“An Irritating Smile” – History Viewed from Outside The Notion of Influences, Outside The Law of Cause and Effect

One of Rosalind Krauss’s most important critical projects is to give us back our history, in particular the history of Surrealism, but in a way that frees it from the conventions of standard History telling. Krauss offers a radicalized history which is neither heroic or linear. One key component of this project, an attack on Greenberg’s avant-garde’s cult of “originality”, is to recast history from the perspective of blind repetition. This is not simply to say, History repeats itself, which would be utterly banal. Rather, Krauss wants to retell the history of modern art from outside the notion of influences, as they are commonly understood, outside the law of cause and effect. The same is said by Homi K. Bhabha in “The Commitment to Theory”: “the dynamics of writing and textuality requires us to rethink the logic of causality and determinacy.” The history produced by such a radical reorientation would be one which viewed of modern art in terms of a group of anti-heroes whose works of art, rather than monuments to rugged individualism, figure instead as products of unconscious forces, in particular the irrational destructive force Freud named the Death Drive.

Alberto Giacometti
Woman with Her Throat Cut
8 x 34 1/2 x 25 in.
at MoMA

It is this invisible motor for which Freud found evince in the recurring nightmares of soldier traumatized in the trenches in WWI. He could found nothing in these repeated experiences which accorded with his notion the Pleasure Principle, the basis of an economic model of psychic life. According to the Pleasure Principle, one frequently needed to forgo immediately fulfillment in order to maximize pleasure in general. This would be movel of individual happiness based upon the political-economy found in J. S. Mill’s Utilitarianism. Repetition compulsion however revealed patients who regularly relived extraordinarily unpleasant events, and in ways which seemed to offer few rewards at all, either short-term or long-term. The pain endured seemed not to be in the interest of a later and greater compensatory pleasure. Something more fundamental than life forces, Freud concluded, must be motivating these experiences. These viciously repetitive behavioral and oneiric (dream-related) performance Lacan, in his famous “return to Freud” (itself an avowed repetition), associated to the “automaton”. Lacan, following Freud, argued for a radical differentiation between the ego and the automaton. He insisted that the only to see each for what it really is, is to detach it entirely from the other.

The crux Hal Foster’s critique, in The Return of The Real, of Peter Burger’s Theory of The Avant-Garde (two critics we didn’t read); is that Burger’s presentation of art history is far too linear and progressivist (cf. James Mill’s History of British India), far too sure that art movements were what they were in their very moment of their emergence, and further that they were consciously aware of what they were. Burger believes, if you will, that we can take the Avant-Garde at its word. His views cultural expression and critical thought as progressively liberating themselves from tradition by means of decisive encounters with otherness, and as a result coming to a consciousness of their own essence and freedom in practice; is all very much the product of Burger’s Hegelian Marxism. Burger’s take on the Avant-Garde, which for him represented a historical movement which deliberately set about to emancipate itself from the Art Institution, is entirely informed by his belief (of Frankfurt School, which is to say Institute for Social Research, provenance) that History is linear and progressive, and that to continue to abide in a set of practices once they have been successfully critiqued and historicized is to wallow in fantasy, denial, servitude, decadence. For this reason Burger’s considers Neo-Avant-Gardist such as Rauschenberg, Johns, Judd and Nauman, to be infantile and perverse. The historical avant-garde, for Burger, was indeed bizarre and shocking to the uninitiated, no doubt; but it was simultaneously nothing if not canny about its own intentions and methods; and it was, above all else, truly original.

Now, it is this (comparatively conservative) view of history and critical thought as “decisive” and ultimately meaningful which is precisely what Hal Foster rejects. Instead, he asserts that the so-called ‘historical’ Avant-Garde was never a moment of newly won freedom, clarity and self-awareness; or originality, simplicity and integrity; within a general dialectical trajectory of cultural Enlightenment. Nor should we perceive the Avant-Garde as a shrewd form of cynical withdrawal from what Adorno called the “culture industry”. Rather, the Avant-Garde, for Foster, marks a point of radical “indecision”–of trauma, loss of consciousness, and convulsive identity. The Avant-Garde stands not as a culmination or breakthrough so much as a point of unresolved and irreducible conflict. The avant-garde emerges in a place of total difference, and as such stands as the first of multiple iterations (click), of which the Neo-Avant-Garde of the 60s was one such repetition. For Foster, the art object is never finished, at least certainly not at the moment the artist applies the so-called touche finale. Rather, art objects, and most apparently those associated with the avant-garde, powerfully refute this idea. Instead, they are the very stuff of interminable analysis; their final completion is always deferred through an infinite series of interpretations which take the form not only of critical writings on them but also their presentation within museums and the university, as well as their reproduction in mass-media.

Whereas Burger claims that the Avant-Garde was authentically what it was in its unique historical moment, and that all subsequent returns to it are parasitic and servile; Foster insists that the Avant-Garde is that mode of expression which radically challenges our understanding of History in general, which by its intrinsic problematicity has always assumed the possibility of reiteration to be its most constitutive feature. Though Burger may see the Avant-Garde as a rational and lisible (i.e., readable) lexeme (i.e., statement) which finds its full meaning within the general grammar of a grand developmental narrative, Foster demands on the contrary that we see the Avant-Garde rather as a Return of the Real, an irruption of the speaking body within the space of the subject of speech. For Foster, the Avant-Garde is not a significant utterance so much as a hiccup, an stutter, a recurring blockage of the channels of communication. And if this is so, the very success of the historical Avant-Garde for which Burger argues, would in fact constitute it’s veritable failure.

At this point it would make perfect sense for us to inaugurate some discussion, any discussion at all, of Adorno and Horkheimer’s (as well as Walter Benjamin’s) interest in the Avant-Garde and Surrealism, as possible strategies of escape from the all-encompassing system of Capitalist Utilitarianism which they called the Dialectic of Enlightenment (click). As Michael Weingrad demonstrates at great length in his essay “The College of Sociology and The Institute of Social Research” (click), the relationship between Bataille’s circle and that of Adorno was anything but a harmonious matrimony. Still, if you read Weingrad’s piece, it is quite easy to see how much his historicizing method depends upon the very same clear expository style which characterized Peter Burger, who ultimately is entirely intolerant of artistic and critical inscrutability (exactly what we find in Spivak and Bhabha), and the free play of signification in general. (Be sure to click on the image off to the right after reading Burger’s unmistakably defensive, and perhaps quaintly pugilistic, opening posture below.)

In the beginning was a smile, an irritating smile [a smirk?], in no way comparable to the masculine activity of the smiling in one’s beard with which the scientists in Musil’s A Man Without Qualities follow the talk in Diotima’s salon. Theirs is the expression of deference and incompetence. In vain, I seek a similarly apropos phrase to define the smile in question here that always appears on the lips of the advocates of poststructuralism when one intends to propose an argument. So arrives the thought that to understand poststructuralism means nothing other than to understand this smile.

But would it not be possible for us read the encounter, and eventual judgment of Frankfurt upon Paris in far more traumatic terms? to read this critical scrutiny and dismissal rather in terms of a far more vexed moment of meconnaisance, in which the Self and Other exchange places, and discover or cathect (which is to say contract, or catch) the Truth of their identities and beliefs in so far as they lose their former selves in an encounter with radical Otherness?

How would highly-sophisticated German-Jewish Marxists react upon encountering the most cutting-edge French intellectuals, who claimed to be experimenting critically with radical alternatives to Capitalism, and who claimed to welcome them as friends and protegees into their most intimate (i.e., secret) enclaves; how would Adorno and Benjamin react upon finding Bataille and Caillois toying with Nietzsche and Fascist ideology? Could we expect such a reaction, no matter by whom, ever to be objective? What would it mean to read the various essays, letters and memoirs, and take Adorno and Horkheimer, or Benjamin, at their word?

In reading Michael Weingrad’s very circumspectly researched piece of scholarship, can we help but feel that we are reading recollections of recollections, reconstructions of reconstructions, as well as disavowals of disavowals, all of them peppered with countless textual as well as cognitive lacunae? Is there not a quasi-libidinal ritualism to this sort of international curiosity and intrigue? Read by the mediating albeit lugubrious candle flame of Kojeve’s (in)famous lectures on Hegel (which indeed helped lure the Frankfurt School to Paris), is it really possible to view all cont(r)acts between Bataille and Adorno (the latter being the world’s most sophisticated critic of capitalist calculation) as mere rational laissez-faire negotiations, unmotivated by any residual idealist speculations or the equivocations of Desire? Weingrad has done a superb job of organizing and summarizing the source materials currently available to us. But still it strikes me that far more remains to be done in terms of analyzing this particular station on Critical Theory’s itinerary from Germany to America. In other words, we do not simply find a need to review the lessons of the past; but in a much more radical sense, we find ourselves compelled to return to them. We find ourselves unable but to repeat, unable but to begin, once more, again.

Thus, when ‘Nazi’ brushed against ‘surrealist’ that night, I wanted to deny such associations, and I doubt I was alone. . . . Clearly the [encounter] violated a critical taboo, and a nervous silence ensued; it was the silence of an interpretive breakdown. I did not think about that silence for several years (such was the strength of my denial) . . .. The [solution to this] question [Foster continues] was how to make [the appropriate] connections and, even more obscure at least to me, why I wanted to do so. The text that follows is thus provisional at best, and I present it only because I can now bear its fractured argument better than I can the restive silence that proceeded it.

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