TIM MURRAY: Welcome. For those of you who haven't heard this about 5,000 times, I'm Tim Murray, Director of the Society for the Humanities. And I'd like to welcome you to the-- oh, hi. I'd like to welcome you to the plenary talk of this weekend's conference on Global Aesthetics-- Intersecting Culture, Theory, Practice, sponsored by the Society for the Humanities and the Central New York-- the Mellon Central New York Humanities Corridor, with significant assistance of the Humanist Foundation, for which we're tremendously grateful.
In considering potential conference plenary speakers for this very interesting and challenging weekend that we have, who might put the problematic of global aesthetics into critical and theoretical relief, I didn't have to look much further than down the hall, to our Cornell faculty Fellow at the Society for the Humanities, Bruno Bosteels.
Our fellows have come to join-- oh, now this doesn't make any sense. Our fellows have come to join me in my appreciation of the Bruno's witty and acute insight, which always seems to bring his readings to the core of the matter in both critical and reparative fashion. The [INAUDIBLE] comes moreover from a wealth of erudition that permits the mobile scholar to move fluidly, but tremendously accurately, between the terrains of European and Latin American literature, philosophy, aesthetics, and art.
Bruno's passion for Alain Badiou is matched by his zeal for Latin American artists, such as the Argentinian painter Guillermo Kuitca, on whom Bruno has written extensively, who has a major show, actually, up in New York right now. It's from Westwater Gallery.
His research interests include the crossovers between art, literature, theory, and cartography. He is one of the, I think, motivators and movers behind the new cartography movement, as well as the radical movements of the 1960s and 70s, decadence, dandyism, and anarchy at the turn between the 19th and 20th century, which is a Society for Humanities project.
He's also worked tremendously hard on articulating the communist hypothesis, cultural studies, and critical theory, as well as the reception, which is tremendously important, of Marx and Freud in Latin America, about which he's taught us so much. Indeed, Bruno has been relentless in encouraging the theoretical community to take a closer look at the tradition of Latin American dialectical thinking, and it's practical as well as thoughtful consequences on contemporary theory. Personally, Bruno also has taught me to rethink the delights of mixing barbecue with Coca-Cola, which lends one more inclined to admire his skills at laying hardwood floor and flagstone. He's a thinker who strikes quick at the hip, while layering his critique with humor and friendship.
So now for the official introduction, Bruno Bosteels is Professor of Romance Studies at Cornell University, and the general editor of Diacritics, which is a renowned critical theory journal, published out of Cornell's Department of Romance Studies. Before coming to Cornell, he held positions as an assistant professor at Harvard University and Columbia. He's the author of-- now I'm going really get into trouble, because I'm going to try to pronounce all of Bruno's titles, which will show me for what I am.
He's the author of Badiou o el recomienzo del materialismo dialectico-- terrible. Alain Badiou, une trajectoire polemique, these are separate books, and Marx and Freud in Latin America. He's currently preparing a manuscript entitled, After Borges, Literature and Antiphilosophy, as well as finishing a short book on Marxist correspondence, with Arnold Ruge, La revolucion de la [SPEAKING FRENCH].
Bruno is also the translator of several tremendously important books by Alain Badiou, and it has really helped us understand the importance of this previously, relatively overlooked philosopher. Theory of the Subject, Can Politics be Thought, followed by An Obscure Disaster: On the End of the Truth of State, and What is Antiphilosophy: Writings on Kierkegaard, Nietzche, and Lacan, both for Duke University Press.
It's actually absolutely amazing that Bruno's able to write all of these books, while translating all of these major tomes at the same time. He is the author of dozens of articles on modern Latin American literature and culture, and on contemporary European philosophy and political theory. The titles of his numerous recent articles amply attest to the range and commitment to his work.
So we have Badiou and Hegel, Hegel in America, From Potentiality to Inexistence, Politics is the Art of the Impossible. Untimely Decadence in Latin America, as well as The Melancholy Left: Specters of 1968 in Mexico and Beyond, and art politics history, as Badiou and Ranciere, amongst many others.
So while I can't promise you barbecue, I invite you all to join us for a reception at A.D. White House, following Bruno's talk on global aesthetics and its discontents. Bruno Bosteels.
BRUNO BOSTEELS: OK, well, first of all, I'd like to thanks Tim Murray, Director of the Society for Humanities, for this very generous invitation, but more particularly, for creating at the A.D. White House what I truly believe is an oasis in our university and in the country for thoughtful discussions, workshops, seminars, and international conferences. And I think that this two day conference speaks to Tim's extraordinary knowledge, but also the generosity with which he's able to get so many people from all parts of the world to participate on this topic.
What I have to say-- I will divide this in three parts, unless I run out of time, and there will be only two parts.
TIM MURRAY: I guess I better get out my watch.
BRUNO BOSTEELS: I have it already running, so-- and basically, I want to talk about the notion of aesthetic revolution and then give it two rebuttals, one more geopolitical, and the other one more theoretical in nature. And since Tim, when he asked me, also suggested very subtly that I spoke about Guillermo Kuitca. When we tried, it's very hard to bring to Cornell, and he has promised us for many years that he would come. But unfortunately, it didn't work out for this time of the year. I will try, if time allows it, to talk a little bit about his work at the very end, turning from literature to painting.
The first part is called The Aesthetic Revolution, and I would like to frame this with two epigraphs. The first is from the Chilean poet Vicente Huidobro, from his book Altazor. And it says, [SPEAKING SPANISH]. "The four cardinal points are three, the south, and the north."
And the second is a quote from the little manifesto, if you want, The Coming Insurrection from the Invisible Committee. "Today, the West is the GI who dashes into Fallujah on an M1 Abrams tank, listening to heavy metal at top volume. It's a tourist lost in the Mongolian plains, mocked by all, who clutches his credit card as his only lifeline. It's a CEO who swears by the game Go. It's the art lover who wants us to be awestruck before the modern genius of a century of artists, from surrealism Viennese actionism, all competing to see who could best spit in the face of civilization."
In a recent article titled The Aesthetic Revolution and Its Outcomes, first published in New Left Review, but taking up ideas from his 2004 book Malaise dans l'esthetique, translated under the title Aesthetics and its Discontents, Jacques Ranciere summarizes much of his ongoing work on the relation between art and politics by highlighting the different scenarios, or [INAUDIBLE], as he calls them, for imagining how, in the modern age, life might become subsumed into art, or conversely, how art might be dissolved back into life.
The two sides of the so-called aesthetic revolution, however, lies in the space in between these two sides of the dialectic, in so far as it relies neither on the critique of alienated or damaged life in the name of arts autonomy that alone would hold the promise of happiness, nor on the critique of the institution of art in the name of a revolution of everyday life. Instead, at a more fundamental level, the revolution in question presupposes a blurring of the very distinction between art and non art. As we can read in Aesthetics and its Discontents, which is obviously a play on Freud's text Civilization and its Discontents, the property of being a thing of art refers to a distinction among ways of doing-- not to a distinction among ways of doing, but to a distinction among ways of being.
This is what aesthetic means. The property of being art in the aesthetic regime is not given on the basis of criteria of technical perfection, but by the assignation of a certain form of sensible apprehension. Here and elsewhere, as in the article for New Left Review, Ranciere is fond of illustrating the effects of this process, with a reference to the bazaar de curiosity, from the opening pages of Balzac's 1831 novel, La Peau de chagrin, The Wild Ass's Skin.
In the showrooms over the different floors of this curiosity shop, all kinds of objects, gadgets, booklets and other commodities from around the world are put on display, mingled with works of art, relics, old statues, and various paintings, both famous and unknown. For Ranciere, this muddle and confusion is suggestive of the fact that henceforth, as a result of the aesthetic revolution that breaks with the ethical and representational canons for the distribution of genres and styles, any object whatsoever it can cross the border between art and non art and back.
This is from the article. "The old curiosity shop makes the Museum of Fine Arts and the Ethnographic museum equivalent." And keep this statement in mind. I'll come back to this later on. It dismisses the argument of prosaic use or personification. If the end of art is to become a commodity, the end of a commodity is to become art. By becoming obsolete, available for everyday consumption, any commodity or familiar article becomes available for art, as a body ciphering history and object of disinterested pleasure. It is re-aesthetisized in a new way.
The heterogeneous sensible is everywhere. The prose of everyday life becomes a huge, fantastic poem. Any object can cross the border and repopulate the realm of aesthetic experience. As you can see, I'm not as adept as [? Simone ?] with the PowerPoint.
What this seductive paraphrase seems to leave out of the picture, however, is precisely the global dimension of this aesthetic revolution that allows us constant border crossings between art and non art. In fact, could we even imagine such a thing as a global aesthetic revolution, along the lines of Ranciere's argument? Or shall we perhaps entertain the possibility that the global and the aesthetic, in this precise sense, are profoundly and systematically at loggerheads, each notion being internally divided and separated from the other by sharp antagonisms that give the lie to the illusion of boundless flow and availability.
In fact, as Simone also reminded me, a contrarian spirit that I am, I first thought of giving this talk the title, "Neither Global nor Aesthetic."
What is at stake in raising these questions? It's not just a matter to be solved with a knee jerk reaction, of demanding the inclusion of more regions, different examples, or other references from beyond the confines of Western Europe. To be sure, by and large, the [INAUDIBLE] question is limited to France and Germany, with examples drawn from Balzac to [INAUDIBLE], and the philosophical framework from Schiller to [INAUDIBLE] to [INAUDIBLE].
But at the same time, the idea seems to be that this argument for a so-called aesthetic regime in the distribution of the sensible, a distribution in which art and non art constantly collide and exchange roles, could easily be extended and transposed as-is onto other regions or areas, perhaps even including the third world.
Are we confident, though, that such a transposition is feasible without troubling the conceptual scaffolding that supports it? Must not the logic of the aesthetic revolution itself undergo substantial changes, as soon as we include the global dynamics of center and periphery, empire and colony, north and south? More so than the corrective of tokenism then, what would be needed is a qualitative shift in our understanding of the politics of aesthetics in the age of globalization.
To illustrate the nature of this shift, and before coming back to the 19th century, let me leap forward in time and take a closer look at another motley collection of objects and artifacts, this time taken from Alejo Carpentier's 1949 novella, El rein el des de mundo, The Kingdom of This World. I am referring to a scene from the opening chapter, titled "Las Cabezas de Cera," in which the slave, Ti Noel lets his gaze fall on the wax heads on the shelf, standing at the entrance of the barber's shop, where his master is receiving a clean, morning shave.
"While his master was being shaved, Ti Noel could gaze his fill at the four wax heads that adorned the counter by the door. The curls of the wigs, opening into a pool of ringlets on the red [INAUDIBLE] framed expressionless faces. Those had seemed as real, although their fixed stare was so dead, as a talking head an itinerant mountebank had brought to the cap years before to promote the sale of an elixir for curing tooth ache and rheumatism."
Immediately after this first description, our readers' gaze is pulled sideways, together with Ti Noel's, toward the objects on display at the shop next door, separated from the wax heads at the barber's only by a thin, wooden panel, easily crossed by the old slave's wondering imagination. "By an amusing coincidence, in the window of the tripe shop next door, there were calves' heads, skinned, and each with a sprig of parsley across the tongue, which possessed the same waxy quality. They seemed asleep among the pickled oxtail's, calf's foot jelly, and pots tripe, [INAUDIBLE]. Only a wooden wall separated the two counters, and it amused Ti Noel to think that alongside the pale calves' heads, heads of white men were served on the same tablecloth. Just as fowl for a banquet are adorned with their feathers, so some experienced macabre cook might have trimmed the heads with their best wigs. All that was lacking was a border of lettuce leaves or radishes cut in the shape of lilies."
Finally, and although even for a distracted reader, this explicit edition may already turn out to be unnecessary and overly didactic. A third exhibit of heads, also perhaps about to be severed, comes to us in the guise of a series of prints recently arrived from Paris. "The morning was rampant with heads, for next to the tripe shop, the bookseller had hung on the wire with clothes pins the latest prints received from Paris. At least four of them displayed the face of the King of France in a border of sun [? swords ?] and laurel.
But Tin Noel's attention was attracted, at that moment--" sorry for that. "--by a copper engraving. The last of this year's was different from the others in subject and treatment. It represented a kind of French Admiral or ambassador being received by a Negro, framed by feather fans and seated upon a throne adorned with figures of monkeys and lizards. What kind of people are those? he boldly inquired of the bookseller, who was lighting a long clay pipe in the doorway of his shop. That is the King of your country."
Everything, in a sense, is here, as suggested by Ranciere. First, the mixing of art and non art, the high and low, culture and tribes, then the thresholds and thin walls, unable to contain or control the flow of commodities, and finally, even the desacralizing, emancipatory effects of the sheer juxtaposition of this heterogeneous sensible, which threatens to bring down kings, hang or decapitate the nobility, and render visible the empty place of power, waiting to be occupied by the black Jacobins of Haiti, which, in the final instance, is a topic of Carpentier's entire novel.
And yet, at the same time, one cannot avoid the impression that so much more is visible in the distribution of the sensible, according to the kingdom of the world, than in the curiosity shop, where Balzac's hero, Rafael, who, at this point, is still referred to only as the young man or the unknown one, will eventually purchase his shrinking wild ass skin. Or to be more precise, much more visible in the treatment that Carpentier, and even for that matter Balzac himself, give to these opening scenes than in the way the curiosity shop from [INAUDIBLE] repeatedly comes to serve as a quintessential illustration of the aesthetic revolution in the eyes of Ranciere.
In fact, if now we look back from the colonial periphery to the modern aesthetic revolution that allegedly takes place in the metropolis, can we not see signs of discontent that gnaw away at the narrative presented to us with such persuasive force from within the confines of Western Europe? For all its emancipatory promise, what this narrative seems to leave unremarked, if not openly disavows, is the violence of primitive accumulation and colonial expropriation, without which the aesthetic revolution would not even have been possible in the first place.
The question, therefore, is not so much whether we can imagine a global, aesthetic revolution that would do for other parts of the world Balzac's curiosity shop reveals so brilliantly for Europe, but rather, the more pertinent question is how can we possibly continue to imagine an aesthetic revolution without taking into account the practices of colonial and imperialist expansion that enable it, and quite possibly even threaten it, with collapse.
If, at this point, I may be allowed to put Ranciere in the company of a rather strange bedfellow, much can still be learned about the geopolitics of the so-called aesthetic revolution by turning to the brutally, clairvoyant final works of Carl Schmitt. In the Nomos of the Earth, especially, Schmitt gives us a most realistic account of the Constitution of the first truly global, world order, as a result of the appropriations of lands in the Americas. The new global image, resulting from the circumnavigation of the earth and the great discoveries of the 15th and 16th century, Schmitt writes, "required a new spatial order. Thus began the epoch of modern, international law that lasted until the 20th century."
According to Schmitt, in fact, no properly global order exists before this era, which marks a 400 year period of European international law, the so-called Jus Publicum Europaeum. All pre-global orders were essentially terrestrial, even if they had encompassed sea powers [NON-ENGLISH]. The original terrestrial world was altered in the Age of Discovery, when the Earth first was encompassed and measured by the global consciousness of European peoples. This resulted in the first nomos of the earth. It was based on a particular relation between the spatial order or firm land and the spatial order of free sea. And for 400 years, it supported a Eurocentric, international law, the Jus Publicum Europaeum.
It began with the discovery of a new world and the start of the modern age and kept pace with the development of geographical maps and of the globe itself. The word "global" captures the encompassing and planetary, as well as the external and superficial character of this type of thinking, based on the equation of land and sea surfaces. And parenthetically, it's obvious that this is not simply beginning in 1492.
For Schmitt, this global order starts to unravel around 1890, that is, around the times of the Congo conference, held in 1885, in Berlin, under Bismarck. The seeing of Japanese war of 1894, which signals the emergence of Japan as a new East Asian great power, and the Spanish-American war of 1898, which marks the beginning of World dominance of the United States.
Without in any way subscribing to the obscure ideological operation that is at work in The Nomos of The Earth-- I mean basically, Schmitt is trying to sort of inscribe the justice of this world order within the very ground of the earth. Two aspects in particular are worth noting in Schmitt's account of globalization. The first concerns is what he calls global linear thinking, that is the distribution of order and chaos, according to several types of lines running across the globe. Three types to be precise.
First, the so-called [? rayas, ?] lines are strokes established under the pope's authority in bulls or treaties, such as the ones from Tordesillas, 1494, or Zaragoza, 1526, to separate the territorial claims of Spain and Portugal. Second the French and English tradition of amity lines, for example, the one established by a secret clause of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559, separating in Catholic, land-appropriated powers and Protestant sea powers from the non-Christian free zones, where a Hobbesian state of nature reigned, and man was in fact a wolf to other men.
And third, in what for Schmitt is already the beginning of the end, the line separating the so-called Western hemisphere above all the United States, not from Asia or the east, but from the old west, that is from old Europe, or Europe, which now becomes the old west, as opposed to the new west of the western hemisphere.
What the global order drawn up along these lines enables is above all, a bracketing of war and conflict within the borders of Europe-- and this is the second important aspect, I think, that we should take from Schmitt's Nomos of the Earth-- while the law of the strongest ruled beyond the line. For example, religious and other civil wars could be avoided on this side of the line within Europe, as war among European states became juridically formalized, as an inter-European war among sovereign states, who recognized each other as such, precisely in opposition to the state of nature, now physically and geographically located on the other side of the amity line.
For Schmitt, this is a major, almost miraculous, accomplishment of Eurocentric international law. A rationalization, humanization, and legalization, a bracketing of war, was achieved against this background of global lines. At least with respect to continental land war in European international law, this was achieved by limiting war to a military relation between states. Basically, personalized sovereign states act as lords in a duel among European world powers, recognizing themselves as sovereign states, with a formal game of war, as opposed to the savage order of force that reigns on the other side.
It isn't this light, for example, that we can read the meaning of the French and English notion of amity lines. The significance of amity lines in 16th and 17th century international law was that great areas of freedom were designated as conflict zones in the struggle over the distribution of the new world. And of course, unwittingly, Ranciere never refers to this, you can hear a sort of Rancierian impulse in Schmitt's otherwise brutally honest account of Eurocentric imperialism.
As a practical justification, one could argue that the designation of a conflict zone at once freed the area on this side of the line, in Europe, a sphere of peace and order ruled by European public law, 200 years without religious or creedal wars, from the immediate threats of those events beyond the line, which would not have been the case had there been no such zone. The designation of a conflict zone outside Europe contributed also to the bracketing of European wars, which has its meaning and its justification in international law.
This is an operation, which for Schmitt, of course, because of a professional [INAUDIBLE] jurists were extremely important in formulating the legal and juridical framework for this type of bracketing of the war within Europe, at the cost, obviously, of the projection of destruction and devastation on the other side of the line.
Should we not reflect upon the consequences of the necessary concomitants of these practices, the drawing of lines that simultaneously produces a bracketing of war within, and a flaring up of agonal conflict and destruction without, for the thinking of global aesthetics? Could we not argue that the aesthetic revolution, which, in the 19th century, blurs a distinction of art and non art, happens only in Europe on this side of the various [? rayas ?] and amity lines that separate Europe from the so-called free zones beyond the line, ready to be appropriated and colonized?
In other words, Europe, you know, to put it metaphorically, is closing off its border. And then from within those borders, art and non art can become indistinguishable. And this does have emancipatory potential. But the cost of this is obviously invisible, unless we will look beyond those global lines.
What are we as critics, art historians, artists, or theorists supposed to do in the face of this ominous interpretive possibility? As a [INAUDIBLE] contribution to this question, I propose to focus on the period of the end of the 19th century, when we might say that on the one hand, the aesthetic revolution reaches a peak in this sphere of [INAUDIBLE] and aestheticism. While on the other hand, the Eurocentric Nomos of the Earth, which, after having known a period of what Schmitt calls optimism, between 1870 and 1890-- that is, high period of imperialism-- begins to crumble in the wake of 1885 Congo conference, which Schmitt labels as "the last great act of a common, European international law." A juridical framework for the appropriation of non European soil by Europe, the so-called scramble for Africa.
The difficulty of the task of the critic, and thus for me, the whole challenge, lie precisely in the fact that the art and literature of this period only rarely, if ever, give us a glimpse of the violent process of drawing amity lines, without which, in my eyes, no aesthetic revolution could ever have taken place. But we have a literary image. I could illustrate this with a late 19th century pendant to Balzac's curiosity shop.
Before providing the goods that will come to populate the public dreamworld of the arcades, so famously studied by Walter Benjamin and after him by Susan Buck-Morss, the impulse behind Balzac's curiosity shop in a way reaches a grand summa in the private abode of des Esseintes, the decadent hero of Joris-Karl Huysmans's 1884 novel, A rebours, or Against Nature. Even in this most extreme of artificial paradises, the sound of daily labor in and around their house constantly threatens to interrupt the phantasmagoric accumulation of decadent art, liquor, and literature. Therefore, when des Esseintes decides to invite the two old servants, who had looked after his mother until she died, to come and work for him in his secluded villa in [INAUDIBLE] in the suburbs of Paris, he has to insist on a series of stratagems to ensure that to the best of their ability, they make themselves not just invisible, but also inaudible.
The husband's duty was to clean the rooms and go marketing, the wife's to do all the cooking. Des Esseintes gave up the first floor of the house to them, but he made them wear thick, felt slippers, had the doors fitted with tambours and their hinges well oiled, and covered the floors with long pile carpeting to make sure that he never heard the sound of their footsteps overhead.
Now of course, des Esseintes sort of accumulates all the-- sort of a museum, a personal museum, of art works and commodities from all around the globe, but this comes at the price of having to sort of seal off any noise coming from overhead. In sum, when it comes to understanding the aesthetic revolution from a global perspective, all I am asking, in a sense, is that literary critics, art historians, and critical theorists do not in turn put on thick, felt slippers, that we try instead to hear the creaking of the doors, when all of a sudden, and for a brief while, they open up onto the outside or even become unhinged, and that we attune our ears to listen to the muffled sound of footsteps, not just above our heads, but also next door, and on the other side of the amity lines that enclose western Europe.
For me personally, such an approach became inevitable no sooner than I tried to tackle this problematic from the opposite end of the globe, by taking a closer look at one particular moment in the larger aesthetic revolution, initiated in the 19th century, namely, the moment of decadence, dandyism, and [INAUDIBLE] aestheticism, in order to see how this moment takes shape across the Atlantic in Latin America.
So this is the second part. They become shorter and shorter, so--
Now, among contemporary critics-- well, let me give a brief epigraph from Sylvia Malloy in an important study on Oscar Wilde and his reception in Latin America. She says, "Latin Americans admire [INAUDIBLE], they do not or cannot rewrite him."
Now among contemporary critics, there exists a strong tendency to take the study of decadence in Latin America, like that of other terms of cultural puritization, such as modernism, the avant garde, or postmodernism, to be an unmistakable sign of Eurocentrism. It would mean, once again, to reduce what is most authentic in Latin American culture of the period, roughly between 1885 and 1910, to being a pale and belated mimicry of the original cosmopolitan models of decadence, which as usual, are found primarily in Paris and in London. In fact, this argument only reiterates the reasoning with which decadent tendencies in art and literature are rejected from the beginning in Latin America.
What is more, insofar as the style of decadence is already perceived to revolve around self-conscious artifice, it is easy to understand why accusations against his being an unnatural excrescence of otherwise wholesome concerns, could only become all the more virulent in the case of Latin America.
One further corollary of this argument though is a refusal to consider the actual exchanges during this period between Europe and Latin America. Otherwise then is further confirmation of the ongoing struggle between center and periphery, as if the traumas of dependency prolonged themselves deeply into the hearts of even the best intended comparatives of the present. What is [? thereby ?] lost is the inner dynamic of phenomena, such as decadence, and the specific ways in which they unfold in Latin America, but also as a matter of fact, in Europe.
I would thus suggest that we address not just the undeniable dominance of these Eurocentric period terms, but also the blinding effects of an all too rash critique of them, which by a kind of overcompensation continues to leave the study of European decadence in a realm of its own, wholly cut off from its ties to the non-European or non-western world. In other words, if you study decadence in Latin America, you're being Eurocentric. And if you study decadence in Europe, you never have to worry about what was [INAUDIBLE] beyond Europe. So we're at a dead end, right? And the critique of Eurocentrism does not help, because it still leaves these realms in separate spheres, beyond the call for token examples from different regions.
But in fact, I would argue that European decadence itself cannot be understood purely and simply on its own terms. Rather to grasp a sense of decadence requires that we also take into account the legacy and crisis of national traditions from a global perspective. Charles Baudelaire gives us an early glimpse of the kind of comparatism that would be needed to understand this dialectic of the national and the global.
"Dandyism," Baudelaire writes in the Painter of Modern Life, first published in 1863, "appears above all in periods of transition, when democracy is not yet all powerful, and aristocracy is only just beginning to totter and fall. In the disorder of these times, certain men who are socially, politically, and financially ill-at-ease, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], but are all rich in native energy, may conceive the idea of establishing a new kind of aristocracy, all the more difficult to shatter, as it will be based on the most precious, the most enduring faculties, and on the divine gift, which work and money are unable to bestow. Dandyism is the last spark of heroism amid decadence.
But Baudelaire is quick to provide an odd-seeming example that undoes the logic, according to which decadence would be tied to an awareness of events taking place exclusively on the political and artistic scenes of a declining old world. Since he adds that the type of dandy discovered by our traveler in North America does nothing to invalidate this idea, for how can we be sure that those tribes which we call savage may not in fact be the [INAUDIBLE] member, the debris, of great, extinct civilizations.
Belying the trend toward the autonomy and pure artifice, decadence and dandyism here become place holders of a gaze that begins to look at itself through the eyes of the other, a gaze staring back at modern civilization from its perceived all sides, from a place which is not its dark and long forgotten origin so much as the constitutive promise of its own savage future. It is here in actual fact that the exchange between the fine arts museum and the ethnographic museum truly begins to take place. Because as long as Europe is still standing in the position of the spectator, there is no true exchange between the museum of natural history, or the ethnographic museum, or the fine arts museum. But it is only when Europe starts to entertain the possibility that it itself may occupy the display or the diorama in the natural history museum that we get to a [? forceful ?] critique of the so-called class of civilization within an imperialist colonial framework.
Using the example of the tribal dandy from North America, evidently inspired by [INAUDIBLE], Baudelaire is undermining the historicist prejudice, according to which decadence would have to be read from within the frame of a linear, anthropological meta narrative, that is, at the fatal end point of progress from savagery, to barbarism, to civilization. Even the alternative of a cyclical temporality, which frequently supports a figure of decadence, is beginning to unravel here. Indeed, behind all such images of time and development, whether linear or cyclical, there nevertheless is supposed to lie a stable principle of contemporaneity, or a notion of the now, which at the same time would provide a normative point of comparison between them.
But Baudelaire's readers cannot continue relying on a single standard of development, including its necessary stages. Instead, radically different temporalities are literally thrown together with relics and debris of past civilizations into a purely conjunctural presence, for which decadence, like modernity, is then only one name among others. Both progress and decline, in other words, are subjected to a unique, anti-historicist attack, as Benjamin would later argue in dialogue with Baudelaire.
"Overcoming the concept of progress and overcoming the concept of period of decline or decadence are two sides of wanting the same thing," Benjamin writes, "or at least in such as a double task that applies to the historical materialist who is willing to retrieve the violence and discontent that are contained any document of victorious civilization. And just as such a document," Benjamin continues, "is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain."
And what I'm trying to suggest, obviously, is that there's an echo of [NON-ENGLISH], of reading history against the grain in this notion of the critique of historicism, in Baudelaire and Benjamin. In Baudelaire's case, to brush history against the grain means to follow the counter-intuitive scenarios of mirroring and internal splitting, when basic ideological tenets from the turn of the century are twisted and dislodged along their voyage across the Atlantic, with the ocean now functioning as it deforming mirror for endless operations of transference and counter-transference. Baudelaire's pseudo anthropological dandy from the tribe in North America in this sense could well be compared to the inverse figure of a certain indio who knows French, who makes a one time appearance at the end of the Cuban writer Jose Marti's only novel, Lucia Jerez.
From the shores of Latin America, the very untimeliness of the notion of decadence, like that of the aesthetic revolution writ large, cannot fail to be understood as a sign of uneven development. But then the logic of uneven development, far from effecting only peripheral societies, must be generalized, as even Marx came to understand, albeit very late in his life, too late, in any event, to make amends with a continent for which, because of its love of Bonapartism, Marx famously never had any real revolutionary hopes.
Starting in the 1870s, when he reads up on the cases of Ireland, Russia, Poland, Turkey, and India, however, Marx did begin to formulate a series of hypotheses that enabled him to generalize a logic of contingent and uneven development for the entire capitalist world and not only for the so-called peripheral, backward, semi-capitalist or colonial countries. But he never took full advantage of these hypotheses in order to take a fresh look at Latin America.
Marti, on the other hand, who seems to have returned the favor by criticizing Marx in an ecological note, can be our guide in carrying the logic of uneven development onto a global scale, so as to include phenomena of decadence and disjointedness within a world historical comparative frame. In Lucia Jerez, his 1885 novel, also known under the title Amistad Funesta, the Cuban writer actually comes close to anticipate many of Marx's later writings about the universal nature of uneven development.
"These times of ours are out of joint," Marti writes. "And with the collapse of the old social walls and the refinements of education, a new and vast class of aristocrats of the mind has emerged, imbued with all the showy needs and rich tastes that come with it, without there having been sufficient time in the rapidness of the turnabout for the change in the organization and distribution of fortunes to correspond to the brutal [INAUDIBLE] in the social relations, produced by political liberties and by the vulgarization of knowledge." In Spanish, it actually reads like a completely fluid sentence.
In Marti's novel, this logic of uneven development, based on a structural lack of correspondence at all levels of society, in the first place affects the life of intellectuals, since, with our Spanish American heads filled with ideas from Europe and North America, we find ourselves in our countries in the manner of fruits without a market, like excrescences of the earth that weigh down on it and disturb it, and not as its natural flourishing. It so happens that those who possess intelligence, which is sterile among us, due to its ill guidance, finding themselves in need of making it fertile, so as simply to subsist, devoted with exclusive excess to the political battles in the noblest of cases, thus producing an imbalance between the scarce country and the political surfeit. Or else pressured by the urgencies of life, they serve the strong man in power who pays and corrupts them, or they strive to topple him when, bothered by needy newcomers, he withdraws his abundant payment for their baneful services. [SPEAKING SPANISH]
Thus the very Funest, baneful, or ill-fated nature of the mysterious friendship alluded to in the novel's original title, Amistad Funesta, would somehow be related to the disastrously imbalanced outcomes of uneven development. Indeed, the only other two references in the novel, to the element of la funesto, also allude to the effects of a structural mismatch or maladjustment.
Now, I'll skip these examples. But basically, they talk about characters that also show either in their intelligence or their way of dress, including a dandy, a similar mismatch. Friendship and love become baneful, or a funest, precisely due to such maladjustments between the life of the mind and the life of the heart, between exaggerated physical beauty and the moral scarcity of the soul, or between the poverty of civil society and the surfeit of politics.
Based on [? mycological ?] models such as these, we could expand our scope to include to the global developments that overdetermine the drama of vacillating national identities and aesthetic regimes for distributing the sensible, not only in Latin America, but in Europe as well. As Jameson also proposes in A Singular Modernity, incidentally, right after a discussion of Spanish American modernismo, which is the equivalent of late 19th century symbolism, all of this suggests that literary influence looks rather different when, as today, cultural evolution is grasped as a symptom of the dynamics of an international capitalist system. Yet a dielectric does not yet exist that is capable of coordinating the incommensurable conceptualities of the national literary and the international.
Indeed, one point of entry into this dialectic for thinking global aesthetics would operate precisely via the question of imitation and of piganism, mentioned earlier. So I think this could be-- this [INAUDIBLE] shuttling back and forth between Latin America and Europe, I find that many of the concepts that seem to be limited to Latin America when you sort of turn the [INAUDIBLE] back against Europe, are revealing for literary and artistic history within the confines of western Europe.
Ruben Dario, the self-proclaimed founder of Latin American modernismo, thus famously asked himself, and originally, he said this in French, [SPEAKING FRENCH]. "Who could I imitate to be original?" Even though elsewhere, in another manifesto-like statement, he also quotes Wagner's motto. "First of all, do not imitate anybody, especially not me."
But the same question of imitation also drives a wedge between France and Germany, from Romantic times, all the way to the Franco-Prussian war. At the beginning, and to put things abruptly, there is this. "Since the collapse of Christianity, a specter has haunted Europe, the specter of imitation, which means first of all, the imitation of the ancients," Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy write. "Germany's drama even consists in suffering this imitation to the second degree, and in finding itself forced to imitate the imitation of the ancient that France and Italy exported nonstop for at least two centuries."
And this is then re-duplicated from the second or third degree in Latin America. So you have to unravel this thread all the way back, I think, into the very heart of western Europe. The larger dilemma of imitation and of piganism between Latin America and Europe, in other words, it's replicated within Europe in such contexts as the ideological battle between Germany and France over who has the more genuine rights to claim the legacy of Greek or Roman antiquity.
Nietzsche's own notion of untimeliness [SPEAKING GERMAN], which, as I hope to have suggested before, is precisely an attempt to think the present as disjointed or unhinged from all linear or cyclical models of time, emerges, after all, in this very same embattled context. Or is it actually the case that [INAUDIBLE] Germans, to leave the Romance nations out of account, must always be no more than heirs in all higher affairs of culture, because that is all we can ever be? What I mean by this, and it's all that I mean, is that the thought of being [INAUDIBLE], which can often be a painful thought, is also capable of evoking great effects and grand hopes for the future, in both an individual and a nation, provided we regard ourselves as the heirs and successors of the astonishing powers of antiquity, and see in this our honor and [INAUDIBLE].
Finally, even the efforts at historical periodization themselves, including the typical 19th century project to write a world history from Hegel's lectures on the philosophy of history all the way to their scathing parody in the second of Nietzsche's own untimely meditations, can be seen as attempts to overcome the problems that derive from the need, and eventually the failure, of colonial powers, both ideologically and philosophically, to legitimize their rule in the name of universal reason or humanity.
Of course, as most decadent writers were acutely aware, this is not unlike what happened many centuries earlier with the collapse of the Roman Empire, when Augustine, in City of God, produced what is perhaps the first, truly, world historical account of decadence and regeneration, in response to the ideological crisis, opened up in the aftermath of the Sack of Rome. Perhaps then today, we should rather be surprised that anyone can still present an intellectual history of decadence as a culminating point of the aesthetic revolution, without taking into account the violent and unequal legacy of colonial expansion.
This is even the case, for example, of the late Charles Bernheimer's otherwise brilliant book Decadent Subjects: The Idea of Decadence in Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Culture of the Fin de Siecle in Europe, which never leaves the confines of western Europe. A rare exception in this regard is on Ambidou, quoted earlier today, who in this century reads [NON-ENGLISH] as inseparable from colonial barbarity.
Speaking of the creative splendor of the two great decades between 1890 and 1914, and the enigma of their relation to the savagery of the war of 1914 to 1918, Badiou writes, "There is no hope of resolving this problem, unless we keep in mind that the blessed periods before the war is also that of the apogee of colonial conquest, of Europe's stranglehold over the entirety of the Earth, or very nearly. And therefore that elsewhere far away, but also very close to everyone's conscience, in the midst of every family, servitude and massacre are already present."
Late 19th century decadence and the critique of historicism, like the aesthetic revolution described by Ranciere, from the larger perspective that seems unavoidable to me as a Latin Americanist, do not emerge as the result of post 1848 or post 1870 conflicts within or between Germany and France, so much as they are a last hour response to the eruption of scandalous truths that forever will have put into crisis the entire imperial project of Europe.
And yet, and yet, even this call for a newer comparative approach to the question of global aesthetics opens itself up to a familiar set of objections. Am I not, in fact, limiting myself to a critical operation of confronting literature and aesthetics with the discomforting truth or the guilty conscience of the material conditions that constitute their outside? Worse, and might not thereby losing sight of the very essence of the so-called aesthetic function? In the end, and no matter how politically valid or urgent it may well be, does not such an external approach fail to appreciate the opacity and negativity that would be inherent in art and aesthetics?
To answer these objections, and before concluding with an example from the realm of painting, I would like to turn one last time to Jacques Ranciere, more specifically, to that little gem of a book that is his [SPEAKING FRENCH], Mallarme-- The Politics of the Siren, which is soon to appear in English. Ranciere himself, as a matter of fact, begins this book with a forceful rebuttal of previously existing readings of Mallarme's oeuvre, in terms of some obscure secret or spiritual adventure, witnessed by the poet in the dark night of reason.
You know, Ranciere is never very modest about dismissing pretty much every other existing reading of Mallarme, and he states very clearly from the beginning that "Mallarme should not be seen as the witness to anything whatsoever outside of his portrait. Instead, we are invited to adopt a rule proffered by the poet himself. There remains above all the fundamental rule of Mallarme and poetics, that the poem has value only on the condition that it holds within itself both its light and its night."
Using a particularly clever stratagem, this reading promises to inscribe the question of the poem's historicity back into the poem itself. What the siren metaphorizes, what the poem renders effective then, is precisely the event and the calculated risk of the poem in an era in a mental environment that are not yet ready to welcome it. In Ranciere's approach, in other words, a poem by Mallarme becomes itself an articulation, or set of hypotheses, about the link between the poetic act or the aesthetic event that its stages and the era in which such an act or event takes place, either so as to a [? vantage ?] back into the flow of everyday opinion and universal repertoires, or else so as to withdraw itself in a slight, but significant, deviation from the expectations of its own time and place.
In this way, the question about the historical situatedness of poetry is folded back into the poem. Even though the poet is not supposed to be a witness to anything outside of his poetry, whether in terms of history, biography, or philosophy, it is nevertheless possible to speak in terms of eras, times, epochs, or ages. In the book on Mallarme alone, we find descriptions of the age of Hegel, the age or the Flaubertan novel, and of course, there is the time, or age, of Mallarme himself, which is already described in terms of the aesthetic revolution, as opposed to the time of representation, in which symbols and allegories are referred back to stable histories or the fixed characters.
Before the aesthetic revolution, there's is sort of a set of rules that predetermine what genres or style correspond to certain topics or certain characters, which is what the aesthetic revolution upsets, by blurring the very definition of art. Here's one such example of this shift introduced into the regime of representation by the aesthetic revolution Mallarme's time, as seen in [SPEAKING FRENCH], A Throw of the Dice.
"The decor put in place is the one we already know from before, the race of the ship of poetry on the ocean of the time. In Vigny's time, one threw it-- in it, the bottle of the poetic message, written in alexandrine, destined for a posterity charged with the same task as any other posterity, to retrieve the heritage of the ideal, that it's time failed to recognize. In the time of Mallarme, one has forgotten the maneuver, lost along with the ancient [INAUDIBLE] of the alexandrine, sabotaged by the followers of the uneven verse and the free verse, carried to its tomb by the Hugolian ogre."
Clearly, this is neither an argument for autonomy, nor are we condemned to dwell in the night of languages, in transitive negativity, as in the tradition of [INAUDIBLE]. Instead, poetry stages, so to speak, a second degree relation to its very own historicity. "The politics of the dice throw and the ultimate meaning of the fable of the ship and the siren must be understood in this way," Ranciere writes. "The conditions do not yet exist for the union of the poet and the crowds in the hymn of spiritual hearts. The extraordinary hour, [FRENCH], has not come, nor the prodigious hall identical to the stage."
This paradoxical inscription of history into the poem self emblematization is further compounded if we address the issue of a second relation, namely the relation of the poet or the poem to the act of thinking that takes place within the poem. And here, the presupposition of immanence on the critics part seems to be at its strongest.
"Mallarme bids farewell to the art of representation and to the idea as model. But he maintains a [INAUDIBLE] status for the poem," Ranciere posits. "The poem does not imitate any model, but it sensibly traces the movement of the idea, the idea as the movement of its own bursting forth." So there's sort of an inherent theorization of the poem that also propounds a theory of its own poeticity. There is, just strictly speaking, no separation between the poem and the thinking of the poem.
Quote, "The fact remains that if there is a thought of the poem, it lies in the oscillating movement that gathers all these possibles in a single fold, that fold of somber lace which retains the infinite, which sums them up in a single gesture, and makes of this gesture of doubt and hyperbole a ritual and the very emblem of the consecration of the play of being human."
The key category in the articulation of this relation between poetry and thought is that of the aesthetic, or poetic, act. Related to the question of the aesthetic function in the flyer for the conference. Of course, we are all supposed to be familiar with Mallarme's own definitions of the act, definitions such as this one from Music and Letters, in [SPEAKING FRENCH].
"Nature has taken place. It can't be added to, except for cities, or railroads, or other inventions, where we change the form but not the fact of our material. The one available act forever and alone is to understand the relations in the meantime, few or many, according to some interior state that one wishes to extend, in order to simplify the world."
In Ranciere's hands, however, the notion of the act serves, above all, to render the operations of thought imminent to the poem's own operations. More importantly, the whole aim of this reading seems to consist in confirming the paradoxical hypothesis of an aesthetic revolution in which Mallarme, that purest of poets, can simultaneously appear as the epitome of art's emancipatory promise.
"Even the pure poets--" oops-- " [SPEAKING FRENCH], Mallarme," Ranciere writes, "confides to poetry the task of organizing an other typography of commonalities, preparing the festivities of the future." Mallarme-- Ranciere insists that Mallarme can pick up on any subject of-- any sort of mundane object and put it to work in the search for a future art that would be up to par to the theater or the stage that he foresees for these festivities of the future.
Ranciere writes in Aesthetics and its Discontents, before indicating a surprising proximity in this regard between the author of A Throw of the Dice and the arts and craft movement in the USA, or the industrial origins of Bauhaus, or the [INAUDIBLE] usually not associated with Mallarme.
Quote, "The pure poet Mallarme and the engineers of the [INAUDIBLE] from a distance share the idea of an art capable of producing, by suppressing its own singularity, the concrete forms of a community that would finally have exited from the appearances of democratic formalism." So this is the ultimate goal, obviously, of Ranciere's, a notion that the aesthetic revolution-- that this emancipatory potential is kept, even in the case of such pure or abstract writers as Flaubert and Mallarme.
The theoretical question with which I would like to conclude, however, is the exact nature of the act or gesture with which artists in the age of the aesthetic regime are supposed to be able to poeticize the everyday, all the while letting the world of objects and commodities become unavailable, due to the law of planned obsolescence. Could we not say that even when Mallarme, in the act of simplifying the world, by understanding its few or many relations according to some mental state that one wishes to extend, is also describing the very precise moment of the subject's capture by ideology? Is not the act of inscribing a minimal gap, which is the gesture of defamiliarization common to the gaze of Balzac's hero in The Wild Ass's Skin, no less than to Brechtian theater or to modern day installation art-- the act of ideology at its purest.
This might be true also for as traditional an artistic medium as painting. Take, for instance, some of the basic shifts in the work of the Argentine painter Guillermo Kuitca. Kuitca's early works, such as the series of paintings El Mar Dulce from the mid 80s, thus typically revolved around it Oedipal drama of the psychoanalytical family romance. They recall the damage caused by a forbidden passion, or else secretly allude to an act of originary violence.
Toward the end of the 80s, however, in works such as North Rhine or San Juan de La Cruz, with series such as Burning Beds, and then with a [NON-ENGLISH] or Castle to Castle from the Neufert Suite, Kuitca begins to distance himself from the dramatic slant of his first works, erasing all human presence to the extent that this is possible, leaving only a trace of its ephemeral passage or signposts of its imminent arrival, he unfolds the purely anonymous force of multiple spaces, both private and public, apartment layouts, road maps, city maps, architectural plans. From the child-sized beds to the map of heavenly stars, he constructs an open catalog of spaces and places as the grounds for the practice of everyday life.
Far removed from the melodramatic intensity of his theatrical works, the artist now opts for the sober perspective of a kind of disenchanted anthropologist of late modernity. Like Georges Perec in Especes d'espaces, Species of Spaces, he seems to concern himself with a single, compulsive question. What does it mean to inhabit a place?
The following Gilles Deleuze in Essays Critical and Clinical. We could describe this shift as a difference between two fundamental orientations of art, which, in turn, coincide with two radically opposed notions of the unconscious. The first, which obsessively revolves around the uncanny return of traumas from time immemorial, and the second, which from all sides looks ahead towards a future of unpredictable and unheard of possibilities. The first orientation can be called archaeological, and the second cartographic.
I quote from Deleuze. "There is not only a reversal of directions, but also a difference in nature. The unconscience no longer deals with persons and objects, but with trajectories and becomings. It is no longer an unconscious of commemoration, but one of mobilization, an unconscious whose objects take flight, rather than remaining buried in the ground." End quote.
Time in this case is not something one shoulders like a tragic destiny but something that can be activated and transformed, giving one more turn of the screw to the logic of the law and [? ventral ?] repetition. Whereas the subject, instead of narrowly sticking to the theater of its own psycho genesis, participates in a slow process of becoming imperceptible.
Or alternatively, this time following Deleuze's account of the shift in Michel Foucault's work, we could describe the displacement in Kuitca's art as a shift from the archive to the diagram. A quote from Deleuze. "The diagram is no longer the auditory or visual archive, but a map, a cartography that is co-extensive with the entire social field."
Kuitca likewise reinterprets the theatricalized archive of the visible and the sayable from the angle of power struggles that divide the entire social territory. Instead of the microphone, the tape recorder, or the light projector, the new space offers only an architectural or cartographic surface of inscription, an abstract machine for subjecting homogeneous and indifferent individuals to the diagram of society.
You have to sort of see also how this sort of intermediate stage-- this is one of the theatrical stage settings. Much of this is based on his work with Pina Bausch, whom he went to visit and traveled with her in Europe. And you can see some of the similar props of the chairs and the beds, and very often, the dramatic element, the inventfulness of these paintings, as related to the burning of the beds.
But already on the wall [INAUDIBLE] painted on the back wall, you can see the floor plan, as though the-- you will-- we sort of move up to the bird's eye perspective. And this floor plan will then acquire autonomy. So you get a new series of these one bedroom or two bedroom apartment floor plans.
Similarly, from El Mar Dulce, we get this sort of isolated element of the carriage from Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein's movie acquiring autonomy, and then being overlaid on a map to produce a painting, perhaps one of the most succinct works Kuitca oeuvre, called Odessa. We get a superpositioning, of course, of Battleship Potemkin, which is re-inscribed into the Oedipal drama of the mother seeing her baby carriage tumbling down the stairs, but constantly sort of shuttling back and forth between politics and the more [INAUDIBLE] analytical concerns.
From the pseudo privacy of the domestic space through the antagonisms that market the minds of the nation, all the way to the new global order in its permanent state of emergency, Kuitca's work delves into the predicaments of territoriality that they find in various forms of late modern or postmodern subjectivity, individual citizens, group, class, multitude, generic humanity. This is Odessa.
Kuitca's recent work does not have to choose. But rather combines, juxtaposes, and more and more frequently, super imposes the diagram with the archive, theatricality with architecture, art as cartography, with art as archeology. What is common to both orientations, however, is an emphasis on working in series, not only in the sense that Kuitca always seems to want to exhaust the possibilities of an abstract scheme to the extreme inner limit, where the series just snaps, but also insofar as all of his work can be seen as an ongoing struggle within painting against the effects of seriality.
In shows from the 1990s such as Pura Teatro, or the Tablada Suite-- many of these are first shown in the Sperone Westwater gallery in New York City, and I think it's important to keep in mind the display of these installations, usually 9 or 14 paintings of the same type would be combined in the gallery, so as to contrast them with the exception of a singular and uniquely figurative or theatrical work. Novelty thus emerges retroactively, as the effects of subtraction or supplementation of the singularity onto the ensemble of the series itself.
Well, this is a previously-- again so the protection of the map onto these child-sized beds. This is sort of the catalog of the spaces that I was referring to. This is an installation that's going on right now in the Bowery gallery, where in the elevator, you get these mattresses that also, of course, form the stage for theater. This is a painting called Global Order, Map of the Heavens, painted on a queen size, plastic mattress. And these are the works that I want to refer to. This one Tablada Suite.
So you get these institutional floor plans that are drawn from libraries, hospitals, prisons, football stadiums, Star Wars spaceship, and so on, in which, of course, you have this equivalence of the slots assigned to each individual space, the [INAUDIBLE] in the library, the bed in the hospital, and so forth. But this series of nine or 14 paintings of the same type is then all [? entitled ?] is then interrupted by one exception, as a return to the theatrical or archaeological type of art.
Later, in series such as Poema Pedigogico, the contingency of chance of this event becomes integrated into the rigid diagrammatic frame of the paintings. The theatrical and institutional order of [? assigns ?] places is then interrupted in a paradoxical gesture of voluntary arbitrariness. For instance, by randomly superimposing various rows of numbered seats. I think because there's so much light, it's hard to see, but this looks like a blackboard in school, as though it's a chalk drawing on a blackened canvas, with sort of the random displacement of an aberrant contingency, affecting the number of seats and rows. Or at least so the artist claims. He obtains this effect by painting blindfolded.
All of Kuitca's work, in other words, seeks to locate the chance-like occurrence of an event against and in the midst of the seriality of the practical inert. In our current conjuncture-- that's fine, but if I can--
I'm almost done.
Well, we can look back at these afterwards if people want.
In our current conjuncture, however, the subject is lacking, who could remain loyal to the haphazard nature of such an event. Instead, the space for the subject is systematically left vacant, emptied out of all ideological or sentimental identifications, whether in terms of couple, group, class, or nation. Every gamble and every wager in the new global order always already seems to be diluted and subordinate to the law of money, free only to dance in the chains of this eternal presence of capital without a future.
These are allusions to some recent paintings, for example, in which, using the [INAUDIBLE] Suite projections, Kuitca sort of draws the attention to the equivalence between, let's say the position in a confessional booth and the position in a peep show. So you get these are architectural designs of the booths, and of course, structurally, they're entirely equivalent. Or the gambling tables in a casino, and so on, or the gymnasium, which are also architecturally equivalent.
The viewers thereby become interpolate. To them befalls the decision whether merely to occupy the individualized slot foreseen for them in the diagrams of society, or else to force the very wall of assigned spaces towards a future that is perhaps still to come.
Kuitca's body of work could well be summed up as a painterly investigation into the question of how a subject becomes hooked onto a structure, including in the sense of a pathological addiction that is stronger than any individual's free will.
Should we not also consider the possibility that the operation by which an individual body, whether the artist's or the public's, comes to occupy this empty place actually marks a moment, not of the subject's free will, but rather of his or her inevitable suture. Jacques-Alain Miller defines this operation as follows, "Suture names the relation of the subject to the chain of its discourse. We shall see that it figures there as the element which is lacking, in the form of a stand in. For while they're lacking, it is not purely and simply absent. Suture, by extension, names a general relation of lack to the structure of which it is an element, in as much as it implies the position of it taking the place of." [INAUDIBLE] literally, a placeholder.
Based on the notion of the poetic or aesthetic act that can be found from Mallarme to Kuitca, I wonder if the necessity of such a suture, which is seen as constitutive of the proper functioning of ideology, does not limit the role of the subject of the aesthetic to that of coming in between, like a placeholder, the works structure, and it's event-like excess.
What Jacques Lacan used to call point de capiton, that is the [? nodal ?] points or upholstering buttons, would then be a more appropriate name for the linkages by which we, as aesthetic subjects, even if we are perhaps not as free as we like to think, nevertheless continue to feel invited into the structure of the work of art. This is an early floor plan of Kuitca. It's called House Capiton, a house with point de capiton, if you want, that captures the subject as part of this ideological operation. Thank you very much.
TIM MURRAY: Questions for Bruno.
AUDIENCE: Bruno, I'm wondering if you would bring back this point de capiton to the-- back to Ranciere and his reading of Mallarme, in which you dwell on Ranciere's assertion that what's working in Mallarme is the demonstration of conditions that don't yet exist, in so far as what the poetic or aesthetic act constitutes, if I understood you correctly, is the-- then the materialization in a single fold. And I was wondering how that relation of perhaps a single fold of materials that don't yet exist get linked to your reading of Kuitca, in relationship, perhaps, to the buttons, or the point de capiton, or this notion of suturing that you bring in.
BRUNO BOSTEELS: I mean, this is-- I mean, the consequences of this point of view are obviously pretty devastating or rather pessimistic, because it seems to suggest that Ranciere is trying very hard to make it into single fold, and to suggest that somehow the poem is giving you its own-- not only its own theory or doing its own thinking, in the act of producing the poem, but also that it inscribes within the poem its relation to its own time and place.
And according to Ranciere, in so far as Mallarme no longer relies on any hierarchical distinction of art and non art, this can be applied to any everyday object. You know, this is why he favors the examples not of the terms that are charged with traditional poetics of distinction, but rather the everyday objects, you know, the lace or the fan, that in a sense traces the very movement of a poetic act that is already be emerging into thought of the essence of poetry.
And I think that this obliterates the indispensable inscription of a minimal mark of a gesture that defamiliarizes, at least minimally, the everyday object into a poetic object. And that that inscription of this is minimal gap, which I think is a constant, all the way and through contemporary installation art, no matter how blurred the line between art and non art is, any artist who takes an everyday object and brings it into the realm of art, or vise versa, relies on this inscription of the artist's own very gesture.
And I think that this inscription is also the point whereas subjects, whether viewers or artists, we are caught in the very old paradigm of the subject's freedom to act upon its own conditions of existence in this sort of minimal level of, yes, we are-- we live in-- we have-- we are free to make history, but not according to conditions of our own choosing. But nevertheless, the understanding is that we are free to inscribe ourselves at a minimal gap or distance from the environment in which what we do with takes place.
And I think that is the very operation of ideology, namely the inscription of the individual in those empty slots, under the idea that we are free to do this with some minimal distance. And I think this goes a long way in explaining the extraordinary success that [? Sala ?] was talking about before, that, you know, the skyrocketing numbers. Why are these exhibit exhibitions so welcomed, even by Islamophobic west?
Because as long as it continues, not just the commodification of the female body, but also confirms the basic ideological tenets of our society, which is that as individuals, we are free to inscribe ourselves at this minimal distance from our own conditions of existence. We are subjects. Therefore, we are a creative artists. And there is nothing, in a sense, emancipatory about that tenet.
AUDIENCE: Lacan's [INAUDIBLE] point de capiton has a really funny temporality, though. I mean, on the one hand, he says it's [? stay ?] against psychosis, right. The whole [INAUDIBLE] prevents [INAUDIBLE] to avoid psychosis. But he also holds onto that sense of [SPEAKING FRENCH], meaning period in French, and it's the period at the end of the sentence that allows the sentence to have meaning, which is utterly uncertain, until you reach that point de capiton. Then you have this retrojection through the sentence to understand what it means.
So the point de capiton is always this retrojective quality that throws you backward rather than forward. I'm sort of wondering about that in relation to Mallarme, and up to the absence of a punctuation throughout [SPEAKING FRENCH] and various other [INAUDIBLE] Mallarme objects. I wonder if-- I wonder how you might relate that to your sense of the temporality or [INAUDIBLE] in Mallarme and the way that it may or may not open up into a possible future, rather than be entirely retrojective in that way.
BRUNO BOSTEELS: But it's not just a choice between future or retrojection. I mean, it's really the effect of sort of a retrospective illusion that suggests that that order already was there in the first place. And I think this is also essential in understanding of the operation of a point de capiton, that it gives the illusion that there is an identity to the subject that precedes arriving at the period of the end of the sentence.
And it's that loop, I think, that makes the art work-- the art world and the art work run. It's that loop of constantly positing a minimal liberation of some entity or object from its constraining set of conditions, or the flow of commodities, in a minimal cut in which it is so-called subverted, or de-familiarized, or style, or inscription of a name, or even a trademark, takes it momentarily out of this, as though this is then expressive of the unity of even individual artistic genius, or the genius of a new artistic movement, or school, or the curator today.
AUDIENCE: So then it's the way out of the loop? Is that how you understand the sort of self reflexive reference to [INAUDIBLE]?
BRUNO BOSTEELS: I don't see a way out of the loop. That's my-- that's the pessimistic, you know, solution-- or the pessimistic answer. I don't see a way out of this loop, because in other words, you would have to postulate again and rely on some kind of notion of interventionism that would break out of it, and then you fall back into the same old traps, of transgression, subversion of the status quo.
But I'm interested in the functioning of the loop in different genres or in different media, for example in literature or in art. One way in which I'm particularly interested in is that literature seems less tied to the blatant economical framing of much of what goes in the art world. Not to say that major literary prizes cannot have a huge effect, that by and large, the sums associated-- in a vulgar manner, right? The sums associated with literature are not as skyrocketing as those of Kuitca himself, who's now the best selling Latin American artist.
AUDIENCE: Good points [INAUDIBLE]. The first point is that reading of Schmitt, and then I think your read [INAUDIBLE] that's precisely because the international law-- system of international law created this side and that side. And then by leading that side as a state of nature [INAUDIBLE] and thereby you could sustain the peace, in a sense, and an order of either side. And but is it possible to reverse that logic, saying that precisely because you create violence on this side, then I think you can sustain order on this side. To a certain extent, I think, should it actually [INAUDIBLE].
The second point is I think it's-- I think you already assumed this, that this side and that side actually operate certain aesthetic categories. Therefore, I think unless these certain categories are in a sense linked or [INAUDIBLE], in fact, the anti Eurocentrism is, in fact, [INAUDIBLE] an operation against Europe. Nonetheless, [INAUDIBLE] this side and that side are sustained. So in fact, you want to see precisely the aesthetic revolution. The act which actually rewrites the boundary between this side and that side. Am I--
BRUNO BOSTEELS: Right, right. I mean, the difficulty to some extent is methodological and very pragmatic, which is that-- and I have discussed this with friends. Like, do I want to make this argument, which seems to be a rather unkind attack on Ranciere, by insisting constantly on this side and that side, and that side, of course, being ignored in theories of the aesthetic that are produced on this side of the line.
Because to some extent, the argument of the emancipatory potential, as I think was-- could have been seen in the excerpts from Alejo Carpentier, does work the other way around, if I understood you correctly, in the sense that-- and Schmitt does allude to this-- it is, in fact, by drawing this line that Europe also created the conditions for the overturning of the colonial regime. Because it, in a sense, slashes back into the face of western European civilization. Just as the confusion of art and non-art in Alejo Carpentier's case also erases the differences between the King of France, or the black Jacobin, or the high and low, with clear, direct sort of political equalizing emancipatory potential.
So yes this-- it is precisely this aesthetic revolution that draws those boundaries. But that act of drawing is completely absent from Ranciere's account. So-- but then, I-- again, you get into a predicament. Because by pointing this out, you haven't changed the framework at all. In fact, you still remain outside of it. And this is what I would call, you know, the burden of particularism, which is that in order to criticize a false universalism, it is always the particular cultures that have to mark their particularism. So any of disavowed particularism that dresses itself in the garb of universalism will be unbothered by the recollection of more empirical materials that seem to contradict their sophisticated, theoretical and meta theoretical arguments.
And this goes along the lines of what you point out in your texts on humanitas and anthropos. You can bring in all the evidence about anthropos and humanitas-- doesn't seem to care that much about this. Because you have not really crossed this boundary. Because it seems that the crossing of that boundary, of that line, can only operate by activating the same mechanisms or the same thought patterns that humanitas, or western European civilization, has already developed from the get go.
So this is the sort of the also dead end street, or the predicament that I found myself in when I started studying Latin American decadence. And you constantly have to mark or remark the particularism of that account. And I was just astonished by the absolute silence of the non-European context in even the best studies of Europeans [INAUDIBLE] decadence or aestheticism, just astonished.
Even Ranciere's reading, which is otherwise very persuasive of this chapter in Balzac's novel, The Wild Ass's Skin, La Peau de Chagrin, if you read the actual chapter, then you see that the paraphrase that Ranciere offers is extraordinarily selective. Because Ranciere makes this into kind of a superposition of all times and all civilizations into a world of entities that no longer really, sharply distinguish any hierarchy of styles or artifacts, particularly along the lines of the noble versus the low, or art and non art.
But for Balzac himself, the visit to this bazaar de curiosity was not just the [INAUDIBLE] super position of times and civilizations, but also an overview of all colonial efforts, from the Alexander the Great, to Pissarro, to the United States or English-- and British in northern America, that allow, precisely, for this creation of a proto museum of fine arts that seems to draw no distinction from the ethnographic museum or the natural history museum.
So I think this for me is the real challenge, how to address this without seeming knee jerky, anti-Eurocentric. And some friends of mine said don't do this. Like, don't make this argument, because you are pushing yourself in that position of sort of the postcolonial resentment.
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Bruno Bosteels, professor of romance studies at Cornell, delivered the plenary talk at the Society for the Humanities conference, "Global Aesthetics: Intersecting Culture, Theory, Practice," on Oct. 15 at Lewis Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall.