal conception of social bonds, and emphasizing egalitarian, in­
tersubjective exchanges, Bourriaud translates the structuralist account
of the dialogical structure of signifying operations into an ethos of social
interaction. Fraser's emphaSiS on the discursive mediation of our en­
counters with art, and Bourriaud's displacement of the aesthetic from
subjective experience to communal exchanges, are different versions of
the same avant-gardist gesture: the negation of aesthetic autonomy in
favor of art's submission to the directives and demands of the social
field. But to focus solely on art's discursively formed identity and value,
100 T O N I RO S S
its coordination and distribution within networks of relational and con­
textually bestowed meaning, represses its aesthetic claims on us. As
previously outlined, the, aesthetic-understood in modern terms­
refers to art's disruption of the generalizing impetus of conceptual
knowledge in its instrumental appropriation of sensuous materiality.
Both Kantian aesthetics and Santner's account of postclassical beauty
ally the aesthetic with a subjective receptivity to sensory meaning in
excess of conceptual meaning. On the side of the art object, beauty
pertains to the work's activation of material details that resist a full
discursive or conceptual accounting of the work. This inscription of a
certain material heterogeneity within the representational texture of the
work also disrupts its harmonious adjustment to the matrix of symbolic
meaning that forms its context.
While Fraser correctly identifies a relational logic at work in Lawler's
practice, the photo arrangements insistently convey something more
than art's relational surrender to discursive systems of meaning or the
arithmetical logic of commercial transactions. It would therefore be a
mistake to accept the language of taxonomic documentation adopted by
Lawler at face value, as though this pseudoscientific method could, or
would wish to, fully unveil art's various contexts and related anthropo­
logical meanings. For a start, the intrusive framing and cropping of the
images only ever offers truncated segments of institutional settings, a
stylistic preference that recalls earlier modernist fragmentations of clas ­
sical pictorial space. But more importantly, the works activate textual
and sensory signs of enigmatic content that fail to serve the epistemo­
logical aims of art conducted as sociological inquiry. In other words,
certain features of the works continue the anti-instrumental commit­
ment of modern art anticipated by Kanhan aesthetic theory. Take, for
instance, the title of "Once there was little boy and everything turned
out Alright. The End:' Lawler has recounted that her mother gave her
the caption, having copied it from the wall of a roadside cafe. The title
tells the beginning and the end of a generic narrative, but through the
device of ellipsis, the absent center of the story generates an excess of
narrative content. As a witticism directed at narrative convention, the
scrap of graffiti was not invented by Lawler or her mother, but was
happened upon in the world and given another life as the title of an
artwork. I have little doubt, however, that what attracted Lawler to this
From Classical to Postclassical Beauty 101
found text was that it symbolized a void at the center of narrative
meaning, a surfeit of communicated content out of time with the rela­
tional chain of narrative progression. This contradictory expression of
transparent photographic transcription and conceptual indeterminacy
distinguishes Lawler's pictures from the stated strategies of conceptual
art precedents.
According to Sol Le Witt's oft-cited formula for maintaining the anti­
aesthetic stance of conceptual art, one way to downplay the artist's
creative prerogatives and aesthetic choices was to follow a predeter­
mined plan where "chance, taste, or unconsciously remembered forms
would play no part in the outcome:' He continues, "The serial artist
does not attempt to produce a beautiful or mysterious object but func­
tions merely as a clerk cataloguing the results of the premise:'63 Al­
though Le Witt's works may never have consistently enacted such a
premise, it perfectly emblematizes conceptual art's determination to
strip art of any subjective or emotional valence by making it over into an
objectively determined and impersonal exercise.
While Lawler's work emulates a conceptualist acknowledgement of
the historically changing effects of objective culture upon aesthetic
production, not all traces of the subjective are erased. Yes, the images
and their textual supplements adopt the cool, impassive tone of concep­
tual art formats, but Lawler's working method also attests to the "uncon­
scious" outcomes of a practice directed by institutional analysis. The
artist elaborates on this process in an interview with Douglas Crimp,
which was published in a book collection of her photographs called An
Arrangement of Pictures. Here Lawler comments: "VV'hen I'm working, I
take lots of pictures. It's a way of working that's fairly flatfooted in that I
have a sense that something is worthwhile documenting, but the pic­
tures that work are those that are affecting in some other waY:'64 The
"worthwhile documenting" presumably refers to subjects best suited to
institutional analysis. But Lawler also describes those few images se­
lected for exhibition from the many, many photographs taken as "affect­
ing in some other way:' One way of illuminating this other level of
affectivity ( code for the aesthetic) would be to attend further to how the
photographs conduct conceptual enigma in the midst of deeply codified
institutional settings. This intensification of conceptual indeterminacy
within art's institutional spaces and discursive framing produces works
102 T O N I RO S S
both beautiful and mysterious. Or more precisely, their effect of beauty
arises from their symbolization of conceptual vacuity, a factor that im­
bues the works with psychic resonance.
Lawler's concern to invest the flat lucidity of the photographic docu­
ment with psychic intensity finds salient expression in "Hand on Her
Back" (1997- 98) ( fig. 3). As part of a larger series called She Wasn't
Always a Statue, this photograph was taken in a Munich museum that
stores copies of classical sculptures. "Hand on Her Back" confronts us
with the naked back of a crouching nymph from the museum's collec­
tion of faded replicas of classical statuary. Typically, the photograph
inflates contextual incidents that draw the eye away from the centrally
focused statue. We are alerted to the uneven plastering of the wall above
the statue, the cast shadows of other sculptures that encroach on the
nymph on either side, and the peeling paint of the trolley that supports
the sculpture. Each of these elements points to the relational identity of
the work of art, its integration within a diacritical logic of symbolic
meaning. Approached from this perspective, the work addresses us as
the rational, self-conscious subject supposed by institutional criticism,
becoming aware of how context predetermines our responses to works
of art. Thus, critic Tory Dent interprets Lawler's photographs as direct­
ing viewers to recognize themselves as socially constructed beings, as
"readymades alreadymade:'65 But an additional detail breaks the surface
of "Hand on Her Back;' a detail that detracts from Dent's conclusion.
Given added weight by the image's caption, a child-sized hand pro­
trudes from the upper back of the nymph, indicating that another figure
was once connected to the larger statue.
Lawler's eye may have been caught by the nymph because of its
deformation as a model of classical beauty, where the symmetry of the
sculpture's form is impaired by a grotesque bodily supplement that
activates a number of psychic effects. The submissive back of the nude
and the tender and inquiring violation of the hand evoke the psychoana­
lytic trope of the primordial mother-child dyad, as well as a basic gesture
of human address. As the indexical trace of an unknown other, the hand
incarnates an appeal of some kind, though its content remains in sus­
pension. It seems that Lawler has discovered, within a "ready-made"
setting, the residual trace of a modernist aesthetic supposedly displaced
by conceptual and institutional theories of art. Ossified in plaster, the
meeting of hand and back, which significantly occurs out of the nymph's
3. Louise Lawler, "Hand on Her Back;' 1997 - 98. Cibachrome (museum box),
153.7 X 110.5 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures.
104 T O N I RO S S
line of sight, acts as an afti:ctive signifier of touch, where the pathos of
the other's palpation is felt before it is known. As. a prospective inflection
of our responsiveness to this photograph, a certain susceptibility to
aesthetic feeling in excess of the specular and cognitive operations of
consciousness is conjured up. Such a disarming of the reasoning part of
subjectivity recalls the disinterested attitude, attuned to the free play of
aesthetic experience, that Kant associated with judgments of beauty.
However, this scene of intimate corporeal contact does not promise a
recovery of the wholeness of some presymbolic (aesthetic) infanc..'Y, of a
raw responsiveness to external sensation. Kant, too, detached the reflec­
tiveness of aesthetic judgment from immediate sensation. Rather, for
the viewer, the miniature handprint operates as a Signifier of loss or
incompletion, because while it patently provokes our attention and
identification, it lacks a transparent message to identify with. We there­
fore encounter a sensory sign that resists cognitive processing, forestall­
ing our capacity ( or desire) to appropriate the image in an instrumental
manner. As. an allegory of the artwork's address to the spectator, the
"hand on her back" indexes something heterogeneous and unpredict­
able within the documentary photograph's objective vision .
. A double operation may be attributed to this work. On the one hand,
the forensic capacities of the photograph attest to the classical statue's
lack of self-sufficiency, offering a reflexive reporting of the cultural (and
photographic) frame through which we apprehend it. On the other
hand, this same forensic exactitude discovers a sensory sign of obscure
origin and significance, which detours the former epistemological aim,
permeating the picture with an atmosphere of enigma. This other di­
mension, which cuts across our acquisition of full knowledge of the
setting or work before us, (lctivates the affect of beauty as remnant. As.
Santner proposes, the psychic excitation occasioned by beauty arises
from an encounter with an other inhabited by an "internal alienness"
that detaches it from a delimited context of some kind. Yet, the vitaliza­
tion here of a surplus of symbolic address in excess of conceptual
verification should not be mistaken as a lure that encourages the search
for some deeper truth beyond the appearance before us. The nodal
points of visualized enigma that populate many of Lawler's photographs
of artworks descended into everyday life do not refer to a transcendent
space of exception outside social or symbolic coordinates. Rather, as
signifiers of aesthetic alterity they are imbricated with, rather than op-
From Classical to Postdassical Beauty lOS
posed to, the theoretical enterprise of institutional critique. Considering
the context of reception that has formed around Lawler's practice, one
based on a postmodern negation of aesthetic autonomy, the excess of
her work arises from its creation of an aesthetic space of unprogrammed
reception within a narrative of pragmatic strategizing typical of post­
modern anti-aesthetic doctrine.66 In this respect, her art resists recruit­
ment to contemporary art-world claims, including the one Bourriaud
makes in Relational Aesthetics that the modernist tradition of aes­

thetics is definitively behind us.

George Baker makes a similar point about Lawler's self representation
in publications and interviews, observing, "Somehow it is anathema to
Lawler to pin her work down, to provide an explanation of her own
practice sanctioned by the figure of the artist. That is the space that she
needs and that the work needs to continue to claim. In some sense, it is
still an aesthetic space, a claim that there is a place for interpretation and
reception, and that the artist should do nothing and in fact must do
nothing to interfere with this because it would betray the autonomy of
the work:'67
Andrea Fraser responds that this seems utterly contradictory, consid­
ering that all of Lawler's work is about the manifold forms of institu­
tional interference that belie the "unfettered" notion of aesthetic recep­
tion described by Baker. I wish to propose, however, that the sustaining
of aesthetic autonomy alongside its dissolution comprises a defining
and productive feature of Lawler's photographic works.68 This feature
has further implications for the ethical relationship with audiences en­
acted by the photo arrangements.
A final example extracted from Lawler's photographic archive will
facilitate some concluding remarks about the consequences of her prac­
tice for thinking about beauty and ethics. With "Les coordonnees"
(1988), Lawler has turned her camera toward an imposing filing cabinet
in the Metro Pictures gallery at its previous SoHo location. Here an
item of office equipment in aid of gallery management ciphers a number
of art historical references. The stolid rectangular bulk of the cabinet
framed by the gallery architecture recalls the literal object of minimalist
sculpture uninflected by subjectivity or expression. Additionally, "Les
coordonnees" refashions a famous work of conceptual art: British Art
and Language's Index installation of the seventies. Historically, the Index
work is known for aggressively negating aesthetic seduction by malting
106 T O N I RO S S
art out of the tools of bureaucratic administration: specifically, index
card files, statistical calculations, photostats, and discursive materials
submitted to the Art-Language journal. The French-language title of
Lawler's picture echoes these connotations by invoking the accoutre­
ments of business or professional transactions: names, contact details,
curriculum vitae, and so on. Each drawer of the cabinet that presumably
contains such information is allocated to a named artist within the
Metro Pictures stable, including one for "L. Lawler:' But yet again, a
signifier of fugitive meaning obtrudes from a scene that attests to art and
the artist's institutional regulation. At the top right-hand corner of the
cabinet just one label has been left blank, shifting focus from a process of
name recognition to the symbolization of nothing in particular. Like the
electrical outlet in How Many Pictures, a commonplace, utilitarian ob­
ject is transformed into a locus of an aesthetic latency that loosens the
binds of measurable identity. Moreover, because these "supplementary
presentations" are laced with a superabundance of meaningful possibili­
ties, they fail to mandate a preordained, undivided response from the
spectator. As a result, the viewer, too, is addressed as enigmatic at some
level, as a subject whose identity and actions are not entirely contoured
by pragmatic calculation. This uncertain, nonequivalent relation be­
tween the work of art and an unknown spectator approaches a psycho­
analytic view of symbolic exchanges, where the other complex cannot
ultimately ground a ready-made answer to who we are. The opaque
signifiers and remnants of unfixed meaning that Lawler discovers within
scenes of art's institutional confinement assert not the symbolic uni­
verse's authority, but its impotence as all knowing. How, then, to re­
spond to an address from the other that fails to represent a set of
precedents to be followed, or a plan of action to imitate? One response
to such an invitation to step into the picture would be to judge and act
without these certainties.
Lawler's photo arrangements convey both statements of art's identity
as a complex of institutionalized signifieds and signifiers of conceptual
superfluity that make no determined directive for judgment to emerge.
This bifurcated operation coincides with Santner's account of the effect
of beauty as arising from the artistic presentation of a "self-interrupting
whole;' one that generates more signifying material than can be con­
tained by the symbolic context within which the work subsists. Thus, the
postclassical beauty I have associated with Lawler's practice departs from
From Classical to Postclassical Beauty 107
an organic metaphor ofthe work ofart ( or the subject) as a balanced and
harmonious whole. This formula of beauty continues to be mobilized as
the aesthetic basis of liberal conceptions of communal consensus and
moral justice. In such cases, the social field is conceived as a relational
totality of coexisting parts that in the best of worlds will subside into a
reconciled totality; AB Ranciere observes, in the political realm, such
consensual frameworks typically seek to veil over the divided condition
of democratic communality and its distance from any order based on
natural foundations. He asserts, ''Anyone who wants to cure politics ofits
ills has only one available solution: the lie that invents some kind of social
nature in order to provide the community with a [stable] foundation:'69 I
have argued instead that Lawler's photographs offer no such stable
foundation for interpretation. Rather, they operate as internally trun­
cated totalities that register more aesthetic "reality" than can be con­
tained by the institutional contexts photographed. The ethical implica­
tions of this may well be the fostering of a subjective or communal
answerability to the unthought, the inconsistent, and the unconscious
secreted within the institutionalized realities of everyday life.


1. Foster, The Return of the Real, 93.

2. Pelzer, "Interpositions;' 27.
3. Baker and Fraser, "Displacement and Condensation;' 142.
4. Santner, · On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life, 26.
5. See Rolfe, Beauty and the Contemporary Sublimej Beckley, "Introduction:
Generosity and the Black Swan"j Hickey, The Invisible Dragon.
6. Alberro, "Beauty Knows No Pain."
7. Santner, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life, 31.
8. Ibid., 9.
9. Ibid., 136.
10. Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, 95-96.
11. Ibid., 106 1 3

12. Ibid., 95.

13· Rawls, A Theory ofJustice, 93.
14. Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, 115.
15. Copjec, Imagine There's No Woman, 171.
16. Ibid., 171, 175.
108 T O N I RO S S
17. Hickey, The Invisible Dragon.
18. Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 31.
19· Ibid., 53.
20. Ibid., SO.
21. Ibid., 57.
22. Ibid., 109.
23. Bourriaud, "Berlin Letter about Relational Aesthetics;' 48.
24. Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 31.
25. Bishop, ''Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics:'
26. Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 109.
27. Ranciere, Dis-agreement, 95.
28. Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, 83.
29. Ranciere, Dis-agreement, 4 - 6.
30. Ibid., 7.
31. Ibid., 123.
32. Ibid., 138.
33. Fink, The Lacanian Subject, 11.
34. Lacan, "The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psycho-
analysis;' 47.
35. Rancere, Dis-agreement, 137.
36. Bishop, ''Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics;' 66.
37. Ibid., 67.
38. Ibid., 70.
39. Ibid., 75n58.
40. Ibid., 74-77.
41. Kant, Critique ofJudgment, translated by Werner S. Pluhar, 91.
42. Bernstein, "Modernism as Aesthetics and Art History;' 255.
43. Kant, Critique ofJudgment, 76.
44. Ibid., 189·
45. Ibid., 185.
46. Kaufman, "Red Kant;' 711.
47. Santner, On the Psychotheology of Everyday Life, 142.
48. Zizek, On Belie.h 96.
49. Santner, On the Pyschotheology of Everyday Life, 132.
So. Ibid., 9.
51. Ibid., 10.
52. Ibid., 10.
53· Ibid., 9.
54. Santner has acknowledged a kinship between this ethical stance and
Jacques Derrida's endorsement of aspects of Emmanuel Levinas's ethical phi..
From Classical to. Po.stclassical Beauty 109
losophy, which also speaks of the other as irreducible to cultural definitions and
social categories supplied by the symbolic order. Ibid., 116n39 .
55. Ibid., 117·
56. Ibid., 82.
57. Bishop, ''Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics;' 77.
58. Lawler, Louise Lawler, 9.
59. In this respect, Lawler's art might be linked to what Margaret Iversen has
described as a "deflationary impulse" that motivated various artistic responses
in the sixties and seventies to the high modernist tradition. Iversen describes
minimalist and conceptual art as inverting the "avant-garde posture of alienated
outsiderism" keyed to an aesthetic of the sublime that pervaded the New York
art world of the forties and fifties. The deflationary impulse targeted art's
identification with social or spiritual transcendence, and a related image of the
artist as autonomous subject facing off against the instrumental, commercial,
and bureaucratic imperatives of modern life. As Iversen observes, one way in
which the generation of artists who came after high modernism "detranscen­
dentalized" artistic creation was to reduce art to "a thing in the world, un­
differentiated from other objects or insufficiently differentiated:' Iversen, "The
Deflationary Impulse;' 81.
60. Meyer and Ross, "Aesthetic / Anti-aesthetic;' 21.
61. Baker and Fraser, "Displacement and Condensation;' 112.
6 2. Fraser, "From the Critique of Institutions to an Institutional Critique;'
63. Le Witt, "Serial Project NO. 1 (ABCD ) " (1966).
64. Crimp and Lawler, "Prominence Given, Authority Taken:'
65. Dent, "Alreadymade 'Female; " 24.
66. Despite Andrea Fraser's sensitivity to the nuances of Lawler's institu­
tional critique, her comments on her own practice of institutional criticism
indicate a more instrumental attitude toward the potential recipients of her
work. On the occasion of an October roundtable discussion on "The Present
Conditions of Art Criticism;' Fraser asserts that since art criticism, like art,
cannot transcend its context, then critics, like artists, should address their
publics in specific and pragmatic terms. For Fraser, this "means not misrecog­
nizing your readership as the other [my emphasis] of your discourse but as the
actual people who are probably going to be picking up the magazine and
looking through its pages:' Foster and others, "Roundtable;' 223.
67. Baker and Fraser, "Displacement and Condensation;' 117.
68. Jacques Ranciere has proposed that this double effect, the paradoxical co­
implication of opposites and the effort to engage with contradiction, is in fact
characteristic of the modern aesthetic tradition. In response to a question
110 T O N I RO S S
about the relationship between art and politics, Ranciere asserts, "Suitable
political art would ensure, at one and the same time, the production of a double
effect: the readability of the political signification and a sensible or perceptual
shock caused conversely, by the uncanny, that which resists signification:' Ran­
ciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, 63.
69. Ranciere, Dis-agreement, 16.

Technologies of Belonging


In this article I a m interested i n the relation between the notion of sensus

communis, understood variously in the modern era as common sense and
sense of community, to visuality and metaphoricity. I seek to understand
what happens to the sensus communis when visuality becomes dominated
by consciousness ofits own technological makeup and when metaphor is
apparent only at the moment of its disintegration into demetaphoriza­
tion. The sensus communis began to be theorized in Europe, from the
eighteenth century on, as an idea ( rather than something natural ) and as
a form of civic sense. I will address what happened to that civic sense
when the perspective on the world changed dramatically from one of
colonial enlightenment universalism to one of postcolonial melancholia.
This change, seen here through visuality and metaphoricity, highlighted
the colonial frameworks of the world in which the knowledge of Shaftes­
bury, Vico, and Kant emerged. Stressing this change raises questions of
how colonialism and its aftermath alter the manner in which the com­
munis was conceived and what form of sense would come to dominate
the visual culture of postcoloniality. The article, then, elaborates the
notion of the sensus communis in Shaftesbury, Vico, and Kant in order to
understand the forms of universalism embodied within the concept's
imbrications in notions of the visual and metaphoricity that are, in the
end, implicitly questioned in the works of installation and video artist
Mona Hatoum. The developing visual and metaphoric implications of
sensus communis are framed b y the importance of that which i s inhu­
manly vast or monstrous in size or strength-what ShaftesbuI:Y refers to
as the "immane;' what Vico theorizes in terms of gigantism} and what
Mona Hatoum visualizes in her large domestic installations-as well
as the idea of communication that we see in epistolary forms} from
Shaftesbury to Hatoum.
Contemporary discussions of the sensus communis are dominated by
the Kantian and post-Kantian tradition} in which questions of justice
and the aesthetic were brought together through Kant's critique of
aesthetic judgment (Kant's third Critique)} which distinguished itself
from the epistemological investigations of the first Critique and the
moral thrust of the second Critique. It is} however} worth thinking back
through the humanist thrust of the pre-Kantian formulations of the
sensus communis} and in particular the status of the idea} the metaphOri­
cal} and the "as if" that circulated before Kant} through formulations of
the sensus communis in Shaftesbury and Vico} in spite of the quite
distinct meanings of the term for each. In theorizations of the sensus
communis} the status of the metaphorical in conjunction with that of the
immane} a form of gigantism and machiner)1j helps us to understand
how the machine-the wheels and counterpoises} as Shaftesbury put
it-came to shape the technology of communication and exchange} and
indeed came to shape belonging and unbelonging. Sensus communis has
frequently been associated with the metaphorical. The article will sug­
gest that a different form} perhaps an inhuman or diseased form of a
sensus communis} presents disidentification formulated in demetaphor­
ization. This is not the absence of metaphor so much as the dwindling of
that trope's metaphorical powers. Sometimes the technologies of be­
longing seem to invoke or conjure immane apparitions and specters that
are indeed melancholic. Sometimes they will be in letters that fore­
ground the machinery of their potential not to arrive} rather than their
ability to communicate in the manner Shaftesbury proposes.
The complex machinery of the communis-including} as it does} a
teeming multitude described by Shaftesbury-also includes a grotesque
and somewhat threatening kind of gigantism. Such gigantism can be the
site of productive metaphor} as it is in Vico's work. At other times}
demetaphorization highlights instead the palpable sense of loss of such
an idea} something we can perceive in Mona Hatoum's installations.
Technologies of Belonging 113
Shaftesb ury

Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, famously wrote

in his letter on the sensus communis, "For when the mind is taken up in
vision and fixes its view either on any real object or mere spectre of
divinity, when it sees, or thinks it sees, anything prodigious and more
than human, its horror, delight, confusion, fear, admiration or whatever
passion belongs to it or is uppermost on this occasion, will have some­
thing vast, 'immane; and ( as painters say) beyond life. And this is what
gave occasion to the name of fanaticism as it was used by the ancients in
its original sense, for an apparition transporting the mind:'l This letter
followed on his concerns about the nature of "enthusiasm;' or immoder­
ate fanaticism relating to religion. He saw extreme enthusiasm as a mel­
ancholy panic, spread through a community by either "contact" or "sym­
pathy;' reaching "ghastly and terrible" dimensions.2 Just as the source of
such passion may be "immane" -monstrous in size or strength or inhu­
manly huge and cruel-so too is the resulting effect in the multitude
monstrous and vast. Shaftesbury paints an ugly picture of the multitude
so affected, or perhaps more accurately, possessed. In his epistolary
philosophizing (his treatises are frequently written in letter form),
Shaftesbury is particularly skeptical of an iconic visuality responsible for
instigating both a mental "transporting [of] the mind" and a contagion
among those fixated: "Their very looks are infectious. The fury flies from
face to face, and the disease is no sooner seen than caught:'3
Despite his deep reverence for the Christian faith and Catholicism, his
mistrust of the visual, especially in the hands of the multitude, causes
him to plea for careful basic moral thought and conversation-the
model of the sensus communis-that could temper extreme enthusiasm
and the forms of community that arise from and are spread by it. He
does not, however, aim to divest man of all feeling. Sentiment was linked
to moral thought for him as imaginative force, and linguistic exchange as
conversation or, in written form, a letter. Shaftesbury's notion of sensus
communis is posited as a counter to immoderate excitability, and it
argues its case through the notion of good humor and "raillery" or
banter. While there may be sensible affection among family members,
clans, or tribes that emerges in the natural expression of filiation, there is
also an idea of community that can will peoples together or affiliate
those of the same species but without other commonalities. Shaftesbury
i s attentive t o the problems o f either o fthese forms o f attachment alone .
.As he describes the dominance of the idea, he is wary of the degradation
of the "state of nature" he sees in Hobbes's political philosophy, which
he suggests emerges from an egoistic social contract theory. He does not
accept the amoral selfishness that characterizes the humans in Hobbes's
version of the state of nature, in which, he writes, "Civili1:yj Hospitality,
Humanity towards Strangers or people in distress" is understood only as
"a deliberate Selfishness;' or where "The Love of Kindred, Children and
Posterity is purely Love of Se?t and of one's own immediate Blood: .As if, by
this Reckoning, all mankind were not included; All being of one Blood,
and join'd by Inter-marriages and Alliances; as they have been trans­
planted in Colonys, and mix'd one with another:'4 Shaftesbury goes to
some length in describing his departure from Hobbes, in particular the
problem of imagining a complete divide between the idea of the state of
culture entered into through contract, on the one hand, and the base
nature of mankind described as the state of nature. Rather, Shaftesbury
sees a basic virtue that will teleologically stretch from love of self and
family to love of community, one that merges the sensual and the
rational or, perhaps more accurately, denies the break between them,
stressing instead a teleology from one to the other. Similarly, the senses
represented in Hobbes's state of nature seem to counter the idea in the
state of culture. For Shaftesbury, this risks an intense attachment to an
idea of community that is typical of "the spirit of faction" one typically
sees in states.s The emblem that forms the frontispiece of the essay
refers to Hobbes's philosophy and Shaftesbury's counter philosophy,
which tempers skepticism with burlesque (fig. 1). The triptych also
includes a central image of an African arriving in Europe and witnessing
Europeans for the first time.
From Horace, Shaftesbury takes his epigraph, "hac urget lupus, hac
canis" ( on the one side a wolf presses, on the other a dog) as if to cast
doubt on the dictum of Hobbes's description of the state of nature as
homo homini lupus (man is a wolf to man) . Shaftesbury suggests, rather,
that the human lies neither on the side of the state of nature ( as wolf)
nor on the side of the state of culture ( as dog). Equally, in a long
footnote he draws a distinction between Greek and Roman notions of
sensus communis between the line of thinking from Aristotle (the sense

through which we perceive) to Thomas Aquinas (in which this becomes

reason) I on the one hand, and, on the other, from Cicero (where sensus
Technologies of Belonging 115

1 . Frontispiece
from "Sensus
Communis: An
Essay on the
Freedom of Wit
and Humour
in a Letter to
a Friend;' in
sixth edition)
London) 1737- 38.
© British Library
A N Board. All Rights
E S S A Y, &c.

P A R T I.

S E C T. r.
H A V E been confidering (my Friend !)
what your Fancy was, to cxprefs
fuch a ftuprize as you did the other
day, when I happen'd to fpeak to
you in commendation of Rai!te't�y. Was
it pomble you jhould fuppoie me fo grave
a Man, as to diflike ttll COllV�rfltion of
Yo!. I. [E] this

communis seems to carry the idea of an ethos, a society's norms as

understood by its inhabitants, edging on humanitas) to Juvenal, Marcus
Aurelius, Horace, and also Seneca, "a just sense of common rights of
mankind, and the natural equality there is among the same species:'6
His "Sensus Communis, An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Hu­
mour in a Letter to a Friend" is careful to explain that the form of
ridicule referred to in the title should remain good humored and should
reflect gentlemanly good breeding and paideia: through education and
upbringing, which is the physical and intellectual achievement to which
society aspires. It should not manifest itself, therefore, in cruel condem­
nation or laughing in the face of the enthusiastic multitude, which
would amount to silencing them. This would be "a breach of the har­
mony of public Conversation" and therefore "contrary to Liberty:'7
Shaftesbury does not explicitly condemn the visuaL In fact, he devotes
much thought to it in his Second Characters) or The Language of Forms.
He does, however, articulate that a paideia will involve a kind of educa­
tion of the senses into moral groundedness. If this involves the visual, it
will be through conversation about the meaning and moral uplift associ­
ated with a reading of, for example, emblems.8 We see here how he
merges the Aristotelian concern with the manner in which people per­
ceive objects, on the one hand, and the sense of public weal, on the
other. Shaftesbury included, for each of his essays as well as for volumes
as a whole, a visual image, as if these essays were part of an emblem
book. He also wrote about his choices of the images, which were engrav­
ings by Gribelin, who was given detailed instructions on their appear­
ance. Shaftesbury writes, too, of the important pleasures of the allegori­
cal interpretation, and he was also particular about communicating the
rhetorical qualities of the prose through capitalization.9 The importance
of conversational exchange or dialogue is stressed in many ways in the
writing, not least in the forms it takes: advice) letters, conversations, and
even soliloquies assume the presence of another to whom something is
being directly communicated.
The metaphors of visuality-and therefore also the emphasis on the
face as spectacle and, through contagion, as spectator-are particularly
striking. Even as his own aesthetic theory is well developed-albeit as a
branch of ethics ( the branch of philosophy known as aesthetics did not
exist in the Anglo-Saxon context ) -his insistence on the danger of the
uneducated and inappropriate look provides the paradigm for an under­
standing of the senses more broadly. The senses are to be educated, and
indeed the affective response must be tempered with the measure that
will necessarily have a beneficial impact on love of the community and
that will promote natural equality among the same species. In fact, the
faces of the multitude almost cast doubt on the species and the human­
itas into which they must be formed. Like an artwork, they must be
molded with harmonious design to become beautiful, and the produc­
tion of such beauty will, in turn, assist in the production of an educated
public.lO Rather than melancholy panic, then, a sense of tasteful human­
itas can be created and all can begin to behave like artists, as if in
harmonious design, while working toward that idea. It is this idea
Technologies of Belonging 117

rooted in feeling, rather than feeling alone, that ultimately must work
toward willing the sensus communis into existence.
It is the case, undoubtedly, that Shaftesbury's sensus communis must
develop through conversation and exchange among those who under­
stand the same language, as they draw in those who are not yet able to
adhere to the sensus communis. And yet there is an insistent visuality that
governs his writing on the topic, in which he situates the gentleman as
the artist or architect of harmonious design. And it is the gentleman,
too, who will be able to distinguish faces in a crowd, so the community
is not a monstrous multitude but rather a group of individuated figures
who are composed together through design.
The machinery of the world as community has, then, its basis in a
humanitas that must be educated into willing harmony, rather than
dwelling in the infectious, ghastly, terrible, and immane features of the
misguided multitude. Ultimately, the interest of everyone (all human­
itas) is to limit self-interest in favor of the interests of the public weal;
this will oil the machinery of community spirit. The educated eye, when
observing such machiner)lj will see that it functions not only for self­
interest but also for the common good. "Whoever looks narrowly into
the affairs of it, will find that passion, humor, caprice, zeal, faction, and a
thousand other springs which are counter to self-interest, have a consid­
erable part in the movement of this machine. There are more wheels
and counterpoises in this engine than are easily imagined:'ll The careful
architectural and artistic design of the world as machine is the counter­
weight to the uneducated, grotesque faces of the infectious multitude,
whose humor is melancholic. In addition, the foreigner who arrives
from afar-the African in Shaftesbury's imagination--who may arrive at
the Venice Carnival and, recognizing some primitive ritual, may find the
masks amusing. But also ultimately, he may push the jest too far when
everyday European appearance also seems amusing, at least until he is
educated into the fashion. He will face the possibility of mistaking what
is deemed "nature" for "art:' The frontispiece-which, like most of the
emblems, supplies an allegorical key for the essays-includes this "Ethi­
opian" arriving.
Shaftesbury's humanism-which emerges here as prejudice even as it
affirms the commonality among humans-fails to recognize the amus­
ing nature of fashion as modern ritual. Even as at times he acknowledges
the artifice of fashion, at others it would seem as ifhe thought there were
no art involved in the creation of the European, either in terms of
fashion or in terms of education. His influence on Vico, and Kant's
departures from him, have been famously elaborated by Gadamer in
Truth and Method, especially with respect to the concept of a sensus
communis.12 The focus of Gadamer's claim is the way in which humanis­
tic thought works with and against the fields of philosophy, science, and
aesthetics and how Kant was responsible for divorcing an understanding
of the aesthetic from the political and the moral. "The concept of sensus
communis;' Gadamer writes, "was taken over, but in being emptied of
all political content it lost its genuine critical significance:'13 It is cer­
tainly the case that both Shaftesbury and Vico worked with a more
integrated relation between the aesthetic and the ethical, and yet Gada­
mer's critique of Kant perhaps overstates the case, because the strong
investment in communicability makes the aesthetic experience, and
judgment of it, the site of some suspicion.
Conversation and moral community were indeed important to
Shaftesbury ( Gadamer stresses the importance of wit and humor as
something limited to "social intercourse among friends" in Shaftes­
bury) . 14 The visual emphasis, and indeed the distrust of visual con­
tagion, is striking, because it is suggestive of a lack of control when the
humors are melancholic, in spite of the doubts he casts over Hobbes's
version of the state of nature. Indeed, it seems to undermine the faith in
the idea of the sensus communis that Shaftesbury foregrounds and also
the idea of the human that he sets forth. It is unclear whether the
common weal can reach toward those who are ostensibly members of
the same species, grotesque and immane as they sometimes are, and
beyond life. Even if the humors can be changed through wit and raillery,
the complexity of human nature, as he understands it through the
humors, surely casts some doubt on the natural origin of harmonious
design, even if he believes that the human is well designed when the
humors are in balance.


John Schaeffer has shown, in his work Sensus Communis: Vico, Rhetoric,
and the Limits of Relativism, that Shaftesbury lived some time in Italy
and that he could well have met Vico, whose work seems to have been
Technologies of Belonging 119
influenced by him. What interests me is less the question of whether
they met, and more whether Vico's merging of the Greek and Roman
traditions of the sensus communis shares or departs from Shaftesbury's
version. Just as Shaftesbury thought that "melancholy panic" could be
rectified by the lifting of the humors through conversation rather than
visual exchange, Vico foregrounded the importance of the rhetorical
and also associated this with the grotesque. Attempting to find some
notion of common humanity, Vico located this in primitive forms of
culture. If he was interested in the manner in which rhetoric functioned
to sustain sensus communis in contemporary life, it was because of his
understanding of rhetoric's relation to the visual and the oral, and
ultimately to the arts. Attempting to understand the origin of sensus
communis, he looked at early forms of communication that expressed
"imaginative universals:' While these were ultimately to be sought in
language, Vico saw the origins of this in pictures. Once again, the
importance of the visual in the sensus communis had been foregrounded.
For Vico, visuality had the advantage oflarge ideas that were not depen­
dent on an ability to abstract. Visual images would simply present
themselves and would sometimes combine unlikely objects, without
having to conceptualize complexity or synchronicity. He described
these objects from the imagination as "poetic monsters:' Eventually
these were lost to the alphabet and subsequently other forms of repre­
sentation that were no longer directly, or bodily, present to themselves.
The remainders of these can be seen, as in Shaftesbury, in emblems. And
yet, there we see them lurking in the midst of other representational
fields, even though they are not out of synch with them. IS
Vico's stages of language share something with Shaftesbury's sketches
as seen in the incomplete and posthumously published "Plastics;' in
Second Characters, which Similarly plots a movement of language from
the pictorial, metaphor to metonymy and so on. And yet Vico is clearly
staging a notion of history that is not shaped by religious time, and in
that sense it is "secular" in the etymological sense ( "of the centuries or
generation" ) . It produces three major historical moments: the time of
the Gods, dominated by pictures and images; the time of heroes, when
gentiles became giants dominated by metaphorical language; and the
time of men, shaped by epistolary language, in which there is agreement
about the meanings of words. In turn, the first had a system of law
governed by mysticism, the second by heroic jurisprudence, and the
third by a sense of equity. These historical cycles, or rico rs i, do not
interfere with each other. But when men become caught in "false elo­
quence" and use it for the purposes of factionalism, strife, and civil war,
there is a recoil to earlier cycles, to primitive simplicity, and to the justice
of the Gods. So out of base despair is produced something large, and
perhaps immane, that leads to a different relation to justice through the
pictorial and the metaphorical.
If Shaftesbury balanced the relation between sense and idea in order
to maintain the teleology of mankind so the community could function
as if in consistent human spirit with the familial context, Vico returns us
to the pictorial and metaphorical "as if" of communication. It is, of
course, somewhat akin to the "as if" of Kant, which proposes the power
to judge also in aesthetic terms, in order to make the leap from personal
taste to universally valid judgment.


The metaphorical nature of the process of judgment in Kant's work has

been attributed to the manner in which judgment of taste functions as a
way of imagining community, as if both the subject and the community
communicate sense or affect in ways that come to constitute them as
such, and through means other than those that are a priori or can be
communicated directly. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant wrote, "The
judgment of taste . . . depends on our presupposing the existence of a
common sense. (But this is not to be taken to mean some external sense,
but the effect arising from the free play of our powers of cognition.)
Only under the presupposition, I repeat, of such a common sense, are
we to lay down a judgment oftaste:'16 Judging is to be carried out not by
empirical research, but by imagining the possible judgment of others
"and by putting ourselves in the position of everyone else:'17 The tenor
and vehicle of judgment has to shuttle back and forth between self and
community so that it can seal the relationship between the two and
confirm the existence of each in the process. Both self and the sense of
the other come into existence through disinterested judgment of a third,
emerging from the pleasure or pain felt in relation to it. Taste is, in this
context, yet to be determined as law. Imaginative speculation has to
occur as if one judged in the manner of the common, without prior
Technologies of Belonging 121
implementation of rules of cultivated taste and in full knowledge of the
unverifiable and absent taste of the other. The possibility of judgment
comes from the ability to identify, and identify with, the absent other in
full knowledge of this absence. It is not contagious in the way of Shaftes­
bury's melancholic panic, nor is it cultivated as is his sense of the
communis. Neither are there archetypes of an early collective that fore­
shadow a sensus communis. Identification, for Kant, becomes metaphori­
cal in structure, as if there is a possibility of interjecting the absent other
as oneself-without, as it were, experiencing an unpleasant or contra­
dictory taste. Given that there is no possibility of persuasion into agree­
ment in judgment, they have to be produced as examplesj the theory of
sensus communis is effectively also one of exemplarity. Examples exhibit,
and are vehicles of� potential connections, even though nothing can be
confirmed through deduction. Once again, the tenor and the vehicle
of metaphor become the source of potential community through the
senses. There is a universalism that is not normative within the theoret­
ical framework and can in no way be argued through a set of already­
existing parameters of communicability. It is underscored by difference,
and indeed the sensation of this difference. IS
Tamar Japaridze has underscored a psychoanalytic reading of this
metaphorical process, which looks to the act of judgment in terms of the
ability to communicate through the affect ofloss. Reading the absent and
yet imaginable other as a lost object of community, the process of
judgment comes to form community once again through the imaginative
relation, language, and metaphor as freedom from loss. He gives his
reading a gloss from psychoanalysts Abraham and Torok, who discuss the
process of successful mourning as an interjection that produces figurative
language and recognize language as an attempt to reconstitute the loss of
oral exchange (the loss of the breast is metaphorized as language) .19 The
exilic framework of their midcentury theorization gives the possibility of
community through successful mourning as metaphor.20
Japaridze introduces the oral metaphorics of psychoanalytical theor­
ization of loss, and specifically of mourning and melancholia. The inter­
jected lost object is effectively absorbed into the self, whereas the lost
object that cannot be successfully mourned is swallowed whole and
introduced into the body as an alien entity, bringing about a split or
critical relation to the self. The process of mourning and melancholia,
then, become metaphorized as the introduction into the borders of the
body and tells a story of hospitality and civil war that cannot necessarily
be put to rest by the sovereign.

Mona Hatoum

Mona Hatoum's work raises fascinating questions today about the sen­
sory, its relation to community, the world, and to the question of meta­
phor and the "as if:' To place all these philosophical figures in their
historical contexts of the production of philosophy would raise questions
about their ideas of sovereignty, civil war, colonialism, and the interna­
tional, all of which have implications for amity lines (friendly relations
across terrestrial or other borders) and the question of the human,
individually and collectively, in such species-oriented humanism.
In the moment in which Hatoum produces her work, notions of the
international, and the sensus communis understood through that frame­
work, have shifted from the concept of exile that characterized literary
and artistic modernism to the concept of asylum. In that sense, ques­
tions of hospitality and of the human are highlighted once again, just as
they were for Shaftesbury ( in his discussion and visualization of the
Ethiopian and in his critique of the political theory of Hobbes, which
develops out of the context of civil war), Vico (in his discussion and
visualization of the importance of the wretched and impious seeking
refuge in the lands of the prosperous, seen in both his frontispiece and in
the opening ofNew Science), and Kant (in his discussion of hospitality in
Perpetual Peace).
Today, once again, we cannot adequately think any notion of belong­
ing or community without thinking through the concept of asylum or
refuge into the site of hospitality and potential hostility. Asylum be­
comes the concept through which we can understand the emergence of
different notions of the sensory subject, of community, of the human,
and of the limit. Its walls and borders force an understanding not only of
what must be expunged but also of the difficult negotiations over what
might be drawn in for refuge, where refuge itself becomes a welcome
threat to both host and guest. Questions of identity and disidentifica­
tion are brought to the fore, as are the limits of the human, the processes
of institutionalization, the manifestations of sovereignty, and the conse-
Technologies of Belonging 123
quences this may have for both a sense of community and a community
of the senses.
Her works emphaSize extraordinary fear of "domestic" space writ
large, which suggests a foreboding sense of institutional and state con­
trol associated with objects. It also suggests relations associated with the
domestic, with home, with the very concepts of belonging and commu­
nity, and as a result, the constitution of the human. The affective rela­
tion to belonging at work demonstrates a profound distrust of any kind
of comfort with the concept of belonging, the spatial demarcations
frequently associated with it, and the workings of propriety that accom­
pany it. It also questions the assumptions of reproducibility and legacy
and a misguided sense of familial or contractual security. Even though
Edward Said was attentive to the sense of threat embodied in Hatoum's
works, and particularly those that are domestic objects, he nonetheless
offers an analysis that always gestures toward the prior moment of loss
as the root of the doubtful comfort of the domestic setting, as if home
will always be a lasting memory once dispossession has occurred.21 But
the senses Hatoum works with do not seem to thematize possession and
dispossession in quite such a teleological manner, and they are as much
forward looking as they are backward. Her works consistently attract
and repulse simultaneously, and the spectator is both sensually drawn
into involvement and repulsed by it, in both senses of that word.
One of the ways in which Hatoum suggests these doubts about be­
longing is through the foregrounding of technologyi almost as a way of
disabusing the spectator of the sensory immediacy of the visuaL An­
other is through challenging the borders of homes, states, and bodies in
her work. Each of these demonstrates what I want to call a loss of
metaphor in the visual, because her works first build on metaphors. For
example, household objects are turned into instruments of harm by
making them immane, giant, and grotesque (fig. 2). The presence of the
stranger within borders is elaborated not by brealdng down the lost or
present other, and therefore the loss of self, but by introducing a camera
into the body's borders. Turning the metaphor inside out, Hatoum
works as if to show that the foreigner whose right to hospitality is
questioned can now tell us something about the humanist sense of
community that excludes or assumes to know a species. If Shaftesbury
insisted on writing his philosophy in the form of letters, insistently

2 . Mona
X 21, 2000.
Steel. Courtesy
of the artist.

interpellating "My Friend! " to stress community through conversation,

the technology of language and letters is thrown into doubt in Mona
Hatoum's work. For example in Measures of Distance ( fig. 3), words
become images, and yet they are entirely emptied of metaphorical or
abstracted possibility alone; more than one language is spoken, and
suddenly they all become foreign and arbitrary.
The loss of metaphor, or demetaphorization, has been theorized as a
symptom of melancholy by the psychoanalysts Maria Torok and Nicolas
Abraham, who write that melancholic patients sometimes take that
which is meant figuratively, and indeed makes sense only figuratively,
and interpret it literally. It is obviously problematic to make a straight­
forward association between Shaftesbury's melancholy multitude and
Torok and Abraham's. After all, Shaftesbury was thinking literally about
a bodily imbalance of the humors and a contagious sympathy often
Technologies of Belonging 125

3. Mona Hatoum, video still from Measures of Distance, 1988.

A "Women Make Movies" release.

aggravated by irrational responses to visual objects, whereas the psycho­

analysts considered an individuated inability to accept the loss of some­
thing) leading to unsuccessful mourning. However) if we can consider
that asylum foregrounds not only the loss of one's sense of belonging to
a homeland (exile) but) in fact, also the loss of belief in the possibility of
an idea of community, then perhaps there is a commonality. It may be,
however, that wit and raillery will be insufficient to relieve it or to move
teleologically toward a solution. There is no sense of comfort offered
that could make home a desirable site, with no threat attached to it.
Hatoum's works body forth a resistance to thinking diaspora and
displacement-the inverse of community-in terms of a metaphysics of
presence, of identity) of identification, or even of ontology. Rather than
thinking of diaspora and community in terms of bodies emerging into
different spaces, they show the technologies and institutions through
which life itself is defined or enframed through the violence of meta­
phor. The earth, the body, the familial, and the domestic are inscribed.
An example is Present Tense) in which the temporality of the presence is
framed by the terrestrial trials of the Oslo Accords) shown here as the
map presented to the Palestinians plotted out with red beads inserted
into bricks of Nablus soap. In other images, like Traffic, in which two
suitcases made out of beeswax, cardboard, and hair draw a sensual and
affective response and serve as an uncanny reminder of human lives and
deaths whose traces are left on the technologies and instruments of
travel, diaspora, or displacement. In spite of the insistent presence of
these traces, Hatoum's art draws on the literary and visual, the sonic and
tactile, and works within a relation of belonging other than a metaphys­
ical one. Presence, indeed, seems constantly questioned, and life is
revealed as technologized and formally and sensibly enframed.
The technologization of life is usefully explored by Martin Heidegger,
who allows for an important understanding of the relationship between
technology and belonging-indeed, of a sense of community. In the
lectures in History of the Concept of Time, Heidegger discussed the
concept of hearing through the German word horen, the root of which is
"to attend / notice / hear / see:' Horen now means to hear, to listen, to
attend, or to obey and is distinct from, if related to, horchen, which
suggests listening in terms of hearken-in other words, listening without
understanding. He writes, "Even listening is phenomenally more origi­
nal than the mere sensing of tones and the perceiving of sounds. Even
listening is hearing with understanding, i.e., 'originally and at first' one
hears not noises and sound-complexes, but the creaking wagon, the
electric tram, the motor-cycle, the column on the march, the North
wind. It takes a very artificial and complicated attitude to 'hear' such a
thing as a 'pure noise: "22
Heidegger goes on to discuss the compound words and related words
developed out of horen·-iiberhoren ( to ignore ) , horig ( in bondage or
enslaved ) , and most importantly for him, gehoren ( to belong to ) . Hear­
ing involves a moment of the "with"-an enslavement of sorts-and
belonging is togetherness. He also suggests that we hear not only others
but also language itself: "We do not just speak language, we speak out of
it. We can do this only by having always already listened to language.
What do we hear there? We hear the speaking of language:'23 Through
this, language opens up the world for us-thus belonging and together­
neSs are related to hearing. Language, for Heidegger, suffers from tech­
nology even though it is posited by him as "an original poetry in which a
people poeticizes being:'24
Hatoum draws attention to language as technology, where technology
Technologies of Belonging 127
is not only a technique or a skill, as in techne, and is not only a begetting
or production. It emerges, as with Heidegger, as a form of knowing that
guides and shapes our emergence in the world. Technology, in Hatoum's
hands, becomes not only a mode of malting things or of knowing how
to, but precisely a mode of revealing the process of making. A technol­
ogy, then, is a stand or a frame, or a rack ( Gestell), and in someone's
hands, it is an enframing of the world's resources that stand in reserve.
Anything we may consider authentic to essence or being is already
enframed through the fore grounding of the process of making. And in a
sense, in the process of revealing we begin to see how there is no part of
the earth that has not been constituted as hearing, belonging, and
enframed as the world. Adding a more Marxist reading, life becomes
enframed by global capital's technology. Whether one's sense of origin is
diasporic, indigenous, or autochthonous, the focus then is on the earth
that has changed into world rather than on identity or humanity.
The emphasis, then, is not on being identified or disidentified, on
identity or ontology, but on epistemology and revealing the mechaniza­
tion of life itself, partly through the instruments of listening. In this
context, Hatoum's video Measures of Distance (1988) foregrounds the
machinery of belonging and separation, and the manner in which life is
technologized and voice functions. Whereas voice may allow us to as­
sume a metaphysical presence, in Hatoum's work voice does not grant
or endow with an authenticity or, indeed, a metaphysical presence, but
rather the machinery and technology of belonging is what we come to
notice, and what it means to communicate and exchange within the
rubric of technological living. If the video is ostensibly about letters
between mother and daughter, one in Beirut, one in London, it fore­
grounds the singularity of that intimate relationship and every utter­
ance. It also performs, on the level of both content and technique, the
workings of mechanical reproduction and the impossibility of full com­
munication. And yet, while the video tells the story of a relation be­
tween mother and daughter with a rather intrusive threat of the father
and of borders, it also foregrounds the technology of the letter and of
language. The letter has arrived from somewhere, and the technology of
its vocabulary does not begin with the mother. In fact, the video asks us
to hear voices before we understand a letter, to listen to language itself
and not just what it denotes as we switch from Arabic to English,
highlighting language as translation-as more than a transparent mech-
anism of communication. The letter also seems to have reached its
destination with the daughter, but then it moves on to us and travels
even further. The letter is both a static object, fixed in time for a short
moment, and also on the move again. It's both intimate and singular to
the situation, and part of a larger technology of belonging. In Hatoum's
video, video itself is denaturalized as a technology of movement and as,
in a sense, a technology of diaspora. Video stills hold moments as if they
were letters before the technology of mobility starts over.2S The letters
form more than a spoken narrative. Drawing on the use of calligraphy
and the veil, Hatoum uses Arabic script over the shower curtain that
hides her mother's body, as if words, too, become the veil of modesty
and function already as a concealing and restrictive fabric that nonethe­
less is simultaneously revealing and sensuous. The letters, then, are
simultaneously a fabric of desire and intimacy, and a resistance to the
possibility of unmediated access to the words of another. The letter is
literalized as handwriting, the veil is produced as a curtain of restricted
access, the listening is already inscribed into a technology of belonging
and unbelonging, and identity in this scenario becomes of secondary
importance to the technologies of existencE'. For Heidegger, as much as
for Hatoum, the nonconceptual sound of language is where communi­
cation seems to occur, and it is this nonconceptual and sensual level in
which the human as communicator paradoxically comes undone. If
technology shows how we speak out oflanguage, as much as it makes us
human, it also shows the way in which hearing functions to question the
limit between human and animaP6 It does not become the basis of a
sensus communis; rather, it becomes insight into the very difficulty of
that concept. It is through technology, then, that the artwork stands in a
critical relation to the forms of exchange and communication that can­
not encompass the affective resistance to these forms.
Hatoum's journey into gigantism similarly works on showing the
processes of technologization and the relationship this process has to
language. Measures of Distance went some way to show the problems of
understanding conversation and the letter as direct communication
rather than sensory stimulation demanding a different form of judg­
ment. La grande broyeuse (Mouli-julienne x 21), an installation piece, was
inspired by Franz Kafka's short story "In the Penal Settlement" ( some­
times translated as "In the Penal Colony" ) . In Kafka's story, a huge
machine, existing in a colonial time lag in a penal colony, tortures
Technologies of Belonging 129
prisoners before killing them by literally inscribing them with the words
of a death sentence, thereby supposedly performing justice. "It's a re­
markable piece of apparatus;' says the officer in the story's opening,
explaining to an "explorer" that this is the machine employed to deliver
justice in the penal colony. The officer resides in what appears to be a
time warp in a penal colony:, and he admires the machine, describing it
carefully and lovingly. He wears a uniform that, as the explorer points
out, is "too heavy for the tropiCS" but that signifies home for those on
the colony. "Now just have a look at this machine;' says the officer. The
exact precision of the apparatus, which is known as "the DeSigner"
(though "things sometimes go wrong, of course") is seen by the officer
as a direct communication of the incontrovertible judgment and sen­
tenceP His pride in this contraption of torture appears to the explorer
outdated and horrifying, as if the pronouncement of mechanized justice
belonged to some past era or to a dreaded future. The explorer is forced
to witness the form of justice being carried out in the colony. In many
ways, we can see that Kafka shows how life in the penal colony has
attempted to replicate the life of the mother country as legislation and
has thereby attempted to exact the sentence of justice most literally as if
the body was exactly the paper on which the judgment and sentence
were inscribed. "One of the cog-wheels in the DeSigner is badly worn;'
we are told.28 The former Commandant was "soldier, judge, mechanic,
chemist, and draughtsmen" for the machine.29 If Kafka already pointed
out the demetaphorization that had occurred here, it was because of
both the literal inscription of the sentence on the prisoner, but also
because of the loss of this former Commandant and the idea of home
embodied within him that the officer cannot mourn. As a settler carry­
ing out the work of the homeland, the officer does not want to let the
idea of home, and the sense of community associated with it, disappear.
And yet the only solution to such a melancholic state is to seek the
judgment of the explorer; when this is refused, he seeks the judgment of
the lost Commandant by lying in the Designer itself and suffering its
inscription, "Be Just:'
Hatoum's rendition of the mouli-julienne is jarring precisely because it
is the image of home and domesticity that is made violent. As if moving
to a Vichian stage of the giant, Hatoum shows the way in which the
rough justice of colonial heroes is visited in the domestic sphere to make
all home, and the forms of sovereign rule and safety associated with it,
the source of discomfort The penal colony is quite literally domesti­
cated, it is made immane and ghastly, as if the absorption of such
violence would always make comfort an impossibility. If Hatoum makes
the entire world into a foreign land, it is to cause us to feel the violent
technology of the ideology of home, which puts the very existence of the
structure of humanitas into doubt. Metaphor no longer functions as a
way out of this, in spite of the gigantism-in fact, we have something
more of the literal fragment that insists on breaking down wholeness.
Similarly, her installation /video works like Corps etranger (foreign
body, strange body) play with the idea of the foreigner and the foreign
object by arousing physical discomfort. Introducing cameras (foreign
objects) into bodily cavities, the most intimate spaces of the human (its
core nature) are themselves made utterly foreign, banalized, turned
inside out, and make the human strange to itsel£ As Jean-Luc Nancy
writes of experiencing illness, and then organ transplants, " 'I' ends up
being no more than a tenuous thread-from pain to pain, strangeness to
strangeness:'30 In such a world of interior threat and sensory pain that
divides rather than connects, it becomes less clear what it might mean
to be the exiled citizen, part of a multitude, fanatical or cultivated. But it
is this very sense of liminality and demetaphorization that forms the
unidentifiable relation, or at least the living with the other with whom
no identification can take place. Senses are, then, the very matter of
sharing and division, attraction and repulsion, and the decision to be
part of a world in which there is no reason for "we" imagined through an
idea or an "as if;' but rather a "we" imagined through sensual labor.
Commonality can only be found, then, as it is sensed, as coming undone
through nonidentification, demetaphorization, unworking, and the
sense of the liminal. The sight of the face, the reception of a letter, or
participation in a conversation thus would not be an opening to famil­
iarity and dialogue as the constitution of community, but rather the
shared sense of belonging as enslavement and nonbelonging.31


1. Shaftesbury, ''A Letter Concerning Enthusiasm to My Lord;' in Characteris­

tics ofMen, Manners, Opinions, Times, 1:45. While Characteristics was first pub­
lished in 1711, the 1790 edition will be used for citation. Lawrence Klein's edition
Technologies of Belonging 131
of Characteristics ( Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 1999) is perhaps
the most scholarly) but does not include all images. The Oxford English Diction­
ary credits Shaftesbury with the first use of "fanaticism;' although f�lIlatic was in
use considerably earlier. The etymology is from fanum-a temple or temple
2. Ibid.) 1:12.
3. Ibid.
4. Shaftesbury, "Sensus Communis) An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and
Humour in a Letter to a Friend;' in Characteristics) 1:101.
S. Ibid.) 1:97.
6. Ibid.) 1:89. Philip Eyres discusses how Shaftesbury spent five years re­
searching the Stoics) particularly Marcus Aurelius) from 1689 to 1695. See Eyres)
Introduction to Characteristicks.
7. Shaftesbury, "Sensus Communis;' 1:63.
8. See) for example) Rand's inclusion of a translation of '� Picture of Cebes;'
found in Shaftesbury's papers. Shaftesbury, '� Picture of Cebes;' in Second
Characters, or The Language of Forms) 63-87.
9. See Shaftesbury Papers) "Virtuoso-Coppy-B ook;' Public Record Office)
London) 30/24 / 26 / 1. For commentary on the images) see Wind) "Shaftesbury
as Patron of Art"; and Paknadel) "Shaftesbury's Illustrations of Characteristics."
Philip Eyres's edition ( London: J. J. Tourneisen) 1790) includes the emblems) as
does Douglas D en Uyl's ( Indianapolis: Liberty Fund) 2001) .
10. The most extensive discussion of the aesthetic can be found in Shaftes-
bury, Second Characters.
11. Shaftesbury) "Sensus Communis;' 1:96.
12. Gadamer) Truth and Method) 1-89) esp. 19-30.
13. Ibid.) 27. It is important to Gadamer that both Vico and Shaftesbury work
with the Roman) rather than the Greek) tradition of sensus communis) because it
was more historically situated in terms of Roman traditions) as distinct from
Greek cultivation. Ibid.) 22.
14. Ibid.) 25.
IS. It is for this reason that Srinivas Aravamudan stresses that the giant is not
the same as the specter. The Vichian cycles do indeed return) but they do not
haunt each other. For one version of the return in the visual) see Modern Art and
the Grotesque.
16. Kant) Critique ofJudgment) translation byJames Creed Meredith) 83.
17. Ibid.) 151.
18. It is for this reason that Hannah Arendt chooses the Kantian framework
of judgment to help her theorize political novelty, imagination) and ultimately
sensus communis and the space of the p olitical. See Lectures on Kant's Political
Philosophy. Linda Zerilli has recently drawn attention t o the importance o f this
work in highlighting the distinctiveness of Arendt's political philosophy from
that of Habermas's or Gadamer's. See " 'We Feel Our Freedom: "
19. See Japaridze, The Kantian Subject, 26.
20. See Abraham and Torok. "Introjection-Incorporation;' 1-16.
21. See, for example, the commentary that he provided for the exhibition
famously installed at the Tate Britain gallery for its inaugural show. The cata­
logue for the exhibition includes Said's essay. See Hatoum, The Entire World as
a Foreign Land.
22. Heidegger, History of the Concept of Time, 367.
23. Heidegger, On the Way to Language, 124.
24. Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, 144.
25. In this regard, the work of the apparatus, technology, and desire seems
profoundly different for film and video. For more on this topic, see Doane,
"The Film's Time and the Spectator's Space:'
26. Tristan Moyle writes of the Heideggerian sensus communis in terms of
language, yet somewhat differently giving a reading that is more shaped by
Gadamer. See Heidegger's Transcendental Aesthetic, 73- 82.
27. Kafka, "In the Penal Settlement;' 495.
28. Ibid., 496.
29· Ibid., 497.
30. Nancy, ''L'intrus,'' 12.
31. Jean-Luc Nancy's work has been exemplary in this regard, not only his
extensive and well-known work on the communityi but also his The Sense of the
PA RT T W O Partitioning the S ensible

D ada's Event: Paris, 1921

The " 1921 Dada Season" opened in April with a visit to the courtyard of
St.-Julien-Ie-Pauvre, the thirteenth-century church located directly
across the Seine from Notre Dame de Paris. The destination was perfect
for the Paris Dadaists, including Louis Aragon, Andre Breton, Paul
Eluard, Francis Picabia, Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, and Tristan
Tzara, who wished "to set right the incompetence of suspicious guides"
and lead a series of "excursions and visits" to places that had "no reason
to exist;' as explained in the flyer and public invitation published in
several newspapers to announce the visit. "It's wrong to insist on the
picturesque (lycee Janson-de-Sailly), historical interest (Mont Blanc),
and sentimental value (the Morgue) :'l Only areas considered not pic­
turesque, nonhistorical-or at least not conventionally historical-and
unsentimental would qualify for Dadaist tours, beginning with St.­
Julien's abandoned courtyard, which-·although it was situated next to
the oldest standing church in Paris--existed in a state of disrepair and
was then mistreated as a garbage dump by residents of the fifth arron­
dissement. Other than the series of provocative phrases that floated
around the announcement's surface in diagonal and upside-down posi­
tions-such as "Wash your breasts like your gloves !" "One must cut
one's nose like one's hair!" "Property is the luxury of the poor--Be
Dirty!" -and a listing of proposed future visits (which would in fact
never be carried out), including Le Musee du Louvre, the park at Buttes
Chaumont, Gare Saint-Lazare, Mont du Petit Cadenas, and Canal de
L'Ourcq, there was no further information on what was planned.
136 T. J . D E M O S
It would b e easy to view the visit to St.-Julien-which did take place as
planned, for the most part-as a precursor to later and more familiar
artistic forays into public space, such as the surrealist excursions to flea
markets and covered arcades or the situationist derives. But such an
approach would be only partly justified; the visit to St.-Julien was merely
a tentative and somewhat inarticulate dry run to those later experiments
in collective walking, lacking the theories of psychoanalysis, cultural
geography, and urbanism that would come to frame them. Termed a
Dada "event" by Breton, the visit inaugurated a new form of practice in
1921, one that has received little attention to date, despite its rich legacy.
This low profile undoubtedly owes to the fact that the activity fell far
outside of recognizable artistic conventions at the time. Consequently, it
was largely ignored by its contemporaries and generated little discussion
in its immediate aftermath (other than the few bemused reports in local
newspapers well practiced in sensationalizing Dada's sucd�s de scan­
dale). Owing to the fact that the visit left no significant artistic objects
that could feed the market or be analyzed by art historians ( except for the
flyer and the few banal photographs of the event), it was destined to
Were the visit to St.-Julien to occur today, it would do so within an art
world saturated with experimental practices venturing into public space.
Think of Andrea Fraser's experimental docent tours of museums, or
Christine Hill's alternative walks around New York City ( Tourguide?
1999), or Martha RosIer's guided visit to the Frieze Art Fair in 2005, which
figure as merely three examples among hundreds we could reference.2 By
mirroring everyday activities and institutions-from commercial busi­
nesses to theatrical productions to governmental services-these prac­
tices privilege the creation of social events over the production of art
objects for contemplation. They do so most commonly, asis well under­
stood by now, to critique the false autonomy of art, which is shown to be
fully immersed within capitalist institutions, and to create spaces of
sociability different from those enmeshed within a reality perceived to be
dominated by commercial spectacle and its reified social relations. Such
socially engaged practice--the discourse around which has recently been
energized by the reception of French curator Nicholas Bourriaud's text
Relational Aesthetics-· has grown in prominence over the last fifteen years,
to the point where it can now rightly claim to be among the most
dominant forms of contemporary art. This, despite criticism that its
Dada's Event 137
proponents often overlook prior historical models, such as Fluxus and
conceptual art, that similarly dissolved the barriers between art and life to
critical eHect. The earliest examples of avant-garde practice that trans­
gressed the domain of art and crossed over into social space, however,
occurred within Dada. Its event-based form consequently becomes
newly visible in relation to contemporary practices and their substantial
critical-theoretical reception. Not only have these developments made
the historical consideration of their antecedents increasingly significant
today; there also remain important lessons for contemporary art to be
discovered in Dada, particularly in terms of how it intertwined aesthetics
and politics.

In 'illtificial Hells;' an essay written in May of 1921, Breton explains that

while he doesn't know who had the idea of the first D ada "event;' its
origins must be traced to the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich-the experi­
mental performances of Hugo Ball and the simultaneous poems of
Tzara come to mind-and, more locally, to the poetry readings of Guil­
laume Apollinaire, Aragon, Breton, Blaise Cendrars, Phillipe Soupault,
and Pierre Reverdy that were performed in Paris around 1919. Delivered
in "one hall or another to the same audience, who invariably applauded;'
these readings were increasingly met with a "profound boredom;' invari­
ably ending in the "bewildered public's incomprehension:' This desper­
ate situation led to the favorable welcoming of Dada in Paris, which
"promised lively polemics and large audiences:'3 Tzara, who arrived in
Paris on January 22, 1920, gave the necessary spark to the movement,
inaugurating the Paris chapter of Dada the following evening with a
performance in which, instead of reciting a poem as announced, the
Romanian provocateur read a political article while an electric bell rang
loudly in the background, drowning out his voice. Tzara's commitment
to the critique of language's communicative functions catalyzed Paris
D ada; but the new terms of the Dada event that developed the following
year, which privileged moral conviction over such negative aesthetics,
would threaten the movement's demise.
In contrast to those Dadaist spectacles, which represented a migra­
tion of Zurich cabaret to Paris and were largely engineered by Tzara and
Picabia, the Dadaist event "requires an almost total change of viewpoint
[from previous D adaist activities] if we are to see it accuratelY:'4 Orga­
nized collectively, the event was constituted above all by the social
138 T. J . D EM O S
experience of the dissolution of the boundary between art and life, a
dissolution that also led to the interpenetration of aesthetics and poli­
tics. Dada's event, however, never had time to develop fully as an artistic
paradigmj rather, it figured as an experimental modeling of a new kind
of activity, one that has only recently come to fruition with the trend
toward social engagement within recent art (though it still might be
added to the list of Dada's major contributions to modern art, including
the ready-made, montage, and performanceS). While surely prefigured
by Dadaist performance-with its embrace. of spontaneity, refusal of
representational clarity, attack on the transparency of language, and
disturbance of the conventional modes of reception and distribution­
the event is irreducible to it, entailing, above all, an escape from the
One motivation behind the event's new development was the per­
ceived loss of Dada's shocking edge by 1921, felt not just by critics but by
the participants themselves.6 Although Dada's transplantation to Paris in
early 1920 had clearly done much to revolutionize existing artistic prac­
tice in France-raucous manifesto-reading replaced genteel poetry reci­
tals, rebellious publics filled previously silent auditoriums-Breton was
nevertheless disappointed soon after because the movement quickly
succumbed to routine. Dadaist performances were "patterned after caba­
ret shows;' yet the lack of creative innovation eventually left its practi­
tioners "discontented, hardly proud of the pitiful carnival ruses" they had
employed to attract audiences. Breton noted that "the general scandal
they provoked was the only benefit" the D adaists reaped, "but even this
was increasingly unable to hide the poverty of the means used, which
moreover were pretty much the same every time:' These means had now
become "stereotyped, ossified:'7
The solution, proposed by Breton's reinvention of Dada through the
concept of the event, was to break out of the theater and enter everyday
life: "We imagined guiding our public to places in which we could hold
their attention better than in a theater, because the very fact of going
there entails a certain goodwill on their part:'s Connected to this desire
to escape the familiar and stultifying institutions of its theatrical perfor­
mances was Breton's additional aim (one not widely held by the group)
to move Dadaist practice beyond its familiar nihilism and negativity:
"Last year, Dada activity remained wholly artistic (or anti-artistic, if one
Dada's Event 139
prefers-I don't distinguish between the two). This year) Dada proposes
to raise the debate and take the discussion on moral grounds:'9
Breton's surprising announcement) however) failed to elaborate fully
on the new moral program of Dada. In relation to the St.-Julien visit)
one might surmise that Dada was moving against Catholicism in par­
ticular) or religion in general) undertaking a radically secular ethics to
direct the movement's familiar nihilism toward a positive set of beliefs;
yet nothing that happened or was said at St.-Julien indicates such a
direction or offers any other clear explanation of Breton's remarks.lO
"What occurred at St.-Julien) over the course of an hour and a half in the
pouring rain) was a fairly familiar repertoire of Dadaist pranks) whose
schematic details have been culled from several fragmentary reports.
First were the strident declarations of Breton and Tzara) representing
the more or less expected Dada-inflected aspersions cast at the onlook­
ers (Breton: "Do you think that we have talent) that we are bound to
some success other than the scandal that you have made of us? We can
imagine the worst vulgarities) you always find us an excuse. But you say
one thing well: we will never amount to anything-but neither will
you!"; Tzara: "Drink some beer) follow a regular life and become a
grandfather. I have a horror of that. The horror is horrible!"II) Next
came Ribemont-Dessaignes) who performed as a baffling tour guide)
inexplicably reading entries at random from a Larousse dictionary as he
approached various columns and sculptures on the church's exterior.
Said Breton) " [The rain] kept us from putting into action several of our
ideas) among them an auction of abstractions that might have been
sensational"j on this) unfortunately, he fails to elucidate.12
One explanation for the vagueness of the event's "moral grounds" is
that the St.-Julien visit occurred on April 14"--that is) a month before
Breton's written report on these activities in ''Artificial Hells" (just after
the Barres trial). In other words) the visit may have figured as an early
experiment) preceding the event's full conceptualization by Bretonj if
this is the case) it may have failed to substantiate the moral claims that
were made for it the following month. Perhaps it is for this reason-that
the objectives of the St.-Julien visit had not yet been defined-that it
resulted in disappointment) at least for Breton. Of the visit to St.-Julien)
Breton would later recall "the laborious nullity of the speeches) deliv­
ered in a tone that strove to be provocative:' He lamented) "l'Aoving
140. T. J . D EM O S
fram auditarium to. the apen air was nat enaugh to. get us away fram the
'Dada' cliche:'13 Sealing its failure, paradoxically, was its papular success:
"One ar twa hundred anlaakers were huddled there, silent under their
umbrellas to. the paint that we wandered whether Dada was ready to.
disappear, fallawing a famaus axiam we aften invaked: 'A successful
man, ar simply ane who. is no. langer attacked, is a dead man: "14
Still, ane cauld argue canversely that the event was neither a failure
far its lack af a clearly articulated maral program, nar a success far its
rather phenamenal papularity; far accepting either canclusian sur­
renders a mare nuanced camprehensian af the event's significance. That
Bretan was unsatisfied with the autcames af the visit-it neither pra­
vaked its anlaakers sufficiently nar transcended the cliche af Dadaist
perfarmance-shauld nat avershadaw the pramise af its radical gesture:
to. dissalve the divisian between the life af art and the art af life. It is in
this sense that the Dada event, rather than existing as either histarical
anamaly ar failed experiment, can be seen to. embady what Jacques
Ranciere has termed "the aesthetic regime;' which, far him, defines the
lagic fundamental to. madern art.1S This lagic camprises art's twafald
promesse de bonheur-afbath a new warld of aesthetic experience and a
new life far individuals and cammunity. Fram madern art's claims far
bath aesthetic autanamy and palitical engagement-what represents its
fundamental antinamy-unfald the numerous negatiatians af avant­
garde pasitians, from the mast hermetically sealed farms af abstractian
that nevertheless maintain utapian sacial hapes, to. the mast palitically
activist practices that still rely an a farm af autanamy that canstitutes
their difference fram everyday life. 16 The productive aspect af the Dada
event is that it raises this cantradictian to. a new histarical intensity,
refusing to. resalve it ane way ar the ather. Bretan's refusal to. distinguish
between the artistic and anti-artistic daes nat mean that the event did
nat differentiate between the artistic and the nanartisticj althaugh the
Dada event critically blurred these categaries, the transgressive nature
af its strategy depended an the maintenance af the categaries, even if
they emerged altered in the process.
In additian to. situating Dada within an expansive histarical paradigm,
Rahciere's view af aesthetics reveals the Significance af viewing the event
as a madel af the "heterogeneaus sensible" -what Ranciere defines as
art's irreducible state af plurality as bath a farm af aesthetics and af
palitics. This Significance is nat to. be faund in reducing Dada simply to.
Dada's Event 141
art or non-artj in this sense, the narratives of Dada that stress either its
escape from artistic conventions (acceding to the social processes of
everyday life) or its aestheticization of the world (through its gener­
alized theatricalization) appear insufEcientY Rather, it is by sustaining
and exploiting the tension between art and life that the Dada event, in
my view, acquires its moral cast-that is, what Ranciere would call its
politics: "its way of producing its own politics, proposing to politics
rearrangements of its space, reconfiguring art as a political issue, or
asserting itself as true politics:'18 More than merely coupling two dis­
tinct elements-joining art and life, and advancing an ethical impulse­
the event realizes its "moral directions" by both transgressing and per­
petuating the division between aesthetic autonomy and social practice.
In this sense, the visit to St.-Julien can be deemed successful.
The visit to St.-Julien was thus neither merely a mimicry of a guided
tour, nor simply a parody of it, but rather both and neither: it punctured
the wall between artistic performance and social process, resulting in a
new kind of assertion of art's autonomy-not as a self-contained ideal
realm of aesthetic experience, but rather as an autonomous form of
social experience.19 The Dada event consequently unleashed several
effects: its artistic practice opened up a creative zone of possibility
within everyday life, where its accepted rules were challenged (suggest­
ing the potential for different forms of life, modes of socialization, and
types of discourse, while implicitly rejecting established conventions) j
and its social procedures reinvented its artistic practice through its very
hybridization (thereby challenging the repetitions and the suppression
of innovation within Dada). In addition, following the abandonment of
traditional artistic venues came the experimental rezoning of public
space as one of "dissensus;' to use another of Ranciere's key terms. This
meant not simply creating an arena of dissent that would function as the
opposite of consensus-whose false unit)1J constituted by the expulsion
of social antagonism, the Dadaists certainly attacked. It also meant a
"recomposition of the landscape of the visible" -that is, what can be
said where, when, and by whom--entailing a refusal of the normative
conditions by which social life is reproduced.20

The second major "event" of the 1921 Dada season was the public trial of
journalist and politician Maurice Barres. As Breton later explained, the
trial was motivated by the quest "to determine the extent to which a
142 T. J . D EM O S
man could b e held accountable if his will to power led him to champion
conformist values that diametrically opposed the ideas of his youth:' In
the case of Barres, "how did the author of Un homme libre become the
propagandist for the right-wing Echo de Paris? If there was a betrayal,
what were the stakes? And what recourse did one have against them?"21
In his earlier life, Barres represented the paragon of anarchist individual­
ism, authoring the trilogy Le culte du moi (1880-91), as well as L'ennemi
des lois (1892), which celebrated personal liberty over moral conventions
(Breton, Eluard, and Soupault courted him as late as early 192122-and
indeed Barres performed quite well in a recent Litterature poll that rated
him favorably23) . But Barres later transformed into a reactionary conser­
vative, joining the nationalist Cult of the Dead (who elevated warfare to
mythic status) and serving as president of the Ligue des patriotes. He
was understood to have contributed to the offensive culture of national­
ism, xenophobia, and militarism during the Third Republic's period of
political backlash, which encompassed continued patriotic reprisals
against Germany, ongoing racist attacks on immigrants, and the anti­
democratic machinations of Charles Maurras's L'action fran<;aise to re­
store the hereditary French monarchy. The admirable status earned in
his early life made his subsequent political turnabout all the more con­
demnable for the Dadaists. Barres was consequently charged by the
Dadaists with committing an attack on "the security of the mind:'
Advertised in advance in several newspapers, the trial took place in
the Salle des Societes savantes on May 13. Aragon and Soupault played
defense attorneys, Ribemont-Dessaignes acted as prosecution council,
and Breton presided as judge and president of the tribunal. The Dada­
ists "subpoenaed" witnesses, and twelve members of the public, solic­
ited in advance, would compose the jury. All servants of the court
dressed in the official ceremonial outfits of white blouses and berets,
which were the standard dress in the actual hearings at the Palais de
justice, which Breton had attended to study the procedural aspects of
litigation in advance of the mock trial. The defendant Barres was invited
but unable to attend, as he was already committed to a prior engage­
ment in Aix-en-Provence, where he was to discuss "The French Soul
during the War:' In lieu of the man, a mannequin sat in his place,
displaying the author's signature moustache. For Breton, according to
his biographer, "this was no parody, but the real thing-or as close as his
lack of judicial authority would allow:'24
Dada's Event 143
On the heels of the visit to St.-Julien, the Barres trial advanced the
creative re-zoning of the spaces of art and life and, consequently, pushed
further the moral directions of the movement-although not owing to
the overt ethical content of its trial,25 The Barres event became political
inasmuch as it created an opening for disagreement and renegotiated
the institutions that organize social life. In other words, it was the formal
process by which the defendant was judged that constituted the trial's
political nature that matters here, not the judgment itself, more on
which below. .As with the St.-Julien visit, the Barres trial was neither a
parody nor a straightforward mimicry of its real-life model: instead, it
represented a further destabilization of the boundary between the sites
and institutional procedures of sOcio-legal discourse and artistic prac­
tice. This erosion of categories between art and life represented the
extremely experimental aspect of the triaL On the one hand, its artistic
realization borrowed from the institutions of litigation in order to scruti­
nize a writer's political vicissitudes, thereby joining aesthetic to ethical
judgment and reinforcing it with (pretend) legal authority.26 This pro­
duced an early example-excessive and preposterous-of what would
later be termed the "aesthetics of administration" within the context of
conceptual art.27 The trial's unconventional mixture of categories and
conventions was such that it rejected the claim that artistic practice is
merely aesthetic, whether in terms of the autonomy of pure art (as in
abstraction) or that of an art of total nonsense (as in earlier Dada). On
the other hand, it transferred the forms of aesthetic creativity into legal
affairs, so that an intellectual's political developments and ensuing con­
tradictions could be publicly debated and the offender held accountable
within an unconventional courtroom that was sui generis. This auton­
omy of art's form oflife was precisely what the Dada event achieved, and
as such it represented both a critique of real social processes and an
attempt to suggest alternatives, even if these were whimsical and uncon­
One should note that, according to Ranciere's argument, the aesthetic
regime introduces a continuity between art and politics, such that aes­
thetics exceeds the realm of art by endowing the political world with
visible forms. Yet the aestheticization of politics is not by necessity a
recipe for totalitarianism, as Walter Benjamin would famously warn
later in the context of Nazi fascism. Rather, the aestheticization of
politics represents "the assertion of the aesthetic dimension as inherent
144 T. J . D EM O S
in any radical emancipatory politics;' as Slavoj Zizek glosses Ranciere.29
Embodying its own radical politics as a "heterogeneous sensible" zone
between art and life, the Barres trial interrupted the otherwise rational
administration and regimentation of social processes within public
space-what Ranciere terms the "police function;' according to which
every individual is clearly categorized and carefully distributed within
the social and political machinery in order to advance its uninterrupted
reproduction. Because the trial represented a staging of disagreement­
a questioning, even, of its own function-it became, by extension, a trial
over whether the trial form was adequate to address Dadaist concerns.
The Barres trial was no premonition of the coming Stalinist show trials
of artists in the Soviet Union, which extended, rather than disrupted,
the police function, projecting it into the artistic arena with deathly
results. That the Dadaist event was a mock trial-in other words, that it
maintained its aesthetic distance from the real thing-kept the game
partly within an aesthetic register. While the jury pronounced Barres
guilty as charged and sentenced him to twenty years of hard labor
(short of the death penalty Breton desired), he would never serve a day.
Ranciere's inSights regarding the aesthetics of politics are also relevant
to the concerns of socially based contemporary art. In particular, they
substantiate Bourriaud's argument when, responding to critics who
point out the practical ineffectuality of his project, he suggests that what
is often overlooked in criticism of relational aesthetics is the fact "that
the content of these artistic proposals has to be judged in a formal way:
in relation to art history, and bearing in mind the political value of forms
(what I call the 'criterion of co-existence' . . . ) :'30 The "political value of
forms" parallels Ranciere's notion that art posits a form of life: that is,
the aesthetics of politics-:-which, in the case of Dada, would represent
both its "redistribution of the sensible" via the undoing of the division
between art and life and its modeling of an experimental form of social
relations based on the public expression of division and dissent -refuses
to resolve the antinomy between aesthetics and politics, instead keeping
both in play.
One offense that the Dada event could not be accused of committing is
the creation of spaces of "conviviality;' which points to one major differ­
ence between Dada and certain modes of contemporary relational art
(though not other forms of socially engaged art that give expression to
dissent). Building such "microtopias of community;' recent relational
Dada's Event 145
aesthetics, according to Bourriaud, has yearned to enact a disalienating
rapprochement of self and other in order to escape the "general reifica­
tion" that reflects the "final stage in the transformation to the 'Society of
the Spectacle: "31 He argues that the relational art he supports carves out
"social interstices" within the capitalist field: "It creates free areas, and
time spans whose rhythm contrasts with those structuring everyday life,
and it encourages an inter-human commerce that differs from the 'com­
munication zones' that are imposed upon US:'32 While this goal seems
worthy for its attempt at building alternatives to a social reality molded
by advanced capitalism, it nevertheless carries its own risks, insofar as it
relies on a notion of community defined as social fusion, where convivial
agreement drives out the antagonism that is, for others, the very basis of
democratic process. 33 By eliminating the visibility of social exclusion and
the signs of political inequality and economic injustice, relational aes­
thetics-at least as elaborated by Bourriaud34--proposes, at its worst, an
imaginary world of fantasy, where aestheticism tips into the unacceptable
escapism of "convivial" niceness.35 This one-sidedness has similarly be­
come an emerging problem with activist-inspired practice that discounts
all aesthetic criteria, rejecting as irrelevant the consideration of how
visible forms might advance social and political objectivesj its ethical
commitments, according to Claire Bishop, paradoxically parallel a coun­
terproductive retreat from the politicization that ensues from exploiting
the relation between art and life.36 Herein is the lesson of Dada's model
for contemporary art: the event's political force is generated by placing
aesthetics and politics in a productive tension, where neither term
eclipses the other one.
By placing aesthetics and politics in relation, Dada joined dissensus to
dissent and the redistribution of the sensible to the expression of social
and political antagonism. Dadaist dissent, of course, pursued goals con­
verse to those of relational aesthetics, even while attacking many of the
same enemies in their earlier states of historical development, such as
commercial appearance, administered social relations, and manufac­
tured consumption. In addition, the Dadaists directed their critical
assaults against the social conditions of national unity, responding di­
rectly to the conservative retour a l'ordre following World War 1. Accord­
ing to Breton, "We had gotten away from the war, that much was certain.
But what we couldn't get away from was the 'brain washing' that for four
years had been turning men-who asked only to live and (with rare
146 T. J . D EM O S
exceptions) get along with their neighbors-into frenzied and fanatical
creatures who not only did their masters' bidding, but could also be
ruthlessly decimated:'37 The combating of such social docility explains
the initial objectives of Paris Dada-to provoke the audience to the
point of rebellious transgression of social etiquette, to challenge the
conventional active performer-passive audience relationship, to contest
the instrumentalized language of politics and the marketplace, and to
assault the European Enlightenment logic that was perceived to have led
to the catastrophe of world war in the first place.
The Dada trial strove to counter precisely the social conditions that
were the cause and the consequence of Barres's social and political
conformity. It did so first by unleashing the expression of political
difference between Dada and its critics, inviting those detractors of
Dada to the trial proceedings (such as one Marguerite E. Valette, who,
writing under the pseudonym Mme. Rachilde, had published scathing,
nationalist-inspired critiques of the movement in the arts and culture
daily Comoedia38). Second, the trial's format provided a template by
which the disagreements between Dadaists could be systematically
voiced and publicly expressed-not so much to spectacularize them as
sensationalist entertainment (though this appeared to be the attraction
for Tzani) but rather, at least for Breton, to allow the voicing of political
and artistic differences to enter into the social domain and thereby
enact a viable alternative to conventional social relations constituted by
the repressive expulsion of difference.39
Clearly, the very idea of the postwar indictment of a heroic French
patriot would draw the expected reactionary response, and the most
extreme xenophobic forms of nationalist indignation were indeed aired
in the anti-Dada French press following the Barres tria1.40 The eruption
of political opposition to Dada also occurred at one dramatic moment
during the trial, when Benjamin Peret, dressed in a German uniform
and wearing a gas mask, appeared on stage to perform a parody of the
culturally sacrosanct "unknown soldier:' He yelled out some lines. in
German before goose-stepping out of the theater, barely avoiding the
charge of the shocked patriots in the crowd who replied by breaking into
song, opposing the Dadaist blasphemy with "La Marseillaise." Of greater
interest, however, is the less expected divisions expressed during and
within the trial between the organizers themselves, and particularly
during Tzara's testimony, when he was questioned by Breton.
Dada's Event 147
B RE TON: "What do you know of Maurice Barres?
TZARA : Nothing.
BRETON: You have nothing to testify?
TZARA : Yes, I do.
BRETON: "What?
TZARA : Maurice Barres is for me the most unlikable man that I've met in my
literary careerj the greatest rogue that I've met in my poetic careerj the
biggest swine I've met in my political careerj the greatest scoundrel which
Europe has produced since NapoleonY

The dialogue reads as a provocative conflict between, on the one

hand, Tzara's performance of contradiction (his commitment to which
had been infamously established in his 1918 Dada manifesto, which was
of catalytic importance to the formation of Paris Dada), and on the
other, Breton's wish to consider the political content of Barres's career in
a transparent language modeled on legal discourse. The exchange en­
capsulated the dispute between Tzara's politics of representation and
Breton's representation of politics-what must be seen as a specific
version of the larger conflict between art and non-art that would even­
tually lead to the rupture of Paris Dada. But at the trial, aesthetics and
politics combined explosively in a staging of disagreement that entailed
the refusal of social unity and the explicit questioning of Dada's capacity
to render justice-thus a questioning of the trial form from within the
trial itself.
The Barres trial staged social and political difference as a fundamental
principle of Dada's collective definition (even if it was not maintained
for long) : "No one has Inade any attempt to have Dada account for its
will not to be considered a school. People love to insist on the words
group, ringleader, and discipline. They even go so far as to claim that, in
the guise of extolling individualit}'J Dada constitutes a real danger to it,
without stopping to notice that we are especially bound together by our
differences:'42 Breton's view is corroborated by the inclusion of Tzara in
the trial, who flat-out rejected its premises, claiming while on the stand
that he had "no confidence in justice, even if this justice is delivered by
Dada;' before insulting the participants: "You'll agree with me, monsieur
Ie president, that we are all only a bunch of bastards and that the question
of little differences-whether greater or smaller bastards-has no impor­
tance:'43 Breton would only agree to disagree: "Our interest in this
148 T. J . D E M O S
problem [of the Barn�s case] lay in the possibility of interpreting it
variously, and that we were inclined to nothing so little as cohesion:'44
Whereas Tzara disparaged logic to embrace paradox, Breton's Act d'ac­
cusation functioned as a rejoinder to Tzara's nihilism in advance: "The
business of the generation that preceded ours was the passage from
certainty to doubt: now it is a matter of passing from doubt to negation
without losing all moral worth:'45 Although Tzara clearly thought himself
the more radical of the two, each position, on its own, was equally
conservative: Tzara's because it would not relinquish the autonomy of
his own aestheticist position, entailing the complete disengagement
with the world that was the end point of his totalizing negativityj and
Breton's for its correlative disregard for the element of aesthetic play
within the realization of the trial, which, without its detractors, would
risk transforming the event's politics into the moralistic.
Tzara finished his testimony by singing a nonsensical song and then
stepped down from the witness chair and left the stage, slamming the
door behind him. This exit would represent the end of the relay between
art and life that Paris Dada pursued in its provocative complexity for less
than a year. Answering Tzara's aestheticist solipsism, Breton beat his
own retreat into politics by assembling the Congres de Paris, which,
while promising to formulate collaboratively and earnestly--without
Dada's ironic reflexivity-the future path of contemporary art, aban­
doned the Dada event's goal of operating in the interstice between
artistic process and social practice. If Breton ended up unsatisfied with
the results of the Barres trial and in turn with Dada in general, which
propelled him toward the Dada congress, perhaps it was because he had
overestimated the capacity for artistic practice to achieve its political
ends. This outcome again rings true with Ranciere's scenario: '�esthetic
art promises a political accomplishment that it cannot satisfy, and
thrives on that ambiguity. That is why those who want to isolate it from
politics are somewhat beside the point. It is also why those who want it
to fulfill its political promise are condemned to a certain melancholy."46
Not until the formation of surrealism a few years later, with its Bureau of
Surrealist Research and further strolls through Paris, would the ambigu­
ity and promise of the Dada event be imagined anew.
Dada's Event 149

1. The Lycee Janson-de-Sailly represented the high ground of the Parisian bour­
geoisiej Mont Blanc is the tallest and most famous mountain in the French Alps.
2. See the lists in Bourriaud, Relational Aestheticsj Bishop, "The Social Turn"j
Sholette, "Dark Matter"j and the recent special issue of Third Text 18, no. 6
(2004), on art and collaboration.
3. Breton, ''Artificial Hells;' 137-38 (quote rearranged). On this text and Paris
Dada during the 1921 season, see Witkovsky, "Dada Breton:'
4· Breton, Conversations, 53.
5. As David Joselit describes them by way of suggesting the "diagram" -the
mechanomorphic figures produced in the work of Duchamp and Picabia dur­
ing the teens-as a further addition. "Dada's Diagrams:'
6. For Breton, Dada's reception in Nouvelle Revue Fran�aise, and particularly
Jacques Riviere's "Reconnaissance a Dada" [Thanks Be to Dada], "struck Dada
a heavy blow by placing it on the verge ofliterary acceptance" (Breton, Conver­
sations, 47 ) . Also see Francis Picabia's "Mr. Picabia Breaks with the Dadas":
"The Dada spirit only really existed from 1913 to 1918, an era during which it
never stopped evolving and transforming itself. After that time, it became as
uninteresting as the output of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts or the static elucubra­
tions offered by the Nouvelle Revue Fran�aise and certain members of the
Institute" ( 145 ) . D ada, in other words, had become a victim of its own popular
acceptance, as if it turned into an accepted wing of the official art institutions of
France. Yet Picabia failed to appreciate that Dada, under Breton's direction, was
already in the course of developing its own new tactics.
7. Breton, Conversations, 50-51.
8. Breton, ''Artificial Hells;' 140.
9. Ibid. Breton explains further that this moral development had already
been initiated in the work of Baudelaire, Lautreamont, Rimbaud, and Jarry.
10. In fact, Picabia, subjected to an ongoing illness and unable to attend,
protested against such "morality" in advance: ''All that I hope is that [the visit
to St.-Julien] presents no political character-clerical or anti-clerical-because
I will absent myself always from participating in such manifestations consider­
ing that dada, like an individual, has nothing to do with beliefs, whatever they
are:' In Hugnet, l'Aventure Dada, 98.
11. These declarations, according to Sanouillet, were improvised. There is no
script other than the "more or less faithful" transcriptions made by certain
journalists who witnessed the event. See Sanouillet, Dada a Paris, 257. Another
part of Breton's speech is recalled in his "Artificial Hells;' 140.
12. Breton, ''Artificial Hells;' 141.
150 T. J . D EM O S
13. Breton, Conversations, 52.
14. Breton, ''Artificial Hells/' 141.
15. Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics. The author differentiates the aesthetic
regime, which reputedly received its first articulation in Schiller's 1795 series of
letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man, £i'om the ethical and representative
regimes that preceded it, according to Ranciere's theoretical model.
16. See Ranciere, "The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes:'
17. On Dada's theatricalization, see Witkovsky, "Dada Breton"j on Dada's
entrance into life, see the classic account in Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde.
My argument indicates a move from Burger's ultimately unsatisfactory account
of the avant-garde ( for its failed sublation of art and the praxis of life ) to
Ranciere's view of the sustained tension between aesthetics and politics that
constitutes modern art. Biirger appears to acknowledge the limitations of his
theory at one point, where he explains the ultimate cancellation of the category
of art if it were sublated in life: "When art and the praxis of life are one, when
the praxis is aesthetic and art is practical, art's purpose can no longer be
discovered, because the existence of two distinct spheres ( art and the praxis of
life ) that is constitutive of the concept of purpose or intended use has come to
an end" ( 51 ) . He concludes with a moment of speculation that prefigures the
theoretical development in Ranciere's aesthetics ( in which art is both autono­
mous from politicS, and always already political insofar as it contains the
promise of a better world) : "Given the experience of the false sublation of
autonomy [ owing to the continuation of bourgeois society in which such a
sublation can not authentically occurJ , one will need to ask whether a sublation
of the autonomy status can be desirable at all, whether the distance between art
and the praxis of life is not a requisite for that free space within which alterna­
tives to what exists become conceivable" ( 54 ) .
18. Ranciere, "The Aesthetic Revolution/' 137. I am suggesting a bridge be­
tween what Breton termed "moral" and what Ranciere terms "political" and
thereby resisting the temptation to see the event in relation to Ranciere's
denigration of ethics as an organizational system-like political philosophy­
that abolishes politics by transforming it into a clearly organized system that
divides people into conventionally defined and systematically maintained
groups, positions, and functions. The D ada event, as we shall see, achieved just
the opposite.
19. See also Ranciere, "The Aesthetic Revolution/' 136: "The 'autonomy of
art' and the 'promise of politics' are not counterposed. The autonomy is the
autonomy of experience, not of the work of art:'
20. Ranciere, The Politics ofAesthetics, 45.
2!. Breton, Conversations, 53.
Dada's Event lSI
22. In 1919, Breton had asked Barres to preface the volume Lettres de guerre by
Jacques Vachel and he sent Barres a complimentary copy of Champs magneti­
ques in 1920. Soupault and Eluard shared this admiration, even as late as 1921.
See Bonnet, LAffaire Barres, 15.
23. See ibid., 14. Using a rating system from - 25 to +25, with 0 expressing
absolute indifference, the results for Barres's respectable average of 0.45 were:
Aragon 14, Breton 13, Drieu La Rochelle 16, Eluard - I, Fraenkel 9, Peret 4,
Ribemont-Dessaignes - 23, Soupault 12, and Tzara - 25.
24. Breton, Conversations, 156.
25. At this point, Ranciere's differentiation of politics from ethics enables my
26. Breton, Conversations, 53: "The issues raised-which were of an ethical
nature-might of course have interested several others among us, taken indi­
viduallYi but Dada, with its aclmowledged bias toward indifference, had abso­
lutely nothing to do with them:'
27. See Buchloh, "Conceptual Art 1962- 1969:'
28. As Ranciere says, in one possible scenario, art's "sensorium of autonomy"
might propose "the 'self-sufficiency' of a collective life that does not rend itself
into separate spheres of activities, of a community where art and life, art and
politics, life and politics are not severed one from another:' "The Aesthetic
Revolution;' 136.
29. Zizek, "The Lesson of Ranciere;' 76. As a historical example of political
aestheticization, Zizek recalls the staged performance that reenacted the storm­
ing of the Winter Palace in Petrograd on the third anniversary of the October
Revolution, November 7, 1920, which was coordinated by army officers, avant­
garde artists, musicians, and directors, from Malevich to Meyerhold, with
soldiers and sailors (some of whom had actually participated in the original
events) playing themselves. He repeats Russian formalist theoretician Viktor
Shklovski's assertion that "some kind of elemental process is taking place where
the living fabric of life is being transformed into the theatrical" (77 -78 ) . But it
is questionable whether this event was not also a show of collectivity that
eradicated social difference, replacing "emancipatory politics" with depoliti­
cized spectacle.
30. Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 82: "It would be absurd to judge the
social and political content of a relation 'work' by purely and simply shedding
its aesthetic value, which would be to the liking of those who see in a Tiravanija
or Carsten Holler show nothing more than a phonily utopian pantomime, as
was not so very long ago being advocated by the champions of a 'committed'
art, in other words, propagandist art:' In other words, aesthetics and politics
must be taken into account when considering such practices.
152 T. J . D EM O S
31. Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 9- 16.
32. Ibid., 16.
33. See Deutsche, "Agoraphobia" in Evictio11Sj Mouffe, "For an Agonistic
Public Sphere" j and Bishop, ''Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics:'
34. The failure to distinguish between Bourriaud's theories and the artistic
practices he discusses maYi however, risk shortSighted dismissals of the work
grouped under the term "relational aesthetics:'
35. This is registered in the abundant criticism around relational aesthetics:
Beshty, "Neo-Avantgarde and Service Industry';j Bishop, ''Antagonism and Re­
lational Aesthetics"j Foster, ''Arty Party"j Holmes, "Interaction in Contempo­
rary Art" j Scanlan, "Traffic Control" j and Wright, "The Delicate Essence of
Collaboration:' B ourriaud, however, is not as one-sided as he is sometimes
made out to be. Referencing Guattari's Chaosmosis, Bourriaud proposes a
model of subjectivity, for instance, that is an outcome of "dis sensus, of gaps and
differences, of alienating operations, it cannot be separated from all the other
social relations" (92).
36. Bishop, "The Social Turn:'
37. Breton, Conversations, 37-38.
38. See Comoedia, April 16, 1920, lj and Janine Mileafand Matthew S. Witkov­
sky's discussion of Paris Dada, "Paris;' 352. Breton invited an old communard
worker-poet, who was not able to attend. See Bonnet, r: affaire Barres, 10.
39. On Zurich Dada's related artistic protest, see my "Zurich Dada:'
40. Examples are quoted in Bonnet, L'affaire Barres, 91-94: "So much base­
ness, villainy, and coarseness in the farce should naturally revolt all those who
possess a French soul" (La Presse, May 14, 1921)j "It is surely time that one
verifies the papers of these people . . . . As to the French Dadaists, if they really
do exist, one would do right with a little hydrotherapy" (La Justice, May 15,
1921)j "Dada exaggerates. Is the passport of this noisy stranger in order?" (Le
Matin, May 16, 1921).
41. Bonnet, L'affaire Barres, 38.
42. Breton, "For Dada," 56.
43. See Bonnet, r:affaire Barres, 38.
44. Breton, ''Artificial Hells;' 143.
45. From the ''Acte d' accusation;' quoted in Bonnet, r:affaire Barres, 33, and
published in Litterature 20 (August 1921).
46. Ranciere, "The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes;' 151.

Citizen Cursor

In 1963, the sociologist William Dobriner described suburbia as a ma­

chine for visualizing class difference. Rather than attributing middle­
class traits to residence in the suburbs, as many commentators did at
midcentury, Dobriner reversed the conventional order of causality by
insisting that class identification was primary and that the urban middle
classes shared a great deal with their suburban counterparts. What
suburban topographies could do more effectively than urban ones, how­
ever, was to make class stratification visible. In Class in Suburbia, Dobri­
ner wrote, "The visibility principle operating within the flat, horizon­
talized, and relatively simple institutions of the suburbs has brought out
in bold relief many of the current features of the middle class. It has
been middle class behavior, not necessarily suburban behavior, which
has been so fully reported [by other sOciologists] . Suburbia has func­
tioned, rather, as a lens to bring into sharp focus many of the germinal
variables of the urban middle classes:'l
In a move reminiscent of the artist Dan Graham, who in 1978 linked
suburbia to voyeuristic exposure by proposing to replace the front fa­
s:ade of a tract house with an enormous wall of glass, Dobriner associ­
ates suburban life with visibility.2 To the widely noted suburban charac­
teristics of middle-class values, homogeneityj geographical remoteness
from a city center, and commuting culture he adds the visibility princi­
ple, by which "suburbanites can observe each other's behavior and
general life style far more easily than the central city dweller:'3 This
simple form of disciplinary voyeurism is supplemented by a further
154 D AVID J O S E L I T
order o f visualization in which suburban residents are sorted according
to the ruthless market segmentation of residential subdivisions. In this
way, the minutely differentiated strata within the middle class are di­
agrammed in the supposedly classless society of the United States. As
Dobriner writes, "Of all the factors which determine where a subur­
banite lives, the economic probably plays the most decisive role. The
first thing he must decide is his price range . . . . If homogeneity exists,
income again probably plays the decisive role. In effect, occupational
and income homogeneity becomes a function of another variable-the
status and class structure:'4
Since the publication of Dobriner's book, the early twentieth-century
model of the suburb as a garden city planned to retain pedestrian scale
and village centers has given way to edge cities or exurbs, in which office,
retail, and residential subdivisions-rigorously segregated from one an­
other through zoning regulations-encroach on formerly undeveloped
green fields in areas convenient to highways and interchanges.5 This new
model of metropolitan growth only accentuates the conditions Dobriner
had recognized in more traditional suburbs. As the New York Times re­
ported in 2005, "relos;' the nomadic executives of exurbia who earn their
moniker by relocating regularly at the behest of their corporate employ­
ers, tend to choose new neighborhoods according to fine distinctions in
price: "Converging on these towns, relos have segregated themselves, less
by the old barriers of race, religion and national origin than by age, family
status, education and, especially, income. Families with incomes of
$100,000 head for subdivisions built entirely of $300,000 houses; those
earning $200,000 trade up to subdivisions of $500,000 houses:'6
If Dobriner is right in viewing suburban development as a lens for
visualizing the fine differentiations within middle-class identity in the
United States, then the ostensibly bland-and habitually overlooked­
conditions of suburban life would seem an urgent topic for intellectuals,
including experts on visuality such as art historians. The importance of
acknowledging and understanding such class distinction was amply
demonstrated by the American presidential election of 2004, where the
divide between urban and suburban populations was widely credited for
the stark opposition between so-called red and blue states. Given the
disproportionate power of middle-class voters in the United States, it is
well worth asking: What kind of political community is produced in the
Citizen Cursor ISS
The New York Times report on relos offers a chilling initial answer to
this question. AB is often the case in investigative journalism, a single
family, the Links, who resided at the time in the Atlanta suburb of Alpha­
retta, serve as protagonists in the article. Jim Link, the father and sole
breadwinner, gives a surprisingly frank account of the neighborhood:
"The good thing about it is that it is a very comfortable neighborhood to live
in;' Mr. Link said. " These are very homogenous types of groups. You play
tennis with them, you have them over to dinner. You go to the same parties:'
"But we're never challenged to learn much about other economic groups;'
he said. "When you talk about tennis, guess what? Everybody you play
against looks and acts and generally feels like you. It doesn't give you much
perspective. At work, diversity is one of the biggest things we work on:'8

AB Link's comments suggest, suburban visibility is not limited to

surveillance and social mapping, but also includes the pressure to oc­
cupy and embody a rigorously homogeneous ideal image, which is
continually mirrored back and policed by neighbors. This is the mean­
ing of ventures such as Martha Stewart's partnership with the major
developer KB Home to license subdivisions whose models are based on
her own private residences. AB Stewart guilelessly declared in an article
announcing the deal, " 'Let's face it, everybody wants to live in one of my
homes . . . . You see one and you don't want to leave. The idea here is to
give a flavor of that in affordable housing: "9 But inhabiting a ready­
made lifestyle requires strict limitations on one's sensorium, as well as
one's politics. AB Jim Link admits, this form of segregation allows one to
forget about "other economic groups:' The visibility of the suburban
tract is a kind of class apartheid.
The distribution of citizens by income (as well as by race and eth­
nicity) across the landscape of suburbia and exurbia has changed the
nature of community in the United States. In her recent history of
suburban development, Delores Hayden demonstrates that throughout
the twentieth century, government policy and free markets have encour­
aged a form of development where private communities are established
in the absence of the public or civic services normally associated with
towns and cities: "Under FHA [Federal Housing Administration], the
federal government encouraged private developers to build the house
and sell it as if it were a consumer good like a chair or a table, leaving the
costs of a sound residential neighborhood (such as sewers and schools)
156 DAV I D ] O S EL I T
t o b e borne b y local taxpayers:'IO A corollary t o such development,
which has enabled the kind of sprawl characteristic of the metropolitan
United States, is the citizen's identification not with a local town or city,
but rather with a subdivision functioning as a semiautonomous civic
entity. In his book Privatopia, Evan McKenzie describes this privatiza-·
tion oflocal government, in which the afRuent withdraw from public life
into residential corporations, making regional planning (not to mention
more amorphous forms of collective civic identification across class)
difficult, if not impossible. Already in 1963, Dobriner had clearly diag­
nosed this condition. He recognized that the suburbs were much more
complex than the sitcom image of upper-middle-class homogeneity and
that suburbanites often worked not in the city but in a neighboring
suburb. But greater overall suburban diversity did nothing to undermine
a sense of community responsibility set adrift:
Indeed, the metropolis is a vast tissue of interlaced journey-to-work patterns
which carry the area workforce from one political jurisdiction into another­
from city to suburb, from suburb to city, from fringe to suburb, from county
to county, and so forth. It is certainly Significant if the labor force of an area
resides in one political jurisdiction and works in another. Yet, in spite of the
economic integration of metropolitan areas, it is now apparent that these
areas are an unmanageable hodgepodge of fragmented political units. The
unfortunate result of the growth of political "independencies" within metro­
politan areas has made it extremely difficult to solve area problems. ! l

The conditions Dobriner describes have only been accentuated with the
migration of many corporate headquarters to edge city or exurban
locations, close to the residential communities preferred by their execu­
tives. It is the kind of person who moves from one political indepen­
dency to another, belonging to all without fully identifying with any,
that I wish to call Citizen Cursor.
Like its analogue on the computer screen, Citizen Cursor is character­
ized by frictionless mobility, possessing the ability to go anywhere with a
weightlessness and ambidirectionality worthy of El Lissitzky's prouns.
But the proximate source and subject of this mobility-the human being
seated in front of an expensive home appliance-is characterized by
stasis.12 Citizen Cursor organizes its fantasy of global citizenship from
the safety of a privatized cocoon. She or he is a participant in what
Richard Sennett has recently called consuming politics, a term that plays
Citizen Cursor 157
on the multiple meanings of consuming, denoting both the purchase of
commodities and their disposability, their rapid consumption through
use. Sennett sketches a condition where the selling of politicians, like
the selling of inanimate products, is rooted in branding, on the one
hand, which stimulates the imagination with fantastic "product" asso­
ciations, and promises of exorbitant potency, on the other, which offers
more power than one could ever use, as in his example of MP3 players
with a capacity to store and recall songs on a scale beyond human
imagination. As a result, political expectations are aroused that are both
impractically ambitious and rudderless: fantasies of perpetual change in
the absence of specific action. For me the most pertinent observation
Sennett makes regarding consuming politics (as well as the new corpo­
rate bureaucracies to which it is linked) regards its divorce of power
from authority. In the realm of business, this division occurs by out­
sourcing strategic planning to consulting firms who devise painful reor­
ganization plans without retaining any responsibility-or authority-for
their eventual actualization. In the realm of government, such abdica­
tion of authority underlies the policies of recent American and British
neoliberal regimes that have aggressively shrunk public services, espe­
cially for the most vulnerable citizens, while massively centralizing
power ( and money) in the hands of the affluent.13 It is precisely such a
divorce of power from authority or responsibility that manifests itself
topographically in suburbia. The fantasmatic power of unlimited mobil­
ity within the "vast tissue of interlaced journey-to-work patterns" in
American suburbia and exurbia establishes a late-capitalist mode of
potency that exists outside any coherent political culture. Instead of a
single jurisdiction or a regional authority whose purpose is to coordi­
nate neighboring towns, the suburbs produce an incoherent array of
independencies with weak ties to most of their constituents.14 The
Citizen Cursor inhabits this landscape, embodying a thoroughly privat­
ized mode of liberty. I S
But what does this liberty feel like ? This question, as Jacques Ranciere
teaches us, is far from irrelevant in understanding politics and commu­
nity. For Ranciere, community arises through a particular distribution
of the sensible-regimes of visibility and invisibility that produce social
positions, or occupations, as the building blocks of shared worlds. Poli­
tics itself, which is much rarer and more specific in Ranciere's concep­
tion than it is in common usage, erupts out of challenges from outside
158 D AV I D J O S E L I T
these normative distributions, launched b y those who are (as o f yet)
unauthorized to speak, who have no standing or visibility.16 If there is a
politics appropriate to Citizen Cursor (or a politics for assailing Citizen
Cursor), it must take measure of the community of sense that renders
such a figure intelligible. To this purpose, I have argued that suburbia,
the native habitat of Citizen Cursor, is organized according to three
types of visibility : (1) being a picture for an other within the surveillance
culture of subdivisions; (2) occupying or identifying with a "type pic­
ture" through the pressure to manifest an appropriate market-driven
lifestyle; and (3) inclusion as an element in the picture of a class through
the distribution of housing tracts. In each case, the relation between
persons and pictures is central to suburban sociality. But how is this
intimate relationship established? What is the nature of the encounter
between self and image that brings Citizen Cursor into being?
The fantasies of the rich are often useful diagnostic tools. It may be
argued that the palatial suburban house of Microsoft founder Bill Gates,
constructed on Lake Washington outside Seattle at the reported cost of
$30 million, was self-consciously developed as a spatial prototype of the
Internet. Though the building's interiors have not been published, Gates
describes them at length in hIs 1995 biography, The Road Ahead. Accord­
ing to this account, occupants of the building were meant to function
literally as cursors:
The electronic pin you wear will tell the house who and where you are, and
the house will use this information to try to meet and even anticipate your
needs-all as unobtrusively as possible. Someday, instead of needing the pin,
it might be possible to have a camera system with Visual-recognition ca­
pabilities, but that's beyond current technology. When it's dark outside, the
pin will cause a moving zone of light to accompany you through the house.
Unoccupied rooms will be unlit. As you walk down the hallway, you might
not notice the lights ahead of you gradually coming up to full brightness and
the lights behind you fading. Music will move with you, too. It will seem to
be everywhere, although in fact, other people in the house will be hearing
entirely different music or nothing at all. A movie or the news will be able to
follow you around the house, too. If you get a phone call, only the handset
nearest you will ring. 17

Gates's account of the human cursor, equipped with an "electronic

pin;' is striking in its loneliness. The mobile media cocoon projected by
Citizen Cursor 159
the "smart house" envelopes one person at a time, who floats through
space like a specter-unable, it seems, to sit still long enough to view an
entire movie or news broadcast from a single room. IS The light, the
entertainment, and the phone-all follow restless inmates around the
house, as if in permanent exile, leaving vacated rooms in darkness.
Whatever the resident or visitor to Gates's house does, she or he does
alone: music "will seem to be everywhere, although in fact, other people
in the house will be hearing entirely different music or nothing at alI:'
One wonders what would happen if two (or more) people navigated the
structure together, causing electronic chaos from the interference of
distinct individual tastes. The architecture Gates imagines is mobile and
contingent, only nominally reliant on physical space (each Cursor
makes his own house), but rigorously solitary. It is consequently no
surprise that, for him, even romance may be satisfactorily conducted
through technological mediation:
The new communications capabilities will make it far easier than it is today to
stay in touch with friends and relatives who are geographically distant. Many
of us have struggled to keep alive a friendship with someone far away. I used to
date a woman who lived in a different city. We spent a lot of time together on
e-mail. And we figured out a way we could sort of go to the movies together.
We'd find a film that was playing at about the same time in both our cities.
We'd drive to our respective theaters, chatting on our cellular phones. We'd
watch the movie, and on the way home we'd use our cellular phones again to
discuss the show. In the future this sort of "virtual dating" will be better
because the movie watching could be combined with a videoconference.19

The model of "spending time together on e-mail;' in which two per­

sons are joined in textual exchange while physically remote from one
another, paradoxically describes the function of physical space in Gates's
house, where humans interact (or fail to interact) as individual cursors,
tracing their own private paths. It is an indication of how little this
building was meant to accommodate conventional human togetherness
that, in 2001, Gates applied for zoning permission to add a bedroom for
his third child to a house that already measured 37,000 square feet.20
The privatization of sensory (and sensual) experience that character­
izes life as a cursor in Gates's house is matched by a second and even
more insidious form of privatization that runs counter to all myths
about the Internet's inherent democracy: the massive accumulation and
160 D AV I D J O S E L I T
capitalization o f visual resources. Gates started Corbis, which i s now a
major digital image-licensing firm, or "the world's preeminent visual
solutions provider;' according to the company's Web site in 2005, as an
outgrowth of his efforts to acquire a vast archive of images to play across
the digital walls of his house.21 Corbis's holdings include the famous
Bettmann archive and the archive of United Press International (up I ),
as well as a dozen smaller archives. It also possesses rights to the images
of various museum collections, including the Kimball Art Museum, the
Barnes Foundation in Merion, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Phila­
delphia Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum, London's National
Gallery, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and the Royal Ontario Mu­
seum in Toronto.22 In an inadvertent parody of the extraction of natural
resources as a form of capital, these images are kept in cold storage in a
mine in Pennsylvania, and like coal, they may be considered a "natural
resource" in a culture where the media functions as an autonomous
ecology. But Gates's efforts to corner the market on the world's visual
"commons" emerged from his impulse to decorate-to have unlimited
images available to haunt his domestic perambulations. Like the great
monarchs of the past who endowed their palaces with painting, sculp­
ture, furnishings, and textiles, Gates sought to animate the electronic
"info-walls" of his giant suburban house with the image patrimony of
the world: "I will be the first home user for one of the most unusual
electronic features of my house. The product is a database of more than
a million still images, including photographs and reproductions of
paintings. If you're a guest, you'll be able to call up portraits of presi­
dents, pictures of sunsets, airplanes, skiing in the Andes, a rare French
stamp, the Beatles in 1965, or reproductions of High Renaissance paint­
ings, on screens throughout the house:'23 In other words, the resident or
visitor to Gates's house will have all ofWestern culture-high- as well as
middlebrow-at their fingertips, from Renaissance paintings to lurid
In Gates's residence, the encounter staged between persons and pic­
tures realizes a fantasy of pure possession: images glide alongSide their
masters like servants. They pop up as the nearly unconscious satisfac­
tion of a desire, since, like a good servant or a good dream, the house is
designed "to meet and even anticipate your needs-all as unobtrusively
as possible:'2s In this realm the image functions, as W. J. T. Mitchell has
proposed, as a subaltern, while the human master is a lonely potentate
Citizen Cursor 161
attended by digital companions.26 This fantasy-which closely resem­
bles that of the Internet-reverses the power relationship presumed in
Dobriner's principle of suburban visibility. In Dobriner's vision, on the
contrary, persons are in thrall to images in at least three ways: (1) via
their surveillance by neighbors, (2) through the compulsion to embody
lifestyle types, and (3) according to the transparent distribution of
households by income and class. We might conclude, then, that Gates's
imperial fantasy of dominion over images serves to reverse, if not quite
to conjure away, the more prosaic and disciplinary conditions of human­
image detente that obtain in the ordinary suburban world where his
middle-class executive employees might live. But his fantasy is not lim­
ited to those who can afford to appropriate vast digital resources for
their own pleasure and profit; it has been widely promoted in the
context of new work protocols like telecommuting, on the one hand,
which make it possible to fuse home and office digitallyj and new modes
of home entertainment on the other, which endeavor to transform
family rooms into multiplexes.27
The October 1998 issue of House Beautiful, for instance, included a
version of Gates's utopia intended for ordinary middle-class readers: a
Digital House for "the next millennium" by New York architects Hariri
& Hariri, which was later exhibited in the influential Museum of Mod­
ern Art exhibition The Un-Private House (fig. 1) . This project, scaled to
upper-middle-class incomes, as opposed to the super-rich, and rendered
in a chic technomodernism distinct from the updated Northwest lodge
idiom of Gates's digital utopia, is premised on the same three conditions
regulating the encounter between persons and pictures. First, it assumes
residents who behave like cursors. Second, it is premised on solitary
individual activity that implicitly loosens conventional familial ties. And
third, it celebrates remote and disembodied forms of sociality. The core
of the Digital House is structured like a four-story gridded screen,
sheathed in liquid crystal displays inside and out. Significantlyj this
narrow central armature includes no standard rooms (which are at­
tached as independent volumes to its surfaces) but is instead given over
entirely to stairways and ramps, causing the inhabitants to circulate
inside the screen, like cursors. According to the architects, rooms for
living, cooking, eating, and sleeping would be factory-made and plugged
in to the structural spine, "more like appliances that can be added and
exchanged to reflect new domestic situations:'28 In an earlier project
162 DAV I D J O S E L I T

1 . Hariri & Hariri, The Digital House Project, 1998. Principal fas;ade,
computer-generated drawing. © Hariri & Hariri-Architecture.

addressing the same themes, "The Next House: House for the Next
Millenium" (1993), the Hariris are more explicit in their preference for
circulatory space over conventional rooms: "The mundane corridors of
contemporary construction will be transformed into a network of major
transient spaces. . . . They are spaces for contemplation, for physical
fitness and spiritual well-being:'29 The screen at the core of the Digital
House, thickened sufficiently to allow human mobility alongside the
play of pictures, is precisely such a "major transient space:'
The Digital House itself is not aggressively anti-communal, though its
three bedrooms are stacked vertically, each adjoining its own stud}'i
giving the impression of a hotel crossed with an office building. But the
Next House seems positively dismissive of collective life:
Our proposal is a decentralized residence. We think that the typical centering
of the home on the "family room" will become obsolete in the next millen-
Citizen Cursor 163
nium. Soon work, shopping, schooling, and entertainment will all take place
at home.
We sited the house near an expressway exit; its inhabitants were imagined
to be a family of four independent people free from preconceived notions of
gender roles and domination, and sexual preference.3o

While I'm no fan of "family values" as pandered by social conserva­

tives, this seems a rather bleak account of a "family;' each member of
which is poised to jump on the neighboring expressway. By way of
compensation, the Hariris put great stock in remote socialization. Just
as Bill Gates knew how to enjoy a date over his cell phone, the residents
of the Digital House need not limit their social circle according to mere
locality. A caption of the House Beautiful article enthuses, "The kitchen
. . . is equipped with a laboratory-long counter for food preparation and
snacks. The display wall based on NAsA-type liquid-crystal technology
would enable the family to prepare a meal with the help of a virtual chef
from a favorite restaurant anywhere in the world, and then have dinner
with a virtual guest:'31 While the Digital House (like Gates's mansion)
assumes a built-in alienation from the nearest and dearest, it promis­
cuously enables connections with those who are far away. The flesh­
and-blood family gives way to the "virtual guest:'
Citizen Cursor oscillates between two modes of interaction among
persons and pictures: a disciplinary process of tabulation in which people
identify closely with an array of commercially derived lifestyles (subur­
bia's principle of visibility) and a frictionless and virtually disembodied
form of navigation through pictorial worlds, which is spatialized in
Gates's and the Hariris' digital architectures. While these perspectives
seem to contradict one another, they are structurally linked. Indeed,
while I have relied on luxurious domestic follies to theorize the liberatory
or navigational relation to pictures, analogous fantasies of mobility are
present in the mainstream of middle-class life. Any consumer of decorat­
ing magazines or House and Garden Television (H G TV ) can attest to the
frequency with which recent trends in domestic decor are premised on
turning bathrooms into spas and living rooms into the lobbies of bou­
tique hotels.32 We all, it seems, want to imagine ourselves as guests-even
when at home. What the tabular and navigational paradigms share is an
extreme privatization of social horizons. The tabular does so by narrow­
ing an individual's identification to, for instance, a homeowner's associa-
164 D AV I D J O S E LI T
tion, as opposed to town or regional government, while the navigational
accomplishes the same effect through an excessive generalization,
whereby one is omnisciently connected to the "world;' but in fact rooted
nowhere in particular. Images, it seems, may be tools for lifting citizens
from their locales (the locus of politics) and inserting them into supra­
local commercial communities-in an instance of Sennett's consuming
politics. The political question thus becomes: How can images be re­
situated as communal? How can they participate in breaking down the
privatization of citizenship?

In a 2004 intervtew, the French artist Pierre Huyghe declared, ''A film is
a public space, a common place. It is not a monument, but a space of
discussion and action. It's an ecology:'33 Huyghe's suggestion that pic­
tures may become places, and that such places may serve as platforms
for collective action, seems a promising strategy for politicizing Citizen
Cursor. But how can a film become a space of discussion, let alone of
action? Huyghe's 2004 installation at the Dia Art Center in New York,
Streamside Day Follies, attempted such an act of media alchemy (fig.
2). 34 At the heart of this work was a single-channel video projection
centered on the opening festivities of a planned suburban neighborhood
in upstate New York. The videotape was screened within a pavilion
constituted from the walls of the gallery in which it was exhibited (or at
least, white planar segments which, in their "receded" state, rested close
against the gallery walls). These segments were fitted into curvilinear
ceiling tracks and, in a kind of architectural parade or procession, they
slowly convened from their resting places in three separate galleries to
create a five-sided enclosure in the largest space ofDia's fourth floor. All
but one of the corners of this irregular pentagonal space were impassa­
ble, causing viewers either to congregate in advance within the precincts
of the ad hoc theater or to enter through a Single corner. As the wall
segments moved away from their resting places, they revealed an irides­
cent verso (whose subtle glow was visible from the side in their original
positions). Where these segments had once rested, faint green line
drawings were revealed, like afterimages that had somehow been trans­
ferred from the iridescent surfaces recently facing them. The video glow
of these greenish surfaces functioned as a metaphor for the projection
itself, suggesting an elision of architecture and media (rendered as the
two sides of a single plane). Under this interpretation, the pavilion,
Citizen Cursor 165
which housed the projection on the one hand, but whose outer walls
also signified the infinite play of electronic information, functioned as
both the container of moving images and as an edifice made from its
planar elements-a kind of spatialization of pictures analogous to
Gates's mansion or the Hariris' Digital House.
If the anti-democratic nature of Citizen Cursor derives in large part
from the ideological belief that one can possess images (including self­
images) as private property, then an appropriate political riposte would
include inventing ways of sharing or extending the production and
reception of images among disparate groups. While the pavilion in
Streamside Day Follies, which resembled a tent or a house of cards, was
characterized by the destabilized mobility that Dobriner associated with
suburbia, its migrating walls behaved very differently from the "sub­
altern" pictorial surfaces that Gates or the Hariris imagine. In those
digital houses, pictures attended people like good servants, whereas in
Streamside Day Follies the elements of a nomadic "theater" herded indi­
viduals into an intimate enclosure where they had to stand or sit in close
proximity to watch a film. While it may not be possible to call this ad hoc
group a public, or even a community, Huyghe made anonymous specta­
tors conscious of the possibility of group identification by sweeping
them out of their private reverie as museum-goers and into physical
relation with one another. Streamside Day Follies makes the constitution
of its audience into an event.
The video at the core of Huyghe's installation centered on a festival,
designed and initiated by the artist (but not closely scripted by him), to
commemorate the opening of an actual suburban community that, like
so many such places, is artificially sited on an area of land scraped out
from the surrounding forest. It would be easy for an artist (and perhaps
even easier for a foreign artist like Huyghe) to stage and film such an
event with great condescension. But while the tape has its satirical
moments, it also conveys a serious respect for the emotional current
that runs through it. The video is organized according to two overlap­
ping rhetorical axes: first, a series of oppositions between "virgin" forest
and the housing development that supplants itj and second, the proces­
sion of events staged as the celebration itself. Huyghe makes no effort to
veil his pseudo anthropological nature/ culture distinctions: the first sec­
tion of the tape opens with idyllic shots oflandscape and forest animals
and ends by showing a deer wander into a house under construction like
2. Pierre Huyghe,
Streamside Day
Follies, 2003.
Installation, Dia:
Chelsea. 5 moving
wallsj digital video
projection from film
and video transfers,
26 minutes, color,
soundj five colored
pencil drawings.
Courtesy Marian
Goodman Gallery,
New York.
Photo credit:
Ken Tannenbaum.
Citizen Cursor 167
Bambi expelled from the Garden of Eden into suburban purgatory.
Later, in the festival, legions of children are dressed in costumes imper­
sonating the animal "innocents" of the early scenes. These structural
oppositions revolve like a double helix around the axis of the celebratory
day itself, while the representation of the Follies just as straightfor­
wardly embraces the cliches of suburban kitsch, ranging from simulated
pussy willow branches made with marshmallow "blossoms" to a guitar­
ist /vocalist singing the Streamside theme song off-key on a makeshift
stage. In Huyghe's embrace of such blunt images, he paradoxically di­
rects us to see through the hackneyed tropes of middle-class America
rather than to accept them at face value. What one glimpses through this
looking glass is the impulse to build civic institutions within the privat­
ized space of a planned community.
For Huyghe, such rituals are a means of using commercial culture to
stage communal celebrations. As he stated in the 2004 interview:
A celebration is supposed to be something that we have in common, that we
share, and that we celebrate because of this common basis. It is like a
monument. But unlike a monument, an event can be renegotiated each time
it is repeated, although that is rarely the case . . . .
For Streamside Day I was searching for something that the community
shared-what was the minimum common denominator between all these
people? The answer I came to was that everyone came from a completely
different place, and so the idea of migration would have to be important. 35

A parade costume is a type of image that is inhabited and activated by

a participant. In Streamside Day Follies, such image-agents reenact
migration--to the suburbs, from nature to culture, or from one end of a
subdivision to the other. The distinction Huyghe makes between a
celebration and a monument pivots on the capacity of the former to
repeat. In his theory of collective life, repetition mattersj it offers an
opportunity for renegotiation, and renegotiation unfixes the ties of
ownership between persons and pictures. The image is deployed rather
than possessed-and consequently a film may function as public space.

According to Ranciere, politics can only arise through the provocation

of those who have "no part" -those who are invisible under a particular
distribution of the sensible. "There is politics when there is a part of
those who have no part, a part or party of the poor. Politics does not
168 D AV I D J O S EL I T
happen just because the poor oppose the rich. It is the other way
around: politics (that is, the interruption of the simple effects of domi­
nation by the rich) cause the poor to exist as an entitY:'36
In other words, politics presupposes a fundamental demand for vis­
ibility. But Citizen Cursor, as the avatar of the middle class, belongs to
the most visible register of the American public and is therefore constit­
uently resistant to politics as defined by Ranciere. Its tabular and naviga­
tional modes of visibility produce a paradoxical form of "disciplinary
liberty" whose ideology has enabled the extremes of consumer indul­
gence and careless warmongering that characterize the contemporary
United States. Ranciere's rigorously narrow definition of politics should
remind us that, as academics and intellectuals, our analysis of oppressive
structures is not automatically subversive. But Ranciere is equally em­
phatic that aesthetics are relevant to politics, not least because they
serve as a form of research into new modes of visibility. This argument,
in which the aesthetic becomes a social principle, as opposed to a mere
"reflection" of social principles, seems a powerful reinvigoration of the
avant-garde project.37 The latter faltered precisely because too many
artists (and art historians) held their engagement with aesthetics apart
from those commercial systems for organizing or "partitioning" the
sensible, like television or the Internet, that structure the everyday lives
and social horizons of most Americans.38
In repurposing mechanically reproduced pictures as social forums,
Pierre Huyghe is one of several artists straining toward a different dis­
tribution of the sensible. He has said, "I am interested in an object that
is in fact a dynamic chain that passes through different formats:'39 Such
an object, in Huyghe's terms, is one that includes several perspectives or
reenactments of a particular event. In the tabular paradigm of suburban
visibility, persons are enslaved or possessed by their desire to mimic
pictures, whereas in the navigational fantasy of frictionless dominion,
pictures are the servants of persons. In both cases, possession is funda­
mental to visibility: the image is property. In Streamside Day Follies, as in
other of Huyghe's installations, pictures are enacted as dynamic chains
that pass through different stages and formats. They have what Arjun
Appadurai has called "social lives;' meaning that they experience succes­
sive particular engagements with human beings. Huyghe's images are
vehicles, not fetishes.40 They function as platforms intended to reinvent
social interactions that were long ago abandoned by the Citizen Cursor.
Citizen Cursor 169
Instead of consuming pictures (which includes "interpreting" them),
Huyghe challenges us to negotiate with and through them, to reuse and
recycle them. The result might be a new kind of agency appropriate to a
new sort of social space lodged within the texture, or grain, of mechan­
ical reproduction. It would involve the reappropriation of "image com­
mons" and a politics of visibility that art must find a way to enter.41


I wish to thank my research assistant, Jay CurleYi for his customary skill and
good humor in helping me to find sources for this essay.
1. Dobriner, Class in Suburbia, 49.
2. This project was titled Alteration to a Suburban House.
3. Dobriner, Class in Suburbia, 9.
4. Ibid., 15·
5. The term "edge city" was invented and enumerated by Joel Garreau in
Edge City: Life on the New Frontier.
6. Kilborn, "The Five-Bedroom, Six-Figure Rootless Life:' William Leach ex­
tends the Times's more anecdotal account in "The Landscape of the Temporary:'
7. Joel Kotkin makes this point in "Suburban Tide:' Kotkin argues that the
Democrats must consider carefully the suburban constituency if they are to
revive their party.
8. Kilborn, "The Five-Bedroom, Six-Figure Rootless Life:' Even D avid
Brooks, who often seems a kind of apologist for exurbia, makes it clear that
groups become more homogeneous there, even i£ taken as a whole, exurbia is
quite diverse. See Brooks, "Our Sprawling Supersize Utopia:'
9. Lyman, "Marthatown:'
10. Hayden, Building Suburbia, 167.
11. Dobriner, Class in Suburbia, 22.
12. I am well aware that public libraries make the Internet available to patrons
who cannot afford a computer, and yet the sense of command over cyberspace
among those with such limited access (not only in terms of location, but also
regarding time limitations or lack of privacy) cannot be imagined as the same
as those who have constant and easy access in their home. In any event, I am
using the "cursor" as a metaphor in this context for a particular kind of fan­
tasmatic dominion.
13. See Sennett, The Culture of the New Capitalism, esp. chaps. 1 and 3.
14. One might convincingly argue that urban residents share the qualities of
Citizen Cursor. While I think this is very true, I would argue that, as Dobriner
170 D AV I D ] O S E L I T
contends with regard to class, the suburbs map, and indeed concentrate, the
qualities of disembocliment from community architecturally:, making them
more prominent and visible. The introduction of suburban modes of develop­
ment such as big-box stores and national chains into the most urbanized areas
of the United States, such as Manhattan, may be proof that the landscape of
Citizen Cursor is everywhere.
15. A strong case is made for regional planning in Duany, Plater-Zyberk, and
Speck, Suburban Nation, chap. 8.
16. For the best introduction to Ranciere's concept of politics, see The Politics
ofAesthetics and Dis-agreement.
17. Gates, The Road Ahead, 330-31.
18. Lynn Spigel compares Gates's "smart house" with earlier paradigms of
postwar media domesticity and also discusses the Digital House by Hariri and
Hariri (which I discuss below) in her "Media Homes," esp. 398-407.
19. Gates, The Road Ahead, 310-11.
20. Uhlig, "75 m Pounds Microsoft Mansion Needs an Upgrade:'
21. http: //www.corbis.com/ corporate / overview / overview.asp, accessed No­
vember 2006. The connection between Corbis and Gates's house is made in
McMillan, "Content is King at Corbis Corporation:'
22. See Failing, "Brave New World or Just More Profitable?" 117.
23. Gates, The Road Ahead, 338� 39.
24. Domestic technologies seem to be a consistent interest of Gates. Micro­
soft has established the "Microsoft Home" on the company's Redmond Wash­
ington campus as · a model for new household gadgets. See Barron, "Speak
Clearly and Carry a Manual:'
25. Gates, The Road Ahead, 330.
26. In his What Do Pictures Want? W. J. T. Mitchell suggests that one way of
gauging the desire of images is to "(1) assent to the constitutive fiction of
pictures as 'animated' beings, quasi-agents, mock persons; and (2) the con­
strual of pictures not as sovereign subjects or disembodied spirits but as sub­
alterns whose bodies are marked with the stigmata of difference, and who
function both as 'go-betweens' and scapegoats in the social field of human
visuality" (46).
27. For a n exhibition that addresses how these new modes of domesticity are
developed in recent architecture, see Riley, The Un-Private House.
28. Ibid., 56.
29. Frampton and Holl, "The Next House: House for the New Millenium
1993;' 70.
30. Ibid.
31. Zevon, "Pushing the Digital Envelope;' 68.
Citizen Cursor 171
32. "Par more than any other group of people anywhere} American business­
men (and most have been men) have been inclined to create a landscape of
temporary housing because they themselves treat their own homes as tempo­
rary dwellings ( despite their worship of home ownership) :' Leach} "Land­
scape;' 77-78.
33. Baker} "An Interview with Pierre Huyghe;' 96.
34. The following discussion is based on my earlier account of Huyghe's
Streamside Day Follies} though it differs in significant ways. See "Inside the
Light Cube:'
35. Baker} 'M Interview with Pierre Huyghe;' 85.
36. Ranciere} Dis-agreement} 11.
37. ''Art anticipates work because it carries out its principles : the transforma­
tion of sensible matter into the community's self presentation . . . . It is this
initial programme [ German idealism's aesthetics]} moreover} that laid the foun­
dation for the thought and practice of the 'avant-gardes' in the 1920S: abolish
art as a separate activity} put it back to work} that is to say, give it back to life and
its activity of working out its own proper meaning:' In Ranciere} The Politics of
Aesthetics} 44-45.
38. Specifying the social form of television and video is the ambition of my
book Feedback.
39. Baker} 'M Interview with Pierre Huyghe;' 90.
40. See Appadurai} "Introduction:'
41. In many ways} twentieth-century art is a history of widening such "image
commons" from the ready-made through p op art} appropriation art} and iden­
tity politicS} to mention only a few instances where the privatization of images
was powerfully challenged.

Mass Customization


fi "

Much has been said in recent years about the role of computers in the
production of architectural objects, while relatively little has been said,
in architecture, about their role in the production of subjects. To ad­
dress this omission, a repositioning of architecture within the broader
crosscurrents of contemporary culture and politics is in order. This
repositioning would shift the discussion around computers from one
centered on their capacity to redirect the discipline, to one centered on
the discipline's tendency to refract world-historical patterns, including
patterns of subject formation associated with new techno-economic
relations. This is not to reduce architecture to a symptomatic, surface­
level expression of such patterns, but rather to understand its field of
production as a topologically complex, distorting mirror that faces both
inward and outward at once. In reproducing itself internally as an aes­
thetic discipline, architecture reveals and engages entire worlds exter­
nally. In that sense, its status as an aesthetic medium is tied (rather than
opposed) to its status as one among many mass media. So, rather than
stage a contest over the nature and scope of the aesthetic medium in an
effort to secure architecture's autonomy over and above mass-mediated
spectacle, we must learn to look into architecture's mirror and to take
Mass Customization 173

advantage of its structurally multi-mediated character in order to iden­

tify sites of both interpretation and intervention.
Leaning heavily in a formalist direction and with an inherited stake in
disciplinary autonomy) the vanguard that coalesced around computers
during the nineties in the Arnerican academy positioned itself as an
Oedipalized heir to the neo-avant-gardes of the seventies and eighties)
frequently claiming to have replaced the collage-like) fragmented ob­
jects associated with that period with a formal language of seamless
integration. This initial) experimental development of "nonstandard"
digital design and production techniques that have now made their way
into the profeSSional mainstream also sought-sometimes explicitly)
sometimes implicitly-to replace the mechanical) fragmented) and re­
petitive mass ornament that Siegfried Kracauer saw embodied in the
coordinated gyrations of the Tiller Girls) with an endlessly variable yet
unified product line.l Far from representing the latest innovation) how­
ever) this proposition was dreamed in advance by experimental architec­
ture's corporate unconscious . .As a result) with respect to the corporate
architecture of the seventies and eighties) the newer digital architecture
appears more symptomatic than innovative. Conversely, that same cor­
porate architecture) in failing fully to domesticate its own aesthetic
surplus) ultimately fails-despite itself-to confirm the absolute closure
of a techno-economic system that seems increasingly to co-opt alterity
and differentiation in advance. Instead) this politically unsavory task has
been taken up by the digital vanguard as its own) thus further securing
architecture's engagement with a new kind of mass subject who must
now be called a "person:'
The complex architectural geometries made possible by the new soft­
ware and hardware produced by transnational corporations may be of
only secondary importance here) since these new technologies have also
borne an old aesthetic promise that architecture has) by definition) long
defied: the promise of a one-to-one match between representation and
constructed reality. That is) computers promise to collapse the various
stages in the production of buildings) which have heretofore run from
exploratory sketch to presentation drawings to physical models to con­
struction drawings to technical (or "shop") drawings executed by the
fabricator to assembly in the field. If architecture has) in that sense)
traditionally been a multimedia practice) not only is it now possible to
model an object digitally and literally to "print" a three-dimensional
version of it; it is also possible to fabricate the pieces of a building
directly from computer files, with no intermediary representations. Car­
ried to a logical conclusion, the new media thus promise an end to
mediation itself-a condition where, in the language of computer­
interface designers, "What You See Is What You Get" (WYSIWYG ).
A more concrete accompaniment to this dream of technical trans­
parency has been enhanced flexibility in fabrication, since adjustments
made on the computer can be transferred to production on demand,
with a minimum of intermediary steps and with minimal retooling, in a
process known as mass customization. Though to date mainly imple­
mented at the level of assembly in manufacturing, and at the level of
information extraction in nonmanufacturing industries such as data
mining and profiling (for example, surveillance, for both marketing and
"homeland security" purposes), such techniques are gradually entering
the international construction industry. In principle, mass customiza­
tion makes available to the consumer a rainbow of aesthetic and techni­
cal choices within parametrically variable tolerances. These parameters
can be adjusted in a digital model to suit ever more personal prefer­
ences, in a cascade of what Theodor Adorno long ago called pseudoper­
sonalization, thus making each version of each product distinct from
every other version produced and sold.2
Contemporary architectural experimentation: diagrams this new stage
in consumer capitalism with such propositions as Greg Lynn's no-two­
are-the-same Embryologic Houses of 2000, a mass-customized remake
ofBuckminster Fuller's utopian, mass-reproducible Dymaxion House of
1927. Lynn describes his project (with no hint of irony) as "engag[ingJ
the need for any globally marketed product to have brand identity and
variation within the same graphic and spatial system allowing both the
possibility for recognition and novelty" since, as he puts it, "with the
progressive saturations of our imaginations by an advanced media cul­
ture . . . a more advanced generic identity is . . . necessary for advanced
domestic space:'3 In other words, a consumer who now imagines herself
as different from every other consumer must have objects to match. Thus
we are also given Lynn's Alessi tea service (2003), prototyped for some
fifty thousand uniquely similar variations, as well as the something-for­
everyone family of serially differentiated skyscrapers dancing around the
memorial campfire of the global village proposed for Ground Zero in
Mass Customization 175
New York by the team that called itself the United Architects, of which
Lynn and other proponents of a market-theological approach to mass
customization were key members. If Kracauer saw the mechanical move­
ments of the Tiller Girls and of the mass ornament as "demonstrations of
mathematics;' the parametric variation celebrated in these recent post­
modern designs can be summarized as what Lynn has aptly called
sketching with calculus.4
These new forms of digitally aided heimlichkeit comprising integrated
families of teapots, houses, and skyscrapers correspond not so much to a
depoliticization of vanguardist architectural discourse as to a repoliticiza­
tion on the order of Francis Fukuyama's neoliberal "end of history" thesis.
In architecture, this was for a time given the embarrassingly frank name of
"postcritical:' Simply put, the "postcritical" posture (of which the United
Architects group was exemplary) seeks fully to disengage architecture from
any form of emancipatory politics implicit even in Manfredo Tafuri's
critical melancholy, but not in order to secure architecture's silent, defeated
autonomy, as Tafuri once suggested of the earlier generation of architec­
tural formalists led by Lynn's early sponsor, Peter Eisenman.S Rather, the
new, metaphYSical "postcriticality" has promised-in the manner of a
politician-an unmediated intimacy, a millenarian transparency of pro­
duction to consumption and, at the aesthetic level, of object to subject. In
that sense, under the regime of the postcritical's technical correlate, mass
customization, the personal is apparently postpolitical. In the searnlessly
pliable network of personal choices thus called forth, conflict and dissent
are therefore assimilated into a pluralistic, managerial utopia of the sort
that Jacques Ranciere has dryly characterized as nurturing a "type of
individual who lives in a permanent universe of freedom, of choice and of
relaxed and lighthearted attitudes toward choice itself": in other words, "a
world of self-pacified multiplicity" that announces, in the specifically
political form of a promise, an "end" to politics itse1£6
Similarly, the technical effort to do away with technical mediation
ultimately promises to do away with architecture, in the historical sense
of an aesthetic practice that actively mediates social relations, including
relations of production and consumption. In contrast, to posit architec­
ture as a mass medium here is to insist on a paradoxical, internally
differentiated specificity, an obdurate historicity that is reducible nei­
ther to the posthistorical and postpolitical promises of technological
processes nor to the late modernist autonomy of architecture-as-such,
remaining instead the basis for its own sociopolitical immanence. This
immanence is secured by virtue of aesthetic and technical developments
specific to the discipline and manifest in its objects, where architecture's
mirror reflects itself even as it reflects the work of history on the so­
cioeconomic and political registers. On either side of this double mirror,
we can see both in and out at once.

In the interest of activating such a vision, a brief prehistory of the turn

outlined above can be sketched in the form of a single case study
involving two corporate headquarters designed for the same company,
the Union Carbide Corporation, about twenty years apart, by different
architects, in relation to changing social, economic, and technological
In August of 1955, Union Carbide announced that it would build its
new executive headquarters in midtown Manhattan, on Park Avenue,
between 47th and 48th streets. The architect was to be the firm of
Slddmore, Owings & Merrill ( s 0 M ), with Gordon Bunshaft (who had
recently completed Lever House a few blocks north) as chief designer.
The decision was noteworthy not only because of its architectural im­
plications but because Union Carbide had been considering moving its
headquarters to a suburban site north of the city. To remain in Manhat­
tan was to remain visible, a function amply satisfied by SOM 'S new
building, which was described in the architeCtural press as, first and
foremost, a "strildng 'corporate image.' "7 Completed in 1960, the Union
Carbide headquarters was a fifty-three story skyscraper comprising 1.5
million gross square feet of sheer office building (fig. 1). Its presence on
Park Avenue is announced by an attenuated plaza that sets the building's
fa<;ade off from the street line, while a lower extension fills out the block
and presents a secondary street fa<;ade on Madison Avenue. On the face
of it, the tower's looming height thus monumentalizes the pinnacles of
power-America's multinational corporations-that were gradually
transforming this part of the city during the fifties.
Like Lever House and the Seagram Building nearby, the architecture
of the Union Carbide headquarters might also seem the apotheosis of
massification-an "enormous file" filled with robotlike workers, as the
sociologist C. Wright Mills described the new, modern office buildings
being built during the period.8 To be sure, it has all the telltale signs: a
gridded, modular curtain wall, an empty plaza adjacent to an equally
1. Skidmore, Owings
& Merrill, Union
Carbide headquar­
ters, New York City,
1960. Photograph by
Ezra Stoller.
empty lobby, rows and rows o f desks, a gridded luminous ceiling, and
interchangeable, standardized office partitions. In other words, the
Union Carbide Building was a fully integrated and apparently seamless
system, the very image of administrative rationality that Kracauer had
already discerned in the mass ornament. Mesmerized by the promise of
a "total architecture" underwritten by the corporations, Bunshaft and
S O M extended the building's systematicity into its most intimate details,
including its desks, its filing cabinets, its drinking fountains, and its light
And yet, the subject of corporate capitalism under construction here
was already changing from the masslike, robotic automatons projected
by Mills into a new kind of human, the prototypical subject of what
managers had called since the 1930S "human relations:' At Union Car­
bide, the primary indicator for this was the building's overdetermined
flexibility, registered Visually in the grids and technically in the move­
able, standardized units. This flexibility was correlated both to the un­
predictable needs of a changing market, as reflected in ongoing changes
in Union Carbide's internal organization, and to the functional adapt­
ability demanded of the human module out of which this organization
was assembled, the so-called organization man. Despite his standardiza­
tion, the· organization man was no mere cog in a machine. He was,
instead, a stereotypically sentient, emotional being who identified with
the corporation as though it were his family, while adapting himself to
the changes undergone by both with the postwar expansion of corpo­
rate capitalism. As such, the organization man was also in a sense made
visible-mirrored even-by the architecture of buildings like the Union
Carbide headquarters, with its stilted "flexibilitY:'9
Likewise, though the postwar suburbanization of the United States
appeared to maintain rigidly separate spheres for work and for living-­
the city and the suburb-the distance between these too was already
collapsing. Thus, in 1978, in the wake of New York City's fiscal crisis,
Union Carbide announced that it would abandon its Park Avenue build­
ing and relocate its headquarters to a new suburban facility in Danbury,
Connecticut. By this point, the company had grown into a massive
multinational conducting apprOximately 33 percent of its business out­
side the United States, with over 130 subsidiaries and five hundred
manufacturing facilities in thirty-six countries worldwide. In addition to
reflecting heightened anxieties about urban life among the managerial
Mass Customization 179
classes, the move out of New York reflected a complex tendency toward
invisibility that accompanied global growth. As Fortune magazine put it
that same year, despite its Park Avenue presence, Union Carbide had
been "a corporate giant that has somehow managed to project the
public profile of a midget:'lo At the time of the move, however, it was
(again according to Fortune), "striving to raise its profile to something
like true size:' But this did not necessarily mean brazen swagger. Instead,
it meant stealth, or what Fortune called "advocacy in a low key;' in an
effort to establish Union Carbide as a "responsible corporate citizen" in
the eyes of government regulators, legislators, and others whose actions
directly affected the company's bottom line. Union Carbide's new pub­
lic relations strategy was, therefore, "to try to discern the popular will
and then see how it can then tailor its own interests to that sentiment:'l l
The design o f its new headquarters coincided with this strategy. The
site, located about an hour's drive from New York but only about twenty
minutes' drive from the suburban domiciles of many managers, con­
sisted of 645 acres of thickly wooded, gently rolling terrain. And in stark
contrast to the Park Avenue original, this new headquarters was to be
visible in its entirety only from the air, with its architecture and entry
sequence actively preventing full apprehension from the ground (fig. 2).
Often described as a skyscraper turned on its side, the new complex for
3,500 Union Carbide employees, designed by Kevin Roche of Kevin
Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates and completed in 1982, can be
more accurately described as a skyscraper turned inside-out.
The selection of Roche was the first sign of a cultural shift, to the
extent that Union Carbide's management had, according to its architect,
had been taken by his assertion that "office design should come from the
people:'12 In turn, Roche's design for the new headquarters was a self­
conscious response to the earlier S O M building-an attempt further to
"humanize" what, despite the inroads made by the human relations
counselors into the organization man's soul, would still have appeared as
a modular abstraction, its curtain-walled fas:ade folded onto every sur­
face and into every detail of its gridded interiors. Thus Roche began the
design process with an exhaustive analysis of the existing headquarters,
including extensive employee interviews. One finding was that em­
ployees objected to the spatial hierarchies still allowed by the existing
building. Despite its egalitarian pretensions, the flexible partition system
had in fact enabled offices of different sizes to be distributed to workers

2. Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, Union Carbide headquarters,

Danbury, Connecticut, 1982. Aerial view. Courtesy of Kevin Roche John
Dinkeloo and Associates.

of different rank, while the building's urban location and monolithic

configuration yielded select corner offic es with double views that could
be likewise rationed.13
Roche's response was to develop a set of technical parameters based
on the variable iterability of a single unit of space: an individual office.
Regardless of rank, each worker would receive 180 square feet of private
office space, with each unit possessing an equivalent but different view
of the surrounding forest. Environmental control was likewise person­
alized, with each office for each employee equipped with separate light­
ing and temperature controls, so that each could surround him- or
(significantly for the corporate imagination of the late seventies) herself
with the climate of their choice. Thus the design problem became
fundamentally topological: 3J 300 units of space had to be organized in
relation to one another and to the outdoors to achieve a new, architec­
tural parity.
Due to its incipient capacity to model, with quantitative exactitude,
multiple variations of a given problem, the computer was called in as a
Mass Customization 181
design tool (a practice still relatively uncommon at the time) .14 A num­
ber of diagrams were tested and rejected) beginning with a 2.6 mile long
tube of continuously varying dimension) from minimum to maximum,
which allowed proportional as well as dimensional variation in the
individual offices and other (larger) program spaces arrayed along its
length, while affording the requisite equality of view. Other rejected
schemes included a spine with bristles in which offices would wind up
facing each other instead of the trees) as well as a multiple courtyard
scheme with a similar problem. The organization that was ultimately
selected (and realized in modified form) had the fractal-like, crenellated
perimeter of a snowflake. The units themselves were oriented at 4S
degree angles to one another in clusters strung along the edge of the
snowflake) thus affording the desired view without compromising pri­
vacy (fig. 3).
Dropped onto the site and surrounded by the requisite parking how­
ever) the snowflake became a kind of alien spacecraft that would have
exposed Union Carbide's new home to full public view (fig. 4). Alterna­
tive massing studies were thus undertaken, resulting in a gently curved
bar that could be inserted surgically into a contoured open field with
minimum disruption (fig. S ). The inside-out design of the building that
had begun by equilibrating the views from within each office was com­
pleted with the internalization of the parking into a series of multilevel
garages with access bridges matched to the office clusters, thus enabling
each worker literally to drive in and park adjacent to their office (fig. 6).
The office building was now effectively one terminal in a continuous
interior) in which these knowledge workers could move almost seam­
lessly from their house to their garage to their car to their garage to their
office) and back again) day after day. There was no need to go outside.
It should not be surprising) then) that the extent to which this design
also redesigned-indeed customized-the subject of corporate capital­
ism is measured most accurately in the interiors of the offices them­
selves. Roche Dinkeloo developed thirty different office styles) ranging
from what they called "very modern to traditional;' with each set of
furniture and accessories costing the same (again to avoid any insinua­
tion of class whether on the basis of rank or of aspiration). Full-scale
mock-ups of each office style were built) complete with simulated forest
view (again: unmediated transparency, or WYS IWYG ) (fig. 7) . These
Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo
and Associates, Union Carbide
headquarters, Danbury,
Connecticut, 1982. Courtesy of
Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo
and Associates.

3. Preliminary layout.

4. Preliminary site plan.

s. Plan.

6. Axonometric.
Mass Customization 183

7. Kevin Roche
John Dinkeloo and
Associates, Union
Carbide headquarters,
Danbury, Connecticut,
1982. Office interior.
Courtesy of Kevin
Roche John Dinkeloo
and Associates.

were shown to three thousand employees, who were then interviewed

for their choice of carpet, desk, counter, light fixtures, plants, pens and
pencils, and ashtrays. Each choice was input into a computerized pur­
chasing database. A design was output. Thus also, fourteen categories of
art were offered to decorate these thirty office models, from figurative to
abstract. The final purchases were made on the basis of percentages
drawn from the employee surveys. Roche himself asserted, "I felt, very
strongly:, that we should not impose our design aesthetic on people; let
them choose as they wished;' a strategy that was, as he put it, a "radical
idea at the time:'l S As it turned out, no imposition was necessary. The
furniture set designed in-house by the Roche office was the most popu­
lar selection, with second place going to an office with what Roche
called a "very conservative desk;' and least popular of all being the
"contemporary" office with glass table top and chrome legs (too flashy,
it seems) . 16
This level of detail is relevant here only to insist on the systematic,
inside-out nature of this reinvention of Union Carbide's corporate iden­
tity. Not only does the new personalization reach into every detail of
corporate life; it involves, at every step, a biopolitical refashioning of its
employees themselves into "persons" equipped with variable tastes, in­
dividual lifestyles, and eventually personal computers. Thus did Union
Carbide announce, in its annual report of 1981 as the building was
nearing completion at the height of an economic recession, its new
"emphasis on people;' or what the company's Chairman and CEO War­
ren M. Anderson called "human resources:' As Anderson put it in his
letter to stockholders: "Union Carbide is a good place to work, and we
are determined to make it an even better one, with opportunity and
incentive for every employee to become personally involved in our objec­
tives and our progress." 17

But it is equally clear that Union Carbide did not regard all of its
constituents as "persons;' and perhaps not even as humans. On the night
of December 2, 1984, two years after Roche's building was completed,
forty-five tons of the lethal methyl isocynate (MIC ) gas leaked from
a poorly maintained storage tank at the Union Carbide battery and
pesticide manufacturing plant in Bhopal, India. The body count remains
indeterminate. Though the Indian authorities stopped counting at 1,754,
official government estimates put the immediate death toll at approx­
imately 3,800 (roughly equivalent to the number of well-maintained
persons housed in Union Carbide's Danbury headquarters ).18 Unofficial
estimates of the death toll run to more than three times that many, and
the consensus among activists and survivors groups hovers between
7,000 and 10,000 in the immediate aftermath and 20,000 in the years that
followed.19 An estimated 500,000 people were injured, many severely and
permanently. Most of the victims, including an unknown number of
Union Carbide employees (so-called human resources), lived in the
shadow of the plant and were overcome by the gas as they slept. Many
were from the poorest classes of Indian society and lacked identification
documents such as citizenship papers, marriage certificates, or land
deeds and were often omitted from official census counts.20 Mass burials
and mass cremations left fewer bodies accessible to officials, which meant
that such records were often the only available evidence that an individ­
ual had existed in the first place.
Union Carbide and its affiliates never stood trial in India. Anderson,
the CEO who had announced the company's new "emphasis on people;'
traveled to India and was arrested upon arrival, but he was released on
bail and allowed to leave the country. In 1986 he retired and has never
returned to face the criminal charges against him, despite a formal
extradition request from the Indian government in 2003. Ongoing
efforts in the United States (where punitive damages as well as compen­
sation are permitted by the courts) to sue Union Carbide on behalf of
the victims for a sum of US$15 billion have been unsuccessful. With
respect to this initiative, one member of the company's legal team
reportedly asked, "How can one determine the damage inflicted on
people who live in shacks ?"21 In 1985, two analysts advocated in The Wall
Mass Customization 185
Street Journal that punitive damages be taken off the table, thus reducing
Union Carbide's exposure dramatically, as follows: ''A very rough cal­
culation can be made of the probable compensatory (not punitive)
award. Based on a recent Rand Corp. study of wrongful-death awards in
Chicago, an American's life is worth about $500,000. But in settling
monetary value on the damage inflicted [in BhopaI], U.S. courts will
take into account the differences between U.S. and Indian costs and
standards of living. India per capita gross national product is only 1.7%
of the U.S. figure ($256 compared with $15,000). Thus a U.S. court
might award only $8,500 for an Indian's death:'22
In 1989, Union Carbide settled out of court with the Indian govern­
ment for US$470 million. The first round of compensation occurred in
the early nineties, and by late 2004, on the twentieth anniversary of the
catastrophe, each affected family expected to receive between 100,000
and 200,000 rupees-between US$2,IS0 and US$S,300, or roughly 5
percent of the American "standard:'23 According to activists, compensa­
tion has thus far been made for only about six hundred deaths, while
approximately five hundred thousand disability claims have been filed
with an average compensation of US$soo each.24 But beyond the
grossly diminished numerical value placed on the lives of the victims,
the larger point here has to do with the extraordinary fragility of this
elementary form of representation-counting-when confronted with
the task of representing a subject on the verge of inviSibility.
Evidence suggests that the "persons" in Danbury were aware in ad­
vance of the risks to the rather more abstract corporate subjects in
Bhopal, where Union Carbide had minimized its own economic ex­
posure through cost-cutting in the event the plant was nationalized
under Indian legislation.25 The global outrage, however, did not reach
the fever pitch that became familiar in the United States in the wake of
September 11, demanding instant, personalized commemoration of each
victim. The company erected no memorials, listed no names, published
no pictures. Instead, it circulated sabotage theories while divesting itself
of its assets to protect against litigation. Thus, in 1987 the company sold
its already invisible Danbury headquarters and adjacent development
rights to the Related Companies, a real estate group, becoming a lease­
holding tenant in its own building.26 In 1999, Union Carbide itself
disappeared, though not because it was bankrupted by the relatively
scant settlement; rather, it too was assimilated through corporate mer-
ger into an even larger network operating in 168 countries and employ­
ing forty-nine thousand people: Dow Chemical.
What, then, of architecture here? Back in Danbury circa 1990, a Union
Carbide executive noted that the company's response to what he called
the "shock" of Bhopal was to reemphasize its social responsibilities,
while also noting that the move to Danbury had itself succeeded in
converting Union Carbide managers from alienated commuters to ac­
tive members of the local community, for whom "diversity is the new
name that's creeping into everybody's language."27 Roche had already
accommodated this diversified corporate community in, for example, a
cafeteria divided into six unique sections dedicated to six different
lifestyles, including a back room modeled on a men's club and a singles
bar. But, commenting on his firm's design practices, Roche uncannily
(and perhaps unconsciously) sees a ghost in the ubiquitous mirrored
surfaces adorning these pseudopublic interiors, or "living rooms" as he
called them (fig. 8). For Roche, these faceted and rounded mirrors were
"constantly alive;' as they reflected both the "sparkle" and "dark spots"
of the "real world:'28 Designed by an architect who, as an associate of
Eero Saarinen, had produced the first mirrored-glass curtain wall at Bell
Laboratories in Holmdel, New Jersey in 1962, the mirrors thereby distill
architecture's paradoxical, noncommunicative specificity as mass me­
dium, as they move from exterior (at Bell Labs) to interior (at Union
Carbide) .
Initially, the mirrors may b e interpreted a s a response to Roche's
teacher Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, whose glass and steel Federal Cen­
ter in Chicago had been described by Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco
Dal Co as "reflecting images of the urban chaos that surrounds the
timeless Miesian puritY:'29 In contrast to Mies, the mirrors at Union
Carbide promise·-again, in the manner of a politician-to make visible
(indeed to reflect) the new corporate subject, a person at home in the
seamless domestic interior of the office. Here is Roche: "We tried to
deinstitutionalize the building so that it seemed lively or more domestic,
in a character appropriate to a corporate family:'30 But as in the curtain
wall at Bell Laboratories, in these interiors there remains-rather liter­
ally, as Roche implies-nothing in the mirror, only agitated blurs and
glancing highlights that refuse to coalesce. Thus, where Kracauer had
found in the unconscious "surface-level" expressions of the mass orna­
ment what he took to be "unmediated access to the fundamental sub-
Mass Customization 187

8. Kevin Roche
John Dinkeloo and
Associates) Union
Carbide headquarters)
Danbury) Connecti­
cut) 1982. Cafeteria.
Courtesy of Kevin
Roche John Dinkeloo
and Associates.

stance of the state of things;' we discover something like the reverse at

work in Union Carbide's hall of mirrors: an unconscious gap or hole in
the surface giving access to invisible mediations and to the active pro­
duction of alterity on the supposedly unmediated interior of a diversified
corporate sel£ 31
Here too we glimpse an inadvertent perceptual denaturalization, a
momentary yet persistent estrangement that is also an internal multi­
plication. To see such a depersonalization is, in a sense, to see those in
Bhopal whose "bare life" was opposed to but also constitutive of the well­
adorned personhood cultivated in Danbury. And I use Giorgio Agam­
ben's terminology advisedly here, since for Agamben "bare life" denotes
life exposed to a state of exception that has become a norm, to which the
law is no longer applicable. Under a state of exception, according to
Agamben, it is "permitted to kill without committing homicide."32 Homo
sacer, the ambiguous figure from ancient Roman jurisprudence who
may be killed with impunity but not sacrificed, is Agamben's name for
all those who live without the protections of the law, a state of affairs for
which the death camp is the defining instance. And while Union Car­
bide's plant and its surroundings were not a camp, the relative invis­
ibility of the Bhopal victims and the partial suspension of what might be
termed their political right to be counted as dead, dying, or permanently
impaired locates them-in only a slightly less literal sense-tenden­
tiously in the space of Homo sacer, the subject of "bare" or "naked" life.
Under such conditions, unseen/uncounted also describes a subjec­
tivity that is not exactly unmediated, but rather inaccessible to the
spectacular mediation that is scaled down to the personal level under
mass customization. And yet, though their own lives are thereby con-
demned to relative exteriority, the labor of those who are invisible to the
spectacle remains necessary for the consumer-masses of mass custom­
ization to come into view-indeed, to enter the field of visibility as
"persons:' In "incidents" such as the Bhopal catastrophe, the act of
counting thus approaches the limit case of deaths that no longer count
(or at minimum, do not count enough) but that nevertheless remain
inextricably linked to the predatory expansion of multinational capital.
These deaths cruelly rehearse the logic of a "life that does not deserve to
live" uncovered by Agamben's philology, a cruelty that is underpinned
by a structural, technologically enabled blindness (a consequence of
what Ranciere has called a "distribution of the sensible") that must itself
be brought into view.33
Conversely, the architectural trajectory followed by the two Union
Carbide headquarters actively consolidates what Gilles Deleuze called
the "dividuation" (or infinitely divisible, distinguishable coding) that
increasingly characterizes a mode of subjectivity immanent to global
capital.34 To this we can add that the "dividual" appears here as a subject
converted into a numerical variable in a new form of mass-or now,
mass-customized-ornament. This visibility imposes itself in a manner
comparable to that of universal computation (or universal computabil­
ity, as Alan Turing would have it). Like the mass ornament before it, the
parametrically regulated technical means by which this is achieved in
architecture and other domains begins and ends with numbers. The
historical difference with respect to modernism is that, rather than
defining an optimized standard to which design and production must
conform, the new postmodern numbers enumerate and serialize differ­
ence itself. But the computer's supposed universality, translated into a
capacity to register near-infinite differentiation in its new figuration as
an instrument of choice under mass customization, already contains
something like a built-in limit case in the form of a constantly shifting
horizon of visibility and of counting.
What cannot be seen cannot be counted. Whereas at the other pole,
what can be seen reveals retroactively a threshold that is also built into
Kracauer's notion of the mass ornament. As an organized figure "com­
posed of elements that are mere building blocks and nothing more;'
Kracauer attributed to the mass ornament a rationality closed off from
reason that mirrors the calculability demanded by capitalist production.
This leads to, among other things, a "blurring of national characteristics
Mass Customization 189
and to the production of worker masses that can be employed equally
well at any point on the globe:'35 Its precondition (as well as its end
point) is the socioeconomic and technological process of massification,
whereby "only as parts of a mass, not as individuals who believe them­
selves to be formed from within, do people become fractions of a
figure:'36 Under mass customization, massification has been scaled
down to the level of the "person:' But this person is not to be under­
stood in classically humanist terms as a bounded individual in posses­
sion of a unique and unassailable soul-a figure that Kracauer had
already judged anachronistic with respect to the earlier phase of moder­
nity he was describing. A person, now, is a figure composed of numbers
inside and out.
In biopolitical terms, such a figure is theoretically customizable under
a computationally intensive human genomics, as well as under a com­
putationally enabled, expansionist corporate consumerism and the sub­
jectivities it proliferates. Similarly, outward industrial expansion-exem­
plified in this case by India's chemically enhanced "green revolution;' of
which the Union Carbide pesticide plant was a part-is now accom­
panied by an expansion inward, into the interiority of the self. So even as
the mass ornament might still be useful to describe the homogenizing
reach of industrial capital into new "frontiers;' it reaches its limit case
internally as those frontiers Simultaneously turn inward. For this, a
complementary figure-the "person" -must be articulated alongside
the mass ornament, to make visible the spectacle of (in)dividuation that
is made possible by numerical abstraction, and its dependence on the
invisibility of others outside whose deaths remain uncounted.

Thus we arrive at a somewhat counterintuitive formulation. At one

level, the subjective by-product of the cybernetic revolution is not a
faceless, digital automaton, but a hyperindividuated, spectacularized
quasi singularity, composed of ever finer (and potentially incommensur­
able) data sets that profile personal taste, personal habits, personal
opinion, and so on. While at another level, a complementary by-product
of informatization is ultimately the invisible subject of bare life whose
death is not counted and therefore does not count. This is the horror of
Bhopal and of so many other less visible catastrophes. In these, the
biopolitical machinery of computational equivalence-enumeration,
that is, and with it, interpellation into Deleuze's control society as a
mathematical variable otherwise known as a "person" -functions in­
creasingly via a symmetrical exclusion from counting, and indeed, from
visibility, as an exception that has become internalized, or rather, incor­
porated as a norm. The relative invisibility of the deindividuated Bhopal
victims (stripped of even the mass ornament of enumeration) has
helped foreclose their access to jurisprudence while also helping, along
with the company's own invisibility, to ensure Union Carbide's survival
under the sign of Dow Chemical.
Still, as a biopolitical machine designed to make the personalized
subject of global capital visible to itself, and thereby to rehearse the
process of narcissistic self-identification and production, architecture
cannot help but register here a kind of splitting open that releases a
depersonalized remainder. This comes in the form of a shimmering blind
spot, whose spectral presence organizes the deepest interiors of corpo­
rate domesticity. In that sense, the Union Carbide headquarters in
Danbury was from the beginning haunted by the ghosts of Bhopal, on
behalf ofwhom, in an act of counter-memory, we may now claim it as a
kind of inverted memorial-a memorialization in advance. This haunt­
ing, this commemoration in the future anterior tense, takes the form of an
irreducible abstraction that, in effect, transcends the spectacularized
numerical abstraction of the mass ornament that is sublimated into mass
customization. This other, postmodern, abstraction is most obviously
mirrored in the mirrored surfaces that line the building's interior. But it is
also discernible elsewhere: in the mechanical emptiness of the parking
garages, for example (which offer a kind of final resting place for the mass
ornament in their rows of empty machines), as well as in the less obvious
emptiness of the office itself, to say nothing of the view out the window
and, today, into the windows of the personal computer. As seen in these
surfaces, the "person" called forth by mass customization is doubly
spectral: first, in the Derridean sense, extrapolated from Shakespeare via
Marx, of a fetishized commodity in which the social relations among
things associated with industrial capital have been transformed into
social relations among imagesj and second, in the uncanny co-presence
of a global other structurally condemned to silence and invisibility.37
To see, or indeed to hallucinate, a ghost in the empty halls of the
transnational corporate edifice is hardly to excuse the blind and system­
atic enthusiasm with which architecture services a hegemonic world
order. On the contrary, it is to locate strategically its internal aporias, the
Mass Customization 191

holes in the screen of mass-customized bliss. We cannot claim, with

paternalistic sanctimony, to speak directly through these holes on behalf
of a subaltern, or even to offer an opening onto visibility per se. But we
can and must speak in unequivocal solidarity with her. Such solidarity,
emanating from within the very headquarters of empire, is inadvertently
enabled by the blind spots in an architectural dispositij or diagram that
otherwise reproduces itself with ever-greater efficiency. Today, this re­
production occurs most perversely in the name of a postpolitical multi­
plicity-a pseudopersonalization embraced by corporate global vil­
lagers and computer-aided architects alike. Yet what we see in these
mirrored interiors, which perhaps mark the end of corporate architec­
ture's mirror stage, is not our selves projected outward-customized
masses converted into persons-but the names and faces of nameless,
faceless others within, for whom the personal remains political, both out
there and in here.


1. There is a growing literature on digitally aided design and fabrication in

architecture. For a summary of the experiments in what has been called "non­
standard" design, see the exhibition catalogue edited by Frederic Migayrou,
Architectures non standard. See also "Versioning: Evolutionary Techniques in
Architecture;' a special issue of Architectural Design 72, no. S, guest edited by
SHoP / Sharples Holden Pasquarelli ( September/ O ctober 2002 ) . Kracauer,
"The Mass Ornament:'
2. Adorno, The Culture Industry, 173.
3. Lynn, "Embryologic Houses;' 11.
4. Kracauer, "The Mass Ornament;' 76; Lynn, Animate Form, 17.
s. On the postcriticality debate, see Baird, " 'Criticality' and Its Discontents";
and Martin "Critical ofWhat?"
6. Ranciere, On the Shores of Politics, 22.
7. "Union Carbide's Shaft of Steel;' Architectural Forum vol. 113 ( November
1960 ) : 120.
8. Mills, White Collar, 189-212.
9. On flexibility and the "organization man" in the postwar office building,
see Martin, The Organizational Complex.
10. Menzies, "Union Carbide Raises Its Voice;' 86.
11. Ibid., 86-87.
12. Kevin Roche, as quoted by Kudo, "World Headquarters, Union Carbide
Corporation;' 112.
13. Roche, "Design Process, World Headquarters, Union Carbide Corpora­
tion;' 115 - 19.
14. On the use of mainframe and personal computers in architectural offices
as design and production tools in the early eighties, see, for example "Com­
puters in Architecture;' ProgreSSive Architecture 65, no. 5 (May 1984), a special
issue on the subj ect. See also Giovannini, "Architecture of Information:'
15. Roche, "Design Process;' 132.
16. Ibid., 135.
17. Warren M. Anderson, Chairman, and Alex Flamm, President, "To Our
Stockholders;' Union Carbide: Putting Technology to Work, Annual report, 1981.
Emphasis added.
18. A variety of sources list the official government count at 1,754, including
the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal (http: //www.bhopal.net /
gda / facts.html), and Lapierre and Moro, Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, 375.
19. Amnesty International, Clouds of Injustice, 10- 12.
20. Bridget Hanna, personal communication with the author, January 10,
2006. Hanna maintains the Web site for the Bhopal Memory Project (http: //
bhopal.bard.edu / ), is a coeditor of The Bhopal Reader, and is currently working
with victims' advocacy groups in Bhopal.
21. Lapierre and Moro, Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, 380.
22. Besharov and Reuter, ''Averting a Bhopal Legal Disaster;' 32. Besharov is
identified as an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and Reuter
as a senior economist at the Rand Corporation.
23. Bridget Hanna, personal communication with the author, January 10,
2006. See also Das, "Moral Orientations to Suffering"j and Sharma, "Catastro­
phe and the Dilemma of Law:'
24. Hanna, personal communication with the author, January 10, 2006. See
also Amnesty International, Clouds of Injustice, for estimates of actual compen­
sation made by 1995. According to Hanna, "activists have tried over the years to
create alternate counts to interrupt official numbers. In one particularly impor­
tant move, the group that has evolved into the Sambhavna Trust Clinic and
Documentation Center began to do 'verbal autopsies' in 1996, coming up with
a set of questions through which they could determine if a death was the result
of gas exposure and therefore try to affect the official count"j personal com­
munication, January 10, 2006.
25. Hanna, "Bhopal as Planned:'
26. "Carbide Plans Sale of Headquarters Site for $340 Million;' Wall Street
Journal, November 7, 1986, 58j and "Carbide Closes Sale of Headquarters;' Wall
Mass Customization 193
Street Journal, January 2, 1987, 5. Five days before the sale was announced, the
New York Times reported, "The Indian Government is urging a district court to
restrain the Union Carbide Corporation from selling any more of its assets,
saying such sales could reduce any eventual settlement of the 1984 gas tragedy:'
Hazarika, "India Fighting Sales of Union Carbide Assets:'
27. James N. Barton, Director, General Services, Union Carbide Corpora­
tion, interviewed by Kunio Kudo in "World Headquarters, Union Carbide
Corporation;' 147.
28. Asked by Francesco Dal Co about the generous use of mirrors on the
interiors of many of his firm's office buildings, Roche replied, "The interesting
thing about mirror is that it is very inexpensive, almost as inexpensive as paint.
Most interior surfaces are static, unchanging: if painted, the paint remains the
same until it fades. The marvelous thing that happens with mirror, if used in a
certain way, is that it is constantly alive, constantly alive as one moves. It
becomes a kinetic surface, a kinetic experience of light. It picks up reflections,
sparkle. Dark spots, a constant painting where the real world is reflected in a
painterly way. A tremendous decorative effect from what exists, always chang­
ing, always moving:' Roche, "Kevin Roche on Design and Building;' 85.
29. Tafuri and Dal Co, Modern Architecture, 2:314.
30. Roche, "Design Process, World Headquarters, Union Carbide Corpora-
tion;' 134.
31. Kracauer, "The Mass Ornament;' 75.
32. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 83. Emphasis in original.
33. On "the life that does not deserve to live;' see Agamben, Homo Sacer, 136-
43. On the "partition [or distribution] of the sensible;' see Ranciere, The
Politics ofAesthetics.
34. Deleuze, "Postscript on Control S ocieties;' 180.
35. Kracauer, "The Mass Ornament;' 78.
36. Ibid., 76.
37. Derrida, Specters ofMarx.
PA RT T H R E E The Limits o f C ommunity


Experimental Communities

It might seem a strange paradox that, to begin a discussion of a number

of recent projects pointing toward the formation of a new culture in the
arts, we must start with a toilet. This toilet, however, is very different
from the one that, almost a century ago, Marcel Duchamp presented at
the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Duchamp signed his
piece "R Mutt" and gave it a title that served to distance or extract it
from its daily uses. In 2003, the Slovenian artist Marjetica Potre pro­
posed the installation of two dry toilets in an outlying area of the city of
Caracas, working in collaboration with the La Vega neighborhood asso­
ciation, the Caracas Urban Think Tank (C CSTT ) and the architects Ana
Maria Torres and Liyat Esakov. 1 The toilets were proposed as a solution
to the sewage contamination and water shortages that the inhabitants of
the ciudad informal ("informal city;' the euphemism used to refer to the
slums or shantytowns of Caracas) deal with on a daily basis. Potre's and
Esakov's solution was to take effect during a six-month trial period, after
which it could be adopted by the area's residential complex. In the
artist's own words, this project-which involved the establishment of a
collaborative group, including neighbors from La Vega, the architects,
and the artist herself-represents the culmination of a long search for
solutions to a number of concrete problems.
Potre is part of a growing group of artists whose members do not
necessarily know each other and whose importance in the contempo­
rary art world has been steadily increasing during the course of the last
decade. These artists refuse to make objects that are self-sufficient and
stable, o r specific events o r performances confined t o a clearly delimited
place and a brief time; instead, they propose open projects whose de­
velopment implies the formation of experimental communities that
include artists and nonartists. Their works consist of inventing devices
and providing resources for dialogues in which forms of knowledge,
imaginaries, and social relations can be clarified, enhanced, and devel­
oped. At the same time, they generate presentations in art spaces of the
images, sounds, and discourses that result from their specific projects.
What is finally shown is both a set of more or less durable artifacts and a
record of the production of the collectivities from which these arise.
Potre, for example, employs the medium of drawing to convey the
variety of urban situations that insistently attract her attention and to
explore a range of possible solutions, both realistic and utopian. Reminis­
cent of Yona Friedman's sketches from the seventies, Potre's colorful
drawings seem to perform a pedagogic role, informing the art audience
of the developments of the artist's work outside the boundaries of the
exhibition space. Combining words and images, the drawings bridge the
apparent gap between Potre's investigations into the urban and her desire
to operate in specific situations while functioning according to the
conventions of a more traditional definition of artistic practice. A num­
ber of her recent drawings from Caracas allow the art audience to
understand the process by which Potrc and her group arrived at the dry
toilet as a possible solution for an endemic problem of the city's shanties.
Potre usually complements her presentations in institutional contexts
with a Web site devoted to her work, featuring examples of urban and
architectural practices generated as responses to a wide array of local
problems. She also includes display structures strategically placed in the
exhibition space containing experimental prototypes and utilitarian ob­
jects that she calls "power tools;' which offer paradigms for a wide
variety of already existing "solutions:' Potre's solutions are not instru­
mental in the sense of merely proposing technical solutions to problems.
Her works do not attempt to formalize what is informal about these
neighborhoods by integrating them into the macroeconomic urban sys­
tem; instead, they explore the methodology of self-help and econom­
ically sustainable solutions in different environments. She is less inter­
ested in carrying out an activity linked to social engineering than in the
progressive consolidation of a model of urban intervention. In this
Experimental Communities 199
model, a problem is seen both as an obstacle to be overcome and as the
occasion for an interrogation of social relations and the subsequent
elaboration of alternative forms of sociality. During this process, the
artist and the newly formed community create archives that can be
circulated outside the site of their original production, whose function is
to memorialize and publicize the model.
The sOciologist Stephen Turner has proposed a term that usefully
describes Potre's work: the "boundary organization;' which he defines
as a space and a group of protocols that provide "a framework of flexible
mutual expectations:'2 This framework allows for the collaboration be­
tween individuals or groups with very different backgrounds, skills,
interests, and desires. A particularly relevant example of the kind of
boundary organizations to which Turner refers are the increasingly
frequent associations between scientists and laypersons that form to
discuss ecological crises. These are temporary organizations that com­
municate between worlds whose coupling would initially seem unlikely.
This coupling depends on the establishment of transitory domains
where gatherings can take place, where processes of translation can
develop, and where results can be accumulated and organized.
These domains are not isolated, in the same way that an eddy is not
isolated in a currentj rather, they are embedded in the social worlds that
they link by the mere fact of their existence. We have chosen to call the
gatherings that take place around projects like Potre's "experimental
communities" : durable associations of individuals who explore anoma­
lous forms of being together while addressing a problem in a certain
locality; producing objects, texts, films, and images that can circulate in
the art world as aesthetic manifestations of the social knowledge that
emerges in the process. The particular profile that the universe of the
arts has adopted in the last few years depends on the presence and the
influence of a growing number of artists who are interested in develop­
ing boundary organizations where experimental communities can start,
expand, subsist, and transform.

This process takes place against the background of that series of de­
velopments and transformations that is usually called globalization, a
widely contested term that we understand as a large increase in com­
munications and connections and a generalized destructuring of the
institutions and ways of life that were developed in the context of the
Euro-Arnerican type of national-social states of the central decades of
the twentieth century. The tasks that these artists seem to have set for
themselves amount to the invention of new forms of being-in-common
and representing that commonalit)'J in circumstances in which the social
forms that emerged in the context of the social capitalism that pre­
vailed in the second part of the twentieth century are progressively
In the world of globalization, the conception of art as a space in which
a fundamental truth about individuals or communities is manifested
through those objects or events usually called "art works" seems to be
losing its centrality. The range of indicators of this process go from the
passive acceptance, by some artists, of the role of producers of high­
quality goods (as with the works of Takashi Murakami or Damian
Hirst) to an aggressive affirmation of subjectivity that is more like a
symptom of its own dissolution (as in the case of Matthew Barney or
Tracey Emin, among others) . That is to say, the art world cynically
affirms exchange value as universal equivalency and spectacularly dis­
plays mythologies of a strictly personal nature. In this context, some
artists have generated strategies that react to this set of situations by tak­
ing up certain moments from the avant-garde tradition that remained
insufficiently explored and developing them in original ways. Here, we
are referring mostly to the several historical attempts to imagine possi­
ble connections between producers and receivers that would not be
mediated by the traditional form of the artwork.
Thomas Hirschhorn's installation at Documenta 11 in 2002 is an exam­
ple of these strategies. The piece involved the construction of a series of
precarious buildings in the Friedrich Wohler-Complex, a public space in
the north of Kassel, inhabited mostly but not exclusively by immigrants
of Turkish descent. The set of buildings was called Bataille Monument.
The project consisted of a set of discrete elements and actions, includ­
ing a sculpture of wood, cardboard, tape, and plastic (the "Sculpture,") j
a Georges Bataille "Library;' with books that refer to Bataille's oeuvre,
arranged according to categories of word, image, art, sports, and sex (a
collaboration with Uwe Fleckner) (fig. l)j a "Bataille Exhibition" with a
topography of his oeuvre, a map, and books on and by Georges Bataille
(a collaboration with Christophe Fiat); various workshops realized
through the duration of the exhibition (a collaboration with Manuel
Experimental Communities 201

Thomas Hirschhorn,
Bataille Monument,
2002. Documenta ll,
Kassel,2002. Photo by
Werner Maschmann,
courtesy of Gladstone

1. Library.

2. Bar.

Joseph, Jean-Charles Massera, and Marcus Steinweg)j a stand with food

and drinks (fig. 2)j a shuttle service to transport the visitors and neigh­
borhood residents between Documenta 11 and the Bataille Monument
(fig. 3)j a television studio that broadcast daily a brief show from the
Bataille Monument on the Kassel public-access channel (fig. 4) j and a
Web site with live feedback from web cams installed in the different
sections of the Bataille Monument.
In Hirschhorn's project, educational organizations (the workshops
and the library) join mechanisms aimed at articulating the relationship
between the audience and the work of art (the "Sculpture" [fig. sJ and the
"Bataille Exhibition" [fig. 6 J ), which in turn are linked to parodic forms

Thomas Hirschhorn,
Bataille Monument,
2002. Documenta Il,
Kassel, 2002. Photo by
Werner Maschmann,
courtesy of Gladstone

3. Shuttle service.

4. TV studio.

of public transportation (two dilapidated Mercedes-Benzes served as

shuttles), a local television channel, the Web, and fast-food services.
This heterogeneous, stratified community is firmly anchored in the
diverse instances of daily life but subject to a radical temporality con­
cerning its duration and intensity. It is the "form" of a possible commu­
nity that seems to interest Hirschhorn primarily, a form that is not
created once and for all but that is rather the result of an assembly
process, open (to a certain extent) to the unforeseen. Although Hirsch­
horn seems at times an artist involved mostly with the tradition of
sculpture, and more specifically, with its public incarnations, his con­
cern instead seems to be the forms of experience that an object or set of
Experimental Communities 203

Thomas Hirschhorn}
Bataille Monument}
2002. Documenta Il}
Kassel} 2002. Photo by
Werner Maschmann}
courtesy of Gladstone

s. Sculpture.

6. Georges Bataille

objects might enable. The artifact that he constructs is precisely the

assembly of relationships between a diverse group of actors and communi­
cational situations. Through these multiple situations, the Bataille Monu­
ment set out to present a series of events and to open up a space where
exchanges between the neighborhood and its surroundings could take
place. But it also tried to assemble a program in which the process of
constructing the piece demanded the invention of a possible community
integrated by locals and visitors, inhabitants and passers-by. This commu­
nity, while composed of certain preexisting instances and elements, would
end up incorporating elements that were, initially, foreign to it.
At first, these projects might seem dose to things familiar: forms of art
for the community as they are conceived b y state bureaucracies, o r the
projects associated with a "new public art" of a few years ago, like Mary
Jane Jacobs's "Culture in Action" of 1993. But the conception that lies at
the base of both those strategies is essentially conservative, insofar as
they conceive of artistic production as a compensatory activity, an ac­
tivity where individuals, in their leisure time, communicate their per­
sonal emotions, goals, and desires through texts or images, without
linking them critically to the matrix of social forces from which they
emerge. At the same time, they tend to operate under the assumption
that communities have an identity that is independent of the acts of
expression in which they engage, not recognizing that identity forma­
tions are contingently constituted by these very acts. Projects associated
with identity politics usually fall prey to exactly this set of problems.3
The relevance of projects like Hirschhorn's resides precisely in the fact
that they occur in spaces and situations where even the existence of a set
identity cannot be assumed. Indeed, the very premise of projects like
the Bataille Monument is that all identities, even the most stable ones,
are inexorably volatile and constantly being produced and reproduced.
Hirschhorn's Bataille Monument, like several of his previous "Monu­
ments;' attempts to disturb the presumed stability of the contexts in
which it takes place, while also proposing a new space in which the
knowledge and actions that arise from this disturbance can circulate, be
recorded, displayed, and metabolized by the newly constituted commu­
nity. In this way, a project like Hirschhorn's differs from . those earlier
projects that Nicolas Bourriaud addressed in his briefbook on relational
aesthetics.4 The corpus of relational aesthetics, as it was initially pre­
sented in Bourriaud's book, consisted mostly of punctual interventions
in relatively homogeneous and stable regions of social life. Examples
included Rirkrit Tiravanija organizing a dinner at a collector's house,
Philippe Parreno inviting people to practice their favorite hobbies on
May 1, Pierre Huyghe assembling a casting session, or Gabriel Orozco
placing oranges in an empty Brazilian market. All of these projects are
micro-actions that inflect a state of things without breaking it. Bour­
riaud's book-extremely valuable in its introduction of both a group of
artists that would become particularly central to the current critical
discussions and a useful perspective for looking at their work-carries
with it the early-nineties ethos of modesty, an instinctive refusal to en­
gage in anything that could smell of Grand Politics. To this attests his in""
Experimental Communities 205
sistence on the value of the micro-gesture and the interstitial. But this
modesty is also its main limitation. The artists that we mention (who
are, we would suggest, some of the most interesting and intense of the
more recent artistic production) try to overcome this limit by designing
and producing engagements that are sustained in time and take place in
tense environments, where forms of conflict can't be avoided.
Hirschhorn's Monument is clearly an example of these kinds of engage­
ments, specifically meant to be the occasion for the development of a
particular type oflearning process that, starting from a specific situation
(a group of residents of Hamburg who design a park, a group of resi­
dents and architects in Caracas who design toilets), involves the formu­
lation of objectives and the production and self-representation of the
agency of the collectivity concerned. These are truly open processes in
relation both to the contingencies that may occur while the project is
being carried out and to the makeup of the communities that they
assemble. In his Art as a Social System, Niklas Luhmann suggests that an
artwork is an entity that "directs the beholder's awareness toward the
improbability of its emergence."s From the point of view of the artist, this
means the invitation to practice her art in such a way that the results of
her actions could not be anticipated-perhaps the oldest imperative of
the culture of the arts in modernity. In a recent interview Hirschhorn,
commenting on the Bataille Monument, states:
My monuments aren't spectacles for me but rather events. An event is also
something you can't plan ahead of time because you never know what will
happen. And in fact that is what happened [in the Bataille Monument] . If I
already know in advance what kind of experience will be generated, it
wouldn't be an event, it wouldn't be an experience. I feel that the condition of
spectacle always results from thinking of an event in terms of two groups, one
that produces something and another that looks at it. That is not the case
here. And it is possible to create an event that will be so difficult and
complicated and incredibly exhausting that it will always make excessive
demands on the spectator. The first to be overburdened was me, the next was
my coworkers, or the people from the housing project, and then perhaps the
third, I hope, was the visitor. In this sense I believe that if there is such
constant challenge, one can fend off the spectacle.6

We call "experimental communities" communities formed under the

pressure of the kind of "excessive demand" to which Hirschhorn refers.
It i s o f the nature o f the excessive demand t o allow for a redistribution of
positions and of roles in the site in which it takes place. This redistribu­
tion allows for processes of learning that subsist, at least for as long as
the project continues. Intensity not just in contemplation but funda­
mentally in learning is what these projects propose.

The work of Jeanne van Heeswijk clearly incarnates these distinctive

facets of the experimental community. Face Your World, a 2002 collab­
oration between the Wexner Center for the Arts, the Central Ohio
Transit Authority (C O TA), and the Children of the Future program of
the Greater Columbus Arts Council (G CAC ), was intended to allow a
group of children ages five to twelve to produce their own images of
their urban surroundings by using computer software. This software,
called the Interactor, was developed by van Heeswijk in collaboration
with the poet and philosopher Maaike Engelen and a group of software
designers from the city of Rotterdam, the V2 Organisation's Institute for
the Unstable Media. The software was installed in a number of com­
puters inside a small C O TA bus that was used to take the kids around the
city of Columbus. The bus functioned simultaneously as an exploration
tool and an urban laboratory for the imagination. The results of the
children's work, a collection of personalized images of imaginary public
spaces, were displayed on three "bus stops;' which were in fact slightly
anthropomorphic public sculptures designed by another van Heeswijk
collaborator, the Dutch artist Joep van Lieshout and his Atelier van
Face Your World operated through images. The dimension of excess
that is always implicated in the image (excess of meaning, to start with,
as images are always that which escapes the very possibility of being
signified) is precisely what authorizes its audience of users to appropri­
ate their world while they produce it. This appropriation was, of course,
not entirely factual. The audience (although it might be better to refer
to them as "actors;' as their participation in the project was an active
one) was not intended to reconstruct the actual city but simply to
imagine or produce the possibility that their environment could change.
What the project created was, first and foremost, the possibility of
collective invention.
Potre's, Hirschhorn's, and Van Heeswijk's projects start from an affir­
mation of the primacy of collaborative production processes over indi-
Experimental Communities 207
vidual ones. This stance is linked to the assumption that where a large
number of individuals with access to different types of knowledge con­
verge, a situation is created whose complexity is impossible for individ­
uals to attain. This condition allows for the development of a practical
conception of society in which a human group takes form through a
learning process carried out by means of a sustained conversation be­
tween its members.
The same process occurs in another recent project, Cybermohalla,
ongoing in New Delhi since the year 2000. Started by Sarai: The New
Media Initiative, the project consists of a group of Indian artists, film­
makers, and computer experts who work in collaboration with Ankur, an
N G O dedicated to experimental educational processes. Cybermohalla
sets up meeting spaces for young people and provides them with assis­
tance to carry out collaborative projects that usually take the form of
interviews and annotations in hypertextual diaries that are later submit­
ted for public discussion. The project takes place in various parts of the
city: in 2002, in Dakshinpuri, a resettlement colony in the south of
Dalhumj in 2001, in LNJ P, an illegal squat in the middle of the cityj and in
2000, in the Sarai Media Laborator)1j in the north of Delhi. A combina­
tion of text, image, and sound, these materials originate in conversations
that take place in the spaces themselves, in the neighborhoods, or
through email exchanges. From this process particular forms of represen­
tation have developed, forms that are, at the same time, sites for the
construction of subjectivity. "Keeping and maintaining diaries is a prac­
tice that allows for an engagement with 'reality' and the context one is
situated in, through constant reflection and articulation via the language
of text and other media;' writes Shudda Sengupta, a member of Sarai.
"Diaries have the potential to evolve newer languages that further dis­
place dominant discourses because they are situated and personal, out­
side of the domain of the 'expert' and the technocratic language, that
expertise entails. Written across dimensions of space, time, specific con­
texts and subjectivities, diaries can also be seen as databases of multiple
narrative strands, as a plurality of comment, observation, word-play and
reflectionj as adventitious micro-histories of the present:'7 For this to
occur, the diaries must become public. The "interviews, stories, write­
ups, photographs, animation on GIMP (free software image manipula­
tion application) and audio recordings (sounds of the basti, interviews
taken, etc.) that make up the diaries have been presented in a variety of
ways: A book (By Lanes)} a set o f 1 0 booklets} 5 postcards and a C D that
the practitioners call the 'Book Box; a batch of stickers with statements
culled from diary entries} monthly wall magazines and a multimedia
installation titled 'Before Coming Here Had You Ever Thought of a Place
Like This' which uses video} animation} photography} print and posters
to create an immersive rescension of the Cybermohalla experience."8
In the St. Pauli district of Hamburg in 1993} the final stage of another
process of this kind brought together exhibition} conversation} and cele­
bration in a circuit in which each one of these instances reinforced the
others. That yealj a diverse alliance of neighbors} musicians performed
in a club in the area (Pudel Club)} and members of a network of
squatters started a protest to keep the city government from giving an
important lot in the neighborhood over to private developers. When
some artists} including Christoph Schaeffer} Cathy Skene} and later Mar­
git Czensky joined the effort} they proposed calling the complex series
of activities in which this multidisciplinary group engaged "Park Fic­
tion:' In the words of Schaeffer} the terms that best describe the project
are a "collective production of desire" and "collaborative planning:' The
idea was to propose to the Hamburg city government an urban plan and
program of activities that would be carried out jointly by the neighbors
and the members of the group. Their plan consisted of a series of
activities aimed at making manifest the knowledge and desires in the St.
Pauli neighborhood} while at the same time contributing to the forma­
tion of unlikely community alliances. Some of these activities would be
specific} like a series of events called "infotainment" that was a combina­
tion of conference} workshop} and festiva1.9 Others would be ongoing
and take place every day in a container that the group had set up in the
lot. There} a series of objects and documents associated with the project
(archives and communication media) were housed. A third set of ac­
tivities involved the tour and exhibition of the project (in the Vienna
Kunstverein in 1999 and in Documenta 11 in the summer of 2002). Here}
the documentation related to the project was shown in an installation}
designed by architect Gunther Greis} that evoked the constructivist
language of the Soviet avant-garde. Lastly} at the time when the park was
built} a meeting of collectives from all over the world called "Unlikely
Encounters in the Urban Space" was organized in Hamburg. On this
occasion} several groups of artists} including Ala Plastica from Argentina
Experimental Communities 209
and Sarai, visited Hamburg for a series of presentations that took place
over several days.
All of the aforementioned cases involve the construction of environ­
ments where artists and nonartists come together to produce represen­
tations and communities. For these artists, the idea is to avoid the
temptation that characterized many earlier community projects, the
desire to become part of the "community" where the project takes place,
so as to break away from the sacrificial figure of altruism. They see
themselves belonging to a genealogy that includes figures such as Helio
Oiticica, Gordon Matta-Clark, and Robert Smithson. Those artists did
not materialize an a priori plan in their work but rather developed the
ability to respond to the openness and unpredictability of everyday life
situations. But Matta-Clark, Smithson, and Oiticica operated within the
mobile and contingent world of concepts and practices to which they
belonged, and as such they responded to problems different from those
imposed on artists such as van Heeswijk and Hirschhorn.Io Therefore,
these younger artists have an ambivalent relationship to this modern
tradition and particularly to one of its elements: the radical desire to
produce a space "outside" institutions and their conventions. Unlike the
preceding generation, they utilize the spaces and institutions of art as
channels for producing and broadcasting their work. These projects
aspire to expose the practice of contemporary art as we know it to
spaces and situations where it is not usually found, so as to test to what
degree it is alive and still able to elicit forms of interrogation, while
including those spaces in the economies of the art institutions. By
presenting their work in these spaces, these collectivities can take dis­
tance from themselves and maintain an openness that allows them to
avoid hardening into rigid identities. At the same time, art spaces are
also part of a circuit of communication media that allows these artists to
expand into other networks.
Claire Bishop, in a recent article, suggests that a serious limitation of
many (if not most) of the discourses held on recent projects of collab­
orative art is the propensity among the theorists, critics, and artists that
hold them to celebrate a "self-sacrificial" figure of the artist and to fail to
offer an aesthetic evaluation of the projects they address. This limits
them to basing their evaluations on ethical judgments of the intentions
of the artists involved. She suggests that this indifference to the specifi-
cally artistic dimension is the result o f a miscomprehension o f the way
the social and the aesthetic have been linked in the modern culture of
the arts. She sees this, following the writings of Jacques Ranciere, as
characterized by the attempt to articulate "faith in art's autonomy and
belief in art as inextricably bound to the promise of a better world to
come:'ll Bishop is right to suggest that the critics that address projects
like these from an exclusively ethical point of view simplify both the
specific projects and the potentialities of artistic practice. But it is also
true that some of the most interesting of these projects can't be read as
belonging completely to the domain of art. Inasmuch as projects like
Sarai's, Van Heeswijk's, and PotrC's attempt at the same time to modify
the local conditions of the sites where they operate, to build anomalous
forms of association among diverse groups of actors, and to produce
things that can be circulated and are susceptible to being judged in
terms of their semantic and formal properties (as artworks), they result
in hybrid entities that bridge and recombine the traditional domains of
art, activism, urban planning, literature, etc. (the list is always open) as
we know them. In this way, they demand complex forms of judgment
(both aesthetic and ethical, political and practical) and schemes of
evaluation that go beyond the diSciplinary framework that even a so­
phisticated elaboration such as Ranciere's still preserves.12

This is the case with a project started by a group of individuals in

Argentina associated with the artist Roberto Jacoby, who has been active
in the Argentinean art scenes since the late sixties. In 1999, at a time of
severe economic and political crisis in the country, J acoby invited several
dozen people to develop a fictitious market. The means of exchange in
this market would be a specific currency, which he called "Venus" (this is
why the project was given the name of Proyecto Venus) .13 Each member
received a set number ofVenuses and was invited to announce services
and goods that he or she would be willing to offer on the project's Web
site. The service and goods were bought and sold using the new currency.
A multitude of offerings were immediately produced, from the most
trivial (classes in painting or English, woodcutting services) to the most
idiosyncratic (the preparation of unusual banquets and other anomalous
social gatherings) . The Web site became a magnifying glass that allowed
both its members and the anonymous visitor to observe the state of the
Experimental Communities 211
imagination and desire in an area of the arts community of Buenos Aires
while also stimulating the production and circulation of other images
and desires. But it was also a tool that allowed events to be organized,
public discussions to be held, and personal relations to be formed.
The project sets out to be a place where processes of cross-fertiliza­
tion could occur by means of a device that could interrogate the actual
forms of sociability while, at the same time, offering the possibility of
creating new forms. Furthermore, the processes of fertilization took
place in public space: not only on the project's Web site but also in a
series of presentations in galleries and cultural centers in Buenos Aires.
The project amounted to the construction of a site where the develop­
ment of a vast network could be observed, through countless actions
that ranged from the most private (meeting new people) to the most
public (performances, shows, conferences, and festivals).
While projects like the Proyecto Venus obviously belong to the tradi­
tion of engaged or political artistic practice, they intersect it in a newly
defined fashion. The preferred politics of the historical avant-garde was
revolutionary transformation, while the political use of arts more fre­
quent in art institutions is the continuation of the status quo, with
minor tinkering. Instead, the politics of the artists that we have men­
tioned is analogous to what Brazilian political theorist Roberto Manga­
beira Unger calls, in several recent publications, "revolutionary reform­
ism:' Revolutionary reformism, says Unger, "is the counterpart to the
most advanced and experimentalist forms of economic activity: those
that turn production into collective learning and permanent innovation,
breaking down the rigid contrasts between cooperation and competi­
tion, as well as those between supervision and execution. In this form of
production, people redefine their tasks in the course of executing them,
and treat the idea of the next step as a permanent style of action:' 14
The objective of projects like these is to develop a form of association
where-to borrow terms from Arjun Appadurai-"internal criticism and
debate, horizontal exchange and learning, and vertical collaborations
and partnerships with more powerful persons and organizations to­
gether form a mutually sustaining cycle of processes:'15 And for this
reason they are a constituent part of a certain universe in the making,
one characterized by the open-source movement and the establishment
of social networks and alternative systems of micro credit, and local
empowerment through global connection and the communal reap­
propriation of expert knowledge. These effect a "globalization from
below;' in words borrowed from Appadurai.

We call "experimental communities" those that are constituted in the

universe of the arts (while linking this universe with other regions of
human life) to explore forms of articulating competition and coopera­
tion, collective learning and radical innovation, design and execution,
direction and realization, in such a way that the archives of this explora­
tion can travel and be exhibited. The communities gathered around the
projects of Sarai, Park Fiction, Jacoby, or Van Heeswijk participate in
new modes of organization under conditions of globalization that are
the defining feature of our current condition. How can very diverse local
intentions be brought together in unified actions and shared values?
How can divergent positions be distributed and enumerated in conver­
sation? These problems have become central. Is it possible for the arts to
intervene in this new conjunction, which so fundamentally determines
the constitution of contemporary society? It is to these questions that
the projects described provide a number of provisional, but nonetheless
eloquent, answers.


1. The Caracas Urban Think Tank is a Venezuelan organization directed by

two architects, Herbert Klumpner and Alfredo Brillembourg. The specific proj­
ect in which Potre participated was financed by the German Cultural Founda­
tion. Potre's project received financial aid from the Venezuelan Department for
the Environment (Ministerio del Medio Ambiente) toward the construction of
two dry toilets. For more basic information about the project, see http: //
2. Turner, Liberal Democracy 3.0., 133.
3. This point was noted by Miwon Kwon in her book One Place After Another,
where she suggested a model of collaborative art that, in her perspective, would
overcome the difficulties of projects like Culture in Action. The model in
question is what she calls a "collective artistic praxis:' She defines it as a
"projective enterprise" that "involves a provisional group produced as a func-·
tion of specific circumstances instigated by an artist and / or cultural institu­
tion, aware of the effects of these circumstances on the very conditions of
Experimental Communities 213
interaction, performing its own coming together and coming apart as a neces­
sarily incomplete modeling or worldng-out of a collective social process" (154).
The suggestion is interesting, but, unfortunately, remains insufficiently devel­
oped in Kwon's book.
4. Bourriand, Relational Aesthetics.
5. Luhmann, Art as a Social System, 126.
6. Buchloh, "An Interview with Thomas Hirschhorn;' 86.
7. Shudda Segupta, electronic communication with the authors, December
8. Ibid.
9. Describing an "infotainment" in an e-mail to the authors, Christoph
, Schaeffer wrote,

Everything came together with Park Fiction 4-one day desires will leave the house
and take to the streets, a series of talks and lectures, an exhibition of works by
neighbors and professional artists in all the shops surrounding the park, even in
private flats and the priest's house, all related to parks or gardens or other issues
connected with the parkj a model by 'kinderhaus am pinnasberg' -a place where
children who cannot live at home for various reasons, runaways and street kids from
the neighborhood live together. The children made a one week workshop, built a
complete model of the park in their spring holidays, did tours to parks in Hamburg,
read inspiring books, and build a great model-that was the most effective propaganda
item, when it was in all its beauty in a shop window, and made the thought of the park
as a real possibility much more actual than other artists' works that were conceived
specifically as propaganda. Some ideas from that model are still in the now existing
plan. It was shown alongside works by renowned artists like Dan Graham-who sent
4 photos of urban gardens in Hamburg-works by Annette Wehrmenn, Claudia
Pegel, Andreas Siekmann, Daniel Richter, Ingo Vetter and Annette Weisser. We pro�
duced the first brochure, developed by the group but especially by Katrin Bredemeier,
then the designer of the group. Hans Christian Dany and myself developed together a
glamorous construction sign for the park that survived till 1998. For the opening we
built a salad bar, shaped like an English garden. It was part of the Park Fiction-style to
always combine content and comfort, to create a lounge, welcoming atmosphere and
not just speak about utopia. Park Fiction 4 was so important, because it was the
moment when 'art & politics made each other more clever' as Margit Czenki put it.

10. In an important recent book, Laurence Bertrand Dorleac shows the

extent to which many of the practices of the fifties and sixties were based on a
conception of the art event as the place that, in the context of an increasingly
rationalized social world, offered itself as a space for nonproductive actions.
These actions, which refused to be incorporated into the circuit of economic
exchange, manifested an archaic desire that at the time was still denominated
the "sacred:' The art event would then take the form of the anarchic manifesta­
tion that interrupted the deployment of regular social life. This might explain
the insistence on the figure of the mythic in Oiticica or Matta-Clark, or the
passion for the prehistoric in Smithson. Dorleac, L'ordre sauvage.
11. Bishop, "The Social Turn;' 183.
12. Ranciere insists on the continuity between older and more recent forms
of collaborative art, inasmuch as they belong to what he calls the "aesthetic
regime." For a detailed comment and a critique of the way this position is
developed in Ranciere's work, see Laddaga, Estetica de la emergencia.
13. The name has recently changed, for legal reasons, to Proyecto V. The Web
site of the project is http: //www.proyectov.org.
14. Unger, False Necessity, xxvi.
IS. Appadurai, "Deep Democracy;' 46. The case on which Appadurai bases
his theorization is an alliance of groups mobilized to address the issue of
housing for the poor in Mumbai, India.

Precarite, Autorite, Autonomie

Exiting the RER (Reseau Express Regional) rapid transit rail station
named for the silvery, hulking, almost always empty Stade de France,
one spied the first physical indicators of the Musee Precaire Albinet,
handmade signs cut out of cardboard and pinned to wire fences (fig. 1) .
If you weren't from the neighborhood, the meaning of the term Albinet
on these cardboard arrows might be lost on you. The Cite Albinet is a
building of subsidized apartments, or H.L.M.-habitation loyer modert�
......:... across the street from the abandoned lot where, in the summer of
2004, Thomas Hirschhorn chose to site his project. And though the
multiple meanings of the modifier precaire would probably not be lost
on anyone in the Paris banlieue in 2004, the manner in which it would
prepare you for Hirschhorn's work is ambiguous.
According to their dictionary definitions, precaire and precariU merely
describe a certain category of states of being: those that are exercised
only through a revocable authorization. But recently precariU has en­
tered the political argot in France, invoking states of being that are
fragile and impermanent because this is cost effective to forms of cap­
italism that dispense with human well-being as an imperative. An orga­
nization that calls itself Reseau stop precarite, claiming to have been
born from the strikes at McDonald's and Pizza Hut that sprung up in
Paris in late 2000 and early 2001, declares that the term precariU was
once "reserved for homeless persons" but "now belongs also to the
world of work:'l The term is also used to refer to the "precariousness" of
dynamic markets or to the immigrant groups that almost universally

1. Thomas Hirschhorn, Musee Precaire Albineii Cite Albinet, Aubervillliers,

2004. Courtesy of the Artist and Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers,

perform the contingent labor to which the contemporary service econ­

omy has given rise. Today, the French press uses the term in a variety of
contexts, such as calling "to diminish structural unemployment and thus
pricarite" or referring to the "generation precariU;' young people in inse­
cure jobs or unpaid internships who have no contracts and do not enjoy
full employment benefits.
In a general sense, Hirschhorn's Musee was precaire most precisely
because it operated through the mere authorization of an artist: in other
words, it was an institutionally precarious, easily revocable thing.2 To
the chagrin of some critics, Hirschhorn (as he has done in the past)
hired local residents to help him construct, maintain, and dismantle his
work, allowing short-term, low-paid or unpaid-i.e., precarious-labor
to operate as a standard (fig. 2) . 3 And the Musee proliferated the pre­
carious nature of that labor and construction in its visual aspects: in its
open, skeletal building style, which allowed visitors to readily under­
stand how it was made and how it could be unmadej in the cheapness of
the materials with which it was made, which could not have withstood a
Parisian winter, let alone years of institutional wear and tearj even in its
Precarite) Autoriti) Autonomie 217
changeable surfaces, which featured new colors each week on the inte­
rior walls of its exhibition hall and a surface for uncensored public
graffiti on its exterior walls. Precarite thus seemed to serve as a mecha­
nism of transparency: the museum should look just as precarious as it
was. On the one hand, this is a familiar logic from generations of
institutional critique that would have us understand that the values of an
institution are manifest in the details of its physical plant: plastic pre­
carite thus would substitute for the luster of marble balustrades or the
elegance of floating walls. On the other hand, we also know that mu­
seums exert their influence most surreptitiously and powerfully through
the views on history and identity that they project, and that their most
effective tools of projection are often the objects (and arrangements of
objects) on display. And finally, as Andrea Fraser has argued, the mu­
seum is hardly a mere external framework for art, acting upon and

exploiting artj it is, as she puts it, "the absolute and irreducible condition
of [art's] existence;' and as such a mere set of signifiers for what art is.4
If the Musee and its exhibits testified to anything in particular, they
testified to the radical contingency-precarite, perhaps-of artistic uto­
pias. But to insist on Hirschhorn's success in conveying the precarious­
ness of the historical, canonical artistic utopias on display is already to
grant to the Musee success in the deployment of a certain kind of
institutional authenticity. I will make the argument that the Musee was
successful in this respect, as an institution: it was full of the kinds of
social joys we associate with thriving institutions. It taught people
thingsj it allowed them the pleasure of knowledge and a sense of the
world beyond itselfj it spawned jobs, internships, social interaction,
friendships, and basic forms of civic participation. But to grant the
Musee success as an institution-or even to judge it according to the
criteria of institutional success-is to occlude its status as an artwork
that imitated a museum for its own ends. In the finer details of that
imitation lie the clues as to whether such strategies might or might not
constitute a critical method, and whether Hirschhorn's Musee Precaire
Albinet points critique in a different direction altogether.s What might
Hirschhorn's laboratory-like experiment in running a pseudoinstitution
tell us about the contemporary state of art, such that institutions per se
are not a target but rather a set of operational structures and achieve­
ments that are of interest in themselves? How might its modes of relat-

2. Thomas
Musee Precaire
Albinet) Cite Albi­
net) Aubervillliers)
2004. Courtesy
of the Artist and
Les Laboratoires

ing to institutionality complicate claims about the inherently political

nature of art-or, to borrow from current nomenclature, of art's rela­
tional aesthetics?

The Musee Frecaire Albinet ran for eight weeks in Aubervilliers, France,
in the summer of 2004. It consisted of two built rooms and a hallway:, a
prefab trailer of the kind that is usually found on a construction site, and
an open-air buvette (cafe), all set on an abandoned lot. It was also a
series of eight week-long exhibitions of original works of art borrowed
from the collections of the Musee d'art moderne de la Ville de Paris and
the Centre Georges Pompidou. And it was a series of weekly activities,
including children's workshops, writing workshops, art history lectures
about each artist on display, and public debates about unrelated matters
of general interest. The Musee's three components-physical plant, ex-
Precarite) Autorite) Autonomie 219
hibition schedule, and activities schedule-were complementary and
mutually contingent in many ways. The dynamism of the schedule
mimicked the logic of most institutions: it was rigorous, repetitive, and
driven by a number oflogistical and "institutional" considerations (how
to involve a variety of participants, according to their age, interest,
availability, and so onj how to use external agencies such as La part de
rart, a municipal organization that runs children's workshops on artj
how to broaden the institution's purview to address community inter­
ests and needs, and so on) . In addition, this schedule was driven by
Hirschhorn's prescription that something happen every day, so that the
Musee would never be inert or inactive, a passive receptacle and pur­
veyor of a cultural patrimony.6 The Musee's physical plant, continually
repainted, redecorated, and intentionally exposed to spontaneous alter­
ations like graffiti and vandalism, was no more static than its weekly
schedule. (It should be noted that while the Musee did not experience
any vandalism of its structures, the occasional appearance of graffiti
targeting one of Hirschhorn's female interns hardly made it a stress-free
zone.) Thus, its dynamic schedule was not merely "institutional;' nor
did it merely set about producing a notion of ephemeral or transient
community: it was also legible as a sign for Hirschhorn's general artistic
attitude (for example, "Quali� No: Energy, Yes !"), as, of course, was its
physical plant, which exploited such signature Hirschhorn materials as
duct tape, Xeroxed reproductions, and graffiti. Just as the plant, exhibi­
tion schedule, and activity schedule interlocked, the issues of material
precariousness, authorial identity, and the boundary of the artwork as
work-its "autonomy" -were in constant, reciprocal play. No discussion
of any particular aspect makes sense without allowing for its contin­
gency and effect on other aspects.
Each week of the Musee's run, from April 19 through June 14, featured
work by one of the eight artists in Hirschhorn's lineup: Duchamp,
Malevich, Mondrian, Dali, Beuys, Le Corbusier, Warhol, and Leger.
Hirschhorn selected all exhibited works from the French public collec­
tions, so that though the Musee sought a more complex relationship to its
own authority than that asserted by a state patrimony, it nonetheless
presented itself as a pseudomuseum that was both French and Hirsch­
hornian in terms of how it defined its cultural treasures. Those cultural
treasures had more in common, however, than merely having been
produced by Hirschhorn's favorite artists (the sole justification offered
for their selection) . Their week-after-week sequence rotated apogees of
artistic utopianism with moments of severe ambiguity. Three of Male­
vich's plaster Architektons ( 1923- 26), Le Corbusier's wood model for a
unite d'habitation in Tiergarten (1957-58), and Leger's Les disques dans la
ville (1920) made for an almost nostalgic celebration of earlier periods,
when dreams of industrial efficiency and beauty drove artistic experi­
mentation. But such dreams were broken up by displays such as, for
example, Beuys's Das Schweigen, a multiple from 1973 that consisted of
the copper- and zinc·-coating of the five reels of Bergman's film The
Silence, left inside its canisters; the video recording of Beuys's 1974 per­
formance I Like America and America Likes Me, in which he ( allegedly)
lived with a live coyote in a gallery; and Warhol's 1967 Electric Chair, a
silk-screen painting of the photographic trace of an instrument of (Amer­
ican) state-mandated execution. The dystopic-canisters of a beautiful
film, rendered unseeable, and an electric chair presented as an icon­
carved out a strange place in the midst of a lineup that was heavily slanted
toward the utopic, providing not so much an alternative voice as a
recurring note in the utopian scales with which the twentieth century
kept practicing.
The meditative, elegiac logi� of the exhibition schedule was set against
a repetitive and vigorous schedule of weekly activities. Monday, the
works from the previous weeks were removed and the interior of the
exhibition hall repainted a different color. Tuesday, new works were
picked up from their warehouses and installed in time for an opening,
with free food, drinks, and open-mic rap. Wednesdays, La part de l' art
produced workshops in which neighborhood children observed aspects
of an artist's work through related activities, such as making costumes
inspired by Fernand Leger's set and costume designs and showing them
off in a runway show (fig. 3). Thursday afternoons, invited authors such
as Catherine Henri or Oscarine Bosquet led writing studios for neighbor­
hood adults. Friday evenings witnessed public debates-on the subject
of "Jews /Arabs;' "Europe /USA;' or "Literature /Drugs;' for example­
which were led by invited speakers, such as LelIa Shahid, the French
representative of the Palestinian Authority. Saturdays, art historians lec­
tured on that week's featured artist, and Sunday evenings a communal
meal, usually cooked by the women who also ran the buvette, was offered
to anyone around. There were also weeldy trips, often out of town,
related to the artist on display that week: for the Malevich week, a group
Precarite, Autorite, Autonomie 221

3. Thomas Hirschhorn, Musie Precaire Albinet, Cite Albinet, Aubervillliers, 2004.

Courtesy of the Artist and Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers, Aubervilliers.

oflocal residents went on a field trip that included a visit to the headquar­
ters of the French Communist Party, a visit to Chartres, and a lunch in the
countryside; for the Le Corbusier week, another group went to the
Maison Radieuse at Reze, had lunch, met with a committee of local
residents, and visited a working architect's office.
The Musee's physical structure changed from week to week. Some
changes correlated to the weather or activity schedule and reflected the
principles of modularity and flexibility emphasized in some of the ex­
hibits. Black curtains were taped up to facilitate art historians' projec­
tionsj the Plexiglas windows and tent top covering an outdoor eating
area were removed in good weather; an outside hallway served as a
speaker's (and rapper's) podium during weekly openings. All of these
reflected the kind of thinking prevalent in exhibits like those of Malevich
and Le Corbusier. Perhaps the most striking demonstration of Hirsch­
horn's interest in design was the exhibition hall, whose walls were re­
painted every week in strident, loud colors (green, red, ochre) to receive
the changing exhibits. This last element, a subtle remarking of the
institutional frame, echoed precedents set by the exhibited avant-garde
artists who disturbed conventional uses of color to distinguish figure
and ground, object and surface. If the formal history of this question
became clear in exhibits of works by Mondrian and Leger, it was force­
fully asserted as a didactic tool in the week that the Electric Chair was
exhibited. In that silk-screen painting, where mottled scarlet and blue
patterns further abstract a remote, iconic image of judicially sanctioned
death, any figure-ground distinction is almost entirely consumed by the
optical play of saturated colors.
This was a museum that would dramatize its framing devices-and its
own operation as a framing device-in as many ways as possible. Thus
did the line between his project and the exhibited avant-garde utopias
blur and then crystallize. So too did the line between Hirschhorn's visual
noise and the idea of a participating local community blur, and then
become extremely evident. Efficient, problem-solving solutions, used
again and again in the Musee's construction, created a sense of universal­
ism opening up for art, architecture, and design that was echoed in the
works of art being exhibited. But in the place of legitimating links to
historical avant-garde practices were indicators for a kind of contempo­
raneity that would differenti�te Hirschhorn's utopia in kind from that of
Malevich, Le Corbusier, or any of the other artists exhibited. A fake
museum in place of an institution that is also the place of a work of
contemporary art, the Musee asserted its proXy status by indicating the
nonsimultaneity or discontinuity between what was on display and
itsel£ just as it reinforced the disjunctions and discontinuities between
itself and the communities of its emplacement. It was as if Hirschhorn
were out not to dissolve the differences between the surrounding com­
munity's identities and his work's autonomous authorityj but rather to
materially erect and reify all possible breaks and ruptures.

The Iv.fusee comprised three well-defined indoor spaces-the library,

studio, and exhibition hall-plus a covered hallway linking the spaces
and a similarly well-defined outdoor space that left the majority of the
empty lot untouched, except for the occasional appearance of a ping­
pong table. Emphasizing its own compactness and modest scale within
the allotted space, the Musee fit in with surrounding houses and apart­
ment buildings, which ranged from small two-story private houses to
modest apartment buildings such as the Cite Albinet across the street
Precariti, Autoriti, Autonomie 223

4. Thomas Hirschhorn, Musee Precaire Albinet, Cite Albinet, Aubervillliers,

2004. Courtesy of the Artist and Les Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers,

(fig. 4).7 The Musee could be entirely indoors on a given day, or spread
out over a dozen additional meters for a communal meal or an opening.
But it was its surfaces that provided the most mutable, contingent
element of the Musee's physical plant. Untreated plasterboard walls
served as a kind of perpetually changing two-dimensional surface, with
pinned-up graffiti, announcements, workshop output, and press clip­
pings representing the most utopian, and perhaps naIve, slant on the
nature of precariti. For each exhibit, Hirschhorn would produce a series
of cutout images and text on the walls of the exhibition hall. Actual
catalogue pages, black-and-white and color Xeroxes, would then con­
trast with the "auratic" original works of art. Press clippings attached to
both internal and external walls grew in number by the week, creating a
kind of media archive for local residents, who could regularly locate
their (and their friends' and kids') images in the press photos. Often the
output from the children's workshops-Xeroxes of cell phones, block­
colored in the style of Warhol silk-screen paintings; graffitied, creatively
titled cut-out illustrations of masterpieces, a la L.H. O. O.Q 8-decorated
the various walls of the Musee, inside and outside. One resident put up
an illustrated history of the neighborhood made of cut-out Xeroxes of
image and text, which mimicked the collage aesthetic of the whole
structure. Indeed, there was little difference between what could be
pinned up or graHitied on an indoor wall as opposed to an outdoor wall
(aside from a few critical pieces of paper, like the work schedule).
Operational transparency and intelligibility seemed paramount, not
only in the very open architecture of the physical structure but also in
correlation to the activity schedule's emphasis on textual information,
education, and debate for all.
In the end, the structure's precariousness-its fluid adaptation to
need and circumstance-accommodated a premium on meaning, as if
Hirschhornian didacticism had a Darwinian gift for survival. Such an
emphatic dedication to text in all its forms, to open-ended debate, and
to pedagogy recalls many of Hirschhorn's gallery and museum installa­
tions, in which cut-out texts or sometimes entire books can disperse
over many different surfaces and media. Sometimes books are chained
to another structure, as in Spinoza Monument (1999) or Jumbo Spoons
and Big Cake (2000); sometimes they are interspersed with graffiti or
cut-out images from pornography or other mass-media sources, as in
Chalet Lost History (2003), and sometimes they are complemented by
lectures or theatrical performances, as in Swiss Swiss Democracy (2004-
5), which featured daily lectures on philosophical themes by Marcus
Steinweg and a play performed nightly by Gwenael Morin's troupe. A
careful balance of visual clutter and structure results in a kind of over­
flow and perforation of information from multiple voices and media,
forcing Hirschhorn's audiences to consider the degree to which they
have "understood" or even encountered the work. This requires a de­
gree of self-confrontation that can be almost intolerable, as it was in
Superficial Engagement (2006), in which the geometric abstractions of
Emma KUnz were incongruously set against images of the Iraq war
taken off of the Internet. This is the "work" of Hirschhorn's work-an
often uncomfortable disorientation forced on the viewer that in turn
implicates that viewer in the quasi-anthropological logics on display,
able to figure out only some of what is being said, while being distracted
by continual jarring reminders of our fantasies about what we are look­
ing at.9 Visitors to Cavemanman (2002) were supposed to be struck by
reminders of daily collective life: trash on the cavelike floor was clumped
around trash bins, signifying the ways in which people neatly cluster
their trash near filled-to-·overflowing trash bins on city street corners.
Precarite} Autorite} Autonomie 225
But the conceit of the piece-that it was the cave of a hermit trying to
make sense of our world-accentuated a feeling of touristic or eth­
nographic voyeurism, an uncomfortable sense that we were not looking
at our life but at someone else's. The end result was a powerful percep­
tual overlap between "our world" and that of society's rejects, homeless
and hermits alike.
Similar feelings were even sharper, and even more politically hard to
take, for visitors to the Musee Precaire Albinet and the Bataille Monument
at Documenta (2002). In both cases spectators from outside the neigh­
borhood, de facto "art spectators;' came to see a work of Hirschhorn's
and found themselves looking "in on a community;' usually defined by a
racial or national majority (in Landy, the neighborhood where the
Musee was sited, Malian and North African immigrants are in the major­
ityj in Kassel, Hirschhorn selected a housing project dominated by
Turkish immigrants as the locale for Bataille Monument). Despite an
unremitting emphasis on unrestricted information and learning-for-all,
universalism seemed trumped by the socioeconomic realities of race
relations, heightened exponentially by the confrontation between the
art world's internationalism and the effects of migrancy on urban geog­
raphies. In Kassel, tables and tables of Bataille information, Bataille
videos, and a lending library of Bataille-related books made a kind of
potlatchlike extravaganza out of the concept of learning. What you
made of that combination of excess and didacticism, however, seemed
overdetermined by who you were, and that process of overdetermina­
tion seemed almost certain to make everyone at least a little bit uncom­
Among the potential kinds of identity that can uncomfortably affect
one's perception of or participation in Hirschhorn's work is gender. The
Bataille Monument was marked, for some critics, by its emphaSiS on the
erotic (or pornographic) component in Bataille's thinking, which
played obtusely against some of the sexual mores of the largely Muslim
community of its emplacement. Hirschhorn took a different approach
to his "issues" with gender and local community in the Musee Precaire.
All of the artists whose work he selected for the exhibits are dead white
males, while almost all of the invited speakers at the weekly events were
women.10 A certain "lived;' experiential level of the Musee used gender
to contrast with the temporally frozen, physically contained master­
works. Accentuating this difference was the buvette, run by eight local
(Mrican) female residents, the one part o f the Musee that was com­
pletely independent of Hirschhorn's authority. Although he and his
workers built it, and Hirschhorn set it up (with a microwave and so on),
the women who sold food and drinks there each day made their own
profits and divided up the work on their own. Thus did the "lived"
component of the Musee seem to extend to its commercial venue, which
was similarly all-female. If ever there were a public art project that set
out to underscore the traditional gender hierarchies in the world of art,
the Musee Precaire would be it. Its operational structures-putting large
numbers of women into positions of commercial and discursive power
while reserving the maleness of the historical pool of authors-were
almost perfectly mimetic (which is not to say that it was critically so).
Its capacity for translating typical institutional logics as if they were
normal was entirely-as at the Bataille Monument-a function of
whether it was seen as an institution or as an artwork.
It should be noted, first, that the participating community was not
identical to the local community: only a small portion of Landy's resi­
dents came to the Musee, although those who did came frequently, if not
every day, and the chief of the local Malian cQmmunity thanked Hirsch­
horn with a musical procession and a speech at the communal meal on
the Musee's final Sunday. Thus, though there may be no way of describing
this community as having demographic parameters, a visual aesthetic, or
any other discrete identity other than its geographic location, certain
distinctions between communities, seemingly differentiated by what
Miwon Kwon calls "locational identity" went into play at the Musee.1 1
Visiting art spectators came to the site in order to see a work by Thomas
Hirschhorn, while local residents used the Musee as an ephemeral institu­
tion. Though everyone participating in the Musee represented some form
of community to someone else, the different communities' relationships
to their institutionalization made for markedly different perceptions of
what was happening. The sense that the Musee was engendering ephem­
eral communities was common among the participating residents that I
interviewed. Certainly this was a symmetrical operation, in that commu­
nities of visitors existed in the collective perception of the residents, and
communities of residents in the collective perception of the visitors. But
my often-repeated question to participating residents about what they
thought of Hirschhorn's work-as opposed to the works of Duchamp,
Malevich, and so on-met with laughter and perplexity. In other words,
Precarite, Autorite, Autonomie 227
though they were conscious of Hirschhorn's identity as an artist and
various communities' roles as collaborators, the notion that the Musee
Precaire itself was an artwork was fugitive. Only some of those who
worked on the Musee considered themselves collaborators or partici­
pants in an artwork: the collective and individual role of the Musee's
"local community members" was left largely to individuals to negotiate.
What am I doing here? what does this work mean about me? how does it
address me? -these were questions about which the Musee Precaire
seemed conspicuously circumspect. Why?
Here, I think, we find a path that is defined less by the ethics of
community formation than by the particular politics of institutionality
that allowed the Musee to form its "communities:' And, in keeping with
the relationships of interdependence that I signaled at the start of this
essa)1j such a politics of institutionality could only be performed through
the intersection of formal play, authorial identity, and the proposed
autonomy of art, which was both something on display and performed
throughout the Musee's operations. In this sense, the Musee can be seen
as a reorientation of the long-term and profound kinds of perception
that Kwon invokes in the final sentences of her seminal book on issues of
community involvement and site-specific public art:
Today's site-oriented practices inherit the task of demarcating the relational
specificity that can hold in dialectical tension the distant poles of spatial
experience . . . . This means addressing the uneven conditions of adjacencies
and distances between one thing, one person, one place, one thought, one
fragment, next to another, rather than invoking equivalences via one thing
after another. Only those cultural practices that have this relational sen­
sibility can turn local encounters into long-term commitments and trans­
form passing intimacies into indelible, unretractable social marks-so that
the sequence of sites that we inhabit in our life's traversal does not become
genericized into an undifferentiated serialization, one place after another. 12

The Musee seems keyed toward the heightening of "the uneven condi­
tions of adjacencies and distances between one thing, one person . . .
next to another:' If this is the case-i£ that is, the Musee can be seen as
consistent with Hirschhorn's other works-then it is a project that
pushes the investigation ofprecarite beyond its defining opposition with
permanence. For while institutions (and especially museums) may be
eternally allied with the notion of permanence in their structures and
values (and the value o f permanence, in turn, will b e contaminated with
the hegemonic forms and means of power that institutions apply),
Hirschhorn's "precarious" museum pushes all of its participants toward
an investigation of what might or should remain from an experiment like
the Musee's. The appropriateness of permanence, or even "indelible,
unretractable social marks" (beyond their value to a critique of artists'
short-lived exploitations of sites, communities, and neighborhoods) fi­
nally comes under investigation, while passing intimacies and even in­
stitutions are also revalued. "Vhat would be the best "indelible" legacy of
such a work: A sense of the possibilities that can be opened up by
institutions-which would indeed be a useful lesson anywhere in West­
ern Europe? A sense of the potential value of ephemeral or "precarious"
communities-a value that is, after all, strongly upheld in many middle­
class traditions, such as summer camp, exchange programs, vacation
communities, and so on? A sense of the power of art in forming collec­
tive and individual identities? Or a sense of art's reliance on certain
discursive and institutional performances-lectures and workshops, not
to mention community reception-to give it such power? In other
words, by resituating and renegotiating the components that create
public, site-specific art-institutionalization, the artistic author, the invi­
tation to collaborate, and the visual appearances and operations of the
artwork-the Musee successfully undoes the gloss that much "relational
specificity" accomplishes: its subsumption of all those critical aspects of
any artwork and its reception into a seemingly immanent politicization
of art.

If the Musee imitated an institutional frame (or even some of the charac­
teristics of the artistic utopias on display) by imitating pedagogical
earnestness and other systems of transparency, it remade that frame on
its own terms, most often by formally and complexly disrupting any
anticipated or projected sense of transparency or continuity between the
work and its community. A viewer's sense that the Musee was continuous
with or transparent to its surrounding community was invited in modes
as ambivalently deliberate as Cavemanman's piles of crushed soda cans.
For example, the duct tape that was wrapped around the two-by-fours
that held up the tarp roofs of the external hallway connecting the Musee's
three rooms also framed the paintings borrowed from France's national
collections, so that they were both "signed" by Hirschhorn but also
Precarite) Autorite) Autonomie 229
framed against the walL And the color-saturated graffiti that Hirschhorn
commissioned from local residents identifYing different rooms and up­
coming events was jOined by uncommissioned graffiti, so that tags and
insults also crossed the threshold into a decorative medium. Not only did
graffiti seem pseudoinstitutionalized as a signifYing system (and not for
the first time) ; the Musee seemed to exploit a position in which its own
stylistic energy and authority could absorb even spontaneous and anony··
mous writings and sentiments-even reactions to the Musee (as every
inscription on its walls, on some level, was).
In this sense, the function of graffiti is unclear, as it appears to re-mark
the surfaces of the Musee as if it were collectively and not individually
authored, as if its physical plant were capable of absorbing critique, as if
there were no verbal or ideographic violence that could be done to the
Musee that was not, in fact, already a part of its structure. Thus, the
Musee could appear to have a dangerously organic relation to the com­
munity of its emplacement. Such a reading would mean that instead of
performing mimicfYj the Musee was using the visual and operational
structures it borrowed from society at large as a kind of camouflage.13
This sense might be confirmed by Hirschhorn's frequent remarks that
his use of duct tape is merely the reuse of a common material in a world
of incessant circulation and migration. He would then be assimilating
his museum into a neighborhood defined by the effects and continuing
process of migration by metonymically indicating the process of migra­
tion as an aspect of his visual design. But there is more to Hirschhorn's
uses of duct tape and graffiti, and even to the Musee's open, skeletal
construction that renders such a reading problematic. In the Musee, duct
tape also was inSistently a set of internal frames, re-marking the ruptures
and tears within the naturalistic, coherent ideological picture produced
by circulation in all its guises. If we consider an ability to circulate (as
interior-ready pedestal sculptures and market-ready easel paintings) to
be an aspect of art lent by modern institutions such as art markets and
museums, then the use of duct tape to frame the pictures, as well as the
Xeroxed reproductions placed around them, seem apt reminders of the
process of moving works of art from place to place-a process that the
entire Musee represented. Then, in place of camouflage, duct tape has
the effect of denaturalizing the public discourse on a "neighborhood in
transition" such as the area around the Stade de France. As a material it
gains the effect of inviting comparison between various discourses that
value circulation as a form of collateral development within modernity
(and permanence, irreplaceability, and authenticity as circulation's cor­
ollary) : between the movable and reproducible nature of modern art­
works and the appropriable and thus precarious nature of much urban
residence (regardless of how permanent it looks); between the irre­
placeable and authenticating nature of artistic labor and the perpetually
replaceable nature of almost all other forms of modern labor; between
the aspired permanence of home and the impermanence of all other
forms of community.
On yet another level, the duct tape operates as a kind of faux faux­
wood surface, brown like the brown of imitation wood surfaces, but
utterly unlike wood itself. In using such an effect, Hirschhorn echoes
precedents set in the field of collage, a constant reference in his aes­
thetic. In Picasso's 1911-13 collages, new, mass-produced materials (wall­
paper, tack paper) introduce the principle of imitation. But they are
distinctly parts of collages, parts of a surface that effectively supplants
imitation. Wallpaper becomes a signifier for representation even inside a
medium that holds out the mirage of a solution to representation, to the
ordinary figure-ground distinctions within which color conventionally
finds its place. For Rosalind KIauss, who first articulated this operation,
wallpaper, "color now bracketed as a sign;' also signifies the issue of
ornamentation, increasingly powerful as Picasso's identification with his
own semiotic discovery quickly overripens.14 Wallpaper becomes a sig­
nifier for representation within a system that proposes . to sublate­
assimilate, resolve, and thereby renounce--representation's paradoxical
reliance on absence; the totalizing possibilities in such a formal resolu­
tion holds out the specter of subsuming the artist's identity in a single
gesture. Hirschhorn's Musee puts duct tape into the same kind of semi­
otic position but displaces the allegory from a purely semiotic register to
a social one. If this museum could hold out the specter of any kind of
utopian solution, it is held together, architecturally and symbolically, by
a material that reminds us of the new meanings of homelessness and
migration to which any modernist idealization of circulation must re­
spond.ls And Similarly, the frequency with which duct tape is used in his
work raises the question of how such a field of meanings can be differen­
tiated from the artist's-Hirschhorn's-identity, or brand name.16
The Musee echoed other anti-naturalist traditions, and in every case we
can see their use as commentaries on the nature of authorial identity. For
Precarite, Autorite, Autonomie 231
example} in its rectilinear} open} skeletal framework} the Musee cited the
forms favored by Soviet constructivists. Unlike the constructivists} how­
ever} whose use of such forms became meaningful only in their conjunc­
tion with rationalized labor and mass production} Hirschhorn's open­
frame Musee} like other projects he has done in public space} undermines
the ideals for which "rational" labor was once mobilized. He operates
such undermining pOintedly, as if to delineate a paradox. Paid labor}
incorporated into his artworks} helps articulate its corollary} the irra­
tional value placed on artistic labor. But no accumulation of multiple
forms oflabor actually undoes the artistic author's mandate. Hirschhorn
remains the boss} and the one who will ultimately take credit for the
Musee as a "work:' Thus} even as he undermines the rationalization of
labor in his projects in public space (by training and hiring local resi­
dents) for example} rather than using his own assistants)} he underscores
his own role as manager} if not owner} of the means of production (by
training and hiring local residents) controlling their wages} and so
forth) .17 Into his projected production costs he factors the probability
of vandalism from workers who would stand to gain from being rehired}
and he daily performs various repairs in a manner that underscores
artisanlike principles of reuse and refurbishment. These irrational labor
costs may re-mark the institution as one operating outside the norms of
contemporary capitalism} but they do little to actually resolve the para­
dox of an artist whose brand name authorizes a pseudopublic institution
and whose idiosyncratic preferences determine its operations. If this is
the paradox facing many contemporary artists working in public spaces}
it is as defined in Hirschhorn's work by its art-history lineage} as well as by
its ethical or pseudo ethical ramifications.
Another way to put this is: Hirschhorn re-marks the work he puts on
display (his own) the Musee) and the historical art that he puts on
display (Duchamp) Malevich} and so on) as a way of describing his
position} unique in a history of art whose pretensions to social and
political problem solving have only grown in tandem with formal experi­
mentation. Which is not to say that these pretensions are} in fact} consis­
tent} or that they could ever be consistent with a transparent authorial
figure} one whose social intentions would be consistently ideal (demo­
cratic) for example) or less than paradoxical. Thus} while I have been
detailing the Musee's visual} performative} operational description of
"Hirschhorn's" position} he provides a rather different means of access
to it. Over and over, the complex, genealogically rich nature of the
various "art into life" gestures that were on display-even the "art into
life" gesture that the Musee seemed itself to rather obviously play out­
met with the earnest, commanding, discourse-paralyzing authority of
Hirschhorn's verbal discourse.
At the Musee, Hirschhorn's persona took the form of his own daily on­
site presence at the work. He was the work's initiator, its organizer, its
leader, the primary negotiator on its behalf (with the press, the fire
department, the police, local community leaders, collaborating institu­
tions, and so on), and a constant friendly presencej he was also its
author, its definer, its giver-of-meanings in the form of completely acces­
sible interviews, speeches, and handouts. I S Thus the effect of his dis­
course on the subject-the Musee itself-was as permeating as it was
I believe, its a fact, that art can, art should, art wants to transform-let's not
be afraid to say it: to change life. If as an artist I want to make works in public
space I have to agree with public space . . . .
. . . To agree means to be in agreement with an impossible mission. I said
in proposing the project to the inhabitants of the cite Albinet and the Landy
neighborhood that the Musee Pn§caire Albinet is a mission. A 'mission
impossible' that is based in an agreement.19

Such rhetorical maneuvers produce Hirschhorn's belief system and

convictions in the place of a rational argument. A statement that begins
"I believe" proceeds anaphorically and ends with an imperativej an if­
then statement ends by describing something that is being done as
something impossible, but also something based on a kind of utopian
concordance. Both are pleas to an imaginary audience-but strangely
put, as if to give that audience no choice but to agree. We hear eager
earnestness shading into imperative command, and complex relation­
ships and contradictions entirely subsumed by blanket statements of
imperative being. Similar statements suggest that his materials are
merely "economical . . . disposable . . . everyone knows them and uses
them" or that "precarious" materials are de facto unintimidating, bely­
ing the kind of semiotic maneuvers that they perform-and the inade­
quacy of such descriptions.20 In that supplementary, radically uncompli­
cated belief system, I think that Hirschhorn acts out what it is to be a
critic of such work as his own, and in his flat statements of conviction, I
Precariti, Autoriti, Autonomie 233
think we witness the kind of hermeneutic aporia such work delivers.
What kind of approach do we take to a work that mixes explicit socio­
cultural agendas with sophisticated formal experimentation? What kinds
of relations between the planes of meaning-between the formal expres­
sions of precariti and its sociological implications; between an exhibited,
historical utopia and an ongoing one; between perceptions of commu­
nity and their realities-can be drawn?
Consider the recent contribution by Claire Bishop, a critic and art
historian who called the Musee Precaire "one of the best examples of
socially collaborative art:' She writes that "The aesthetic is, according to
R.anciere, the ability to think contradiction: the productive contradic­
tion of art's relationship to social change, characterized precisely by that
tension between faith in art's autonomy and belief in art as inextricably
bound to the promise of a better world to come. For Ranciere the
aesthetic doesn't need to be sacrificed at the altar of social change, as it
already inherently contains this ameliorative promise:'21
Though her argument borrows the language of dialectics from the
work of Jacques Ranciere, her version of the aesthetic seems to merely
absorb political and social ambitions. The aesthetic inherently contains
the promise of ameliorative social change rather than actively struggling
with the contradictions such desires and promises impose on the work
of art. There is a kind of blank where the complications that have been
historically visited on such terms as art's autonomy and a better world to
come belong, a blank that sits in the place of all the arguments that have
been made against art's elitism, the manufacturing of its autonomy as a
political and economic gesture, and the historicism of art's utopianism.
In other words, there is a blank in the place of our understanding of
what Fraser calls "the institution of art;' an institution that is hardly
innate or endemic to the aesthetic except insofar as that aesthetic could
be seen as an all-rationalizing, all-subsuming framework. To marshal all
the criteria for the aesthetic-the production of certain kinds of affect,
of a particular historical lineage, of a certain explicit intentionality-as
Bishop does, in order to reaffirm it as the singular, privileged means to
"think contradiction" is precisely to reaffirm the aesthetic as its own
institution. Only once institutionalized can something as open ended as
formal experimentation assimilate social ends; only once it has been
embedded as discourse-and, of course, only for those who speak and
hear that discourse-can it signify politically. To confirm the imma-
nence of politicization or sociocultural meaning to artwork is not only
to preemptively shut down its struggle with its own status, its own place
and position (everything, in other words, that makes art vibrate) j it is
also to assign it a place and position, condemning it to precisely the
rigid systems of meaning that only institutionalization can provide.
I have noted myriad ways that the Musee Precaire re-marked itself as
frame, or set up series of internal frames such that it could not be a
transparent organ for the transmission of social values, in the manner
that institutions inevitably are. Hirschhorn's Musee self-consciously re­
ifies the overlaps between institutionality and utopia: where the two
come together, where they reinforce one another, where they sprout one
another. In the deepest sense, I believe that was his artwork's utopianism:
that the most positive effects of an institution come reflexively, jarringly,
with a costly inquisition into the values that such an institution propa­
gates and depends on. Finally, of course, the Musee was neither utopian
nor institutional: the semiotic operation of Hirschhorn's utopian-that
is, self-conscious, re-marked, reflexive-museum did not work for every­
one. Some people (neighbors and art critics alike) read it as an institu­
tion, at one with an explicit political agendaj even Hirschhorn himself
seems to struggle with ways to describe how his work works. And of
course, it was far from utopian, with its minor labor disputes, insulting
graffiti, and the authoritarian persona of its author overseeing the utterly
revocable nature of its operations. But its failure as a utopia and as an
institution acts as a very modernist, almost obsolete criterion for what
might constitute its success; its arbitrary unintelligibility resists any
peaceful, universally pleasing definition of the aesthetic that would as­
similate a static, univocal relationship to social change.


1. See their Web site at http : //www.stop-precarite.fr.

2. Exactly what it takes to mount such a museum-or to revoke it, adminis­
tratively-is clarified in the publication completed one year after the Musee
ended. An annotated compilation of three-and-a-half years' worth of e-mails
and faxes pertaining to the Musee, complemented by photographs and sou­
venirs of the project (including, for example, participants' writing exercises
from the weekly workshops), it can be considered a documentary portion of
Precarite, Au to rite, Autonomie 235
the project itself. See Hirschhorn, Musee Precaire Alhinet. A much earlier ver­
sion of this essay appears in that volume, and I would like to thank Thomas
Hirschhorn for the several interviews that he has granted. I would also like to
thank Peter Haidu and Allan McCollum for their invaluable input, editorial
readings, and close friendship and support.
3. Hirschhorn made the dismantling of the Musee into a community-oriented
festivity by organizing a free raffle of its usable parts (fluorescent lights, micro­
wave, TV and VCR, etc.) as well as additional books and toys he purchased.
Every local resident who wanted one received a ticket to the raffle.
4. Fraser, "Why Does Fred Sandback's Work Make Me Cry?': See also her
"From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique:'
s. I address this question in a very different context in my "Review of Daniel
Buren's 2005 Eye of the Storm:'
6. Interview with the artist, June 2004.
7. Hirschhorn chose the neighborhood-known as Landy-for the modest
scale of its architecture, its relative proximity to the center of Paris, and its
generally relaxed air. Yvane Chapuis, of the Laboratoires d'Aubervilliers, con­
trasted his choice with the more distant reaches of Aubervilliers, known for
their high-rise subsidized housing structures. Interview, June 2004. The area is
also notable for the large-scale building projects going up in the area imme­
diately surrounding the stadium and is thus the focus of municipal attention as
a neighborhood in transition.
8. L.H.O. O.Q is a work by Marcel Duchamp from 1919, in which he drew a
mustache and added the abbreviation as title to Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.
9. The charge that Hirschhorn is a perfect example of the phenomenon that
Hal Foster describes as "The Artist as Ethnographer" falters, I think, to the
degree that we are never looking at a version of "the way things are" but merely
a mirror of how, in our fantasies, these things fit together-that's how loose and
abstract Hirschhorn's "anthropological" juxtapositions are. See Foster, The Re­
turn of the Real.
10. This is to say that, with five exceptions-Hirschhorn himself, Jacinto
Lageira, and Bernard BlistEme, who gave art-historical lectures, and his friends
Christophe Fiat and Manuel Joseph, who collectively led one of the debates­
all (twenty) of the art historians, public speakers, and invited authors were
female, as were both educators running the La part de l'art workshops for
children. Note that others of Hirschhorn's works, from the Kiosks (1999-2002)
to his recent Superficial Engagement (2006) often focus on female artists of the
European historical avant-garde (but not necessarily of the first order of promi­
nence), such as Meret Oppenheim, Liubov Popova, Ingeborg Bachmann, and
Emma Kunz.
11. Kwon, One Place After Another.
12. Ibid, 166.
13. This would not be a visual camouflage, as there is nothing particularly
transitory-looking about Landy, where the Musee's messy graffitied walls and
duct-taped beams were striking interruptions of a clean and mostly graffiti-free
neighborhood of families living in France for years if not generations. The
systems, sources, and visual designs of camouflage were taken up as subject
matter in one of Hirschhorn's next projects, Utopia, Utopia
One World, One =

Watj One Army, One Dress, hosted at the Institute of Contemporary Art in
Boston in November 2005-6, in which these were investigated as a fetishistic
play of the intersection of three fields: military operationsj artistic experimen­
tationj and the perplexing oxymoron, fashion "choices:'
14. See Krauss, The Picasso Papers, 180, and her "In the Name of Picasso;' in
The Originality of the Avant-Garde.
15. On this conjunction, see the work of T. J. Demos, especially The Exiles of
Marcel Duchamp.
16. In this respect, Hirschhorn joins-and perhaps reinterprets-the plight of
many of the neo - avant-garde artists whose early careers lead them to a seem­
ingly complete articulation of the problems they negotiate: Buren's stripes,
Warhol's silk-screen paintings, Lichtenstein's ben-day dot paintings, and Nau­
man's live video installations are all examples of formal solutions so precise that
they threaten to "brand" an artist's identity.
17. The wages of all of the Musee's workers-along with the various produc­
tion costs associated with building, maintaining, and running it-can be found
in the correspondence published in the above-cited publication, Musee Precaire
18. Hirschhorn had already made several public works-the Deleuze Monu­
ment in Avignon and the Bataille Monument in Kassel-that suffered, according
to his own testimony, from his erratic schedule. He made a point of remaining
on-site for the entire duration of the Musee's eight-week tenure ( except for one
overnight) and even amplified this "on-site" form of authorship in his next
works in Paris, 24 heures Foucault, at the Palais de Tokyo, and Swiss Swiss
Democracy, at the Centre Culturel Suisse.
19. "Je crois, c'est un fait, que l'art peut, l'art doit, l'art veut transformer,
n'ayant pas peur de Ie dire: changer la vie . . . . Si en tant qu'artiste je veux faire un
travail dans l'espace public je dois etre d'accord avec l'espace public . . . . Etre
d' accord veut dire en accord avec la mission impossible. J' ai dit en proposant Ie
projet aux habitants de la cite Albinet et au quartier du Landy que Ie "Musee
Precaire Albinet" etait une mission. Une mission impossible qui est basee sur un
accord:' "Note of intention;' Thomas Hirschhorn, February 2003 (see Musee
Precarite; Autorite; Autonomie 237
Precaire Albinet) : A propos du 'Musee Precaire Albinet; a propos d'un travail
d' artiste dans l' espace public et a propos du role de l' artiste dans la vie publi­
que, Xeroxed handout by Thomas Hirschhorn distributed at the Musee Precaire
Albinet, dated May IS, 2004.
20. See his "Four Statements, February 2000;' 2S2j and his notes for Skulptur:
Projekte in Munster 1997, 211-17, revised in Buchloh, Gingeras, and Basualdo,
Thomas Hirschhorn, 132.
21. Bishop, "The Social Turn;' 183.

Neo-Dada 1951 -54



Ever since Moira Roth's essay "The Aesthetic of Indifference" was pub­
lished in 1977, the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg has
been criticized for conforming to the repressive conditions of political
censorship that dominated the context of their early work's production
and reception under McCarthyism. Roth's polemical intervention in the
formalist ethos of seventies art criticism represented the first attempt at
a sociopolitical critique of Johns's and Rauschenberg's art, and it has
served as a point of departure for more recent interpretations that focus
on issues of sexual identity, uncovering encoded signifiers of a nominally
censored or closeted homosexuality within these artists' works. 1
In more recent years, Roth has proceeded to enlarge and expand upon
her critique of the postwar avant-garde, motivated, in part, by her op­
position to the canonization and contemporary influence of artists
whose work she regards as apolitical, from Marcel Duchamp and John
Cage to Rauschenberg and Johns. Against the coolly cerebral, detached,
and depersonalized "aesthetic of indifference" embraced by the fol­
lowers of Cage and Duchamp, Roth champions examples of contempo­
rary art that base themselves upon an identity politics of gender and
sexuality, including the work of performance artists Shigeko KUbota and
Rachel Rosenthal.
Neo-Dada 1951-54 239
Interestingly, although this connection is not emphasized by Roth, in
the early fifties Rosenthal herself had been a close friend and associate
of Johns and Rauschenberg. At the time, her artistic production was
largely divided between her involvement with the experimental theater
and dance of Erwin Piscator and Merce Cunningham, and her work in
sculpture, which she would later describe as heavily indebted to Rausch­
enberg's work of this period.2
In 1954, moreover, Rosenthal commissioned a work from Johns, Star,
that marked a crucial transition in both artists' careers (fig. 1). Imme­
diately after his execution of the commission, Johns destroyed all his
previous work that was still in his possession and initiated a mode of
painterly production, famously inaugurated in his work Flag (1954-55),
that clearly differentiated his work from Rauschenberg's and that subse­
quently came to define his identity as an artist. By contrast, after 1954
Rosenthal's own interests shifted entirely away from studio art, toward
the improvisational mode of theater that would establish the basis of her
later work in performance.3
Star thus represents a peculiarly hybrid object, whose authorship
remains open to interpretation and debate. Conceived by Rosenthal as a
painting in the shape of a Jewish star, the work's construction was
executed by Jasper Johns.4 In this sense, it is the product of a collabora­
tion between two artists. On the other hand, Star is also the product of a
commission, in which Rosenthal played the part of creative director and
patron while Johns assumed the role of the craftsman: in this respect it
was not so different from the department store window-display com­
missions Johns and Rauschenberg received from Gene Moore in this
period, which remained their principal source of income between 1954
and 1958. 5 Finally, the work belongs to a phase ofJohns's and Rosenthal's
careers in which their work was dominated by Rauschenberg's influence,
even as they struggled to develop independent artistic identities of their
own. Viewed in these terms, Star is a product of contract, collaboration,
and polemics, a site of disputation between the artists most closely
involved in its making and the art historians who argue over their
respective legacies.
A close analysis of this work and the context of its production, there­
fore, may serve to demonstrate the complexities in these artists' produc­
tion at a moment when it was not yet possible to clearly differentiate
between the two artistic trajectories outlined by Roth. Indeed, in this
240 S E T H M C C O RM I C K

1 . Jasper Johns, Star,

1954. Oil, beeswax,
and house paint on
newSpape1j canvas,
and wood with
tinted glass, nails,
and fabric tape.
The Menil Collec­
tion, Houston.
Photo by Hickey­

moment, the opposition between a politicized thematic of identity and

a depersonalizing aesthetic of political persecution becomes a structur·
ing element of Star. At the same time, both artistic projects are co­
implicated in larger historical formations of power and prejudice, whose
unity is given only in the confluence of personal and political circum­
stances that led to the production of Star. A closer study of this work
may shed light on the ways in which the seemingly opposed models of
identity politics and avant-garde aesthetics remain mutually imbricated
even today, not only in their theoretical and methodological applica­
tions but at the level of political praxis, in the form of a romanticization
and aestheticization of persecution.
The supposedly repressive blanks and anti··expressive silences of the
works that Johns, Rauschenberg, and Rosenthal produced prior to Star
did not conform to the imperatives of homosexual closeting and politi­
cal censorshipj rather, their highly determinate content reveals the lim­
itations of these concepts' applicability to the economy of homosexual
visibility in the United States of the fifties. This content is neither
Neo-Dada 1951-54 241
representational nor formal but rather literal and material, consisting of
the collage incorporation of found papers and other detritus into the
work's surface or ground. Deriving from the work of the Dadaist artist
Kurt Schwitters, the aesthetics of this mode of collage were shaped by
medical, sociological, and ethnographic constructions of pathology and
health that mediated between avant-garde art and the norms of ethnic,
sexual, and social identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, including the concept of degeneracy. These constructions
haunted Schwitters's reception in his own time, when his work was
branded "degenerate" by the Nazis and "garbage art" by fellow Dadaists,
as well as in the first decades after the Second World War, when a new
generation of artists discovered the history and legacy of Dada through
the writings of Schwitters's severest critics within the Dada movement.
As a hypothetical condition of biological decline afflicting individuals,
races, populations, and societies, "degeneracy" was pseudoscience, pure
and simplej as a set of diSciplinary and aesthetic discourses and prac­
tices, however, it was possessed of a materiality capable of producing
very real political effects, both lethal (at the limit, the authorization and
organization of genocide on a historically unprecedented scale) and
insurrectionary (the consolidation of oppositional identities and cross­
identifications among a heterogeneous range of persecuted classes, eth­
nicities, and sexualities).6 In some cases, these discourses and practices
outlived the productivity of the biological theory of degeneracy, as
witnessed by their persistence within psychoanalytic theories of homo­
sexuality and in the government purges of homosexual employees that
accompanied McCarthyism?
For homosexuals in the postwar United States, identification with the
persecutory category of degeneracy, like silence, was a double-edged
sword. On the one hand, it was immediately implicated within Nazi-era
medical and juridical techniques of ethnic and sexual persecution that
continued to inform policies of homosexual persecution in the postwar
United States. Both in its historical origins and its ongoing biopolitical
deployment in the postwar context, the identification of sexual minor­
ities as degenerate remained a powerful technique for criminalizing and
pathologizing homosexuality. This technique Simultaneously denied
homosexuality the distinctiveness of an identity or essence that would
distinguish it from other criminalized groups.
On a rhetorical or performative level, however, the foregrounding of
242 S E T H M C C O RM I C K
this identification brought to light the hidden continuity from the sys­
tem of concentration camps to McCarthyism. By showing that the
juridical status assigned to homosexuals in American society differed
only in degree from the total expropriation visited upon Jews, homosex­
uals, and Communists by Nazism, this identification challenged the
postwar consensus that the political systems of totalitarianism and
Western liberal democracy were diametrically opposed.
I therefore argue that these three artists' strategic embrace of a
Schwittersian aesthetic of degeneracy, despite its collusion with a typ­
ically McCarthyist conflation of Communists, homosexuals, and crimi­
nals, was at the same time the condition of possibility for a new form of
political subjectivation, based on a performative misidentification of
homosexuals with the Jewish victims and survivors of Nazism. This
misidentification revealed the hidden continuity of McCarthyism with
totalitarianism and thereby demonstrated the necessity of breaking with
that double bind of invisibility and exposure, secrecy and confession,
that even today, in the ever-widening zone of indistinction between
public and private life, governs the extent and limits of political rights.
In seeking to complicate received notions of the relationship between
art, censorship, and identification in the McCarthy era (the so-called
age of conformity), I refer to Jacques Ranciere's critique of essentialist
identity politics. Ranciere argues for a practice of political subjectivation
that does not depend on the assumption of a pteconstituted community
of political interests or on a mimetic or romantic identifica,tion with the
mechanisms of political persecution and exclusion. Ranciere discusses
the exemplary case of Auguste Blanqui, the nineteenth-century French
revolutionary leader prosecuted for rebellion. QJ1estioned by the pros­
ecutor as to his profession, Blanqui answered, "Proletarian:' On being
informed by the prosecutor that this was not a profession, Blanqui
responded, "It is the profession of the majority of our people who are
deprived of political rights:' Ranciere notes that Blanqui, although not a
worker, was correct in arguing that proletarian was not a name belong­
ing to any identifiable social group in the given political order but was
instead the site of what he terms an "impossible identification":
Proletarians was the name given to people who are together inasmuch as they
are between: between several names, statuses and identities; between human­
ity and inhumanity, citizenship and its denial. . . . Political subjectivization is
Neo-Dada 1951-54 243
the enactment of equality . . . by people who are together to the extent that
they are between. It is a crossing ofidentities, relying on a crossing of names:
names that link the name of a group or class to the name of no group or class, a
being to a nonbeing or a not-yet-being . . . . In the demonstration of equality,
the syllogistic logic of the either/or ( are we or are we not citizens or human
beings? ) is intertwined with the paratactic logic of a "we are and are noe'8

Taking my cue from Ranciere's concept of subjectivation, I argue that

Star's iconographic investment in Judaism as the model for a politicized
homosexual identity represents an attempt to break with a persecutory
aesthetic of degeneracy. Star's crossing of identities links the name of a
recognized group (JeWish citizens) to the name of no group (homosex­
uals denied the rights and visibility of citizenship under McCarthyism).
This misidentification is the performative enactment of an equality.
Within the visual economy sketched by Star, however, it is an equality
that remains forever deferred by the association of the signifiers of
ethnic identity and nationality (the Star of David) with historical tech­
niques of political persecution (the Judenstern of the concentration
camps) . Such associations transform a revolutionary contestation of the
existing distribution of roles, meanings, and appearances into what
Ranciere terms the handling of a "wrong;' a matter of policy or policing.
In this wa)lJ the aesthetic operations of Star expose the trap of an
ethnicized model of identity politicS, a trap from which the work of
equality is unable to wholly release itsel£9

A Metaphorics of Secrecy: Between Passivity and Politics

The immediate artistic context in which Rosenthal and Johns collabo­

rated on Star was dominated by the powerful examples set by their
friends, the artist Robert Rauschenberg and the composerJohn Cage. "In
1950, John Cage made a major leap of imagination by entering into his
experiments with chance;' Moira Roth recalls; "although the Zen-like
chance operations of Cage were exciting to invent, they also exhibited an
extreme passivity: a decision not to assert but rather to let happen what
may. . . . A similar theme of emptiness and passivity resided in Rauschen­
berg's white paintings of a year or so earlier. The large all-white canvases
contained no image except the fleeting shadows of passers-by:' l o
244 S E T H M C C O RM I C K
Roth quotes a poem Cage wrote for the occasion o f the White Paint­
ings' first exhibition in 1953, "To whom / No subject / No image / No
taste / No object / No beauty / No message / No talent / No technique
(no why) / No idea / No intention / No art / No feeling:' She calls this
"a poetic manifesto of the Aesthetic of Indifference;' noting,
In the spring of 1953, McCarthy's henchmen Roy M. Cohn and G. David
Schine made a lightning censorship tour of the American overseas informa­
tion program in Europe. Their search for 'subversive' Communist literature
led to a monstrous 'cleaning up' of libraries and, literally, to bookburning. In
the political ambience of hysterical anti-Communism and right-wing action,
the Cage poem reads like an unconscious tragic acknowledgment of total
paralysis. The Aesthetic of Indifference had literally gone 'blank: There are
no messages, no feelings and no ideas. Only emptiness,u

Roth goes on, however, to distinguish Johns's works, with their osten­
sibly more specifically McCarthyist themes, from the White Paintings'
passive acceptance of conditions of political censorship: "What emerges
out of a collective examination of his work is a dense concentration of
metaphors dealing with spying, conspiracy, secrecy and concealment,
misleading information, coded"messages and clues:'12
In differentiating Johns's inauguration of this "second and more poi­
gnant phase of the Aesthetic ofIndifference" from the earlier art of Cage
and Rauschenberg, Roth accords Johns's work a more particularized
treatment than many of the social art historians who studied this period
in subsequent decades, most of whom have focused on the sexual iden­
tity politics of these artists' works. Both Kenneth Silver's 1993 "Modes of
Disclosure" and Jonathan D. Katz's more recent studies of the Cagean
milieu, for instance, locate the artist's work within the context of an
emergent postwar homosexual aesthetic. 13 Their interpretations inevita­
bly accentuate the commonalities between Cage, Rauschenberg, and
Johns as representatives of an ostensibly closeted, pre-Stonewall homo­
sexual subjectivity. Viewed through the lens of identity, the artists' works
are simultaneously linked and contrasted with later, more overt artistic
expressions of homosexuality, as in the case ofAndy Warhol's life and art.
These shifts in interpretation have obscured the distinction, which
Roth originally wanted to underscore, between the coolly impersonal
aesthetic of Johns and Rauschenberg and the sexual identity politics of
seventies art. By defining the former as a developmental stage of the
Neo-Dada 1951-54 245
latter, Silver and Katz implicitly conflate these two models of artistic
practice. Restoring attention to the points of divergence between
Rauschenberg's ostensible passivity and Rosenthal's interrogation of the
performativity of gender is not just a matter of salvaging the uniqueness
and originality of each artist: as Roth's argument dearly shows, it is a
question of the political differences that separate these two formations.
The importance of these differences would seem to be borne out by
an analysis of the traces of these artists' respective influences on the
production of Star. On Rosenthal's side, the commissioning of Star
could be read as a kind of performance of her self-identification as a Jew,
constituting the earliest example of the artist's subsequent lifelong en­
gagement with the aesthetic expression of personal identity. At the same
time, it seems to announce a shift in Johns's artistic practice as well, in
the way that it anticipates certain key elements of what Roth identifies,
in Flag and later works, as a thematics of secrecy and concealment. On
the level of the work's physical structure, for instance, the two interlock­
ing triangles of the Jewish star are transformed into the forms of a
shallow triangular box with a triangular lid that has been rotated 180
degrees, obscuring part of the box's interior and concealing its contents.
In the tension established between these elements, the work bears the
marks of a struggle between the representational and political content
of the Jewish star and the modernist formal strategies of monochrome
and collage, a struggle that could be understood in terms of the conflict­
ing imperatives of Rosenthal's iconographic program and Johns's aes­
thetic sensibility. Thus, the work seems to embody the simultaneous
emergence and divergence of two models of artistic production polem­
ically contrasted by Roth: Johns's elaboration of a "metaphorics of
secrecy" against the historical backdrop of government persecution and
censorship of modern artists, Communists, and homosexuals, versus
Rosenthal's performative engagement with the politics of identity.
At the same time, by situating Johns's work within the broader context
of McCarthyism, Roth's analysis of its "metaphorics of secrecy" is more
open ended than the interpretations developed by Silver and Katz. In
Roth's 1977 essay, the metaphorical content ofJohns's work has a politi­
cal valence that cannot be confined to homosexual closeting alone, but
has equal relevance to the situation of other individuals and groups in a
time of espionage trials and Communist purges. For Silver and Katz,
these metaphors refer to the ground of an essential authorial identity
246 S E T H M C C O RM I C K
provided by Johns's homosexuality.14 In this way, something of the
commonalities that unite Rosenthal and Johns at this particular mo­
ment in time, and that allowed them to collaborate on Star, falls outside
discussion; so too does the possibility of connecting Star's borrowings
from the aesthetic strategies of Rauschenberg's White Paintings with the
politics of Rosenthal's self-identification as a Jew.
What is precisely so remarkable about this work, in fact, is the rela­
tionship it establishes between the Jewish star, as an ambiguous emblem
ofJewish sovereignty and vicitimization, and the work's concretization
of a Johnsian metaphorics of secre(."y. The work is governed by an
absolute spatial and semantic proximity between the forms of specifi­
callyJewish identification embodied in the work's physical structure and
the zone of this identity's submersion in, or indistinction from, a shared
and nonspecific thematic of secrecy, concealment, and silence. This is
perhaps most evident in the difficulty of distinguishing between the
work's putative metaphorics of the homosexual closet and its recourse to
a figural language ofJewish and homosexual persecution under Nazism
that was specific to the literature and journalism of this period, ranging
from the use of the Jewish star and pink triangle as identifying insignia
in Nazi concentration camps (described in Eugen Kogon's widely read
report on the camps, The Theory and Practice of Hell) to the "secret
annex" made famous by the 1952 English publication of The Diary of
Anne Frank. 15
This proximity between visual structures ofJewish identification and
political structures of homosexual persecution, moreover, is not unique
to this particular work. Rather, as I will attempt to show, it is rooted in
the conditions of contemporary social and political discourse and in the
aesthetics of so-called neo-Dada art of the early fifties. Such indistinc­
tions were governed and granted consistency by formations of power
and knowledge that gave a very concrete form to the visibility of homo­
sexuality in the United States of the fifties, a form that does not corre­
spond to contemporary notions of the homosexual closet. Restrictions
upon homosexual action and speech were not, in fact, the principal
mode by which these conditions exercised their effects, as the hypoth­
esis of censorship implies. Instead of limiting the field of what was
visible, sayable, and knowable about homosexuals, I argue, these forma­
tions saturated knowledge, speech, and sight, making it impossible to
Neo-Dada 1951 -54 247
identify a domain of homosexual identity that was not overcoded by
other identifications: criminal, Communist, subversive, spy.
Attention to the historical factors that connected the emergence of
the homosexual rights movement to postwar constructions of Jewish
identity may clarify the relationship between the activities of Rauschen­
berg, Johns, and Rosenthal in the broader political and historical con­
text of McCarthyism. Where Roth ties her interpretation to political
events that are specific to the artists' chronological development but
arguably remote from their personal concerns, Silver and Katz associate
the works with social and psychological conditions of homosexual invis­
ibility that are germane to the artist's biographies. This, however, de­
historicizes their work by measuring it against post-Stonewall dis­
courses and practices.
The task, therefore, is to connect these two perspectives in a way that
does not take the relationship between aesthetics and politics for
granted and that remains sensitive to the particular historical context
of these artists' production. By conflating legal and political develop­
ments with ahistorical factors of social or psychological prejudice, so­
ciological analyses of homophobia and closeting deflect attention from
the specificity of homosexual persecution in the United States of the
fifties. This persecution consisted not so much in the concealment or
censorship of homosexual identity as in its obsessive disquisition within
literary:, scientific, and political discourse and in the forcible identifica­
tion and elimination of homosexuals from government and private em­
ployment. To those homosexuals who first recognized the need to orga­
nize politically in the early fifties, these bureaucratically administered
and highly visible mechanisms of identification appeared to have more
in common with the political persecution that had confronted Jews
under Nazism than with the haphazard forms of police harassment and
homophobic violence to which homosexuals had been routinely sub­
jected in the past. The purges of homosexual "security risks" from public
and private employment did not merely represent a threat to free ex­
pression and self-identification, as the diagnosis of censorship would
suggest: rather, they uncannily echoed the situation ofJews in France in
the years of the Dreyfus Affair, a situation whose essential continuity
with Nazi persecutions of both homosexuals and Jews was analyzed in
Hannah Arendt's contemporaneous The Origins of Totalitarianism.16
248 S E T H M C C O RM I C K

The Sp ecter of Nazi Germany

In a July 1950 document titled "Preliminary Concepts;' a draft proposal

for the formation of an organization to defend the civil rights of homo­
sexuals, Harry Hay defined the homosexual citizen of the United States
as the contemporary juridical equivalent of the Jew in Nazi Germany. In
this document, Hay asserted that "the government indictment against
Androgynous Civil Servants" offered evidence of an "encroaching Amer­
ican Fascism:' He pointed out that homosexuals were being targeted in
the same manner as Communists and argued that "the Government's
announced plans for eventual 100% war production mobilization" would
also exclude homosexuals from employment in the private sector. He
implicitly evoked the possibility that if McCarthyism triumphed, homo­
sexuals could one day be interned in concentration camps similar to
those used to exterminate the Jews. 17
The organization Hay proposed in. 1950 would eventually be named
the Mattachine Foundation; it became the first national organization to
fight for homosexual rights in the United States. The beginnings of the
homosexual civil rights struggle in this country can therefore be traced
directly to this founding document, in which the subjectivation of
homosexuals as United States citizens is effected in the form of their
identification with persecuted Jews. Through this identification, homo­
sexual activists linked the criminal inhumanity of the Nazi's Jewish
genocide with the political and juridical persecution of homosexuals
under McCarthyism.
Provisions for the investigation and termination of homosexual gov­
ernment employees originated in the language of a 1947 rider to the
House appropriations bill for the State Department. The McCarran
rider stipulated that any State Department employee regarded as a
"security risk" could be investigated and terminated at the "absolute
discretion" of the secretary of state. According to historian David K.
Johnson, the rider's language had been composed with the express
intent of targeting homosexuals. IS Over the course of the fifties and
sixties, approximately one thousand State Department employees were
removed from their jobs on suspicion of homosexuality; furthermore,
statistics indicate that these firings represent only about 20 percent of
the total number of government workers who were either fired or re­
signed in the course of the widening investigation.19
Neo-Dada 1951-54 249
Meanwhile, in 1950 Congress passed the Internal Security Act, also
known as the McCarran Act or the Subversive Activities Control Act,
requiring the registration of Communist organizations and authorizing
the establishment of the Subversive Activities Control Board to investi­
gate "loyalty risks" and persons accused of "un-Alnerican" activities.
Immigrants who fell under the provisions of the act could be barred
from United States citizenship, while citizens could be denaturalized
within five years. Title II of the Act, called the "Emergency Detention
Act;' made provisions for the detention of any person whom the admin­
istration judged likely to commit acts of sabotage or espionage in the
event of an "internal security emergency:' Passage of the bill led to the
establishment of six "detention camps;' which were never used, al­
though their very existence served as a reminder of the executive's
emergency powers and as a continual threat to political dissidents.2o
The transition from the firing of homosexuals under the McCarran
rider of 1947 to their complete expropriation under the Internal Security
Act of 1950 was a leap, but McCarthy's supporters in Congress actively
contrived to blur the distinction between security risks and loyalty risks
in order to expand their own claim on executive powers. The more
interchangeably the terms were used, the greater the threat that homo­
sexuals would, like suspected Communists, be defined as "subversives"
and subjected to denaturalization and internment.21
Hay's reference to ''American Fascism" therefore offered an accu­
rate description of the political logic of the newly introduced inter­
nal security measures. In its juridical-political structure, the govern­
ment purge of homosexuals was virtually indistinguishable from the
administrative mechanisms that were used to identify spies and Com­
munists, and it was distinctly similar in character to the legal apparatus
that had condemned large numbers of homosexuals and Communists,
as well as millions of Jews, to the Nazi concentration camps. These
circumstances may serve to explain why, in what was arguably the first
effective articulation of a discourse of homosexual civii rights in postwar
society, the possibility of a homosexual politics was made contingent
upon acceptance of the historical parallel with the Jewish victims of
Hay did anticipate a positive alternative to this fate, which required
that American homosexuals organize politically to demand their civil
rights. In drawing a parallel between Jews and homosexuals, he did not
250 S E T H M C C O RM I C K
simply draw attention to their shared history of victimizationj he also
evoked the possibility that homosexuals could one day win the same
degree of respect and recognition now accorded to the Jews, who could
now no longer be politically scapegoated without public protest.22 At
the same time, however, it may be argued that Hay's analogy revealed
the extent to which a nascent politics of positive homosexual identity
was circumscribed by an assumption of victimhood that was predicated
upon, and might even have served to reinforce, persecutory construc­
tions of homosexuality.
But what about modes of homosexual identification that were not
strictly political or not framed in the representational language of Hay's
prospectus? What about identifications established on the level of aes­
thetic experience, social praxis, or psychological expression? How was
the fate of homosexuals in government service, or even in the private
sector, related to the material conditions of avant-garde artistic produc­
tion, or was it even related at all? What exactly was the nature of the
relationship (if any) between the juridical-political structure of homo­
sexual visibility under McCarthyism and the structures of visibility and
identification afforded to homosexual artists by the strategies of mod­
ernist abstraction: grid, monochrome, ready-made, collage?

Kurt Schwitters's "Degenerate" Aesthetic

The political threat posed by McCarthyism in the postwar United States

exercised a controlling influence over avant-garde artists' ability to con­
nect with the sources of a Western artistic tradition irreparably compro­
mised by its continuity with fascism. Just as the contemporary discourse
of homosexual rights can be traced back to Hay's reference to Nazi
precedents for the State Department purges, it could be argued that
abstract painting in the early fifties could present contemporary condi­
tions of homosexual persecution only through an engagement with the
aesthetic modes that were historically associated with persecutory con­
structions of deviance and degeneracy. Homosexuals' exclusion from a
specifically political identity, and their unlimited exposure to expropria­
tion and death, could thus be directly represented through an identifica­
tion with aesthetic practices that were designated as "degenerate art"
(entartete Kunst) under Nazism. In particular, I would argue, it was
Neo-Dada 1951-54 251
through an engagement with the work of the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters,
whose death in 1948 occasioned renewed and widespread attention to
his life and art, that Johns and his fellow artists Robert Rauschenberg
and Cy Twombly were able to broach the relationship between Mc­
Carthyist persecution and a longer history of totalitarian constructions
of identity.
According to Calvin Tomkins, "Rauschenberg had often been told,
since his Betty Parsons show [of 1951], that his work resembled that of
the German artist Kurt Schwitters:'23 Certainly Rauschenberg's produc­
tion of 1953-54 recalled Schwitters's collage aesthetic: densely layered,
heteroclite in its juxtaposition of imagery and materials, delighting in
the poetry of discarded pieces of paper, cloth, and other refuse. The
influence is particularly marked in Rauschenberg's Red Paintings (his
first to incorporate collaged objects) and the early Combines and Com­
bine paintings. Rauschenberg is known to have visited the important
Sidney Janis show, "Dada 1916-1923;' which ran from September 29
through October 31, 1953, and which included several of Schwitters's
Merz collages. He may have been introduced to the artist's work even
prior to this by his fellow artist and Black Mountain College alumnus Cy
Twombly, who began producing collages under the direct inspiration of
Schwitters while still a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts
in Boston, in 1948.24
Meanwhile Leo Steinberg, in his 1963 monograph on Jasper Johns,
notes that Johns was also told early on that his "small abstract collages
from paper scraps . . . looked like those of Kurt Schwitters" and that he
subsequently "veered away-to be different:'25 It is possible that Johns
would have encountered Schwitters's work prior to meeting Rauschen­
berg or being exposed to his production. I would argue, however, that
the works Johns produced shortly before or after his move to Pearl
Street with Rauchenberg in the summer of 1954, following the start of
their professional collaboration on window-display commissions, are
the first to show any influence of Schwitters's model of collage and are
most likely the ones that triggered the comparisons mentioned in Stein­
berg's anecdote.26 This strongly suggests that the influence of Schwitters
on Johns's work was primarily mediated by Rauschenberg's example,
and that his mobilization of a Merz aesthetic demands to be read in
terms of the dialogical relationship between the two homosexual artists'
252 S E T H M C C O RM I C K
Schwitters's Merz cannot b e regarded simply as one example among
others of "degenerate art:' A close reading of the documentation avail­
able in the early fifties would have shown that at the time of its produc­
tion, the materials and compositional principles of Schwitters's art were
understood to bear an ambivalent relationship to the popular notions of
degeneracy that influenced Nazi ideology. Robert Motherwell's anthol­
ogy The Dada Painters and Poets, published in 1951, featured anecdotes
about Schwitters and accounts of his works that emphaSized the ambig­
uous relation between Schwitters's art and certain reactionary strains in
modernist German culture.
One of the most powerful portraits of Schwitters found in Mother­
well's anthology was authored by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, wife of the Bau­
haus artist and American emigre Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Motherwell
quotes an anecdote from her previously published biography of her
husband, recounting an event that took place in the immediate after­
math of the fascist seizure of power in Berlin. The account reveals with
particular poignancy both the dangers in which Schwitters was placed
by the Nazi campaign against "degenerate art" and the ways in which
the artist's overidentification with his art reinforced the ambiguity of his
work's ideological commitments.
Sibyl and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy had received an invitation to a Ger­
man press association from the poet and author of the "Futurist Man­
ifesto;' Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, an early supporter of the Italian
Fascist Party and a sometime fellow traveler of Dada. Laszlo Moholy­
Nagy had no interest in going. Having been threatened with arrest for
refusing to accept censorship of his paintings, he had already made
preparations to leave Germany. Schwitters, who was staying with them
at the time, was also "profoundly worried about the political tide" but
had no plans to leave Germany: "There was nothing he dreaded more
than emigration:' He finally convinced his hosts that they should attend,
"to honor the revolutionary in Marinetti:'
Short of Hitler, all the Nazis were present: Goebbels and Goring, August
Wilhelm of Hohenzollern, the president of the Berlin University, Gerhart
Hauptmann . . . Moholy, S chwitters, and I were sandwiched between the
head of the National Socialist Organization for Folk Culture, and the leader
of the "Strength Through Joy" movement. . . . The more Schwitters drank,
the more fondly he regarded his neighbor.
Neo-Dada 1951- 54 253
"1 love you, you Cultural Folk and Joy;' he said. "Honestly, 1 love you. You

think I'm not worthy of sharing your chamber, your art chamber for strength
and folk, ha? I'm an idiot too, and 1 can prove if'
Moholy put his hand firmly on Schwitters's arm and for a few minutes he
was silent, drinking rapidly and searching the blank face of his neighbor with
wild blue eyes.
"You think I'm a Dadaist, don't you;' he suddenly started again. "That's
where you're wrong, brother. I'm MERZ:' He thumped his wrinkled dress
shirt near his heart. ''I'm Aryan-the great Aryan MERZ. I can think Aryan,
paint Aryan, spit Aryan:'
He held an unsteady fist before the man's nose. "With this Aryan fist I shall
destroy the mistakes of my youth" - "If you want me to;' he added in a
whisper after a long sipP

The portrait of Schwitters presented by this exchange touches on one

of the central problems of his reception by his fellow Dadaists. In his
intoxication and desperation, Schwitters puts on a performance that is
neither pure parody of his Nazi hosts nor sincere schwarmerei, but
rather an unstable compound of the two.
The thematic of this ambiguity is taken up in several places in Moth­
erwell's anthology. George Grosz, Motherwell reports, was among the
most unsympathetic to Schwitters's work. Grosz described Schwitters's
Merz paintings and Merz poems in terms not unrelated to those applied
to "degenerate art" by the Nazis, as "garbage" pictures and "garbage"
poems.2 8 Like Grosz, the Berlin Dadaists Richard Huelsenbeck and
Raoul Haussmann also criticized Schwitters for the ambiguity of his
work's aesthetic politics. The paradoxical alliance Schwitters forged be­
tween revolutionary negation and a conciliatory modernist aesthetic of
"harmony and form;' they felt, traced its roots to the same source that
nourished Nazi ideology, namely, German romanticism.29
As George Hugnet noted in his essay "The Dada Spirit in Painting;'
included in Motherwell's anthology, impurity and corruption furnished
both the thematic material and the modus operandi of Schwitters's art:
''At home, heaps of wooden junk, tufts of horsehair, old rags} broken and
unrecognizable objects, provided him with clippings from life and po­
etry, and constituted his reserves . . . . To the principle of the object} he
added a respect for life in the form of dirt and putrefaction:'30 Entformeln
(deformation) and Entmaterialisierung (dematerialization) were princi-
254 S E T H M C C O RM I C K
pIes that Schwitters continually stressed in his writings about his work,
employing a rhetoric that possessed uncanny echoes of the term Entar­
tung, or "degeneracy:'31 Like the latter concept, "Merz" was constituted as
an over arching category that both culminated and dissolved all typologi­
cal categories-racial, social, and psychological. In a time obsessed with
purity, Schwitters confronted constructions of impurity and hybridiza­
tion as both a limit case and an enabling condition of his work.
Viewed in this light, Schwitters's self-identification as "the great Aryan
MERZ " in the Moholy-Nagy anecdote strikes a disquieting note, for it
suggests that Schwitters alone among the German Dadaists was aware
of the extent to which avant-garde artists had already implicated them­
selves in popular and propagandistic constructions of degeneracy. In
distancing themselves from Schwitters's dependence upon romantic­
nationalist models of cultural production, the Berlin Dadaists may have
sought to deny their own culpability in fulfilling Nazi prophesies of
decline in the cultural sphere. The description Schwitters gave of his
work in his 1920 Merz essay, reprinted in Motherwell, gave credence to
the notion that art could be identified in terms of pathology and health,
deformation and the harmony of form. In this Schwitters was quite
unlike his ostensibly more politicized colleagues within the Dada move­
ment, who, trusting in the patent absurdity of such denominations,
never recognized the logical consistency that led from an aesthetics of
nonsense and feigned insanity to a medical, juridical, and political appa­
ratus of human liquidation.32
Sibyl Moholy-Nagy's narrative concludes with the dramatic events
that followed upon Schwitters's drunken provocation of the "Strength
through Joy" man. Leaping to the rescue of his beleaguered friend,
Marinetti jumped to his feet and launched into a recitation of his sound
poem "The Raid on Adrianople;' complete with spoken sound effects of
bombings, trains suicides, and telegraphic communications from Amer­
ica. At the poem's climax, Marinetti threw himself upon the table, and as
he whispered its concluding line, "Vaniteeeeee, viande congeleeeeeeee­
veilleuse de La Madone;' he dragged the tablecloth with him onto to the
floor, spilling food, wine, and tableware onto the lap of Cultural Folk
and Joy. Meanwhile,
Schwitters had jumped up at the first sound of the poem. Like a horse at a
familiar sound the Dadaist in him responded to the signal. His face flushed,
Neo-Dada 1951- 54 255
his mouth open, he followed each ofMarinetti's moves with his own body. In
the momentary silence that followed the climax his eyes met Moholy's.
"Oh, Anna Blume/' he whispered, and suddenly brealdng out into a roar
that drowned the din of protesting voices and scraping chair legs, he thun­
"Oh, Anna Blume, Du bist von hinten wie von vorn [You are the same
from behind as from the front], A-n-n-a:'33

In this linkage of sentimental German love poetry with a perverse,

even scatological mixture of aesthetics and tastes-modernist and ro­
mantic, materialist and lyrical, working class and bourgeois-Schwit­
ters's Merz stood for the principle of an impure federation of mobile and
decentering sexualities, races, and classes. At the same time, and by the
same token, it consolidated and spectacularized the terms under which
"degeneracy" art was made useful to Nazi propaganda, most famously in
the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich, in which Schwitters's
work was included.34

B etween "Bare Life" and Disagreement

The two examples given above-Hay's "Preliminary Concepts" and the

recovery of Schwitters's Merz aesthetic in the early work of Rauschen­
berg, Twombly, and Johns-suggest some of the ways in which homo­
sexuals in the fifties could and did identify with the situation of various
other groups persecuted under Nazism, including Jews and modern
artists. But there was a very considerable difference between the two
different poles of this identification. This difference can be described,
somewhat cursorily, in terms of the opposition between a politics of
victimhood and a politics of responsibility. The first conforms to a mode
of political romanticism that in some respects actually reproduces the
logic of Nazi persecution. By identifying with the complete expropria­
tion and powerlessness of the Nazis' victims, the politics of victimhood
perpetuates those forms of depersonalization by which Nazism stripped
its victims of the essentially human qualities of agency and respon­
sibility. The politics of responsibility, by contrast, emphasizes precisely
these qualities in its identification of the victims of political persecution.
Hay, although motivated by the real conditions of victimization that he
256 S E T H M C C O RM I C K
and other homosexuals faced, proposed a model of homosexual identity
that was oriented toward activism and political agency: this was the
model of the homosexual as citizen. Hay did not conflate the distinct
identities of Jews and homosexuals by attempting to explain (and im­
plicitly, to naturalize) the reasons for their similar treatment under
Nazism and McCarthyism. Most importantly, his comparison of Jews
with homosexuals did not seek some basis for their victimization on the
level of common sOciological or psychological characteristics, or shared
aesthetic sensibility.
Arguably, however, it was only within the confines of such an aesthetic
of victimhood that the foundations of a political identity for homosex­
uals could be represented in the early fifties, although necessarily in an
apolitical form, or at most in a form whose politics could as yet be dimly
perceived. By the same token, this identity was given in a form that was
not yet a distinctly or specifically homosexual politics, or whose homosex­
uality was not yet specifically political; a form that accorded political
identity to homosexuals only insofar as they were subjected to the same
forms of political expropriation as other victims of Nazism: paradigmat­
ically, the Jews of the concentration camps. In this form, homosexuality is
political only insofar as it is denied a distinct identity of its own. Instead it
is identified, immediately and without reserve, with the generic condi­
tion identified by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben as "bare life:'
Agamben uses the term bare life to refer to the inclusion of zoe-a
term the ancient Greeks used to refer to "simple fact of living common
to all living beings" -within political life, bios politikos. He takes as his
point of departure Michel Foucault's studies of the historical shift from
the "territorial state" to the "state of population;' in which the biological
health of the populace becomes the central problem of state power. The
development of eugenics was a crucial factor in the consolidation of
what Foucault terms "biopower;' the transferal of political power from
the feudal sovereign's right over his subjects' life and death to the "ex­
igencies of a life-administering power" that functions "to incite, rein­
force, control, monitor, optimize, and organize the forces under if'3 5
According to Agamben, the limitation of Foucault's analysis of mod­
ern political power is to be found in the historical and theoretical
distinction Foucault draws between the juridical-political institutions of
sovereignty and the social and scientific techniques ofbiopower. In fact,
Foucault did recognize that there were intersections between these two
Neo-Dada 1951-54 257
modes of operation of power, as exemplified by Nazism, "doubtless the
most cunning and the most naive (and the former because of the latter)
combination of the fantasies of blood and the paroxysms of a disciplin­
ary power:' Under Nazism, "a eugenic ordering of society, with all that
implied in the way of extension and intensification of micro-powers, in
the guise of an unrestricted state control, was accompanied by the
oneiric exaltation of a superior blood: the latter implied both the sys­
tematic genocide of others and the risk of exposing oneself to a total
The problem with Foucault's analysis, in Agamben's view, is that this
"unrestricted state control" over biological life does not represent a
transitional or accidental admixture of two historical epochs or dimen­
sions of power, one ruled by law and the other by the domination of
nature; rather, biopolitics is the very paradigm of sovereign power,
establishing a direct continuity between the Hobbesian "state of nature"
and the modern "state of exception;' codified in executive privilege or
martial law. Under Nazism, biological life was politicized: that is, sub­
jected to the direct exercise of state power precisely through the consti­
tution of the biological health of the Volk as the sole political value.
Agamben claims that this determination of the proper object of politics
as the "good life;' understood as biological health and happiness, has
gone hand in hand with sovereign power's recourse to an unlimited
monopoly over violence since the dawn of Western history. The only
distinction that Agamben admits between premodern forms of sov­
ereignty and modern biopolitics is that the historical "state of excep­
tion;' whether referring to martial law, the spaces of the concentration
camp, or the bare life of those stripped of their membership in the
human community, has now become the rule.
Agamben's concept of bare life shows how forms of identification
grounded in political expropriation (in this case, the identification of
postwar artists with Schwitters's degenerate art) could be articulated
under McCarthyist conditions of censorship and persecution, even as
the artistic presentation of a specifically political homosexual identity
remained foreclosed. I have argued that in the work of artists who faced
persecution as homosexuals under McCarthyism in the fifties, and
whose inability to articulate a politics of positive homosexual identity
paradoxically enabled a more generic identification with the expropria­
tion of so-called degenerate individuals under Nazism, the recuperation
258 S E T H M C C O RM I C K
of a Merz aesthetic served to mediate their work's relationship to the
political and social conditions of its production.
But while an aesthetic politics of degeneracy may have offered the
possibility of collectivist identification among diverse groups targeted
by biopolitical persecution (including Jews, homosexuals, and Commu­
nists), it also carried the risk of complicity in the very techniques of
visual identification and control by which these same groups were re­
duced to bare life. Neo-Dadaist artists ran the risk of reinforcing the
very stereotypes whose political effects were imprinted upon their work.
This would be born out in the critical reception accorded Johns's and
(especially) Rauschenberg's artistic use of found objects and waste
matter during this decade, from Hilton Kramer's archly homophobic
jibe of 1959, "Like Narcissus at the pool, they see only the gutter;' to
Newsweek's deadpan observation that Rauschenberg's 1955 Bed "recalls a
police photo of the murder bed after the corpse has been removed:'37
Meanwhile, the early fifties saw the publication of several historical
studies of the mesalliance between aesthetic romanticism and stereo­
types of sexual deviance, from Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt's critical his­
tory of Nazi cultural policy, Art under a Dictatorship, to literary critic
Mario Praz's pathologizing investigations of the erotic sensibilities of
romanticism.3 8 Such histories would have indicated, either by argument
(Lehmann-Haupt) or by example (Praz), how identification with an
aesthetics of decadence and degeneracy might perpetuate stereotypes
of biological and psychological deviance still disseminated by a sup­
posedly liberal postwar social science.39
Whether triggered by a reaction against homophobic criticism or by
greater awareness of the relationship between a romantic aesthetic of
degeneracy and the historical persecution ofracial and sexual minorities,
the work of all three artists seems to shift away from the techniques of
Merz collage after 1954. In my view, it is implausible to attribute this shift
solely to the desire, as Steinberg puts it, "to be different:' Rather, I would
suggest that it was the dialogic and collaborative context of Star's produc­
tion that threw the political and historical limitations of this aesthetic
into stark relief.
IIi its formal structure, Star combined a hybrid mode of painterly­
sculptural reliefwith a monochromatic overlay of overpainted collage. In
the use of these techniques, Star maintained the continuity ofJohns's and
Rosenthal's dialogue with Rauschenberg's previous work, from his Black
Neo-Dada 1951-54 259
Paintings (initiated in 1951) to his early Combine paintings and freestand­
ing Combines of 1954, all works shaped by the legacy of Kurt Schwitters.
Yet in Star, the double-edged character of this recuperation was first
made fully visible in its identification with the ambiguous significance of
the Jewish star. Like the history of political expropriation embedded in
neo-Dada aesthetics, this icon symbolized both the politics of Jewish
nationalism and, in the forms of the ]udenstern, the enforced visibility of
Jewish and homosexual identity in the concentration camps.
Converselyj the enunciation of a positive Jewish identity in Star was
itself overshadowed by, or mixed up with, forms of identification and
separation that had administered the bare life of Jews and homosexuals
under Nazism. In the interlocking forms of the Jewish star and the
inverted triangle, the identifying symbols of the Jewish and non-Jewish
inmates of the camps, Star made recourse to their common victimiza­
tion under Nazism in a way that prevented the possibility of distinguish­
ing in any absolute way between particular groupS.40 The conflict be­
tween the articulation of political identity and its submersion into bare
life is played out on a level where it is not possible to discriminate
rigorously between them: where identity politics remains lodged in the
aestheticization of victimhood and where a metaphorics of political
censorship or secrecy is seen as containing a specific referential ground
and ultimate horizon of significance, namely the bare life exemplified by
the Jews under Nazism.
As the model of a potential politics of homosexual subjectivation, Star
thus highlighted the limitations of the aesthetic politics of Dadaist de­
generacy while also showing that even a more particularized identity
politics-so long as it remains based on the model of victimization
exemplified by the logic of bare life-cannot fully extricate itself from
these foundational limitations.41 The complicity of these modes of iden­
tification with the logic of political persecution is made visible in the
way in which the interlocking shapes of the Jewish star and the inverted
triangle form a partially lidded, partially glassed-in space like that of a
locked display case in a department store, a space in which privacy and
concealment are not to be distinguished from incarceration and en­
forced visibility.
Thus, if Star implicitly opposes two models of artistic practice or
aesthetic politics, they are not the ones that Moira Roth had in mind
when she contrasted the aesthetic of indifference with a politics of self-
260 S E T H M C C O RM I C K
represented identity. Far from being simply indifferent to contemporary
politics, the recuperation of a totalitarian paradigm of degenerate art
aimed to reoccupy and reclaim persecutory modes of identification,
transforming the aesthetic codes of degeneracy and subversion into
practices of opposition. In so doing, however, it risked reinforcing the
very structures of persecution that foreclosed the possibility of its own
political subjectivation.
To this model is opposed a second, the model of misidentification, in
which a particular political identity is figured, but not for its own sake
and not in order to abrogate for itself the status of a persecuted minority
(a claim that would merely rehearse the risks attendant upon the first
model) . In Star, just as in Hay's "Preliminary Concepts;' the founding
document of the Mattachine Society, the figuration of a particularized
Jewish identity serves primarily as a means to refuse totalizing structures
of persecutory identification and domination. This refusal involves the
staging of a disagreement, an event that becomes political, as Jacques
Ranciere has theorized, not due to the nature of the competing interests
or claims at stake, but only insofar as the very identities of the two
parties, and their acceptance or refusal of a common language, become
the object of dispute.
In explicating this concept of disagreement, Ranciere refers to Livy's
story of the secession of the Roman plebeians on Aventine Hill, rein­
terpreted in 1829 by the nineteenth-century French philosopher and
poet Pierre-Simon Ballanche. Following their uprising, the seceding
plebs demanded a conference with the patricians. In Ballanche's ac­
count, as Ranciere describes, this request met with incredulity:
The position of the intransigent patricians is straightforward: there is no
place for discussion with the plebs for the simple reason that plebs do not
speak. They do not speak because they are beings without a name, deprived
of logos-meaning, of symbolic enrollment in the city. Plebs lead a purely
individual life that passes on nothing to posterity except for life itsel£ re­
duced to its reproductive function. . . . Between the language of those who
have a name and the lowing of nameless beings, no situation of linguistic
ex�hange can possibly be set up, no rules or code of discussion. This verdict
does not simply reflect the obstinacy of the dominant or their ideological
blindness: it strictly expresses the sensory order that organizes their domina­
tion, which is that domination itself.42
Neo-Dada 1951 - 54 261

As Ranciere points out, what Ballanche emphasized in the story was

that the plebeians were not motivated principally by poverty or the state
of their living conditions, but by the inequality of the sensory order, in
which they were allowed no name of their own and in which their
speech could not be heard. When the plebeians begin acting like patri­
cians-consulting their own oracles, naming their own representatives
-this is not merely a dumb show of powerlessness: "In a word, they
conduct themselves like beings with names . . . . They write, Ballanche
tells us, 'a name in the sky': a place in the symbolic order of the commu­
nity of speaking beings, in a community that does not yet have any
effective power in the city of Rome:'43
In 1954, Rachel Rosenthal, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg
did not yet have any power or influence, but they formed a community
that changed the relationship between the sensory order and the politics
of authorship. In revealing the limitations of the language then available
for the articulation of their particular and collective identities, they
wrote their own name in the sky.


1. See the essays by Moira Roth and commentary by Jonathan D. Katz

collected in Ostrow, ed., Dif.ference/lndif.ference, including Roth's reprinted 1977
essa)'j "The Aesthetics of Indifference:'
2. Interview with Rachel Rosenthal conducted by Moira Roth, Los Angeles,
California, September 2, 1989, for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian
Institution. http: //www.aaa.si.edu / collections / oralhistories / transcripts / rose
nt89.htm. Accessed November 21, 2006.
3. Rosenthal's work in performance art has been documented in a mono­
graph by Moira Roth, Rachel Rosenthal, and in Chaudhuri, ed., Rachel's Brain
and Other Storms.
4. Rosenthal's commission was inspired in part by an earlier work by Johns, a
cross-shaped painting produced sometime in the summer of 1954, which is appar­
ently no longer extant. See Bernstein, "Jasper Johns' Paintings and Sculptures
1954-1974;' 217n20j Tone, "Chronology;' 124j and Crichton, Jasper Johns, 26, 76n4.
5. See Tone, "Chronology:'
6. Something of these insurrectionary effects seems to be implied within the
dissident surrealist Georges Bataille's concepts of basesse and l'injorme, espe­
cially as they are elaborated by Rosalind Krauss in her essay "No More Play;' in
262 S E T H M C C O RM I C K
The Originality of the Avant-Garde, and in the exhibition catalogue she coau­
thored with Yve-Alain Bois, Formless. Neither Bataille nor Krauss, however,
consider the ways in which these quasi-mythic, quasi-ontological concepts lend
themselves to recuperation by totalitarian political romanticism. On the politi­
cal usefulness and limitations of Bataille's "sur-fascism" in thinking contempo­
rary problems of community and sovereignty, see Jean-Luc Nancy's Inoperative
Community. Similar reservations could be leveled against Leo Bersani's po­
lemics against deconstructionist theories of sexual identity in Homos, in which
he argues for the potentially critical or politically subversive value of a homo­
sexual aesthetic of the gay outlaw.
7. For the former, see note 39, below. On the persecution of homosexuals
under McCarthyism and the birth of the homosexual rights movement, see
Johnson, Lavender Scare; D'Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, 41-53,
63; Adam, Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement, 60-65; and Terry, An
American Obsession, chap. 11.
8. Ranciere, "Politics, Identification, Subjectivization;' 66-67.
9. John D'Emilio contrasts the homosexual rights movement's "retreat to
respectability" in the mid-fifties, consisting of its acceptance of the medical
establishment's pathologization of homosexuality and its corresponding turn
from political activism to social outreach, with the radicalization of the move­
ment under the influence of the civil rights struggles of blacks and other racial
minorities in the sixties (Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, 75-91, 108-25,
166- 68). Barry D. Adam and Paula C. Rust describe how radical feminism,
itself influenced by ethnic politics, further ethnicized homosexual activism as
lesbians in particular adopted the theoretical arguments and political strategies
of what Adam terms "feminist nationalism:' See Adam, Rise of a Gay and
Lesbian Liberation Movement, 91-97; Rust, Bisexuality and the Challenge to
Lesbian PolitiCS, 171- 83. As this paper will demonstrate, however, the ethniciza­
tion of homosexuality can be traced to early activists' comparison of Mc­
Carthyist homosexual purges with the Nazi persecution of Jews (and possibly
still earlier, to fascist and protofascist comparisons of Jewish and homosexual
"vice": see note 16, below). This raises the question of whether the increased
militancy of homosexual activism in the sixties should be attributed to the
impetus of ethnicization or whether the self-pathologization of an earlier "re­
treat to respectability" was not itself the result of activists' identification of
homosexual politics with the needs and interests of a pre constituted (and thus,
quasi-ethnic) community.
10. Roth, "The Aesthetics of Indifference," 40. For a very different interpreta­
tion of the White Paintings that emphasizes their opposition to reified forms of
experience under capitalism, see Joseph, Random Order, 25-71.
Neo-Dada 1951-54 263
11. Roth, "The Aesthetics of Indifference;' 41.
12. Ibid., 43.
13. Jonathan D. Katz has published numerous essays focusing on issues of
homosexual identity in the work of Cage, Rauschenberg, and Johns. See in
particular "The Silent Camp"j "John Cage's Queer Silence"j and "Lovers and
Divers:' Kenneth Silver's essay "Modes of Disclosure" represents an important
early contribution to queer theory and postwar art history. To my Imowledge,
Fred Orton has the distinction of having published the earliest critical analysis
of homosexual self�censorship in Johns's art: see his essay, "Present." However,
Orton's focus is on the politics of representation, and he does not contextualize
Johns's work within the history of homosexual art or identity politics.
14. In fact, Katz devotes considerable attention to the Cold War cultural context
in his essay "Passive Resistance;' but this analysis primarily addresses the ways in
which the political and sociological discourse of the time was overdetermined by
"the loss of faith in a coherent, masculinist oppositional posture;' to which he
relates Johns's and Rauschenberg's gendered political passivity.
15. Silver attributes this thematic of the closet to similar boxed and lidded
constructions created by Johns immediately after Star (see Silver, "Modes of
Disclosure;' 188). Kogon's book, The Theory and Practice oj Hell, was closely
studied in the literary-anarchist circles in which John Cage moved, having been
reviewed in the Vanguard Group's periodical Resistance (Katz and Wieck, "Po­
litical Behavior") . As a political symbol of homosexual liberation, however, the
pink triangle did not come into common use until considerably after 1954.
16. Elizabeth Young-Bruehl recounts how the writing and publication of this
book was shaped by the author's desire to intervene in contemporary polemics
over McCarthyism in her biography Hannah Arendt, 211. Arendt's historical
argument drew directly upon Marcel Proust's portrait of the milieu of the
Dreyfus Affair in Sodome et Gomorrhe, the book that her friend Walter Ben­
jamin had been laboring to translate into German in the early years of their
acquaintance (ibid., 122, 142). According to Arendt, Proust's sketches of the
artistic salons of the Faubourg Saint-Germain revealed the hidden logic that
linked the newfound social privilege of Jews and homosexuals in turn-of-the­
century France with their political and juridical expropriation. Such parallels
would not have been lost on another avid reader of Proust, Rachel Rosenthal,
whose identifications with the writer were personal as well as artistic: born to a
life of privilege in aristocratic Parisian society before the war, Rosenthal was
forced to flee Europe with her family in 1940. See Roth, "Rachel Rosenthal;' 92,
and her interview with Roth, cited above.
17. Hay's "Preliminary Concepts:' See also Johnson, Lavender Scare, 170.
18. In the convoluted logic of the national security state, homosexuals were
264 S E T H M C C O RM I C K
identified as a security risk because it was assumed that they had something to
hide: their susceptibility to blackmail, it was argued, made them probable
targets of recruitment by foreign intelligence agencies. Johnson, Lavender
Scare, 20 -22.
19. Ibid., 166.
20. AB late as 1968, three years before the Emergency Detention Act was
repealed, the House Committee on Un-American Activities recommended
their use for the detention of black nationalists and Communists. See Louis
Fisher, "Detention of U.S. Citizens," CRS Report for Congress, April 28, 2005,
http: // digital.library.unt.edul govdocsl crslI data/2005/upl-meta-crs-6144/RS
22130-200sApn8.pdf. Accessed November 8, 2006.
21. Johnson, Lavender Scare, 25-38.
22. In an interview given in 1974, Hay noted that in the fifties, Jews could not
be targeted for discrimination because of the "painful example of Germany:'
Quoted in Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History, 408. (The author and
interviewer, a noted historian of gender and sexuality, should not be confused
with the art historian Jonathan D. Katz cited above.)
23· Tomkins, Off the Wall, 79.
24. See Varnedoe, Cy Twombly, 12 and 54Ill7.
25. Steinberg, "Jasper Johns;' 21, italics in original. Steinberg reports that
Johns began to make these collages after his discharge from the army "in 1952:'
Johns was not actually discharged from the army until 1953.
26. Prior to this point, it see�s likely that Johns knew very little about
Schwitters's art or life firsthand, and the works that appear to have been
produced when Johns was still living at East 8th Street bear little resemblance
either to Schwitters's collages or to Rauschenberg's more Schwittersian works
(e.g., the Red Paintings, the Combine paintings, and the freestanding Com­
bines). I present a more detailed version of this argument in my doctoral
dissertation, "Jasper Johns;' 77-78.
27. Quoted in Motherwell, The Dada Painters and Poets, xxix.
28. Grosz, A Little Yes, cited in ibid., xxvii.
29. Something of these internal Dada politics is conveyed in Georges Hug­
net's "The Dada Spirit in Painting;' which was published in abbreviated form as
the essay "Dada" in Barr's Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism, and later re­
printed in full in the Motherwell anthology Dada Painters and Poets. See in
particular Fantastic Art, 28, and The Dada Painters and Poets, 162-64. Huelsen­
beck expressed his criticism of Schwitters clearly in his later writings, most
succinctly in a letter to Werner Schmalenbach in which he stated, "Schwitters
was in my eyes at that time a German Romantic:' See Schmalenbach, KUrt
Schwitters, 366n6.
Neo-Dada 1951 -54 265
30. Hugnet, "The Dada Spirit;' 163- 64-
31. References to deformation are found in the Schwitters essay included in
Motherwell's anthology, The Dada Painters and Poets, 63. On the cover ofMerz
2, no. 7, also reproduced in the Motherwell anthology, is inscribed, "Merz ist
Form. Formen hei:l3t entformeln:' The term entJonneln is discussed in Gamard,
Kurt Schwitters's Merzbau, 2 8 . Gamard, however, sanitizes the problematic con­
notations of Schwitters's rhetoric, anachronistically assimilating entJormeln to
the Wittgensteinian concept of a "form of life:'
32. Neil Levy explores the usefulness of certain tendencies within Dada and
expressionism to Nazi propagandistic needs in his essay, " 'Judge for Your­
selves' !" His conclusions indicate that the ostensibly oppositional works of
Berlin Dadaists like George Grosz and Otto Dix were no more exempt from
this ideological complicity than the art of the "romantic" Schwitters, who at
least can be credited with some level of ironic self-awareness. (The significant
exception, Levy argues, is John Heartfield: his photomontages could not be
included in the Degenerate Art exhibition without implicitly demonstrating
the ease with which images and documentation can be manipulated for pro­
pagandistic aims.)
33. Motherwell, The Dada Painters and Poets, xxx, my translation.
34. For more on this exhibition, see Levy, "Judge for Yourselves !' "
35. Agamben, Homo Sacer, 1-11; Foucault, The History of Sexuality, 136.
36. Ibid., 149-50.
37. Kramer, "Month in Review;' 48-50; Newsweek, March 31, 1958, 94. Al­
though Newsweek's sensationalistic description of Bed was appended to an
article that was, in the main, more circumspect about the artist's private life, the
anonymous author did not neglect to mention that Johns and Rauschenberg
lived and worked in adjoining floors of the same building. For reference to this
article and a discussion of bodily metaphors in Bed and other works by Rausch­
enberg, see Leggio, "Robert Rauschenberg's Bed:'
38. Paul Schultze-Naumburg's Kunst und Rasse and Max Nordau's linkage
of romanticism with degeneracy and disease are discussed in Lehmann-Haupt,
Art under a Dictatorship, 37-44. The book also contained one of the ear­
liest and most comprehensive reports on the Degenerate Art exhibition (78-
87). Mario Praz's The Romantic Agony, the English translation of his La carne)
la morte) e if diavolo nella letteratura romantica, enjoyed a certain cult appeal
in its day and was even publicly criticized for popularity among "sexual
39. On the role of the American psychoanalytic establishment in the postwar
stigmatization of homosexuality, see Bayer, Homosexuality and American Psychi­
atry, chap. 1; and Lewes, The Psychoanalytic Theory ofMale Homosexuality. The
266 S E T H M C C O RM I C K
most infamous figures in this history were the psychoanalysts Edmund Bergler,
Irving Bieber, and Charles Socarides, all three of whom argued that homosex­
uality was a curable psychopathology. See Bergler, Homosexuality; Bieber,
Homosexuality; and Socarides, The Overt Homosexual. Martin Duberman's
Cures offers a first-person account of author's experiences in the pre-Stonewall
era of homosexuality's pathologization. In more recent years, the theories of
Bergler, Socarides, and Bieber, long since discredited in mental-health circles,
have been cited in support of the work of fundamentalist Christian organiza­
tions that claim to "convert" homosexuals to heterosexuality: in this way; the
argument that homosexuality is curable continues to exert social and political
40. See my comments on the relationship between the pathologization of
homosexuality and the "ethnicization" of homosexual identity politicS, note 9.
41. In later work of the fifties and sixties, all three artists would find ways of
qualifying or circumscribing their identification with a neo-Dadaist aesthetics
of degeneracy: as Rosenthal and Rauschenberg became increasingly involved
with identity-based and Cagean modes of performance, respectively, Johns
devoted increasing emphasis to the iconographic register of his work, which
generally functioned to cancel out, rather than reinforce, any association be­
tween his use of collage and a Schwittersian aesthetic of degeneracy.
42. Ranciere, Dis-agreement, 23-24.
43· Ibid., 24-25.


Notes on Some Vertov Stills

To read a work . . . is to allow yourself to lose the bearing

which assured you of your sovereign distance from the
other, which assured you of the distinction between subject
and object, active and passive, between past and present
( the latter can neither be suppressed nor ignored); lastly it
is to lose your sense of the division between the space of the
work and the world onto which it opens. C L A U D E L E F O RT,
"The Image of the Body and Totalitarianism"

Islamism and avant-garde art . . . les extremes se

touchant. S U S A N B U C K - M O R S S , Thinking Past Terror


The still is still here-not quite present, but uncertainly remaining. It

lingers, suspended and mute in the absence of the work, after the
completion of its diegetic movement, after we think we've processed it
at the level of experience or cognition. Conventionally, we are trained to
grasp it as a part of an absent totality, a stand-in that leads us back to a
conscious memory of a specific scene, a general plot, an ideological

1 . Dziga
Man with
a Movie
1929. Film

operation, or a formal convention. It is an agent of recalling and preserv­

ing, though it sometimes brings with it something we never fully experi­
enced, something that hits us in an untimely or belated way.
However we assume it to operate, the still is a kind of ruin, bearing
witness to violence in more ways than one. The present text takes this
ruinous violence as its starting point, responding not to a self-contained
work but to an image that has been arrested and cut off from its original
context, detoured from its presumed destination, exposed to unforesee­
able readings and reinscriptions. Yet while the image has been deprived
of its original time and space as the absolute anchor of meaning, the still
has a certain (displaced) role to play: we know that the image is not just
anything we want it to be, that it doesn't come out of nowhere or submit
passively to our willing manipulation. It is an irreducibly Singular image
taken from Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929) (fig. 1).1
It will be immediately apparent to anyone familiar with the film that
this procedure is no coincidence-that it borrows its strategic resources
from the very thing it violates, if only to exceed it, making the film
tremble from within. This trembling calls out for what Walter Benjamin
called a "constructive" reading, rather than a pious historicism that
would be content to establish Man with a Movie Camera either as the
progenitor of an idealized digital revolution in which the empowered
"image manipulator" reigns supreme or, conversely, as the paternal guar­
antor of a beleaguered academic avant-garde anxious to protect its
authority in the intellectual division oflabor.2
Post-Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 269
Hailed by these antithetical voices, both of which imply a certain kind
of closure (the one celebrator)1J the other melancholic), I want to ask,
"Is that all?" This is the question that haunts Roland Barthes's essay
"The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills:' It
comes at a moment when Barthes, having exhaustively accounted for
the formal and ideological codes at work in an Eisenstein film still, is
confronted with something that refuses to fit into his preestablished
theoretical matrix, exceeding the structuralist mandate of making evi­
dent the image's meaning. It fulfills no apparent purpose in the function­
ing of the film, yet it remains there, "disturbing-like a guest who
obstinately sits on saying nothing when one has no use for him:'3 This
useless, uncanny guest demands that we bear witness to what Barthes
calls the "gash" that it effects in the process of signification. According to
Barthes, such an encounter is foreclosed by our everyday viewing habits,
ensnared as we inevitably are in the diegetic movement of cinema,
which tends to "suture" the gash and absorb it as a "signifying accident:'
It is for this reason that Barthes praises the "major artifact" of the still
for its capacity to overflow the function typically assigned to it: provid­
ing a metonymic sample of a film text assumed to otherwise coincide
with its elfin its temporal unfolding, what he calls the "operative time" of
cinema. Brought to a standstill, pinned down in front of us, the image
does not secure our analytical gazej paradoxically; it is only in being
arrested that it opens onto an enigmatic temporality of reading that
oscillates in an incalculable way between past, present, and future: the
third meaning "appears necessarily as a luxury, an expenditure with no
exchange. This luxury does not yet belong to today's politics, but nev­
ertheless already to tomorrow's:'4
This essay will attempt to unfold the implications ofBarthes's cryptic
evocation of a politics-to-come by performing a historical reading of a
still from Man with a Movie Camera. In keeping with Barthes's sense of
the still as an interruption of "operative time;' reading historically will
here involve cutting the image out of the established narratives into
which it has hitherto been inserted and placing it in relation to other
images, times, and spaces--which, as we shall see, are in fact uncannily
proximate to the oeuvre of Vertov himself.s This displacement will be
informed by a certain post-Communism. This term marks both the
specific post-1989 geopolitical conjuncture in which any contemporary
practice of reading must take place and a theoretical orientation at odds
with-but not simply opposed to-the neo-Communist revival that has
taken place among some political theorists and art critics of the Left
during the past decade. The aim of my reading is to provoke critical
reflection on the heritage of world history imparted to us from Vertov,
yet informed by Jacques Derrida's caution, in Specters ofMarx, that "an
inheritance is never gathered together, it is never one with itself. . . . If
the readability of a legacy were given, natural, univocal, if it did not call
for and at the same time defy interpretation, we would never have
anything to inherit from it . . . one always inherits from a secret-which
says 'read me, will you ever be able to do so?' "6

Mirror of Production

.As suggested above, Vertov was, up to a point, familiar with the violence
of the still, emerging as it does out of more general violence at work in
cinematic meaning itself: "to edit; to wrest, through the camera, what­
ever is most typical, most useful, from life; to organize the pieces wrested
from life into a meaningful rhythmic visual order:'7 Man with a Movie
Camera famously makes this process visible, especially in the scene at the
editing table that cuts between moving images and their constitutive
stills, exposing the undecidable play between human and technical ani­
mation that underlies cinematic diegesis. The latter is shown to be an
effect of a dynamic act of production, illuminating the status of the film
qua signifying visual structure and industrial artifact. Throughout the
film, cinematic labor is foregrounded and analogized with the other labor
practices it depicts (and which it depicts itself depicting) . The scene at
the editing table makes this especially clear: the work of the editor is
likened to the work of textile production, as both involve the cutting and
sewing together of heterogeneous pieces into a continuous socio-mate­
rial text. yet because of this very visibility, the seamlessness usually
achieved by the ideological mechanism of "suture" is here suspended,
making it available to consciousness .As Erik Barnouw puts it in a typical

assessment, "The artificiality is deliberate: an avant-garde determination

to suppress illusion in favor of heightened awareness:,g
Barnouw's remark captures the dialectical inversion that animates
Vertov's epistemology, which was inseparable from his praxis as a whole.
Influenced by futurism, Vertov repudiated attempts by "literary" film-
Post-Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 271
makers to transcend the perceptual and cognitive dynamism of moder­
nity by appealing to a mythically natural human sensorium. For the
latter, film would reproduce a static, pregiven perceptual world (whether
real or fictional), treating the camera as a transparent medium passively
reflecting reality rather than intervening upon and negating its givenness.
It was precisely this capacity of man, supplemented and extended by
technology, to negate given reality that constituted the essence of the
Communist project within which Vertov was immersed. Equipped with a
movie camera, man would not merely show this process from the outside
but would materially enact it, giving an immanent demonstration of the
new principle upon which Communist society would be founded: the
sovereignty of the collective as a producer of objects, films, and ul­
timately its own self-consciousness. As Vertov put it early in his career,
"We /Want / To / Make / Ourselves:'9 Insofar as industrial Communist
"making" in general involved dynamism, speed, automation, repetition,
fragmenting, decomposing, and recomposing, a revolutionary cinema
had to make these processes central to its own synaesthetic articulation
of a "meaningful rhythmic visual order;' or "visual symphony;' as it is
called at the opening of the film.
Not present to the naked, merely human eye, "film truth" was grasp­
able only through an active dialectical vision that Vertov figured in
terms of reading and writing: on the one hand, Kino-eye performed a
kind of hermeneutics of the social text, "the communist decoding of the
world on the basis of what actually exists:' Yet freed from its encryption
in naIve perceptual reality, the hidden meaning of the world would have
to pass back through another media-the "absolute film writing" com­
prising the final film text-in order to become legible. The perceptual
shock and disorientation initially effected in viewers by these "absolute"
cinematographic strategies would break the passivity of reception man­
dated by conventional cinema, requiring them to come into their own as
active readers or coparticipants in the decoding of visual meaning, and
by analogy the project of social construction as a whole.
The film exhibits an oft-celebrated self-reflexivity concerning the so­
cial and perceptual activity of cinematic reception. l O Viewers watch the
filmmaker making the film and then, enabled by his visual techniques,
watch themselves producing the material foundations of society and
enjoying its fruits. Yet this self-visibility is taken to an even higher level
when we recall that spectatorship is itself overtly visualized throughout
272 YAT E S M C KE E
the film. It is posited at once a s an internal} partial cog in the everyday
lifecyde} as well as a privileged means of making that cycle available in
its entirety to consciousness. The circular structure of self-conscious
spectatorship allegorizes the infinite spiraling forward of historical de­
velopment itself, what Jean Baudrillard} once called " [man's] continual
deciphering of himself through his works . . . reflected by this opera­
tional mirror} this sort of an ideal of a productivist ego:'l l Following
Jean-Luc Nancy} who commented slightly later on the "mirror of pro­
duction" set up by Communism} we can say that Vertov aims to interpel­
late an "operative community;' which is to say, a community grounded
and unified in a shared process of working together} a gathering of
"human beings defined as producers . . . and fundamentally as the
producers of their own essence in the form of their labor or their
work:' 12 Vertov's operative community is one of immanence; ideally} it is
not moved or marked by anything other than its own internal circuits of
production} distribution} and "simultaneous collective reception;' to cite
the key phrase from Benjamin Buchloh's authoritative account of the
constructivists' postjaktura aspiration to radically redefine the condi­
tions of mass spectatorship in line with the processes of rapid commu­
nist industrialization-and} implicitly} national-popular subjectivization
-in the late twenties and early thirties. 13


Yet} there is an event in the film in which this operational dialectic of

self-recognition suffers a hitch} short-circuiting what Annette Michelson
describes as "the formal instantiation of a general community and a
common stake in the project . . . that has radically reorganized the
property relations subtending industrial production:' 14 Something other
than the famous dynamism of intervals that otherwise structure the film}
this event should be understood as a caesura in the synaesthetic move­
ment of the film's "meaningful rhythmic visual order:' Whether in music
or poetry, the auxiliary function of the caesura seems fairly straightfor­
ward: it is a gap or delay that ensures the proper spacing and timing of
the elements of a work. But if this gap is conventionally associated with
an ultimate continuity and functionality} it can also portend lack and
Post-Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 273
insecurity) betraying its etymological derivation from the violence of
cutting. I S
The caesura comes at an emblematic moment of spectatorial self-con­
sciousness: the third and final mise-,en-scene of the movie theater, in
which we as viewers alternate between a position of exteriority to the au­
dience, viewing them viewing, and one of immanence, in which our field
of vision appears to coincide with theirs (fig. 2). But any such symmetry
is lost as the film cuts abruptly from the face of a bemused audience
member to a visual field evacuated of any recognizable figure, human or
otherwise. What replaces the figural self-visibility of the audience?
It is not nothing, in any simple sense. Quivering with an arrhyth­
mic intensity, a black surface appears that at once saturates and doubles
the screen itself. Three bands of light traverse the surface, providing a
reflective index of its inhuman palpitations. Though evenly spaced and
vertically aligned, they do not function to symmetrically center our gaze
or to hold together the screen, which appears on the verge of being
shaken apart. An upright, columnar orientation-associated perhaps
with the stability of a corporeal or architectonic gestalt-only appears
in its dissolution, as its form comes undone. Precarious from the begin­
ning, the linear contours of the bands oflight progressively break down,
giving way to a series of frenzied electromagnetic waves whose oscil­
lation traces a palpable disturbance in the equilibrium of the percep­
tual field.
Punctuated by several shots of the audience, this formless, flickering
surface holds our gaze for some fifteen seconds before returning to a
familiar montage sequence involving dancers and musicians. This is
long enough to leave some impression in our perceptual awareness, yet
too ephemeral vis-a-vis the diegetic rhythm of the film to become avail­
able for cognitive scrutiny. The gap passes us by, or rather passes
through us, in such a way that it might easily be absorbed as what
Barthes called a "signifying accident;' an ultimately forgettable supple­
ment to the essential movement of the film.
This seismic disturbance is something other than the deliberate shak­
ing up of perception effected by the kinetic dynamism of the rest of the
film: from the cranking of the camera, the whirling of the spindle, the
chugging of the wheels of the locomotive, or the montage technique
itself, the intensity of mechanico-muscular motion evoked throughout

2. Dziga
Man with
a Movie
1929. Film

the film continues to produce a more general sense of linear and cyclical
self-propulsion, allegorizing class consciousness as the motor of history.
In both form and content, the film's kinesis is always oriented around
doing something and going somewh�re: each cog in the film's intricate
dialectical machinery makes its contribution to the synaesthetic realiza­
tion of the "meaningful rhythmic visual order:'
Even before being fixed as a still, the caesura opens onto a region
uncannily suspended between motion and stasis, activity and passivity,
life and death. The irregular pulsations of the surface seem depleted of
teleological energy, functional purpose, or communicative significance;
they do not appear to be going anywhere, doing anything, or saying
anything. Nevertheless, something happens, or comes to pass; the force
of the happening seizes our attention, but with a strange indifference to
our presence. In the synaesthetic terms of the film, we might say that in
the caesura, we are exposed to a kind of senseless visual noise, a mur­
muring that announces, but in which nothing is announced. This is not
the glOrious audiovisual cacophony of the city-as-symphony, the rhyth­
mic humming and clanking and riveting of industrial modernity. Nor
does it provide a quiet, contemplative pause where we might take a
breath and gather ourselves between the disorienting assaults of mon­
tage. This caesura is restive, rather than restful. Its cutting leaves what
Barthes would call a "gash razed in meaning" that cannot be easily
sutured, even by the most deliberate of dialectical surgeons.
It is the coming-to-pass of this murmuring wound that is put under
Post-Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 275
arrest in the still} reactivating the conscious and unconscious traces it
may have left within us} liberating it from the "operative time" of cin­
ema. Yet even when the gears of the film are brought to a standstill}
enabling the singularity of this image to show up without the burden of
movement} it refuses to stay in place. Though it is seemingly present}
frozen in the here and now} we still manage to miss it} arriving at the
moment of its withdrawal. As Barthes says} the image "compels an
interrogative reading;' yet it does not unfold itself in response to our
questioning. Not because of its infinite} ineffable depth} but precisely
because it doesn't stand for anything} not even itself.
Testifying to the "difficulty in naming" he undergoes in the face of the
obtuse meaning} Barthes asks} "How do you describe something that
doesn't represent anything?" We can take this one step further and ask:
how does this arepresentational image affect us as readers} split as we
already are between immanent identification with the Communist au­
dience pictured in the film and the position of irrecoverable geopolitical
and historical distance any contemporary audience must now occupy?

An Empty Place

Barthes's remark on the signifier's "permanent state of depletion"-its

lack of any positive substance subtending below} behind} or within it­
resonates in an interesting way with Claude Lefort's contention that
with the advent of democracy} "the locus of power becomes an empty
place:' Conceived as more than a set of institutional practices} democ­
racy for Lefort involves a "symbolic mutation" in the representation of
society, in which the latter is deprived of any transcendent source of
legitimacy} rendering it an "ungraspable" enigma. Previous political
forms relied on a logic of incorporation} in which society was figured as
a finite} unified body whose constituent parts each played their given}
proper role. With democracy, on the other hand} society is "disincorpo­
rated": it loses the bodily gestalt or figure that would have provided
society with a secure} bounded image of itself upon which to base
judgments and undertake plans. This loss at once constitutes and blocks
the identity of "the people" that comes into being with the passing of
the old regime. While a potentially limitless array of particular bodies
compete to fill in the empty place} none can ever coincide with it in a
universal way: there is no complete representative of society, insofar as
the latter is defined essentially as an enigma. The people are deprived of
the possibility of transparent self.-visibilityj it is only visually incarnated
insofar as it becomes the object of conflictual mediations. In other
words, the appearance of the people occurs only in the event of their
disappearance as an immediate entity: that is, with "the dissolution of
the markers of certainty" and an experience of "a fundamental indeter­
minacy as to the basis of power, law, and knowledge, and as to the basis
of relations between self and other:'16
Lefort's thought on democracy developed in response to the Western
Left's failure to come to terms with Soviet totalitarianism. While the
crimes of Stalin were duly denounced when they came to light under
Khrushchev, many in the West subscribed to the analysis of Trotsky,
who held that Stalinism represented a "degeneration" of the original
program of the Bolsheviks, a "parasitic" aberration that would correct
itself with the maturation of the revolution. According to Lefort, the
Trotskyite analysis failed to interrogate the principle upon which Bol­
shevism erected itself: the possession of "scientific" knowledge of the
material foundations of history and class struggle, the laws of which
were taken to mandate the establishment of the authoritative body of
the party, supplemented by its various organs. Lefort saw in Bolshevism
the immanent possibility of totalitarianism qua political form, which he
understood as a kind of reaction formation to the ungrounding of the
social: ''An apparatus is set up which tends to stave off this threat, which
attempts to weld power and society back together again, and to efface all
signs of social division, to banish the indetermination that haunts the
democratic experience:' At the level of the imaginary, this involved the
reincorporation of the people through the articulation of two key im­
ages: the body and the machineP Society was figured as a well-func­
tioning technological organism, with muscular and mechanical opera­
tions becoming interchangeable in the carrying through of the collective
labor of class-conscious social construction. Anything exceeding the
operations of this organism became an "enemy of the people;' an obsta­
cle to the proper unfolding of history itself, deserving of official denun­
ciation, if not outright elimination.
What does it mean to reread Vertov through the lens of Lefort's
analysis of the totalitarian body-and its potential unworking or deple­
tion? Any association ofVertov with a such a model of community risks
Post-Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 277
affiliating itself with the simplistic teleological narrative of art historian
Boris Groys, who argues that the seeds of Stalinist terror were inherently
germinating in the early Soviet avant-garde's project of engineering
subjects-of-history appropriate for a new world of egalitarian industrial­
ization-a post-utopian admonishment of the sort caricatured by Slavoj
Zizek when he writes, "benevolent as it is, it will inevitably end in the
gulag!"1 8 Indeed, Vertov's reputation as an exemplary practitioner of the
critical avant-garde has long been founded precisely in opposition to the
aesthetico-political imaginary of Stalinism. Annette Michelson, in her
authoritative introduction to Vertov's writings, explicitly analogizes his
gradual marginalization in the Soviet film industry with the fate of
Trotsky, mourning both as bearers of a lost revolutionary potentiality
stifled by socialist realism and Stalinism more generally. Though refer­
ring to Eisenstein rather than Vertov, this narrative is echoed in the self­
expository introduction to the anthology October: " 'But why October?'
our readers still inquire? . . October is exemplary for us of a specific

historical moment in which artistic practice joined with critical theory

in a project of social construction . . . . We had no desire to perpetuate
the mythology of the revolution. Rather, we wished to claim that the
unfinished, analytic project of constructivism-aborted by the consol­
idation of the Stalinist bureaucracy, distorted by the recuperation of the
Soviet avant-garde into Western idealist aesthetics-was required for a
consideration of the aesthetic practices of our time:'19
At one level, the formal strategies innovated by Vertov-"the Trotsky
of cinema;' as Michelson describes him-are obviously incommensur­
able with the visual culture of Stalinism, realizing a dynamic activity of
perception rather than a reified pantheon of heroes to be passively
emulated. However, I have intimated above that even within the avant­
garde masterpiece that is Man with a Movie Camera, it is possible to
discern the structure of an "ideal of a productivist ego;' whose would-be
Circularity bears within it a potential for exclusionary violence.
It is with reference to this potential or actual violence that I suggest
we read the caesura as an ungraspable moment of depletion in the
collective body constructed by Vertov, an index of "the indetermination
that haunts the democratic experience:' For however fleeting a moment,
we witness a certain diSincorporation, the dissolution of the markers of
visual certainty required for the stabilization of the identity of the
people. It is in this interruption of dialectical circularity that the image
calls out for a historical reading in the sense given this term by Eduardo
Cadava, when he speaks of "the emergence and survival of an image
that, telling us it can longer show anything, nevertheless shows and
bears witness to what history has silenced, to what, no longer here, and
arising from the darkest nights of memory, haunts us and encourages us
to remember the deaths and losses for which we remain, still today,


Such a reading can proceed by reading the caesura that interrupts Man
with a Movie Camera alongside a remarkable flim still that is to be found
on page 137 of Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. It shows a ghostly
figure ensconced in a cloak, who appears to face the camera. But where
we might expect to recognize this figure's face and meet its gaze, we
encounter instead an aperture that exposes us to a kind of flat, impene­
trable darkness, almost as if the still-or is it our eye?-has had a hole
burnt into it by sunlight refracted through a m<tgnifying glass.
Frozen in the still, cut off from whatever cinematic movement it was
meant to assist, this blind spot, or scotoma, effects a kind uncanniness in
the viewer, piercing us with the sense of some forgotten, abysmal loss.
But when processed through Vertov's epistemological machine, we
grasp the dialectical function that this moment of obscurity plays in the
"communist decoding of the world:' Far from aCcidental, it provides
precisely the challenge set out for Kino-eye in 1924, "to show people
without masks, without makeup, to catch them through the eye of the
camera . . . to read their thoughts, laid bare by the camera. Kino-eye as
the possibility of making the invisible visible, the unclear clear, the
disguised overt, the acted non-acted; making falsehood truth:'21
"When the still is returned to its original context, we recognize the
power relations implied by Vertov's epistemological metaphors of en­
lightenment, revelation, unmasking-and the broader project of social
construction they served to legitimize. In Three Songs of Lenin, we
witness the actualization of these optical metaphors through the bodies
of subjects marked pejoratively as other, those who haunt Vertov's proj­
ect of building a "visual bond between the peoples of the U.S.S.R and
Post-Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 279
the world based on the platform of the communist decoding of what
actually exists:'22
Vertov made Three Songs of Lenin in 1934, five years after Man with a
Movie Camera and ten years after the death of Lenin. The film com­
memorates the late leader's revolutionary accomplishments by record­
ing songs of mourning among workers and peasants across the US S R.
Though subdued significantly, the film continues to deploy several of
the unorthodox cinematic strategies explored in Man with a Movie
Camera, reaffirming the analogy between the activation of spectatorial
awareness and the self-realization of the Communist subject. Yet rather
than the urban proletariat of Man with a Movie Camera, the emergent
Communist subjects featured in the later film are bearers of an unset­
tling form of cultural difference: they are the Muslim peoples of Central
Asia, a region inherited by the Bolsheviks from the Tsarist Empire and
subsequently referred to as the Soviet East. I want to briefly consider the
first of these three songs and attempt to draw it into the constellation of
questions provoked by the enigma of the caesura that lies at the origin of
this essay.
The title page of the first song reads "My Face Was in a Dark Prison;'
establishing a first-person narrative of transition from the imprisonment
of the past to the emancipated space of the present, a space that enables
free speech and public self-disclosure. Following the title page, the film
opens with an exemplar of that past, obscure imprisonment: The camera
follows a woman covered from head to toe in a chador, her face concealed
by an additional black garment, metonymizing the "dark prison" (fig. 3).
As this figure passes in front of the camera, a soundtrack of Central Asian
folk music begins, guiding us for several minutes through the physically
and culturally decrepit landscape of an anonymous eastern town. Among
the ruined Islamic arches and narrow streets, turbaned men are shown
malingering listlessly, apparently lacking in productive capacity. A mos­
que appears, but only through a delirious, unfocused shot that echoes the
simulation of "intoxicated" vision in the bar room scene of Man with A
Movie Camera, Signaling a temporary aberration in consciousness: reli­
gion as the " opiate of the people;' as Marx might have put it. But from this
state of visual impairment, the film cuts to a stable, elevated vantage
point, enabling us to gaze down on worshippers kneeling in unison as the
muezzin calls prayer. This opening sequence, which features seven shots

3 . Dziga
Three Songs
1934, Song
1: "My Face
Was in
a Dark
Film still.

of veiled women, is intercut with the (written) words of the first-person

"I" announced in the title: "My face was in a dark prison. I led a blind
life. In ignorance and darkness, I was a slave without chains:'
The author of these words becomes apparent as the sequence
abnlptly cuts to an image of a Muslim woman who sits writing at a
window. VVhile her hair is covered by a scarf, her face is entirely visible as
she sits pensively with pen in hand. "But a ray of truth began to shine-"
she writes, "the dawn of Lenin's truth:' As she appears, the soundtrack
also makes an abrupt cut form the unfamiliar sounds of the folk music to
the upright call of the bugle, which issues from a column of Communist
Youth as they march toward the decadent, crumbling town. As she
notices their arrival, she feels compelled to leave the seclusion of the
house and walk unaccompanied through town to the "Turkic Women's
Club:' Recalling the analogy of window shades and eyelids in Man with
a Movie Camera, as she opens the door to go inside, her action is
dialectically echoed at the level of another body: we see a different
young woman joyously throwing off her veil, opening herself onto the
enlightening gaze of the camera.
The eyes of the woman are shown gazing upward as the song conjures
for her a monumental vision of Lenin's generous contributions to the
lives of the eastern peoples: the film cuts from town to country, where
men, women, and children, with the help of Russian experts, are shown
enthusiastically realizing Soviet plans for the modernization of agricul­
ture. "My State Farm!" reads an intertitle, as a woman feeding a huge
Post-Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 281
flock of chickens is intercut with the graceful visual patterns of a mecha­
nized harvester and a fertilizer plane. In between driving tractors, as­
sembling parts, and picking cotton, male and female workers gather to
read newspapers announcing the tenth anniversary of Lenin's death, but
the soundtrack has once again shifted to the upright marching of the
brass band rather than the melancholic dirge. Injunctive intertitles con­
tinue to appear: "My Country!" "My Land !" "My Family!" "My Hands !"
A darkened room is suddenly illuminated by a lightbulb, revealing the
face of a Muslim woman: "He made light of the darkness, a garden of
the desert, and life of death:'

Unveiling Unveiling

The opacity of the veil is quickly dispelled by Vertov, as he stages the

literal unveiling of women in order to allegorize the coming to class
consciousness of an entire population-a process of Communist secu­
larization that depends on the suppression of Islamic "backwardness" in
particular, and religion in general, for its sense of historical purpose.
This weaving together of secular enlightenment, economic develop­
ment, and the liberation of women can be identified as part of a deter­
minate Soviet ideological nexus, the consequences of which can still be
felt today. It developed as a panicked response on the part of the
Bolshevik leadership to the indeterminate, empty place left in Central
Asia following the crumbling of the Tsarist administration. As Ahmed
Rashid reports, the period between 1917 and 1923 saw a "brief flowering
of ideological ferment" in which a variety of political discourses, most of
which incorporated Islamic elements, competed to set the terms for an
alternative modernity in the region-and a postcolonial relationship to
Russia.23 Along with conservative religious revivalism and tribal and
clan autonomism, Rashid sees two discourses as being of especial inter­
est: first, he mentions Jadidism, an Islamic reform movement dating
from the late nineteenth century that stressed pan-Turkic self-determi­
nation from Russia and the inventive reinterpretation (itjihad) of the
Koran vis-a.-vis liberal constitutional principles to which Central Asian
intellectuals had been exposed in Europe. Second, Rashid draws our
attention to the little-known phenomenon of Muslim Communism, a
more radical offshoot ofJadidism that nevertheless stressed the primacy
of national liberation over the strategy of a n eventual global proletarian
revolution. Under the slogan "East Is Not West, Muslims Are Not Rus­
sians;' intellectuals such as Mir Said Sultan Galiev set up a Muslim
Communist Party and showed solidarity with the Bolsheviks, helping to
enlist some 250,000 Central Asians in the Russian civil war. Theoret­
ically, Galiev's position was in keeping with Lenin's "Theses on the
National Question;' though as Rashid points out, the self-determination
ultimately envisioned by Lenin for the peoples of Greater Russia could
not countenance actual secession. The elimination of these movements
during what Rashid calls the "reconquest" of Central Asia legitimized
itself by denouncing the "reactionary" and "decadent" character of Is­
lam, which was brutally suppressed in all its forms. It was in the name of
a de-Islamicized class consciousness-in which the "woman question"
was a central battleground-that Stalin carried out the forced settle-,
ment and collectivization of nomadic herders. This policy had devastat­
ing consequences: some 1.5 million Kazaks alone are estimated to have
died during the first decade of their recolonization by the Bolsheviks.
This is a postcolonial history scotomized by Michelson's authoritative,
celebratory introduction to the oeuvre of Vertov in 1984, as well as her
obliquely ambivalent and disciplinarily eclectic analysis of Three Songs of
Lenin, published in October six years later.24 In the latter text, Michelson
notes the persistence ofvarious modes of avant-garde experimentation in
the film-the still, the superimposition, the heterodox spatiotemporal
rhythms and camera angles-and cites Vertov's crucial declaration of the
continuity between Songs and his earlier work: "It required making use of
all previous experience of kino-eye filmings, all acquired knowledge, it
meant the registration and careful study ofall other previous work on this
theme . . . . In this respect Man With a Movie Camera and Enthusiasm were
of great help to our production group. These were, so to speak, films that
beget films:'25 Claiming an interest in "the location of the precise signifi­
cation, its political function within the historical situation of the USSR in
the 1930S;' Michelson distinguishes Songs from Man on the grounds that
the former was an instrumental project offiCially commissioned and
approved by the state, and thus a turn away from the "wholly autono­
mous metacinematic celebration of cinema as a mode ofproduction and
epistemological inquiry" represented by Man. Michelson reads the 1934
film as a "monument of cinematic hagiography" that enacts a transvalua­
tion of the spatial and pictorial logic of the tripartite Eastern Orthodox
Post- Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 283
iconostasis into cinematic terms) with Lenin) the Lost Liberator) sup­
planting Christ as a figure that is both an anthropomorphic representa­
tion and material ('indexical') emanation of a transcendent presence
"located on the boundary between the human and the divine:' Central to
Michelson's analysis of the locally inflected religious resonance of Songs
is Vertov's fore grounding of the "folk tradition of the female mourner"
and the "extremely rich tradition of the oral lament traversing Russian
Appealing to the account) written in the forties by Freudian anthro­
pologist Geza Roheim) of the "practices of the tribal order on which the
sense of the dead-of the murdered father-is felt as a potentially pow­
erful threat that behooves the mourner to seek protection through
magic;' Michelson effectively hypostatizes and universalizes the female
figures around which Songs revolves) thus falling prey to two inexcusable
ideological operations: first) while acknowledging the "hagiographic"
conventions employed by Vertov himself, she takes for granted the
documentary and ethnographic self-evidence of the female mourner's
"tribute to their dead liberator"j second) she collapses all of the women
featured in the film into a generalized "Russian" psychological) cultural)
and religious disposition) thus disavowing the specificity of the violent
anti-Islamic campaign in which Vertov was partaking in the name of
enlightened class consciousness.
This campaign is one of the historical contexts within which it is
necessary to read Vertov's practice in general) and Three Songs of Lenin
in particular) a film to which he explicitly repeated his early 1924 injunc­
tion: "to show people without masks) without makeupj to catch them
with camera's eye . . . to read their thoughts) laid by kino-eye:'26 Rather
than a passive vehicle of an aberrant Stalinist policy beyond his control)
it is evident in both his film and his writing that Vertov played an
enthusiastic role in legitimizing this project) which) as Rosalind Morris
has recently shown) Lenin and Trotsky had themselves sanctified in
their highly gendered denunciations of pan-Islamism throughout the
early twenties: "Lenin the giant and the beloved Ilyich) close friend and
great leader . . . that is how Lenin's image is seen by the emancipated
Turkmen and Uzbekj that is how he appears to the doubly, triply eman­
cipated woman of the Soviet East:'27
While Michelson concludes her analysis with an oblique lamentation
of the way in which Vertov's pioneering "assault upon the conditions
and ideology of cinematic representation" had by 1934 come to serve in
a process of mourning and monumentalizing "a deeply cathected image
of the founder and the liberator;' she abstains from any explicit political
judgment on the hagiographic dimension of Songs, a film that cites
and hybridizes, in virtuosic fashion, the techniques of each supposed
phase of the Soviet avant-garde from formalist faktura to documentary
factography to monumental mythography.28 While purporting to eluci­
date the film's "political function in the U S S R of the 1930s;' Michelson's
analysis ends up positing a Russo-centric narrative of artistic and cul­
tural continuity that takes the formal logic of Orthodox iconography
and "tribal" mourning practice as its supreme measure, disavowing the
extent to which these frames of reference-and the historical process
they aim to analyze-are predicated on the absenting of Islam and,
specifically, the contested modes of gendered personhood marking the
latter in the context of the Soviet imperialism. Michelson's analysis is
thus highly ambivalent; in one sense it registers what Lefort called the
"permanence of the theologico-political" in Soviet ideology, but it ex­
plains this away with reference to the residual, regressive traces of local
religious tradition to which Vertov found it necessary to appeal in his
interpellation of the Soviet masses during the thirties. By implication,
then, the full-fledged modernist project of Man with a Movie Camera-­
the "wholly autonomous metacinematic celebration of filmmaking as a
mode of production and mode of epistemological inquiry" -was not
marked by this aberrant, if necessary, appeal to the theological, belong­
ing instead to the universal realm of social construction, in which the
immanent actuality of man qua producer, rather than the mystical t�an­
scendence of God, provides the ground of political community. Yet
without simply collapsing the two films in either formal and ideological
terms, it is worth questioning the extent to which these figures can be
rigorously separated, and whether such an attempt at separation itself
does not set the conditions for a certain kind of covert theological
violence against those who appear to deviate from the circular operative
community elaborated by Vertov: those, for instance, who might look to
something other than the dynamic divinity of the proletariat-or its
mythographic incarnation in Lenin/ Christ--as the source of right, jus­
tice, or community.
To reiterate: in a way that is structurally similar to the caesura in Man
with a Movie Camera, I have read the (dis) appearance of the veiled
Post-Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 285
woman that haunts Three Songs ofLenin as a cipher for the unworking of
Vertov's project of "seeing without limits;' an enigmatic blind spot in the
dialectic of enlightened visibility, operative community) and secular hu­
manization pursued by avant-garde Communist aesthetics.
In analyzing Vertov's encounter with the veiled woman, that undecid­
able logic of the veil is worth considering here: on the one hand, it can
work to seclude and restrict women to a private sphere, protecting the
masculine public from carnal distractions. On the other, it can work as a
screen to protect women from the potential violence of the possessive
male gaze, especially in the colonial context. The visual disappearance
into privac'Y instantiated by the veil can paradoxically enable the public
appearance and spatial mobility of women in such a way as to escape
harassment, abuse, and surveillance.29 Without celebrating the veil as
inherently a technique of resistance-though, when targeted by state
authorities, it has often been recoded as such by indigenous populations
-Mallek Alloula writes of the insecurity it effects in the colonial ar­
chive: "Thrust in the presence of a veiled woman, the photographer feels
photographed; having himself as an object-to-be-seen, he loses initia­
tive: he is dispossessed of his own gaze:'30

The Permanence of
the Theologico-Political

As suggested above, it is necessary to read Vertov's participation in the

Soviet hujum, the campaign to uriveil Muslim women begun in 1927, as
it echoes other European colonial encounters with locally specific veil­
ing practices, and the recurrent script described by Gayatri Spivak­
"white men saving brown women from brown men" -that underwrote
such encounters in Egypt, Algeria, and elsewhere,3l It also bears an
important affinity with the ubiquitous iconography of women "throw­
ing off the veil" in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan,
which was narrated as the privileged route to the full humanization of
these so-called faceless women by many Western commentators.
Vertov's positing of unveiling as the condition for an enlightened,
operative community also finds an urgent contemporary resonance in
Western Europe, where the veil has in recent years been constituted as a
highly charged symbolic site in public debates surrounding the status of
286 YAT E S M C KE E
immigrant Muslim communities and the secularist claims of the nation­
states in which they reside. This partakes of the same secular fundamen­
talist conceit: that both civil society and the state are universal realms in
which particularistic matters of theological concern-such as religiously
articulated codes of feminine piety-can and should be suspended in
favor of transparent public communication on the basis of an essential
commonality of values. The public realm, in other words, is construed as
a space of value neutrality, into which subjects are assumed to enter and
participate on equal terms.32 Any articulation of difference that renders
the experience of communication or community in that realm "uncom­
fortable;' in British MP Jack Straw's words, is marked as a mortal obstacle
to the operation of SOciality itself, a sociality that is grounded theologi­
cally, as it were, in a transcendental economy ofmutual visibility, specular
recognition, and, ultimately, unmarked public appearance.
Without reducing the historical, geopolitical, and ideological differ­
ence separating Vertov's quest to liberate the "surrogate proletariat" of
Central Asia from the normative parameters of public visibility in con­
temporary Western Europe, these two episodes share a certain theolog­
ico-political repudiation of Islam that frames the latter as exemplifying
the particularistic illusions and opacities of religion as such; for Vertov,
follOWing Marx, the task of historical materialism is "to unmask self­
estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self­
estrangement has been unmasked"; it is to reveal, in other words, the fact
that "man makes religion, religion does not make man;' . and that the
religious ordering of sociality can be overthrown in favor of the universal
self-consciousness of the proletariat.33 In the predominant discours� on
the veil in contemporary Europe, the task of secularism is not explicitly to
liberate subjects from religious · illusion but rather to prevent the latter
from making undue incursions into the properly political sphere. Thus,
religion is marked as a domain of private difference to be integrated,
tolerated, and managed vis-a.-vis the normative realm of the public. In
both cases, however, Islamophobic repudiations have become the occa­
sion for the often-violent resurfacing of the disavowed religious re­
mainders subsisting in any social formation or image of the demos,
whether it be Communist or liberal democratic-what Claude Lefort
once called "the permanence of the theologico-political" in modernity.
Questioning Marxist and Kantian teleologies of secularization alike,
Lefort asserts that "despite all the changes that have occurred, the
Post-Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 287
religious survives in the guise of new beliefs and new representations"
and describes a paradoxical movement in which "any move toward
immanence is also a move toward transcendencej any attempt to explain
the contours of social relations implies an internalization of unityj that
any attempt to define objective, impersonal entities implies a person­
ification of those entities. . . . The workings of the mechanisms of
incarnation ensure the imbrications of religion and politicS, even in
arenas where we thought we were dealing with purely religious or purely
profane practices or representations:'34 In Vertov, this movement takes
the oxymoronic, hybrid form of an avant-gardist hagiography in which
Lenin incarnates both the people and Christ-an artifact "located on
the boundary between the human and the divine;' as Michelson put it,
that the filmmaker himself insisted represented the formal and ideologi­
cal culmination of the entire project of Kino-eye.
Rather than lament the irreducible proximity of the religiOUS and the
political, or simply accept the inevitability of their collapsing into one
another in this or that hegemonic regime (whether covertly or ex­
plicitly), Lefort surpriSingly locates a certain open-ended political chal­
lenge in the universal religiOUS appeal to "the experience of a difference
that is not at the disposal of human beings and that cannot be abolished
thereinj the experience of a difference that relates human beings to their
humanity, [which means] that their humanity cannot be self-contained .
. . . Every religion states in its own way that human society can only
open itself to itself by being held in an opening it did not create:'35
Lefort provocatively recodes the religious as that which, far from being
"simply a product of human activity;' in fact exposes humanity to some­
thing irreducible, to "the illusion of pure self-immanence" -a risk of
interiorization structurally associated with any incarnation of the
demos whatsoever-thus rendering the contours, origins, and ends of
humanity's enigmas whose answer is constitutively unavailable to that
humanity and thus perpetually exposed to indeterminacy and potential
conflict vis-a-vis the inhuman.
The polemical spatiotemporal displacement I have attempted to per­
form in this reading is haunted by a set of questions that remain obtuse
vis-a-vis the politics of secularism and multicultural community in con­
temporary Europe, or even the liberal imaginary of unveiling in Mghan­
istan. These questions pertain to the specific historical and political
legacies of the Soviet reconquest of Central Asia, and specifically its
288 YAT E S M C KE E
implications for subaltern women such as those whose indexical traces
survive, enigmatically, in Vertov's film. Even as we join Ahmed Rashid in
mourning the loss of political possibility during the Soviet reconquest of
Central Asia, we cannot take for granted their potential emancipatory
effects any more than we can those of the Bolsheviks-whose material
advances for Muslim women in terms of health, literacy, education, and
employment it would be irresponsible to underestimate. No simple
nostalgia for political Islam in and of itself is viable, however hetero­
geneous or locally exotic it may have been in Central Asia.
As demonstrated by the meticulous archival research carried out by
the historical anthropologist Douglas Northrop in his groundbreaking
Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia, the hujum
campaign of the thirties resulted in a highly contested recoding of
chavon (the full-body hijab practice featured in Three Songs of Lenin) as
an exemplary signifier of recently invented "national" traditions (Uzbek,
Kazak, Turkrnen, and so on) to be defended and attacked as such by
Islamists and Bolsheviks respectively. Significantly, the Bolshevik re­
formers in question were not exclusively male or Russian-for better or
worse, the hujum was often carried out with the collusion of educated
female activists hailing from the Muslim regions in question. Though
throughout the thirties such campaigns related tangentially to the hor­
rific Stalinist policies of collectivization, they also coincided with the
long-term improvement of Central Asian worn.en's living conditions, at
least according to the biopolitical indices of health, education, and
employment, as well as a certain criteria of participation in the party,
such as it was.
1£ following Gayatri Spivak's critique of colonial discourse studies, we
are not content to simply unveil Vertov's imperialist aesthetics of unveil­
ing as an ethical end in and of itsel£ nor with relating the latter to the
relatively Eurocentric problematiC of postsecular rights claims on the
part of discriminated metropolitan immigrant communities (a group
that arguably has come to stand in for the subject-of-history for post­
Marxist political theory), an additional imperative of reading would
refocus our attention on the situation of women in the post-Communist
conjuncture of contemporary Central Asia.
To take only the most disturbing representative of this conjuncture,
post-Communist Uzbekistan has been presided over, since 1991, by the
authoritarian secularist regime of the former KGB agent Islam Karimov,
Post-Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 289
which officially foreclosed what was a brief flowering of democratic
ideological ferment in the postindependence period (including a neo­
Jadidist movement). Rather than productively engage Islamic political
elements, Karimov, invoking the specter of terrorism and receiving sup­
port from the United States, launched a campaign of suppression not
only against militants but against all forms of political Islam, as well as
secular reform movements.
This conjuncture came to a head in the spring of 2005, when twenty­
five Uzbek businessmen accused of having ties with Islamic activists
were swept up by the government and put on trial for endangering "the
security of the nation"j over the course of the two-week trial, what
began as a small vigil by the wives, relatives, and employees of the
businessmen outside the courthouse became a daily protest encompass­
ing thousands of Uzbek citizens demanding democratic reforms and the
release of hundreds of others detained on suspicion of being Islamists.
On May 25, Karimov declared a state of emergency that authorized the
police to open fire on the increasingly agitated demonstrators, killing an
estimated six hundred people, many of them women. Under pressure
from human rights activists, the UK government publicly reprimanded
Karimov, though it refrained from any further pressurej the United
States, for its part, issued a tepid call for restraint to its partner in the
War on Terror. Russia, China, and India-all of which are currently
aiming to suppress Islamist unrest within their own borders in the name
of national unity-lent their legitimacy to a sham international inves­
tigation of the event at the behest of Karimov.36


Informed by theorists such as Ranciere, NanC)lj and Lefort, the rigorous

probing of (in)operative political community put forward in Commu­
nities of Sense has proven crucial in taking art history beyond the avant­
gardist paradigms of aesthetic autonomyj critical negativiry, or collective
immanence that in various combinations have informed the agenda of a
journal such as October for the past thirty years-a legacy metonymized
for me by the uncritical celebration ofVertov's oeuvre by a scholar such
as Michelson. Yet if this emergent impulse-with which my own text
bears an obvious affinity-takes its own quasi-transcendental terms as
290 YAT E S M C KE E
ends in themselves, it will remain hopelessly inadequate in confronting
the forms of governmental impunity and international indifference (if
not complicity) evident in an event such as the Andijan Massacre,
which is one among the many (post) communist histories inscribed in
the Vertov stills that have been under consideration here. The impera­
tive that flows from this admonishment is that art historians situate their
objects of study vis-a.-vis an expanded field not only of oppressive visual
cultures-those of early Soviet imperialism, for instance-but also the
proactive technologies of witnessing developed by nongovernmental
human rights activists over the past fifteen years. As exemplified by the
production, brokering, and training activities of the organization Wit­
ness, such an imperative does not necessarily involve foregoing ques­
tions of form, poetics, and sense in the name of some kind of political
immediacy; on the contrary, it is precisely because of the failures of the
old axiom "mobilizing shame" and its positing of an automatic relay
between visual revelation and ethico-political responsibility that aes­
thetic, rhetorical, and technical mediation becomes central to activist
tactics. The point is not to dissolve the artistic realm-a move that has
historically provoked all manner of reactive disciplinary posturing-.but
rather to expose it to a broader set of concerns, commitments, and
communities in the hopes of redirecting its own rich histories and
competencies from a "left melancholic" fixation on a mythic avant-garde
to a renewed sense of cross-disciplinary humariities research that would
track, across time and space, what Judith Butler has called "the emer­
gence and vanishing of the human at the limits of what we can know,
what we can hear, what we can see, and what we can sense."37


1. This essay originated in an invitation extended by the filmmakers Peggy

Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn to several dozen writers in early 2003 to respond to
the same single digital film-still from Man with a Movie Camera. I regret that an
earlier version of this essay was not able to be included in the results of their
project, Vertov from Z to A.
2. See Benjamin, "Konvoult N:' I refer to Rosalind Krauss's and George
Baker's attempt to reclaim the film from its perceived abuse by Lev Manovich in
his book The Language of New Media. Introducing a special issue of October
Post-Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 291
(Spring 2002) devoted to the critical potential of obsolescence (including that
of October itself) in an era of alienating digitization, Krauss and Baker write,

It is thus with some interest that we witness the usage of a crucial avant-garde film
such as Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera as the opening recent text in the "language
of new media" just at it once served as the signal image some years ago for the very
first issue of this journal. And it is also with some doubt that we listen to these same
theoreticians of the new digital media proclaim that cinema and photography-with
their indexical, archival properties-were merely preliminary steps on the path to
their merging with the computer in the uber-archive of the database. Much of what is
most important to cinema and photography is wiped away by such a teleology. And
much of what seems most critical in contemporary artistic practice reacts to just such
an erasure. ("Introduction;' 4)

After the present essay went to press, October published a special issue devoted
to new work on Vertov (Summer 2007). Malcolm Turvey frames the ambition of
the issue as a critical complication of a certain "familiarity effect" among histori­
ans with respect to the status of Vertov's films as political-modernist classics
("Introduction") . While Turvey acknowledges that "none of this new work, so
far at least, has overturned the political-modernist view of Vertov" (4), the
scholarship collected in the issue is impressive in its close attention to archival
materials and hitherto unaddressed facets of the filmmaker's oeuvre. The most
significant of these revisionist essays in light ofmy own concern to defamiliarize
this view ofVertov is Oksana Sarkisova's, '�cross One Sixth of the World:'
3. "The Third Meaning;' 63.
4· Ibid., 57·
5. My sense of what it means to read historically derives from Eduardo
Cadava's discussion of Benjamin's notion of "dialectics at a standstill": "For
Benjamin, there can be no history without the capacity to arrest or immobilize
historical movement, to isolate the detail of an event from the continuum of
history. . . . It short circuits, and thereby suspends, the temporal continuity
between a past and present. This break from the present enables the rereading
and rewriting of history} the performance of another mode of historical under­
standing, one that would be the suspension of both 'history' and 'understand­
ing: " Words of Light, 59.
6. Derrida, Specters ofMarx, 16.
7. Cited in Michelson, "Introduction;' xxvi.
8. Barnouw, Documentary, 63.
9. Cited in Michelson, "Introduction;' liii.
10. Constance Penley discusses the centrality of Man with a Movie Camera
for sixties avante-gardists Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice's attempt at realiz-
ing " a filmic practice i n which one watches oneself watching . . . filmic reflexive­
ness is the presentation of consciousness to itself' Penley points out that they
disregarded any notion of the unconscious, lack, or desire, resulting in a mas­
culinist conception of the political as the self-conscious construction of history.
See "The Avant-Garde and Its Imaginary:'
11. Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production, 7.
12. Nancy, The Inoperative Community, 2.
13. Buchloh, "From Faktura to Factography;' 94.
14. Michelson, "Introduction;' xxxvii.
15. See Cadava's chapter "Caesura" in Words of Light, 59; and Andrzej War­
minksi's discussion of the caesura in Holderlin: "Rather than allowing the
human subject to recognize himself in his own other, the caesura rips him out
of his own sphere oflife, out of the center of his own inner life, and carries him
off into another world and tears him into the eccentric world of the dead:'
Cited in Keenan, Fables of Responsibility, 238.
16. Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory, 19. Here it is important to ac­
knowledge the work of Rosalyn Deutsche, who introduced Lefort into discus­
sions of art and the public sphere in her Evictions.
17. Lefort, "The Image of the Body and Totalitarianism;' in The Political
Forms of Modern Society, 305.
18. See Groys, The Total Art of Stalin. For a substantial critique of Groys's
teleology that demonstrates the latter's affinity with Fukuyama's post- Cold
War "end of history" narrative, see Wood, "The Politics of the Avante-Garde";
ZiZek, 'lVterword: Lenin's Choice:'
19. Michelson et al., . October, iv. Incidentally, Zizek criticizes the journal in
the following way: "Let's talk as much as possible about the necessity of a
radical change, to make sure that nothing will really change! The journal
October is typical of this: when you ask one of the editors what the title refers
to, they half-confidentially indicate that it is, of course, that October [the
Eisenstein film] -in this way you can indulge in jargonistic analyses of modern
art, with the secret assurance that you are somehow retaining a link with the
radical revolutionary past" ('lVterword: Lenin's Choice;' 172).
20. Cadava, "Laps us Imaginus;' 36.
21. Vertov, "The Birth of Kino-Eye;' in Kino-Eye, 41.
22. Vertov, "My Latest Experiment;' in Kino-Eye, 137.
23. Rashid, Jihad.
24. Michelson, "Introduction;' and "The Kinetic Icon in the Work of
25. Cited in Michelson, "The Kinetic Icon in the Work of Mourning;' 18.
26. Repeating almost word by word the injunction from "The Birth of Kino-
Post-Communist Notes on Some Vertov Stills 293
Eye;' this passage is from the 1934 journal entry "Kino-Pravda" in VertoVj Kino-­
Eye} 132.
27. Morris} "Theses on the Question of War"j Vertov} "My Latest Experi­
ment;' in Kino-Eye} 137.
28. Drawing upon and complicating Benjamin Buchloh's linear periodization
of constructivism in "From Faktura to Factography;' Mariano Prunes provides
a convincing account of such formal and ideological hybridity in "Dziga Ver­
tov's Three Songs about Lenin:' Prunes explicitly aims to reintegrate the study of
Vertov's cinematic production with the factographic activities of his colleagues
such as Rodchenko} especially those related to the journal USSR in Construction}
conceived as an instrument of mass enlightenment during the first Five Year
Plan. While Prunes deserves credit for recovering the status of Vertov's film as
an artistic} rather than merely propagandistic} artifact} he foregoes even the
ambivalent crypto-political analysis given it by Michelson in her October arti­
cle} celebrating it as an exemplary instantiation of avant-garde culture. Symp­
tomatically} like Michelson} Prunes ignores the problems of gender and religion
that Vertov himself enthusiastically announced as key motivations in his pro­
duction of the film in the first place.
29. For a multifaceted account of veiling practices and their perpetually
contested status} see the texts} images} artworks} and documents brought to­
gether in Bailey and Tawadros} Veil.
30. Alloula} The Colonial Harem} 182.
31. Spivak} "Can the Subaltern Speak?" 235.
32. See Mouffe} "Religion} Liberal Democracy} and Citizenship:'
33. Marx} "Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right;' 244.
34. Lefort} "The Permanence of the Theologico-Political?" 187.
35. Ibid.} 157.
36. On the Andijan massacre and the international response} see Anora
Mahmudova} "Uzbekistan's Growing Police State"j (May 27) 2005 ) http://
www.alternet.org/ story / 22097/ and the special report by Human Rights

Watch} "Bullets Were Falling Like Rain:'

37· Butler} Precarious Life} 151.

Thinking Red


As leftist political traditions are accused o f "theory terror" -that is,

causally linked by conservative opinion to a postmodern ethical relativ­
ism deemed responsible for the decadent turn of global democracy-it
seems imperative to investigate how the discourse of terror has sup­
planted critical accounts of ethical militance. Such an investigation
would dare to confront the terror inherent in thought itself without
lapsing into free associations between theory and its radioactive cousin,
terrorism, by bringing into renewed focus the laws and principles of
revolutionary logic that accord theory and critique the power to terror­
ize, as well as the power to effect what Alain Badiou calls an Event. For
Badiou, the Event refers to an epochal realization of world-historical
change: the French Revolution, the October Revolution, the Cultural
Revolution, or the name Marx taken to stand in for the advent of class
consciousness. Badiou has set the terms for a political theory of ethical
militance that reinvigorates the tradition of revolutionary thinking, ex­
periments with a formal logic of revolutionary groups, and focuses
attention on the importance of radical theories of the subject to the
regrounding of ethics. This project can be traced from his adherence to
"communist invariants" in the Jacobin play The Red Scarf, to his intent
to purge art of all "isms" for the sake of a new political art form (Hand­
book of lnaesthetics) . 1 It can be distilled from his mathematically driven,
subtractive political ontologies (developed in Theory of the Subject,
Thinking Red 295
Being and Event, Manifesto for Philosophy, and A Transitory Ontology),
from his scathing attack on the bad faith of human rights discourses
(Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil), and from his outline for
an intractable universalism in Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universal­
ism. It can be outlined from his commitment to a "politics without
party" (the activist period of L' organisation politique) and from his
attempt, in Metapolitics, to "de-Thermidorize" political time by discard­
ing temporal epistemes such as cause and effect, the dialectic, and
conventional measures of periodicity such "the centurY:'2
If Badiou's writings have increasingly been used as a reference point
for defining militance in the post-September 11 political climate, they
must be seen in the broader context of Red thinking, pre- and post-1968,
that undergirds the parameters and tenor of theory toda)'j especially in
the immediate aftermath of the so-called ethical turn. The early seven­
ties witnessed, as we do now, the embrace of terrorist tactics by the Left
and the Right and saw its revolutionary stance of ethical militance
compromised by the impetus toward militarization. For this reason, and
in the interest of marking a refusal to abandon the program of a revolu­
tionary future, I want to alight topographically on key moments of
seventies art and politics (primarily in France) that reveal the tension
between militance and militarization, filtering them through the post­
ethical communism of Badiou, as well as through Deleuze and Guat­
tari's idea of the group subject. Such examples supply more than just
historical context and material density for the ongoing prospects of Red
thinking; they encapsulate the way in which the seventies recycled a
Jacobin politics of the Terror that imagined stopping the clock before
the revolution devoured its own. Filtered through the lens of Badiou's
theory, these examples prompt a renewed look at the politics of the
group subject as they informed, and continue to inform, radical agendas
for freedom and justice.

Jean-Pierre Gorin and Jean-Luc Godard's flim lei et ailleu rs made in


1970 at the invitation of the Palestinians as a documentary of the Pales­

tinian Revolution and transformed in the course of production into an
anguished reflection on the entrapment of revolutionary images within
the televisual culture of consumption-offers a glimpse into the prox­
imity between militance and militarization as it conveys what happens
when a radical group becomes armed. An opening shot reveals a train-
296 E M I LY A P T E R
ing camp and a Palestinian leader speaking to the people, with his gun
by his side. After a flash heading-"Armed struggle" -the film cuts to
close-up footage of a machine gun giving fire. The enemy is not in the
picture-this is rifle practice-but the point is to assign pride of place to
the weapon, honoring it as an autonomous subject of the film, as if it
were the mouthpiece for the cause. lei et ailleurs commemorates the
short-lived, euphoric period of 1970 -71 in the life of the Palestinian
Liberation Organization (PLO ), during which rituals of self-armament
in daily life imparted a jubilant group subjectivity, a sense of marvelous
hope-sealed, in the eyes of its participants, by cathexis with the gun.
"In 1967 in the West Bank, for the first time in my life I felt that I was a
real human being. I had a gun in my hand;' the charismatic PLO com­
mander Salah Tamari would confide to journalist Jonathan Dimbleby.3
Remembering his first sojourn with the Palestinians in 1970, Jean Genet
would observe how "the young soldiers maintained their arms, took
them apart in order to clean them, greasing and reassembling them with
great haste. Some achieved the feat of disassembling and reassembling
their weapons blindfolded for success at night. Between each soldier
and his arm there was an amorous, magical relationship. Since the
feddayin were barely beyond adolescence, the gun, as arm, was the sign
of a triumphant virility:'4 In this ecstatic account, folded into a bitter
expose written in 1982 concerning the horrors witnessed in Chatila, the
gun emerges as a totemic ensign: the equivalent of the Black Panthers'
self-image accoutered in beret, black jacket, and gun (to the rallying cry
"What we need now are guns and more guns !"); or the Red Brigade's
mantra "Never Again without a Rifle !"; or the heraldic logo of the Red
Army Faction featuring a machine gun encased in a black starj or the
Weather Underground's anti-Viet Nam poster pairing a gun with the
slogan "Piece Now !"; or the image of the " RP G [rocket-propelled gre­
nadeJ kids" (Lebanese-born Palestinian refugees), "armed with a rage
for release from the senility of the Idea;' evoked by Mahmoud Darwish
in his account of Beirut under siege in 1982. 5 These cameos of self­
armament encapsulate what Darwish calls "the sport of active death;' a
phrase suggesting a desire for the deathly agon that goes beyond the
foot soldier's noble willingness to perish for god and country.6 In lei et
ailleurs, the machine gun signifies something other than hope; it conse­
crates an erotic contract with fatal destiny. This fatality is historicized as
documentary clips of fedayeen engaged in military exercises, commu-
Thinking Red 297
nity building, and political education slam into harrowing stills of Black
September, the charred and defaced bodies of revolutionaries massacred
by the U.S.- and Israeli-backed Jordanian army. In a matter of months,
so the narration goes, "ceci est devenu cela" -this has become that.
From a contemporary vantage point, the quotation of Victor Hugo's
famous phrase " ceci est devenu cela" reads not so much as shorthand for a
revolution that failed but as a presage of intifadas to come. The Palestin­
ian casualties of 1970 - 71 ask to be interpreted not as an end to armed
struggle but as an inaugural episode in the ongoing bid for statehood
and the right of return. But the film shows, too, what happens when
thought is channeled into weapons and radical groups assume the re­
straints and sacrifices of group fealty characteristic, according to Ba­
taille, of "the structure and function of the armY:'7 For under these
conditions, and in the last two decades, armed insurrectional groups, EI
Fatah included, have become increasingly hard to distinguish from para­
military operatives: I RA details, the Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine, The Abu Sayyaf network in the Philippines, Sri Lanka's con­
traband-financed Tamil Tigers, the UNITA people's party in Angola,
Columbia's FARe guerillas engaged in arms and drug traffic, Mafia-style
commando units of the Kosovo Liberation Army, the Algerian G IA
(Armed Islamic Group), set up, as one commentator describes it, "as a
combination of a mystical and a military organization that acts on
fatwas:' Each is representative of how insurgent rebel armies can seem-
ingly flip into or be mistaken for state or cartel-controlled paramilitary
troops. 8
The point here is not to hold radical thought accountable for allowing
ethical militance to free-fall into paramilitary terror (misrecognizing its
own camouflage, as it were) but rather to see how ethical militance
might be preserved, kept at a remove from terrorism even when it comes
mimetically close to militarization. This may appear to be a naive or
futile task: like attempting to rescue Marxism from Leninism, or secular
revolution from jihad, or armed struggle (posited as the right to resist
Western institutions of democracy) from suicide bombing, but under
political circumstances in which denunciations of terrorism veer into
blanket indictments of revolutionary ideology, accusations of sedition,
or worse-authorizations of imperial warmongering. It therefore be­
comes necessary to resuscitate what was good about the Jacobin vision
of a just and equal society regulated by the general will and infused with
298 E M I LY A P T E R
philosophical partisanship. I n his chapter "Oath, Conjuration, Frater­
nization or the 'Armed' Question" (in The Politics of Friendship), Der­
rida examines the partisan as post-Enlightenment insurgent, a figure
born in Berlin during what von Clausewitz called "an enormous spir­
itual moment" in the life of the Prussian state.9 The partisan eschews the
codes of conventional warfare (including the dictates of constitutional
and international law), blurs the boundaries between enemy and friend
( the partisan "has no enemy in the classical sense of the term" according
to Derrida), radicalizes the hostility of the friend-enemy, and maintains
the tradition of "telluric autochthony" (a sense of national destiny quali­
fied as "an aggravated national feeling united to a philosophical cul­
ture") (PF 146 - 47) . A kind of theory terrorist, the partisan understands
the inherent violence of thought. Derrida explicitly affirms the connec­
tion between armament and intellectual critique when he discerns "the
enemy present in the very form of the question" (PF 149-50). In this
formulation, the question itself is mobilized as a form of armament-"It
is the army;' states Derrida ( PF 150).
Derrida's depiction of partisanship as a variant of weaponized thought
invites a reconsideration of those parts of the Terror that produced a
vigilant civic rigidity worthy of detachment from the narrative of revolu­
tionary show trials, personality cults, and serial beheadings that defined
the Enlightenment version of the nightmare of history. It is this Jacobin
virtue, the engine of suc<;:essive generations of enrages and insurgents,
that may be drawn Oll to respond to the question of what's · left of the
revolutionary Left in a state of emergency imposed by the Right. It
prompts a bold rethinking of the Jacobin origins of radical thought that
would explain, for example, why in 1985 the situationist gauchiste Guy
Debord might so willingly accept the charges of theory terrorism levied
at him by the Right in a pamphlet titled Considerations sur l'assassin at de
Gerard Lebovici: "I accept the last two names: 'theoretician; that goes
without saying, although I have not practiced that exclUSively nor with a
specialized title, but in the end I have been one as well, and one of the
best. And I also accept 'enrage; because in 1968 I acted in concert with
the extremists who at the time gave themselves that name; and in
addition because I have an affinity for those of 1794:'10
Debord embraces the moniker "Terrorist" in the same pamphlet out
of solidarity with the French film producer and left-wing publisher
Gerard Lebovici, shot execution-style in his car in an underground
Thinking Red 299
parking garage, it was widely held, as retribution for his publication of
The Death Instinct, a book written by the "terrorist" Jacques Mesrine
that had been banned by the French government. In this pamphlet,
Debord seeks to avenge the media's savage treatment of the Left in the
mid-eighties, and his target, as it was earlier in his life, remains the
society of the spectacle.

Derridean partisanship, along with the specter of a "terrorist" Debord,

are evoked not to romanticize terrorism, nor to overfetishize the embat­
tled condition of the Left under siege, but rather to underscore the
extent to which the example of the revolutionary enrage comes close to
realizing Badiou's Pauline "theorem of the militant" (which posits the
universal address of truth, of fidelity, of love, and of hope), alongside a
revolutionary secularism awaiting articulation: one that would block
what Lacan diagnosed as the suicidal drive of revolutionary hope.11
Badiou is particularly interesting because he has consistently opted
for militance against all odds. In questing for a logic of revolt (modeled
on Rimbaud's "revoltes logiques") that enables philosophy to marshal
thought in the struggle against injustice; in positing equality as the
norm of the general will embodied in the collective being of citizen­
militants, in boldly arguing (against metaphysical pluralism) for a uni­
versal and univocal truth in the face of a glaring lack of clear directives
for distinguishing "truth events" from historical lies, Badiou refuses to
renounce the possibility of revolutionary change. In "Politics as Truth
Procedure;' he wants to numerically count out equality: "to count as
one that is not even counted is what is at stake in every genuinely
political thought, every prescription that summons the collective as
such. The 1 is the numericality of the same, and to produce the same is
what an emancipatory procedure is capable of. The 1 disfigures every
non-egalitarian claim . . . . To produce the same is to count each one
universally as one, it is necessary to work locally, in the gap opened up
between politics and the State:'12 Badiou's repeated injunctions to "keep
going" and to "get up and walk;' display a militant conviction, a zealous
contestation of political realism, or politics as usual, coupled with an
abiding belief in the revolutionary community to come.13 Badiou's
marching orders invoke a quickening of the blood, a stiffening of resolve,
and a readiness that shatters the quiescence of being. In these com­
mands, Marxist utopianism and the charge to change the world is re-
300 E M I LY A P T E R
awakened. Badiou is begging for a fight against the commercialization of
value and the society of calculation. It is not national ideology or re­
ligious belief that drives Badiou's will to revolt, but rather a condition
whereby revolt is seen as the only way to act against economic imperial­
ism, social inequality, and the slackness of everyday life. Badiou, as
Slavoj Zizek notes, is here entirely consistent with, and, of course, en­
tirely conscious of, Lacan's understanding of desire. "When Lacan for­
mulates his maxim of psychoanalytic ethics, 'ne pas ceder sur son desir;
that is, 'don't compromise, don't give way on your desire/ the desire
involved here is no longer the transgressive desire generated by the
prohibitory Law, and thus involved in a 'morbid' dialectic with the Law;
rather, it is fidelity to one's desire itself that is elevated to the level of
ethical duty, so that 'ne pas ceder sur son desir' is ultimately another way
of saying 'Do your duty!' "14
Badiou's injunctions constitute no simple code of "do and do not"
(typical of some forms of fundamentalist thinking, from Christian funda­
mentalism to conservative Islam) but rather an alliance of logic and
politics. They derive their militance from a political ontology vested with
a truth value that is "true/' in the mathematical sense-algorithmically
ordered and subject to proof For some readers, Badiou's commitment to
set theory as the road to a radical situationalism of the truth event
appears to return to the old philosophical game of thinking up possible
worlds governed by formal logic (from Kantian categorical imperatives
to Wittgensteinian propositions) . For ethical truths to be mathematically
true seems to risk justifying some form of theory terror in the name of the
matheme (mathemes, as Joel Dor reminds us, are the "mathematical
formulations devised by Lacan with the aim of making psychoanalytic
theory more rigorous and precise"). l S But this skepticism succumbs to
disbelief in the power of philosophy to remake the subject of politics.
Badiou's militant "exceeds" the bounds of individual subjectivity and
assumes singularity in political time as a numerical subject 1 coincident
with the event. 16

If, as I am suggesting, ethical militance brokers dangerous liaisons be­

tween logic and politicS, this liaison proves, nonetheless, to be indis­
pensable to theories of political collectivity that seek to supplant bour­
geois individualism with a new notion of the group or ontological set.
The idea of the group subject-diminished over the years as a utopian
Thinking Red 301
attempt to foment an anti-bourgeois ego ideal within the radical collec­
tive or as the dream of an alternative order of secular statehood-is
worth revisiting now in terms of what it might offer a militant ethics of
community defined outside of, transverse trom, or below the radar of
the nation-state. In Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's multitude, the
group subject may be identified with an anti-globalist iteration of Gram­
sci's Marxist-Leninist proletarian revolutionary mass subject: one who
dispenses with the individual ruler on the way to a classless society, or
what the authors call a "perpetually modulating atopia:'17 Between
Marx's mass subject and Hardt and Negri's multitude, and providing
what is possibly the crucial link between them, lies the theory of group
ontology outlined by Deleuze and Guattari in the wake of May ' 68 and
transformed into a virtual mathematical ontology of the set by Badiou.
It was within a culture of group activism-collective bargaining, dis­
cussion groups, group sex, communal property-that the conceptual
category of the group subject took hold as a kind of Venn diagram of
militant subjectivity. Shaped by Che Guevara's definition of the guerilla
band of compafieros ("an armed nucleus, the fighting vanguard of the
people") and by the anti-Oedipal culture of group therapy fostered in
the mid-sixties by R D. Laing's "safe house" at Kingsley Hall, the group
identity of the late sixties has been dismissed as lifestyle politics. 1 8
Memoirs such as Sheila Rowbowtham's Promise of a Dream, which
nostalgically evoke youth in the thrall of a group agency obtained at the
expense of personal intimacy, have encouraged such dismissals. Row­
botham writes, "Personal feelings removed themselves from the fore­
ground. My sexual encounters were snatched in between meetings and
somehow the customary emotions didn't settle upon them. . . . [T]he
energy of the external collective became so intense, it seemed the
boundaries of closeness, of ecstatic inwardness, had spilled over on the
streets:'19 And yet, as Julia Kristeva notes, the "savage strike" against
bourgeois morality and the traditional conception of love-achieved
through "group sex, hashish etc:' -produced nothing short of "a world­
wide movement that contributed to an unprecedented reordering of
private life;' a jouissance to be achieved "not 'in private' nor even away
from the world, in the extra-territoriality of religion, but in the public
domain, extended from the family to society and to the nation:'20 Con­
structing what she calls "a new type of inadmissable sublimation" by
unleashing eros on paternalism, Deleuze, in Kristeva's estimation,
302 E M I LY A P T E R
emerged a s the "most original and radical o f contemporary French
thinkers/' the one who "put the family, God and language into question
without trying to get away from them" (RS S 21).
The anti-paternalist group subject of Deleuze (and Guattari) was
born of opposition to Freud's Oedipal reading of group psychology, in
which Christ and the commander-in-chief, stand-ins for the church and
the army, shape what Freud calls "artificial groups": groups, that is,
defined as communities of believers, or rank and file, kept in social
alignment by the punitive force of the law. Freud's Group Psychology and
the Analysis oj the Ego (1921), it must be acknowledged, overhangs vir­
tually all post-' 68 endeavors to theorize the group subject. Beginning
this short book with a gloss on Gustave Le Bon's foundational Psychol­
ogie des Joules (1895), Freud moves Le Bon's psychology of crowds and
swarms to the psychic arenas of inverted narcissism, libidinal cathexis,
and identification. Freud quotes passages from Le Bon's study that
emphasize the collective's cellular morphology and motility as a con­
stantly self-transforming "live" body. He also pays particular attention to
Le Bon's pathological understanding of group behavior: specific ally, the
famous thesis that groups are particularly liable to affect, vulnerable to
the contagion of irrationalism, credulity, and corporeal stupidity. This
we might call the "Dummkopf" factor, as exemplified by Schiller's cou­
plet: "Jeder sieht man ihn einzeln, is leidlich klug und verstandig; / Sind
sie in corpore, gleich wird euch ein Dummkopf daraus" [Everyone,
looked at alone, is passingly shrewd and discerning; / When they're in
corpore, then straightaway you'll find he's an assJ .II Le Bon's vision of the
autonomous vitalism of crowds and their susceptibility to the herd
instinct becomes, in Freud's hands, a model for the collective uncon­
scious. Freud then goes on to examine how the magically adhesive force
oflibido enables self-love to be converted into love of family, comrades,
humanity at large, and even concrete objects and abstract ideas. Lan­
guage is particularly helpful in effecting the extension from individual to
group, for the word love (Lei be) has "numerous uses" (G P 91). Group
love (ihren zu Leibe), a love "that is for their sake" or "for the love of
them/' suffused with Platonic eros and Saint Paul's "love above all else;'
allows for the diversion of sexual aims to a broad array of affective
attachments (G P 92). For Freud, identification is critically operative in
the making of a group subject: "it remoulds the ego in one of its
important features-in its sexual character-upon the model of what
Thinking Red 303
has hitherto been the object" (G P 108-9). The exchange of the object
for the ego, the sublation of sex and oceanic "love" in the Oedipalized
institutional body (be it the family, the nation-state, an institutional
body, or an ideological cause) are the crucial procedures of Freud's
group subject in the malting.
Deleuze and Guattari passed on the possible usefulness of Freud's
nuanced reading of ihren zu Leibe in their anti-famialist rush to unseat
Oedipal capitalism. Their group subject drew instead on a plurality of
philosophical sources impossible to summarize within the confines of
this discussion. The parameters were defined by Spinoza's notion of "the
laying out of a common plane of immanence on which all bodies, all
minds, and all individuals are situated;' as well as by his concept of the
"extensive" relation (propelling new compositional sociabilities and in­
tensities) ,22 Bergson's neovitalist "logic of multiplicities" and Ruyer's
concept of "real extension" (partes in unitate), qualified as a "fusional
multiplicity;' might have been equally constitutive.23 Crucial too, for
both Deleuze and Guattari, was the thesis of Gilbert Simondon (1924-
89), published in 1958 as L'individuation a la lumiere des notions de forme
et d'information. Breaking down the distinction between individuation
and individualization, Simondon cast the subject not as a result, but as a
milieu of individuation, more of a situated event than a stasis of being.
This biophilosophy of ontogenesis, governed by the principle of jluc­
tuatio animi, led to a theory of phased being (l'individu polyphase)
emphasizing a state of becoming always engaged with unfolding subjec­
tive futurity. Polyphased becoming, the basis of Simondon's "transindi­
vidual collective;' yields a Deleuzian ontology "in which Being is never
One;' in which the subject, "individuated, remains multiple:'24
Group subjectivity was also indebted to the early Deleuzian concept
of an absolute singularity that sees difference and repetition as enabling
the unfurling multiple of the one (worked out in those quintessential
philosophical works of ' 68, The Logic of Sense and Difference and Repeti­
tion). The group subject that emerges from these two works offers an
ontology of Singularity aligned with collective life-form harking back to
Bergsonian elan vital, in which essence "individualizes" through serial
repetition, and differentiation retains the essence of Singular being.
Deleuze drafted from the neovitalist ontologists a nondialectical, anti-,
individualist theory of the subject. As Brian Massumi has shown in his
essay "Deleuze and Guattari's Theories of the Group Subject through a
304 E M I LY A P T E R
Reading o f Corneille's L e Cid;' group subjectivity was effected through a
perambulation around individual! society binarism: "They don't add
yet another synthesis of the individual and society) with still more
mediations. They abolish both terms and all mediations in one simple
move: by saying that the individual is a group. The distinction they
make is not between a group subject and an individual subject) but
between two kinds of group subjects) both of which exist on the so­
called individual level and the societal level at the same time and without
Massumi's emphasis on deindividuated ontology is well exemplified
in a short text by Deleuze titled "Three Problems of the Group;' which
he drafted as a preface to Guattari's 1972 book Psychanalyse et transver­
sa lite. In this sketch of a friend) Guattari is seen to embody group
subjectivity in his very person:
It so happens that a political militant and a psychoanalyst converge in the
same person) and) instead of staying compartmentalized) they are endlessly
imbricated) running interference) communicating) taking each for the other.
This is a rare occurrence since Reich. Pierre-Felix Guattari preoccupies
himself very little with the problem of the unified sel£ The self belongs to
things that must be dissolved) subject to the coordinated assault of political
and analytical forces. The words of Guattari) "we are all group cells;' desig­
nate the search for a new subjectivity) a group subjectivity) that refuses to let
itself be enclosed in a totality ready to revert to the ego) or worse still) the
superego) but which extends itself to several groups at one and the same
time) divisible) multipliable) open to communication and forever revocable.
The test of a good group is that it refuses to think itself as unique) immortal)
and full of Significance) like a bureau of defense or security) or a veterans'
ministry) but instead branches out to confront the possibilities of non-sense)
of death or implosion) "precisely because of its opening up to other groups:'
He himself is this kind of group. Guattari embodies) in the most natural way,
the two sides of this anti-ego [anti-Moi] : on one side) like a catatonic stone)
his body) blind and hardened) is penetrated by death the moment he takes off
his glasses; on the other side) he is burning with a thousand flames) teaming
with multiple lives as soon he watches) acts) laughs) thinks) attacks. Also) he is
named Pierre and Felix: schizophrenic powers:'26

In this relatively under-commented yet Significant text) Deleuze sum­

marizes the distinction drawn by Guattari between groupes assujettis
Thinking Red 305
(subjectivated groups) and groupes-sujets (group-subjects or the subject­
group) . Groupes assujettis are characterized by hierarchy, vertical or
pyramid organization, and a drive to self-conservation that excludes
other groups and discourages creative ruptures and collective enuncia­
tion. They promote the production of stereotypes that cut subjectivity
from the real and constitute the imaginary of Oedipalization, superegoic­
ization, and the castration of the group. Groupes-sujets, by contrast, are
defined by transversal relations that challenge totalities and hierarchies,
act as supports of desire, and seek connections to mass desire or the
desires of other groups. The anti-Oedipal, anti-statist drive embedded in
the group subject allows psychoanalysis to be brought to militant revolu­
tionary groups. This is precisely the move that Deleuze credits to Guat­
tari. For Deleuze, Guattari personifies a revolutionary war machine that
resists oiling the wheels of a new state apparatus as it hurls libidinally
charged intercepts at the organizational hierarchies of state power. De­
sire and truth are associated with a schizoid group subject committed
to analysis (in the psychoanalytic sense) and girded against paranoid

Guattari himself remained wary of the susceptibility of Red armies to

co-optation by the state and never fully specified (except, perhaps in his
1991 collaboration with Negri on the broadside Communists Like Us:
New Spaces of Libert» New Lines of Alliance) how collective agents artic­
ulating new forms of desire would actually succeed in rupturing the
fabric of social determinism or in effecting "une derive de l'histoire:' And
yet, his ideas came out of, and gave rise to, the radical praxis of guerilla
groups. In his "Remarks on the RAF Spectre: 'Abstract Radicalism' and
Art;' Klaus Theweleit evokes 1967 as the year of "group explosion;' a year
that saw "sub- and group-languages" bubble up from the underground
into the public sphere, drawing on the languages of Marxism, psycho­
analysis, militant internationalism (anti-USAf anti-Vietnam) and what
he calls "the speech mode of sexualized impertinence that seized every­
thing:'27 Theweieit acknowledges the influ ence of Deleuze and Guat­
tari's notion of subjective multiplicities (later formulated in their book
Mille plateaux) on the ideology of the Red Army Faction: '\000 planes,
1,000 poles, the emergence of voices from many places where silence
had been imposedj the RAF came from the same generational back­
ground:' Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus was also essential, in his
306 E M I LY A P T E R
view, to Baader-Meinhof's resolve to fight institutionalized paternalism
in all its forms: including "parent terror, teacher terror, officer terror,
block warden terror, terror from judges and police" (RAF 88). In fighting
terror with terror, the RAF realized the full meaning of the expression
"thinking Red;" a term used by the military in reference to "thinking like
the enemy" in order to second-guess his hand in a war game. In a
statement prepared for declaration at one of their trials, Baader and
Meinhof exhort the group to "think like the state" in order to disrupt the
state's ability to promote domestic stability by acting preemptively
against terrorism. In effect, they want to head the state's ability to think
like a revolutionary group off at the pass.
This preemptive, mimetic logic led inexorably to the militarization of
consciousness. For the RAF, thought itself had to resemble a "com­
mando structure." "Get ticking;' a favored Baader-Meinhof phrase, re­
ferred literally to the ticking time bomb and the need to mobilize as a
revolutionary force. More broadly still, it deSignated the group's self­
definition as "self-timers;' setting their internal clocks to their own
revolutionary pulse. According to Astrid Proll, a member of the RAF
who would later publish an album of photographs (decried by some
critics as a leftist coffee-table book) titled Baader-Meinhof: Pictures on
the Run 67-77, out of trust and love relationships there grew the close­
knit unit of the selbtausloser: "We were self-timers who acted cut off
from reality in a void. We lived a sort of armed existentialism. The men
were ready to go. While they were busy affectionately cleaning their
weapons the women did the major part of the organising and thinking.
. . . I also carried a weapon, though I would have done everything else to
defend myself before using it. The weapon was the membership card of
the RAF which we, in accordance with the Black Panthers, considered to
be a pure means of defense:'28
The self-timer is a kind of self-terrorizer, taking the Maoist dictum
"armed struggle is the highest form of class struggle" to a higher power
in the form of an ideal of armed existentialism. The self-timer's bellicose
self-discipline bears affinities to Bataille's schematic view of Islamic
hadith, a militant code of ethics that posits violence against the infidel as
an unequivocal good and encourages renunciation engaged against one­
self.29 The self-timer, who lovingly archives photos of RAF arms caches
and explosives arsenals, forms him or herself as a soldier dedicated to
the secular equivalent of holy war and to the absolute ethical militance
Thinking Red 307
of the group form. In her fragment on "the structure of the group;'
written in 1976 as a refutation of the government's claim that Andreas
Baader was the RAP 'S sole operational mastermind, Ulrike Meinhoftook
pains to argue that, while Baader may have established himself as the
group's "Che" or model urban guerilla, as such he embodied the singular
autonomy of the group rather than the bourgeois individualism of each
member of the collective. 30

Where the RAP took "thinking Red" to the arena of armed violence,
binding it to a code of honor that gave shape to the underground cell, its
counterparts in Britain and France tended to ground their revolutionary
praxis in a mixture of violent agitprop and nonlethal obstructionism.
The Women's Liberation Movement, especially in Britain, stopped short
of abridging militance and militarization, proposing a wedge between
them in its politic of the Small Group. Defined as "anything from six to
two dozen women;' according to Juliette Mitchell, the Small Group was
identified as the most effective unit of political organization, particularly
when it came to countermanding hierarchic social structure and the
domineering tendencies of male-dominated radical collectives: "Oppos­
ing any form of domination in theory, and having suffered its effects in
previous radical groups, all Women's Liberation politics act on the basis
of developing collective work and preventing the rise of ego-tripping
leaders. Outsiders, trying to pin down the politics of a group, complain
of the lack of a centre. They are so used to 'spokesmen' that their
absence confuses:'31
Like Guattari, Mitchell insisted on the psychotherapeutic dimension
of group consciousness in advocating the political deployment of group
therapy to achieve the liberationist ends of woman's solidarity and
safety. If the Women's Liberation Movement subscribed to a militant
strain of anarchism-utopistically described by Mitchell as the pure
expression of liberation: "a release of all one's dammed-up psychic ener­
gies" and a legitimation of random violence as the only viable antidote
to the chokehold of bourgeois opinion-it stepped back from endorsing
the "Spontaneist-terrorists" who, in today's parlance, might be charac­
terized as weaponized Small Groups. Squadrons of women who "model
themselves as rocks to throw at the walls of bourgeois society;' these
militant feminists were dismissed by Mitchell and her cohort for an
excessive "offensiveness" read as overcompensation for middle-class self-·
308 E M I LY A P T E R
hatred.32 Violence as a form o f personal therapy was seen as a liability,
potentially obstructing the movement's broader aims.
In France, Red thinking was similarly channeled into nonviolent man­
ifestations, as evidenced by Alain Badiou's depiction of himself in the
early seventies as an agent provocateur of the classroom whose target
was none other than Deleuze:
For the Maoist that I was, Deleuze, as the philosophical inspiration for what
we called the "anarcho-desirers," was an enemy all the more formidable for
being internal to the "movement" and for the fact that his course was one of
the focal points of the university. I have never tempered my polemics: con­
sensus is not one of my strong points. I attacked him with the heavy verbal

artillery of the epoch. Once, I even commanded a "brigade" of intervention

in his course. I wrote, under the characteristic title "Flux and the Party;' an
enraged article against his conceptions (or supposed conceptions) of the
relationship between politics and mass movements. Deleuze remained im­
passive, almost paternaL He spoke of me as an "intellectual suicide:'33

Though Badiou's self-portrait as an enrage describes the displacement

of the Deleuzian group by the more hard-line brigade, it is a brigade that
resists any real call to arms, for Badiou, like most of his cohort, Maoist
or otherwise, tended to confine militance within the parameters of what
he called, in Being and Event, a "speculative leftism" ("un gauchisme
speculative").34 As the ex··situationist soixante-huitard leader Rene Vienet
argued in Enrages and Situationists in the Occupation Movement (written
in the thick of the events), or as another May student leader, Antoine
Linniers, held (in a book chapter titled "Obj ections to the Taking Up of
Arms"), terrorism-the so-called real thing-was generally not en­
dorsed by French militants. Linniers attributes this recoil from armed
violence (including his own group's inability to carry out a plan to
assassinate the ex-collaborationist Paul Touvier in 1985) to a number of
factors, predominant among them the French Left's historic deference
to the French Communist Party, the lack of a radical Christian tradition
comparable to that which energized the Italian Red Brigades, and an
absence of the visceral anti-Nazi, anti-NAT O sentiment that galvanized
the RAF. 3 5
If, in the context of France's May ' 68, the form assumed by ethical
militance was the group itself-multiple, fractious, formless, yet con­
nected-it was a heavily discursive, self-theorized group subjectivity. By
Thinking Red 309
the mid-seventies, such discursivity gained layers of "theorY:' Situation­
ist projections of the commodification and subjective impoverishment
of everyday lifej Lacanian-inflected Marxism (typified by Althusser and
his students Ranciere, Balibar, Foucault) that posited the policed, ideo­
logically surveilled subjectj Lacan's formulas of subjective destitution,
along with his ritual unmasking of the master's discoursej and Deleuze
and Guattari's socialization of the individual-all contributed to a poli­
tics of the group that seems increasingly relevant as a corrective to the
contemporary zeitgeist in which isolate bourgeois existence is fully cap­
italized despite the lure of collective activism on the Internet.
Looking back, what may have been the most radical French effort to
"think Red" by thinking the group subject as a political esthetic was
Pierre Guyotat's novel Eden, Eden, Eden, published in 1970. Officially
banned by the Pompidou government for its so-called pornographic
content and rereleased only after public outcry was raised in the wake of
a petition signed by Sartre, Beauvoir, Barthes, Leiris, Sollers, Foucault,
Claude Simon, Derrida and many others, Eden features a society of "all
against all;' a penal colony set in an abstracted landscape that recalls the
razed and ravaged hilltop territories of the Algerian War. Soldiers prac­
tice rape as a form of social control, but sexual punishment blurs into
polymorphous pansexualism. Guyotat's vivid scenes of interracial, cross­
species, cross-gender, and intergenerational copulation, prostitution,
child abuse, and group sex offer a total eradication of the individual.
Personhood is imploded into an expressive multiple, at once sexualized
and textualized. In the words of Guyotat, "There is no 'love' but a
scripto-seminalo-gramme, if one can say that, in the sense of an elec­
trocardiogram:'36 In making sexual violation and historical regression
thematic coordinates, Guyotat's avowed intention was to "emancipate
the base" by reasserting the preeminence of "basses fonctions" (bodily
functions of the lowest order) . Like Bataille's valorization of "base mate­
rialism" (identified with excess, waste, expenditure, acephalic conscious­
ness, coprophilic desire, human matter over reason), Guyotat's social
body is constructed in the name of depsychologizing the person. Hu­
man subjects, no longer hierarchically superior, are placed on par with
animals, plants, and things, generating a militant communalism that
anticipates Antonio Negri's phantasm of "the revolutionary monster
that has Multitude for a name:'37 Guyotat's novel is a revolutionary
novel of ' 68, I would argue, because it shows group subjectivity arising
310 E M I LY A P T E R
from erotic enslavement, an enslavement that, n o matter how odious
morally, levels power differentials between prisoners and their keepers.
The group forms a dystopian socius, to be sure, but it reveals un­
suspected reserves of revolutionary potentia.

Guyotat's Eden, Eden, Eden, exemplifying the way in which seventies

fantasies of violent group sex were extended into dreams of radical
communitarianism, does for narrative what Gerhard Richter's Baader­
Meinhof cycle ofpaintings "18. Oktober 1977" does for visual representa­
tion. Recalling Ben Shahn's "The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti" (a
series painted in 1931-32 based on newspaper photos and newsreel
images of the pair, invariably photographed as a pair), Richter's cycle,
painted in 1988, homes in on the haunting of a later era by an earlier era's
praxis of radical group subjectivity. Though there continues to be con­
siderable debate over whether Richter liberated the revolutionary image
from the commodified spectacle or whether he portrays, as Theweleit
would have it, the "inherently unradical" status of art, parasitically feed­
ing off the revolutionary act through representations that are the very
"antithesis of art" (RAF 96), the c"'Ycle stands as a kind of homage to the
idea of ethical militance as it emerged in the radical Left in the seventies.
Militance is conveyed as much through the blur between photographic
realism and the medium of paint as through the work's historical fram­
ing of how "an abstract desire for revolution foundered in the political
vacuum;' making for "a particularly helpless group autumn fantasy"
(RAF 96). The blur effect possesses each of Richter's images in differing
degrees, especially in the scenes devoted to Gudrun Ensslin based on
photos of her, alive (wearing prison togs in an identification lineup) and
dead in her prison cell. In the pictures of dead revolutionaries, which
resemble nineteenth-century gisants, the fade-out of the subject's fea­
tures suggests the vanishing of revolutionary idealism or a ghostly aura
originating, perhaps, in the haunting of an East German painter by
"specters of Marx:' And, yet, another way to deal with the blur is to see
what kind of shape it assumes. In some scenes it becomes a form in its
own right, like an anamorphic shadow that seems to spring into legi­
bility when the right viewing angle is found. Detached from the narra­
tive of revolutionary failure, the blur communicates an effect of revolu­
tionary vigilance that refuses to die with the "death of socialism:' It
presents an ethical militance unto death, rather than, as some would
Thinking Red 311
have it, a terrorist "cult of death:'38 As the anamorphoses double the
blurred horizontals and verticals of the bodies-horizontal when laid
out on the floor, vertical when hanged-the function of the bodies as
pointers cross-referencing one another is accentuated. Together, these
directionals diagram a group subject that acts relationally even in death.
They "make a matheme;' as it were, in the sense of Badiou's statement
that "the group makes a matheme for thinking the subject;' advanced in
a chapter of Briefings on Existence titled "Group, Category, Subject:'39
Like the directionals, drawing the disparately arranged bodies into
force fields of connection, the hyphen in Baader-Meinhof-a name that
is itself a composite of two names that together and alone stand in for
many other people-helps to formalize an algorithm of group subjec­
tivity. The hyphen becomes yet another relational sign supporting the
reading of Richter's Baader-Meinhof series as a diagram of the motto:
"their Being is their Number;' a paraphrase of Badiou's "Le Nombre est
une forme de l' etre-multiple" ("Number is a form of being-multiple")
( C T 149). The hyphen also doubles as a minus sign, suggesting a sub­
tractive force that suctions up individual essences. The group subject
arises out of this black hole as a set of zero, positively equal to none: that
is to say, equal to radical impropriety or loss of the proper. This zeroing
out of ontology exerts its strange appeal on the formal structure of the
group subject, itself the model for the ascetic revolutionary cell, with its
promise of group love in exchange for self-sacrifice and its idea of truth
as mathematically true.
The problem of ethical militance thus conceived would seem to assign
the idea of the group a special place as cornerstone of the revolutionary
multitude by collapsing the multiple into the multitude, streaming into
it elements of Spinoza's plural individual, the Rousseauist general will,
sansculotte ideals of civic conscience and supreme being, the Commu­
nist International, the algorithmic "transfinitude" of Cantorian set the­
ory, the logic of multiplicities and of pre- and deindividuation put forth
by Simondon, Deleuze, and Guattari, and a social understanding of
individuality that fulfills Negri's proposition that "there is for a body no
possibility ofbeing alone:'4o Marrying principles of Enlightenment revo­
lution and "a physiology of collective liberation" to analytic truth values,
the logic of the group subject involves hewing to your ethical truth
despite the risk of projecting into the mental space of the enemy so
successfully that you assume its form (as when militance misrecognizes
312 E M I LY A P T E R
itself as militarism), and despite the risk avowed by Badiou: "My fidelity
may well be terror exerted against myself'41 For Badiou, the ethics of
militancy would seem to require holding fast to the exigent logiC of the
mathematical proof: first, to ward off lassitude; second, to maintain the
"numbers" of the group subject; and third, to allow the terror of theory
to carry on as the possibility of a revolutionary truth event.

It is surely no mere happenstance that the art and politics of the seven­
ties have come back to haunt us in the wake of 9 / 11.42 E-activism was
particularly in evidence in mobilizing opposition to the Iraq war. Geert
Lovink's writings on Net culture offer a lucid account of how political
collectives have used the Net. Tom Keenan has written on new political
formations spawned by media culture. And in a very interesting article,
"Doing Their Own Thing, Making Art Together;' Holland Cotter sur­
veys the resurgence of collaborative art collectives in the medium of
digital networks. Cotter recalls how groups from the sixties such as the
Artworkers Coalition and the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition
"made concerted attempts to pry open institutional doors and let in a
multicultural world;' while "non-militant movements like the Dada­
inspired Fluxus produced an ephemeral, give-away, anyone-can-do-it art
that amounted to a kind of passive resistance to the market economy:'
The new virtual collectives, he points out, take full advantage of the
Internet as a fundamentally collective medium. Groups such as Royal
Art Lodge, Beige, Slanguage, Flux Factory, Dearraindrop, and Milhaus
are posed as the inheritors of The Hairy Who (of the sixties) and
Destroy All Money (of the seventies) in Cotter's scheme. The most
interesting thing about these new collectives, he points out, is that
members of the collective often do not know each other, creating a
model of anonymous community that complements the dematerialized
nature of their cyber-spatial site specificity. While evincing skepticism
about the depth of commitment to a political or utopian ideal of collec­
tivism on the part of these Web-based groups (many of these sites evoke
a "slacker" sensibility), Cotter discerns genuine critical activism in
works sponsored by the Radical Software Group or new groups such as
RTMark, Critical Art Ensemble, Ultra-Red, and Electronic Civil Dis­
obedience. With their international network of programmers and fluid
organization of participants, these groups belong to the burgeoning
counterculture of artists' collectives.
Thinking Red 313
Also in evidence in recent years, a rash of documentaries and art
projects has scoured the representational surface of the not-so-distant
radical past in an effort to retrofit the culture of group solidarity and the
weaponization of thought. German filmmaker Andreas Veiel's 2001 doc­
umentary The Black Box revisits the question of why RAP members
Wolfgang Grams and Alfred Herrhausen armed themselves in the name
of moral vigilance and took on the "enemy" of the German Federal
Republic. The movie Human Weapon investigates the history of suicide
martyrdom for political causes, emphasizing how group subjectivity has
been key to the passage a l'acte. My Terrorist, an autobiographical docu­
mentary, charts the effort of a former Israeli flight attendant, wounded
in a foiled 1972 hijacking attempt, to release her assailant from a British
prison in the name of an alternative to the Israel! Palestine stalemate.
The Weather Underground traces how the incredibly rapid succession of
American political atrocities from the late sixties into the seventies-the
My Lai massacre, the murders of Black Panther leaders Mark Clark and
Fred Hampton, the assassination of Salvador Allende, Kent State-led
inexorably to the group's conviction that violent acts of sabotage were
the only means possible in a war stacked in favor of the military-indus­
trial complex. Moving from film to art installation, Mary Kelly's Circa
1968 (2004) is a projection of a famous photograph from May ' 68 of a
female demonstrator held aloft and brandishing a flag. Composed out of
compressed lint, the medium works to dematerialize the outlines of
faces and bodies, allowing then to flow seamlessly into now. For artist
Renee Green, the year 1970 provides the occasion, in a work titled
Partially Buried, to examine the legacy of the Adorno-Angela Davis
connection and the killings at Kent State (where Green's mother was a
student at the time) . And in the arena of performance, a 2002 video by
the artist Sharon Hayes-reenacting Patty Hearst's appeal for ransom
payment as she repeats and strays off message (itself dictated by the off­
camera group voice of the Symbionese Liberation Army) -underscores
the strange speech rhythm that gets established between the serial in­
structions of mind control and the mouthing of fractured voices speak­
ing as one.43 Roland Barthes might have designated this rhythm "idior­
rhythmie religieuse;' a term he applied, in his 1976 seminar on Mount
Athos, to ascetic, monastic federations regulated by the mystical beat of
prayer calibrated to the rhythm of heart and breath.44 These retrospec­
tive exhumations of seventies radical movements, each of which sits in a
314 E M I LY A P T E R
much larger field o f examples, form a fascinating pendant to the repre­
sentations of ethical militance that emerged in the period itself They
are compelling, perhaps, because they afford a glimpse of the last mo­
ment before the last: that is to say, the fleeting specter of a revolution
that was never allowed to happen or think its way into political time.
Drawing on Sylvain Lazarus's The Anthropology of the Name, Badiou
asks, "Can politics be thought as thought?"45 I would say in response to
this key question that the politics of group subjectivity, articulated in
1968 but foreclosed by the narrative of revolutionary failure, has ye� to
be "thought as thought;' its episteme entered into political time.


1. For the best summary of Badiou's early political trajectory (as well as his
broader philosophical engagement), see Hallward, Badiou, 30. For the best
discussion of Badiou's theories of militance, see Laclau, 'M Ethics of Militant
Engagemene' See too, Hallward's introduction to a special issue of Angelaki,
"The One or the Other: French Philosophy Today;' and the special issue of
Polygraph on Badiou (no. 17, 2005) edited by Matthew WIlkens.
2. Badiou begins Le siixle with an astonishing replay of Genet's preface to his
play Les negres: "One evening an actor asked me to write a play for an all-black
cast. But what exactly is a black? First of all, what's his color?" Badiou appropri­
ates this strategy to re-time the political: "A century, how many years is that? A
hundred years? This time it is Bossuet's question that imposes itself: 'What is a
hundred years, what is a thousand years, if a single instant can efface them?'
Shall we ask then what is the exceptional moment that will efface the twentieth
century? The fall of the Berlin wall? The sequencing of the genome? The
launching of the Euro?" Le siecle, 9 - 10.
3. Dimbledy, The Palestinians, 132.
4. Genet, "Quatre heures a Chatila;' 244, my translation.
5. Darwish, Memory for Forgetfulness, 12.
6. Ibid., 11.
7. Bataille, "The Structure and Function of the Army:'
8. Khanna, "The Experience of Evidence;' 110.
9. Derrida, Politics of Friendship, 147. Further references to this work will
appear in the text abbreviated PE In this section Derrida is drawing on Carl
Schmitt's Theorie des Partisanen, ZWischenbemerkung zum Begriff des Politischen
(1963) [Theory of the Partisan and The Concept of the Political] and Carl von
Clausewitz's 1832 treatise Vom I<.riege [On War] .
Thinking Red 315
10. Debord, Considerations on the Assassination of Girard Lebovici, 75- 76.
11. Badiou, Saint Paul, 97. See Catherine Clement's review ofJacques Lacan's
Television, psychanalyse, in "Une Le<;on," 101.
12. Badiou, "Politics as Truth Procedure;' in Metapolitics, 150.
13. The slogan "keep going" is enunciated in Badiou's Ethics, 79. In a talk
titled "The D esire For Philosophy and the Contemporary World;' Badiou
affirmed: "The world is saying to philosophy 'Get up and Walk!' "
14. Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, 153.
15. Dor, Introduction to the Reading of Lacan, xxiii.
16. Badiou writes, "The subject of a revolutionary politics is not the individ­
ual militant-any more, by the way, than it is the chimera of a class-subject. It is
a singular production, which has taken different names (sometimes 'Party;
sometimes not) . To be sure, the militant enters into the composition of the
subject, but once again exceeds him (it is precisely this excess that makes it
come to pass as immortal)" Ethics, 43.
17. Hardt and Negri, Empire, 60.
18. Guevara, Guerilla Warfare, 17.
19. Rowbotham, Promise of a Dream, 196.
20. Kristeva, Revolt, She Said, 35. Further references to this work will appear
in the text abbreviated RSS.
21. Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), 77. Further
references to this work will appear in the text abbreviated G P .
22. Deleuze, Spinoza, 122 and 126, respectively.
23. Deleuze, Bergsonism, 117.
24. Deleuze, "Gilbert Simondon, L'individu et sa genese psycho-biologique;'
in L'fle diserte et autres textes, 124.
25. Massumi, "Deleuze and Guattari's Theories of the Group Subject through
a Reading of Corneille's Le Cid;' 814.
26. Deleuze, "Trois problemes de groupe;' in r.:lle deserte et autres textes, 270.

II arrive qu'un militant politique et un psychanalyste se recontrent dans Ia meme

personne, et que, au lieu de rester cloisonnes, ils ne cessent de se meIer, d'interferer,
de communiquer, de se prendre l'un pour l'autre. C'est un evenement assez rare
depuis Reich. Pierre-Felix Guattari ne se Iaisse guere occuper par Ies problernes de
l'unite d'un Moi. Le moi fait plutot partie de ces choses qu'il faut dissoudre, sous
l'assaut conjugue des forces politiques et analytiques. Le mot de Guattari, 'nous
sommes tous des groupuscules; marque bien Ia recherche d'une nouvelle subjectivite,
subjectivite de groupe, qui ne se Iaisse pas enfermer dans un tout forcement prompt a
reconstituer un moi, ou pire encore un surmoi, mais qui s' etend sur plusieurs groupes
a Ia fois, divisibIes, multipliabIes, communicants et toujours revocables. Le critere
d'un bon groupe est qu'il ne se reve pas unique, immortel et signifiant, comme un
316 E M I LY A P T E R
syndicat de defense o u de securite, comme un ministere d 'anciens combattants, mais
se branche sur un dehors qui Ie confronte a ses possibilites de non-sens, de mort ou
d'edatement, 'en raison rrH�me de son ouverture aux autres groupes: L'individu a son
tour est un tel groupe. Guattari incarne de la fa<;:on la plus naturelle les deux aspects
d'un anti-Moi: d'un cote, c:ornrne un caillou catatonique, corps aveugle et durci qui se
penetre de mort des qu'il ate ses lunettesj d'un autre cote brillant de mille feux,
fourmillant de vies multiples des qu'il regarde, agit, rit, pense, attaque. Aussi s' appelle­
t-il Pierre et Felix: puissances sc:hizophreniques.

27. Theweleit} "Remarks on the RAF spectre;' 75.

28. Proll} Baader-MeinhoJ, 10.
29. Bataille} The Accursed Share, 83 and 84. Paraphrasing Dermenghem}
Bataille stresses the twofold nature of Islam} endorsing the view that "for
Mohammed the great holy war is not that of the Moslem against the infidel but
that of the renunciation one must engage in against oneself;' while insisting}
nonetheless} that in the eyes of the Muslims "every violent action against
infidels is good:' Islam} he concludes a bit later on} "is a discipline applied to a
methodical effort of conquest:'
30. Meinho£ "Fragment sur la structure du groupe;' 59 and 60.
31. Mitchell} Women's Estate} 58.
32. Ibid.} 69.
33. Badiou} Deleuze} 2.
34. Badiou} L'etre et l'evenement} 232.
35. Liniers} Terrorisme et Democratie} 202-3.
36. Guyotat} Litterature interdite} 31} my translation.
37. Negri} "