October’s tombHal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, Art since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism, Thames & Hudson, London, 2004. 704 pp., 637 illustrations, 413 in colour, £45.00 hb., 0 500 23818
9. ^ For nearly thirty years the journal October has provided the most signiﬁcant platform for addressing twentieth-century art. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism synthesizes ideas and arguments by four of the journalʼs key editors. It is a monumental achievement, running to more than 700 pages, that attests to the vast knowledge and sustained commitment to modernism shared by the four (main) authors. Some chapters are brilliant, some are quite batty, but they are never less than engaging. Overall, the book provides ample evidence both for the long hegemony exercised by October and for the gradual waning of its inﬂuence.
All indications suggest that this book is intended as an introduction aimed at undergraduates and general readers. The one-volume version is divided at 1945 and the two-volume US edition splits at the same date, indicating an orientation to the North American art-history syllabus. To facilitate this pitch, the book is made up of short chapters, each focused on a particular year. This approach provides an armature rather than a straitjacket: twenty-six years go missing; some multiply – there are four versions of ʻ1959ʼ. The individual chapters offer points of departure for reﬂecting on themes and issues and this structure allows the authors to provide a chronological framework while mapping connections; the excellent cross-referencing system helps a great deal. Each chapter is well illustrated and contains a brief (if tendentious) bibliography. There are also a series of short ʻintroductory boxesʼ covering particular theorists, journals, concepts and so on; the book also contains two round-table discussions in which the authors debate issues arising from the individual chapters (one for 1945, the other from the current perspective). Authorship is attributed via initials at the beginning of each section, rather than on individual chapters. This gives the book the sense of a collective project; for those in the know it is easy to detect individual voices, but at two points the displaced attribution is an issue. Organizing the chapters as a series of artistic events does, though, have its costs, because it displaces the charge of historical events: 1917 is Mondrian; 1933 the Mexican muralists. Much of the attraction of realism, or indeed the avant-garde challenge, is inexplicable without these force ﬁelds. This aside, the structure and organization is well conceived.
In the interests of transparency, I should declare my hand: Krauss has said that the book was designed to counter the inﬂuence of the Open University modern art course, on which I work. Her assertion may, or may not, be true, but if the book was intended to function as this kind of introduction, I think it is unsuccessful. From the opening pages the reader is confronted with unexplained concepts and ideas – ʻparanoid representations as projections of desperate orderʼ. For the uninitiated reader, at least three assumptions would need unpacking from a clause like this. We frequently encounter sentences like the following:
This antipainterly impulse probably originates in the irrepressible suspicion that the matter of painting cannot ultimately live up to the promise of a fundamental psycho-sexual experience of identity, one that would be grounded in the somatic register of the unconscious alone.
You wonʼt ﬁnd anything like that in Honour and Fleming! Similarly, the four methodological chapters at the start of the book (psychoanalysis; social history; formalism and structuralism; and poststructuralism and deconstruction) donʼt really ﬁt with a book like this. One gets the feeling that they are included to absolve the authors from having written a textbook. These introductions are, in any case, unlikely to be used: readers will browse this book, reading sections, following a particular career, movement, theme or whatever. Only the obsessive will read it through, as I have, year by year. The bite-size chapters encourage dipping-in. In contrast, the introductions seem clogged and unhelpful. The authors would probably have been better employed providing a rationale for the (often mysterious) selection process underpinning the book; it might also have been worthwhile indicating why they believe twentieth-century art to be overwhelmingly concentrated on Europe and the USA.
The four authors take to the format rather differently: Krauss carries on as normal; Bois seems badly served by the restraints – under the pressure of accessibility his ʻstructuralist activityʼ gives way to (intelligent) description; Buchloh drifts towards a gnomic post-Frankfurt School idiom; Foster, particularly when he puts psychoanalysis aside, probably ﬁnds the best tone for this kind of work. While the book doesnʼt really work as an introduction – the reader needs a great deal of general cultural knowledge and it presents some very peculiar readings as normative – it does distil the accumulated wisdom of October, of which there is a great deal on view, into a convenient (if very fat) package.
The authors complement each other and, between them, cover a vast amount of material. Bois, who was formed in classic structuralism, focuses on Matisse, Picasso and abstract art (particularly Mondrian and Newman). Krauss brings poststructuralism (and Bataille) to bear on Picasso, Duchamp, surrealism and sculpture; she also bats for particular favoured artists in the period after 1945. Buchloh, an unrepentant German ʼ68er, writes on the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde. His points of orientation are Adorno and Debord, and he is a champion of Gerhard Richter and recent critical practice (though he ignores the latter in this book). Foster might be characterized as a ʻleft postmodernistʼ, drawn to psychoanalysis (and increasingly to surrealism), though Debord provides another important point of reference. In this book Foster provides the glue holding things together, or, to shift the metaphor, he vacuums up everything left out by the others. In addition to chapters on the avant-garde, Foster covers design and architecture, race and gender; he is also responsible, almost single-handedly, for the last quarter of the century. He emerges very positively from these commitments. This typology is undoubtedly too neat, but it will provide a working guide. However, as I previously indicated, the displaced attributions attest to a small problem. Even Foster seems to have baulked at addressing the issues raised by two of the chapters – ʻ1933: The Mexican Mural Movementʼ and ʻ1943: The Harlem Renaissanceʼ. Both chapters are attributed to ʻADʼ – presumably the Amy Dempsey thanked by the publisher. This particular supplement marks the boundaries of a collective vision.
One of the strengths of this book – at least when reading it from beginning to end – is that it allows for a clearer picture of the October project. The very different commitments of the protagonists can make the journal seem like an unholy alliance. For instance, in the box on Artforum, Krauss notes that October emerged when she and fellow editor Annette Michelson split from the former journal. She suggests that their aim was to sustain the commitment to formalist art in the face of the political turn that had been made by Artforum under Max Kozloff and Lawrence Alloway. The title of Eisensteinʼs movie was adopted to ﬂag the political repression of formal experimentation. That was a long time ago, and, no doubt, the participants now see things differently, but it sits oddly alongside Buchlohʼs and Fosterʼs advocacy of political avant-gardism and institutional critique. However, three points of common concern emerge strongly from Art since 1900. The ﬁrst – the point I previously thought provided the deﬁning agenda – is in fact the least secure: this is a determinate negation of Clement Greenbergʼs story. In part, the October project has involved reinstating those aspects of twentieth-century art that Greenberg clipped from Art and Culture, principally the practices he characterized as dead ends in opposition to the ʻmainstreetʼ or ʻmainstreamʼ. These include Duchamp, constructivism, Dada, surrealism; all of those forms he viewed as ʻfar outʼ in the postwar context, such as ʻpopʼ or ʻminimalismʼ. Krauss notes, for instance, that when she started working on surrealism, no one had read journals like Minotaur or Documents.
If not single-handed, October played a key role in the rediscovery of avant-garde art, republishing original texts, translating the work of foreign scholars and carrying path-breaking analyses of individual artists. Simply put, October redeﬁned the story of modern art. However, at times the inversion of Greenberg can seem pathological. The nadir is probably reached in Kraussʼs celebration of Pollockʼs horizontality in contradistinction to Greenbergʼs account of (vertical) opticality (thankfully, she refrains from the story about snifﬁng animalʼs bottoms in the version on offer here). This negation of Greenbergʼs account needs modulating, though. Bois is much more open to formalism – in this volume he draws heavily on Michael Friedʼs account of the ʻdeductive structureʼ – and, increasingly, Krauss seems to be returning to her own roots in American formalism, emphasizing the determining role of ʻmediumʼ (if not quite Greenbergʼs version) in opposition to kitsch. That sounds like a familiar tale.
The second point of convergence is a commitment to the cognitive function of modern art, when much recent art history all too often reduces art to ideology. This engagement takes different forms. In Buchloh and Foster it entails a search for critical projects that evade the logic of commodity culture. Oddly, this orientation sometimes verges on the instrumental (Buchlohʼs Adorno, like Peter Bürgerʼs version, has more than a whiff of Brecht about him). In Bois and particularly Krauss, it can entail a refusal of any social or politi-cal reading of art works. Poor old Pat Leighton, for instance, has the riot act read to her (again) for connecting cubism and the Balkan war! But even Krauss is inconsistent in her application of this position. For some reason, sexuality and the unconscious donʼt seem to constitute ʻexternalʼ frames of reference in the way wars and anarchism are considered to do. And at other moments Krauss and Bois reach for political explanation. I suspect that particular readings have taken on the force of an idée ﬁxe: cubism is the prime candidate here, as is the persistent valuation of Bataille over Breton. In addition, this approach has now spawned a whole swathe of pale imitators, all burrowing away on surrealism or whatever; all ﬁnding ʻcritiquesʼ at every turn. Much of the epigonesʼ work seems to have lost the tension that drove the October project.
Third, and perhaps most surprisingly, their joint enterprise is underpinned by a resolutely antiafﬁrmative vision of modern art. This goes for the writers attached to French models and, ostensibly, more formal practices, just as much as for Buchloh, and to some extent Foster, who are closer to negative dialectics and left avant-gardism. Anything that smacks of transcendentalism, idealism or mysticism draws their ﬁre. The effort required to dislocate abstraction from this baggage attests to how central the issue is for them. Art is, above all else, critical. Again, Greenberg is in their sights here, but the central target is probably the MoMA ratiﬁcation machine. In this sense, October is a profoundly political project that carries the traces of its 1980sʼ moment. This, for me, is its enduring power.
There are, of course, innumerable other points of shared reference: Duchamp as unquestionable touchstone; an unconvincing account of cubism and semiotics, in which Picasso and Braque emerge as illustrators of Saussurian bon mots (interestingly, Foster always writes ʻ“arbitrary” signʼ rather than ʻarbitrary signʼ); an enthusiasm for minimalism and ʻinstitutional critiqueʼ; an antipathy to conceptual art (particularly its British forms). Max Bill repeatedly carries the full weight of the avant-gardeʼs incorporation. For some unspeciﬁed reason, the ʻindexʼ (itself predicated on a very weird reading of Peirce) is always a positive value. Their sense of social history is schematic at best and their understanding of left politics can be poor and not a little aloof. Much of this has the feel of the internal dialogue of a caucus.
In Art since 1900 these concerns are slotted into an overall narrative, and Buchloh is undoubtedly the central progenitor. This goes as follows. A nascent proletarian public sphere is set against both the totalitarian public sphere and the rise of a mass cultural sphere as the framework or battleground for a political avantgarde (oddly, Kluge and Negt are never mentioned). The readymade registered artʼs status as commodity and called into question artʼs supposed autonomy; Berlin Dada and Soviet constructivism shifted this conception to active politics. There can be no retreat from this set of moves, and every attempt to resurrect art without the (political) self-critique of autonomy entails a reactionary retreat – should this include recourse to painting, then this judgement is even more damning. (You almost have to admire Buchlohʼs willingness to take clear-cut positions: twentieth-century culture is petty bourgeois; European subjectivity comes to an end in the 1930s; abstract expressionism represents a reactionary turn against photography and a reassertion of masculinity; and so on. Twentieth-century art is, for him, ultimately a cipher for German history.) The destruction of the proletarian public sphere by fascism and Stalinism cleared the ground for the total triumph of the mass cultural sphere, in which all values were commodiﬁed and spectacularized. Art subsequently operates in this mass sphere and is increasingly fused with it, leading to the withering of its critical powers. In this sense, even art, the last redoubt against the inhumanity of capitalism, becomes progressively untenable. Adornoʼs meta-story appears here in a particularly exacerbated form. In part, this is because these writers exhibit little dialectical sensibility. Artworks rarely embody contradictions. Rather, they fall on one side of a division critical/acquiescent, oppositional/ incorporated. On this basis, the extremely dubious notion of ʻantimodernismʼ comes to occupy a fundamental place in this book. Almost any assertion of the integral ﬁgure, particularly in painting, after cubism, Duchamp and Dada constitutes a ʻreturn to orderʼ. (The exceptions are Heartﬁeld and the surrealists – even Magritte!) Pittura metaﬁsica and Leger, American social realism and fascist art, Kienholz and Brodsky: all entail backsliding from the political advances of the avant-garde. All manner of well-meaning attempts to constitute ʻrelevanceʼ are swept up with outright nasty practices to constitute an antimodernist reactionary bloc. (Whatever one thinks of Socialist Realism – not much in my case – the account on offer here seriously underestimates both its allure in the period and its radical roots.) It is never quite said, but there is a strong sense that much recent art represents another antimodernist return to order. With the exception of the last point, I have a great deal of sympathy for this argument, but stated in this bald manner it is untenable. In this form it is both an undialectical account and, ultimately, a self-defeating one: the effect is to position modernism as the normative culture of the twentieth century. Doing so is fundamentally contradictory, undercutting the claim of modernism to represent a critical resource against the doings of capital.
One canʼt help but feel that there is an unacknowledged issue of good taste underpinning this narrative. The real demon of the piece seems not to be capitalism, or even fascism, but mass culture. Much of what is valued, in contrast, seems to be dandyism. What is presented as a deconstructionist confounding or ruination of established discourses of power often seems just clever in a New York kind of way. The obvious examples are Duchampʼs and Batailleʼs ʻbase materialismʼ. T.J. Clarkʼs account of abstract expressionist ʻvulgarityʼ was aimed precisely against this dandyish moment of taste.
The fusion of Adorno and Debord, or, in Kraussʼs case, Baudrillard, with the life histories of this group of art critics is, in my view, a deadly trap. In this book, autobiography and critical analysis increasingly collapse. Cut free from its longest chapter Society of the Spectacle leads back, beyond Lukács, to ʻtragic visionʼ. These writers seem more and more to confuse their own lack of sympathy for contemporary art with the capitalist colonization of the avant-garde. They just donʼt like what the ʻyoung onesʼ are doing. It is instructive here to contrast this perspective with Adornoʼs late meditation on new art in ʻVers une musique informelleʼ. (In this sense, Clarkʼs own itinerary is much closer to October than might be imagined.) The October crew arenʼt renowned for their side-splitting jokes and they just donʼt appear to get the arsing-around involved in much recent art, which they see as irresponsible and juvenile (as if cubism wasnʼt). It is telling that Mike Kelly and Paul McCarthy ﬁgure here under the rubric of ʻinfantile regressionʼ rather than dumb humour.
Despite continuing to think of themselves as critics rather than historians, October has become a historical journal dedicated to excavating the avant-gardeʼs legacies. What was once a key site for the theorization of contemporary practice now carries just occasional pieces on recent art. This trend comes through strongly in Art Since 1900. The section on the 1960s is as long as the combined thirty-ﬁve years that follow. The last contribution from Bois is dated 1967 (although, to be fair, this always has been his range); Buchloh reaches 1988; Krauss stretches to 1998, but her contributions become increasingly rare in the last quarter of the century. After 1973 more than 50 per cent of the material is written by Foster, including almost everything after 1984. In the ﬁnal round table, he seems to be trying to pull his co-authors back from an increasingly hysterical assertion of the impossibility of art. Given its decisive role in contemporary art, the scant attention paid to conceptual art is particularly telling. And, surprisingly for thinkers renowned for their commitment to theory, apart from one mention of Negri and Hardt, there is no reference to any thinker after Baudrillard.
The book ends with a rather lame invocation of utopia and a strange hedging of bets on Jeff Wall and Sam Taylor Wood. Sustaining critical value means rubbing taste, including established radical taste, against the grain. This would now require a fundamental shake-up of the canon ratiﬁed in this book. I doubt if October has the energy for such a task. This is, after all, the fate of all avant-gardes. Art Since 1900 is a major achievement and much more political in its impetus than many detractors want to acknowledge. But it is the kind of book you write when the dust has settled. In so far as it is a monument, I suspect it is a mausoleum, putting a body (of thought) on display at the moment of its decomposition.
HaptocentrismJacques Derrida, On Touching – Jean-Luc Nancy, trans. Christine Irizarry, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2006. xiv + 377 pp. £45.50 hb., £18.95, 0 8047 4243 X hb., 0 8047 4244 8 pb.
What is at stake here is the question of originary intuition and the manner in which the ﬁgures of touch and touching enable it to ground consciousness and constitute a meaningful world of sensible appearance. Derridaʼs concern, then, is to interrupt this function of touch, question its conditions of possibility and, in a classically deconstructive manner, reveal them as simultaneously conditions both of possibility and impossibility.
None of this is likely to be surprising to those familiar with Derridaʼs work. Yet On Touching also develops these themes in new and important ways. In particular, this is a work dominated by the question of originary technicity, technics, or what is also termed ʻtechnical prostheticsʼ. In Of Grammatology the question of supplementarity, writing and archi-écriture was bound up with that of technē and originary technicity (and arguably with an implicit critical distance from the Heideggerian thesis on technology). Although indicated in only one slightly elliptical footnote, Derrida here takes up the question of technics developed by Bernard Stieglerʼs Technics and Time trilogy. In this context, the body which touches, feels, hears and sees – in particular, the ʻbody properʼ as thought by phenomenology – is a body which is originarily implicated in the interconnections of technical prosthetics. If, for Derrida, there is any originary intuition, it is also ʻthe ageless intrusion of technics, which is to say of transplantation or prostheticsʼ. It is this ʻageless intrusionʼ of technics which interrupts the tactilist or haptic afﬁrmation of the immediacy, continuity and contiguity of contact within conceptions of touch. Interrupted also, then, is the propriety and self-identity of the ʻbody properʼ and, with that, the presence of presence. Derrida attempts to think originary technics as that which ʻsuspends contact in contact and divides it right within tactile experience in general, thus inscribing an anaesthetic interruption into the heart of aesthetic phenomenalityʼ. This in turnwould open up the spacing of a distance, a disadhering, a différance in the very ʻinsideʼ of haptics – and aisthēsis in general. Without this différance, there would be no contact as such; contact would not appear; but with this différance, contact never appears in its full purity, never in any immediate plenitude, either.
Published in French in 2000, this major late work by Jacques Derrida is both a wide-ranging engagement with the ﬁgure of ʻtouchʼ such as it appears within a speciﬁc trajectory of European philosophy and an extended meditation on the work of his close friend Jean-Luc Nancy. The book is centred around a number of interlinking hypotheses: that touch organizes a manifold tradition of thinking which would incorporate, among others, such diverse names as Maine de Biran, Ravaisson, Kant, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze; and that this tradition has given rise to what Derrida calls ʻan affair, a plot, a sort of conspiracy, a philosophical intrigue of touchʼ, which has been played out along the cultural boundaries that separate France, Germany and England. Derrida also poses the hypothesis that this tradition is continued, complicated and interrupted in twentieth-century thought, most prominently in the development of phenomenology from Husserl onwards and then, speciﬁcally, in the work of Nancy such as it develops from the 1970s to the 1990s. Touch, then, allows Derrida to reread the philosophical corpus of his friend as a ʻway of consequently rereading everythingʼ, all of Nancy and ʻthe whole philosophical tradition as wellʼ.
Derrida revisits the concerns of his earliest work on Husserl, namely the deconstruction of phenomenological presence and of the concept of origin. He repeats or alludes to key moments in his own thinking over the last thirty years or so: the pharmakon, the impossibility of the gift, haunting and spectrality, the terms ʻdehiscenceʼ, ʻdisadherenceʼ and, of course, ʻdifféranceʼ. Just as a privileging of voice was highlighted in Derridaʼs early identiﬁcation of a phonocentric tradition, and a privileging of word and concept in his diagnosis of logocentrism, so the ﬁgure of touch becomes the privileged motif of a ʻtactilistʼ tradition or a ʻhaptocentric metaphysicsʼ, and once again it is the possibility of presence and its attendant philosophical baggage which is in question:
Touch, more than sight or hearing, gives nearness, proximity – it gives nearby.… In this regard, is it ever possible to dissociate the ʻnear,ʼ the ʻproximateʼ from the ʻproper,ʼ the ʻpropriateʼ [propre]?
The proximate, the proper, and the present – the presence of the present? We can imagine all the consequences if this were impossible.Thus the condition of possibility of originary intuition, touch and contact – that is, technical prosthetics – is, at the very same time, its condition of impossibility.
Derridaʼs writing proceeds ʻinterruptivelyʼ by way of a number of tangents which ʻtouch onʼ diverse thinkers, with Nancy as the guiding thread that binds all these tangents and disparate ﬁgures together. Derridaʼs response to Nancy is double-edged or ambivalent. On the one hand he is very clear: Nancy deploys the ﬁgure of touch or writes in the name of touch against all idealism, all philosophies of subjectivity, and against the tradition of immediacy. In so far as Nancyʼs discourse ceaselessly engages ﬁgures of apartness, exteriority, spacing, partition, dividing, sharing, discontinuity and so on, it distances itself from, or sets itself squarely against, tactilist or haptocentrist metaphysics. At the same time Derrida sees his use of certain terms from the philosophical lexicon of this tradition (and primarily the term ʻtouchʼ itself) as drawing Nancyʼs discourse back into the orbit of what it sets itself against: ʻhow can one say anything that does not in advance get surrounded, invested, preoccupied, in all historical places of these ﬁgures of touch, in their rhetorical circle, in their logical or hermeneutic twirling around?ʼ Derrida reprimands Nancy for this, at times theatrically: ʻthatʼs quite enough, give this word back, itʼs prohibited.ʼ Readers of Derridaʼs more recent Rogues will be familiar with the way in which Nancy is taken to task for his use of the term ʻfraternityʼ in The Experience of Freedom. His use of this term is questioned here also, and put down to Nancyʼs privileging of ʻvirilityʼ. Attention is drawn also to Nancyʼs seemingly unapologetic invocation of the ʻproperʼ in Being Singular Plural, and his deployment of theological or Christological language in his ʻDeconstruction of Christianityʼ. All this leads Derrida to question whether Nancy is not simply another idealist among many, or whether his ʻDeconstruction of Christianityʼ is not ʻa difﬁcult, paradoxical, almost impossible task, always in danger of being exposed as mere Christian hyperboleʼ.
Despite Derridaʼs terminological concerns and the critical gesture which accompanies them, his engagement with the deconstructive gestures of Nancyʼs writing is extensive and broadly appreciative. In particular the relation of ʻtouchʼ to the key Nancean motif of the ʻsyncopeʼ is given considerable attention. The syncope is the linchpin of Nancyʼs reading of Kantʼs Critique of Pure Reason and of Descartesʼs Discourse on Method in the 1970s, and, Derrida rightly points out, although touch is nowhere explicitly mentioned during this period, it is already to some degree at work. A ʻsyncopated touchʼ is, as Nancy himself repeatedly reminds us, a ʻtouch in distanceʼ, that which, recalling Blanchot, implies a contact without contact, one which always leaves ʻintactʼ that which is touched. Nancyʼs discourse on the syncope implies, then, a distancing and spacing at the very heart of originary intuition, an opening or spacing which subverts the foundational ambition of Kantʼs ﬁrst Critique, the Cartesian Cogito, or any attempt to offer a metaphysical ground in an autonomous, self-present, self-posing subjectivity.
Nancyʼs thinking of ʻecotechnicsʼ, as developed in Corpus, Being Singular Plural and elsewhere, is also proffered as a rich deconstructive resource in relation to the tactilist tradition. Ecotechnics perhaps marks the point of greatest proximity between Derrida and Nancy. Deeply rooted in Nancyʼs rejection of Heideggerʼs thesis on technology, Nancy articulates ecotechnics as the manner in which the body, far from being the pretechnical ʻbody properʼ of phenomenology, is always already and originarily inserted into a technical environment. Ecotechnics describes the originary disoriginating insertion of technics into the event of being itself, overturning all logic of the proper which Heidegger would ascribe (in however complicated a fashion) to the event of the giving of being (das Ereignis).
Derrida pays particular attention to Nancyʼs strategic use of the term partes extra partes, a term most likely borrowed from Merleau-Ponty. This term describes the way in which material bodies exist in a relation of exteriority each to the other, and the way in which the components or constitutive parts of material bodies likewise exist outside of each other, never occupying the same place, and are thus able to articulate themselves as bodies and come into relation or contact with other bodies. In the structure of partes extra partes all is technical connection or a relation to an outside. There is never an instance of originary or pre-technical being, never an inside or pure interiority. In articulating his discourse around ecotechnical spacing and the structure of parts outside parts, Nancy, Derrida contends, ʻtouches and tampers with the philosophic gigantomachy surrounding intuition and intuitionism – no lessʼ.
Towards the end of On Touching Derrida identiﬁes a decisive difference between his and Nancyʼs approaches, and speaks of ʻtwo irreducibly different “deconstructive” gesturesʼ which mark their discourses. Derrida has throughout his writing persistently repeated the phrase ʻif there is anyʼ. Deconstruction, responsibility, justice and so on might all ﬁnd themselves qualiﬁed by an ʻif there is anyʼ whenever they are invoked. Nancy, for his part, will say ʻthere is no theʼ or ʻthere is notʼ touching, essence, the technical and so on. For Derrida, Nancy is struggling or wrestling at the limits of what discourse or meaning will allow. He is not deploying terms in any straightforward manner, but speaking about instances that place themselves outside of, or ex-scribe, that which they seek to inscribe in writing: hence ʻthere is no “…”ʼ. Derrida persistently questions whether the ʻdeﬁnite article is already engaged or required by the discourse that disputes itʼ, ʻif there is anyʼ.
Nancy repeats certain terms and holds on to them.
In so doing he aims to inaugurate new possibilities of meaning, new trajectories of thought. Derrida also repeats certain terms, but, in his ceaseless caution with regard to their baggage and the retention of past traces of signiﬁcation, will disallow them or place them offlimits. They are too compromised and too tainted, and a different gesture is required to afﬁrm the emergence of the new. This may imply a different understanding of temporality on the part of each thinker. Nancy seeks to afﬁrm an inaugural moment of creation in the spacing of a singular and plural opening. Every term drawn from the tradition is rethought in the light of this. Derrida is always attentive to stretching the present into the past, even as it opens onto a future without identity, and it is the undecidability and incalculability of this future which is afﬁrmed. The dehiscence or impropriety of the present is thought differently by each. In this sense On Touching is an indication of the future paths of deconstructive thinking, of deconstruction as a thought which has always afﬁrmed itself as a thought of the future.
Neo-Benjaminian historicismMatthias Fritsch, The Promise of Memory: History and Politics in Marx, Benjamin, and Derrida, SUNY Press, Albany NY, 2005. xiii + 249 pp., £43.75 hb., 0 7914 6549
7. ^ Can a reconﬁguration of Walter Benjamin provide the productive context for theorizing afﬁrmative action, reconciliation and memorialization? Does victory in struggle, even when ʻfree at lastʼ, always repeat past suffering in the present success? Could it be otherwise?
Into this charged forceﬁeld appears Matthias Fritschʼs book on memory, promise and historical time. It sets before its readers the heavy task of an interminable mourning through which the exclusionary, amnesiac potential of power structures is to be resisted in perpetuity. In restricting his presentation to a concoction of Marx, Benjamin and Derrida, the ﬁgures who would ask him the most difﬁcult questions are fortuitously excluded. Not least of whom would be Nietzsche, for whom the ﬁxed idea of suffering marks the bad conscience of ʻunhealthyʼ modern nihilism. For can a philosophical treatment of memory really absent consideration of strong forgetting. More to the point, the uncharitable manner in which Marx and Benjamin are co-opted prevents their writings from interrupting Fritschʼs thematic – no small irony, given what is at stake. In a book concerned to resist ʻempty, homogeneous timeʼ, the history between Marx, Benjamin and Derrida disappears; ignored, so that all three become interlocutors in abstract, discursive space directed by a syncretistic bent, available to us latecomers, with no deliberation on that privilege. In this regard, this book is symptomatic of academic bricolage which fails to understand how the critique of ʻhomogeneous and emptyʼ time breaks with ʻempatheticʼ historicism.
Although it is presented as a book on Marx, Derrida and Benjamin, each of the four chapters is organized around the last. The ﬁrst of these presents the ʻTheses on the Concept of Historyʼ as a critique of vulgar Marxism in so far as it rejects teleological, progressive totalizing accounts of history. The second, an interpretation of Derridaʼs Specters of Marx, forms a bridge to the third, which concentrates on ʻCritique of Violenceʼ and Derridaʼs deconstruction of it in ʻForce of Lawʼ. The fourth and ﬁnal chapter offers an ʻoscillationʼ between Benjamin and Derrida, where the latterʼs account of différantial repetition acts as a supplement to the former:
It is the account of repetition, in its link to différance and lʼavenir à-venir, that delivers the temporality of the past–future relation that we found underdeveloped in Benjamin. At the same time, it affords an albeit precarious distinction between messianism and the messianic (or messianicity) that clariﬁes otherwise problematic theological ambiguities stemming from the attempt to, as Benjamin put it, ʻreturn a messianic faceʼ to Marx while afﬁrming his secularization of messianism.
In effect, the place of Derrida and Marx here is determined by the contours of a meditation on Benjaminʼs concept of historiography. For example, there is no place for thinking Derridaʼs relation to both Husserl and Althusser, whilst Marx, squeezed through the other two, is contorted into an oblique problematic, upon which it is worth dwelling.
If past suffering has a claim to be remembered, how are the sufferings of those now dead remembered? Fritsch opposes any idea of progress in history and rejects the reconciliation premissed upon the ʻdream of wiping the slate cleanʼ: both calumniate the dead in a ʻsecond mortiﬁcationʼ. ʻPast suffering must be freed from its insertion into a conception of historical necessity, and it must not be subjected to the concept of a just end.ʼ Instead past victims must be given a voice to retrieve something of their emancipatory promise, a past future, that was occluded. Here, ʻBenjamin reconceived proletarian resistance to capitalist oppression … as a non-violent political action that draws on the limits of the political itself, and that is responsive to the forever incomplete voice of the vanquished and forgotten.ʼ
The stress is on the incompletion of this praxis as it contests ʻendismʼ and ʻprogressʼ. It is not just vulgar Marxism that Fritsch takes to be the object of Benjaminʼs critique, but Marx himself, whose vision of communism – as an end ʻretaining all the riches capitalism producesʼ – precludes mourning the ʻreal losses of historical developmentʼ. Fritsch appears to assume that any totalization of history entails that the suffering located in that history is justiﬁed by the meaningfulness of the end-state.
From the perspective of ʻCritique of Violenceʼ, communism would be merely the subsequent violent imposition in a cycle of law-positing violence. For Fritsch, these drawbacks are exacerbated because its scientiﬁc pretension, read as straightforward economic determinism, views the victory of a particular class as guaranteed. Allying Benjamin with Lyotard, scientiﬁc representation of history is seen as effacing real suffering (a sentiment reinforced by the Irving libel trial where no ﬁrst-hand accounts were allowed, only ofﬁcial Nazi documentation). Yet, if for Lyotard an ʻexhaustive accountʼ can aid forgetting and potentially removes the possibility of lament, things are more complicated for Benjamin, for whom history is both scientiﬁc and a form of ʻcultural memoryʼ. Fritsch misses this doubled aspect and hence the nuances of Benjaminʼs communism. That is:1. Benjamin does not reject the primacy of the unfolding forces of production (at least in their circumscription of possibility).2. The totalization of history is not absent from his work – it is found in the central notion of catastrophe. This is the negative trajectory that must be interrupted, with the revolutionary ʻemergency brakeʼ: the ʻpile of debris … The storm that we call Progressʼ.3. Benjamin retains the ʻontological centrality of the working classʼ, a position viewed by Fritsch as ʻconceptually impossible and politically dangerousʼ.
It is in relation to these three aspects that Derridaʼs ʻmessianic without messianismʼ upsets and sidelines the philological separation of ʻCritique of Violenceʼ – a fragment of an abandoned anarcho-syndicalist politics – from the ʻTheses on the Concept of Historyʼ, whose ʻmessianicʼ is metaphysically distinct from the formerʼs ʻdivineʼ (göttlich). This Derridean supplement is produced in spite of Fritschʼs acute criticisms of ʻForce of Lawʼ and its overdetermination by the Heidegger and de Man debates.
It is somewhat paradoxical, then, that Fritsch uses Derrida to return Benjamin to something akin to Marburg Social Democracy. For Derrida supplies two functions:1. The thought of the trace and the quasi-transcendental condition of messianicity mean that subjects are always already the inheritors of languages, histories and institutions – to which they cannot avoid responding. This general ʻresponsivenessʼ is held to resolve certain ambiguities in Benjamin by ʻexplainingʼ the originary injunction of the past.2. More importantly, Derrida demonstrates the ʻimpossibilityʼ of ﬁnal accounts of history and opens the possibility of an empty future that ʻno person or group could claim to embody or representʼ. ʻRepetition always defers to an unreachable future the identity it nonetheless promises.ʼ There is no memory that is not violent, in that memory preserves itself only through work which is inevitably an organization and a forgetting.
The result is that, ʻif we read Derrida and Benjamin together, an openness to the future beyond horizons is the very possibility of receiving and responding to the messianic claim that the oppressed of history have on us.ʼ Fritsch is well aware of what results: the promise rescued from Marx is rendered unrealizable – it becomes a Kantian, regulative ideal from which to criticize empirical reality. He writes: ʻDerrida not only supplies Benjamin with the temporality of the relation between a disenchanted future and memory, but also prevents the formerʼs radical critique of Kantian Marxism and progressivism from leading to a wholesale rejection of all utopian horizons.ʼ
This leaves us in a strange situation. If this is the claim of this book, then why is this Kantian Marxism not the focus? What is Benjamin doing beyond providing an organizing framework for less fashionable thoughts? Moreover, Benjamin has already distanced himself from the position this book promotes. In the ʻParalipomena to “On the Concept of History”ʼ, we ﬁnd:
Once the classless society had been deﬁned as an inﬁnite task, the empty and homogeneous time was transformed into an anteroom, so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of a revolutionary situation with more of less equal equanimity. In reality, there is not a moment that would not carry with it its revolutionary chance … namely as the chance for a completely new resolution of a completely new problem. … (Classless society is not the ﬁnal goal of historical progress but its frequently miscarried, ultimately achieved interruption.)The emptiness of the ʻopen futureʼ espoused by Fritsch sees ʻinterminable mourningʼ as itself revolutionary, a bad conscience which proliferates narratives to contest ofﬁcial history. It is not that it is merely difﬁcult to ascribe to Benjamin an idea of the ʻinﬁnitely interpretable layers of historyʼ, but rather that this notion is rejected in the critique of historicism. Is this not a form of acedia, ʻa process of empathy whose origin is the indolence of the heart … which despairs of grasping and holding the genuine historical image as it ﬂares up brieﬂyʼ (Thesis VII)? In ʻThe Image of Proustʼ, enervation is the result of intellectual renunciation that proliferates interpretations.
However, not everything past or old is thereby historical. Historical pasts address the present equivocally and heterogeneously and are not always legible or relevant to ʻa moment of present dangerʼ. Historicist ʻlinearityʼ holds that time is left behind in its passing out of the present. In contrast, Benjaminʼs constellation, rejecting empathy, does not merely organize inert, past material in a politically charged way. In light of the comments on second mortiﬁcations, how would this not be an instrumental use of the past? Instead, the past returns in the present. Jetztzeit (ʻnow-timeʼ) names this rare, conjunctural structure.
For Benjamin, ʻlinear timeʼ is associated with the thought that all history is always available for memoration, appreciation of its richness or retrieval for salutary lessons (ʻthe past will not run away from usʼ). In this regard, it is disappointing that this book on memory contains no discussion of Benjaminʼs relation to Proust, and in particular the manner in which memory [Erinnerung] and ʻremembranceʼ [Eingedenken] interweave constructive narrative and mémoire involontaire; neither are his two historical works, The Origin of German Tragic Drama and the Arcades Project, discussed.
If Proustʼs À la Recherche… is an attempt to ʻproduce experience syntheticallyʼ under damaged modern conditions, then Benjaminʼs historiography seeks to produce historico-political experience synthetically under conditions of increasing barbarism. Its task is to ﬁnd, and somehow present, that which the collective has lived through (but which can no longer be assimilated into experience) to produce a charge directed towards changed conditions. As Proust writes, ʻwe ought to fear … even the past, which often comes to life for us only when the future has come and gone – and not only the past which we discover after the event but the past which we have long kept stored within ourselves and suddenly learn how to interpret.ʼ In the hope of harnessing this fearful power, Benjamin seeks a ʻunique experienceʼ with it, an experience that shocks or strikes, and generates a ʻrevolutionary chance in the ﬁght for the oppressed pastʼ. Owing to the later importance of Proust, and the early imprint of Sorel, the Bergson of Matter and Memory is a necessary way station in the destruction of the received notions of memory and image in Benjamin scholarship, which serve as one of the indications as to how he is read empathetically as our contemporary. The unmediated, immediate rendering of Benjamin in our own image is fundamentally historicist. In this respect, Fritschʼs book is symptomatic.
Anti-antitotalitarianismMichael Scott Christofferson, French Intellectuals against the Left: The Antitotalitarian Moment of the 1970s, Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford, 2004. 304 pp. £50.00 hb., £15.00 pb., 1 57181 428 0 hb., 1 57181 427 2 pb.
This book takes its cue from a puzzling anachronism: in the mid-1970s a concept that had elsewhere fallen into desuetude – totalitarianism – came to dominate French intellectual life, eventually draining the radical impetus of May ʼ68 and ushering in a new kind of Thermidor, turning Paris into what Perry Anderson famously excoriated as ʻthe capital of European reactionʼ. Commendably, Christofferson chooses to deactivate two complementary approaches that have long obfuscated this critical juncture. First, the position that, looking to Franceʼs tribulations to reafﬁrm the phlegmatic virtues of Anglo-American civil society, regards the ʻantitotalitarian momentʼ as a symptom of the countryʼs need to catch up with the only reasonable model for thinking liberty with equality: liberalism (fraternity must, of course, be swiftly dispensed with). Second, the tendency, present in both sympathisers and detractors, to accept the participantsʼ own narrative of the motivating factors behind their peculiar engagement: this ʻmyth of origins of anti-totalitarianismʼ is effectively dismantled by Christofferson in his meticulous reconstruction of the Solzhenitsyn affair.
To counter both the invidiousness of comparison and the delusions of introspection, Christofferson – in chapters covering the intellectual vicissitudes of French revolutionary politics, the function of The Gulag Archipelago, the debate on the PS–PCF ʻUnion of the Leftʼ, dissidence, la nouvelle philosophie, and François Furet – combines two axes of investigation: a longitudinal look at the events and initiatives that led revolutionary intellectuals from socialist visions to anti-communist ﬁxation, and a conjunctural inquiry into how a host of varied attitudes and perspectives on the Left came to be condensed into the ʻantitotalitarian momentʼ (roughly from 1975 to 1978) by the electoral prospect of an entry of the French Communist Party into government.
The title of the book suggests a grouping of intellectuals on the Centre or the Right. Yet it is to be understood in a retroactive sense: how and why did intellectuals originally afﬁliated with revolutionary programmes of emancipation elaborate positions which, in order to exorcise the purported menace of the PCF, dissociated freedom from socialism, laying the ground for a conformist politics of the ʻlesser evilʼ? In this respect, one of the most fruitful threads in French Intellectuals against the Left consists in focusing attention on how the discourse of direct democracy played a role in the formation of the antitotalitarian front. Incubated by a certain heterodox Trotskyism (Socialisme ou barbarie) and remembrances of council communism, and exacerbated by the crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, notions of direct democracy became a privileged way to attack the PCF from the left (not such a hard task, given its passive collusion with the oppression of Algeria), linking the misdemeanours of communist power at home and abroad. Under the guise of autogestion (self-management), it endured into the 1970s where, shorn of its insurrectionary traits, it became a signiﬁcant element in the ideological campaign of the French Socialist Party (PS) for hegemony over the Union of the Left – even gaining prominence in the Assises conference of 1974, through which the anti-communist Left sought to gain hold of the party, eventually failing in the face of Mitterrandʼs far more pragmatic concerns.
Of equal interest is Christoffersonʼs attention to that amalgam of direct democracy and Maoism which was the Gauche prolétarienne (GP). Born of the unexpected emergence of Marxism–Leninism in the student Left, but tied to the Cultural Revolution by only the most imaginary of bonds, the GPʼs ʻcombination of populism, voluntarism and spontaneismʼ, whilst making for an eclectic ideology with at best tenuous links to Marxism, served as a crucial intercessor between the subversive spirit of ʼ68 and the Restoration that was to follow. With their focus on exemplary actions and ﬂashy slogans, the likes of Benny Lévy (alias Pierre Victor) and André Glucksmann already enacted the new relationship with the media that was later to mark the ﬁgure of the antitotalitarian intellectual. Moreover, as Christofferson indicates, they provided prominent radical ﬁgures, namely Foucault and Sartre, with an organizational referent that was both virulently anti-PCF and sufﬁciently extreme in its leftist ideology. In Foucaultʼs case especially, the hyper-populism of the GP provided a way of cutting through the ambiguities besetting his discourse on power and political subjectivity, giving rise to a kind of plebeian anticommunist libertarianism still manifest in Foucaultʼs reporting on the Iranian Revolution. In a sense, Foucault later returned the favour by openly legitimating the virulent anti-Marxism of Glucksmann and serving as a kind of respectably radical midwife for the entrance onto the scene of the nouveaux philosophes.
The discontinuous genealogy of this directdemocratic discourse, which Christofferson also tracks through the writings of Castoriadis and Lefort (during and after Socialisme ou barbarie), the strategic interventions of the journal Esprit and the inauguration of the newspaper Libération, is undoubtedly crucial for grasping how the coordinates of French antitotalitarianism could only be provided by a Left discourse which mixed righteous moralism about political action, an extreme – but extremely vague – libertarianism about organization, and an abiding suspicion towards any muscular form of political power. In short, we could say that the antitotalitarian moment was prepared by the longue durée of anti-Leninism. With respect to this facet of the argument, Christoffersonʼs narrative might be faulted on two counts, both of which are perhaps inevitable consequences of the strength of the book: its scrupulously well-documented and persuasive focus on the rise of antitotalitarianism from the vicissitudes of a political ideology (direct democracy) and a speciﬁc political struggle (against the PCFʼs hegemony over the Left).
First, by focusing primarily on the strictly political debates on democracy, Christofferson fails to integrate the sociological debate on the ʻnew working classʼ and the post-ʼ68 attention to ʻnew social movementsʼ – which he nevertheless alludes to – into his account of the rise of antitotalitarianism. In other words, by tracing an internal political history of the phenomenon, he does not investigate the correlation of this ideological moment with the shifting terrain of French capitalist society – despite the fact that transformations in the organization of labour and class composition played an integral part in the rise of the theme of autogestion in the left of the PS. Second, the focus on the ﬁnal betrayal of any direct-democratic aspirations with the rise of the nouveaux philosophes and Furetʼs revisionist history of the French Revolution, whilst methodologically correct, ends up airbrushing out other strands of anti-Stalinist thought that did not collude in the spectacle of antitotalitarianism. Thus, there is little attention throughout to the powerful and coherent critiques of Stalinism provided by a (Trotskyist) Leninist Left, of the kind generously depicted in Birchallʼs Sartre against Stalinism (reviewed by Ben Watson in RP 129). Equally, little is said about the anti-Leninism of the Situationists, whose intervention in May ʼ68 was steeped in the council-communist tradition of direct democracy in a far more persuasive and radical manner than many of the so-called anti-totalitarians. On a different note, Christofferson does perspicuously point to the signiﬁcance of the Critique of Dialectical Reason in trying to formulate a speculative solution to the relationship between subjective liberation and social emancipation, but the inﬂuence or force of that attempt remains unexplored. At times, and especially when evoking the supposed weakness of non-PCF, Left criticisms of the antitotalitarian vogue, Christofferson seems to gauge the strength of opposition by the very meter that the antitotalitarians naturally favoured: media exposure. The fact that Left positions alien both to the PCF and to the nouveaux philosophes and their ilk failed to attain critical mass does not mean that the anti-totalitarians had won the argument. Hijacking bandwidth does not necessarily translate into lasting hegemony. On the other hand, the debates within the PCF – namely the Althusseriansʼ involvement in the battle over purging the thesis of the dictatorship of the proletariat – are unfortunately glossed over, despite their potentially revealing relations with the positions of the non-communist Left.
The second axis of Christoffersonʼs analysis, besides the vagaries of direct-democratic thought, concerns the function of the common programme of the Left – with the ominous spectre of the PCF in power – in both catalysing and condensing the energies of antitotalitarianism. The anachronism and analytical debility of antitotalitarianism is here accounted for by the way it was instrumentalized in order to impede the PCFʼs integration into the political scene. Though, as Christofferson acknowledges in a useful, albeit brief, survey of the concept, the Cold War history of ʻtotalitarianismʼ was never devoid of instrumentality, in the French instance it is patently clear that the vicissitudes of its use – even when they involved advocacy for Warsaw Pact dissidence and human rights – were almost entirely dominated by domestic concerns. Whether they took the shape of Glucksmannʼs bombastic teleology of the Enlightenment (from Plato to Kolyma, ʻto think is to dominateʼ), or Furetʼs revisionist excavation of the French roots of totalitarianism in the Jacobin terror, the various ʻtheoriesʼ of totalitarianism – for the most part oblivious either to fascism or to Nazism – demonstrated a kind of political narcissism which subordinated an elaboration of the concept to the expediencies of the French electoral calendar. Moving outside of the French context, the reliance of much anglophone post-Marxist thought on a concept of democracy generated within this antitotalitarian vogue still suffers from the poverty and opportunism of its sources.
One of the prize features of French Intellectuals against the Left is the meticulous care with which it debunks the ʻmyth of originsʼ of antitotalitarianism by documenting the intimate articulation between political events and the rhetorical mobilization of intellectuals. This was not only the case of the ʻgulag effectʼ – where attention to chronology shows that Solzhenitsyn was only monumentalized after the attack on The Gulag Archipelago by the PCF, more than a year after the bookʼs publication. It also marked the numerous ʻcasesʼ and ʻaffairsʼ involving East European dissidents, and especially the rhetorical manipulation of the struggles internal to the Portuguese Revolution in 1975, which Christofferson tracks with admirable care and a wealth of informative detail. Throughout its narrative, the book weaves together a set of investigations into the alignments, afﬁliations and polemics that criss-crossed an increasingly media-centred intellectual scene. Though their intricacy and exhaustiveness might alienate readers more sympathetic to the broad sweep of cultural criticism, they do provide a welter of material for a sociological, cultural and political analysis of the changing role of the intellectual in twentieth-century France. Christofferson tracks the passage from a kind of self-effacing organic intellectuality under the banner of the PCF to the polemical human rights advocacy of the antitotalitarian intellectual – disafﬁliated from any actual political movement, but also, as in the case of Furet (whose biography by Christofferson is forthcoming), a shrewd ideological and academic operator. In this shift, Foucaultʼs ʻspeciﬁc intellectualʼ might thus be seen as a kind of vanishing mediator. Signiﬁcantly, Christofferson enumerates the key instruments and accoutrements of this new psycho-social type: petitions, committees, editorial ventures (the case of Bernard-Henri Lévy and the publishing house Grasset is emblematic in this regard), the TV talk show, the newspaper (the founding of Libération), the function of journals (Esprit, or Tel Quel, with its passage from Maoist utopia to American ʻpolytopiaʼ), and so on. It is a shame in this respect that Christofferson ignores the devastating insights present in Deleuzeʼs caustic portrait of the nouveaux philosophes, which identiﬁes their political function with the new form of their ʻintellectualityʼ, rather than in the secondor thirdhand character of their supposed theses.
This book is clearly an indispensable resource for historians of twentieth-century France and French intellectual life, and a ﬁne resource for anyone interested in a political sociology of the intellectual. Its fundamental thesis concerning the political sources of the antitotalitarian moment in the discourse of direct democracy and the electoral opposition to the PCF is largely persuasive – and a welcome antidote to the many distortions that obscure this key reactive shift. But in order to draw some lessons from Christoffersonʼs laudable narrative we need to move beyond his conclusion that the vacuity of the antitotalitarian moment is derived from the ʻpropensity of French intellectu-als to universalize and ideologize domestic political debatesʼ. Such a statement tautologically designates as intellectuals precisely those who were able, in many respects due to wide-ranging changes in the structure of French society and academia, to shift the terrain of commitment to the mass media. As Iʼve already intimated, this ignores the comprehensive demolition of the antitotalitarian position, and of the nouveaux philosophes in particular, by ʻLeftʼ thinkers such as Deleuze, Rancière, Lecourt, Linhart and Badiou. It also entails a very partial take on the nature of the intellectual – it is perhaps one of the bookʼs missed opportunities that it does not really reﬂect on the tensions and shifts that have characterized this ﬁgure in contemporary French history. For what needs to be reﬂected on – if we take a practice of universalization to somehow deﬁne the intellectual and if we accept the conjunctural location of his interventions – is the difference between, on the one hand, the kind of vapid, self-serving universalist posture that marked many of the invocations of dissidence and human rights in the 1970s, and, on the other, the thinking of concrete or singular universality that still preoccupies many of those French thinkers who were thankfully deaf to the siren calls of antitotalitarianism.
Learning the eventGary Peters, Irony and Singularity: Aesthetic Education from Kant to Levinas, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005. x + 193 pp., £45.00 hb., 0 7546 3811
Writing a book on aesthetic education today is problematic for a number of reasons. First and foremost, while the phrase ʻaesthetic educationʼ may remain resonant for many working in the traditions of continental philosophy or critical theory, it will nevertheless be unfamiliar to those who may have come to philosophy, and in particular philosophical aesthetics, more recently, perhaps via the heady portals of deconstruction, post-modernism, or even ʻschizoanalysisʼ. The notion of aesthetic education, which dates back to Schiller, interweaves currents of humanism and hope that feel alien to the contemporary philosophical climate. It is one of the merits of Petersʼs book to begin to situate, however critically, the legacy of aesthetic education in relation to ﬁgures such as Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Rosenzweig, Levinas, Blanchot, Derrida, de Man and Deleuze, thereby opening up a series of potential perspectives from which to reengage with aesthetic education.
A second problem is more implicit and works to destabilize the possibility of such a re-engagement. While it is impossible to deny the impact of many of the great works of philosophical aesthetics – such as the Poetics, Critique of Judgement, Birth of Tragedy, ʻOrigin of the Work of Artʼ – both on the history of philosophy and on artistic practice, nevertheless contemporary philosophical aesthetics, particularly as it is practised in the analytical tradition, tends to ﬁnd itself consigned to the intellectual no-manʼs land occupied by such disciplines as philosophy of history, philosophy of education, philosophy of science, and so forth. The problem with the texts that make up these disciplines is that they run the risk of being dismissed as more or less irrelevant both by ʻpureʼ philosophy and by those disciplines for which they purport to provide philosophies. For the philosophers, these disciplines are little more than ʻapplicationsʼ of ʻpureʼ philosophy, and as such can add nothing new to philosophy itself. For practitioners, let us say for practising scientists, there appears to be little that can be learned about the day-to-day business of molecular analysis or particle acceleration from listening to the philosopher of scienceʼs reﬂections on scientiﬁc epistemology. Who, today, we might therefore ask, could stand to beneﬁt from an aesthetic education? As Peters observes at the start of his book, we appear to have been ʻleft with a model of aesthetic education that is ill-equipped to engage with the predicament of the artistʼ. But should we not extend this realization, and admit that the model of aesthetic education is equally ill-equipped to engage with the predicament of the philosopher?
The tension underpinning these problematics, as Peters makes clear, stems from a certain temporality. On the one hand, the purpose of aesthetic education is determined by utopianism, and the principle of the future betterment both of the self and society. Contemporary discourses about art, on the other hand, tend to focus on what Peters characterizes as ʻthe event of the artwork as it erupts in a “now” which is aporetic in the extremeʼ. The continuity determining the former discourse, and the process of betterment that is grounded in this continuity, appears to be irreconcilable with the fundamental discontinuity that determines the latter discourse.
Now, it may be observed that this nexus of problems pertains to the contingency of the historical development of the discourses of philosophy rather than to any intrinsic dimensions of aesthetic education as such. To this extent, we might feel some sympathy for Petersʼs stated aim of ʻsav[ing] aesthetic education from itself, that is to say, from its humanism, its bourgeois utopianism and its ultimate radicalism in the hands of the sixties generationʼ. In other words, Peters is attempting to slough off those very characteristics of aesthetic education which have come to bear the critical focus of discourses of post-modernism, deconstruction and their ilk. But what would be saved of aesthetic education, once it was shorn of its humanism, utopianism and radicalism? If we embrace the artwork as irruptive event, is it even worth trying to save aesthetic education? Why not consign it to its ʻrightfulʼ place as a more or less closed ʻeventʼ in the history of philosophy? One way or the other, it seems to me that the force of Petersʼs project is not fully revealed by the aim which he himself announces for his work.
Another way of understanding Petersʼs project is in terms of what he calls the ʻre-aestheticization of aesthetic educationʼ. This would entail going beyond the ʻmoral, political, religious, and, indeed, pedagogical structuresʼ of the educational dimension of aesthetic education. For Peters, such a process would open up a ﬁeld of what he calls ʻalterity-aestheticsʼ, a ﬁeld or space within which the ʻunteachabilityʼ of aesthetics could be acknowledged while simultaneously enabling ʻthe productive movement of the aesthetic to be tracedʼ. In what might such a productivity consist?
If we return to the source of the notion of aesthetic education, we recall that in On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Schiller was writing in the wake of Kant and the French Revolution. The aftermath of the French Revolution was structured by the conﬂict between the ideal of freedom that inspired it and the actuality of the Terror that overtook it. This conﬂict can be discerned in the separation of the ﬁrst and second of Kantʼs Critiques, and the two domains with which they concern themselves – that is, sensible nature and suprasensible nature.
Schiller argues that the signiﬁcance and value of the cultivation of the beautiful stem from the way in which the beautiful work of art serves to reﬂect the freedom of the person contemplating the artwork, and speciﬁcally the free, unlegislated, interrelation between their sensible and intellectual faculties. It is a virtue of Deleuzeʼs early work on Kant to have revealed how the topologies of the three Critiques involve a series of mappings of relations amongst the faculties, in each case leading to a ʻcommon senseʼ of the faculties serving an interest of reason, under the legislature of one of the faculties, a legislature which itself is determinative of reasonʼs interest. Deleuze then argues that, in the third Critique, Kant still provides a genesis of this legislated accord amongst the faculties in his discussions of judgements of the beautiful, which involve an indeterminate accord amongst the faculties, and ultimately in judgements of the sublime, which involve what Deleuze nicknames a ʻdiscordant accordʼ among the faculties. It is just this indeterminate accord among the faculties, and in particular the faculties of the imagination and understanding, which Schiller turns to in Aesthetic Education. He argues that a ʻfreeplayʼ among the faculties, and the harmonious but indeterminate accord between sensibility and reason that emerges from this free-play, is able to ʻovercomeʼ the divided moral subject which emerges within the pages of the second Critique. He goes on to argue that the faculty of the imagination, interpreted as a ʻplay impulseʼ, is able to strike a balance between the faculties of sensibility and understanding, or, as Schiller interprets them, the sensuous and formal impulses. The resultant balance among the faculties, or impulses, constitutes the so-called ʻbeauty of the soulʼ and the formation of a free and moral society.
If we were to align ourselves with Petersʼs critique of the pedagogical dimension of aesthetic education, then we could question whether it is indeed possible to teach or educate the faculties into such a free-play. On the contrary, is not this free-play the very ground upon which any aesthetic education could take place? But if we seek to afﬁrm the opening within which the freeplay of the faculties, balanced by the free-play impulse of the imagination, is able to occur, what then is left of the programme of aesthetic education as such?
The journey that Peters undertakes involves him in a series of negotiations with the dialectical – and nondialectical – relations in the aesthetic theories of Kant, Schiller, Hegel, Nietzsche and Rosenzweig, and ﬁnally the phenomenological discourses on intersubjectivity of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Levinas. This assumes a deeper signiﬁcance for Peters when he returns to the dialectical nature of the education event. By way of the intertwined displacement of the dialectics of both the classical aesthetic theories he discusses and the educational relation itself, Peters works towards a ʻradical irresponsibility of aesthetic educationʼ. This is in part exposed in the problematic relation between Levinasʼs discourses on aesthetics in Existence and Existents and the essay ʻReality and its Shadowʼ, both published in the years immediately following the end of World War II, and his later ʻethicalʼ texts. What links these works is a sustained engagement with a dimension of sensibility that cannot be constrained within the closures of either Husserlian phenomenology or Heideggerian phenomenological ontology. This sensibility entails a fundamental singularity which exceeds any dialectical relation or conceptual universalization. As Peters notes, ʻthe work always gets in the wayʼ.
Levinasʼs early aesthetic texts proved troubling to his existentialist peers because they emphasized the irreducible ʻdisengagementʼ at the heart of the aesthetic event. It is from this point of departure in disengagement that Levinas ultimately works towards the principles of excessive sensibility, singularity and ethical subjectivity. Would it be possible to construe a relation between this disengagement and the unlegislated free-play among the faculties which is the object of Schillerʼs discourse? In either case, we might wish to claim that the test of any contemporary work in philosophical aesthetics is whether it contributes to the afﬁrmation of an opening – either temporal or spatial – within which sensibility is not immediately universalized, or is subjected to an interest of reason within which sensibility retains its potential for provoking consciousness. While this may not quite be the conclusion towards which Peters works, it seems nevertheless to accord with the goal of the dislocation and disarticulation of artistic education which Peters argues is the role of aesthetic education. To be sure, neither of these perspectives could be interpreted as a straightforward continuation or salvation of aesthetic education as conceived by Schiller. Certainly, Peterʼs book engages with the principle of aesthetic education without ʻdomesticatingʼ its insights; a domestication, according to de Man, of which the history of the reception of Kantʼs aesthetics is guilty.
Dude, where’s Yasser?
Gilles Deleuze, Two Regimes of Madness, Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents, New York, 2006. 415 pp. £11.95 pb., 1 58435 032 6.
This volume is the sequel to Desert Islands (which collected Deleuzeʼs articles and interviews, 1953–74), gathering the remainder of the uncollected texts and presenting them in chronological order. The French editions did not exhaustively collect all the available texts, omitting a few important early pieces, perhaps most notably Deleuzeʼs one explicitly Jungian article, ʻFrom Sacher-Masoch to Masochismʼ (1961). The English edition of Desert Islands already had the distinction of being the worst translation of Deleuze to date (surpassing The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque). It was riddled with errors of meaning and distorted Deleuzeʼs style and tone (ʻSure I doʼ for sûrement, ʻcopsʼ wherever possible for police). Where he appears musing and thoughtful in the French interviews, in the English he somehow mutates into the Dude from The Big Lebowski. In Two Regimes of Madness, the Semiotext(e) team appear to have lost the plot further, as not only are the Dudisms even more strident, but the editors have taken it upon themselves to omit one of the texts published in the French version of the book, a short piece from 1983 entitled ʻThe Grandeur of Yasser Arafatʼ. There is no mention of the fact that this text has disappeared. How has a ʻradicalʼ publisher like Semiotext(e) ended up censoring a text of this nature for English readers? The piece had already been translated by Timothy Murphy in 1998 in the journal Discourse, so its exclusion must be due to the changed political climate.
There are three other texts on Palestine which have been reprinted here, all containing similar thoughts and arguments, so the question is why has this particular one been excluded? What does it say that the others do not? The opening remarks to Deleuzeʼs last text on Palestine, ʻStonesʼ, states his general contention throughout these interventions: ʻEurope owes its Jews an inﬁnite debt that it has not even begun to pay. Instead, an innocent people is being made to pay – the Palestinians.ʼ Deleuzeʼs interest as a philosopher in Palestine is focused around this large-scale historical problem. More inﬂuenced by Arnold Toynbeeʼs view of history than by Marxʼs, Deleuze sees the Palestinians as a minority who are faced with a highly speciﬁc geopolitical ʻchallengeʼ. They do not ﬁnd themselves in a typical colonial situation, but rather in a situation analogous to the American Indians, where their land is evacuated to make room for the settlers. How can a people resist this kind of disappearance?
ʻThe Grandeur of Yasser Arafatʼ is dated ʻSeptember 1983ʼ, the ﬁrst anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. It contains several claims that are less clearly stated in the other articles. For instance, Deleuze argues as follows:
The conquerors were those who had themselves suffered the greatest genocide in history. Of this genocide, the Zionists have made an absolute evil.
But to transform the greatest genocide of history into an absolute evil is a religious and mystical vision, it is not a historical vision. It does not stop evil; on the contrary it propagates it, it makes it fall on other innocents, it demands a reparation which makes these others suffer a part of what the Jews suffered (expulsion, ghettoization, disappearance as a people).
Elsewhere in Two Regimes (in ʻPaciﬁsm Todayʼ), Deleuze makes similar remarks about the use of the notion of absolute evil in relation to the Holocaust, but only here does he directly relate this ʻreligiousʼ idea to the continuation of injustice. Deleuzeʼs reasoning here needs a proper analysis, which cannot be undertaken in the space of a review, but from the perspective of his philosophical work it seems clear that he thinks he has discovered in the suppression of the Palestinians an instance of ʻrepetitionʼ in history. The problem is structured by the repetition and displacement of a debt. One immanent problem with this suggestion as it appears in this short text is that not enough is said about the various displacements generated by this ʻrepetitionʼ. While Deleuze does say that genocide is not the aim of the Israelis, the sole reason he gives for this here is that the means of physical extermination is secondary to the end of geographical evacuation.
Further on, Deleuze cites approvingly Elias Sambarʼs suggestion that the complicity of the USA with Israel arises in part because ʻthe United States has rediscovered in Israel an aspect of its own history: the extermination of the Indians, which there as well, was only in part physical … In many respects the Palestinians are the new Indians, the Indians of Israel.ʼ Although he makes this latter analogy in one of the other texts on Palestine, the analogy between the USA and Israel is most explicit in the censored piece. He asserts that ʻpushing back limits was the act of American capitalism, the American dreamʼ, and that this is ʻtaken up by Israel and the dream of a Greater Israel on Arab territoryʼ. Again, the wheel of repetition and difference is whirring in the background.
The rationale for the title of the excluded piece emerges when Deleuze suggests that the Palestinian resistance movement could not have emerged were it not for the role played by ʻa greater historical character, one who, we might say from a Western point of view, could have stepped out of Shakespeare; and that was Arafatʼ. Like Hegel, Deleuze had a penchant for ﬁnding dramatic structures and roles in historical narratives. Were he alive today, he might have compared bin Laden to a character from Shakespeare, or perhaps from a gothic or decadent fantasy. The ʻgrandeurʼ of Arafat is in part dramatic: ʻIn a surrounded Tripoli there is nothing more than the physical presence of Arafat among his own, in a sort of solitary grandeur.ʼ
The serious question to be asked here concerns the precise difference between interpreting history as a drama, and interpreting it as a ʻreligious or mystical visionʼ. We are returned to the enduring problem of Deleuzeʼs relationship to the theory of history. He clearly has an idea of history, as distinguished from ʻbecomingʼ, but it needs to be reconstructed.
Beyond Deleuzeʼs concern with the dialectic of repetition and displacement, however, there is no denying the powerful ethical and political animus driving his writings on Palestine. From an ethical point of view, Deleuze follows Arafat in classing the Sabra and Shatila massacres as ʻshamefulʼ. Shame becomes a dominant ethical category in Deleuzeʼs later work. The political aim in these texts is to warn that a solution to the conﬂict cannot emerge without an independent PLO; independent, that is, of both existing state institutions and Islamic religious movements. He concludes by warning (this is 1983) that ʻthe Palestinian people will not lose its identity without creating in its place a double terrorism, of the state and religion, which will proﬁt from its disappearance and render impossible any peaceful settlement with Israel.ʼ The ʻreligious terrorismʼ to which Deleuze refers here seems to refer to movements within political Islam; he is highly critical of political Islam elsewhere in the book.
There could be a number of reasons why this text has been suppressed from Two Regimes of Madness. It would be genuinely enlightening if the editorsʼ rationale could be made public. It is doubtful that it has been excluded because of the possible charge of anti-semitism. Deleuzeʼs ideas about anti-semitism are expressed quite clearly in the accompanying essay entitled ʻThe Rich Jewʼ. If anything, the short piece entitled ʻStonesʼ could be deemed more liable to attack from this direction, and that has been printed here. We have seen that there seem to be three main ideas that surface in ʻThe Grandeur of Yasser Arafatʼ which are not spelled out as clearly in the other texts: the criticism of the use of the religious idea of absolute evil in history, the analogy between the Palestinians and the American Indians, and the picture of Arafat as a tragic ﬁgure from Shakespeare. It must be one, some or all of these ideas which has resulted in the censorship of the text. Or perhaps we could even take advantage of Deleuzeʼs philosophy and suggest that these three ideas form a problematic ʻmultiplicityʼ which cannot be represented directly to English or American readers. There is certainly food for thought here.
Unfortunately, it is hard to dissociate this speciﬁc problem of the omission of the Arafat text from the cultural imperialism that runs through the translations. The youth-culture Americanisms almost completely suffocate Deleuzeʼs style, to the point that you wonder what the strategy of the Semiotext(e) team actually is. One uncharitable intepretation would be that there is some kind of provocation at work. It would be an aggressive afﬁrmation of contemporary pragmatism: weʼre all Americans now, even cheese-eating French philosophers. Less uncharitably, the translation could simply have been infected with the ubiquitous intemperateness that distinguishes Theory in the Gloveless Age. Why else would a sentence as innocuous as ʻnon, non, nonʼ be translated as ʻDonʼt be ridiculousʼ? The only charitable interpretation I can think of is that the Semiotext(e) team are just going all out to make Deleuze accessible for todayʼs Americans. But the problem is that the Dude and his crew now appear to be losing their cool. Theyʼre throwing away texts that donʼt ʻplay wellʼ, when they should be doing the exact opposite and making available texts which ask one to think for oneself. Both Desert Islands and Two Regimes of Madness need to be re-edited and retranslated.
Kingʼs College LondonCentre of Medical Law and Ethics PGDip/MA in Human Values and Contemporary Global EthicsThis PGDip/MA began in September 2004. You can study it full-time (1 year) or part-time (2 years). We aim to develop more rational thinking about human values and how they apply to the most urgent problems of the world. It is designed to appeal to anyone interested in thinking more deeply about global conﬂicts, global justice, or the kind of world we will pass on to future generations.
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