Interview with Hannah Abdullah and Matthias Benzer on Boris Groys

As a supplement to that issue, Simon Dawes interviewed Abdullah and Benzer for the TCS Blog.

Simon Dawes: How did your interview with Groys come about? Where and when did it take place, and what is your interest in his work?
Hannah Abdullah and Matthias Benzer: We came across Groys’s writings about five years ago. We were looking at a debate between Baudrillard and Groys from the 1990s which revolved around Baudrillard’s The Illusion of the End and The Perfect Crime. Although at the time we were working on Baudrillard, Groys’s contributions struck us as intriguing in their own right and we began to explore his work in more depth. At first, we were mainly interested in Groys’s concept of cultural innovation and in his writings on the topology and economy of cultural production. Initially, we were concentrating on Über das Neue (On the New) and Topologie der Kunst (The Toplogy of Art).
Groys’s analyses of the relationship between art and politics seemed particularly relevant to the questions we were addressing in our own research. At that time, we were both doctoral students in sociology. Matthias was working on Adorno and Baudrillard, Hannah on painting in post-1989 Germany. It wasn’t a case of having found a conceptual framework that provided answers to the questions – let alone solutions to the problems – we had come across in our research in sociological theory and the sociology of art. Rather, we became increasingly convinced that Groys had developed a thoroughly original perspective on questions engaging these fields – and a rich, provocative vocabulary to tackle them.
Simultaneously, we were somewhat surprised, and a little disheartened, by the small number of English-language translations and discussions of Groys’s work up until about 2007. So when the opportunity arose, it seemed sensible to us to interview Groys with the aim of addressing some of the basic ideas shaping his work and to translate the interview into English. We conducted the interview in London in the autumn of 2008. Groys had just given a lecture at the Whitechapel Gallery on the politics of installation. Incidentally, around that time Groys’s thinking was becoming more widely known in the Anglophone world – partly, perhaps, due to his publications on e-flux and the 2008 publication of Art Power. Groys’s work also seems to have attracted quite a bit of controversy over the last two years. We feel that the interview is more relevant to English-speaking audiences now than it would have been right after it was conducted.
SD: For those who are still unfamiliar with his work, could you tell us more about some of his main texts and the themes he addresses?
HA/MB: Our objective in the interview was to address some of the main themes of Groys’s thinking. In particular, we sought to strike a balance between art and theoretical, political, and philosophical questions. The three broader themes we considered particularly important were his theory of cultural innovation, his analysis of the relationship between art and politics, and his position on the notion of ‘evidence’ and recent media theory – which seems to be strongly shaped by his critical engagement with phenomenology, especially Husserl and Derrida. The key texts on cultural innovation are Über das Neue and several essays in Topologie der Kunst. Translations of these writings are still largely unavailable. An instructive source for Anglophone readers is the piece ‘On the New’ in Art Power. The relationship between art and politics is debated in The Total Art of Stalinism, in several essays in Art Power – especially ‘The Logic of Equal Aesthetic Rights’ and ‘Art at War’ – and in articles on contemporary art and the museum, for instance ‘Politics of Installation’, ‘The Obligation to Self-Design’, and ‘The Struggle against the Museum’. Groys’s main statements on the concept of evidence can be found in the book Unter Verdacht (Under Suspicion), which is still awaiting translation. In his work on these various themes, Groys makes repeated reference to the cultural conditions and art of the Soviet sphere of influence – avant-garde art, Socialist Realism, and Sots Art, in particular. The recently translated Communist Postscript is also a key source on Groys’s thinking in this context.
SD: Has there been a shift in his views on the relation between art and politics, from a focus, for instance, on the politics of art to a focus on how politics is artistic?
HA/MB: In our view, it is slightly precarious to speak of a ‘shift’ here. The two themes appear to have been closely linked at least since The Total Art of Stalinism, i.e. since the late 1980s. It is certainly the case that Groys’s early work draws attention to the avant-garde’s project of freeing art from its function to represent reality and of reorienting it towards the aesthetico-political endeavour to reshape the material, social world. Yet in The Total Art of Stalinism, his analyses of this theme were already intertwined with questions about how politics operates artistically and appropriates the strategies of aesthetics. Stalinism constituted one of the key 20th century-sites of this aesthetico-political project, although it was not the only site. As we read it, Groys’s engagement with the relationship between art and politics after Stalinism, e.g. in Art Power, but also his recent editorial work on 20th century biopolitical utopias continue his analyses of both aspects: the ways in which art challenges the order of the political and the way in which politics acts aesthetically. To separate Groys’s analyses of these two movements would probably run the danger of simplification.
SD: For those who haven’t read it yet, could you give a taster of the contents of the Groys material in the March issue of TCS?
HA/MB: The key Groys text in the issue is his essay on the border between the word and the image. The argument is partly stimulated by contemporary painting which includes written language and by installations which involve sound recordings of the spoken word. The essay critically engages with a number of theoretical statements on image and language, notably Lessing’s Laocoön, McLuhan’s Understanding Media, and the work of Clement Greenberg. Groys denies that the introduction of the word into visual art is merely a matter of the ready-made procedure that informs his own theory of cultural innovation. The relationship between the word and the image is conceptualised with a view to the image as the ‘scene’ of a hidden linguistic desire or linguistic impulse. The border between word and image can neither be stabilised nor erased; it is constantly negotiated.
The issue also contains the aforementioned interview we conducted with Groys. The interview turned out to be quite detailed and provides perspectives on a range of Groys’s more persistent concerns and ideas in aesthetics as well as philosophy. Since the interview addresses earlier as well as more recent writings, some of which have not been translated and are not very well-known among Anglophone readers, the interview includes a brief introduction to the main issues engaging Groys’s thought. The aim of the introduction is to shed some light on the interview’s theoretical substance.
As the publication of the interview and Groys’s article were developing, it emerged that Groys’s Communist Postscript would come out in English. Claudia Mesch offered to write a critical review of the book. We included the review partly because of the book’s recent publication. Further, the review broadens the thematic scope of the other material. Communist Postscript contains perhaps Groys’s densest recent reflections on the dominant philosophical orientation of the USSR – notably its orientation by language – and its relationship to the capitalist West.
SD: To engage more closely with some of the arguments he makes in his article and the interview: what does he mean by the distinction between the cultural archive and profane space? Could you give us an example of each, and explain how this value border can be redrawn (and how Marcel Duchamp figures in this)?
HA/MB: The distinction between cultural archive and profane space constitutes the basis of Groys’s topological and economic theory of cultural innovation. Cultural archives include, for example, museums, libraries, and, more recently, the internet. They comprise items which have been valorised – items which have been endowed with cultural value. An item’s position in the archive is determined by its relation to the rest of the archive’s content, from which it can be distinguished and with which it can be compared. According to Groys’s fundamentally topological outlook, it is an item’s position in the archive’s hierarchy that determines its cultural value.
The profane constitutes the space outside of the archive. It consists of things which have not been culturally valorised and between which there exists no cultural distinction. Profane space is separated from the cultural archive by a value border. Cultural innovation is a process which involves the comparison of something profane with a cultural value. Through this comparison, the profane thing attains a position in the archive and is valorised. The value border is thereby redrawn.
Duchamp plays such an important role in Groys’s work because Groys considers the method of the ready-made as the key manifestation of the process of cultural innovation. Duchamp’s ready-mades are examples of a process by which something profane, e.g. a urinal, a broomstick, a bicycle-wheel, is formally and interpretatively set in relation to existent cultural values. For instance, the urinal turned on its head recalls the figure of the Buddha, Roman fountains, and the upper-body of the Madonna.
SD: Groys has more recently been working on religion, and the role of reproduction and the ritual in religion in the digital era. Could you tell us about some of this more recent work, and tell us how it relates to the rest of his oeuvre?
HA/MB: Groys has discussed the relationship between the current popularisation of religion and the proliferation of digital methods of reproduction in a number of recent video lectures and essays. The key texts on this theme are ‘Religion as Medium’ and ‘Religion in the Age of Digital Reproduction’. His essay on Walter Benjamin, which is part of his book Einführung in die Anti-Philosophie (Introduction to Anti-Philosophy), is also relevant here. An important theme in these texts is the relationship between philosophy and theology in light of the problem of truth. Groys draws a distinction between philosophy and theology based on the concepts of labour/production and reproduction/remembrance.
Groys’s argument on the revival of religion takes its cue from Benjamin’s notion that in modernity religion has dispersed in secular life, rather than declined and disappeared. Groys reformulates this Benjaminian thesis in terms of his own theory of the cultural archive and profane space. The secularisation of religion is explained as a process in which acts of ‘ritual’, ‘repetition’ and ‘reproduction’, which were formerly confined to sacred spaces and culturally archived practices, were disseminated in profane space through the onslaught of mechanical methods of reproduction.
In his analysis of the use of digital methods of reproduction (e.g. the internet and video) by contemporary religious movements, Groys underscores this affinity between modern technology and religious practices. Yet he diverges from Benjamin’s diagnosis that modern technologies of reproduction initiate a loss of aura and authentic experience. On the contrary, he claims that they allow for new forms of religious experience. To make this point, Groys looks in particular towards radical religious movements ranging from Islamic fundamentalism to new evangelism and their use of video. These movements’ choice of video as a medium of self-presentation and communication is interpreted as a result of the inherent affinity between their religious messages and the functioning of digital video images. Like divine messages whose origin is mystical, digital images are read from a digital code which remains invisible to their viewer. However, in contradistinction to older religious means of communication, in which the relationship between the invisible original message and its reproduction in the here and now was highly uncertain, digital reproduction appears to provide a previously unknown level of certainty. The visualization of the original information stored on the digital file appears to the viewer as a literal reproduction. The identity of the religious message is thus stabilised.
According to Groys, this ‘belief’ in the ability of digital technologies to reproduce the original identically has led to a technical re-articulation of the metaphysical spirit/matter dichotomy in which matter outweighs spirit. This shift is most evident in the substitution of notions of spiritual immortality in the beyond with notions of what Groys calls a new ‘materialist, technically guaranteed immortality’ in the here and now. The emphasis on the issue of immortality is consistent with Groys’s earlier work, which already explored the theme of immortality in the politics of the avant-garde. Immortality is also a central theme in Groys’s interviews with Thomas Knoefel, published in book form under the title Politik der Unsterblichkeit (Politics of Immortality).
Hannah Abdullah
Matthias Benzer
Hannah Abdullah is a doctoral student in sociology at the London School of Economics. Her project examines the value debates about artistic works that were labelled ‘new German painting’ in the international art market during the past decade. She previously studied Spanish literature, history of art and sociology at University College London and the London School of Economics. [email: H.Abdullah@lse.ac.uk]
Matthias Benzer is Peacock Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation, London School of Economics. He previously worked as a lecturer in sociology at the University of Manchester. He is the author of The Sociology of Theodor Adorno (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and articles and book contributions on critical and post-structuralist social thought. [email: M.Benzer@lse.ac.uk]
Simon Dawes is the Editor of the TCS Website and Editorial Assistant of Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society
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