Belgrade Circle

The questions for Professor Susan Buck-Morss were posed in 2005 by: Prof. Jerko Denegri, Philosophical Faculty, Department for History of Art, University of Belgrade; Prof. Jovan Čekić, Faculty of Fine Arts, Belgrade and Faculty of Fine Arts, Cetinje, Department for Philosophy of Art and Theory of New Media; Conceptual Artist; Prof. Miško Šuvaković, Faculty of Architecture, History and Aesthetics of Architecture, University of Belgrade; Mr. Obrad Savić, Acting president of the Belgrade Circle, Editor-in-Chief, Belgrade Circle Journal.

Fig. 1

Susan Buck-Morss in Belgrade.

Jovan Čekić

JC: When you speak of a difference between “artistic avant-garde” and “political avant-garde”, or more precisely about a different temporality, a possible threat of artistic practice to disturb the continuum of history as defined by the Party, could it be said that this is precisely the point in which artistic avant-garde grows into an “internal enemy,” just like the Party itself would give birth to an “internal enemy” later in the Stalinist era?

SBM: But isn’t the logic of the Party purge a different one, not based on time but on sovereign legitimacy? (I make that argument in the hypertext section, “Sovereign Party/Socialist State.”) The enemy internal to the Party is not the same as the enemy internal to the state over which the Party has supra-legal control. The early Bolshevik avant-garde artists were not necessarily, or even most frequently Party members. In fact their revolutionary ideas were potentially in competition with the Party. But the idea of an enemy in the cultural sense is meaningful in the Soviet context. It opposes quite sharply the influential thesis of Boris Groys (Gesammtkunstwerk Stalin, 1988), that Stalin’s construction of the USSR in the 1930s was a continuation, a fulfillment of the project of the avant-garde. It is a mistake to conflate the two, even if certain artists ultimately consented to work within the temporal logic of the Party.

JC: Could it also be said that enmity arises not so much from different views on “aesthetic needs of the masses” but mostly from the fact that pluralism is immanent to artistic avant-garde? By pluralism I mean the plurality of independent groups which are not aimed only against the Party’s epistemology, for it is by virtue of their mere existence that they offer a model of parallel co-existence of the plurality, which in turn undermines the concept of the Party as a monolithic political avant-garde, a closed-up minority that leads ahead.

SBM: Yes, but there is nothing sacred about pluralism if that term is understood merely in the formal, liberal-democratic sense that “anything goes.” Nor can we rely on the bourgeois-modern idea of the creative genius as the basis of artistic practice. I appreciate the Bolshevik avant-garde’s commitment to social goals, but the independence you speak of requires not so much pluralism as openness. The Bolshevik model of the avant-garde was the laboratory experiment (as opposed to the Western avant-garde, which praises newness or fashion as an end in itself). Cultural experimentation and political obedience are antithetical attitudes.

The brilliance of Lunacharskii as the Commissar of Culture was that he allowed multiple experiments to take place among various schools of artists – all of which, however, no matter what kind of art they produced, were engaged in producing cultural legitimacy for the proletarian revolution. Neither he nor Lenin was an enthusiastic appreciator of the new aesthetic sensibility. They preferred representational art (as Lunacharskii stated explicitly in 1921). But they appreciated the avant-garde’s creative energy, and were willing to support it.

Jesa Denegri

JD: How did the debates on what is a “Communist artistic practice” unfold among the members of avant-garde? And how should be understand your claim that “Revolutionary enthusiasm of the artistic avant-garde posed a threat to the political avant-garde”?

SBM: At a certain moment, artists like Lissitzky and Malevich proposed that cultural transformation – a humanization of the total environment, the habitus of everyday life – was the true meaning of the proletarian revolution, whereas the Party was set on a fixed path of industrialization that mimicked the West. Party policy was temporal acceleration (uskorenie) in order to catch up with the specifically Western technology and production-mode. We see this fantasy of historical progress as a uni-directional succession of developmental stages operating throughout the twentieth century; it became the model of modernization throughout the world. The avant-garde artists, who saw themselves as engineers useful to society rather than artists or decorative designers in the bourgeois sense, proposed alternative technologies – solar heating, green cities, flying bicycles – that escaped from the ruling political imagination and threatened to push the revolution into unknown and uncontrollable directions.

JD: How would you define the concept and the phenomenon of “Cold War”, and especially its consequences in the realm of culture and art? What was the role of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in the Cold War politics of American administration, and what was the role of its exhibitions intended for particular European countries? One of those representative exhibitions of contemporary American art happened in 1956 in Yugoslavia. Are you familiar with this exhibition, and if so – do you happen to know what were its aim and effect?

SBM: I hadn’t heard specifically about the 1956 exhibition in Yugoslavia, but it is safe to say that this tour was arranged with the cooperation of the CIA, the goal of which was to attract the sensibilities of artists and the public away from the socialist realist project. Remember also that it was in the interest of museums and art collectors in the artist-dealer system to maintain a privatized economy of artistic expression in paintings that could be bought on speculation, and held and sold at a profit. Abstraction as an artistic development was propagandized by the US during the Cold War as the sign of an advanced culture, whereby a nation joined the ranks of those who were leading history – again, this strange myth of history as uni-linear progress, with the US in the lead. In general terms, that was the aim of such traveling exhibitions.

JD: How were Clement Greenberg’s ideas, especially those expressed in the piece “Avant-Garde and Kitsch”, applied and used in the Cold War politics of American administration in the field of visual arts? What is implied by Greenberg’s notion of “apolitical politicism”?

SBM: Greenberg’s aesthetics was the embodiment of the idea that abstraction was the mark of artistic progress. He saw painting as “advancing” in history in terms of its growing lack of concern for representation. Finally, with the New York School of abstract painters like Jackson Pollock, representation was totally eclipsed by concern with painting itself. Color, texture, the brush-movement of the artist, and the canvas itself became the subject matter of painting that was to provide a pure visual experience – which he equated with the form of high culture fitting for a political democracy! Greenberg tied this to Kantian philosophy and the notion of aesthetic pleasure as “disinterested interest,” producing a grand narrative of artistic development, and his own time and place was its culmination.

Misko Suvakovic

MS: At some point in your book you mention that “in the 20th century it became extremely difficult to maintain the separateness of the economical and the political.” Could this idea be expanded to other realms of social and cultural practices in the 20th century? In other words, could it be said that in the 20th century it became extremely difficult to maintain the separateness of the cultural and artistic on the one hand, and the economical and political on the other?

SBM: Your perception seems to me accurate. It may indicate a fundamental shift in the mode of production: Because of the new media technologies the sphere of culture is merging with political and economic activity. We call this new situation, inadequately, “the information society” or “network society,” or simply “globalization.” We will have to invent better terms.

MS: Then you also say: “The defining of the enemy is at the same time the defining of the collective. Indeed, the defining of the enemy is an act by which the collective is created.” Now, if the enemy is the opposed one, what is the role of the different one – for instance, what would be the role of exoticism in defining of the collective within European civil societies?

SBM: Internal enemies are commonly named by sovereign power in the same breath as the external threat – for example, when Stalin said in 1927, “We have internal enemies. We have external enemies. This, comrades, must not be forgotten for a single moment.” (Dreamworld and Catastrophe, English, p. 7). But you are right that political legitimacy today is being contested on these terms in a new way, due to the unprecedently mobile global population that not only migrates, but remains physically and techno-physically tied to the communities it left — while those who are not part of the new mobility feel threatened to their core. There is a film by the Czech director, Jan Hrebejk, Horem Pádem (2004) that captures tragicomically this extreme crisis in collective self-definition, that is not only a problem of the sovereign state or the European Union, but, as you say, a problem of civil society.

Obrad Savic

OS: In your book Dreamworld and Catastrophe you have adopted the notion of “dreamworld” which, as you point out, Walter Benjamin used as the “analytic concept, one that was central to his theory of modernity as the re-enchantment of the world.” Would you then be ready to accept the claim according to which the normative modernism represents the last form in history of “enchantment of the world,” regardless of whether it nurtures on the collective illusions of transcendence or immanence?

SBM: The dreamworlds of modernity may be over, but the world remains as enchanted as before, perhaps more so. Religion as a transcendent form of enchantment is thunderously apparent, from the spread of Protestant Pentecostalism, to the pageantry of the Catholic Papacy, to the theatricality of suicide bombing among Muslim extremists. Immanent enchantment exists in the cinema-worlds of American Hollywood, Indian Bollywood, Chinese Kung Fu, and Japanese anime (animation), while the fantasy lands of theme parks and shopping malls are ubiquitous. As for politics, George W. Bush has managed to win two elections by enchanting the public and creating a dreamworld of democracy. The technological capacity to create and disseminate collective illusions has never been greater.

OS: In the Introduction you hinted that the book Dreamworld and Catastrophe can be read on several levels, that is – from within several different registers. Then you added that the book “is warning that the evaluation of the twentieth century should not be left in the hands of its victors.” Doesn’t it then seem to you that the victors, whoever or whatever they are, have confiscated the collective memory and interpretation – assessment would be your term – of great historical events? In other words, could the crash of the utopian discourse and disappearance of the dreamworld (and the world of dreams) be linked with what Pierre Nora called “the tyranny of memory”?

SBM: If you mean by this that official memory has silenced the past, I couldn’t agree more. But the evidence can hardly be obliterated. Artists can be effective in bringing it back into consciousness. I am thinking, for example, of the photographs of Boris Mikhailov that capture the atmosphere of the Soviet period, and reactivate something of the socialist dream of that was supposed to be. As for social alternatives to capitalist expansion, they will have to be reinvented, as the global public confronts the growing division between rich and poor, the ecological crisis, and the global oligarchy that undermines movements of democracy and human rights.

OS: In the chapter “History and Dreamworld” you speak of clashes about the conception of Time as advocated for by the artistic avant-garde and the political avant-garde of the Party. Allow me to quote one of your claims according to which the artistic avant-garde represented the symptom of the politico-party avant-garde: “Once artist accepted the cosmological time of the political vanguard, it followed that to continue to be revolutionary in a cultural sense meant glorifying the successes of the party and covering over its failures” (p. 62). Could it be claimed that the political and artistic avant-gardes were to an equal extent founded on the idea of the prophetic future tense, that is to say the messianic ethics/aesthetics of the re-educated and domesticated Socialistic man. On other words, didn’t the political and artistic avant-garde, despite all their internal quarrels, cooperate on a mutual project of the Revolutionary Time which, in fact, was nothing but an anthropocentric synthesis of humanism and bestiality?

SBM: Surely the Bolshevik avant-garde held diverse ideas of time. Malevich used the Russian word for eternity (bechnostb) as the telos of artistic revolution. He and others – Tatlin and Maiakovskii, for example – wrote for Anarchist journals in 1918. They rejected the dictatorship over time that was already being anticipated by political leaders. But your question goes further: can revolutionary time, understood as a radical rupture in history, ever be anything other than bestiality masquerading in the costumes of humanism? Of course, this question is relevant to the whole modernist discourse of revolution, stretching back to the French and Haitian Revolutions. Arguably, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 was the last of these modernist revolutions, complete with reign of virtue, revolutionary terror, and public executions of internal enemies! The lesson to learn from this barbarity of revolutionary time may be the need for revolutionary patience, a slowing down of history. Walter Benjamin criticized Marx’s metaphor of revolutions as the locomotives of history, writing that perhaps revolutions are the reaching of humanity riding in that train for the emergency break.

OS: You have expressed readiness to defend the thesis on educational potential of artistic avant-garde: “It has become fashionable to criticize totalitarian leaders on artistic grounds: Hitler was like a movie director, Stalin attempted to make a ‘total artwork out of society’. But is the lesson that political revolutionaries should not be artists, or is it that they should become better ones? … the avant-garde may have something to teach the politicians” (p.66). But when Walter Benjamin criticizes the “aesthetization of politics” or Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe proposes that National socialism can be seen as a “national aestheticism” in so far as it “fuctionalized” politics by conceiving the nation-state as a self-organizing, self-producting work of art (that is why Lytoard finds Aushwitz a horrible artwork), what in your opinion is the connection between the messianic aesthetics of artistic avant-garde and mass technology?

SBM: I mean simply that politics is collective theatre, which does not mean that its task is to produce the nation as a work of art. Rather, the autonomy of the artwork reaches its limits with the new media. Already in 1936 Walter Benjamin wrote that the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction begins to be based on a different practice: politics. Art that is scientific and experimental enhances critical cognitive perception, which is itself a political practice. Politics opens up to mass scrutiny, and if it is democratic, then the gesture of politics must display this democracy – which is another way of saying that the ends cannot justify the means. To use a current example, you cannot impose democracy upon a foreign country by waging preemptive war against it.

OS: Paul Virilio’s recent book Art and Fear (2004) takes a hard look at the role of modern art (and science) in the willful destruction of the idea of the human: “Avant-garde artists,” he writes, “like many political agitators, propagandists and demagogues, have long understood what TERRORISM would soon popularize: if you want a place in ‘revolutionary history’ there is nothing easier than provoking a riot, an assault on propriety, in the guise of art.” What would be your comment on Virillio’s idea of the final accident of art, the idea further radicalized in his most recent book The Accident of Art (2005)?

SBM: This destructive, nihilist definition of the artistic avant-garde is a partial description, and a caricature of even the later, Western forms. It simply forgets the history of the Weimar Bauhaus, Vkhutemas, Unovis, and other collective collaborations that experimented with new forms of the social environment, constructing laboratories of the imagination and adopting an open, scientific attitude that is lacking in totalitarianism or fascism. The Western avant-garde has at times been guilty of aestheticism. But this was not the case with the early Bolsheviks.

OS: How would you comment on Baudrillard’s thesis that “the Real has become the new avant-garde”?

SBM: Baudrillard’s understanding of the simulacrum is so total that it is difficult to see how he can still posit something called the Real. Let us look at it another way: Our Real is really a world of images. What we see on television is not reality in some metaphysically satisfying way, and yet we go there to see what is happening, to see reality as image-event. September 11, 2001, was such an image-event, and it was watched throughout the world. The surface of the image-world – multiple, fragmentary, superimposed — is our shared world; there is no Real behind it. But the intellectual and political task is to work on this surface level, not only to criticize the image-world, but to perceive the creative, indeed, utopian possibilities that such a global sharing of image-events implies. Many artists and filmmakers are working on the surface of the image-world, and transforming our perception of it. I would be happy to call their work avant-garde, and even Real, but then the meaning would be very different from the one that Baudrillard proposes.

OS: Would you agree with Zizek’s thesis that “re-presentation” is a form where the role of repetition (return, suppression-and-return, arrival, etc.) plays an important part? Repetition is, Zizek argues using Hegel, Kierkegaard, and Lacan, not just a means of reproducing a “simulacrum” but, paradoxically, a way of instantiating new (hapax) meaning. In this light, representation/repetition should not be viewed as in any way a means of automatically transferring content from one, more authentic, realm to another where it can be “viewed,” but a place where originally value and meaning is to be found.

SBM: There may be a simpler approach than to make a detour through high theory from Hegel to Lacan. The image is not as a representation at all but, rather, its own reality that in its infinite circulation (rather than repetition) generates meaning. Politics is not represented in images; instead media images become political events; they have agency.

OS: In Allen Meek’s piece “Benjamin, the televisual and the ‘fascistic subject”’ (1998) we encounter the following claim: “More recently, this analysis of the ideological functions of electronic media has been returned, particularly in the work of the group of scholars contributing to the journal October, to the historical emergence of fascism and the modern technological apparatus. Research by Hal Foster, Susan Buck-Morss, Jonathan Carry, Denis Hollier and others suggests that the critique of media embedded in the intellectual culture of the 1930s remains highly pertinent today.” What was in fact the attitude among the authors/contributors gathered around the journal October towards Lacan’s famous piece “The Mirror Stage” which founded the screen theory in the field of media and cultural studies?

SBM: We were trying to make the concept of “The Mirror Stage” fruitful for collective, social analysis. The fact that Lacan delivered the first version of this famous essay at a conference of psychoanalysts in Marienbad, Germany, in 1936 (and then took a train to Berlin to see the Olympic Games) is significant. Psychological problems arise and are diagnosed within particular socio-historical contexts.

OS: Three years ago the Belgrade Circle published the book by Eduardo Cadava Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History. Would you accept Cadava’s blanket assertion that “politics and history are now to be understood as secondary derivative forms of telecommunications”. Such a claim on Cadava’s part is presumably intended to justify his deconstructive reading of the trope of photography that runs through Benjamin’s various writings which for Cadava insofar as they are “directed against the logic of … immanence and revelation” are “eminently political”. According to Cadava’s opposer Allen Meek “such an approach, positioning photography (or, implicitly, the televisual) as logocentric would appear to support a limitless practice of close readings that unravel the metaphysical construction of technical media and thereby validate such a critical displacement also as ‘eminently political’.” Allen Meek’s intention here is to read certain texts of Benjamin and his contemporaries for a critical articulation of the fascistic subject. His approach, then, does not position media as primary political but nevertheless as taking a crucial role in the formation of cultural and political identity in our century. What is your comment on the theoretical and political consequences of this polemics? Would you recognize in Meek’s train of thought the influence of the British journal Screen, which should be given credit for Benjamin’s reputation in contemporary film theory?

SBM: Cadava’s assertion is perhaps unnecessarily categorical, but something about it is compelling. I would reverse the relationship: What he calls telecommunications is internal to politics and history in our time. That is why the social relations that structure telecommunications, global in scope, are so crucial. A global public sphere becomes possible, and all a global, progressive politics. It is not by accident that today’s revolutionary gesture, rather than storming the Bastille or the Winter Palace, is to seize the TV station. But why call this centrality of communications “logocentric,” as if we are dealing with here were words or images demanding nothing more than critical, close readings? Telecommunications, including the internet, are powerful new means of production that must be the central concern of a new, global Left.

As for fascistic subject, our own obsession with not repeating the mistakes of the recent past may have made us inattentive to new subject-forms of barbarity – the sports fan, for example, or the warrior-liberator, ethnic-rapist, or the profit-maximizer, and even the consumer-polluter. Certainly media technologies are implicated in the construction of these subjectivities, but it may be more helpful to think of them not as collective identities but as collective practices that are instigated by political and economic forces quite outside their control.

OS: In 1973 you translated Benjamin’s piece on children’s theater, “Program for a proletarian children’s theatre.” There you hinted that the concept of the mimetic in Benjamin was closely related to his encounter with Asja Lacis, a famous practitioner of experimental children’s theatre in post-Revolutionary Russia, and later, in West Germany. Attempting to awaken, through play, the consciousness of orphans traumatised by war, Asja Lacis constructed situations for theatre improvised and performed by children. In the “Program for a proletarian theatre” that he wrote for Asja Lacis, Benjamin attacked bourgeois education and called for a pedagogy that would affect the total life of the child. Would it be correctly to say that in this piece Benjamin insisted “on the same conjunction of childhood and archaic religion,” and that “Proletarian Children’s Theatre is in the realm of children what the Carnival was to the ancient cults”? Being yet unintegrated into the reified social relations that define adult behaviour, children are able to bring dead things to life. This magical ability makes child the true teachers of the historian, who must learn to make the past live for new generations. What do you think about the idea of the infantile educator?

SBM: This is a powerful idea, fully Benjaminian, and one that he held onto all his life. Progress cannot be imposed on a new generation or society by the authorities. It comes from the creative imagination of those not yet socialized into the established order. But don’t forget that Benjamin valued the capacity to grow up, and criticized the childlike narcissism of adults who did not do this. He was not a romantic, and did not glorify childhood innocence. Indeed, the child plays dictator in his world, and precisely this role’s appeal is what educates the educator, because the child’s world is a microcosm of our own.

OS: In 2003 your book titled Islamism as Political Discourse came out. At about the same time Stanford published Gol Anidjar’s The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy. What would be your answer to the question and the problem posed by Anidjar in the following manner: “How is it that the Arab came to be constructed as an external (and political) enemy of Europe and the Jew, an internal (and theological) enemy? What is the import of this construction, and why, following Schmitt, was it necessary for the being-political, as opposed to, or together with, the being-Christian of Europe, to have an enemy?”

SBM: My book, Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Political Theory on the Left, attempts to engage political Islam as a contemporary discourse that converges in striking ways with Western critical theory. For example: Marxist thought is the context for the writings of many contemporary Islamists. Sayyid Qutb’s influential critique of western reason has striking affinities to Adorno and Horkheimer’s analysis in Dialectic of Enlightenment. Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth was translated into Farsi by the Iranian intellectual, Ali Shariati. Jalal al-i Ahmad’s concept of Occidentosis, or Westoxication, is a part of the post-colonial critique. So my question is quite different from that of Anidjar and Schmitt. I am interested not in an analysis of the “other,” but in speaking with others, in anticipation of a global Left that is multiple in its discourses but convergent in its social goals.