Reviewed by John David Ebert
Boris Groys is a Russian theoretician displaced to Germany (and also to NYU) whose works are only just now being made available in English. His book On the New, originally written by him in Russian and then rewritten in German and published in Germany in 1992, has been recently translated into English by Verso Books. Groys is a formidable thinker, and his books deserve wider recognition in the English-speaking world. Perhaps, like the recent spate of Peter Sloterdijk translations, his hour in the Anglo world is at hand.
In On the New, Groys articulates a theory of artistic and cultural innovation by designing a sort of theoretical difference engine built out of the polar opposition between two spheres: on the one hand, there is the sphere of what he variously terms the realm of cultural values or the cultural archive, and on the other, that of the “profane” realm that is opposed to it. There lies a kind of weak, shifting membrane between these two zones which Groys terms the “value boundary,” a boundary that is always shifting with the advent of “the new.”
Now, according to Groys, every new work of art that constitutes a true innovation–and for him, these are the only works which count, since it is precisely innovative works that will eventually be taken up into the cultural archive constituted by museums, libraries, universities and other such institutions as permanent acquisitions into the “cultural memory”–every such work of art constitutes an innovation insofar as it bears within it a tension, more or less great, between elements from the profane realm and elements from the realm of cultural values and tradition. These two elements are never synthesized or hybridized but exist in a sort of irreconcilable opposition that confers on them their strangeness, and hence their newness.
Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 ready-made Fountain, for instance, contains an obvious “profane” element in the form of the urinal, but this profane element does not exist in pure form, since it is filtered through a dialogue with the cultural tradition in the Western memory of other such fountains like those of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Duchamp’s work, though, consists of what Groys calls a “negative adaptation” to the tradition insofar as it overturns all such previous models (in this case, literally, since the fountain was exhibited upside-down). A “positive adaptation” would consist of following and dialoguing with such pre-existent models in more direct fashion. Thus, the new work of art forces a revaluation of previously held ideas about the realm of the profane, causing the value boundary to shift toward including ever more and more elements from the profane world as twentieth-century art has unfolded.
As another example, Malevich’s Black Square of 1915 contains within it the profane element of the square which is held in tension with the cultural tradition of the mystical contemplation of the Void. The works of Kandinsky, furthermore, contain the profane element of blobs of colors and forms held in tension with what Kandinsky called “the spiritual” in art. And so forth. (At first glance, the theory bears a suspicious resemblance to Heidegger’s opposition of “world” vs. “earth”).
New works of art, then, take up elements from the profane world and “valorize” them, so that they cross over the value boundary and are taken up into the sphere of culture where, however, they do not necessarily remain permanently valorized. The trick with Groys’ two spheres is that they are unstable and are constantly undergoing transformation as new works of art pick up previously valorized works which have been tossed onto the midden heap where they are devalorized and then picked up once again by later artists who revalorize them. It is a constant process which Groys calls “innovative exchange.” The works of Picasso, for instance, are valorized during Modernism, but when the age of Reproduction comes along, they are disseminated through mechanical reproduction into the kitsch of coffee cups, T-shirts and home reproductions where they are devalorized and rendered profane once again. An artist like Mike Bidlo comes along during the epoch of contemporary art, and through his forgeries and plagiarizations, revalorizes Picasso by inserting him back into the realm of cultural values. Or else, the devalorization of great works of art a la Walter Benjamin’s theory of the aura being depleted by mechanical reproduction are later revalorized by New York Pop Art, in which Andy Warhol assigns a new ontological status to the copy or the serial reproduction, and thus lifts it out of the sphere of the profane and puts it back into the realm of cultural values. And so on.
To the postmodern insistence that with the rupture away from Modernism, the truly “new” is no longer possible, since so much of contemporary art is about recycling motifs and signifiers from the past, Groys responds to two different version of this assertion: in the one case, it is asserted that the sphere of the profane no longer exists since the sphere of culture has completely absorbed it, and thus, with the absorption of the profane by culture, the new is no longer possible. To this assertion, Groys rejoins that it is impossible for the sphere of the profane ever to be fully integrated or depleted by the sphere of culture, since what was previously considered “culture” might be considered “profane” today. The definition of what is “culture” as opposed to what is “profane” is thus always changing and exists only from a relative point of view.
The other assertion that the new is no longer possible maintains that culture has aggressively suppressed and triumphed over the profane through mass dissemination in the form of new technical media such as radio, television, movies, etc. which have “replaced” it with simulacra. To which Groys responds that, once a signifier or motif moves from the sphere of culture into the sphere of the profane, it loses its value as culture and becomes altogether profane. Benjamin’s point about the loss of the aura of an original work of art as it is disseminated through mechanical reproduction makes precisely this point. More recently, we might think of Neil Postman’s assertion that there is no such thing as “educational television.” Any idea, lecture, interview, etc. that is broadcast on television is automatically transformed into entertainment, so for Postman there was no such thing as educational television. Such media do not propagate cultural values at all, but rather degrade them to the level of the profane.
Thus, it is impossible either for culture ever to completely absorb the realm of the profane, just as it is not possible for the profane to be overcoded by culture since anything that transmigrates into its sphere is immediately stripped of its cultural values and is degraded and devalorized to its level.
Now at this point it should be stated that what Groys means by “profane” is a very large, sort of catch-all concept for just about anything that is opposed to the realm of cultural values. The profane for Groys does not just mean banalities and trivialities, but also works of art that have not yet been, or may never be, canonized due to their triviality or lack of originality (and yes, for Groys, this includes “popular culture”). But it also includes the sign regimes of the “cultural memories” of other people’s cultures. For what constitutes one people’s cultural archive might be merely a profane midden heap from the point of view of another culture. Thus, Modernist Art appropriates the African mask from the “profane” realm of African art, where it had a sacred and religious context, while integrating it into Modernist Art for its sculptural qualities, and leaving aside its sacred qualities. The cultural archive of the Native Americans, likewise, was considered “profane” by the Europeans who arrived to begin pillaging it and integrating its signifiers into their own cultural memory system.
The profane, furthermore, always has an aura about it of power and threat to the cultural archive. It is precisely from the profane that the destruction of one’s cultural archive may come (paradoxically, the profane is also always the source of the “new”). Thus, to remove elements and signifiers from the realm of the profane and to transfer them into the realm of cultural values is an act of neutralization that captures and puts a magic spell on them so that they are no longer threatening.
The profane also includes, however, the hidden metaphysical reality, an extra-cultural other, that acts to move culture along as a sort of external mechanism. This would include those ideas from the metaphysical age of hidden forces such as Hegel’s Absolute Spirit or Marx’s class struggle or even Heidegger’s Being or the Jungian unconscious that act as hidden realities beyond both culture and the profane. Earlier theories of art from the metaphysical age thus conceived of the work of art as a revelation of one or another of these hidden realities, but in the post-metaphysical age, with the breakdown of the axial relationship of the signifier to the transcendental signified of Truth, there is no longer any sure way of accessing this hidden realm and therefore no certain way of getting at Truth. Contemporary art is, therefore, evaluated on the basis of works of art in relation not to a hidden metaphysical realm of truth, but simply to other works of art in the cultural archive.
The main problem with Groys’ theory, then, though it is a brilliant one, is that his concept of the profane is overly-freighted with too many heterogeneous meanings to make the concept serve as anything much more than a counter-concept to “cultural value.” The theory also suffers from a sort of black and white idea about works of art either being profane or culturally valuable, whereas in reality, this is all a matter of degree. That Groys does not take popular culture seriously is a major failing of his theory: he insists that no cultures have ever canonized “low culture,” which is always identified with the profane, but since this is demonstrably false (the Greek novel, for instance, began as a work of pop culture; or the Arthurian Romances) it does not bode well for the maintenance of the absolute polar tension between Groys’ two spheres of culture vs. the profane. Derrida would have had fun deconstructing Groys’ difference engine by showing that the profane and the culturally valuable are not quite so capable of clear separation and demarcation as Groys’ value boundary would suggest. Is a graphic novel a work of cultural value or is it profane? What about a Hollywood movie? A film by David Cronenberg?
Groys’ Achilles heel would thus seem to be the concept of the Derridean undecidable, that which is not either / or but rather both/ and, the presence of which would indeed dismantle and deconstruct Groys’ system. (Jazz music might function as such an undecidable that would disrupt Groys’ system; or perhaps a J.G. Ballard novel). Groys was trained as a mathematician, and his thinking is marred by the mathematician’s general intolerance for ambiguities and gray areas. Ironically, Groys is fond of citing Derrida, but he does not seem to have understood or to have integrated Derrida’s concept of the undecidable into his system.
Groys does somewhat compensate, however, for this either / or mentality with his idea of innovative exchange, in which the two spheres are completely unstable, and so what is considered as culturally valuable at one point might be devalorized into the junk heap of the profane the next. The Christians, for instance, devalorized the pagan tradition and the monks who went out to live in the deserts of Egypt thus shifted the profane wilderness into their own newly constructed cultural archive. When a particular monk lived in the profane circumstances of a cave, all of his profane relics were later gathered up after his death and placed into the cultural archive, just as a church was often built atop or near the cave to translate its profanity into the realm of cultural values.
Thus, for Groys, the signifiers of art and culture are undergoing a constant process of recycling from one sphere to the next and so few cultural values ever remain “permanent” for very long. The new is always challenging the institutions of the archive of one culture or another to reassess their previous values, and so the “new” is a constant game of the revaluation of values.
In short, Groys might be flawed (what thinker isn’t?) but he is never superficial and his ideas are difficult and complex to wrestle with. Contemplation of him will immeasurably expand your theoretical horizons, and I highly recommend reading this brilliant Russian thinker.