Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
12th October 2014

Under Suspicion by Boris Groys

71lSkq2hiXLUnder Suspicion: A Phenomenology of Media by Boris Groys

A Review by John David Ebert

Boris Groys’ book Under Suspicion: A Phenomenology of Media is a book that was published in German in 2000, and was recently translated into English in 2012 by Columbia University Press. In many ways, it is a kind of sequel to his earlier 1992 book On the New, which I have reviewed on this site below the present entry.

In that earlier book, Groys had made the binary distinction between the two spheres of what he called the realm of cultural values (composed of cultural archives in the form of museums, libraries and other such institutions) and the realm of the profane, a sort of extra-cultural Other from which “the new” is always drawn, since every truly innovative work maintains a tension between a profane element and a dialogue with previous cultural values and models. The “value boundary” between the two is always being stretched and reevaluated as each new work of art challenges its previously held assumptions and forces it to integrate more and more of the profane, while earlier values may slip out of the archive into a demoted “profane” status.

In the new book, now, Groys shifts his attention to the realm of cultural values, where he finds yet another polarity that is internal to the realm of culture itself: the archives, which now have a slightly less “material” connotation than the previous book (since it is not “books” that are in the archives but rather “texts” and not “paintings” but rather “images”), are composed of what Groys terms “sign carriers,” (essentially his term for “media”) which have a sort of surface world of signifiers which he terms the “medial surface.” But this realm of medial surfaces is opposed by a sort of medial unconscious which Groys terms “sub-medial space,” which is a realm that, according to him is always “under suspicion” as harboring a kind of intra-subjectivity that he terms “the sub-medial Other.”

The sub-medial Other is easy to grasp when we think of it in terms of the imagery of popular movies: in Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist, for instance, it is only when the daily programming is turned off (hence the medial surfaces disappear) that a portal to sub-medial space opens up inside the television set from whence the sub-medial Other in the form of the various spooks that haunt the family emerge. In the Alien films of Scott and Cameron, the aliens are themselves depicted as hostile Others who have emerged from the depths of sub-medial space to trouble the protagonists with their sheerly aggressive and non-communicative attacks. (From Zizek’s Lacanian point of view, however, the aliens of these movies are incursions from the Real that destroy symbolic systems).

Thus, the realm of medial surfaces–the pages of books, the surfaces of paintings, the latest video gadget–is normally “under suspicion” as harboring a sub-medial realm beyond it from whence the medial surfaces themselves are thought to have emerged. There is always a certain paranoia regarding the ontological nature of this sub-medial space and how it is characterized by the various acquisitions into the cultural archive.

Groys articulates his idea of an economy of suspicion which he describes as being central to the process of expanding the archives: for only to the degree that a work is regarded as being “sincere” is it thought of as harboring a potentially “true” insight into the “real” nature of sub-medial space. For Groys, the sincere is that which is unusual, abnormal and different: it is only when people or cultures are constantly repeating refrains and cliched and stale formulae that we suspect them of being “insincere” and of therefore containing material not fit for inclusion into the archives. When, on the other hand, such formulae are disrupted by singularities or “the exceptional,” it is only then that a work becomes regarded as “suspicious” of harboring a potentially true insight into the archive, and the more “suspicious” it is, the longer it is likely to remain in the archive as a permanent acquisition providing some measure of insight into the ontological nature of sub-medial space.

Groys’ concepts are brilliant, but the book suffers from a lack of attention to concrete examples and specific analyses of media dynamics. It does contain a section in its second half which analyzes the economy of suspicion, but the section has little to do with specific media. The reader would like to know more about how particular media interact with the archive and its dynamics of suspicion.

Unfortunately, Groys does not seem to have mastered the domain of media studies enough to provide such an analysis, and it is a telling fact that his chapter on McLuhan is mostly derisory, thus revealing a): the all-too-common (and by now cliched) European bias against American thinkers as having any real cultural validity and b): Groys’ failure to integrate even the most basic tenets of media studies, a discipline that was founded by American thinkers in the early 1950s.

Groys instead offers a rather trite and over-simplified critique of McLuhan as simply representing a continuation into theory of the already existent Cubist avant-garde privileging of form over content, but this attempt to boil McLuhan down to merely one dimension makes it very convenient for Groys to dispense with him. Groys fails to take into account that McLuhan’s sensibilities were actually closer to those of Pop Art than to the Modernist avant-garde, with his analysis of such “profane” ready-mades as typewriters, computers, satellites, book and clothes (which bears a certain similarity to the introduction by Pop Artists into the realm of cultural values of such profane objects as Brillo Boxes and Coke bottles). McLuhan, in other words, was not a displaced Cubist painter, as Groys would have him, but a displaced Pop Artist.

Groys also fails to notice that it was actually McLuhan’s reading of Harold Innis that created media studies, not just the transplantation of the Modernist denial of narrative in favor of form to the world of theory, for it was Innis’s notion in his books Empire and Communications and The Bias of Communication that made McLuhan realize that the “medium is the message” since according to Innis, every form of communication such as clay or papyrus or print imparts its bias to the messages that travel through each particular medium. A civilization’s medial biases, furthermore, creates certain sensory biases within these civilizations as a whole, such as the bias toward the hand and the ear in the Medieval epoch or a bias toward the abstraction of the eye in the age of perspectival space. All of this, alas, is lost on Groys who seems not to have bothered doing his media studies homework. The reader has the impression that he has only ever bothered to read precisely one media studies book (albeit the most important one), namely,¬†Understanding Media, and nothing else in the field of American media studies, which includes, in addition to Harold Innis, the very fertile works of Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, Albert B. Lord, Neil Postman and many, many others. Groys, in addition, seems to have failed to notice in his dismissal of McLuhan that without McLuhan, his own book Under Suspicion: a Phenomenology of Media wouldn’t even exist. Since Groys is generally positive toward nearly every other thinker which he references in his book, it becomes especially glaring that in a book which purports to belong to the field of media studies, Groys can’t even pay proper respect to its founding genius. It’s easy to dismiss what one doesn’t fully understand.

In short, this book must largely be regarded as a failure. There are one or two brilliant ideas in it–as is always the case with Groys–but they fail to add up to much and there is so little fleshed out in the way of specific or concrete examples that one is left to conclude that Groys is trying to pull a fast one here: he’s written a book on media studies without having studied enough media to make his points.

Better luck next time, Mr. Groys.

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7th October 2014

Boris Groys: On the New

jpegOn the New by Boris Groys

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.

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3rd October 2014

On Catherine Malabou’s Ontology of the Accident


Ontology of the Accident: An Essay on Destructive Plasticity

by Catherine Malabou

Reviewed by John David Ebert

Catherine Malabou is a French philosopher whose recent text Ontology of the Accident was published in France in 2009 and translated into English by Polity Press in 2012. It is short, under one hundred pages, and very readable.

The central concept of the text, “destructive plasticity,” is coined by Malabou to refer to the event of a sudden traumatic rupture in one’s life in which a second, alternate self, that is wholly other to the preceding personality, comes into being with certain structural characteristics that demarcate it as a distinct personality from the previous one. It is an idea that she contrasts with “creative plasticity,” since “plasticity” as it is used in the various sciences always has positive connotations of flexibility, learning, the growing of new neuronal connections, etc. As we age, we lose this very plasticity as we become more and more resistant to change and the mind becomes less and less labile and capable of learning new things. The state of those afflicted by an event of “destructive plasticity,” however, does not involve learning or the ability to grow at all, but represents rather a complete shutting down of the personality into disaffection and emotional coldness.

Destructive plasticity refers to the irruption of a sudden catastrophic trauma or event into one’s life which bifurcates the self with the mark of a lesion: a car accident, let’s say, or a divorce, or an event that is too emotionally difficult to successfully integrate into the personality and which calls forth the creation of a second, colder personality which exists in lieu of the possibility of escaping the trauma, like Daphne when she flees from Apollo but can no longer flee and so transforms into a tree. Her interior self remains, but the exterior shell has undergone transformation, just as befell Gregor Samsa one fine morning when he awoke to find himself transformed, inscrutably, into a man-sized insect.

The concept, at first glance, seems to be a useful one. However, Malabou makes the mistake of narrowing its focus when she gives as illustrative examples the case of brain-injured patients who evince a certain emotional apathy and indifference, both to their new, ruptured selves and to others around them. Such patients, when (and if) they return to “normal” lives with their spouses, no longer seem to respond in emotionally satisfying ways to the needs of their husbands or wives, whereas the earlier personality might have been responsive and empathetic. There is a certain coldness and indifference about this new personality that has resulted from the bifurcation of “destructive plasticity.”

All well and good, but the reader begins to scratch his head when he wonders how such emotionally cold and indifferent victims of brain trauma would also apply to those who create new identities after a divorce or some other such trauma, such as job loss, which the book’s introduction implied that the concept was designed to cover. Porn stars, for instance, do indeed seem to undergo the creation of new personalities when they leave the business and become too old (at 27 or 28) to continue starring in such films, and there is a marked coldness and lack of empathy for their previous sex-addicted selves, but it seems difficult to draw a parallel to the creation of such a new personality with the kinds of pathological examples that Malabou gives when describing those injured by brain traumas.

Furthermore, Malabou proceeds to unleash a whole group of examples of destructive plasticity which become more and more puzzling as the narrative proceeds. For example, she insists that her model could be used to understand ageing, which is typically seen as a slow and gradual process of loss of plasticity, loss of genital cathexes and a compensatory withdrawal into pre-genital narcissism, in which the elderly person’s loss of libidinal plasticity is compensated for by a withdrawal into selfishness and self-preoccupation as ties to family members fade. The withdrawal of an elderly person, however, into coldness and indifference to others around them (and this is hardly the case for EVERY elderly person) hardly seems isomorphic to the kinds of severely pathological emotional withdrawal and disaffection of those injured by brain traumas. After all, doesn’t “destructive plasticity” by definition refer to abnormal and pathological states, or at least, to the creation of new identities that are “wholly other” when contrasted with previous identities? Ageing in general is hardly pathological and would even seem to be the definition of normality. There is a confusion in this book between the the very categories of “universal” and “particular” that mars the narrative with a certain aleatory randomness.

The structural features that result from the creation of the type of identity that emerges in the process of destructive plasticity would seem to have characteristics that make it apply to rather specific and narrow cases and NOT, as the introduction to the book had implied, to the more general cases of people creating new identities after divorces or job loss or car accidents. Such features, as Malabou defines them, include an emotionally cold and vacant personality that is disconnected from all erotic assemblages and sign regimes, existing in the cold void of being-there without actual BEING or conscious awareness of the pathological state that one now finds oneself inhabiting. Well and good, but such a state, Malabou insists is “meaningless” and belongs to a consciousness that is totally disconnected from all systems of meaning whatsoever. Once again, this hardly seems applicable to the creation of new identities that result from such standard life events as divorce, job loss, loss of a loved one, etc. The identities of such post-traumatic selves do not seem to inhabit a meaningless sphere of disconnection and disaffection from everyone else around them. Such people find new meaning in their lives all the time, and indeed the finding of such new meanings, as in the case of AA meetings and so forth, would seem to form the very ontological basis upon which the construction of a new self rests. Such new selves are simply new identities with new characteristics that demarcate them from previous identities, but they can hardly be said to exist in a meaningless vacuum of indifference toward others like the brain-traumatized patients she exemplifies in her model. Alzheimer’s patients, maybe. Widows and divorcees? Hardly.

So I think Malabou makes a huge mistake here when she invents what at first appears to be such a useful concept and then proceeds to narrow the concept to apply both to particular and pathological instances such as people with brain injuries, and, at the same time, to such universal and common experiences as ageing. The concept would seem to be, to say the least, extremely muddled and confused.

It is also very French. Malabou’s disaffected self that exists in a state of meaningless being, cold and remote from connection with all other humans, would seem to be shaped by classic French nihilism. Her post-traumatic self is that of a self that is characterized by bleakness, coldness and absolute icy remoteness. While I’m not disputing the existence of such identities, to try and generalize them to include the post-traumatic subjectivities of the divorced and the broken-hearted would seem not to work at all.

The concept, in other words, more or less deconstructs itself and the reader is left at the end feeling cheated by a po-mo nihilism that fails to deliver on the promise set up in the book’s introduction.

Oh well.

To quote the words of the character Ballard at the end of David Cronenberg’s Crash: “Maybe next time.”






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