Consent, Antagonism and Similar Contingencies: A Multi-Dialectical Approach Towards Discursive Practice

I. A perspective on the post-modern development towards socially related aesthetics

When Art & Language referred to Minimalism as “the nervous breakdown of Modernism” ¹, they simultaneously referred to a time, in which art’s prospective development was described by Joseph Kosuth in terms of finding “a certain way of filling that gap which philosophy left.” ² Minimalism, in the “specific object sense”, may arguably be described as a form of “hyperconcretization” of abstraction that emerged in opposition to modernist formalism, which was itself a heir to traditionalist forms of depiction and representation. Minimal and conceptual artists at this time were probably operating in a Duchampian manner more than they would have been pleased to admit when they stated that they were interested in “art, that took on a kind of pure existence in the sense that it came to exist as a tautology with no need for (…) depiction.” ³ Above all else, it was a certain kind of realism, just as every kind of realism is a form of concretization, that minimal and conceptual artists but no less pop artists and artists linked with various forms of institutional critique pursued. The tragedy of the loss of metaphysics being processed by Minimalism and Conceptualism, Marxian and Leninist thought being re-read through Louis Althusser by the institutional critics while pop artists presumably didn’t care about either.

The beginning of post-modernism was intrinsically linked to the end of industrialization, the age that set capitalism into a firm place in the western world as well as giving birth to Marxian thought, also and especially those aspects of it that do not necessarily deal with a critique of capitalism. After Adorno and Horkheimer, the Frankfurt School became at this time predominantly represented by Jürgen Habermas, who adopted the legacy of a school of thought that was fundamentally based on the experience of European totalitarianism. The development of his approach is only understandable under consideration of the identification of the enlightenment as a failed mythology (“the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant” ⁴) by Horkheimer and Adorno, or more precisely in the light of a substantial crisis of critical theory itself because of the “social revolution” that emerged out of state-regulated relations of production and forces of production being indeed totalitarianism.

Habermas’ approach to this crisis, which was more of a generational problem that was affecting him less than the first generation of the Frankfurt School and through which he in part distanced himself from it, began with The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.⁵ This book marked the beginning of a theory that, although hardly acknowledged as such, proves to be of considerable importance in terms of concepts and theories of art practice that in some way incorporate social or intersubjective exchange. Reasons for this will have to be further elaborated. In it, Habermas developed an insight on the criticality of collaborative, public discourse with regard to the democratic culture within which it actually takes place. He further took on the idea of the public sphere in his Theory of Communicative Action⁶, where he describes communicative rationality as collaboratively elaborated rationality that is realized in debate and (inter-)action rather than “privately” acquired knowledge. His idealist approach on democracy takes on the enlightenment as an “unfinished project” ⁷ since Kant⁸ and Marx⁹, managing to circumnavigate the disappointment of his predecessors over the fact that the anti-liberal strand of enlightenment thinking led to fascism.

It was also in the 1970s that Niklas Luhmann developed his systems theory which he referred to as an “evolution of communication” ¹⁰. His theory in general does not incorporate the individual itself¹¹. It only allows for certain communicative actions which are initiated by human beings who themselves however, as the creators of those communicative actions, stand outside of the system, or rather of any system¹². In a (post-)structuralist sense, which indeed is not far-fetched in this case, people are the signifier in relation to the signified, the system. Looking at Luhmann’s theory from a post-structuralist perspective may also in some way identify it as postmodern, even though it would require a thorough reading of systems theory with regard to post-structuralism to allow for an exhaustive evaluation. Luhmann’s axiom of the determinant (signifier) being intrinsically linked to but not incorporated within the system (signified) might exemplify the post-structuralist relationship between the two. Luhmann shows that “everything is communication”, he embeds the subject in a semiotic framework which his theory describes, a theory that is implicitly descriptive, neither normative nor claiming to suggest moral values. A closer look at his concept would have to be taken to determine how subjectivity develops with regards to social systems, specifically in terms of Felix Guattari who will be discussed at a later point.

There are numerous ways in which communication between systems takes place and one question that can be derived from Luhmann is the question of what those ways and their respective characteristics are, i.e. language, writing, signs in the light of a manifold and complex structure of information networks. The more important aspect of his thinking however might be the definition of the system as being constituted by communicative actions of people but not incorporating people itself. I would think of this as a kind of social playing-field theory in the sense that it outlines a virtual space that is a priori empty or non-existent and only realized through communication. It is similar to what Liam Gillick, who belongs to a later generation that will be addressed later on, refers to as “scenario”: “My work is like the light in the fridge, it only works when there are people there to open the fridge door. Without people, it’s not art – it’s something else – stuff in a room.” ²¹

Peter Halley, who developed his work since the late 1970s, is a post-minimal painter who as such arguably belongs to a postmodern generation. Halley defines postmodernism as “the post-modern world, where the model precedes all” ¹³ and “dominated by ideas of hyperrealization, simulation, closure and fascination” ¹³. This is a double recourse on Jean Baudrillard¹⁴, both in terms of “hyperrealization” as well as “Simulacrum” and “simulation”. On the one hand, in a wider understanding of the term, Halley describes hyperrealization as an “idea of progressive abstraction (…). Each era becomes the hyperrealization of the preceding era(..).” ¹⁵, although the connection between “hyperrealization” and abstraction indicates that it must be understood as a phenomenon that is rooted in modernism. On the other, in a reading that would be closer to Baudrillard and directly refer to his concept of the “Simulacrum”, “hyperrealization” emerges through the shift from modernism to postmodernism and characterizes the “hyperreal” or “the simulation of something which never really existed” ¹⁴. “Hyperrealization” in that sense is generated from the exposure of the individual to the media and their repetitious processing of reality, which results, according to Baudrillard, in a blurring of the definition of reality which in the individual perception is shifted to “hyperreality”. Essentially it is a kind of illusionism that is not only heir to the Renaissance idea of the central perspective and as such to a pictorial tradition but also in an ambivalent way to the above mentioned idea of enlightenment which Adorno and Horkheimer deemed failed⁴.

Halley’s thoughts must implicitly be understood bearing in mind that he is a painter, as they reveal that the conception of his work is rooted in the idea of depiction and representation. This is most obvious in his definition of “hyperrealization” in terms of twentieth-century art: “One may see Cubism as a hyperrealization of Cezanne, or Cezanne, for that matter, as a hyperrealization of Courbet. Similarly, one can understand Abstract Expressionism as a hyperrealization of pre-war European modernism, or Frank Stella as a hyperrealization of Abstraction Expressionism.” ¹⁵ “Realization” in that sense is nothing less than the depiction of “reality”, or rather the description of the world or of something that constitutes a certain world, by means of depiction. Halley is much closer to Mondrian than to any kind of Minimalism, but still it is Minimalism that distinguishes Halley from Mondrian.

Halley realizes that there is no Minimalism after Minimalism, that Minimalism contains the seed of its own end in the sense that it is based on a tautologic premise. Nothing could reveal him in a more obvious way as being a postmodern and postminimal artist than his line “Thus the history of abstract art is the history of a real progression in the social.” ¹⁵ In Halley’s work, in a time that, according to Paul Virilio, had to interpret the “riddle of technology” ¹⁶, Mondrian’s grids have turned into a technologic maze. It is this technologic maze that on the one hand gives birth to Baudrillard’s theory of the “hyperreal” and that on the other allows Halley to recognize the essential link between “abstract art” and “the social”. As much as it is necessary to credit him for the depiction of this relation, the question that must be derived from Halley and Baudrillard is the question of how this increasing complexity can be handled. If we are to assume that we live in a world of ongoing and inexorable alienation we have to ask the question of what the way out of this alleged technological maze is. What is it that counteracts the individual alienation in the postmodern world described by Baudrillard in recourse to Marx?

Halley has no intend to answer this question. His work remains a depiction. “Hyperrealization” reveals itself as “hyperrepresentation” or “hyperdepiction”. There is an inherent irony in his work that becomes transparent through Baudrillard’s analysis of the public exposure to the media. In arguing that the media provide a one-way flow of information towards which the subject cannot respond, Baudrillard implies that any practice with the aim of putting this public unidirectional non-communication under scrutiny must employ an approach that first of all differs in terms of exchange.

The reason why Habermas did not engage in an exhaustive theory of the media is probably because his normative social theory does not in particular address social relations of power in terms of knowledge because it is rather concerned with the premises for communicative equality. Luhmann did refer to the media extensively, however in a purely descriptive approach that claims the mass media to be a self-reproductive system of social self-observation that is created by society rather than being imposed on it¹⁷.

At the beginning of this text, I used the term “hyperconcretization” in reference to Halley’s “hyperrealization”. Especially Minimalism, as stated previously, was a “hyperconcretization” of modernism in the sense that it took on modernist abstraction but at the same time embodied a rupture in terms of modernist traditions rather than a continuance. “Concretization” as opposed to “realization” is used to make a differentiation from the painterly tradition to which “realization” refers while at the same time taking on the meaning of “hyperrealization” as it is used by Halley. Halley’s achievement in this sense seems to be that his work makes obvious that painting, or any form of depiction as opposed to “concreteness” for that matter, on its own is an insufficient methodology as far as intersubjective communication is concerned. Less so sculpture. As it will turn out, form and space are the crucial aspects for the designing of micro-societies or sociological playing fields of exchange. Joseph Beuys’ concept of “social sculpture” is an example, but one might as well go back to Lenin’s practical embodiment of Marx’s final thesis on Feuerbach⁹: “Concrete analysis of concrete situations.”

Before we can pick up the thread and examine how the generation after Halley took on the influence exerted by theorists who were concerned with methodologies of communication within society, it seems helpful to look at an artist who proves to be important in respective of this development and who in fact belongs to a transitional generation between modernism and postmodernism.

Dan Graham described his work in a conversation with Mark Francis as “a philosophical and psychological model to get away from minimal art, which is just objective.” ¹⁸ The interview was conducted on the occasion of the installation of the Waterloo Sunset Pavilion at the Hayward Gallery. Interestingly, Graham is described as a modernist in the catalogue. Even more interestingly, he is not a modernist, albeit he has a modernist background in the sense that his work is informed by modernist architecture more than anything else. In terms of materiality and formal reduction Graham can be placed close to Mies without question. A closer reading of his practice however reveals that he draws from modernism in the developing process of a practice that is situated in postmodern realms.

The importance of Graham’s practice lies in its examination of the individual within the urban, architectural environment. Architecture is not a formalist game but a social playing field. Graham realizes that it cannot be addressed from the perspective of that individual as a singular entity, but, just as “playing field” indicates, that architecture must be understood as being experienced collectively, in other words, that it allows for an intersubjective encounter: “I want to use the spectator’s perception of themselves perceiving – as perceived by other people – to be the key to the piece. I also want to include a group of people, not just one or two. So I need a group audience situation.” ¹⁸

The reason why I compared Halley and Graham here is because their practices complement each other in a way that is worth investigating because it is helpful in identifying the important steps that were taken by the generation that succeeded them. Halley is the artist who literally represents the beginning information society. His work is not just postindustrial but it embraces the way that technology has begun to shape society. Halley’s paintings are a physical exemplification of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s claim in terms of information society that knowledge, as the principle force of production, would be transferred into a commodity¹⁹.  Graham’s work on the other hand, as mentioned before, comes in a modernist disguise but contributes to a postmodern discourse of how architecture acts as a framework of social interaction as well as how it can be used to conceal the control that institutions exert on society. He recognizes that minimalism itself is of no use in terms of establishing a critical discourse that addresses contemporary society but that it must be taken on because of its validity or rather prevalence in formal aspects that are mirrored in the built world and interior design. While Halley also recognizes that, Halley’s work is a “hyperrealization” as opposed to Graham’s “hyperconcretization”. Graham’s discourse inscribes itself and develops its critical function within the existing reality. This is as concrete an approach, a “hyperconcretization” for that matter, as Carl Andre’s was some 15 years earlier. The modernist drawback in Graham’s practice might be his emphasis on the visual. The perceptual game that he claims to be induced by his two-way mirror pavilions approximates the work to some kind of Op-Art. Yet this notion has to be reconsidered in respect of the time within which Graham developed this work and it is remedied to a certain extend by the criticality of the practice which outweighs modernist issues of aesthetics and perception.

II. Aesthetics and social exchange in capitalist information society

In 1998, Nicolas Bourriaud, as he himself described it, responded to the practice of artists with whom he had been collaborating with his essay Relational Aesthetics²⁰.  Relational Aesthetics takes as an important point of reference and as a precondition for the emergence of artistic practices associated with it, the new communication and information technologies, above all the internet, in the 1990s. The subject matter that Bourriaud is dealing with in his essay is well known and not supposed to be elaborated here. Instead I would like to focus on the responses that his book provoked, because, as much as they had a profound impact, his claims have however been subject to critique from various directions.

In her essay Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics²¹, Claire Bishop examines Bourriaud’s essay largely on the basis of two artistic positions that are frequently mentioned by Bourriaud, Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija, as opposed to two artists not featured in Relational Aesthetics despite their related practice, Thomas Hirschhorn and Santiago Sierra. Bishop draws her main argument, the concept of antagonism, from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics²². Arguing that “a democratic society is one in which relations of conflict are sustained, not erased”, she suggests that “the relations set up by relational aesthetics are not intrinsically democratic (…) since they rest too comfortably within an ideal of subjectivity as whole and of community as immanent togetherness”. This, she argues, specifically applies to Tiravanija’s practice, which, due to its “microtopian” nature, lacks inherent friction. This is    because it reflects Bourriaud’s understanding of the relations produced by art works according to his theory as fundamentally harmonious since they are addressed to a community of viewing subjects with a shared interest to engage in the discourse proposed by the respective artwork. Laclau has demonstrated that social antagonism is the result of human beings having an incomplete structural identity and therefore being dependent on identification²³. Because subjectivity, in Laclau’s and Mouffe’s terms, is the process of identification, human beings are necessarily incomplete entities. Antagonism is the relationship that as a result emerges between them.

Without a thorough reading of Laclau and Mouffe, it is hard to determine whether Bishop actually uses the term “antagonism” in the sense that they coined it. The judgemental comparison of artists supported by Bourriaud and those neglected by him that she induces is unproductive, including from the point of view that it is not at all obvious that the practice of the former is in accordance with Bourriaud’s thoughts from their perspective. What Bishop does have to be credited for first off all irrespective of her discussion of artists but solely in terms of Bourriaud is that she recognizes that Relational Aesthetics refers to social relations in a non-dialectical sense. “does this work permit me to enter into dialogue? Could I exist, and how, in the space it defines?”, the definition of artists today as “learning to inhabit the world in a better way” and “it seems more pressing to invent possible relations with our neighbors in the present than to bet on happier tomorrows” ²⁰ are comments by Bourriaud found in Relational Aesthetics. Here it seems that Bourriaud ignores the fact that a negative affirmation of a premise does not at all equal indifference towards it in terms of the hypothesis. In other words, if the work emphasizes a denial of dialogue, thereby not ignoring it, but affirming it in a sense contrary to Bourriaud’s concept then that is also a form of addressing dialogue. Dystopia is not addressed by Bourriaud at all, who instead emphatically promotes different scales of utopia and thereby exposes one of the major aspects that render his theory prone to criticism. Bishop rightfully addresses those issues, however by very questionable means. It would have been preferable if she focussed on Bourriaud instead of asserting her opinion that Hirschhorn and Sierra are better artists than Tiravanija and Gillick, for it remains dubious if her examination of the practice of the latter is as exhaustive and objective to allow for a fair comparison to the alleged qualities that she identifies in their “opponent’s” practice. Gillick has published a response to Bishop’s essay²⁵ which is however useful only to a limited degree because it is largely a counterstatement of his own practice.

According to Marx, social development is dependent on changes within the correspondence of relations of production and productive forces. The economic base of society induces any further “social output” and thereby constitutes society’s superstructure which in turn mirrors the mode of production, i.e. capitalism. The vast changes in terms of productive forces (industrialization, post-industrialization, information society etc.) in an erratic history of capitalism have not altered one of its axioms which is that the most decisive social relations are economic relations. Bourriaud is of course aware of that, hence his claim for a “micro-utopia” of non-economic relations, or in other words, of social exchange outside of the realm of capitalism. Given this, it is not surprising that he discusses Tiravanija’s work rather than Sierra’s. Tiravanija explores social exchange aside a capitalist mode of production, which raises the question of the nature of the socio-economic relations that he suggests, especially considering the aforementioned Marxian axiom that renders all cultural production dependent on the economy. This is the question that we must ask, what could be the real-world basis for Tiravanija’s utopia? Some have argued that there isn’t any and that this work contentedly sits within an institutionalized capitalist framework.²⁶ This, on the other hand, is exactly one of Gillick’s arguments in defense of his and Tiravanija’s practice: “In her plea for a more obvious and direct exposure of an artist’s relationships with the dominant social framework, Bishop plays into the hands of those forces in the culture that would rather control and contain complexity and critique,…” ²⁵

Interestingly, Habermas’ theory of communicative action is being criticized in a way very similar to Bourriaud’s proposition of a micro-utopian experimental laboratory for social relations and exchange. Habermas’ concept and presupposition of the public sphere in which discourse takes place is that of a democratic and egalitarian realm which allows for an argumentatively meritocratic discussion. Very similar to Bishop, Ian McNeely has questioned the axiom of democracy that Habermas takes as a basis for his discourse theory by pointing to Michel Foucault who takes communication as embodying pre-existing power relationships: “Jürgen Habermas subscribes to an unrealistic ideal of power-free communication (…) Michel Foucault remedies this idealism by treating knowledge as power;” ²⁷ ²⁸  It would have to be examined however to which degree the relations that Foucault addresses as allowing for knowledge as a means of power are egalitarian. At least in Discipline and Punish he describes prisoners being subject to the collection of a body of knowledge about them which then becomes a constant means of repression.

I wonder why Bourriaud did not consider Habermas’ work in terms of Relational Aesthetics, specifically The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere and the Theory of Communicative Action, as those would have served very well to back up his theory. First and foremost however, it is Bourriaud’s merit to be the first who has given a theoretical background to art in the 1990s that in one way or another created a field for actual or virtual social relations. The purpose of this essay is to draw a line that underpins the development of relational aesthetics since minimalism and that deviates from Bourriaud’s take, which mainly features Felix Guattari, though for good reason. Guattari’s whole work is being permeated by a complex concept of subjectivity which he examines in front of a background of capitalism. Especially in Chaosophy²⁹, Guattari indicates, in a Marxian take on capitalism, to which degree subjectivity within the capitalist mode of production is alienated from the subject itself as well as the community as a whole. Not surprisingly, what Bourriaud is trying to derive from Guattari are the possible ways that subjectivity and subjectivization can escape from being transformed into a controlled collective apparatus, specifically because he identifies similarities in subjectivity and artistic activity. Art, as Bourriaud explains, is viewed here under the premise of “The work of art…” being “…only of interest to Guattari insomuch as it is not a matter of a ‘passively representative image’” ²⁰, and he continues “These works are no longer paintings, sculptures or installations, all terms corresponding with categories of mastery and types of products, but simple ‘surfaces, ‘volumes’ and ‘devices’”. Bourriaud links these “surfaces”, “volumes” and “devices” to an, as he would say “micro-utopian” ormicro-political”, conception of artistic practice when he argues for “working methods” and “ways of being” instead of “objects” which he sees as being bound to a traditional realm of art which is an expression of the idea of the artist creating subjectivity within himself. Bourriaud employs Guattari’s definition of subjectivity to underpin this notion: “All the conditions making it possible for individual and/or collective agencies to be in a position to emerge as sui-referential existential Territory, adjacent to or in a relation of delimitation with an otherness that is itself subjective” ³⁰. It would have been useful if Bourriaud would have traced his valid argument of the interactivity of relational art being superior to optical contemplation of an object further back to post-minimal but pre-1990s realms. I have tried to give such an example by opposing Halley’s concept of “hyperrealization” to Dan Graham’s practice defined as a “hyperconcretization”. The coinage of the term “hyperconcretization” being of no other use than to create a synonym to Halley’s concept that differs in so far as it rejects the idea of representation. I don’t know to which degree Graham was conscious about Louis Althusser’s essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses ³¹. Ideology according to Althusser is a “Representation of the Imaginary Relationship of Individuals to their Real Conditions of Existence” and is a phenomenon that is intrinsically rooted in capitalist modes of production. Ideology produces an illusionary consciousness of the relations to the relations of production by which one is affected and is as such an unconscious structure which is inhabited and masks the process of alienation. Albeit Bourriaud is talking about Althusser in places, this remains only cursory. The framework however from which relational aesthetics allegedly seek to allow for emancipation is ideology in Althusser’s sense.

Although he does not directly refer to Althusser, Stewart Martin makes this obvious in his “Critique of Relational Aesthetics” ³² within which he examines how relational art produces a social exchange that disengages from capitalist exchange. In other words, what is at stake in Martin’s essay is the question of what modes of production are suggested by relational art in Bourriaud’s terms. To a great extend, the essay is based upon a comparison of two positions that Martin identifies as being oppositional: Adorno’s reference to art’s autonomy on the one hand, Bourriaud’s approach to proclaim art’s heteronomy by society on the other. Martin acknowledges Adorno’s emphatic assumption of the autonomous, non-heteronomous artwork as being inextricably linked to its commodity form and thus allowing for an immanent critique of commodification, however he takes as a point of departure the aporia of autonomy and heteronomy that Adorno articulates in the Aesthetic Theory: “If art gives up its autonomy (…), it delivers itself over to the machinations of the status quo; if art remains strictly for-itself, it nonetheless submits to integration as one harmless domain among others. The social totality appears in this aporia, swallowing whole whatever occurs.” ³³

Martin argues that one of the basic claims of relational aesthetics, the subordination of “aesthetic objects” to “relations between people” is an immanent error in the theory in that it constitutes capitalist exchange value at the level of objects. In other words, that it succumbs to a sort of political fetishism by thinking that the eradication of the “objectivity” of the commodity would eradicate capitalist exchange. Martin gives noteworthy evidence of this by quoting Marx: “…the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the phantasmagorical form of a relation between things.” ³⁴

What Martin is essentially saying is that the artistic practices promoted by Bourriaud are occupying a niche of alleged artistic freedom within general capitalist modes of production against which they are helpless or reluctant to operate: “…the extend to which art is allowed to be an exception within capitalist exchange in order to provide a relief from its alienating effects and quench the desire to overthrow it.” And the end of his essay is no less revealing: ‘Overcoming the alienation of social relations in art remains bound to a political project of anti-capitalism. Such a project requires that a critique of the dialectics of social exchange in capitalist culture should be at the heart of any critical theory or practice of contemporary art worth the name.

Martin’s essay is an excellent review of relational aesthetics in so far as it takes the modes of production of the system within which the artistic positions that are discussed operate and towards which, as is claimed, they critically position themselves, as a base. When Martin however rightfully claims that attempts to tackle the circumstances that bring about the alienation of social relations first of all remain prone to just “function ideologically” as long as they do not “eradicate what caused it”, this raises nonetheless the question of who, for that matter, is speaking in ideological terms here. The distinction between critical and ideological is a vague one here, and Martin himself is in some parts on the verge of the latter, albeit in the justified attempt to demonstrate how what Bourriaud calls relational aesthetics can easily turn into being a mere aestheticization of capitalist exchange. Coming back to Althusser, this quasi-anesthetic aestheticization submits the work to the realm of ideological state apparatuses, indeed renders the work itself an appropriation of an ideological authority. Martin shows that this seems to be the peril of art submitting to its heteronomy by the social. Here we have to go back to Guattari. Subjectivity is in principle the autonomy of one’s very own being, which however is invariably corrupted by ideology, and therefore subject to heteronomy. As is claimed in Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia³⁵, subjectivity and individualization, in other words the development of the individual, is not only submitted to Freudian oedipal structures within family socialization. It is simultaneously general socialization that features the same structures in that the developing individual internalizes capitalist repression due to materialist desires produced by society. The poststructuralist assumption of the de-centered subject that expresses itself in the ‘anti-oedipal’ theory of Deleuze and Guattari allows for a re-examination of Martin’s suggestion of a dialectical approach towards relational aesthetics in the sense of a mediation of “fetishism against exchange” and “exchange against fetishism” ³².

How is this mediation supposed to be brought about though, and how can it be prevented from leading to a “fetishism of exchange”? How can the Deleuzian/Guattarian subject reestablish its immanently alienated, spread out subjectivity and thus recover from what Deleuze and Guattari diagnose as schizophrenia induced by capitalist heteronomy of subjectivity’s self concept? In other words, how can this mediated “heteronomous autonomy” in its discrete state undermine the cultural hegemony and at the same time maintain this state as opposed to submitting to the status-quo and therefore becoming an ideological apparatus.

A better understanding of those questions can be derived from another closer look at Jürgen Habermas with regard to Bourriaud and the subsequent criticism. As mentioned before, the similarity is astounding. In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere⁵, Habermas outlines what he calls “representational culture”. “Representational culture” characterizes the authoritarian nature of feudalism and monarchism in terms of a historical timeline as well as authoritarian systems in general for that matter. Capitalism, according to Habermas, then to a certain extend allowed for the emerging of “the public sphere” due to the reduction of state authority. “The public sphere” is a democratic sphere of dialogue, it is the sphere within which communicative rationality, i.e. intersubjective linguistic communication, is realized to collaboratively elaborate reason. Within this public sphere, Habermas aims for what he calls an “ideal speech situation” ³⁶ which, as the name implies, is dependent on a kind of democratic equilibrium. As much as the reduction of government authority in the course of democracy allows for an emerging of the public sphere however, this public sphere is simultaneously compromised by “ideological” mass media which reinstates “representational culture”, i.e. repressive culture. The “ideal speech situation” is therefore an utopian conception, and even more so because it is founded on the idea of consent as a result of democratic debate in which individuals engage because of their inherent ability for communicative reason. This is a rediscovery of Bourriaud, albeit from the perspective of a chronological order it is Habermas who we discover in Bourriaud’s thinking. It is a kind of neo-Kantian utopianism that is based on a take on enlightenment thinking.

The other aspect of Habermas theory of the public sphere that needs to be closer considered in terms of Bourriaud is his idea of “representational culture”. As mentioned before, Habermas identifies “representational culture” as repressive because of its unidirectional way of communicating that imposes itself on its subjects. Bourriaud does not go to such lengths as to implicate an authoritarian character in the “art object” when he opposes it to “relational art” as follows: “Unlike an object that is closed in on itself by the intervention of a style and a signature, present-day art shows that form only exists in the encounter and in the dynamic relationship enjoyed by an artistic proposition with other formations, artistic or otherwise.” ²⁰ “Form” acording to Bourriaud is a “Structural unity imitating a world. Artistic practice involves creating a form capable of ‘lasting’, bringing heterogeneous units together on a coherent level, in order to create a relationship to the world.” ²⁰ This is what is at stake – creating a relationship to the world. Creating a relationship to the world implies concrete action. Bourriaud realizes that when he argues that art is “a space emptied of the factitious”.²⁰ And he also realizes that this relationship cannot sufficiently be created within the realms of pictorial or sculptural (hyper)realism, in other words, the realms of representation. Utopia is the basis of any critical, imaginative expression that refers to a virtual or actual inadequate environment. Analogous to hypertext this utopia however becomes a rhizomatically structured hyper-utopia. A utopia that must avow its decenteredness in order to escape from being ideologically induced. What can be inferred from Habermas and Bourriaud is that communication can be an antidote for alienation and complexity; it can help in reconstructing subjectivity.

What I want to put forward is the idea of a comprehensive dialectic. A socio-political-economic antagonism that embraces its multiple facades. A practice that elaborates and gives form to multiple utopian ideas by incorporating the dystopian contingencies of their failure. It is a practice that, so to speak from a chronological point of view, departs from the collapse of utopia as a general idea. This core idea of revolution and utopia has melted down into the concrete and virtual structures of society. To form and to quote utopia means to identify and reconstruct the discrete entities of this meltdown into the virtual and the human-built world in a project of a partly dystopian archaeology. This reconstruction may employ different positions of subjectivity to elaborate temporary solutions for assembling the rhizomatic puzzle of utopia that could be understood as a de-centered image in the light of the socio-political background of the absence of any grand theory.

Notes and References

¹ I found this in notes of mine, however no other source material could be found.

² Gale, Peggy (ed.) 2004 “Artist’s talk : 1969 – 1977”, The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax

³ Kosuth, Joseph in Gale, Peggy (ed.) 2004 “Artist’s talk : 1969 – 1977”, The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Halifax

⁴ Adorno, Theodor W., with Horkheimer, Max 1940, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford University Press

⁵ Habermas, Jürgen 1962, translated 1989, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society, Polity, Cambridge

⁶ Habermas, Jürgen 1981 translated 1984, Theory of Communicative Action, Polity, Cambridge

⁷ Habermas, Jürgen 1967 / 1991, Toward a Rational Society, Polity, Cambridge

⁸ “Sapere Aude!

Kant, Immanuel 1784, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?, Penguin Books, London

⁹ “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Marx, Karl 1845, Theses on Feuerbach (Thesis 11), Prometheus Books

¹⁰ Luhmann, Niklas 1990, Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt

¹¹ “The concept of ‘postmodernity’ proposes a different solution for the same problem. It rejects any binding force of history – be it the European idea of self-critical philosophy or the liberation (emancipation) of the individual as conceived in the 18th century.”

Luhmann, Niklas 1995, “Why does society describe itself as postmodern?” in

Cultural Critique, No. 30, The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part I (Spring, 1995), pp. 171-186, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis

¹² Luhmann took this approach up from Talcott Parsons who had already developed it in his first major publication

Parsons, Talcott 1937, The Structure of Social Action, Free Press

¹³ Halley, Peter 1986, Frank Stella… and the Simulacrum, Flash Art, No. 126

¹⁴ Baudrillard, Jean 1981, Simulacra and Simulation, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor

¹⁵ Halley, Peter 1987,Notes on Abstraction, Arts Magazine, New York, Vol. 61

¹⁶ Virilio, Paul 1983, Pure War, semiotext(e), New York

¹⁷ Luhmann, Niklas 2000, The reality of the mass media, Polity, Cambridge

¹⁸ Francis, Mark 2003, An interview with Dan Graham, Hayward Gallery Publishing, London

¹⁹ Lyotard, Jean-Francois 1984, The Postmodern Condition, The Manchester University Press

²⁰ Bourriaud, Nicolas 1998 translated 2002, Relational Aesthetics, les pressed du réel, Dijon

The term is used in two slightly different ways in this essay. While “Relational Aesthetics” refers to Bourriaud’s text, “relational aesthetics” addresses a general set of artistic practices in accordance with Bourriaud’s definition.

²¹ Bishop, Claire 2004, Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics, October 110, October Magazine, MIT Press

²² Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal 1985, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, Verso Books

²³ Laclau, Ernesto 1990, New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time, Verso Books

²⁴ Ironically, she is trying to withdraw from that highly visible position in her answer to Liam Gillick’s reply to her essay.

( Bishop, Claire 2006, Letters and Responses: Claire Bishop Responds:, October 115, October Magazine, MIT Press )

²⁵ Gillick, Liam 2006, Letters and Responses: Contingent Factors: A Response to Claire Bishop’s ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’, October 115, October Magazine, MIT Press

²⁶ Radical Culture Research Collective 2007, A Very Short Critique of Relational Aesthetics,

²⁷ McNeely, Ian 2003, The Emancipation of Writing, University of California Press, Berkeley

²⁸ Foucault, Michel 1975, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Gallimard

²⁹ Guattari, Felix 1995, Chaosophy, ed. Sylvere Lothringer

³⁰ Guattari, Felix 1992, Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm, Indiana University Press

³¹ Althusser, Louis 1970, Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, Monthly Review Press

³² Martin, Stewart 2007, Critique of Relational Aesthetics, Third Text Vol. 21, Issue 4

³³ Adorno, Theodor W. 1970, Aesthetic Theory, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis

³⁴ Marx, Karl 1976 (1867), Das Kapital, Penguin Books, London

³⁵ Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix 1972, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Penguin Books, London

³⁶ Habermas, Jürgen 1973, Wahrheitstheorien, in Fahrenbach, Helmut: Wirklichkeit und Reflexion: Walter Schulz zum 60. Geburtstag, Neske, Pfullingen


The ideal speech situation is neither an empirical phenomenon nor a mere construct, but rather an unavoidable supposition reciprocally made in discourse. This supposition can, but need not be, counterfactual; but even if it is made counterfactually, it is a fiction that is operatively effective in the process of communication. Therefore I prefer to speak of an anticipation of an ideal speech situation … The normative foundation of agreement in language is thus both anticipated and – as an anticipated foundation – also effective … To this extend the concept of ideal speech situation is not merely a regulative principle in Kant’s sense; with the first step toward the agreement in language we must always in fact make this supposition. On the other hand, neither is it an existing concept in Hegel’s sense; for no historical reality matches the form of life that we can in principle characterize by reference to the ideal speech situation. The ideal speech situation would best be compared with a transcendental illusion were it not for the fact that … (in contrast to) the application of the categories of the understanding beyond the experience, this illusion is also the constitutive condition of rational speech. The anticipation of the ideal speech situation has … the significance  of the constitutive illusion which is at the same time the appearance of a form of life. Of course we can not know a priori whether that appearance (Vorschein) is a mere delusion (Vorspiegelung) – however unavoidable the suppositions from which is springs – or whether the empirical conditions for the realization (if only approximate) of the supposed form of life can practically be brought about. Viewed in this way, the fundamental norms of rational speech built into universal pragmatics contain a practical hypothesis.”


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