Monday, October 28, 2013


It is Cultural Monday at Scission and this is the cultural post I always knew was coming.  I'm not sure really if it belongs here or on Theoretical Weekends.  I am not sure if I am posting this in a serious way, or with humor.  I am not sure I have any idea what the post below is all about and I am not sure I care all that much, really.  I am not sure anyone will actually read the whole thing and if anyone out there will have much of a clue about it.  It just seems to be so right for Cultural Monday that I couldn't resist.  I bet there are even people out there somewhere who will read through the analysis below and say, "yeah, right on to that.  I loved it."  They are out there, I know.  I read it once and I am going to read it again...more slowly, more closely, and see what I think.  Have fun, but if you hate this, blame my friend Bill, not me.  Remember this Cultural thing was his idea, not mine.

In case you find yourself wondering, the author of the piece below,Boris Groys, "... is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally acclaimed expert on late-Soviet postmodern art and literature, as well as on the Russian avant-garde. Dr. Groys’s writing engages the wildly disparate traditions of French poststructuralism and modern Russian philosophy.

In the 1970s, Dr. Groys, who had studied philosophy and mathematics at Leningrad State University, immersed himself in the unofficial cultural scene in Russia’s capitals, coining the term “Moscow conceptualism.” From 1976-1981, he held a position as a Research Fellow in the Department of Structural and Applied Linguistics at Moscow State University, and in 1981, Dr. Groys emigrated to West Germany, where he earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Müenster."
In the United States, he is best known as the author of The Total Art of Stalin. This work is credited for introducing Western readers to Russian postmodernist writers. His philosophical writing includes A Philosopher’s DiaryOn the New: A Study of Cultural Economics, and The Invention of Russia, while his contributions to art theory and criticism can be found in Vanishing Point Moscow and The Art of Installation. His most recent books are Under Suspicion: A Phenomenology of the Media and Ilya Kabakov. The Man Who Flew into Space from his Apartment (Afterall/MIT Press, 2006). Dr. Groys has also edited collections of articles in Russian and German and has written more than a hundred articles. Since 1994, in addition to serving as the curator and organizer of numerous international art exhibitions and conferences, Dr. Groys has been a Professor of Aesthetics, Art History, and Media Theory at the Center for Art and Media Technology in Karlsruhe."  
After you read or don't read Groys piece below, I am adding an interview with him from The Playpus Affiliated Society, following it.  The interview is more interesting probably than the thing he wrote here.

The following is from e-flux.

Boris Groys

Art Workers: Between Utopia and the Archive

The topic of this essay is artistic work. I am not, of course, an artist. But in spite of being quite specific in some respects, artistic work is not fully autonomous. It relies on the more general—social, economic, technical, and political—conditions of art production, distribution, and presentation. During recent decades these conditions have changed drastically, due first and foremost to the emergence of the internet.

In the period of modernity, the museum was the institution that defined the dominant regime under which art functioned. But in our day, the internet offers an alternative possibility for art production and distribution—a possibility that the permanently growing number of artists embrace. What are the reasons to like the internet, especially for artists, writers, and so forth?

Obviously, one likes the internet in the first place because it is not selective—or at least much less selective than a museum or a traditional publishing house. Indeed, the question that always troubled artists in relation to the museum concerned the criteria of choice—why do some artworks come into the museum while other artworks do not? We know the, so to speak, catholic theories of selection according to which artworks must deserve to be chosen by the museum: they should be good, beautiful, inspiring, original, creative, powerful, expressive, historically relevant—one can cite thousand of similar criteria. However, these theories collapsed historically because nobody could explain why one artwork was more beautiful or original than another. So other theories took their place, theories that were more protestant, even Calvinist. According to these theories, artworks are chosen because they are chosen. The concept of a divine power that is perfectly sovereign and does not need any legitimization was transferred to the museum. This protestant theory of choice, which stresses the unconditional power of the chooser, is a precondition for institutional critique—the museums were criticized for how they used and abused their alleged power.

Song by Les Horribles Cernettes written in 1993 when less than a hundred websites existed. Les Horribles Cernettes was an amateur band constituted by staff from the Cern Labs in Geneva, Switzerland. The band are also the subject of the first picture to ever be uploaded online.

This kind of institutional critique doesn’t make much sense in the case of the internet. There are, of course, examples of internet censorship practiced by some states, yet there is no aesthetic censorship. Anyone can put any texts or visual material of any kind on the internet and make it globally accessible. Of course, artists often complain that their artistic production drowns in the sea of data that circulates through the internet. The internet presents itself as a huge garbage can in which everything disappears, never getting the degree of public attention that one hopes to achieve. But nostalgia for the old days of aesthetic censorship by the museum and gallery system, which watched over art’s quality, innovation, and creativity, leads nowhere. Ultimately, everyone searches the internet for information about one’s own friends—what they are doing right now. One follows certain blogs, e-magazines, and websites, and ignores everything else. The art world is only a small part of this digital public space—and the art world itself is very much fragmented. So even if there are many complaints about the unobservability of the internet, no one is really interested in total observation: everyone is looking for specific information—and is ready to ignore anything else.

Still, the impression that the internet as a whole is unobservable defines our relationship to it—we tend to think about it as an infinite flow of data that transcends the limits of our individual control. But, in fact, the internet is not a place of data flow—it is a machine to stop and reverse data flow. The unobservability of the internet is a myth. The medium of the internet is electricity. And the supply of electricity is finite. So the internet cannot support infinite data flows. The internet is based on a finite number of cables, terminals, computers, mobile phones, and other equipment. The efficiency of the internet is based precisely on its finiteness and, therefore, on its observability. Search engines such as Google demonstrate this. Nowadays, one hears a lot about the growing degree of surveillance, especially through the internet. But surveillance is not something external to the internet, or some specific technical use of the internet. The internet is by its essence a machine of surveillance. It divides the flow of data into small, traceable, and reversible operations, thus exposing every user to surveillance—real or possible. The internet creates a field of total visibility, accessibility, and transparency.

Sailors coiling transatlantic telegraph cable on board the Agamemnon. The transatlantic cable crossed the Atlantic ocean underwater and paved way for the fiber-optics connections almost a century and a half later.

Of course, individuals and organizations try to escape this total visibility by creating sophisticated passwords and data protection systems. Today, subjectivity has become a technical construction: the contemporary subject is defined as an owner of a set of passwords that he or she knows—and that other people do not know. The contemporary subject is primarily a keeper of a secret. In a certain sense, this is a very traditional definition of the subject: the subject was long defined as knowing something about itself that only God knew, something that other people could not know because they were ontologically prevented from “reading one’s thoughts.” Today, however, being a subject has less to do with ontological protection, and more to do with technically protected secrets. The internet is the place where the subject is originally constituted as a transparent, observable subject—and only afterwards begins to be technically protected in order to conceal the originally revealed secret. However, every technical protection can be broken. Today, the hermeneutiker has become a hacker. The contemporary internet is a place of cyber wars in which the prize is the secret. And to know the secret is to control the subject constituted by this secret—and the cyber wars are the wars of this subjectivation and desubjectivation. But these wars can take place only because the internet is originally the place of transparency.

What does this original transparency mean for artists? It seems to me that the real problem with the internet is not the internet as the place for the distribution and exhibition of art, but the internet as the place for working. Under the museum regime, art was produced in one place (the atelier of the artist) and shown in another place (the museum). The emergence of the internet erased this difference between the production and the exhibition of art. The process of art production insofar as it involves the use of the internet is always already exposed—from its beginning to its end. Earlier, only industrial workers operated under the gaze of others—under the kind of permanent control so eloquently described by Michel Foucault. Writers or artists worked in seclusion, beyond panoptic, public control. However, if the so-called creative worker uses the internet, he or she is subjected to the same or even greater degree of surveillance as the Foucauldian worker. The only difference is that this surveillance is more hermeneutic than disciplinary.

Aram Bartholl, Dead Drops, 2010. Dead Drops is an anonymous, offline, peer to peer, file-sharing network in public space. Courtesy of DAM Gallery.

The results of surveillance are sold by the corporations that control the internet because they own the means of production, the material-technical basis of the internet. One should not forget that the internet is owned privately. And the profit comes mostly from targeted advertisements. Here we confront an interesting phenomenon: the monetization of hermeneutics. The classical hermeneutics that searched for the author behind the work was criticized by the theoreticians of structuralism and “close reading,” who thought that it made no sense to chase ontological secrets that are, by definition, inaccessible. Today, this old, traditional hermeneutics is reborn as a means of economic exploitation on the internet, where all secrets are revealed. The subject here is no longer concealed behind his or her work. The surplus value that such a subject produces and that is appropriated by internet corporations is this hermeneutic value: the subject not only does something on the internet, but also reveals itself as a human being with certain interests, desires, and needs. The monetization of classical hermeneutics is one of the most interesting processes to emerge in recent decades.

At first glance, it seems that for artists, this permanent exposure has more positive aspects than negative. The re-synchronization of art production and art exposure through the internet seems to make things better, not worse. Indeed, this re-synchronization means that an artist no longer needs to produce any final product, any artwork. The documentation of the art-making process is already an artwork. Art production, presentation, and distribution coincide. The artist becomes a blogger. Almost everyone in the contemporary art world acts as a blogger—individual artists, but also art institutions, including museums. Ai Weiwei is paradigmatic in this respect. Balzac’s artist who could never present his masterpiece would have no problem under these new conditions: documentation of his efforts to create a masterpiece would be his masterpiece. Thus, the internet functions more like the Church than the museum. After Nietzsche famously announced, “God is dead,” he continued: we have lost the spectator. The emergence of the internet means the return of the universal spectator. So it seems that we are back in paradise and, like saints, do the immaterial work of pure existence under the divine gaze. In fact, the life of a saint can be described as a blog that is read by God and remains uninterrupted even upon the saint’s death. So why do we need secrets anymore? Why do we reject this radical transparency? The answer to these questions depends on the answer to a more fundamental question concerning the internet: Does the internet effectuate the return of God, or of the malin génie, with its evil eye?

I would suggest that the internet is not paradise but, rather, hell—or, if you want, paradise and hell at the same time. Jean-Paul Sartre said that hell is other people—life under the gaze of others. (And Jacques Lacan said later that the eye of the other is always an evil eye.) Sartre argued that the gaze of others “objectifies” us—and in this way negates the possibility of change that defines our subjectivity. Sartre defined human subjectivity as a “project” directed towards the future—and this project has an ontologically guaranteed secret because it can never be revealed here and now, but only in the future. In other words, Sartre understood human subjects as struggling against the identity that was given to them by society. That explains why he interpreted the gaze of others as hell: in the gaze of others, we see that we have lost the battle and remain a prisoner of our socially codified identity.

Film still from Jean Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet, 1930.

Thus, we try to avoid the gaze of others for a while so that we can reveal our “true self” after a certain period of seclusion—to reappear in public in a new shape, in a new form. This state of temporary absence is constitutive of what we call the creative process—in fact, it is precisely what we call the creative process. André Breton tells a story about a French poet who, when he went to sleep, put on his door a sign that read: “Please be quiet—the poet is working.” This anecdote summarizes the traditional understanding of creative work: creative work is creative because it takes place beyond public control—and even beyond the conscious control of the author. This time of absence could last for days, months, years—or even a whole lifetime. Only at the end of this period of absence is the author expected to present a work (maybe found in his papers posthumously) that would be then accepted as creative precisely because it seemed to emerge out of nothingness. In other words, creative work is the work that presupposes the desynchronization of the time of work from the time of the exposure of its results. Creative work is practiced in a parallel time of seclusion, in secrecy—so that there is an effect of surprise when this parallel time gets re-synchronized with the time of the audience. That is why the subject of art practice traditionally wanted to be concealed, to become invisible, to take time out. The reason was not that artists had committed some crime or concealed some dirty secret they wanted to keep from the gaze of the others. We experience the gaze of others as an evil eye not when it wants to penetrate our secrets and make them transparent (such a penetrating gaze is rather flattering and exciting)—but when it denies that we have any secrets, when it reduces us to what it sees and registers.

Artistic practice is often understood as being individual and personal. But what does the individual or personal mean? The individual is often understood as being different from others. (For example: In a totalitarian society, all are alike. In a democratic, pluralistic society, all are different, and respected as being different.) However, here the point is not so much one’s difference from others but one’s difference from oneself—the refusal to be identified according to the general criteria of identification. Indeed, the parameters that define our socially codified, nominal identity are completely foreign to us. We did not choose our names, we were not consciously present at the date and place of our birth, we did not choose the name of the city or street where we live, we did not choose our parents, our nationality, and so forth. All these external parameters of our existence have no meaning for us—they do not correlate to any subjective evidence. They indicate how others see us but they are completely irrelevant to our inner, subjective lives.

Ben Vautier, Total Art Matchbox from Flux Year Box 2, 1968.

Modern artists revolted against the identities imposed on them by others—by society, state, school, parents. They wanted the right of sovereign self-identification. Modern art was the search for the “true self.” Here the question is not whether the true self is real or merely a metaphysical fiction. The question of identity is not a question of truth but a question of power: Who has the power over my own identity—I myself or society? And more generally: Who has control over the social taxonomy, the social mechanisms of identification—I myself or state institutions? This means that the struggle against my own public persona and nominal identity in the name of my sovereign persona, my sovereign identity, also has a public, political dimension, since it is directed against the dominating mechanisms of identification—the dominating social taxonomy, with all its divisions and hierarchies. That is why modern artists always said:Do not look at me. Look at what I am doing. That is my true self—or maybe no self at all, maybe the absence of the self. Later, artists mostly gave up the search for the hidden, true self. Rather, they began to use their nominal identities as readymades—and to organize a complicated play with them. But this strategy still presupposes disidentification from nominal, socially codified identities—in order to artistically reappropriate, transform, and manipulate them.

Modernity was the time of desire for utopia. The utopian expectation means nothing less than that one’s project of discovering or constructing the true self becomes successful—and socially recognized. In other words, the individual project of seeking the true self acquires a political dimension. The artistic project becomes a revolutionary project that aims at the total transformation of society and the obliteration of existing taxonomies. Here the true self becomes resocialized—by creating the true society.

The museum system is ambivalent towards this utopian desire. On the one hand, the museum offers the artist a chance to transcend his or her own time, with all its taxonomies and nominal identities. The museum promises to carry the artist’s work into the future—it is a utopian promise. However, the museum betrays this promise at the same moment that it fulfills it. The artist’s work is carried into the future—but the nominal identity of the artist becomes reimposed on his or her work. In the museum catalogue, we read the same name, date and place of birth, nationality, and so forth. That is why modern art wanted to destroy the museum. However, the internet betrays the search for the true self in an even more radical way: the internet inscribes this search from its beginning—and not only at its end—back into nominal, socially codified identity. In turn, revolutionary projects become historicized. We can see it today, as former Communist mankind becomes re-nationalized and reinscribed in Russian, Chinese, and other national histories.

In the so-called postmodern period, the search for the true self and, accordingly, the true society in which this true self could be revealed, was proclaimed to be obsolete. We therefore tend to speak about postmodernity as a post-utopian time. But this is not quite true. Postmodernity did not give up the struggle against the subject’s nominal identity—in fact, it even radicalized this struggle. Postmodernity had its own utopia—a utopia of the subject’s self-dissolution in infinite, anonymous flows of energy, desire, or the play of signifiers. Instead of abolishing the nominal, social self by discovering the true self through art production, postmodern art theory invested its hopes for complete loss of identity through the process of reproduction: a different strategy pursuing the same goal.

The postmodern utopian euphoria that the notion of reproduction provoked at the time can be illustrated by the following passage from the book On the Museum’s Ruins by Douglas Crimp. In this well-known book, Crimp claimed, with reference to Walter Benjamin, that

through reproductive technology, postmodernist art dispenses with the aura. The fiction of the creating subject gives way to the frank confiscation, quotation, excerptation, accumulation, and repetition of already existing images. Notions of originality, authenticity, and presence, essential to the ordered discourse of the museum, are undermined. 1

The flow of reproductions overflows the museum—and individual identity drowns in this flow. The internet became for some time the place where these postmodern utopian dreams were projected—dreams about the dissolution of all identities in the infinite play of signifiers. The globalized rhizome took the place of Communist mankind.

However, the internet has become not a place for the realization of postmodern utopias, but their graveyard—as the museum became a graveyard for modern utopias. Indeed, the most important aspect of the internet is that it fundamentally changes the relationship between original and copy, as described by Benjamin—and thus makes the anonymous process of reproduction calculable and personalized. On the internet, every free-floating signifier has an address. The deterritorializing data flows become reterritorialized.

Google data servers

Walter Benjamin famously distinguished between the original, which is defined through its “here and now,” and the copy, which is siteless, topologically indeterminable, lacking a “here and now.” Contemporary digital reproduction is by no means siteless, its circulation is not topologically undetermined, and it does not present itself in the form of a multiplicity as Benjamin described it. Every data file’s address on the internet accords it a place. The same data file with a different address is a different data file. Here the aura of originality is not lost, but instead substituted by a different aura. On the internet, the circulation of digital data produces not copies, but new originals. And this circulation is perfectly traceable. Individual pieces of data are never deterritorialized. Moreover, every internet image or text has not only its specific unique place, but also its unique time of appearance. The internet registers every moment when a certain piece of data is clicked, liked, un-liked, transferred, or transformed. Accordingly, a digital image cannot be merely copied (as an analogue, mechanically reproducible image can) but always only newly staged or performed. And every performance of a data file is dated and archived.

During the epoch of mechanical reproduction, we heard a lot about the demise of subjectivity. We heard from Heidegger that die Sprache spricht (“the language speaks”), and not so much that an individual uses the language. We heard from Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message. Later, Derridian deconstruction and Deleuzian machines of desire taught us to get rid of our last illusions concerning the possibility of identifying and stabilizing subjectivity. However, now our “digital souls” have became traceable and visible again. Our experience of contemporaneity is defined not so much by the presence of things to us as spectators, but rather by our presence to the gaze of the hidden and unknown spectator. However, we do not know this spectator. We have no access to its image—if this spectator has an image at all. In other words, the hidden universal spectator of the internet can be thought only as a subject of universal conspiracy. The reaction to this universal conspiracy necessarily takes the form of a counter-conspiracy: one will protect one’s soul from the evil eye. Contemporary subjectivity can no longer rely on its dissolution in the flow of signifiers because this flow has become controllable and traceable. Thus, a new utopian dream emerges—a truly contemporary dream. It is the dream of an unbreakable code word that can forever protect our subjectivity. We want to define ourselves as a secret that would be even more secretive than the ontological secret—the secret that even God cannot discover. The paradigmatic example of such a dream can be found in WikiLeaks.

The goal of WikiLeaks is often seen as the free flow of data, as the establishment of free access to state secrets. But at the same time, the practice of WikiLeaks demonstrates that universal access can be provided only in the form of universal conspiracy. In an interview, Julian Assange says:

So if you and I agree on a particular encryption code, and it is mathematically strong, then the forces of every superpower brought to bear on that code still cannot crack it. So a state can desire to do something to an individual, yet it is simply not possible for the state to do it—and in this sense, mathematics and individuals are stronger than superpowers.2

Transparency is based here on radical non-transparency. The universal openness is based on the most perfect closure. The subject becomes concealed, invisible, takes time out to become operative. The invisibility of contemporary subjectivity is guaranteed insofar as its encryption code cannot be hacked—insofar as the subject remains anonymous, non-identifiable. It is password-protected invisibility alone that guarantees the subject’s control over its digital operations and manifestations.

Here I am of course discussing the internet as we know it now. But I expect that the coming cyber wars will change the internet radically. These cyber wars have already been announced—and they will destroy or at least seriously damage the internet as a dominant marketplace and means of communication. The contemporary world looks very much like the nineteenth-century world. That world was defined by the politics of open markets, growing capitalism, celebrity culture, the return of religion, terrorism, and counter-terrorism. World War I destroyed this world and made the politics of open markets impossible. In the end, the geopolitical and military interests of individual nation states showed themselves to be much more powerful than economic interests. A long period of wars and revolutions followed. Let us see what is waiting for us in the near future.

I would like to close with a more general consideration of the relationship between utopia and the archive. As I have tried to show, the utopian impulse is always related to the desire of the subject to break out of its own historically defined identity, to leave its place in the historical taxonomy. In a certain sense, the archive gives to the subject the hope of surviving one’s own contemporaneity and revealing one’s true self in the future because the archive promises to sustain and make accessible this subject’s texts or artworks after his or her death. This utopian or, at least, heterotopian promise is crucial to the subject’s ability to develop a distance from and critical attitude towards its own time and its own immediate audience.

Archives are often interpreted as a means to conserve the past—to present the past in the present. But at the same time, archives are machines for transporting the present into the future. Artists always do their work not only for their own time but also for art archives—for the future in which the artist’s work remains present. This produces a difference between politics and art. Artists and politicians share the common “here and now” of public space, and they both want to shape the future. That is what unites art and politics. But politics and art shape the future in different ways. Politics understands the future as a result of actions that take place here and now. Political action has to be efficacious, to produce results, to transform social life. In other words, political practice shapes the future—but it disappears in and through this future, it becomes totally absorbed by its own results and consequences. The goal of politics is to become obsolete—and to give way to the politics of the future.

Susan Hiller, Witness, 2000. Installation compiling several hundred descriptions of UFO sightings across the world.

But artists do not work only within the public space of their time. They also work within the heterogeneous space of art archives, where their works are placed among the works of past and future. Art, as it functioned in modernity and still functions in our time, does not disappear after its work is done. Rather, the artwork remains present in the future. And it is precisely this anticipated future presence of art that guarantees its influence on the future, its chance to shape the future. Politics shapes the future by its own disappearance. Art shapes the future by its own prolonged presence. This creates a gap between art and politics—a gap that was demonstrated often throughout the tragic history of the relationship between left art and left politics in the twentieth century.

Our archives are of course structured historically. And our use of these archives is still defined by the nineteenth century’s tradition of historicism. We thus tend to re-inscribe artists posthumously into the historical contexts from which they actually wanted to escape. In this sense, the art collections that preceded the historicism of the nineteenth century—the collections that wanted to be collections of instances of pure beauty, for example— seem only at first glance to be naive. In fact, they are more faithful to the original utopian impulse than their more sophisticated historicist counterparts. It seems to me that today we are beginning to be more and more interested in the non-historicist approach to our past. We are becoming more interested in the decontextualization and reenactment of individual phenomena from the past than in their historical recontextualization, more interested in the utopian aspirations that lead artists out of their historical contexts than in these contexts themselves. And it seems to me that this is a good development because it strengthens the utopian potential of the archive and weakens its potential for betraying the utopian promise—the potential that is inherent in any archive, regardless of how it is structured.

© 2013 e-flux and the author


Remembrance of things past: An interview with Boris Groys

Ross Wolfe

Platypus Review 54 | March 2013

On December 15th, 2012, Ross Wolfe interviewed Boris Groys, Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University. His numerous published books include The Total Art of Stalinism (1986),Art Power (2008), The Communist Postscript (2009), and Going Public (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Ross Wolfe: In the introduction to your 2006 book, The Communist Postscript, you provocatively assert: “The communist revolution is the transcription of society from the medium of money to the medium of language. It is a linguistic turn at the level of social praxis.”[1] What do you make of the “communist turn” in contemporary left discourse, that is, the return to the idea of communism in Badiou, Žižek, Bosteels, Dean, et al.?

Boris Groys: It doesn’t seem to me that any return has actually taken place. If you are speaking now of the West, not of the East, then you have always had communist parties: the French Communist Party, the Italian Communist Party, every European nation had a communist party during and after the Cold War. So I would rather speak about a migration of discourse away from the framework of mass parties. These became inefficient, partially dissolved, and lost their influence and power within European societies. And now we have groups of intellectuals who are asserting their hegemony over the discourse of the “communist hypothesis.”

But we also shouldn’t underestimate the influence or the intellectual and institutional power of the mass party. The communist party apparatus and communist press were very influential in France and Italy throughout the Cold War. And then, if we look at the intellectual trajectories of different figures, from Sartre to Foucault and Derrida and so on, all of them in one way or another defined his position in the first place vis-à-vis the Communist Party, much more so than in relation to capitalism. So if you look at the career of Badiou, for example, he began with a kind of Sartrean connection, but then developed a Maoist infatuation very early on, in the 1960s. His project since then was one of constant revolt against the domination of the French Communist Party. The Maoist movement, like many others from that time, was actually directed against the leading role of the Communist Party. Everything that we read now from Badiou and others comes out of this very early experience of French Maoism in the 1960s. They experienced the “betrayal” of the 1960s movements by the Communist Party, even though these movements had been partially directed against the communist parties to begin with. We can argue what happened in different ways, but my impression is that right now we have the continuation of an immanent contestation of the communist party that started much, much earlier—in the 1960s.

On the other hand, I was and still am very interested in the institutional and official traditions of communism. As with the early Protestants who saw the Catholic Church as the church of Satan, communists today claim, “All these decades and centuries of communist movements—that was not real communism. Communism will begin with us.” It is a claim that one can understand, but it seems to me historically, ideologically, politically, and philosophically problematic. All of the theorists of communism today say: “We start anew. We reject everything that came before. We don’t interpret or correct it—we just reject it as a fundamental failure.”

"Join the Communist Party! This way to progress," poster from the Communist Party of New Zealand, 1940s
“Join the Communist Party! This way to progress,” poster from the Communist Party of New Zealand, 1940s

RW: Just as the theorists of communism at present would say that all past forms of communism were the work of Stalin?

BG: They reject Stalin in favor of the idea of communism. But how is one to access this “idea” of communism? To stress the immediate idea of communism is idealistic and neglects the necessity of dealing with the materialist side of communism. Communism is not God. One cannot be a Saint Paul of communism. Sartrean existentialism, Maoist event, or Deleuzean direct contact with energies, desires, affects—these all claim to provide an unmediated understanding of what communism is beyond any tradition, institution, or party. They’re direct, individual, ultimately involving only one person. That is a very Romantic, almost mystical-religious approach. Because, of course, traditionally Marxism has something to do with mediation and a disbelief in the possibility of directly grasping something like “the idea of communism,” or of experiencing communism as an event.

RW: You also argue that the emphasis on the “idea” of communism leads to “a modern form of Platonism in practice.”[2] What is specifically “modern” about communism?

BG: For me, Platonism does not refer to the possibility of immediately grasping the Idea, but rather to a demonstration of the impossibility of any such insight. What the Socratic dialogues demonstrate is the impossibility of the notion of a human being grasping the Idea because every course of argumentation collapses on itself. And this place of collapse is actually a site of power. If you look at the Platonic state, the philosopher-king is someone who actually manages and administers this space of collapse, the defeat of the desire for truth. Historically this site was the Soviet Union. What makes this a modern experience is the extreme scale on which it takes place.

We are living in a society that is split in such an obvious way that we no longer believe in the possibility of democracy, at least from a liberal perspective, because there seems to be no hope for consensus, which is the traditional basis of democracy. If you look at contemporary American society, or really any contemporary society, it is so fundamentally fragmented it seems incapable of reaching consensus. Such societies can only be administered, but cannot be brought to any kind of democratic politics. In the West, this kind of administration—in these societies beyond consensus—occurs through the market. But in the East, the market was ultimately abolished by the Bolsheviks. And so instead of being governed by economics, there was an emergence of certain kinds of administrative power practicing a language beyond consensus. The phenomenon of a language where no agreement can be reached is precisely what one can find in a very refined form in the Platonic dialogues. And the philosopher here is someone who manages language beyond consensus. What makes the Platonic problem modern is that it has became urgent and political, a problem of society as a whole, rather than of a small group of Greek intellectuals in the agora.

In Plato, the state is administered by the philosophers through an occasional application of violence, not determined by any consensus, because Plato understands that such consensus is impossible. So both capitalism and communism, especially in their Eastern European form, constituted answers to the insight that the French Revolution’s bourgeois dream of reaching a sort of basic consensus had collapsed. The dream had collapsed already by the time of Marx, and then even further with Nietzsche. As long as you speak about commonalities or “the common,” you remain at the level of reflection, which is fundamentally pre-Marxist. If you want to speak of politics after Marx, after Nietzsche, after Freud, you have to consider societies that have nothing in the way of common ground. Because if you look at the intellectual landscape before the French Revolution, and even slightly afterward, you find this kind of hope for a consensual politics or ideology. There’s a belief in a natural truth, a divine truth, a common truth, a truth that’s reached at the end of history. But a new, modern period of political thinking commences from a dissatisfaction with such truths. When the class struggle asserts itself the possibility of reaching consensus or a common truth disappears. How does society manage that? There are two models: the state and the market. They manage the problem in two different ways.

RW: With management by the state being socialism and management by the market being capitalism?

BG: A socialist state exists only where the state has been liberated from the market—in which the market has been either subordinated or eliminated entirely. In a capitalist state, say, in the West, the state is subordinated to the market. So what was the Stalinist state? It was a machine for the frustration of everybody, in which the possibility of achieving the truth was excluded. And what is the Western market? The same. It’s a machine for the frustration of everybody, since everyone knows that whatever a politician says, nothing will come out of it.

RW: As an author of one of the books on communism for Verso: How central was Marx’s thought to the formulation of communism? Obviously there were pre-Marxist communists such as Saint-Simon or Fourier or Proudhon. And later there were non-Marxist (anarchist, post-Marxist) developments or articulations of the idea of communism. But with respect to your own work the question is different, I think, in that more than the irreducibility of Marx, it asserts the irreducibility of Stalin.

BG: I would argue for irreducibility of both, and that of Marx, I have summarized already. All these thinkers you mention—Saint-Simon, Fourier, and so on—proposed improvements that were based on the possibility of consensus, on the hope of reaching a common understanding, the insight that life as it is presently is bad, but can be changed from bad to good. Marx believes that such a common understanding is impossible, because of the difference of class interests. He was, basically, anti-utopian.

RW: But didn’t Marx believe in the possibility of a classless society?

BG: Yes, but only after all the classes are suppressed as classes, and this is potentially an infinite process. The traditional utopian communist ideal was based on a perception that one could take all classes, the whole population as it is, and proceed toward a new social truth. Marx argued that this wasn’t possible. For him, one has to start a war inside society, which involved class struggle. A classless society cannot include a huge part of society as it is and that must be therefore destroyed. Stalin’s insight was that a classless society is not something that emerges immediately, spontaneously, or even necessarily, after the abolition of the existing class system. The society that comes after the revolution is also a society that should be managed, which creates its own classes. Now the question is how one deals with that.

Marx starts his discourse with the impossibility of common interest. Everything else comes out of this. Insofar as you believe that there’s something—a “desire,” an “energy,” “absolute spirit,” whatever—that unites society as it is, you’re thinking along pre-Marxist lines. To adopt a post-Marxist lens, you have to see society as something irreparably and irreversibly divided. For this kind of outlook, the question becomes how one manages this division. How does one operate under the assumption (or actually the reality) of this irreparable divide? That is the post-Marxist problem.

RW: To rephrase things slightly: Would you say that Marx’s thought is the necessary presupposition or the condition of possibility for communism? And then, conversely, would you say that Stalin is the necessary outcome of communism?

BG: No, I wouldn’t say all of that, for there isn’t any single answer to this question. Stalin is an answer. Is it a plausible answer? Yes. Is it a likeable answer? Well, no, it’s not. But it’s not an answer that can be ignored. The market doesn’t provide an adequate answer. Stalin doesn’t provide an adequate answer either, at least, not the answer I would prefer. But at the same time, I don’t believe that any answer can be sufficient if it ignores the question, and all its radical implications.

Stalin and Roosevelt fraternizing at the Yalta conference, February 1945
Stalin and Roosevelt fraternizing at the Yalta conference, February 1945

RW: Toward the beginning of your book, Going Public, you refer to “the period of modernity” as “the period in which we still live.”[3] You roughly date it, at least theoretically and philosophically, as coinciding with Kant’sCritique of Judgment (1790). The obvious political correlate to this would be 1789 and the French Revolution. Are we still—or were we ever—postmodern? If so, how does this relate to modernity, “the period in which we still live”? Might postmodernity perhaps be reaching an end?

BG: Well, when I speak about postmodernity in my writings, it’s because other people use this word and believe themselves to have a certain understanding about what it means. Personally, I don’t think any such transition from modernity to postmodernity ever happened. Postmodernity has never really had any meaning as a concept.

Postmodernism was associated with disbelief in progress. But nobody in the nineteenth century who was intelligent believed in progress. Baudelaire didn’t believe in progress and neither did Flaubert, nor Nietzsche, or Wölfflin. “Postmodernity” was a way by which people came to understand what people already understood in the nineteenth century.

But perhaps it was only known at first by avant-garde intellectuals, elite circles of artists in Western Europe during the nineteenth century. When people speak of postmodernity, they’re really talking about something that was known before but now was becoming clear to everybody. From the perspective of artistic, intellectual, and cultural modernity, however, nothing has changed. And we still don’t know how to deal with it. Modern problems, as they were formulated in relation to art, culture, and writing, during the nineteenth century, remain very relevant and unsolved. The real change came toward the middle of the nineteenth century. It occurred with the collapse of Hegelianism, the collapse of European idealism amidst the industrial revolution, and with it, the beginning of intellectual and cultural modernity.

But almost as early as the disjunction between Romanesque and Gothic churches, if you will, you’ll always see these “waves” in the succession of European styles. So beginning with the Renaissance, you have clear-cut forms, geometrical models, and a certain kind of clarity or intellectual transparency. But then it’s followed by the Baroque period: by complexity, obscurity, and contradiction. Then you have something similar between Classicism and Romanticism. And then at the start of the twentieth century, there is the avant-garde, which lasted until 1926 or 1927. After that, though, there is this huge wave of embryonic postmodernity—historicism, Socialist Realism, Nazi art, the “return to order,” and the Novecento in Italy. But all of that was suppressed after World War II. Following the war, there’s a new wave of modernism—a neo-avant-garde that goes from the 1950s and 1960s, lasting through the early 1970s. Starting in 1971 or 1972, you get a kind of neo-baroque. There’s Of Grammatology by Derrida, a baroque gesture. So there are these waves in the cultural history of Europe, shifting from clarity, intellectual responsibility, mathematico-scientific influences, and transparency to opacity, obscurity, absence, infinity. What is the Deleuzean or Derridean moment? It’s the moment where they took the structuralist models, defined as a system of finite rules and moves, and made it infinite. It is precisely what Romanticism did with the Enlightenment, what the Baroque did with the Renaissance, and so on. Even in terms of Marxism, you get these waves. There is the classical period of clarity. Then there is a period of obscurity—Benjamin, Adorno, and the like.

RW: A related question: How would you say the Soviet project relates to the modern period? Do you think there’s any sort of link between what’s understood in the West—perhaps wrongly—as “postmodernity” and the collapse of historical Marxism in the 1970s and, after 1989, the dissolution of the Soviet Union? Is there any correlation between the post-Soviet moment and the general onset of postmodernity?

BG: Just as I don’t believe in “postmodernity,” I don’t believe in the “post-Soviet” situation either; rather, we are experiencing an intermediate moment between two periods of wars and revolutions. Today we live under the illusion of peace and free markets, just like people did during the nineteenth century, before the First World War. Our current mode of existence is very similar to the second half of the nineteenth century: there is mass culture, entertainment instead of high culture, terrorism, an interest in sexuality, the cult of celebrity, open markets, etc.

Before the rise of Imperial Germany, everybody in the West believed it was interested in capitalism, although in Germany everyone understood it was about war. That is what will happen again in the foreseeable future. In fact, it is already beginning to happen, in that we are actually witnessing a return to a state and military infrastructure. Just as after the French Revolution, there is the reversion to antiquity, and then a new medievalism with Romanticism, the infrastructure of our epoch will be contested, and this will start a new period of war and revolutions. At that point, we’ll remember the Soviet Union, and many other phenomena. |P

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