The Great Unobvious
"The world we have created today as a result of our thinking thus far has problems which cannot be solved by thinking the way we thought when we created them."
Any critical artist with the pretense of actualizing a strong critical statement but fated to cultural production in the framework of legitimate art institutions finds him-herself in a tricky situation. He is caught in the pincers of a "two-fold impossibility." On the one hand, his intentions are neutralized by the unspoken consensus of global corporate art scenes; this consensus "customizes" his statements and ultimately turns him into a creative functionary in prestigious artistic forums that are really no more than appendages of political events. On the other hand, the artist must face the fact that any revolutionary intervention into social space with the goal of changing the situation of the status quo meets with a hapless outcome. If, in the first case, he opts for mass culture and participates in politically correct projects of contemporary art, he can still easily blend into the glamorous atmosphere of cultural life, becoming a media star for the glory of capital. But in the second case, the artist faces the unavoidable fact of existential defeat, inevitably robbed by a society he loathes.
The history of "radical" art shows how a neo-liberal order undergoing globalization uses a well-oiled mechanism of its own devices to reproduce itself. While this mechanism allows the artist to construct a critical discourse, he actually stands no chance of ever actualizing it. The system injects itself with a critical barb, but its tissue immediately assimilates any destructive potential this insertion might have. After the system has completed this filigree work of recovery, counterpower loses the grandeur of its rage – its radical, destructive impulse – and turns into a plaything, performing the decorative role of a domesticated antithesis in a profane "systemic" game.
Such unfavorable conditions lead to an even greater radicalization of art, effecting its reduction to an unambiguous political gesture. But at the same time, art threatens to turn into an application-oriented instrument of ideology, losing all of its essential immanent traits. Here, the most impassioned producers of actual/contemporary art 1 engage with radical leftist revolutionary rhetoric and orient themselves toward a breakthrough to the actualization of the condition of an other, better, freer world. By doing so, they express their doubts in the immanent efficacy of art as such. After all, they argue, art is not adapted socially and ineffective in its immanence, and must become a mouthpiece for work in the ideological field, transforming the artist himself into a rank-and-file political activist who, in the worst case, inexorably takes on the role of a politically correct designer of globalization. As a counterbalance to this tendency, there is the intention of analyzing the autonomous dimension of art whose suggestive purity is capable of "giving birth to" more effective strategies of resisting the system. This discussion is complicated by permanent institutional activity that does not tolerate even the slightest "contemplative pause," when, in fact, it is this pause that provides the only chance for self-reflection, an unhurried, fundamental reconsideration of strategies chosen by both the individual contemporary artist and art as a whole.
In the framework of the current text, we will try to model this particular meditative pause, probing the body of art and feeling for the finest nerves of the other possibilities for self-actualization that have been eliminated by the discourse of actuality. The essence of our "message" is as follows: it has long since been time to embark upon a radical intellectual revision of both contemporary art and the mode of the artist's presence in the world. We can only undertake this effort if we extract ourselves from the "objective" causality that society imposes, or, more plainly put, from the growing pressures of this world's hustle and bustle.
One should say that any artist who positions himself as a subject resisting a new world order is necessarily rooted in the format of actual/contemporary art. Traumatized by the virus of total sociality, he has turned "inside out" completely. Thus, the focus of his attention lies in exterior space. Such meta-strategies can be arbitrarily called exclusive, since they are oriented toward the outside. The contemporary artist is an integral part of the dynamic in which global art projects are realized. This dynamic is conditioned by the pragmatic aspect of a worldwide curatorial practice that stimulates not the active, but the re-active side of the artist's creative nature. This, in turn, demands quick responses and adequate reactions to social mandates. In this case, the artist is hostage to his outer surroundings, becoming the passive object of a total sociality that places him into a humiliating dependency on the fluctuations of the social barometer and the system of financial investments these fluctuations articulate. His entire strategy, no matter how radical or revolutionary, responds to the System's popular demands and organically weaves itself into the fabric of pre-programmed social mutations, ultimately stimulating the hard and fast "circulation of capital." In other words, whether the artist wants it or not, he will have to play by the rules that the system imposes. In the short term, this automatically brings tactical losses. In a broader perspective, it leads to the collapse of his entire worldview.
Does this mean that any vector of protest through contemporary art is untenable? Or does the body of contemporary culture contain an explosive potential hitherto untouched by artists who see themselves as the subjects of resistance? A sense of the answers we might provide impels us to take a distance from the entire complex of problems that constitute the notion of contemporary art (as actual art). As strange as it sounds, the answers become increasingly optimistic as art loses its status of "actuality." Jumping ahead, we might say that a positive resolution of this crisis lies in a rather "simple" meta-perceptive gesture: in displacing the focus of attention (the center of gravity of existential tension) from the ontologically illegitimate outside (linear/total sociality/the realm of necessity) to the inside (living space/the realm of freedom), a leap into the space of unconditional faith. But since contemporary art is a functional product of the outside, the context of our consideration here prompts an incidental disassembly of its basic paradigmatic constructions.
Contemporary art is so vain and absorbed in the hustle and bustle of the everyday that it could be defined as visual journalism. Yet first of all, it will never reach the mobility or popularity of journalism proper (as in the mass media) or other mixed media fields (such as fashion and mass culture). Second, it inevitably sets itself at a growing distance from the ontological functions of art, which boil down to unhurried and fundamental existential analysis. Global art institutions channel the current flows of power in contemporary art, eliminating anyone who doesn't conform to its accelerated interchange of intellectual fashions. However, one should note that that there was always also a non-actual tendency. It decelerated such ultra-rapid processes and uncovered the zero-regime of creativity that lies at the base of any creative act. Artists of this (including Duchamp and Beuys, and in a broader historical context, Rimbaud and Artaud) are characterized by indifference to "the sphere of coercive social illusions set up by the specific bounds of various social groups" 2, finding their roots in an inner space of unconditional freedom and personal belief as a modality of the will to overcome the inauthentic form of being at hand 3. These artists preferred the quality of in-action (on the edge of utter failure) to quantitative productivity. Their works present singular "points of bifurcation" at which the development of art could have taken a different trajectory. (The fact that this never happened and that art always treacherously slid back into the "sin of reification" does not mean that another approach is not possible in principle.) Asceticism and the minimization of creativity's quantitative parameters are lethal to the producers of contemporary/actual culture whom the system (market) has forced into a pose of uninterrupted "mental ejaculation." This state of affairs allows us to intuit a hypothetical model of another, non-actual artist (and non-actual art as a unique type of anthropological praxis), oriented not toward satisfying society's growing "aesthetic" needs, but toward actualizing the potentialities of another world, another life. Of course, what is at stake here is the subjectivity of resistance, since nurturing the potentiality of another, better world in oneself is inseperable from a primal anthropological intention to radically reject this world as something ontologically inauthentic, and to absurdly believe in a fundamental alternative to what is (the primate of how things ought to be over how they are). By making this postulate, we necessarily identify the non-contemporary artist's designation with the designation of humanity "as such," as a being whose generic, anthropological specificity forces him to resist an "objective" outside.
Teymur Daimi. Golden Embryo. Performance. 2001. Teymur Daimi. Under cover. Video, DVD. 2002
At the present historical moment, the idea of resistance to the outer world has been reduced to the idea of resisting one of its particular segment, namely capitalism as a socio-political reality. This reduction limits the potential of resistance and narrows down the spectrum of the human being's possibilities for becoming aware of his or her generic designation. In the final analysis, it renders humanity's understanding of its active subjective nature null and void. Once this has happened, people have no choice but to agree with their pathetic slavery to the functions of social totality. It will become clear slightly further down that this question is not so much political as it is ontological. To be more precise, it involves politics (to the degree that all our lives are political), but not in the first instance.
In speaking of models for another type of artist, we cannot help but pay attention to the relationship between two notions fundamental to us, namely those of the "actual" and the "non-actual." 4 Actuality is connected to instantaneous, ultra-rapid slippage across "the surface of meaning," to a fixation and complication of the obvious. Actuality expresses what is, becoming the countenance of social existence. In the ideal, it is being as such. The actual artist cannot be a subject of resistance by his very definition since he exists in a world that has long since declared the death of the subject. As a confirmation of the logically justifiable consequence of rationalism, Nietzsche's "death of god" obliquely postulates nothing other than that the death of the subject as a living counterpoint to the realm of necessity 5. In this situation of existential defeat, any form of resistance has a decorative-operatic quality. After all, true resistance – its nature more metaphysical than social – can only be active and not re-active. In this case, resistance is understood not as a reaction to the pressures of the outer environment, but as something immanent to the subjective nature of humanity, presenting a paradoxical point that emanates a non-identity with everything that is. To put it different, the nature of resistance is essentially non-actual. In an actual situation, however, resistant subjectivity competes in an asymmetrical but monolithic sparring match with the object of resistance, and, as a productive function of the latter, cannot exist independently of it. In other words, the resistant subject has a vested interest in the unimpeachable presence of the object of resistance.
This invites the conclusion that the resistant subject and the object of resistance belong to one and the same ontological modality, to the universal intellectual paradigm of contemporaneity (as the "grand narrative" of the present). This modality presents an amorphous, secular, and pluralistic "Taoist-postmodern" reality, where the centers of conflicting forces are fluid and unstructured. The fact that they permeate one another means that they tend to create the illusion of non-conflictual being.
Let us be so bold as to postulate that the given modality of the actual presents little more than a discursive modification of the pagan pantheist concept of "absolute identity" ("the unity of all manifestations of being," "man and the world are one" etc.) This conception requires the absence or at least a maximal minimization of subjectivity as a mode of radical opposition to the whole, which is incorrect according to the conception at hand, since "everything is the whole." In the framework of this discourse, the final goal of the human being (of humanity) appears as the sublation [Aufhebung] of the distance between the perceiving and the perceived, and their final identification with the whole, signifying the end of the history and a life of happiness and prosperity in (neo-liberal, capitalist) society. At the same time, losing the status of a subject, the human being becomes a passive object of manipulations (through history, politics, and globalization...). It goes without saying that this approach leads to the waning of affect and a heightened degree of entropy. This is convenient to the forces of tyranny; in application to social reality, it is a brilliant means of canceling out the Kshatriya energy of the oppressed. It is for this reason that the rebirth of consciously radical subjectivity in the contemporary human being seems so very important in this context 6. This would entail the rebirth of the multi-dimensional subject as such, with its commitment to the only legitimate concrete truth, uncovered through an unconditional belief in the depth of personal existence and the opposition sum of "normative" truths in total sociality. On the strength of a non-dialectical contradiction between the ideas of the subject and actual modalities, the process of reanimating subjectivity is connected to overcoming this modality. But on this path, we need to redefine our "image of the enemy."
What is the object of resistance for the contemporary artist/intellectual? We think that we will make no mistake in saying that it is neo-liberal capitalism undergoing globalization as a production of a modernity defined more broadly, whose basic doctrines fit into the intellectual format of rationalism (Descartes, Bacon, Locke). Though (many) contemporary artist/intellectuals take up radical leftist positions and strive to attain and express subjectivities of resistance, they too are heir to the same rationalism. Using the prism of neo-Marxist rhetoric, they mark capitalism as a negative social formation, a historical deviation that needs to be corrected with the help of socio-political strategies, resulting in the idea of inevitable revolution 7. According to its logic, violent changes to socio-economic realities in the process of revolutionary changes automatically lead to another, more democratic world. But if one considers that these two opposing forces actually belong to the same ontological modality, isn't social revolution just more of the same in a different guise? And isn't capitalism/empire (or a society undergoing homogenization, as another way of putting it) no more than one form of a far greater substantial meta-structure that we might arbitrarily call the repressive whole? Isn't the idea of revolution as a surgical intervention into the body of history yet another insidious trap set by this repressive whole, through which the latter changes the stage set of its socio-political landscape, while leaving everything as it is, again and again?
Teymur Daimi. From the series "Surfaces". Photo. 2002. Teymur Daimi. The find of the Temple. Object in the open air. 2002. Teymur Daimi. Birth of an Archetype. Object. 1990
These questions spark the following line of thinking. If we look at history, and the rise and fall of empires and religions, we can see how the aforementioned repressive whole attempts to totalize or "globalize" itself, to become absolutely homogeneous, erasing and destroying everything in its path (and primarily, the human being, who subjectivity already challenges the idea of absolute homogeneity through its bare presence alone.) Since today's society of information rose on the yeast of modernity, it turns out to be the perfect form for this "procedure." But the ontological modality upon which modernity's entire intellectual scaffolding rests has withstood the test of history. It is the most adequate "operating system" for the format of alienated humanity. In a society where violence is an instrumental attribute of the repressive whole and dissolves into declared values of freedom and democracy, the horror of existential slavery is not as obvious as in earlier epochs that were not as "politically correct." The average individual has been "turned inside out;" finding himself on the periphery of his own consciousness, hypnotized by a propaganda of "universal human values" that caters to naïve ears, he volunteers himself as an object for tyranny and oppression. The society of the spectacle uses a system of suggestive, jesuitical tricks and conformist incentives to extinguish any spark of resistance. In this sense, all social revolutions in principle do no more than to push society into this final phase of globalization, reaching a level of alienation so high that it calls into question the continued existence of organic life on earth.
A characteristic symptom of the present situation can be found in the ultra-rapid subsuming of the inside by the outside in a "socialization of private life." Plainly put, there is an undisguised aggression through society and its media against each singularity that claims the right to sovereign thought. The average gaze sees pluralism and multiculturalism as factors that have decentralized planetary power and undermined totality. But in fact, all they have been able to achieve is the transition to a non-linear system of global control. Where is the guarantee that the "new" revolution that the forces of resistance yearn for will not be yet another contribution to this process, strengthening the ontological position of the repressive whole? Can it really be that human history is doomed to the endless re-actualization of utopian projects with foreseeable results? One can answer this final question with a clear yes, though under one condition: if it continues to manifest its activity exclusively in the framework of the current ontological modalities, and if the energy of its attentions continues to disperse itself in the exterior.
What, then, is the repressive whole? The anatomy of this meta-structure is subtle and ambivalent: on the one hand, it is anthropomorphic, but on the other hand, it is ontological. In looking at this first "quality," one could argue that the repressive whole is an externalizing, comprehensive projection of immanent anthropogenic qualities, thus becoming the objectified essence of the "human, all too human." The pagan cult of anthropocentricity, immune to criticism, and the resulting eternal fashionability of humanism confirm this perspective. According to its current modalities, the human being is self-sufficient, equal to himself, or, to be more precise, locked into his human shell. One could say that the repressive whole is an evolutionary project of the human factor's externalization. It installs a "human absolute" as a "feedback mechanism," implanting a program of non-stop self-fulfillment in the intellectual matrix of homo sapiens. This program's aim is a bad, quantitative infinity (the idea of progress). The line of bad infinity is actually composed of points that represent all social revolutions and innovations of the past, present, and future. This is why all meta-social historical action that pursues the outwardly noble goal of building a just society and improving the self-sufficiency of human nature – whose ideal project excludes all problematical discourses as stray interference to the harmonic and stable good – cannot help but reinforce the repressive whole. Though the latter declares positive values – freedom, love, prosperity, justice – it produces nothing but energetic shrinkage, entropy, regression, degradation, lies and violence, since it presents a self-contained system ("after the image and likeness"...), sealed off from any non-anthropogenic Other 8.
The second, ontological component of the repressive whole prompts us to identify it with being itself, with the sum-total of all that exists. This works according to the following logic. Since man is intrinsically social, all his interactions with the surrounding natural world are mediated by social relations. In this case, so-called objective reality and all it physical laws and causalities present nothing other than an anthropogenic product of social consensus. To put it differently, everything that enters humanity's field of perception immediately passes through social filters. In this way, the "boundaries" of reality, extended into spatiotemporal infinity, paradoxically coincide with the "boundaries" of the repressive whole. This is why man as a "social being" is thrown into a flexible, simulative network of social conventions from the moment of his birth. The repressive whole is equated to being. It follows that that the artist-intellectual's object of resistance is not so much triumphant capitalism as the repressive whole as a matrix of all possible social innovations and as "everything that is." This totality takes on the quality of a natural law (determinism) and an all-encompassing fatality (time), and opposes man as a terrifying negativity of absolute evil. In this sense, "biopolitical" perversions – an organic part of the capitalism that permeates every atom of contemporary life – are legitimated by the instance of actual being. Obviously, this is a situation of impenetrable darkness, metaphysical depression, existentially unbearable and irreversible in the framework of linear causality. And really, can one resist everything by unlocking the resource of subjectivity? And wherein does this resource lie? Isn't this way of posing the problem absurd in and of itself?
IT IS ABSURD! But it is precisely this absurdity that contains an exit: its unbearable urgency pushes us into the space of Belief...We might remember Tertullian: "I believe because it is absurd." I believe despite...
Belief "does not work" with actual being, with what is, since being is obvious 9. As an oblique disavowal of the authenticity of the obvious, belief "appeals" to the impossible, i.e. it posits that its object is not in actuality, but "resonates" with the non-actual, or, to speak in the categories of political culture, with utopia. We are speaking of belief in the final inevitability of a fundamental alternative to that which is. This belief rests upon a fact unobvious to the rational gaze, namely the discrepancy between man (the inner "self") and the (outer) world, a discrepancy that provides the conditions for the explosive energies of apophasis: impulses of transgression, fierce breakthroughs to the "anthropological limit," projecting the will to the non-existent and the fundamental intention of overcoming the mode of being at hand as something inauthentic. In terms of methodology, this means that contemporary intellectual practice must rethink and include a concept eliminated by rationalism, the concept of "non-identity," postulating the absolute non-identity of man and the world. The logic of this concept is as follows. Objectively, man has always considered the exterior (i.e. the repressive whole) as the primary and at the same time final ontological instance whose essences lies in absolute homogeneity and infinity.
It is precisely this "last" instance that has been designated by so many various philosophical-historical contexts as the "absolute," "unity," "universe," "origin", etc. What is so intriguing is that the very presence of the human being as a perceptive point that consciously perceives this homogeneous instance, breaks its homogeneity: absolute homogeneity cannot allow the existence of something qualitatively different. In other words, homogeneity/infinity excludes the testimony of consciousness as a factor that sullies the "purity" of homogeneity and limiting infinity. The subject of perception cannot be subsumed under the idea of absolute homogeneity, since the only thing capable of perceiving consciously (reflecting) is that which is different from the perceived object in principle. (Otherwise, one cannot really speak of perception.) In this sense, perception could be characterized as a dramatic meeting of "identity" and "non-identity." While its presence postulates the fundamental ontological otherness of the human being to everything that exists (subjectivity's radical center as the point that breaks an "original" homogeneity), it also limits the expansion of the repressive whole, providing an oblique emphasis of its illegitimacy, meaning that it is doomed in a historical perspective. The point of absolute non-identity is the "place" where radical subjectivity resides. It appears as a counterpoint to the repressive whole. The human being (artist) can be defined as an agent of the absolute other who has been thrown into a hostile reality, a point of chaos in the realm of false order and deceptive stability, maintained convulsively.
Taking what we have just said into account, we might say that the intuition of belief moves the contemporary artist/intellectual to undertake a crucial metholodical act, the act of making an existential difference between the inside and the outside. Or, to put it differently, the act of de-identification with the repressive whole, which severs the umbilical chord with total sociality, also entails overcoming the current/actual ontological modalities and reviving truly radical subjectivity. We should admit that this act is far from painless. It assumes a thoroughgoing revision of contemporaneity's intellectual paradigms, which, notwithstanding their subtle modification, have never gone beyond making judgment calls in the format of Enlightenment rationalism. The actualization of these point of non-identity will not be possible without the beginning (and further intellectual development) of a strategy to eliminate this rationalism with non-actual/non-contemporary discourses, such as that of eschatology, since any idea on the "historical" finity of the repressive whole only makes sense in an eschatological perspective. To put it differently, there is a growing need to break into taboo zones that Enlightenment rationalism has labeled as archaic and primitive.
On this path, the most difficult thing will probably lie in abandoning idea of the human being's self-sufficiency, and admiting his instrumentality and dramatic ambivalence. In a corporal sense, the human being is one with the repressive whole. However, he uses an inner point of non-identity to communicate with the non-anthropogenic other, which expresses itself in non-linear processes that are catastrophic (to the repressive whole), but providential as well, breaking the shell of any absolutized human factor. In this way, the artist/intellectual's actualization of the point of non-identity through an unobvious implosive meta-strategy (that emphasize the primacy of the inside over the outside) will entail a "solidaritization" with the non-linear energy of the other.
How can one apply this complex of existential procedures to the field of social practice? This question is exceptionally difficult and goes beyond the bounds of the present text. Our aim here has only been to sketch out the contours of another, non-actual/non-contemporary creative strategy that might find its subject in the non-actual/non-contemporary artist/intellectual, for whom resistance is not a method for ideological struggle against an obvious deviation, but the essential seed of humanity's meta-historical predestination itself, thrown into this unbearable world. The only thing one could say in the practical sphere is that the fundamental procedures sketched out above cannot be undertaken in the rushed fashion that is so characteristic of current society. Any fundamental gesture dissipates as soon as it is "captured" by society. This means that the act of existential separation between the Interior and the Exterior needs to be transported into a social setting: having becoming aware of the ontological illegitimacy of the repressive whole and that it is a castaway in current society, the artist/intellectual must differentiate itself spiritually from the latter, using all the strength of his will to create a "contemplative pause" for himself. That is, while continuing to manifest outer reflexive activity in the field of the hostile spirit of mass culture, the artist/intellectual inner being needs to undertake a cultural differentiation by refusing to subject the products of the fragile intellectual process to the greedy medial ray of total sociality, since everything that falls into its scope is infected and debased. In this case, truly creative, interdisciplinary work will take place in the measured peace and quite of a sovereign, alternate community of intellectuals, governed by criteria, rules, and principles that are completely different. At the same time, the creation and constant reinforcement of an autonmous intellectual environment in a hostile society (a Noah's arc of sorts) under stiff pressure of the Exterior is one of the artist/intellectual's most important tasks, requiring a collossal effort of the will, intellectual courage, paradoxical ethical gesture, and even sacrifice. Yet all of this requires faith. We are speaking of spiritual survival, and nothing less.
1 Trans. note: The Russian aktual'noe means both current (i.e. contemporary) and actual (i.e. realized). Throughout the article, the author plays on this ambivalence by using the term aktual'noe iskusstvo to mean both. The term itself, widespread in the time of perestroika and beyond, has no direct English equivalent, so I have opted to translate it as contemporary/actual art.
2 M. Mamardashvili, E. Solov'ev, V. Shvyrev, Klassika i sovremennost: dve epokhi v razvitii burzhuaznoi filosofii // Filosofiya v sovremennom mire. [Classical Culture and Modernity: Two Epochs in the Development of Bourgeois Philosophy // Philosophy in the Modern World] (Moscow: Nauka 1972), p. 53
3 In a historical view, one could find the first collective subjects of the tendency discussed here in the first communities of almost all of the great world religions. Until their ideas were universalized and established as institutional religions (as the result of an inversive re-adaptation of a spiritual message to society), their activities were not aimed at reactive intervention into social structures, but at the accretion of a paradoxical and counter-pragmatic belief in an absolute Other. It is precisely this "zero"-strategy, which would appear to be politically na?ve, led to a passionate energetic explosion within social space, followed by "civilizational-cultural" expansion, a phenomenon associated with the theory of the universe's origin in nothingness...
4 This relation cannot be classed as binary: the opposite of "actuality" is "potentiality." The "non-actual," however, appears in a different, non-dualistic modality, a transcendent binary connection of "actual potential."
5 This also seems to supply at least one reason for the forced rejection of the notion of "the human essence" in European thinking. After all, this notion is inextricably connected to the status of the human being as a substitute for God, as the latter's representative on earth. This very idea was already placed in quotation marks by rationalism as a scientifically inaccurate discourse.
6 In essence, the intellectual practices of many thinkers today pursues precisely this goal. In our opinion, however, the anthropogenic optics of their thinking and the resulting immunity against trascendent (metaphysical/theological) discourses, this goal becomes a receding horizon.
7 To be fair, we should say that not only the left but also the right is delirious with the idea of a final Revolution (i.e. a conservative revolution).
8 In this connection, it makes sense to note that the global crisis of the natural environment is conditioned by a conscious estrangement of humanity from its non-human other, resulting from the repressive whole. According to the laws of "advanced" physics, any closed system is doomed to entropy.
9 Here, it makes sense to remember Jacques Derrida: "Everything obvious is false."
Born in 1966 in Baku, Azerbajan. Artists, film-maker, theorist.
Lives in Baku, Azerbajan.