By Rachel Haidu
1998. A year that I can hardly remember with any specificity. The 1990s were Clinton years, mostly: not great times, by a long shot, though of course these days it’s tempting to look at any time as more innocent than our own. And then, to catch oneself: “But those were the years of the embassy bombings, of Matthew Shepard and Monica Lewinsky”—of terrorism and state terrorism, homophobic and racial violence, the birth, or coming-out party, of a radicalized right wing that was plenty evident even then. This is the two-step dance of looking backwards, in 2017. Back then, it was always different—different enough—but still a mess: a time of loss, of ebbing hope.
1998 was the year that Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela. Those of us who had been consumed by the spectacle of state socialism’s dismantling almost a decade earlier began to look for signs of what Jacques Derrida had promised as the “new International,” or what Negri and Hardt would call, a couple of years later, building off of what was already being discussed in their own journals and others, “multitudes.” In other words, it was a moment when “we,” broadly understood as scholars and activists of all generations, were actively thinking through what forms of collective thought and praxis would be possible, given what seemed to be. We were busy thinking through autonomous social movements, post-nationalism, and the urgency of getting past both authoritarian socialisms and capitalist democracies. Resource depletion, and its effects on not only labor markets and international trade, but on the planet itself and its species, added another layer of thought, though few of us were thinking all of these things together, as they are often thought today.
By now, intellectual life has digested many of the tools of that moment, even as it continues to work through the same meta-structures, those questions about what governs the link between representation and world-making, between collectivity and the self, and between thought and praxis. How to think actively, and act thoughtfully; how to be inside identity and think its outside, its determinants; how to respond, react, and still consider, and allow oneself, by thinking out loud (or on paper), to be considered, to take a place at the table. It’s not easy to weigh the exclusions into what one does, in every act; or to keep focused on how taking a place at the table is also—if one does it right—an enabling, an act of self-consideration that is the same for another. In so enabling others, we model something, a form of dialogue, that otherwise might never take place: this might be the lasting hope for the “humanities,” as they are often called. Even as we do this now, in the era of social network narcissism and its macro-scale repercussions, we join others, non-academics, who act out their own appeals: consider me, and consider my ghosts. That’s where the bywords that suggest self-protective anxiety, from “the humanities” to “the academy,” could perhaps start to be rolled back, and in our anxiety, we might instead try to forget them. As social activism ratchets up, we––those of us institutionally defined as scholars, which includes students and other members of the institution’s precarious labor supply—get to think again about the relationship between our work and others’. What are these different kinds of work, and what different institutional and extra-institutional sanctions are operating to make it possible?
One of the benefits of looking back is the excuse to delve into that past, maybe even to indulge it. I’m thinking of Derrida’s notion that death itself conceals the longing for a future that has never arrived. Maybe this is a notion that could have only originated in that long end to state socialism––in the historical moment that seemed assigned to that end––though it feels as pertinent to all layers of death and mourning as it is to the historical scale. Let’s think of it on a different scale, for a moment: what did this journal, InVisible Culture, long for, that never arrived? What were its hopes, in 1998—early days still in online publishing, and even more so in online academic publishing? What freedoms, what conversations, did its founding editors imagine, and which of those have yet to take place? Did we (“we,” thought broadly, as the collective now thinking back on this imaginary past, situating ourselves in it) ever think past such formalisms as “peer review” and “editorial board,” to the reorganization of scholarly authority? Could we now, in a way we didn’t or couldn’t then? Could we think through how online writing has changed our notion not only of writing, but of the intersubjective dialogues that now inform our words before we even “set them down.” We have known for a long time now that the space into which we set words is endlessly changing, re-ordering, re-layering, so that the palimpsest is now the only structure for writing, or for doing the thinking that underlies writing. When will our publication formats address that reality? InVisible Culture was conceived, I think, in order to address that reality, and continues to develop new ways to do so. But the palimpsest, the one-sided diatribe, and most of all the letter—that appeal for a response to which Derrida devoted yet another book—are now addressed to other voices, not just other writers, and that difference can sometimes feel like all the difference.
It’s not easy: the book beckons, as it should, and so do all the other comforting, still-vital modes of address: lectures, articles, journals. We are each making changes, if not on the level of format, at least in the direction of ideas. Possibly the format-changes will take place in time, but we need collective conversations about what kinds of authority we wish to hold, given our ideas; and what kinds of format would fit those modes of authority. All kinds of debates have taken place around these questions, recently, from the anxiety over MOOCs (now thankfully died down) to the recent discussions over Dana Schutz’s painting of a mutilated Emmett Till, Open Casket (2016), in the current Whitney Biennial. Debates about free speech, about tuition costs, about unionization and adjunctivization are also all questions about the question of authority and format, or the value of intellectual labor and its relationship to other forms of work and voicing.
Part of this problem is that conventional notions of authorship that were formally up-ended in the 1960s are still floating around, inscribed not only in our media (paintings, classrooms, etc.), but in our discourses. What happened to the notion that authorship was endlessly initiated, “begun” again and again in the chains of subjectivity that representation sets into play? Well, reality set in. Authors who are exhibiting artists, tenure-track faculty, and similarly recognized by the institution come to stand in both for certain subjects (the Mother, for example, or White woman) even as they insist on the privilege of subjectivity (that which a neo-Expressionist painting conveys).1
Many questions emerge from our general––if too often only tacit––recognition of the limits of the now-historical, utopic radical rewriting of authorship put into place by Barthes and Foucault, like the modernist authors they were reading (Borges, Mallarmé, Joyce, etc.). Today, authors seem to be contending with another relationship between their writing, painting, filming selves and the subject-position that their acts of authorship define. If that relationship looks sometimes “conventional,” in the sense that it takes expressionistic form, then that strikes me as worth recognizing and contending with. Perhaps the notions of subjecthood that were so appealing in the heyday of structuralist and poststructuralist theory—like those that emerged, very differently, in the form of e.g. painterly neo-Expressionism or the feminist autobiographical essay films of the 1980s––all demand reconsideration, particularly with respect to the pressures they exert on the authorial subject. Is “subject” even the right term anymore?
Of course that question too is historical, and has been for thirty years.2 I don’t think we are there anymore, but something drives artists today to express selfhood not “merely” as subjecthood, and certainly not along the lines that have long parlayed the self as subject. Various representational strategies that have for so long imprisoned the self/subject in the various mediums of art—from the point-of-view in narrative film to the very delineations of character, figure, and role––have given way to other strategies. A soliloquy that once reified the boundary between the speaking character’s brain (and whether they were really talking “out loud” in the scene, or merely activating a dramaturgical mechanism) is now a different kind of structure, an opening-out past even the structure of characterhood and its reflection of subjecthood. A danced role refers not merely to its own position amid other dancers, or its eventual filling-up by another performer, but to the part of a score played by a musician, and by extension to that musician’s instrument. To the notion, eventually, of the instrumentality of the body: this one, that one, the machine made of wood or brass. But inside these connections, these openings-out, are abstractions. What of the dancer’s role, and indeed the small portion of the stage that she occupies at any given moment, can unfold this relay to the musician and her instrument, and by extension to that notion of abstraction upon which music depends? In a soliloquy: at what point to the words figure not as communicative, but as mere sound, as an index of the speaker’s audibility? These questions are similar to those we find in painting: what of the now-many-times-disfigured horizon between abstraction and figuration? What of that horizon belongs not to “the subject” (indeed, what would it mean for abstraction to invade subjecthood’s rules and frameworks?) but to its remainders, its beyond?3
This last formulation cannot help, in early spring 2017, but evoke the crisis surrounding that painting included in the current Whitney Biennial that perhaps needs no further discussion, but remains in the visual imaginary of anyone who cares about painting and representation and their role in the visualization of racial brutality. One of the questions I raised earlier, about whether the possibilities opened by online publishing and the potential to transcend older forms of control and censure (e.g. peer review), has been played out in the “controversy” surrounding this painting, beginning with the call to censure that painting and then with the citation of social-media “texts” inside other texts, also published online, in a battle that couldn’t wait to explore its own contours. Like so many other, similar battles today, it raises both the relevance of an artist’s identity to the understanding of her work, and the relevance of her words, her intention, her complicity and even her art-market-determined value to any understanding of what her work does. In other words, a painting can raise the very issues that a social-media-driven fracas can only exploit, reconfigure, displace; but can that painting, “alone,” change the terms on which we understand what is truly at stake? Does the possibility of representing subjecthood––this possibility is ostensibly the painting’s topic––even address the question of its own authorship, of that remainder of selfhood that the author is now claiming, and by definition, extending to others?
Back in the day, in 1998, almost all of our attention went towards the possibilities of collective practice. Today, while attention remains drawn in the direction of collectivity, it is also drawn endlessly back into the spiral of immediate, uncontained, apparently emancipated self-expression. The notion of self-expression, in other words, is somehow still intact. Not only in the language of “creation,” but in that language through which we address racism and sexism and affect. If “self-expression” operates in such different realms, it also operates to confuse the boundaries of subjecthood, which—while also operating simultaneously in those different realms—formally addresses our collectivity and its limits. Self-expression seems to operate as if to disregard the collective; subjecthood calls upon it. Having our cake and eating it too, it seems, is the current mode. Let us find a format that addresses that complexity, and does so with awareness, with the kind of anxiety that, like the anxieties over the “fate of the humanities” or that of the academy, is reflexive, not self-aggrandizing. To sit at the table and ask to be considered is to take a place, not only away from another, but to enable another. If self-expression is going to find a role there, it’s going to have to contend with the ghosts of our future collectivity that we are still mourning.
Featured image: Cesare Lucchini, Que chi rimane (incontro), 2012.
Rachel Haidu is Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History and Director of the Graduate Program in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. She is the author of The Absence of Work: Marcel Broodthaers 1964-1976 (MIT Press/October Books, 2010) and numerous essays, most recently on the works of Ulrike Müller, Andrzej Wróblewski, Yvonne Rainer, Sharon Hayes, James Coleman, and Franz Erhard Walther. Her current book manuscript, tentatively entitled The Shame of the Self, examines notions of selfhood that develop in contemporary artist’s films and video, dance, and painting.
- It is possible to also think the very different—yet somehow similar—controversy over Kathryn Bigelow’s commercial film Zero Dark Thirty (2012) along some of the same lines that Schutz’s painting has evoked, about institutional privilege, whether a woman’s racism is “particular” in any historical or personal sense, and whether the techniques that an author uses can be considered in the discussion of a work that addresses itself to collective, contemporary history. ↩
- See Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor, Jean-Luc Nancy, eds., Who Comes After the Subject? (New York and London: Routledge, 1991). ↩
- These three questions form the basis of my own ongoing work project; if I can’t help but to see it in the contemporary questions—for example, regarding Open Casket—then that too is perhaps part of the palimpsestic nature of writing that totally predates the present. ↩