Art critic Boris Groys is teaching philosophy and aesthetics on the School for Design Karlsruhe, Germany. Amongst his books, all in German, are Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin (1988), Die Kunst des Fliehens (together with Ilya Kabakow, 1991), Ueber das Neue (1992), Die Erfindung Russlands (1995) and Die Logik der Sammlung (1997). The following e-mail exchange took place in response to Groys’ latest work titled “Under Suspicion – A Phenomenology of the Media” which came out early this year.
GL: Strategies for cultural and artistic production, in your view, seem to go in circles. All forms of expression, media and esthetic experiments have been polluted, corrupted, played out. The pressure of globalization, to join the free flow of opinions, styles and meaning is high. There is no other option than to join the info market. In opposition, you have proposed to pose the media ontological question. The overall presence of empty signifiers is flattening all creative or subversive efforts and one of the few strategies left you suggest is to question what is behind the world of the spectacle. Wouldn’t it be better to remain silent and disappear altogether? In your analysis, all imaginable answers seem to be caught within the system. There is nothing left which cannot be deconstructed. Not even Boris Groys. If neither elitist avant-gardism nor cultural populism show us a way out, what does? Should your readers give up all hope and surrender to good old European negativism?
BG: You are probably right: it is better to remain silent. But, unfortunately, there is such a thing as curiosity. And I am, personally, always very curious about the things happening around. And in the first place: about how and why the cultural phenomena like theories, art movements, certain fashions are emerging, moving, spreading around – and disappearing. The question is not: Are they good or bad? Or: Are they true or false? But, rather: Why are these cultural phenomena present in the social space at a certain point in time? It is being said that cultural products are spreading because “people” like them. Or, they say: The cultural products are reaching mass circulation because there is some power, money and influence behind them. But it is also possible to say that certain cultural products are multiplying and spreading merely because of their viral nature. It is also possible to say that the fate of cultural phenomena is determined by history, by being, by language, by writing and so on. Or, it is possible to develop a sociology of culture as represented, for example, by Bourdieu. But all these theories and explanations are themselves also cultural phenomena. So we still have to ask ourselves: how and why these explanations are spreading in their turn? It seems to me that some cultural phenomena are spreading around precisely because the people believe – in one way or another – that these phenomena are not just phenomena but that they give a deeper insight in the space and in the interplay of forces behind the scene. If a cultural product is in circulation, it is already an explanation in itself. And if this cultural product is not getting any distribution, then there is nothing to explain. This is why I do not try to formulate a new explanation. I am trying to describe the conditions under which some phenomena thrive, as explanations of their own cultural success.
GL: The subtitle of your latest book is “A Phenomenology of the Media”. I was surprised to read that you are working towards a philosophical program for the media, in rather traditional terms. You do not touch upon new fashioned topics such as trans-humanism, trans-gender or any body-machine matter. Which role do you see for the traditional discipline of philosophy? Should reading of classics be encouraged or would you rather push new forms of cultural criticism, which are not so concerned with the rewriting of the few dead white male thinkers?
BG: The word “phenomenology” in the title of my book means only that I do not attempt to give any new, different, personal, additional kind of theoretical, scientific explanation of why certain cultural movements are spreading. Instead, I try to show that every cultural product is an explanation of its own presence and multiplication in the first place. So I practice some philosophical, phenomenological epoch. It is a very traditional gesture, indeed. But this gesture seems to me to be most appropriate for the investigation of the cultural movements in the open space. Until recently I was preoccupied with the processes taking place in closed spaces like the museum. In that case, it is possible to formulate a theory because there is a institutionally secured position for the external observer of the cultural processes. In open spaces, there is no such secured position. This is why the phenomenological epoch becomes necessary. It is a way to introduce a position of a spectator into a field where this position is not given from the beginning. Topics like trans-humanism, trans-gender or body-machine do not interest me in this particular context because these discourses believe to have answered the question “What is behind being human” in a very traditional way of “crossing the borders” between the human and non-human. That is, of course, O.K. But the question of the spectator remains open here. Is this spectator human, or non-human, or placed beyond this opposition? And in any of these cases – how does this spectator knows about his or her own position in relationship to this opposition between human and non-human? The only way to know such things is to believe in your own theoretical discourse. But I cannot believe in my own theoretical discourse – and I also cannot believe in any other theoretical discourse. So the only way for me is just to investigate why, how and under which conditions other people believe in various theoretical discourses.
GL: Tell us more! How then do you write a sentence, or make a statement in public, if you do not half way except it, at least as a temporary thesis? Bringing up an idea does not automatically mean that it is turned into a hermetic belief system.
BG: Of course, if somebody says and writes something it can always be seen as a thesis. But, in reality, it is not always effectively seen in such a way: Very often the people just don’t react, just don’t take you seriously, just don’t see that there is a thesis. So I am interested in the question: What does make somebody’s thesis to look like a thesis? My guess is that you have to propose some insight, something which “goes deep into the heart of the matter” to be taken seriously. Or, to put it in another way, your discourse has to conform to the certain expectations, having to do with the phenomenology of suspicion, e.g. with the wish on the side of the reader “to go deeper”, to “get an insight”. By the way: If my discourse would eventually turn to be a hermetic belief system for a greater public, I would have nothing against it. Rather, I would find it very flattering.
GL: Could you explain the title of the book? For me, personally, “Under Suspicion” has a somewhat dark, continental European connotation. You are stating that it is the Other and its subjectivity which makes us suspicious. Why is the Other associated with danger and a possible crime? You are rejecting the “atheist” position that the world merely exists of empty signs, with nothing behind the profane space of the media. Why does this attitude results in paranoia, and not in curiosity? Suspicious of what? Looks like a weird mixture of Calvinist and Stalinist culture of guilt to me. Catholicism during the times of the Inquisition. Or the cult inside certain leftist circles, where every act or expression is seen as being in immediate danger of being appropriated by the System.
BG: Actually, I wanted that the title of my book should remind the reader of the crime fiction, Hitchcock movies or spectacular journalistic investigations. Our media always try to bring an “inside story”, to allow us to look behind the scene, to show us the places where “the fate of the world is determined”. This is the context that is interesting to me – not so much Catholicism and Stalinism. But, of course, religious or leftist, or, for that matter, also rightist conspiracy theories are also relevant in this context. And the atheism? The atheist believes that there is nothing behind the signs. That is O.K. But for me atheism is merely one religion among many others.
GL: I understand. Everything is ideology. There is no science. Facts don’t exist. But which crime has been committed? I agree with you that the method of deconstruction is based on the implicit presumption of a committed crime. I like the idea of the media critic/theorist as a private investigator. A fact is, though, that most media and communication students are not trained to do this job. Media studies, as well as media art, are primarily focussing on the (historical) structures of media technologies and its ever changing platforms and standards. Information equals noise, that’s the consensus. Who is doing qualitative content analysis, apart from a few linguists, activists and investigative journalists?
BG: That is precisely the point that I tried to make in my book. The technological characteristics of the media bearers, like TV, Computer, Internet etc., are taken generally as a completely satisfactory explanation of what the media are. This faith in the technical know- how is produced in the people’s mind by a combination of a very naive interpretation of the McLuhans “The media is the message” with a very naive interpretation of Saussurian “the language precedes every individual speech act”. But how do we know a priori what can be said? We have to explore, to investigate, to use TV, Computer or Internet to find out what their medial possibilities are. We can only know post factum how a certain media operate – and only in a very preliminary, incomplete way. The technical description a priori does not tell us anything meaningful about it. Nam Jun Paik used TV in a very idiosyncratic way – not as it is “technically” supposed to be used. And that is why his work is so instructive. But I must confess here that my book was severely criticized by almost all its reviewers precisely for “concealing the fact” that the public already very well knows how the inner core of the media looks like – because it has all the technical instructions how to use the computer, Internet etc.
GL: For decades now, cultural studies have emphasizing the “construction” aspect of news, information, images. They neither represent Truth, nor are solely made with the purpose to fool its audience. Media analyses are much complex these days, and so is the perception of the audience. Do you see the playful strategies of irony, difference, and multi layered meanings and interests as a useless, failed project? Your statement that media are, in essence, always lying looks to me as a somewhat populist, regressive step back. Perhaps the cultural studies discourse has not yet been success enough? Or at least in your circles, on the European continent?
BG: Well, it is not so important for me if the media are lying about the “reality” or not. Let us suppose that they are telling the Truth, only Truth – and nothing beyond the Truth. Also in this case, they are still concealing how they do it – how they tell the truth. Every truth presupposes a scene of its appearance – and conceals this scene at the same time. The “constructivist” theory is incredibly naive because even if it does not believe any more in the accessibility of the world outside us it still believes in the possibility to explain how we construct the truth about the world. But that is precisely the problem: We have neither access to the world nor to our own construction of the world. We don’t know and we can not know how we construct the world. Of course, we know – at least since Magritte – that a painted apple is not a real apple. I guess that is what you mean speaking about irony, difference and cultural studies. The problem is only that we still don’t know what is the painted apple per se. Magritte, Cézanne and many others tried to clarify that but they failed. My book is not about the relationship of the painted apple to the real apple. My book is about the relationship of the painted apple to the painting. And the book states that this relationship is and must remain forever unclear – even if we know what the “painting technique” is.
GL: In your previous, brilliant work, “On the New” you have described the way in which new ideas and concepts are being developed and launched. “Under Suspicion” could be read as a follow-up. Have you indeed developed “new” ideas about the laws of cultural production, if I may ask?
BG: Our cultural space has a complicated topology: there are closed spaces, open spaces and mixed spaces. In my book “On the New” I tried to describe how the closed spaces, like museum, library, university, are functioning. Being caught in the closed space, the people are interested in the open spaces – in crossing the borders, breaking the rules, discovering the new. But being left in the open spaces, the people get more interested in the closed spaces – in getting the insight, discovering the hidden, getting the access to the forbidden. The closed spaces are the spaces of curiosity directed to the outside. The open spaces are the spaces of suspicion directed to the hidden inside. The insider is curious, the outsider is suspicious. In our mixed reality, we are, of course, both because we are always insiders as well as outsiders.
GL: New media, for example, can easily be deconstructed as a repetition of the same old mechanisms. Still there is a lot of excitement, debates, and not to forget economic opportunities for a great deal more people than previously employed in the old media (and arts) sector.
BG: Well, but my question is: How are these old mechanisms look like? It seems to me that the people working in the media – people like you and me – are, as I said, insiders and outsiders at the same time. Now, the things are moving all the time and, therefore, we are also changing our places all the time – yesterday we were insiders in one respect, today we are outsiders in the same respect, but maybe insiders in some other aspect – and tomorrow? Who knows. But this permanent topological change of our cultural space seems to me to be the reason for the permanent activity you are speaking about. Every morning we wake up on a different place in the cultural space because this space somehow moved overnight. And, of course, it makes us nervous.
GL: Anxious too, perhaps? Change as a danger, not a challenge? One can even get used to permanent change, I suppose. Our globe is indeed going through rapid, radical transformations. For example, one can easily accept, and deal with the fact that the nature of media these days is lying in their ability to (digitally) manipulate. There is no “natural” image anymore. All information has gone through the process of digitization. We just have to deal with the fact that we can no longer believe our eyes, our ears. Everyone who has worked with a computer will know this.
BG: I think I am not so much anxious about what I am looking at. I am rather amused by that. And, of course, looking at the things around me, I am not so much interested if they are true or not. And I feel no angst about them. And I am very little interested in the “real”. Actually, I am only anxious about how other people look at me. And if I speak about the changing world, I doesn’t mean the spectacle of permanent change taking place before my eyes. I am perfectly comfortable about this kind of spectacle. But I am not so much comfortable about the possible change of my own position in the eyes of the others. Am I still insider? Or have I already became an outsider? I guess it is just the inner voice of my Jewish ancestry: The way the others look at you is changing permanently – and this change may be dangerous.
Boris Groys, Unter Verdacht, Eine Phaenomenolgie der Medien, Hanser Verlag, Muenchen, 2000.