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Monthly Archives: August 2013

Diagrams. I hate them. They are not innocent purveyors of knowledge, but generally represent a kind of ideological instrumentalization, a colonization of thought. I even dislike diagrams used by artists with a left, critical bent, because the medium is always the message. If you want to critique current manifestations of power, don’t do it with the representational tools that shaped the very thinking that got us here.

That said, there is one diagram I came across in my development as an artist that made a strong impression on me. In the late 1980s I was teaching in the Whitney Independent Study Program and the artist Mary Kelly came to give a talk on her work. In the talk, Mary used a Venn diagram (although at the time I didn’t know that it went by that name).

Here’s an example of a simple “two-factor” Venn diagram found on the internet, with it’s typical corporatist way of organizing knowledge.

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Here’s a “multi-factor” organizational venn diagram.

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Here’s one recommended for teaching young children.

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And, please, save us from ones like this.

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And this is Mary’s old-school Venn diagram, as I remember it.

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Mary was discussing her infamous Post-Partum Document (1973-1979) project and the question of how it might be perceived by various types of spectators. Artists who make work that involves research, and intellectual or discursive processes, and more than purely immediate visual or aural perception are often challenged as to whether their work is comprehensible or not, whether it is elitist or not. In the 80s and 90s, the misguided concept of “accessibility” was demanded of such work, assuming that the spectator had no role in creating the meaning of the artwork.

The question of spectatorial “understanding” is often simplified, not to say the question of projected spectatorship in general. The artist Thomas Hirschhorn, for example, says he is seeking a “non-exclusive audience” in propping up his “monuments.” Ostensibly that term refers to audiences that are not getting into museums or blue-chip galleries – his other art venues . (Art in America refers to the locations chosen by Hirschorn as “underserved communities”). But there are sub-texts to the use of the terms “non-exclusive” or “underserved” spectators.  Hirschhorn could have installed at least one of his four “monuments” in one of the depressingly ubiquitous megalopolitan middle-class suburbs to significant effect, in terms of addressing “non-exclusive” or “underserved” audiences.

As I remember, in her talk Mary mentioned three kinds of spectators who might be expected to see the work – spectators who were mothers, spectators who were artists, and general spectators who were neither mothers nor artists. (My memory may not be exact, so apologies to Mary if I’ve gotten some of this wrong. The general point will still be made.) Her aim in using the diagram, as I remember, was to indicate that all these spectators would find various levels of interest and comprehensibility in the work, and while one could possibly project an ideal spectator, that would not diminish the experience of the work that others – even non-art-educated spectators – might have.

Where the overlaps occurred, there might be a deepening of comprehension or entry into the work. For example, artists who were also mothers might read the work differently than artist spectators who were not mothers; the same would go for spectators who were mothers but who were not artists, or non-mother spectators who were not artists. One could add spectators who were psychoanalysts, art historians, curators, child-care workers, diaper-factory workers, waiters, etc.

Of course there are a lot of artworks that are obtuse or just plain incomprehensible. Those works create an aporia that leaves the spectator floundering, with no possibility of engagement. And those works can fall into virtually any art genre – painting, sculpture, performance, film/video/audio, installation, photography, etc.

Again, my memory may be distorting this, but in the very center of Mary’s Venn diagram there was the artist spectator who was also a mother, who might experience (not to say understand) the work at the greatest number of levels. I remember thinking “I am this project’s ideal spectator.” But Mary’s point was that all those areas of experience of the artwork were of value, implying that one shouldn’t pre-determine what artwork – “complex” or not – would be “accessible” to whom.

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Bystanders, May Day NYC Occupy March, 2012. S.Kolbowski

In my last post I touched on the repercussions of Edward Snowden’s placement of his body at the limits of international law and national boundaries. U.S. intellectuals of the left, hackers of no particular political persuasion, off-the-grid libertarians, and political activists might have surmised before his whistleblowing that Americans live in a surveillance state handed over to corporate sub-contractors and pathological venture capitalists. But did even they, not to mention the U.S. population in general, know the exact worthlessness of an American passport, the sham of national sovereignty, and the full extent of America’s authoritarianism and mockery of international law? Snowden allowed all of it to be played out in detail.

I indicated at the end of that post my intention to connect this observation to Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of spontaneous revolution. Below is my argument…please bear with the background material. In the interim, Snowden has been granted a one-year temporary asylum by Russia and Obama has decided to cancel an upcoming summit with Putin because, as he decreed on Jay Leno’s “Tonight Show”, Russia keeps insisting on “slipping back into a cold war mentality.” Snubbing your nose at the arbiter of world justice is not part of the American rules of the game. Bolivia’s Morales learned that earlier. Obama will instead make a highly symbolic visit to Sweden, now deemed an important ally, as if to say that at least this country has bowed to our pressure to criminalize whistleblowers.

“Let us avoid any temptation to go back to the ‘origins’. Let us simply pierce a moment in time…”

So starts an early section of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy entitled “The Dilemmas of Rosa Luxemburg.” This influential 1985 book drafts a comprehensive critique of the “essentialism of Marxist thought,” reformulating socialist theories as well as posing concepts of radical democracy. Crucially, Laclau and Mouffe demonstrate in detail why social movements and critiques – of gender and race rights, for example – are as important as those of economic and political categories in challenging elitist power, spelling out the structural architecture that gives these movements their synergetic effects. But the book impressed me most, when I read it in 1990, by questioning the fixed human subject of historical Marxist theories. Resistance to capitalism must have its actors, the formulation of which has been a blind spot of Marxism, one of its main dilemmas. Seen from a contemporary perspective, the human subject of capitalism is clearly not a rational one. Even taking into account historical details, why do populations sometimes rise up against inequity en masse, and sometimes – during extended periods of enormous oppression or suffering – not at all?  Laclau and Mouffe spell it out in different terms, but by bringing psychoanalytic feminism to bear on their critique one can surmise that Marxism and socialism have theorized a problematic conscious subject with free will, who is only lacking information or enlightenment or organization in order to generate resistance. (My critique of Thomas Hirschorn’s “monuments” to philosophers would only begin there…) But regardless of how much enlightenment they receive, the rational subject with free will and without an unconscious is one not projected to engage with or understand a political imaginary. And yet politics exists to a great extent in the realm of the imaginary and the symbolic. The subject is also formed through such discourses. The Laclau and Mouffe argument does not overvalue physical revolt, for good reason. And yet it is hard to ignore the fact that without mass resistance, U.S. politics have moved dramatically to the right.

Hegemony and Socialist Strategy starts by turning to Rosa Luxemburg’s 1906 publication, “The Mass Strike, The Political Party and the Trade Unions.” The authors praise this text for laying out what no socialist tract had been able to do. There are two points they value in this text. One point is that Luxemburg proposes, through observation, that the human subjects of economics and politics (and, by implication, social subjects) need not be exclusive. i.e. there is no pre-existing “working class” revolutionary subject per se. Secondly, the human subjects of economics and politics sometimes come together in unpredictable ways in relation to historical events. So Luxemburg’s theory of spontaneism – spontaneous revolution – acknowledges that, to paraphrase the authors, its logic is a logic of the symbol that sometimes disrupts the literal logic of necessity or pragmatism.

So how does this relate to Mr. Snowden? While the notion of an American mass uprising has become laughable to the American left and liberals, it can certainly be seen at play in quite a few international sites in the recent past or present, where massive uprisings are captured on U.S. media – Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Libya, Quebec, Greece, Spain, etc. In the U.S., however, those who follow these resistance movements have to wince when reports turn up on political blogs or emails or progressive radio shows touting turnouts of 25 or 200 in response to hugely egregious U.S. state or corporate transgressions.

Perhaps, though, someone like Snowden is a kind of condensed subject of resistance. Beyond the tradition of the whistleblower (although within its legal definition), he rises out of a complex and unpredictable confluence of circumstances – affluent by American standards for a twenty-something; un-educated in conventional terms but highly skilled in technology and with a precocious political intelligence; unaligned with any political stance per se; acutely aware of the timing of social media and the specifics of current power relations, etc.  At the age of 28, and with virtually no investment – in fact, he made a good living by educating himself in the transgressions of the state – he managed to challenge a “masters of the universe” state in a way that no large organized group has been able to do in the U.S. in the last couple of decades. In a period of profound political and cultural distortion and complexity in the U.S., where the average citizen is living a subsistence life and seeking a little solace in distraction, Snowden may have unwittingly become a new kind of subject of spontaneous political revolt.