“Aren’t we living in a world where headless men only desire decapitated women?”
“Aren’t we living in a world“ – the poet says full of empathy for himself – “where headless men only desire decapitated women? Isn’t this a realistic vision of the world full of the emptiest of illusions? Aren’t your son’s childish drawings much more truthful?“ says Jaromil, the protagonist of Life is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera, a passionate supporter of the 1948 Communist revolution in Czechoslovakia and, not incidentally, a lyric poet. There is a natural affinity, it seems, between revolution and lyric poetry: “Lyricism is intoxication, and man drinks in order to merge more easily with the world. Revolution has no desire to be examined or analyzed, it only desires that the people merge with it; in this sense it is lyrical and in need of lyricism.“
He is one of those individuals who prefer wet to dry eyes, who talk with a hand close to their heart and despise those who keep them in their pockets. He, the young poet living on the edge of times transforming, embodies the syntactical mode of addressing the world coined by André Breton: “beauty will be convulsive or will not be at all”. Radical or nothing, transparent, readable like the tears indicating that the man is feeling, like the open expressing a desire of embracing the world and making it a home, real like the people, not marvellous, immediate not erotic. Hannah Arendt’s claim that, “what makes a man political is his faculty of action” seems undeniable. Who would be in favour of the ugly idea of non-agency in times of urgency, who would not see a danger in those who, in the name of privacy or withdrawal, would privilege a sense of autonomy and then, perhaps, keep their hands in their pockets, or just move their eyes from the crowd, elsewhere. But how to understand what seems to be a disparate for the common sense, that is, that action could somehow be understood as a faculty separated from the realm of the “empirical society”, a term used by Adorno, the real world where everything seems to have a direct consequence, where revolution coincides with a growing awareness of an inability to change the social, where powerlessness just becomes the privileged object of a guilty self-reflection, that, in its turn, has marked the re-foundation of a new twist of critical thinking. Art’s and culture’s reflexive preoccupation with their own powerlessness and superfluity is precisely what makes them capable of theorizing powerlessness in a manner unrivalled by other forms of cultural praxis. However, to become one with the exercise of describing one’s own position, with the rehearsal of the despair provoked by restricted action, seems a sad near future.
Where to look then? Do we need a prophet of unfeelingness, as Carl Gustav Jung called James Joyce? He wrote: “we have a good deal of evidence to show that we actually are involved in a sentimentality hoax of gigantic proportions. Think of the lamentable role of popular sentiment in wartime! … Sentimentality is the superstructure erected upon brutality … I am deeply convinced we are caught in our own sentimentality … it is therefore quite comprehensible that a prophet should arise to teach our culture a compensatory lack of feeling”. Prophets aside, his words open a different space between passivity and action, making the un-feeling as a different way of acting, moving away from the paranoia that interprets the lack of movement, of the immediate release of a sentiment ignoble.
But the inexpressive, the inert, the unnervingly passive poses many problems to our modern understanding of the political. The hands in their pockets in terms of revolt, the lack of “movement” – action – is perceived as ambiguous, as equivocal because it is antipodal to our will of synchronizing with “our times.” The dysphoric provokes antagonism, it is not there with the rest of us, it is not opening the private into the public, is keeping away a space that belongs to us, is not circulating the same information as the rest, is stopping the circuit, is not transparent. It is the negative pole of empathy. For the lyric soul, for those who “burn with indignation” while witnessing the over-all proliferation of injustice, their hands in their pockets, or just elsewhere, painting monochrome surfaces on canvas, for example, are often seen as expressing a form of resentment, but why – would they not otherwise engage with what needs to be done? Why would they pretend they are living in different times?
Even Foucault, who vehemently rejects the idea of a sovereign, founding subject, a subject capable of experiences, of reasoning, of adopting beliefs and acting, outside all social contexts, even he preserves a form of sovereign autonomy under what he called the “agents.” In contrast to the modern misunderstanding of the autonomous subject, he defends that agents exist only in specific social contexts, but these contexts never determine how they try to construct themselves. Although agents necessarily exist within regimes of power/knowledge, these regimes do not determine the experiences they can have, the ways they can exercise their reason, the beliefs they can adopt, or the actions they attempt to perform. Agents are creative beings – like Jaromil, lyric – and their creativity occurs in a given social context that influences it.
So, not even Foucault dared to go for those not “attempting to perform”. Foucault went even further by arguing that we are free in so far as we adopt the ethos of enlightenment as permanent critique. This is why we assert our capacity for freedom by producing ourselves as works of art. As such, we are again faced with a more complex, more eloquent form of lyricism, where the goal is, after all, not only to be capable of producing sensuality of expression, but also for the self to become a sensual subject.
Therefore, the problem is not only that we identify action with the vivid, with life and that we want to be part of it, seeing withdrawal as a form of enfeeblement, a defect in affection that makes individuals step away from the stream of life. However, the question of lyricism points towards something much more important, methodologically speaking. It moves towards something that surpasses the aesthetic dimensions of our well-rehearsed ideological training: the possibility of conceiving time, historical time, as non-durational, and therefore breaking with our need to not only properly answer to what seems to be required by the force of the present, but also with the nervous tic of wanting to represent it.
Insofar as the understanding of history means delineating a chronological axis upon which events are ordered, the sole task of the historian is to ceaselessly insert the stories that have not yet been included in that great continuous narrative. Meanwhile, the institution (where an exhibition is understood as a way of institutionalising a material) is reduced to the place where the legitimacy of a right acquires a public form. The fact that the exercise of revision and the recovery of things forgotten provoke unanimous respect proves that a fitting vocabulary has been found, one that serves solely to avoid the unpredictable function of the experience of art.
Furthermore, the impact of this re-writing resembles the relationship between a text and a staggering number of footnotes that interrupt the reading process to remind us that writing eludes the author, and that countless parallel actions take place, and have taken place synchronously, with that great text. Those actions were hidden, but the time has come for a reordering, and that means finding a hole in the diachronic axis upon which history is written. “The well of the past,” to use Thomas Mann’s phrase, blossoms on the surface and drowns it. Nothing exists in the singular anymore. We can no longer speak, for instance, of a modernism, but rather of all its multiples. Yet, contemporary art seems to continue to be indivisible (perhaps that is the first symptom of its anachronism). Alongside this endless search for plurals, there lies in the bosom of history a second search: the search of those individuals – artists – who seem to be strangers to time, who escape the wanderings of the present. In the last decade, we have seen a heightening of the sensitivity to the exceptional in art, to those who at least appear to be unmoved by the logic of globalisation. The proliferation of projects on those others – those who think and act without us, so to speak – also forms part of this operation of recovery, which no longer symbolises justice, but the vast seductive power that myth, archetypical being and the genuine still hold in our culture. What these projects evidence is our fear of entering into a state of permanent instability.
The political importance of recovery as a tactic is directly proportional to the impossibility of formulating a more complex statement of the relationship between contemporary art and a discontinuous conception of time that is expressed in rhythms and cannot be represented as duration. In other words, a way of understanding time that is indifferent to the idea of progress and is therefore relieved of the imperative of innovation. This understanding of time has no qualms about repetition, about imitating what has already taken place. Generating doubt about these constant reincarnations and about the spontaneity of the contemporary would provide a way around the supposed sincerity with which it is believed that art and culture – but not, for instance, science – must speak.
In this dialectical interplay between great narrative and academic appendixes, the past and history are manifested as a new facet of culture and of its present power: this is not the power to delve into adventures of logic that might lead to a new episteme, but rather the de facto ability to include or exclude. Nonetheless, this explosion of voices and points of view has contributed to maintaining a degree of confidence in public opinion thanks to the constant effort at ceaseless expansion implied by historiographic revision and its relationship to contemporary art. The worst enemy of the enthusiasm inspired by the possibility of intervening on, interrogating, interfering with, modifying, amending, taking back and affecting hegemonic narration is the tendency to endlessness. Each footnote serves to both clarify and to obscure in a new way, one that, rather than providing a new consciousness of the issue at hand or of contributing to an understanding of the relationship between contemporary art and time, between production and the inextricable complexity of the contexts in which it appears, places us before endless windows through which we peer – always under the promise of completing history. We can assume the risk that disconcertion brings. What is harder, though, is to face the fact that there are those who attempt to replace this strain of research, not by adopting another logic, but by emulating this effort and reducing it to a mere gesture that credibly illustrates the choreography of this explosion of histories within history.
The problem lies in the fact that the politically correct is not a method, but rather a strategy to avoid confronting a technical difficulty: the understanding of times that cannot be reduced to duration, the grasping of rhythms that do not give rise to a continuity, that operate outside the melody of history. The desire to avoid incoherence by abandoning the philosophy of history stands in contrast to the need – one which Schelling insisted on long ago – to delve into other languages that formalise art objects, their ability to become facts and the role that individuals play along lines that distance us from the predictable. An exercise even more complex at a time when citizen-viewers are more passive than they are liberated in relation to what they expect from art.
On a social level, the language that has contributed to producing what is known as contemporary art partakes of the lyrical genre. It is a language geared towards creating enthusiasm, not method; a prose characterised by the careful choice of terms that defend the importance of teary eyes, the choreography of agency, the value of the hand on the heart rather than in the pocket. The inquisition of feelings – even “good” ones – is as much a part of the totalitarian world as the global economy, but it is cloaked in good will while, with true disdain, it attacks the “null” moments of life.
How to find a way out of this melodic way of understanding history without losing sight of rigor or responsibility? The “null,“ that which seems to have strayed from meaning – idiocy, nonsense – merits our attention more than ever before. In these forms of absentmindedness lies a new imagination of the private, a way of resisting the power of empathy in all its strains, whether real or virtual. Mistrust of a thoroughly defined present allows a part of artistic intelligence to elude the desire for art and for institutions to be able to respond eloquently to their times. In other words, it allows an escape from responsibility understood as the imposed need to answer for, to clarify and not to expose ourselves to the exuberance and lightness of thought.1
Literary imagination is not, as he once commented on Kafka, “a dream-like evasion or a pure subjectivity, but rather a tool to penetrate real life, to unmask it, to surprise it.” It was Lessing who, in his “Laocoon. An essay upon the limits of painting and poetry” (1766) first made the principle of chronotopicity clearly apparent; that is, that things that are static in space cannot be statically described, but must be incorporated into the temporal sequence of represented events, into the story’s own representational field. Lessing gives us an example: the beauty of Helena is not so much described by Homer as demonstrated by the actions of the Trojans.
The question of method always becomes a question of time, that is, a question that must truly consider a term largely forgotten in philosophy and art theory: rhythm. The anachronic names a different rhythm, the possibility of straining an analysis of meaning from a different angle that forces the subject and the context – whether institutional or not – to review the conditions from which it puts forth the experience and the interpretation of artistic production. I purposefully leave out art itself, since no art can be considered “contemporary”; that is an institutional consideration, not a question of practice. Indeed, the thesis would be that art is always anachronic. And “what must be reconstructed is the very idea of anachronism as error about time.”2 One of the ultimate aims of artistic production is to transform our idea of time. The anachronic implies accepting the importance of rhythm as fundamental to understanding the relationship between matter and energy. “Rhythm” here has no connection whatsoever with the virtual or the cosmic. In relation to art we, like Gaston Bachelard,3 should speak of a rhythmic realism: the introduction of material and conceptual parameters geared towards freeing us from the need to construct a cultural identity in terms of the philosophy of history.
Insisting that the anachronic is not an aberration but a need means that we must distance ourselves from a method of reading and interpretation dominated by the notion of duration, and instead delve into another method, into a contingency of heterogeneous times that provide other keys to pursue the question of meaning.
Duration implies order; rhythm, intensity. This difference has epistemological consequences: it means forgetting hermeneutics, putting away philological tools and inventing a new critical imagination. Hence, the assertion that the anachronic entails a risk (a challenge that art faces) means rejecting a whole set of conceptual exigencies to be able to express oneself in a foreign language, to introduce another rhythm and to generate a strangeness that forces us to reassemble the current unease. The question now is whether academies and institutions are willing to give up the ironclad alliance between time and space and to assume once and for all that leaving the system behind is not synonymous with chaos.
1.) Nietzsche said that those who defended the notion that thinking was an arduous task should be attacked.
2.) Jacques Rancière: «Le concept d’anachronisme et la vérité de l’historien», L’Inactuel, nº 6, 1996, p. 53.
3.) Gaston Bachelard: La Dialectique de la durée. París: Quadriage/PUF, 1950 (in the chapter on the analysis of rhythm).
[Dieser Text findet sich im Reader Nr. 1 auf S. 357.]